Wheelock’s Latin, the textbook my students and I use, quotes a lot of Roman wisdom. Today a student and I were translating this sentence, which frequently gives students trouble:
Non solum eventus hoc docet—iste est magister stultorum—sed etiam ratio.
Not only the outcome teaches this—that is the teacher of fools—but also reason.
You can see why this sentence is vexing, because even when translated correctly, it still may not sound right or make sense. This line from the historian Livy requires (to use an expression I dislike) some unpacking.
Livy means that hindsight is the teacher of fools. We should instead foresee the outcome of decisions before the event. Many people now, for example, will say that our wars in Vietnam or Iraq were foreign-policy mistakes. To which you might say, “Duh.” Anyone, or at least many people, looking back can see that now.
Greater credit is due to those who saw ahead of time what eventualities (there’s that root again, evenio, meaning to come forth) would ensue. Millions of ordinary people around the world protested the Iraq war before it happened, pleading to let the inspectors do their job and keep looking for those weapons of mass destruction. Remember those? Remember how there weren’t any? Now we have the eventus—hundreds of thousands dead and still dying in the tumult of the Middle East. More terrorism, more violence. We should have been able to reason our way to this outcome beforehand.
Livy’s wise line came to mind as I was talking recently to my Republican neighbors. Cleveland Heights is a liberal suburb, but we allow a small quota of conservatives to move in. We even let Donald Trump into town last week. He appeared with a very conservative Cleveland Heights black pastor, along with promoter and, oh yeah, killer Don King.
Back to the neighbors. I was canvassing the neighborhood for Hillary, and passed my neighbor and her husband sitting out on the porch. I joked to them that I wouldn’t even bother them, because I was not out to convert Republican voters but rather to encourage likely Hillary voters to vote early. My neighbors shook their heads sadly. They dislike Trump and don’t know what to do. Because they hate Hillary. “The problem is,” the woman said, “we don’t know what either of them is going to do. It’s a crapshoot. You have to just close your eyes and pick one.”
I argued, just a little. I said, no, we do know both candidates. They each have a history we can look at. They have pretty clearly defined personae. Then I could tell by their expressions that my neighbors were about to tell me that Hillary killed Vince Foster, so I said goodbye and moved on.
But I left thinking we know pretty much about both candidates. We know that Trump will try to get rid of Obamacare and Hillary will maintain and expand it. We know Trump will nominate conservative Supreme Court judges and Hillary liberal ones. We have learned that Trump uses words like this for people he doesn’t like: pigs, murderers, ugly, rapists, fat, crazy, crooked, and so forth. Hillary does not. And now, after the debate last night, we know that one person studies the facts, learns, and prepares for important events, and the other one doesn’t.
Reason should teach us what the outcome of our vote will be. We have all the information we need.