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Corruptissima respublica, plurimae leges

Original post date: Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In English: The most corrupt state, the most laws.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's saying, leges sine moribus vanae, "laws without character are worthless." Taken together, I think these sayings both provide an apt critique of the problems we are facing in our society, problems that reach a crisis point in situations like the shootings at Virginia Tech. Yesterday's saying asserted that it is not laws which provide a solid foundation for society, but rather the characters of the people who constitute that society. Today's saying approaches the problem from a different angle: as a society suffers more and more from people's failure of character, it tends to make more and more laws... which are not able to solve the underlying problem.

The Latin saying comes from the Roman historian Tacitus (read more about Tacitus at wikipedia), in his Annals. The saying caps a historical digression, when Tacitus shifts the discussion from contemporary Rome to a backward-looking perspective, seeking causes in the past for the corruption Tacitus saw in the present day.

According to Tacitus, at the dawn of time, humanity lived at peace, with no need for laws: Vetustissimi mortalium, nulla adhuc mala libidine, sine probro, scelere eoque sine poena aut coercitionibus agebant, "The most ancient people lived as yet without any evil passion, without shame, without crime and hence without punishment or coercive measures." In the same way that negative reinforcement was not required, positive reinforcement was also not necessary: neque praemiis opus erat cum honesta suopte ingenio peterentur, "nor was there any need of rewards, since right-minded things were sought out as a natural tendency." Tacitus then makes what strikes me as a very profound observation: ubi nihil contra morem cuperent, nihil per metum vetabantur, "when they desired nothing that went against customary conduct (mos), they were prohibited nothing because of fear."

This seems to me a crucial point: when there is a crisis of character, of habit, or personal inclination, then fear enters into the equation, and a vicious cycle begins. Fear begets weakness, crime, and all kinds of failure, fostering a breakdown of what could and should be guaranteed by human nature, the mos that is a primary foundation of human existence.

For example: my university today was reeling from the almost ridiculous effects of fear in the wake of the terrible shootings at Virginia Tech. At about 9:30 a.m. this morning, the campus was shut down, all buildings locked, a flurry of emergency emails sent to tens of thousands of people... all because of a "suspicious" person observed carrying a "suspicious" package. Then it was announced that the suspicious package was apparently a yoga mat. And then the man himself called police and explained: it was actually an umbrella. Yes, the man was carrying an umbrella (it rained all day today), and thus he struck fear into the heart of the campus administration. Read all about it, if you want, at the OU Daily.

Back to Tacitus. With fear comes a retreat from equality, replaced by ambition and by violence, ambitio et vis. This led to a situation where people then made kings and despots for themselves. They then grew tired of kings, and replaced the kings with laws. Tacitus provides a long list of legendary lawgivers: Minos, Lycurgus, Solon, Romulus, Numa, Tullus, Ancus and finally Servius Tullius.

Yet Roman society grew still worse and worse, with Tarquin provoking the establishment of decemvirs and new laws, such as the Twelve Tables, which Tacitus calls finis aequi iuris, "the last of equal law." As Roman society continued its downward spiral, it reached the point described in today's saying: corruptissima respublica, plurimae leges, "The most corrupt state, the most laws."

Tacitus is not an author whom I know well at all, but I really enjoyed looking at this passage, and seeing this overview - part mythological, part historical - which Tacitus proposed as an aetiology for the crisis in Roman society which he saw around him. What kind of aetiology - mythological or historical - would we provide for the serious problems clearly afflicting our society today, I wonder?

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

764. Corruptissima respublica, plurimae leges.

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 also hear this saying read aloud at a Polish website: Wladyslawa Kopalinskiego Slownik wyraz?w obcych i zwrot?w obcojezycznych (weblink).
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