June 03, 2007

Homo homini lupus

In English: Man is a wolf to man.

After the wolf proverbs I've included over the past few days, I thought this famous saying would make a good addition.

The saying can be found in a play of Plautus, where one character explains:lupus est homo homini, non homo, quom qualis sit non novit, "One man to another is a wolf, not a man, when he doesn't know what sort he is." In other words: if you do not know somebody, you cannot trust that person to act with humanity. Instead, that person could turn out to be a wolf.

The saying has been famously used by Thomas Hobbes in his treatise, De Cive, Philosophicall Rudiments Concerning Government and Society. Or, A Dissertation Concerning Man in his severall habitudes and respects, as the Member of a Society, first Secular, and then Sacred, published in 1651. In the opening lines of that work, Hobbes declares: "Man to Man is an arrant Wolfe."

Hobbes juxtaposes this Latin saying to another Latin saying, homo homini deus, or, in Hobbes's words: "Man to Man is a kind of God."

Erasmus in his Adagia reports both of these sayings, homo homini lupus and also homo homini deus. For homo homini lupus, Erasmus cites the passage from Plautus and offers little other commentary. For homo homini deus, Erasmus has much more to say!

He begins by explaining the general meaning of the metaphor here: dici solet de eo, qui subitam atque insperatam attulit salutem, aut qui magno quopiam beneficio iuvit, "this is usually said about a person who brings a sudden and unhoped-for salvation, or who helps someone with a great good deed of some kind."

This prompts Erasmus to make some comments about the religion of antiquity: Antiquitas enim nihil aliud existimabat esse deum, quam prodesse mortalibus. Unde frugum, vini, legum auctores, et quicumque ad vitae commoditatem aliquid attulisset, eos pro Diis habebat, "For the men of ancient times considered a god to be nothing other than that which benefits mortals. Thus the inventors of agriculture, wine, and laws, and anyone who contributed something to the improvement of life, they held to be gods."

Not only could people be considered as gods, but so could animals! The Egptians worshipped the stork which killed dangerous snakes, while the Romans worshipped the goose: apud Romanos Anser colebatur, quia Capitolinam arcem expergefactis clangore custodibus, ab irruptione Gallorum servavit, "among the Romans, the goose was reverenced because when the guards were awakened by the squawking, the goose saved the Capitoline from an invasion by the Gauls."

So we end up with a great contrast between two proverbial animals: the rapacious wolf that you have to watch out for, and the divine goose who rescued the Romans from the Gauls! You can read more about the famous sacred geese of Juno on the Capitoline at vRoma.

So, hoping your life is blessed by helpful geese rather than ravening wolves, here is today's proverb read out loud:

333. Homo homini lupus.

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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Anonymous said...

Entertaining and enlightening. I thought Spinoza was the first one to use the phrase 'Homo, Homini deus".

Laura Gibbs said...

The question of who said something first is such a slippery slope in the world of proverbs and cliches that I try not to worry about it too much - same also with fables! We might, MIGHT, hope to figure out who wrote something and published it first (but even that is tricky)... and as for claims as to the sayings of things in Latin, well, there sure were a lot of people speaking Latin for a very long time without any of what they said getting written down! Horace and Seneca, for example, both get an awful lot of credit for having said things first when, if we could ask them, they would probably report having heard many of their witty sayings from "a friend of a friend." :-)