March 30, 2007

Multum, non multa

In English: Much, not many.

Like yesterday's proverb, today's proverb focuses on the idea of Latin multum, "much." The message of today's proverb is "much," instead of "many things," multa. In English, we might express this as the difference between "depth, not breadth," the idea being that it is better to focus in on something in a thorough way, rather than spreading yourself thin with many things.

This is a saying that can be applied to all kinds of endeavours, including education! A fuller form of this saying emphasizes the connection of this saying to the learning and education: multum non multa scire sapientis est, "it is the habit of a wise man to know something deeply, not to know many things." Although there are risks to specialization and narrowness of knowledge, I do tend to agree with this sentiment, and I have a special respect for the kind of wisdom that comes from long years of study of a particular topic, rather than a superficial flitting from one topic to another.

In one of Pliny the Younger's letters, he associates today's saying with a strategy for reading: Aiunt enim multum legendum esse, non multa, "they say that you should read much, but not many things." John Harmer's Praxis Grammatica explains in more detail: Legendo multum, non multa, quotidie proficies, "By reading much, but not many things, each day you will make progress."

Over at the Memoria Press website, you can find an article reproduced from The Classical Teacher: "Multum non Multa," by Andrew Campbell. In this article, Campbell argues in favor of promoting only a few subjects in the curriculum with a deep focus on those subjects (that's the "much," multum), as opposed to lots and lots of different, separate subjects (that would multa, "many").

From my own experience as a teacher, I would interpret today's saying in very technological terms: focus, don't multi-task! Students, especially online students, have a very bad tendency to multitask on their computers. They are instant messaging, listening to music, monitoring their cell phone, listening to TV... all while they are "studying." It's a recipe for failure and wasted time, since it's not likely that anything accomplished in that chaotic environment can really stick in the mind and persist over time. There was a great article in the New York Times this week on exactly this topic: "Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic." It reports on the results of some interesting studies about the kinds of interference caused by typical multitasking scenarios, such as a brief delay in the sequencing of a particular task (a sobering thought when that task might be maneuvering your car on the road!).

So, hoping you are not talking on the cellphone while you listen to today's saying, here is today's proverb read out loud:

61. Multum, non multa.

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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CoolCat said...

This applies really well to my Latin class. This year there's only 2 students, but we're both very interested in Latin and really enjoy it. We are definitely "much, not many!"
~CoolCat from

CoolCat said...

Whoops, I mean there *are* only two students. (Only someone like me would bother to post a second comment to correct that!)

Laura Gibbs said...

Ha ha, CoolCat - that is a perfect application of a proverb to your life.

You could also apply the fable of the fox who makes fun of the lioness because she only gives birth to one cub; the lioness explains that it is quality, not quantity, that counts! :-)