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Alget qui non ardet.

Original post date: Sunday, September 17, 2006

In English: He grows cold who does not burn.

I was partly inspired to choose this proverb since today in Oklahoma we experienced our first cold front of fall, so the metaphor of cold and hot is worth pondering as we finally transition from the blazingly hot summer into the colder months of the year.

But what about this proverb; what is the moral or inspirational value of a statement like this? We know that it is a proverb that was used as a motto, as an exhortation. It appears, for example, on the title page of William Strachey's Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, published for the Colony of Virginia in 1612. The colony had been in existence for five years at that point, and the colonists had faced tremendous hardships thus far, nearly starving to death in the first years of the Jamestown settlement. By putting this motto on the cover of the book, Strachey wanted to convey a positive message to the colonists. The colonists needed to burn with an inner fire if they wanted to succeed and to survive. The cold that threatened them was not the cold of the physical environment around them, but the lack of inward passion. If people do not burn with an inner passion, they will grow cold, and will not prosper.

There is another motto on the book's cover page which admits even more directly how difficult life had proved for the colonists: Res nostrae subinde non sunt, quales quis optaret, sed quales esse possunt; "Our affairs thus far are not such as one might want, but they are such as they can be."

The Library of Congress has done an enormous public service by scanning this entire book (weblink) and digitizing the contents, which are all available online at the American Memory project. If you have a few minutes, you might want to take a look at this amazing historical document. This book was the law code for the colony, circa 1612, so there is a detailed listing (an incredibly detailed listing!) of all the possible crimes and their punishments. For example, bakers who pocketed a loaf of bread or who used any "deceitpfull tricke" to make the bread weigh more in order to keep the flour for their own use, would have their ears cut off! Ouch!

Latin proverbs are no longer a living part of our language, but they were a vital part of the literary language of England when Strachey wrote this book for the use of the Virginia Colony. If you take a look, you will see a fascinating blend of classical and Biblical references in this important document in American history. Kudos to the Library of Congress for making this document available for all of us to read online!

Here is today's proverb read out loud:

1502. Alget qui non ardet.

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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