Sunday, September 22, 2013

Phrase of the Day: “nolo episcopari” (bis)

This Latin gem is a marvel of morphological compression. 

First, the auxiliary verb, nolo.  The prefixal n- is negative (as in German); it joins with volo ‘want’ to form a composite exactly analogous to earlier English nill (which survives as a fossil, invisible save to adepts of etymological geology, in willy-nilly).   You are probably familiar with this modal verb in the expression from ‘law Latin’, nolo contendere, the plea of ‘No contest’.   A present participle of the same verb appears in the Latin equivalent of willy-nilly (used in many languages including English), nolens volens.   The imperative appears in the Vulgate version of the celebrated words of Christ to the Magdalene, noli me tangere.  And finally, again from English law Latin, this time with the auxiliary itself in the infinitive:  nolle prosequi, literally ‘not to wish to pursue (the matter)’,  for when a prosecutor drops a case.

Noli me tangere
Episcopari is a verb from a Greek root meaning literally ‘over-seer’ and which is the etymon of our word bishop (a phonetically much-mutilated remains), here inflected for passive.   The resulting phrase then means, “I do not wish to be made a bishop”;  and it is, traditionally, exactly the attitude required of a candidate for an episcopacy.

Julius Caesar  refusing the crown
People being what we are, the phrase is often used ironically, to indicate that the lips and the heart are at odds.
But -- What if the fellow genuinely does not want that?   I was reminded of this (rare) situation in happening upon the following passage:
After an election in the sixteenth century,

le supérieur général des dominicains, une fois élu, déclara qu’il avait mieux à faire que d’exercer le pouvoir, et s’en retourna à ces chères études.
-- Jean Lacouture, Jésuites (1991), p. 116

To preclude such an awkward situation, General William Tecumseh Sherman, mooted as a candidate for President, famously stated:  “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.”

Further philological footnote:  Passive infinitives are familiar from other phrases of law Latin, e.g. certiorari (passive of certiorare).   And indeed the prosequi in nolle prosequi is sort of a passive infinitive -- strictly, the infinitive of a deponent (passive in form, active in meaning) -- though morphologically it is very odd, lacking the characteristic -r- of the an infinitive active or passive.  (As though to atone for this, the finite form in the first person singular  gets one:  sequor  ‘I pursue’.)

A predecessor from pagan antiquity:

Plato’s  rulers were to be given absolute power  only upon the condition that they did not want it.
-- Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way (1930)

She notes the parallel to “nolo episcopari”

A parallel from pagan modernity:  In his trenchant essay "The Inner Circle", C.S. Lewis recalls the motto of boys at English "public schools":

"Them as asks,  shan't have."

The morphology of episcopari is, as we remarked, that of a passive infinitive (a category which the daughter languages sadly lack), exactly like that of percipi in Bishop Berkeley’s classic phrase.
We had latterly to remark, in our note upon that maxim, that waggish rascal Fielding’s proclivity for turning Latin tags to his own account;  and he once again does so here, while describing the courtship by the Captain, for the wealthy heiress’ hand: 
He soon found means to make his addresses, in express terms, to his mistress, from whom he received an answer in the proper form, viz:  the answer which was first made some thousands of years ago, and which hath been handed down by tradition  from mother to daughter  ever since.  If I was to translate this into Latin, I should render it by these two words:  Nolo episcopari.
-- Tom Jones (1749)
Meaning:  She replied coyly, playing hard to get;  but was quite willing, with proper plying, and after a decent interval, to be … gotten.
(Note: mistress here means, ‘mistress-in-prospect’;  and that, in a quite respectable sense.)

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"Were I alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I should be reading: "
('Tis I, Henry Fielding, and I approved this merry message.)
~         ~

[Update May 2017]  There are actually a wealth of epigrams, illustrating the basic thesis that some things can be achieved only indirectly, the wording varying depending upon what is being aimed at:
  No man who cares about originality
  will ever be original.
  -- C.S. Lewis, radio address


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