Contra aquam remigamus
Original post date: Thursday, December 14, 2006
I thought after the discouraging essentialist proverbs of the past few days (crabs who will never walk straight, elephants who cannot dance, iron that cannot swim, etc.), I would post a saying today that is about how we can, in fact, do what might seem unnatural or even impossible. Although it requires enormous effort on our part, we can indeed choose to row against the water!
Now, admittedly, this is not an easy choice to make. This particular phrase is used by the philosopher Seneca in one of his letters actually to argue against rowing against the water. Here is how Seneca closes one of his letters to Lucilius: Ideo, Lucili, tenenda nobis uia est quam natura praescripsit, nec ab illa declinandum: illam sequentibus omnia facilia, expedita sunt, contra illam nitentibus non alia vita est quam contra aquam remigantibus., "Thus, Lucilius, we should keep to the way which Nature has prescribed, and not deviate from it: if we follow Nature's way, all things are easy and unhampered, but if we strive against Nature's way, our life becomes nothing but rowing against the waters."
For Seneca, the idea of rowing against the water is something difficult and even futile, and he argues we should not take that approach to life. At the same time, from my own experience I know full well that the course we choose in life may demand that we swim upstream, at least for a little while, or even get out of the boat entirely and hoist it up above our heads and carry it for a ways.
Heinrich Kocher's website provides a handy and thought-provoking list of synonyms for this particular idiom in Latin: adverso flumine remigare, "to row as the current is going the other way," adverso flumine niti, "to strive as the current is going the other way," contra impetum fluminis tendere, "to contend against the onrush of the current" (I like that one!), contra ictum fluvii natare, "to swim against the force of the stream," contra torrentem niti, "to strive against the flood, contra torrentem bracchia dirigere, "to move your arms up and down against the flood."
In any situation, you have to decide whether to "go with the flow" (a very fine English idiom!), or whether you are going to "row against the water." There's no absolute right or wrong approach that can apply to all situations. It's both a profoundly philosophical question (the way of Nature which Seneca invokes is not always so easy to discern, after all), but also a profoundly practical question as well. We might even consider coming up with a personality inventory based on a continuum between these two extremes. Are you a go-with-the-flow person, or a row-against-the-water person? Well, when it comes to my life as an online teacher, I'm definitely a row-against-the-water person! There are still plenty of people out there who think online teaching and online learning are "unnatural" compared to the classroom... but I keep on rowing against those traditional waters, contra aquam remigo!
And in the spirit of learning with online audio, here is today's proverb read out loud:
1036. Contra aquam remigamus.
The number here is the number for this proverb in
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