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In oculis animus habitat

Original post date: Thursday, February 01, 2007

In English: The soul dwells in the eyes.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's proverbs about the eye, oculus. The saying can be found in the Natural History, that great encyclopedia by the Roman author, Pliny.

Here is the passage in full
profecto in oculis animus habitat. ardent, intenduntur, umectant, conivent. hinc illa misericordiae lacrima, hos cum exosculamur, animum ipsum videmur attingere, hinc fletus et rigantis ora rivi. quis ille est umor in dolore tam fecundus et paratus aut ubi reliquo tempore? animo autem vidimus, animo cernimus: oculi ceu vasa quaedam visibilem eius partem accipiunt atque tramittunt.
As always, I cannot resist giving the translation of Philemon Holland, which features wonderful Renaissance English:
In breefe, the Eies are the verie seat and habitation of the mind and affection. For one while they bee ardent and fierie: otherwhiles they bee bent and fixed upon a thing: one time they twincke, another time they winke close and see nothing. From them proceed the teares of compassion: when we kisse the eie, we thinke that wee touch the very heart and soule. From hence commeth our weeping: form hence gush out those streames of water that drench and run downe the cheekes. But what might this water and humour bee, that in heartes greefe issueth in such plentie, and is so readie to flow? where may it lie at other times, when wee are in joy, in mirth, and repose? It cannot bee denied, That with the Soule we imagine, with the Mind we see, and the Eies as vessels and instruments receiving from it that visuall power and facultie, send it soon after abroad.
As Pliny says, the eyes accipiunt atque tramittunt, they "receive and transmit," or, as Holland puts it, they "send it ... abroad." This is a belief about the power of the eyes that is hard for us to understand but which was of fundamental importance to the Greeks and Romans. The eyes had the power to project a kind of force, including the malignant force of the evil eye. The Latin word "envy," invidia, is what happens when someone looks at (in-vid) another person's wealth or success with the evil eye.

I'd also like to say something about the wonderful word habitat in today's proverb. This is one of those Latin verbs that has been adopted into English directly, but which has been turned into a noun in the process! In Latin, the verb habitat means "it dwells," while the English word "habitat" is a noun, meaning "dwelling, abode." There are some other Latin verbs that have become English nouns, such as English "deficit" and "affidavit." Some English nouns even come from Latin imperative verbs such as "recipe" and "facsimile," i.e. fac simile.

So, if you are so inclined, fac simile, and repeat today's proverb out loud:

1057. In oculis animus habitat.

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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