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Necessitas artis magistra

Original post date: Sunday, March 04, 2007

In English: Necessity is the teacher of skill.

Continuing the series of proverbs about magistri and magistrae that I've posted over the past few days, I thought I would offer this saying about necessitas, "necessity." Unlike the other proverbs, which we might call philosophical or academic, this proverb is about the everyday demands of the world: if you have to learn something out of necessity, you will indeed learn it... or else! Because you have to learn the skill, you will learn it. This is not about the cultivation of learning for the sake of knowledge and understanding; it is a matter of necessity, a matter of life and death.

Given that the Latin word necessitas is feminine, she is a female teacher, a school-mistress, a magistra. You can even see the feminine gender carried on in the most famous English version of this saying: "Necessity is the mother of invention." Compare the similar Latin saying: Mater artium necessitas, "Necessity is the mother of skills."

This proverb shows the danger of simply translating the Latin word ars as "art." Although we still refer in English to the "art of cooking," for example, the word "art" by itself first suggests the fine arts, such as painting, sculpture, etc. So if you were to say "necessity is the mother of art," it would sound like necessity is the mother of painting! Instead, the meaning of the Latin saying is much more practical: if you are starving, you will learn the art of cooking; if you are ill, you will learn the physician's art; if you have to climb a mountain, you will learn the art of the mountaineer; if you have to cross an ocean, you will learn the sailor's art, and so on.

Thus, in addition to the saying "necessity is the mother of invention," we might also compare today's Latin proverb to the English saying "sink or swim." If you are thrown in the water, necessity will compel you to learn the swimmer's art!

Alas, there is no real necessity that will ever compel you to learn to read Latin out loud, but perhaps you will do it from pleasure, if not from necessity. So, in that hope, here is today's proverb read out loud:

265. Necessitas artis magistra.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

If you are reading this via RSS: The Flash audio content is not syndicated via RSS; please visit the Latin Audio Proverbs blog to listen to the audio. You can hear a variant form of this saying, artis sola domina necessitas, read aloud at a Polish website: Wladyslawa Kopalinskiego Slownik wyraz?w obcych i zwrot?w obcojezycznych (weblink).
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