Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Bit of Latin for Everyone

Here's a phrase for you: 'Ars Longa Vita Brevis'. It's usually translated as 'Art is long, life is short' (or something similar - there are a few different versions of the translation). As I understand it, people use it to say something along the lines of: "You're not going to live a long time, but if you create some wonderful artistic work like a great novel or poem, then it will outlive you by yonks."
Or, some people use the same phrase to mean something like this: "You're not going to live a long time, but it takes ages to learn how to create beautiful or great work. It's such a bummer."

OK, fair enough, both of those might be true. BUT IT'S NOT WHAT THE PHRASE ORIGINALLY MEANT.

I feel another rant coming on.

The first person to use the phrase that we know of was Hippocrates, an ancient Greek doctor. (He wasn't ancient at the time, but he is now.) So let me ask you this: why would Hippocrates be going on about great art and writing novels or poems? He was a doctor, for crying out loud!
And in Latin, 'ars' doesn't mean 'art'. It means 'skill, method, technique' (and by extension can be used to describe a person's character or conduct).
Here's what Hippocrates meant when he said 'Ars Longa Vita Brevis' (according to me):

"It takes a long time to learn the craft of being a doctor. But I don't have a long time. My patient's life is slipping away by the second. I'd better perform this crucial operation with the knowledge that I have right now, rather than studying for years and years to get it exactly right, by which time the poor sucker will definitely be dead anyway. What a tricky situation."

So if you're going to slip a Latin phrase into your everyday conversation (and why don't you?) use this one. But use it to mean: "We could mess about forever trying to learn everything there is to know about this subject, but by then our decision will be useless. We'd better make the best choice we can right now, based on what we do know."

What do you think?


James Casey said...

Hmm, no, I don't think that's what Hippocrates meant (and anyway he was speaking in Ancient Greek; what we have is Horace's translation).

Mind you, he certainly wasn't talking about 'art' as people use the phrase to mean today.

As I understand it, he was talking about the length of time taken to be proficient enough; effectively saying that the amount of time required to be truly skilled is long compared to how short one's life is. The original meaning might well be considered, "Life is almost not long enough to become truly skilled."

Joe said...

Yes, you're right, of course, about the Greek thing.

And your alternative interpretation is a good one. It looks like we're agreed on 'ars' but not on 'vita'.

I prefer to think that, as a doctor, he was referring not to his own life, but to the life of a patient.

I like to picture him, mid-surgery, with his hands covered in blood and guts, wishing he had time to go and look something up in his textbook.

But I'm open to the possibility that that's just me.

James Casey said...

I'll gladly say your interpretation is both more interesting and nicer.