Leges sine moribus vanae
Original post date: Monday, April 16, 2007
In English: Laws without character are worthless.
I'm guessing that most of the readers of this blog are either teachers or students, and so they have been struck today by the news of the shootings at Virginia Tech University. It's certainly been on my mind all day today, and I know my students have been thinking about it too; it's been the dominant theme in their blog postings today.
So, I wanted to post a Latin proverb today that offers some perspective on the situation. There are so many tragedies here, and so many different perspectives that one can take. I was prompted to choose this proverb because of the reaction at my university here, in Norman, Oklahoma. Very shortly after the news broke, the president of the university, David Boren (a former governor of the state, and former U.S. Senator) issued an email to the entire university community. Here is what it said: "As an extra security precaution in light of the tragic events at Virginia Tech University, the security doors in our residence halls will be locked 24 hours a day for the remainder of the semester and require an ID card or room key for access."
That is the entire message that was sent. I was so disappointed by this. The rush to make new rules, as if we have accomplished something by doing that, strikes me as misguided at best, and self-serving more than anything else. We need something from the heart here; that message does not come from the heart. This is a problem of the heart, and I believe it needs a heartfelt response. We are here at the university because of something we believe in, and what happened in Virginia, violates what we believe in. We need to affirm our beliefs, despite this terrible event. We will keep on being teachers and kept on being students because we do believe that we can work together, educating ourselves and each other
Something went terribly wrong today, and it is undeniably a symptom of something wrong with human relationships in our society, with the inner rules that govern people's lives, Latin mores. The problem is not a lack of laws, Latin leges, but some staggering gap in our capacity to be human beings, building a society together.
My university is definitely not immune to this crisis of the heart. Last year, a student blew himself up on this campus. Yes, he packed explosives on his body and blew himself up right in the middle of our campus. It provoked a brief media frenzy, but the feeding frenzy of the media requires an endless supply of fresh violence, and I'm guessing many people don't remember much about the OU student bomber, Joel Henry Hinrichs III. A National Merit Scholar. A fraternity member. To this day, it is not clear if he was trying to get into the football stadium - it was a game day - in order to detonate the bomb there, killing others. Perhaps he only meant to kill himself. We heard the explosion here at home, about three miles from campus.
I don't have a solution to any of this, but I do not think locking our dorms does anything to help. The president of our university took this opportunity to communicate with the students, faculty and staff of the university today in a vitally important way and it was squandered on law, rather than character.
Better by far was this statement in Wesley Fryer's blog. If you are not already overwhelmed by the news from Virginia Tech, I highly recommend his reflections. It expresses many of the concerns I feel and questions I am pondering.
If you are wondering about the classical source for the proverb, it is adapted from Horace: quid leges sine moribus vanae proficiunt?, "what profit laws, empty, when they are without character?" In this form - leges sine moribus vanae - the saying is the motto of the University of Pennsylvania.
So here is today's proverb read out loud:
352. Leges sine moribus vanae.
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 in an alternate form - quid leges sine moribus? - read aloud at a Polish website: Wladyslawa Kopalinskiego Slownik wyraz?w obcych i zwrot?w obcojezycznych (weblink).
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