January 23, 2007

Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses

In English: If you had remained silent, you would have remained a philosopher.

This is a proverb with a very similar message to yesterday's proverb: Stultus quoque, si tacuerit, sapiens reputabitur, "The fool, too, if he can just keep quiet, will be considered a wise man." Yesterday's proverb, though, was a future conditional statement. Today's proverb is one of those delightful Latin past-contrary-to-fact conditions, with the easily recognizably pluperfect subjunctive: If you had kept quiet (you did NOT keep quiet), you would have remained a philosopher (but you did NOT do that!).

The saying is based on a passage from Boethius's remarkable composition, The Consolation of Philosophy:
nam cum quidam adortus esset hominem contumeliis, qui non ad uerae uirtutis usum ad superbam gloriam falsum sibi philosophi nomen induerat, adiecissetque iam se sciturum an ille philosophus esset si quidem inlatas iniurias leniter patienterque tolerasset, ille patientiam paulisper assumpsit acceptaque contumelia uelut insultans: "iam tandem," inquit, "intellegis me esse philosophum?" tum ille nimium mordaciter: "intellexeram," inquit, "si tacuisses."

A certain man had heaped insults on a man who had falsely labeled himself a philosopher, but not for the purpose of true virtue but rather for vainglory, and he then added that he would soon know whether the man was really a philosopher or not based on whether he patiently and meekly put up with the insults spoken against him. That man put on a show of patience for a little while as if accepting the insults and scoffing at them. Then he said, "Now can you see that I am a philosopher?" Then the first man said quite cuttingly, "I might, if you had kept quiet."
This anecdote in Boethius became part of the treasure trove of exempla that permeated medieval European culture, as for example in the wonderful collection by Odo of Cheriton:
Mos erat apud Athenas, quod qui voluit haberi pro philosopho, bene verberaretur, et, si patienter se haberet, pro philosopho haberetur. Quidam autem bene uerberabatur, et, antequam iudicatum esset quod philosopho haberetur, statim post uerbera exclamauit dicens: Bene sum dignus uocari philosophus; et respondit ei quidam: Frater, si tacuisses, philosophus esses.

There was a custom in Athens, that anyone who wanted to be considered a philosopher would be thoroughly whipped and, if he could undergo this patiently, he would be considered a philosopher. A certain man, however, was thoroughly whipped and, before the judgment was made about his being a philosopher, he shouted out right after the whipping: "I am definitely worthy of being called a philosopher!" Another man answered him: "Brother, if you had kept quiet, you would have been a philosopher."
As often, Odo pairs up this human story with an animal story (that is one of the great charms of his collection of stories). You can probably guess what animal fable he pairs with the talkative philosopher: the story of the crow who couldn't keep his mouth shut!
Caseus in rostro Corvi pendebat ab alto, et Vulpes, cupiens caseum comedere, dixit Corvo: Quam bene cantabat pater tuus! Vellem audire vocem tuam. Corvus aperuit os suum et cantavit, et sic caseus cecidit, et Vulpes eum comedit.

A cheese was dangling on high in the beak of a crow and the fox, wanting to eat the cheese, said to the crow: How nicely your father used to sing! I would like to hear your voice. The crow opened his mouth and sang, and thus the cheese fell down, and the fox ate it.
So, if you want to be a philosopher, keep your mouth shut! And watch out for those hungry foxes too!

I'll open my mouth just long enough to read today's proverb out loud...

3447. Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

If you are reading this via RSS: The Flash audio content is not syndicated via RSS; please visit the Latin Audio Proverbs blog to listen to the audio. You can also hear this saying read aloud at a Polish website: Wladyslawa Kopalinskiego Slownik wyraz?w obcych i zwrot?w obcojezycznych (weblink).

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Anonymous said...

I have heard this quoted in a slightly different context: after a particularly stupid remark. So it was not the act of responding, but the inadequacy of the response that was criticized. Does the Latin support that reading, too?

Laura Gibbs said...

Absolutely! The Latin would apply when anyone has said anything at all when it would have been preferable, for whatever reason, to keep silent!

Ulrich said...

I found this post by Googling the proverb--it's a favorite of mine. I remember it from high school, where it was used to illustrate whatever outlandish mode it is an instance of--ah, I see: pluperfect subjunctive--natch!

Life is a never-ending stream of occasions where the proverb applies...

Laura Gibbs said...

I love the way Google can bring old blog posts back to life, thanks to the power of search (and thank you for letting me know to fix up the comment settings here). And the power of the pluperfect subjunctive is very well suited to the world of proverbs! :-)

Bart said...

I had occasion to apply the saying to myself, after a mistake in a scientific lecture :( . Si tacuissem, philosophus mansissem.

OBloodyHell said...

My favorite translation of this was from the UK series, Yes, Prime Minister:
"If you had remained silent, we might have thought you were clever."

Ricardo Runge said...

Me gusta!!!!!!