Eternal verities in quotable form from the greatest minds of the Western tradition

It should go without saying (yet must be said first of all nowadays, perhaps) that the list of insights below is painfully incomplete.  We continue to add items as they occur to us.  Some are simply wry irony (like Diogenes's quip); but even these show us that the founders of the Western tradition possessed a sense of limitation--of the human being's servitude to cycles of vanity and mixed motive--which many of us have now mislaid in our revolutionary zeal for "progress".  The more serious observations directly address our boundaries: our inevitably clouded knowledge of God, our inability to be utterly purged of selfishness,  our sacred duty to struggle constantly against that same selfishness, and our need to hope and to wait as these contradictory strictures threaten to choke us.  The classic Western tradition is one of patience and transformation, like the Buddhist tradition which some have glimpsed behind it in the mists of history; but it is also a tradition of anti-quietist, immediate and personal obligation to act, though action should attract the certain wrath of worldly powers.

Where is the classic wisdom of Greece, Rome, the thirteenth century, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment... where is it all today?  In a way, these delightful aphorisms and exhortations are so many epitaphs for the glory of Europe.  The very words "universal" and "eternal" which lay at their heart--the very words "truth" and "virtue"--are now impermissible blasphemy among the European intelligentsia, and indeed among Western intellectuals generally.  We are told by the pseudo-sagacious that Hitler's death camps and The Bomb are the logical consequence of all such thinking: the doctrine of postmodernism insists that Western tradition is self-discrediting.  Decide for yourself if alternate currents of madly homicidal revolution and national socialist bullying are implicit in anything below--or if, rather, the self-anointed wise of our own day are not merely turning history to set themselves at its apex in a way that would instantly have drawn a smirk from La Rochefoucauld.

We have deliberately excluded English-speaking authors--Shakespeare, Bacon, Dr. Johnson--from our honor roll, because we do not wish the present page to drag on endlessly.  The reader will already have several such favorite citations committed to memory, no doubt.  These from other European languages may be added to that stock.  Part of The Center for Literate Values' mission is precisely to stimulate interest in learning other languages, especially classical ones.  A sad implication of that mission, to be sure, is that continued neglect of the works in which Western tradition is rooted may render all of their fruits irretrievable.  Certainly contemporary European practices and trends suggest that the soil where these classics are native is being devoted to more sickly plants.

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Ancient Greece   


ei d'au tis raiêsi theôn eni oinopi pontôi,/tlêsomai en stêthessin echôn talapenthea thumon.  "And if one of the gods should cast me into the wine-dark sea, I shall endure, for the spirit in my breast is much-schooled in suffering."

hoppoion k'eipêstha epos toion k' epakousais.  "Whatever sort of thing you may say, such a thing you will hear said to you some time."


Anthrôpôn ho sophôtatos pros theon pithêkos phaneitai kai sophiai kai kallei kai tois allois pâsi.  "The wisest of all men, placed beside a god, would seem an ape in wisdom and in beauty and in every other way."

Psychês peirata iôn ouk an exeuroio, pâsan epiporeuomenos hodon.  houtô bathun logon echei.  "The soul's borders you would never find, though you should seek them along every path.  For its construction is an abyss."


zêmian hairesthai mallon ê kerdos aischron.  hê men gar hapax elupêse, to de dia pantos.  "Better to take a loss than a dishonest gain.  For the one causes grief only once, the other forever."


ho bios brachus, hê de technê makrê.  "Life is short, art is long."


en tôi gnôstôi teleutaia hê tou agathou idea kai mogis horâsthai, ophtheisa de sullogistea einai hôs ara pâsi pantôn hautê orthôn te kai kalôn aitia.  "To her familiars, this full-fledged idea of the good is almost visible, and once beheld is herself recognizable as the cause of all things both righteous and beautiful."

estin gar dê tôn kallistôn hê sophia, Erôs d'estin peri to kalon, hôste anagkaion Erôta philosophon einai, philosophon de onta metaxu einai sophou kai amathous.  "For [knowledge] of the quintessentially beautiful is wisdom, and love pursues what seems beautiful, so that love necessarily longs after wisdom and the wisdom-lover [lit., 'philosopher'] exists somewhere between the wise and the ignorant." 

Hotan agathou hamartôsin hoi epicheirountes tous nomous tithenai, nomimou te kai nomou hêmartêkasin.  "Whenever those entrusted with making laws mistake what is good, the laws and what is lawful are also mistaken."


hoi megaloi kleptai ton mikron apagousi.     "The big thieves are arresting the little thief"  (in allusion to rapacious governments).


oudeis eleutheros mê heautou kratôn.  "No one is free who cannot rule himself."

hopou gar to sympheron, ekei kai to eusebes.  "For wherever there is harmony, there also is holiness."

tis oun ê kolasis tois ou prosdechomenois.  to houtôs echein hôs echousin.  "What indeed is the punishment for those who refuse change?  Why, to remain just as they are."


to kinoumenon out' en hôi esti topôi kineitai out' ev hôi mê esti.  "A moving body moves neither in the place where it is nor in that where it is not.


phronein hôs deinon entha mê telei / luei phronounti.  "What a frightful thing is thought where it yields no profit to the thinker!" 


tis d'oiden ei to zên men êi to katthanein / to katthanein de zên nomizetai brotois.  "Who knows if to live may not be to die, while to die may be deemed among mortals to live?"

tôn d'aû dokountôn eidenai ti poikilon / kreissôn nomistheis lupros en polei phaneî.  "Of those believed to know something clever, he who is deemed superior seems ever to come to grief in the city."

erôtes hyper men agan elthontes ouk eudoxian / oud' aretan paredôkan andrasin. "Love affairs have never bestowed good reputation or virtue upon men when they lead to gross excess."

ei theoi to drôsi phaulon, ouk eisin theoi.  "If gods do something vile, they are not gods."

skaion to ploutein k'allo mêden eidenai.  "It is shameful to be rich and to know nothing, besides." 


hostis en megistois to epiphthonon lambanei, orthôs bouleuetai.  "Whoever incurs reproach on crucial issues is displaying proper judgment."


phuseôs men gar aretên diaphtheirei rhathumia, phaulotêta d'epanorthoi didachê.  "For indeed, a slack spirit can spoil a natural inclination to virtue, but instruction can straighten out a weak inclination."

to gar tois pollois areskein tois sophois estin apareskein.  "For to please the multitude is to displease the wise."

Ancient Rome


Homo sum; quidquid humanum est non mihi alienum 'st.  "I am a man: whatever is human is not alien to me."

Publilius Syrus

Cuivis potest accidere quod cuiquam potest.  "What can happen to anyone can happen to everyone."  


Tota philosophorum vita commentatio mortis est.  "The life of every philosopher is a commentary on death." 

Cupidum non esse pecunia est.  "Freedom from the want of things is wealth in itself."

Consuetudo laborum perpessionem dolorum efficit faciliorem.  "The habit of hard work renders the shock of grief more bearable."

Qui ipse sibi sapiens prodesse non quit nequiquam sapit.  "Any wise man who cannot improve himself is wise in vain."

Eodem vitio effusio animi in laetitia quo in dolore contractio.  "Spiritual effusion in time of joy and spiritual torpor in time of grief spring from the same vice.


Nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus.  "We can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies."

Fortuna virtutem sequitur.  "Good fortune attends virtue."


Una salus victis nullam sperare salutem.  "The only safety for the defeated is to relinquish all hope of safety."

Audentes fortuna iuvat.  "Fortune favors the daring."

Canitiem galera pressimus.  "We press our gray hair with a battle helmet" (in allusion to the duty of old age to continue the good struggle).

Labor omnia vincit.  "Work conquers all."

Quidquid erit, superanda omnis fortuna ferendo est.  "Whatever may come to pass, all fortune can be surmounted through endurance."


Nullus argento color est avaris / abdito terris.  "Silver hidden away in the grudging earth has no color" (in allusion to hidden talent--the "candle under a bushel").

Carpe diem; quam minimum credula postero.  "Seize the day; put your trust in tomorrow as little as possible."


Sunt apud infernis tot milia formosarum.  "There are so many thousands of beautiful women among the dead!"


Nulla dura videtur curatio cuius salutaris effectus est.  "No cure seems harsh which yields healthy results." 

Ignoranti quem portum petat nullus ventus suus est.  "No wind blows in that man's favor who knows not which port he seeks."

Quae inviti audimus libenter credimus.  "What we hear unwillingly we believe readily."

Aliena vitia in oculis habemus, a tergo nostra sunt.  "The vices of others stand full before our eyes: to our own, our backs are turned."

Nulli contigit impune nasci.  "To no one has it chanced to be born freed of pain."

Est quidem haec natura mortalium, ut nihil magis placeat quam quod amissum est.  "For this is the nature of mortal men: that nothing is more pleasing than what has been lost."

Argumentum pessimi turba est.  "The [opinion of the] crowd is the worst possible conclusion's brief." 

Non qui parum habet sed qui plura cupit pauper est.  "A pauper is not one who has little but one who craves more."

Satius est simplicitate contemni quam perpetua simulatione torqueri.  "It is better to be scorned for leading the simple life than to be tortured by leading a life of perpetual feigning."

Non pudet te reliquias vitae tibi reservare et id solum tempus bonae menti destinare, quod in nullam rem conferri possit?  "Are you not ashamed of reserving only life's dregs for yourself and designating only that time for your soul's improvement which can be conferred upon nothing else?"

Maximum vivendi impedimentum est expectatio, quae pendet ex crastino perdit hodiernum.  "The greatest obstacle to living is expectation: what depends upon tomorrow is lost for today."

Saepe nihil interest inter amicorum munera et hostium vota.  "Often there is no difference between the gifts of our friends and the prayers of our enemies."

Memoriae minimum tribuit quisquis spei maximum.  "He who invest most in dreaming invests least in remembering."


Optimus post malum principem est dies primus.  "The best day after a bad leader is the first." 

Omne ignotum pro magnifico est.  "Everything unknown is held to be wonderfully grand."


Mens sana in corpore sano.  "A sound mind in a sound body."


Suus cuique animus ex conscientia spem praebet.  "Every person's imagination mines from its resources a reason for hope."

Divitiarum et formae gloria fluxa atque fragilis est, virtus clara aeternaque habetur.  "The glory of wealth and beauty is transitory and fragile, but virtue is eternally honored."

pre-modern france

Chrétien de Troyes

Car molt vault miaux, ceo m'est ad vis, / Un mort courtois qu'un vilains vie.  "For much more worthy, it seems to me / Is bravely to die than vilely to be."


Je dis que je le said, et non pas que je le conçois ni que je le comprends; car on ne peut savoir que Dieu est infini et tout-puissant, encore que notre âme étant finie ne le puisse comprendre ni concevoir.  "I say that I know [that God is the author of everything] and not that I conceive of or understand it; for one can know only that God is infinite and all-powerful, whereas our soul, being finite, can neither comprehend nor conceive of it."


Faites. mon Dieu, que dans une uniformité toujours égale je reçoive toute sorte d'événements, puisque nous ne savons ce que nous devons demander.  "Bring it to pass, my God, that I accept every sort of occurrence in an ever level peace of spirit, since we do not know what it is that we should ask for."

La maladie principale de l'homme est la curiosité inquiète des choses qu'il ne peut savoir; et il ne lui est pas si mauvais d'être dans l'erreur, que dans cette curiosité inutile.  "What ails men primarily is a giddy curiosity about things that they cannot possibly know; they are not even harmed so much by being in error as by being in this state of useless curiosity."

Il faut qu'on n'en puisse dire, ni: "Il est mathématicien", ni "prédicateur", ni "éloquent", mais "il est honnête homme".  Cette qualité universelle me plaît seule.  "One really ought to be able to say of a man, not 'There goes a mathematician'--or 'preacher' or 'eloquent speaker'--but 'There's an honest man.'  This universal quality alone is what appeals to me."

La science des choses extérieures ne me consolera pas de l'ignorance de la morale, au temps d'affliction; mais la science des moeurs me consolera toujours de l'ignorance des sciences extérieures.  "Knowledge of external things will not console me over my ignorance of moral facts in times of affliction, but knowledge of the moral way will always console me over my ignorance of the external sciences." 

Car enfin, qu'est-ce que l'homme dans la nature?  Un néant à l'égard de l'infini, un tout à l'égard du néant, un milieu entre rien et tout.  Infiniment éloigné de comprendre les extrêmes, la fin des choses et leur principe sont pour lui invinciblement cachés dans un secret impénétrable, également incapable de voir le néant d'où il est tiré, et l'infini où il est englouti.  "For at last, what is man in his natural state?  A void with regard to infinity, a totality with regard to the void, a midway between nothing and everything.  Infinitely far from understanding the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are for him invincibly hidden in an impenetrable secret.  He is equally incapable of seeing the void from which he has been lifted and the infinite in which he is enveloped."

La Rochefoucauld

Nous avons toujours assez de force pour supporter les maux d'autrui.  "We always have enough strength to endure the trials of others."

Les vertus se perdent dans l'intérêt comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer.  "Virtue dissolves into self-interest as a river dissolves into the sea."

So on juge de l'amour par la plupart de ses effets, il ressemble plus à la haine qu'à l'amitié.  "If one judges love by the preponderance of its effects, it resembles hate more than friendship."


On n'est jamais excusable d'être méchant, mais il y a quelque mérite à savoir qu'on l'est; et le plus irréparable des vices est de faire le mal par bêtise.  "It is never excusable to be wicked, but there is some merit in knowing that one is so: the most irreparable of vices is to do evil out of sheer stupidity."

En me couchant, faisant encore ma prière par un reste d'habitude imbécile, je répétais dans un demi-sommeil: "Mon Dieu!  Seigneur mon Dieu!  faites que le diable me tienne sa parole!"  "Lying down and continuing my prayer thanks to some remnant of a witless routine, I repeated half-sleeping, 'My God, Lord my God, please make the devil keep his word to me!'"

pre-modern Italy


e dietro le venìa sì lunga tratta / di gente, ch'io non averei creduto / che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta.  "And behind it [the banner of the Lukewarm] came such a long file of souls that I would not have believed all those ever undone by death to be so many."

O vendetta di Dio, quanto tu dei / esser temuta da ciascun che legge / ciò che fu manifesto alli occhi miei!  "O vengeance of God, how much must you be feared by anyone who reads what was revealed before my eyes!"

fatti non foste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.  "You were not made to live as brutes, but to pursue brave virtue and knowledge." 

pre-modern germany

Immanuel Kant

Was hier das Vornehmste ist, diese Idee geht aus der Moral hervor und ist nicht die Grundlage derselben; ein Zweck, welchen sich zu machen, schon sittliche Grundsätze voraussetzt.  "What is most important here is that this idea [of God All Good] arises from moral goodness rather than being its foundation: it is a construction, that is, which already assumes righteous principles in evolving."

Es verräth einen sträflichen Grad moralischen Unglaubens, wenn man den Vorschriften der Pflicht, wie sie ursprünglich ins Herz des Menschen durch die Vernunft geschrieben sind, anders nicht hinreichende Autorität zugestehen will, als wenn sie noch dazu durch Wunder beglaubigt werden.  "It betrays a shameful degree of moral unbelief when someone refuses to grant adequate authority to the dictates of conscience, as fundamentally set down in the human heart through universal reason, unless they are confirmed by an astounding miracle."

Ich... frage, ob die Moral nach der Bibel, oder die Bibel vielmehr nach der Moral ausgelegt werden müsse.  "I... ask whether moral goodness should be approached through the Bible, or the Bible, rather, through moral goodness."

Die Idee eines Endes aller Dinge ihren Ursprung nicht von dem Vernünfteln über den physischen, sondern über den moralischen Lauf der Dinge in der Welt hernimmt und dadurch veranlasst wird.  "The idea of an end of all things owes its origin to reflection not upon the physical, but upon the moral, course of things in the world, and from this same source comes its staying power."


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