Sunday, December 15, 2013

Latin Lessons from Dr. Johnson

I wrote last week of life lessons offered in James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson. But Dr. Johnson shone in the era named after him for greatness both in moral philosophy (taught and lived) and in letters. So today I have some Latin lessons I picked up in the sixty pages I read this fall.

The glory days of Latin scholarship for children have sadly passed in these last hundred years or so. Goodbye, Mr. Chips, indeed! But Johnson and Boswell, of course, grew up in the traditional curriculum and could recite Ovid and Juvenal, Horace and Cicero word-for-word, because they had done so innumerable times in class. Their knowledge ran so intimately deep, they tossed off ancient phrases as easily as our high-school students spit out snarky comments of disdain for, well, just about everything. Boswell, for instance, says in a footnote that an advocate he knows ingenuas didicit fideliter artes: he earnestly learned the liberal arts. (In this way, he praised his classical education and demonstrated it at the same time!) The remark slightly modifies a quotation from Ovid, Ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes Emollit mores nec sinit esse feros: learning the liberal arts earnestly refines the manners and prevents us from being like wild brutes. Similarly, Johnson casually quotes the historian Tacitus at an opportune moment. Omne ignotum pro magnifico est, he says: Everything unknown is taken for (or is imagined to be) something magnificent.

Sadly, I need help translating these passages, even after several years of self study. I didn’t have a teacher to guide me when I learned Latin, and I had neither the mind nor the leisure of a twelve-year-old. But even when I get the words translated, I still need help understanding the context. Aphorisms are often pithy and a little cryptic, even in English. We say, “Easy come, easy go,” and we just know we’re talking about money and don’t balk a split second at the mysteriously plural verbs. When we hear, “The more, the merrier,” we know the speaker means people, and we don’t worry at all that the verb is missing altogether. But imagine someone who has grown up speaking a language other than English trying to work his way through these sayings with a dictionary: full understanding of each isolated word wouldn’t make the total meaning at all clear.

It was the same in Latin. The pithy Johnson quotes the pithy Horace, saying, Incredulus odi. The literal translation is, “Incredulous, I hate.” The phrase doesn’t provide an object: so what does he hate? And what does it mean to hate something that I believe doesn’t exist? What Dr. Johnson meant by it is that he didn’t want to have to listen to outrageous stories told as true tales. As another example, he cites Cicero in saying, Omnia mea mecum porto: I carry all my things with me. On the face of it, the phrase could invoke the image of Huck Finn carrying all his worldly possessions with him on the end of a stick. But apparently Johnson and Boswell took the Roman orator to mean that his most important possessions were his thoughts, which no one would take away from him. Virgil makes an appearance with Non equidem invideo; miror magis: Truly I do not envy; rather I marvel. Johnson quoted the ancient poet upon seeing Edmund Burke’s palatial home, so apparently he meant that he was amazed more than envious at his compatriot’s wealth; whether he marveled in an approving way, Boswell doesn’t clarify.

It took me a long time to decipher the meaning behind the meaning of a line Johnson remembers from Eton days. A classmate of his had written Vidit et erubuit lympha pudica DEUM in a free essay, and Johnson remembers that all the other boys really liked the line. Now what stood out about that line that would make Johnson remember it fifty years later above all his friends' other original compositions? My internet search got me to Richard Crashaw, who wrote in a classical-style poem, Nympha pudica deum vidit, et erubuit: The chaste nymph saw a god and blushed. The Eton scholar had changed only one letter: nympha gives way to lympha. A lympha can be a water nymph, so I couldn’t see at all what had earned Johnson’s attention. But I kept looking, and somewhere I found that the boy’s assigned theme was the first miracle of Jesus. Then the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. I remembered that lympha can also mean simply “water.” How did the water turn to wine? It saw God and blushed. I wish I had learned Latin when I was a tot and could have appreciated this very clever witticism without so much effort today. But non equidem invideo; miror magis.


  1. That's really cool! Brad wasn't so impressed with the Eton scholar. He said, "No, that's not the word for water. In English, there are tons of different words for everything. That isn't true for other languages. If you're talking in Latin and you want to talk about water and you say something other than 'aqua,' you're incorrect." *Sigh.*

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.