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Durum ad nutum alterius ambulare

Original post date: Friday, October 06, 2006

In English: It is a hard thing to walk according to someone else's nod.

In other words: nobody likes taking orders from somebody else.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's proverb: Est unusquisque faber ipsae suae fortunae, "Each and every person is the maker of his own luck." Part of human identity involves a strong sense of autonomy and of making individual choices. For better or worse, we enjoy (or perhaps regret) the consequences of those choices.

Today's proverb, however, reminds us that we live in societies based on control. We can easily find ourselves under someone else's control, someone who gives us orders. Walking would seem to be the perfect expression of our will in motion but, as the proverb reminds us, it is a hard thing to walk at someone else's beck and call.

The word used to express this form of control, ad nutum, is distinctively Roman. It literally means "according to the nod" of someone else. As I've explained in detail in another blog post, the Latin noun nutus means both "nod," as in the physical gesture of nodding the head, and also "command, will." In medieval Latin, you will find the ablative phrase nutu Dei, which means literally "at the nod of God" - in other words, "at God's command." Even more profoundly, think about the Latin word numen. Literally, Latin numen just means "nodding," but it came to acquire the specific meaning of the "nod of god," "divine will," or "divinity" itself.

It is worth considering this religious dimension when we look at the source for today's proverb: it actually comes from the famous book by the 15th-century author Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. Thomas says that durum tibi videtur ad nutum alterius ambulare, "it seems to you that it is a hard thing to walk according to someone else's nod."

For Thomas, however, this is a misapprehension. Thomas urges us to give up our foolish insistence on having our own way, and to instead give ourselves over to the will of God. We will have a heavenly reward, he explains:
For even in exchange for this trifling desire which thou hast readily forsaken, thou shalt always have thy will in Heaven. There verily thou shalt find all that thou wouldst, all that thou canst long for. There thou shalt have all good within thy power without the fear of losing it. There thy will, ever at one with Mine, shall desire nothing outward, nothing for itself. There no man shall withstand thee, none shall complain of thee, none shall hinder, nothing shall stand in thy path; but all things desired by thee shall be present together, and shall refresh thy whole affection, and fill it up even to the brim. There I will glory for the scorn suffered here, the garment of praise for sorrow, and for the lowest place a throne in the Kingdom, for ever. There shall appear the fruit of obedience, the labour of repentance shall rejoice, and humble subjection shall be crowned gloriously.
You can read the Latin text of this passage online (III.49.6).

This is a great example of how proverbs and sayings can take on a life of their own. Although Thomas a Kempis introduced the idea conveyed by this proverb only in order to refute it, the saying itself circulates freely, out of context, and exerts a strong appeal of its own. Quite aside from theology and more cosmic questions, we all know how hard it can be when your boss is bossing you around, or some interfering family member is telling you how to live your life. Durum est - it's hard!

And here is today's proverb read out loud:

1308. Durum ad nutum alterius ambulare.

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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