February 27, 2007

Experientia magistra stultorum

In English: Experience is the teacher of fools.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's proverb about learning, painfully, from mistakes. Today's proverb is also about learning from mistakes, but it makes a sharper point: fools need to learn from mistakes, because they do not use reason to predict the outcome of their actions. Instead, fools can only learn by experience, making mistakes and suffering the consequences.

The Latin word experientia is a feminine noun, so it is the feminine teacher, the magistra, the "mistress" or "school-mistress" of people who are fools.

A fuller form of the saying makes clear the difference between the way that fools learn, and how wiser people make their decisions: Experientia stultorum magistra, prudentia sapientum, "experience is the teacher of fools, while foresight is the teacher of wise men."

You can find this notion invoked in Erasmus's introduction to his Colloquia familiaria, where he says in praise of his book: Adde quod bonae prudentiae pars est, nosse stultas vulgi cupiditates et absurdas opiniones. Eas arbitror satius ex hoc libello discere, quam experientia stultorum magistra, "Add the fact that part of good prudence is to know the foolish wants and crazy opinions of the masses. I suspect that those things can be better learned from this little book than from experience, that teacher of fools."

Even better, Erasmus goes on to say in the same preface, Et haud scio an quidquam discitur felicius, quam quod ludendo discitur, "And I don't know whether anything can be learned more fortunately than that which is learned through play."

Hurray for Erasmus! I wish he had been my Latin teacher. Although, thanks to his marvelous books, in a sense he is!

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

129. Experientia magistra stultorum.

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

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