August 20, 2007

Non scholae sed vitae discimus

In English: We learn, not for school, but for life.

Given that today, August 20, is the first official day of classes for the new year at my school, I thought I would choose an appropriate proverb for the occasion. This is one of my favorite Latin sayings. In fact, I chose it as the epigraph for my Latin Via Proverbs book.

The saying is adapted from a passage in one of Seneca's Letters to Lucilius. At the end of the letter, which is occupied with a rather arcane discussion of whether "goodness" has a body or whether it is disembodied, Seneca warns Lucilius not to waste time in useless scholastic speculation - precisely the kinds of speculation Seneca has expounded in the letter. Such subtleties may make people learned, Seneca admits, but it does not make them good: non faciunt bonos ista sed doctos.

Wisdom, says, Seneca, is something far more clear and far more simple: apertior res est sapere, immo simplicior.

The golden rule of moderation applies to learning as to everything else. Excess is dangerous! It is enough to employ just a little learning to improve your mind: paucis satis est ad mentem bonam uti litteris. More than that is a waste of effort on pointless frivolity, of the sort that philosophers like Seneca too often indulge in: sed nos ut cetera in supervacuum diffundimus, ita philosophiam ipsam.

So, Seneca warns Lucilius: be careful not to do anything to excess, including studying to excess, because you don't want to waste your time studying simply for the sake of school; you need to study just enough for your life's purposes: quemadmodum omnium rerum, sic litterarum quoque intemperantia laboramus: non vitae sed scholae discimus.

The saying non scholae sed vitae discimus is the positive affirmation. Seneca, at the end of this letter, is warning Lucilius that the philosophical contents of the letter have committed the mistake of doing just the opposite, of learning for the sake of school rather than for life.

This is a saying that I take very much to heart as a teacher, and if you Google the phrase you will find many other like-minded educators online!

So, hoping your new school year is off to a wonderful start, here is today's proverb read out loud:

1594. Non scholae sed vitae discimus.

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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