Latin calls me, and I must answer its plea. Or is it Persius that beckons instead? Is it the writer or the writing? Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter, since we are looking at some Latin today and Persius wrote it. Aulus Persius Flaccus (Skinny Aulus to his friends), our writer today, was a Satirist of the 1st century from Tuscany who loved explaining Stoicism to his audience. Persius was quite successful; unfortunately, an untimely death left Romans wishing he had written earlier in life, so they could have enjoyed him more. A postumous work published by his friend and editor Lucius Annaeus Cornutus (yes, his nickname was ‘horny’ – although, more than likely, it represented the clan of his mother, perhaps related to the business of bull raising) was extremely successful. Considering his statement, one admits the talent of the man easily.
Nostrum est quod vivis, cinis et manes et fabula fies. Vive memor leti, fugit hora.
Ours is that which you live, you remain ashes and become stories. Live mindful of violent death, the hour flees.
Nuestro es lo que vives, cenizas permaneces y en historias te conviertes. Vive recordando la mala muerte, la hora es escapadiza.
(Satire V, 151)
Consider the absolute beauty of this statement. How it flows from premise to premise so easily and yet so inevitably. As life, Persius’ statement flees, but we can do nothing more than watch it move on the horizon, quick, unstoppable. By the time we react it is gone. However, there is hope, says Persius, for “ours is that which you live.” Who is ‘us’ in this phrase? Not just those reading, as you may have deduced, but those living; the only ones who can experience deeds, for the dead are dead, and they cannot be returned to us. Fortunately, what anyone one person does in life will feed those who, after said person is gone, remain. We, those alive, claim possession of ‘factum’ (that which was done), facts of the dead, and use them for our own purposes. This is the reason why we all should strive to live a good life, for we become the pillars of the future. Some of us are only pillars for those who loved us, others become pillars for a neighborhood, a city, a state, a country, an idea, a hypothesis, a law… only the future may tell what we become. So we must live now, here, so that other may make our deeds their own and live better lives themselves… just a bit of responsibility for us all.
‘How is this Stoic?,’ you may ask; Persius knows there is nothing after death, a common Stoic belief. This life was all there was for the vast majority of Romans before Christianity set in; after life, there was only nothingness. Some stoics (and non-stoics as well) believed great men would come to be in Elysium, a sort of Valhalla for the Romans, but most of the lowly mortals who trod this earth would come to nothingness. “Cinis manes,” says the satirist, ‘as ashes you remain’ (again, no spirit), the hope is that your deeds and yourself “fabula fies,” ‘you become a story.’ The emphasis remains on living this life, now, as best as possible; because your body would be destroyed in the funeral pire or decompose to mere dust, but your deeds, the mos maiorum that you so valiantly and gallantly laid at our feet will become our story. Not just a story for kids, but our history. History was made by the stories of good deeds from the past. Stories legitimized men, gave them gravitas (weight), and made careers for living sons and grandsons yet unborn.
After his philosophical statements, Persius gathers us together for one last statement. Having delivered all at once reasons for a good life and the necessity of recorded history “vive memor leti” is a phrase that speaks volumes of the people the author is praising. “Leti” is a violent death, more so that neco (to die). An individual who lives violently dies violently. As long as said person doesn’t forget that violent death is coming, then life can be lived without regrets for the forceful things done to preserve it and be remembered. “Live mindful of violent death” is both warning and praise. Praise for the individual who stands up for himself or herself, and those loved; yet. the statement is also a warning because “fugit hora.” The entire sentence is in the Present Active Indicative, giving it a tone of the now, the moment, the passing in this very second. Even now, reader, life flees; and although I am extremely glad that you are reading this very post, at this very moment, think of what you want to do with your life. Is it reading Latin? Then you are were your ought to be. Is it writing the next great novel? Then you are were you ought not to be. “To be or not to be” (I bet you have never thought of Hamlet as a stoic) is indeed the question, is it not? What do we do with our lives, and how do we do it? Well, that is just a matter of how you see yourself, and how you want others to remember you. It all boils down to that one simple question.
So, reader, be what and who you want to be now, in this moment, and seize the day, seize the hour, seize the second; thus, when we are bones and dust, the memory of our deeds will remain to echo who we were and, hopefully, inspire those we love.