The motto of the University of Pennsylvania is a simple but profound quote from the Roman poet Horace: leges sine moribus, vanae. It means, “laws without character (i.e. character formed by moral values) are empty.” It is not simply because it is in Latin, though, that it is far superior to, say, Pepperdine’s which is, I think, meant to inspire potential donors: “Freely ye received, freely give.”
But Adelphi University has, perhaps, a motto even better than either of these: vita sine litteris mors est. The quote comes from Seneca’s Moral Epistles, and it is a strong statement about the power of the arts, for it means, “life without literature is death.” And we should never take reading or literature for granted.
Try to imagine life without art. You might, if you’re as bad at drawing as I am, at first think, “Good! I hated Mrs. Tenbau’s art class in the fifth grade. She made us make lumps of plaster of Paris, paint it bright orange, and then she just harped on and on about “texture.” Ye gads, even to me as a fifth grader, she appeared to be quite daft.
Fine, but what about no art. No prints in the bathroom, no paintings on the wall, no printed engravings of former presidents on our paper currency. No grandchildren’s drawing on grandparents’ refrigerators. No visits to museums, ever. No sculpture. No Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, no Palatine Chapel in Palermo, no Sistine Chapel in Rome. It’s kind of ridiculous to think about it, of course, but if you do, even for a moment, it is quite terrifying.
Which is why one should go to college to study art, and literature, and languages; the goal is not to get a job but to get an education. A diploma indicates that you have been graduated and thus educated, not that you have a job. And, by the way, not having a job is not terrifying, or if it is, such terror is almost always merely short-lived. In this country, one will most likely get another one. But life without literature, well, as Adelphi University’s college seal reminds us, it’s flat out death. And life without art—more death. And life without the capacity to communicate through language—more death. Goethe once said, “He who doesn’t know a foreign language doesn’t know his own.” True that, and with it more death, and gloom and doom.
On a more upbeat note, well, there is art, and there is literature, and languages other than English do exists, and you can even learn old languages like Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. And that’s a good thing, because Seneca bundles a powerful sentiment into just a few Latin words, and so does Horace. And that’s good stuff.
Here’s to the good stuff.