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Alienis malis discimus

Original post date: Thursday, August 23, 2007

In English: We learn from others' mistakes.

I thought this saying would make a good follow-up to yesterday's proverb, Discipulus est prioris posterior dies, "The following day is the student of the previous day." In yesterday's saying, the idea was that you learn from your own mistakes. If something did not work out on one day, you can do better the next day.

Today's saying is a bit more opportunistic! It is better to learn from others' mistakes, rather than from your own mistakes. If you can learn from the mistakes that other people make, you can perhaps completely avoid making that same mistake yourself.

This is the notion of the "negative exemplum," as you can see illustrated in hundreds of Aesop's fables. Typically, an Aesop's fable is not about some positive hero who gives you a good example to imitate. Instead, an Aesop's fable is usually about some foolish creature who makes a mistake, often a fatal mistake! The idea is that you learn from that creature's mistake in order to avoid making the same mistake yourself, according to the theory of learning espoused in today's saying.

If you approach the fables of Aesop with this idea in mind, it often gives you a new perspective on the inner dynamics of the story. Take the tortoise and the hare, for example, a very famous and still very popular fable. Many people today assume that the tortoise is the hero of the story, and they derive a positive moral from the tortoise's victory over the hare: slow and steady wins the race.

In fact, the traditional version of the fable is not so much about the positive example set by the tortoise but the negative example set by the hare. The tortoise beat the hare in the race because the hare was lazy. Moral of the story: don't be lazy! Learn from the mistake of the hare, and don't snooze. You snooze, you lose.

No matter how virtuous the tortoise might be, he is not likely to beat a hare in a race, unless the hare makes some serious mistake, after all.

Of course, the tortoise could also cheat! (So much for the morally virtuous tortoise!) If you have never read a version of the story based on the tortoise cheating, you should take a look at this fine Cherokee version of the story, or this version in the Brothers Grimm, with a hedgehog instead of a tortoise.

Meanwhile, hoping your day today has not been a negative exemplum either for yourself or for others, here is today's proverb read out loud:

1645. Alienis malis discimus.

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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