January 13, 2008

Dum vitant stulti vitia, in contraria currunt.

In English: When fools try to avoid errors, they run into the opposite errors.

I'm having a difficult time finding an elegant way to express this lovely Latin sentence in English! There is wonderful sound-play in the Latin, with vitant...vitia and in contraria currunt. The idea, of course, is that a foolish person, in trying to avoid one kind of defect, goes to the opposite extreme. I chose this proverb to be something to keep in mind at the beginning of the new school semester. I am always one for continual self-improvement, fixing mistakes in my courses, trying to compensate for problems I've had with the classes in the past, etc. In my zeal to improve things, I don't want to tip the balance and end up making mistakes in the opposite direction!

The saying is one that can be found in one of Horace's Satires. After citing this maxim, Horace goes on to give some funny examples of one extreme, and the other: Maltinus tunicis demissis ambulat, est qui / inguen ad obscaenum subductis usque facetus, "Maltinus walks around in baggy clothes, while this joker wears his clothes so short you can see his ugly crotch;" pastillos Rufillus olet, Gargonius hircum, "Rufillus stinks of peppermint candies, while Gargonius smells like a goat." Two thousand years later, the baggy pants and skimpy clothes still bedevil us, along with people wearing obnoxious perfume or smelling of too much sweat.

Horace then concludes with this sad observation about how things seem to go in his day: nil medium est, "Nothing is in the middle." In other words, there is nothing in moderation, no "happy medium," as we might say in English. This is a popular theme in Roman proverbs, of course! For another saying on this theme, see my previous post about aurea mediocritas, the "golden mean."

Meanwhile, hoping you are happily standing on middle ground, here is today's proverb read out loud:

2037. Dum vitant stulti vitia, in contraria currunt.

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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2 comments:

Mark Speyer said...

James Thurber has a wonderfully funny Fable for Our Time about a man who distresses his family with his drinking, then reforms, and then distresses his family with his lectures on temperance and his demonstrations of his new fitness.

Moral: You might just as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backwards.

Mark Speyer
New York

Laura Gibbs said...

WONDERFUL, Mark: thank you!!!

I love that book by Thurber... it might be fun to go through it and find Latin proverbs that would fit each of his stories. His illustrations are priceless! :-)