May 18, 2007

Nemo ante mortem beatus

In English: No one (can be called) happy before his death.

Here is another of the nemo proverbs; this time it is a warning about not calling anyone blessed or happy, beatus, before he's experienced all that life has had to offer.

There are a variety of different forms of this particular saying. For example, you might say obitus instead of mors: Ante obitum nemo beatus. Other versions of the saying are more specific about not being too quick to call someone happy: Ante obitum nemo beatus dici potest, "Before his passing, no one can be called happy."

For a literary source, consider Ovid's Metamorphoses:
[...] scilicet ultima semper
exspectanda dies hominis, dicique beatus
ante obitum nemo supremaque funera debet.

For a man's final day is always to be waited for, and no one should be called blessed before his passing and his last funeral rites.
The context is the story of Cadmus, who has just founded the city of Thebes and taken the goddess Harmonia as his wife. All seems to be going well for Cadmus:
Iam stabant Thebae, poteras iam, Cadme, videri
exilio felix: soceri tibi Marsque Venusque
contigerant; huc adde genus de coniuge tanta,
tot natos natasque et, pignora cara, nepotes,
hos quoque iam iuvenes...

Thebes was now standing, and you could now seem, Cadmus, to be happy in your exile. Mars and Venus have become your parents-in-law; add to this your offspring by such a wife, so many sons and daughters, and grandchildren, those precious descendants, and they too grown into men...
Unfortunately, Cadmus's offspring bring him all kinds of grief! His daughter Autonoe had a son, Actaeon, who was eaten by his own dogs. Another daughter, Semele, was burned up in the fiery blaze of Zeus's epiphany. Yet another daughter, Agave, killed her own son in a fit of madness, and Cadmus's fourth daughter, Ino, when pursued by her husband in a murderous rage, jumped into the sea desperately trying to save herself and her son.

Sadly, in the end, after all these disasters had undone all his success, Cadmus turned into a snake, as did his wife. They are gentle snakes, Cadmus and Harmonia, as Ovid explains:
nunc quoque nec fugiunt hominem nec vulnere laedunt
quidque prius fuerint, placidi meminere dracones

even now they do not flee from a person nor do they bite, peaceable dragons, they remember what they once were.
So, remembering the fate of the mighty Cadmus and his wife Harmonia, here is today's proverb read out loud:

412. Nemo ante mortem beatus.

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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Kisbalazs said...

I found this saying in an old Hungarian book by an 18th century author; and he attributes it to Solon, the Greek philosopher and lawmaker, allegedly saying it to Croesus who wanted to impress him with his wealth. He gives a (Hungarian) translation but I wasn't sure I got it, so I looked it up. Great source!

Laura Gibbs said...

There are some great stories about Solon! The idea expressed in the Latin words is one that you will find over and over again in all the languages of the world, I imagine. I like the fact that the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece, like Solon, were famous for their pithy sayings. That is not always the case with philosophers today! :-)

Joan Harrison said...

The story about Solon and Croesus is in Herodotus' Histories. Herodotus tells of Solon speaking, among other things, about the instability of human happiness...the sudden calamity that may befall the rich, sudden reversals of fortune for the poor, etc. Though the boastful Croesus is enraged by Solon's indifference to his wealth, not long after Solon's departure, Croesus, indeed, falls into ruin. Alluding to the Herodotean account, Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, develops the same theme ("Call no man happy...").