February 26, 2011

Litteris absentes videmus

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Today's saying is Litteris absentes videmus. In English: "By means of writing, we see those who are absent."

Yesterday I invoked the saying, Litteras disce, "Learn your letters," which is to say, everyone should learn to read. Today's saying reminds us of what a magical thing this is. When I read, I see in my mind's eye people who live in distant times and distant lands. Because they committed their words to writing, it is as if these people are present to me, even though they are absent. The end of life is a great loss and a sadness, but if people are able to take the best of themselves and put that into writing, a part of them does live on. As the Roman poet Horace said, Exegi monumentum aere perennius, "I have built a monument more lasting than bronze." This was no idle boast. Horace's poetry does live on. Writing lets us reach out across space and across time, allowing us to be present, virtually, even when we are physically absent.

This proverb shows the range of meaning of litterae in Latin. As in English "letters," the Latin plural litterae can mean the letters of the alphabet, written documents, or writing in a general sense. It can also refer to what we call a "letter" in English: a document addressed and sent to an intended recipient. More narrowly, litterae can also refer to "letters" in the sense of "literature" or what is called in French belles lettres.

For those of you who are fans of macrons, here is the Latin written with macrons:

Litterīs absentēs vidēmus.


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