November 26, 2008

Asinus stramen mavult quam aurum

In English: A donkey prefers straw to gold.

I thought I would carry on with the theme of donkeys as in the past several days, with this fascinating little proverb about how the donkey literally wants straw more than he wants (mavult = magis vult) gold. There are actually two quite different ways to interpret this saying. So, before you read any farther, asks yourself what you think is the meaning of such a saying: A donkey prefers straw to gold.

One way to take the saying is to assume that it is about the donkey's foolishness. The idea, then, is that the donkey is so foolish that he prefers straw, which is of little value, to gold, which is of great value. The poor donkey doesn't recognize the value of the gold, however, because of his limited experience and even more limited intelligence. The donkey knows that he can eat the straw which, in its immediacy, is all that matters to him. The fact that the gold is precious and can be used for many purposes, escapes his comprehension entirely.

Yet it also must be admitted than you cannot eat gold. So, the donkey can be looked upon as a positive and practical hero, who knows that having something to eat is of primary importance. Getting something to eat, even simple fare such as straw, must come first. Gold implies luxury and adornment and extravagance, all of which are things you don't need. You need to eat, so be satisfied with the straw that you have, and don't go wasting your time and effort on something like gold, literally understood as inedible metal, or gold as a symbol of wealth, and especially wealth in excess.

Personally, I like the interpretation that takes the side of the donkey and praises him for wisely rejecting riches and preferring a solid meal instead. For a fable that illustrates the same idea unambiguously - although with mules instead of donkeys - look at the different fates of the two animals, one of whom carries a load of humble barley, while the other carries a load of money (Phaedrus):
Muli gravati sarcinis ibant duo:
unus ferebat fiscos cum pecunia,
alter tumentis multo saccos hordeo.
ille onere dives celsa cervice eminens,
clarumque collo iactans tintinabulum;
comes quieto sequitur et placido gradu.
subito latrones ex insidiis advolant,
interque caedem ferro ditem sauciant:
diripiunt nummos, neglegunt vile hordeum.
spoliatus igitur casus cum fleret suos,
"Equidem" inquit alter "me contemptum gaudeo;
nam nil amisi, nec sum laesus vulnere".
Hoc argumento tuta est hominum tenuitas,
magnae periclo sunt opes obnoxiae.
For an English translation, here's Christopher Smart's version:
Two laden Mules were on the road-
A charge of money was bestowed
Upon the one, the other bore
Some sacks of barley. He before.
Proud of his freight, begun to swell,
Stretch'd out his neck, and shook his bell
The poor one, with an easy pace,
Came on behind a little space,
When on a sudden, from the wood
A gang of thieves before them stood;
And, while the muleteers engage,
Wound the poor creature in their rage
Eager they seize the golden prize,
But the vile barley-bags despise.
The plunder'd mule was all forlorn,
The other thank'd them for their scorn:
" 'Tis now my turn the head to toss,
Sustaining neither wound nor loss."
The low estate's from peril clear,
But wealthy men have much to fear.
As you can see, the fable comes down strongly on the side of the humble creature content with barley-bags, rather than with a golden prize!

So, hoping that today you are enjoying plenty of whatever you prefer, whether it be straw or gold (or some of both!), here is the proverb read out loud:

2268. Asinus stramen mavult quam aurum.

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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