November 19, 2008

Falsum in uno, falsum in toto

In English: False in one thing, false in the whole thing.

I thought this would be a good saying to follow up on yesterday's saying about faith and falsehood. You can find this saying in various versions. Sometimes, for example, you can find the masculine singular falsus instead of the neuter singular falsum, and instead of the in uno - in tuto contrast, you can also find in uno - in omnibus. In all cases, the basic idea is the same: if something or something is false in one thing, then it (or he) is false in the whole thing (or in every thing). A similar saying is not about what is falsum, but instead someone who is malus, and the question is not of amount, but about time: Semel malus, semper malus, "Once bad, always bad."

Both of these sayings provide good advice, warning you to be on your guard at the least sign of impropriety, it is also what is called a "logical fallacy" (and yes, English "fallacy" is from the same root as the word falsum which is at issue in the proverb - ironic, yes?). The saying asserts that something which is partly false is completely false, and that someone who is bad once is always bad, although of course you know in your own experience that this is not true. Just think of some little white lie that you have told, or when you have acted badly... well, you know that just because you told a white lie, you are still capable of telling the truth, and that if you acted badly once, that does not mean you act badly all the time. Hence the fallacy: something that is partially false is not a vote of endorsement for the whole, but it is not proof (yet) that the whole thing is false, and one misdeed is not a complete indictment of someone's bad character. You can read more about this and related logical fallacies in this Wikipedia article.

Of course, in the world of proverbs, logical rigor is usually not what is at stake. After all, proverbs are not philosophy in the academic sense of the word. Instead, the proverbs are wisdom that comes from the everyday situations of life. Sure, it's not always true that someone who tells one lie is always lying, or that someone who can be bad is always going to be bad... but at the same time, you know you might regret putting your trust in anything or anyone that is even slightly suspicious.

So, hoping you have avoided all falsehoods and all fallacies today, here are the proverbs read out loud:

833. Falsum in uno, falsum in toto.

44. Semel malus, semper malus.

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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