March 28, 2007

Longa est vita si plena est

In English: Life is long, if it is full.

I chose this proverb as a follow-up to yesterday's proverb, Iucunda poma, si procul custodia, because they have a structural similarity: ___, if ____.

Today's proverb is so simple grammatically that it is the kind of thing that could be introduced on the first day of a Latin class. After all, it consists just of a plain first-declension noun, vita, and two matching adjectives, longa...plena, all in the nominative case. The grammar is absolutely simple, but the thought is quite profound!

In the news recently, we've been hearing about two people prominent in American political life, Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow, who are dealing with recurrences of cancer. Just in the past week, I've learned about a good colleague at my university who is battling cancer. Of course, that could be any one of us tomorrow, since there is no span of life guaranteed to any one under any circumstances. You can choose a healthy lifestyle, you can study the statistics, but there is no way to achieve any certainty about the length of your life, how longa it will be. The fullness of life, however, is in your hands each and every day.

This Latin saying can be found in one of the letters of the philosopher Seneca. Here is the context in which he makes the statement: Non ut diu vivamus curandum est, sed ut satis; nam ut diu vivas Fato opus est, ut satis, animo. Longa est vita si plena est; impletur autem cum animus sibi bonum suum reddidit et ad se potestatem sui transtulit, "We should not worry about how long we live but rather how satisfactorily; for in order to live a long time, you only require Fate, but in order to live satisfactily requires understanding. Life is long if it is full."

Later in the letter, Seneca elaborates on this idea and makes a subtle and powerful distinction: Quamdiu sim, alienum est: quamdiu ero ut sim, meum est, "How long I might exist is beyond my control; how long I will be as I am, is up to me." Unlike today's proverb, this statement features some very tricky, but very expressive, Latin grammar. How long Seneca might exist, subjunctive mood (sim), is beyond his control; that is under the control of Fate alone. Yet how long Seneca will live as he is, indicative mood (ero), is something that is up to him. In other words: you are alive in the present moment, and as the future unfolds you choose what that life will be, filling that life with a richness of experience, or standing idle and leaving your life empty.

So, hoping you had a day that was indeed full of good things, here is today's proverb read out loud:

8. Longa est vita si plena est.

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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