March 06, 2008

Te de aliis quam alios de te suavius est fieri doctos

In English: It is a sweeter thing for you to become wise from others' mistakes than for others to become wise from your mistakes.

I'm working on the final draft of the manuscript of my new Aesop's fables book for Bolchazy-Carducci (based on Barlow's Aesop of 1687), so of course I've got Aesop's fables even more on the brain than usual. That is what prompted me to choose this saying for today, which expresses the basic principle of the negative exemplum, learning from the mistakes made by others. The idea is that if you can look at the mistakes the foolish characters make the in the fables, you might be able to avoid making the same mistakes in your own life.

The alternative, of course, is that you could make mistakes which could prove to be instructive for others! That is the less desirable option: far better that others make mistakes which you can learn from, rather than vice versa.

Today's saying manages to express that very nicely, with the elegance of a Latin parallel construction and some implied words: Te de aliis (fieri doctum/doctam) quam alios de te suavius est fieri doctos. The Latin does not actually contain the word "mistakes" but simply says de te, "from you," and de aliis, "from others." That seemed so very strange in English that I added in the word "mistakes," although that does detract from the elegance of the Latin, with its beautifully paralleled pronouns, te de aliis quam alios de te....

The saying itself is a very old one, and can be found in the Persa, that delightful comedy by Plautus, where it is none other than the doomed pimp, Dordalus, who utters the words: sed te de aliis, quam alios de te suaviust fieri doctos. The pimp is speaking with the tricky slave Toxilus, the one who will, in fact, lead Dordalus to commit a series of terrible mistakes by the end of the play, so that he is eventually tricked out of his own money by Toxilus, who then uses the money to buy the freedom of his own girlfriend from the pimp.

So, hoping you find yourself in the role of Toxilus rather than Dordalus in the theater of life, here is today's proverb read out loud:

2200. Te de aliis quam alios de te suavius est fieri doctos.

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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