August 24, 2007

Felix alterius cui sunt documenta flagella

In English: Happy is the man for whom another man's lashings are a lesson.

As you can see, today's proverb is a much more visceral variation on yesterday's saying: Alienis malis discimus, "We learn from others' mistakes."

In today's saying, it is not so much that we learn from other people's mistakes, but rather from the brutal punishment that someone else suffers as a consequence of the mistake that he made. The flagella are "whippings" or "lashings," as you can see in the English word "flagellation."

Students of Latin will recognize the -ellum suffix here as a Latin diminutive form. A word like flagellum shows that diminutives were not always something sweet or endearing. The word flagellum is a diminutive of the word flagrum, meaning a "whip, scourge, lash."

The same root flag- shows up in the verb affligere, "to damage, crush, beat down," as in the English verb "afflict" and the noun "affliction."

The more you ponder today's saying, the more grim it becomes, because you realize that the punishment being meted out derives its power from being public. The Roman master who whipped his slave was not doing that simply in order to punish the slave, but in order to terrorize the other slaves who witnessed the event, so that the flagella, the "strokes of the whip" applied to one slave would serve as "lessons," documenta for the other slaves.

Of course, if you take this metaphorically, and don't think about actual lashings and whippings, today's proverb becomes more palatable. When you see that someone has not benefited from some kind of action and instead has suffered from it, you can learn to avoid that action yourself. Good enough. But when you reflect on the scene, no doubt repeated millions of times in the history of mankind, when a master whipped his slave publicly in order to terrorize the other slaves and "teach them a lesson," you realize what a harsh reality is reflected in the visceral language of today's saying.

So, hoping that no flagella of any kind, literal or metaphorical, are threatening you in any way, here is today's proverb read out loud:

925. Felix alterius cui sunt documenta flagella.

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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