March 01, 2007

Historia magistra vitae

In English: History is the teacher of life.

In the past few days I've posted some proverbs about how people who cannot reason their way through a problem are doomed to learn from their mistakes. This proverb takes a longer view, and tells us that there is much we can learn from the past - from that long view of the past which history, historia, can offer us.

The saying itself is adapted from a passage in Cicero's De Oratore: Historia vero testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae, nuntia vetustatis, qua voce alia nisi oratoris immortalitati commendatur?, "History indeed is the evidence of the times, the light of truth, the life of memory, the teacher of life, messenger of antiquity: with what voice, unless the voice of the orator, can it be passed on into deathlessness?"

Of course, for all that people remain fans of history even now, two thousand years after Cicero, the role of the orator has all but disappeared. He clearly thought that it was the orators who would keep the tales of history alive, rather than, say, the writers of history books. In fact, a great deal of both ancient Greek and ancient Roman history consists in re-creations of the speeches of the great orators of those times.

Orators, alas, we do not have today. At the same time, we learn about history from many places other than history books, strictly speaking. I'll confess to preferring historical fiction in the form of novels and films over pretty much any kind of academic history book. For me, the vox, the "voice," of history rings out loud and clear in a historical film, while I often find it hard going to make my way through impersonal historical writing which sometimes aspires to speak with no voice at all.

So, with happy thoughts of I, Claudius, here is today's proverb read out loud:

31. Historia magistra vitae.

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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