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Otium sine litteris mors est et hominis vivi sepultura

Original post date: Monday, July 02, 2007

In English: Leisure without literature is death and burial for a living man.

I'm carrying on, as in the previous few days, with Latin words formed with the -ura suffix. So far we have had pictura, "painting" from the verb pingere (participle pictus), mixtura, "mixture" from the verb miscere (participle mixtus) and iactura, "throwing away, loss" from the verb iacere (participle iactus).

Today's saying features sepultura, "burial" from the verb sepelire (participle sepultus).

The saying comes from the philosopher and writer, Seneca, in one of his letters to Lucilius. You can also find it occasionally cited in this form: vita sine litteris mors est, "Life without literature is death," with the word vita, "life," in place of otium, "leisure." This version, with vita, turns up as the motto of the Derby School. It is also part of the school seal of Adelphi University.

Although the version with vita has a nice ring to it, Seneca's own statement about otium is much more relevant to the cultural context of this dilemma. For the Romans, there was something awkward and even shameful about otium. The goal was always negotium, literally nec-otium, "not-leisure," keeping busy and doing business.

Seneca, however, was a writer in the Silver Age of Latin literature living under the capricious emperor Nero. By this time the claims of public life had changed from the days of the old Roman Republic. So, in Seneca's way of thinking, after a man had earned enough money to retire and secured his public reputation, it was appropriate to retire into private life and enjoy his otium - but it was not appropriate to fritter the time away with foolishness.

What then was a man to do with his leisure time in order to redeem it? For Seneca, the answer was study and writing, litterae. I agree: I am always delighted when summertime arrives, when I can read lots of books and try to write one myself!

So, hoping you are enjoying some literary leisure time this summer, here is today's proverb read out loud:

360. Otium sine litteris mors est et hominis vivi sepultura.

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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