Sunday, 9 September 2007

Happiness - Greek, not Roman...

... according to The Oxford History of the Classical World. Reading up on Cicero, I came to this passage:
Before and after Cicero, it was common to comlain of the deficiencies of Latin as a philosophical language. Cicero protested, with some justice, that new subjects in any language require the creation of new words, and that Greek philosophers too had resorted to neologisms. He himself introduced, for example, qualitas, moralis, and beatitudo, for 'quality', 'moral', and 'happiness' (it is suggestive that Rome, left to herself, needed no word for happiness).

[Ch.19, "Cicero and Rome" by Miriam Griffin, p. 458.]
When I learned Latin at school I was taught that the word for happiness was felix, but that this really meant good luck rather than the meaning captured in Galt's Speech:

Happiness is the successful state of life, pain is an agent of death. Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values.")

[Galt's Speech, in For the New Intellectual and Atlas Shrugged]

So Republican Rome had no concept of an earned happiness! That sort of figures: all those stories about violated virgins committing suicide to escape dishonour and statesmen preferring to execute their own sons than deviate from the letter of the law...
The Greek concept of happiness wasn't quite the same as ours either, though it seems a lot closer: Jonathan Barnes notes in Aristotle that Aristotle used the term eudaimonia, which means 'flourishing' - a successful life and the activity required to achieve it - rather than the state of consciousness that might be expected to proceed from flourishing.


  1. Hi Valda, an interesting thought that - no need for a R word for earned happiness...

    What do you make of the use of factus sum for the perfect from of fio? If fio means I become.. does the borrowing of the passive form of facio - I am made - imply a disregard for free will?

    PS saw you on OU Classics Forum and followed link here to your blog.

  2. Let's dust off one of the few worthwhile things I got from my Roman Catholic education: Latin.

    Fio (meaning "I am made" or "I become") is the irregularly-formed, present first-person singular passive indicative of facio ("I make"). In the past tense indicative, facio is regular in the passive voice, for which "factus sum" ("I have been made", or "I became") is the form one would expect to see. (FWIW, it's feci in the active.)

    Since factus sum is merely a regularly-formed passive, I wouldn't read anything into it WRT free will.

    The complete conjugation of facio can be found here (Although at first glance I see a mistake: The present infinitive should be "fieri".) and here's an excerpt from Andrew and Stoddard's.

    In short, you have mistaken an active-looking passive form of a verb for an active verb that does not really exist.


  3. Gus

    Thanks for explaining that fio and factus sum are both passive forms of facio. I agree that one shouldn't read too much into the fact that "become" in Latin is a passive form. All the same, it is interesting.

  4. Yo, Gus, you write: "Fio (meaning "I am made" or "I become") is the irregularly-formed, present first-person singular passive indicative of facio ("I make")." I'll just add that historically speaking even the f's in facio and fio come from different sounds. In Proto-Indo-European there was a series of consonants written bh, dh, etc., by linguists, and which most likely were pronounced something like those sounds in modern Hindi--voiced with a rough murmur in the voice at the same time. However, in most of the daughter languages these changed (not in Sanskrit, however) in various ways--ph became ph (a p with a burst of air after it, like in hop-head) in Ancient Greek, b in Germanic, f in Latin, and so on, and dh became th (a t with a burst of air after it, like in cat-hair) in Ancient Greek, d in Germanic, and f in Latin (probably earlier the th-in-think sound).

    So, fio goes back to a verb root bheu- meaning "to become, to grow" that's also the origin of English to be and Greek physis. (It's also the source of the byl in Chernobyl "wormwood," literally "black plant.") Facio goes back to a root dhe-k- meaning "to make," origin of English to do and Greek thesis.

    As for Latin words for happy, English happy itself originally meant "lucky"--compare it with happenstance, perhaps, and mayhaps. As for felix, it seems originally to have meant "fertile," and thus successful; for happiness in the broader sense there were other words like fortunatus, beatus, forms of prospero and so on. You'd want to look closely at their shades of meaning to see if there was anything quite like the broad meaning of happiness as we mean it today (I suspect beo/beatus had those shades of meaning, but it's been years since I studied Latin).

  5. Hmm this is interesting but confusing. In our OU Latin course based on the Sidwell and Jones GVE book, fio is introduced as a semi deponent verb with nothing to do with facio except that it 'borrows' its perfect passive form to form its own perfect tense.... this would seem to be bourne out by the distinct origins of the initial f????

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