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Vita misero longa, felici brevis

Original post date: Wednesday, May 09, 2007

In English: For the wretched man, life is long; for the happy man, it is brief.

This is a saying, a particularly wise one it seems to me, from the proverb collection of Publilius Syrus.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's proverb, Vivis piscibus aqua, mortuis vinum, "Water for the live fish, wine for the dead ones," not because the two proverbs share the same theme (they don't), but because they share a very similar underlying grammatical structure: dative-x, y; dative-not-x, not-y.

Although that kind of analysis admittedly abstracts all the meaning out of the proverb, it is still an important step in understanding how the proverb works to achieve its meaning. If you understand the basic formational structure of a proverb, it can help you recognize other proverbial sayings - and it can also give you a prompt for writing your own sayings, too!

In yesterday's proverb, there were two pairs of elements: the dative pair vivis piscibus - mortuis (piscibus) plus aqua-vinum. These two opposed pairs were then fit into a relationship: Vivis piscibus aqua, mortuis vinum.

In today's proverb, there are also two pairs: the dative pair misero-felici and vita longa (est) - (vita) brevis (est). These two pairs were then put into a mutual relationship: Vita misero longa, felici brevis.

You could easily create your own proverbs imitating this structure. Just take a pair of opposed items in the dative, and a pair of opposed nominative phrases or declarative statements, and you are good to go! For example, stulto consilium sterile, sapienti salutare, "for a fool, advice is futile; for a wise man, it is helpful." Okay, admittedly, the English doesn't sound so good - but I did try to achieve some nice sound play in the Latin. In fact, I rather like it!

Anyway, once you are armed with this formal understanding of a proverb's structure, you can appreciate the generative nature of the proverb enterprise. The proverb's structure is kind of like the tune of a song. You can add new lyrics to the same old tune, creating a completely new song. That's basically what happens when the same proverbial structure gets filled up with new ideas.

So, here is today's proverb read out loud... and if you don't like today's proverb, perhaps it will inspire you to make up one of your own instead!

425. Vita misero longa, felici brevis.

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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