Four infinitives in search of an object

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Brendan O'Leary's A Treatise on Northern Ireland, Volume I starts with a quotation from Spinoza's Tractatus Politicus:

Sedulo curavi, humanas actiones non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere.

I have labored carefully, not to ridicule, or detest, but to understand.

That's Brendan's translation, which captures the relevant essence, although it leaves out the second of Spinoza's four infinitives (ridere, lugere, detestari, intelligere) and also their object (humanas actiones). Reading this yesterday afternoon, on a train returning from a committee meeting in DC, I mentally supplied the missing English words, and realized that the result is problematically awkward, in a way that punctuation can't fix:

I have labored carefully not to ridicule, not to lament, and not to detest, but to understand human actions.

This led me to ponder (not for the first time) the stylistic advantages — or at least differences — of Latin's inflectional morphology and free word order.

Of course English has some other resources to bring to bear on such problems, as demonstrated by Gosset's 1883 translation:

Sedulo curavi, humanas actiones non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere; atque adeo humanos affectus, ut sunt amor, odium, ira, invidia, gloria, misericordia et reliquae animi commotiones non ut humanae naturae vitia, sed ut proprietates contemplatus sum, quae ad ipsam ita pertinent, ut ad naturam aëris aestus, frigus, tempestas, tonitru et alia huiusmodi, quae, tametsi incommoda sunt, necessaria tamen sunt, certasque habent causas, per quas eorum naturam intelligere conamur, et mens eorum vera contemplatione aeque gaudet, ac earum rerum cognitione, quae sensibus gratae sunt.

I have laboured carefully, not to mock, lament, or execrate human actions, but to understand them; and, to this end, I have looked upon passions, such as love, hatred, anger, envy, ambition, pity, and the other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of vices of human nature, but as properties, just as pertinent to it, as are heat, cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere, which phenomena, though inconvenient, are yet necessary, and have fixed causes, by means of which we endeavour to understand their nature, and the mind has just as much pleasure in viewing them aright, as in knowing such things as flatter the senses.

Gosset avoids the troublesome "not to VERB not to VERB and not to VERB but to VERB OBJECTS" structure by placing the object after the first three conjoined  infinitives, removing two of the conjoined negations, and adding a pronoun after the fourth infinitive: "not to VERB, VERB, or VERB OBJECTS, but to VERB them".

The result is still stylistically old-fashioned, from the days when writers learned from Greek and Latin models. Brendan's solution is more modern and more elegant.

From an extra-syntactic perspective, I'll note that Nietzsche also quoted Spinoza's phrase in section 333 of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft — aiming at a different conclusion from Spinoza's and (I think?) O'Leary's:

Was heisst erkennen. — Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere! sagt Spinoza, so schlicht und erhaben, wie es seine Art ist. Indessen: was ist diess intelligere im letzten Grunde Anderes, als die Form, in der uns eben jene Drei auf Einmal fühlbar werden? Ein Resultat aus den verschiedenen und sich widerstrebenden Trieben des Verlachen-, Beklagen-, Verwünschen-wollens? Bevor ein Erkennen möglich ist, muss jeder dieser Triebe erst seine einseitige Ansicht über das Ding oder Vorkommniss vorgebracht haben; hinterher entstand der Kampf dieser Einseitigkeiten und aus ihm bisweilen eine Mitte, eine Beruhigung, ein Rechtgeben nach allen drei Seiten, eine Art Gerechtigkeit und Vertrag: denn, vermöge der Gerechtigkeit und des Vertrags können alle diese Triebe sich im Dasein behaupten und mit einander Recht behalten. Wir, denen nur die letzten Versöhnungsscenen und Schluss-Abrechnungen dieses langen Processes zum Bewusstsein kommen, meinen demnach, intelligere sei etwas Versöhnliches, Gerechtes, Gutes, etwas wesentlich den Trieben Entgegengesetztes; während es nur ein gewisses Verhalten der Triebe zu einander ist. Die längsten Zeiten hindurch hat man bewusstes Denken als das Denken überhaupt betrachtet: jetzt erst dämmert uns die Wahrheit auf, dass der allergrösste Theil unseres geistigen Wirkens uns unbewusst, ungefühlt verläuft; ich meine aber, diese Triebe, die hier mit einander kämpfen, werden recht wohl verstehen, sich einander dabei fühlbar zu machen und wehe zu thun —: jene gewaltige plötzliche Erschöpfung, von der alle Denker heimgesucht werden, mag da ihren Ursprung haben (es ist die Erschöpfung auf dem Schlachtfelde). Ja, vielleicht giebt es in unserm kämpfenden Innern manches verborgene Heroenthum, aber gewiss nichts Göttliches, Ewig-in-sich-Ruhendes, wie Spinoza meinte. Das bewusste Denken, und namentlich das des Philosophen, ist die unkräftigste und desshalb auch die verhältnissmässig mildeste und ruhigste Art des Denkens: und so kann gerade der Philosoph am leichtesten über die Natur des Erkennens irre geführt werden.

What does Knowing Mean? Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere! says Spinoza, so simply and sublimely, as is his wont. Nevertheless, what else is this intelligere ultimately, but just the form in which the three other things become perceptible to us all at once? A result of the diverging and opposite impulses of desiring to deride, lament and execrate? Before knowledge is possible each of these impulses must first have brought forward its one sided view of the object or event. The struggle of these one sided views occurs afterwards, and out of it there occasionally arises a compromise, a pacification, a recognition of rights on all three sides, a sort of justice and agreement: for in virtue of the justice and agreement all those impulses can maintain themselves in existence and retain their mutual rights. We, to whose consciousness only the closing reconciliation scenes and final settling of accounts of these long processes manifest themselves, think on that account that intelligere is something conciliating, just and good, something essentially antithetical to the impulses; whereas it is only a certain relation of the impulses to one another. For a very long time conscious thinking was regarded as the only thinking: it is now only that the truth dawns upon us that the greater part of our intellectual activity goes on unconsciously and unfelt by us; I believe, however, that the impulses which are here in mutual conflict understand rightly how to make themselves felt by one another, and how to cause pain: the violent sudden exhaustion which overtakes all thinkers may have its origin here (it is the exhaustion of the battle field). Aye, perhaps in our struggling interior there is much concealed heroism but certainly nothing divine, or eternally reposing in itself, as Spinoza supposed. Conscious thinking and especially that of the philosopher, is the weakest and on that account also the relatively mildest and quietest mode of thinking: and thus it is precisely the philosopher who is most easily misled concerning the nature of knowledge.  [source]



  1. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    November 1, 2019 @ 7:33 am

    Great post! This (inflection-enabled free word order) has to be one of the best features of the Latin language.

    When you don't really give it much thought, there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference between hearing/reading a sentence "x" in terms of its elements: "[a], [b], [c]", "[b], [a], [c]", "[c], [a], [b]", etc. As long as all the elements are the same, isn't the semiotic "experience" of the sentence the same?

    But it _can't_ be the same. From the first word of a sentence, each word "frames" the mind in preparation for the following word, and the "experience" of the sentence is different, and I'd say to a degree greater than the trivial observation that "stuff you want to emphasize goes at the beginning". The first word frames your "universe of discourse" (not in the rigorous first-order logic sense), and the following word, then, both limits that universe in some ways and expands it in others, so that you're "prepared" for further lexical/semantic content differently depending on which words "hit" your consciousness first.

    So, "Sedulo curavi, humanas actiones non ridere […]" paints a different word-picture than does "Humanas actiones sedulo curavi non ridere […]", doesn't it? To me it does, at least. The former expression tells me that whatever is to be discussed (we don't know exactly what, yet), is going to be the result of some serious mental or moral "work" performed by the speaker, and it's this careful investigatory process that's going to lead to some interesting insight. And, lo and behold, it does!

    "Humanas actiones sedulo curavi non ridere […]" wouldn't work in Spinoza's context at all. It's not "the actions of humans" that is really under investigation, it's the philosophical "work" that involves looking _through_ those actions to the "passions" which are their causes, which "causes" can be investigated just as one would investigate the "causes" of natural phenomena.

    I wonder if there's a way to approximate Spinoza's "lexical framing" in English. That is, to put "sedulo curavi" as the first element, "humanas actiones" as the second, etc. Seems like it would come off as "clunky", e.g., "Diligently have I taken care, regarding human actions, not to laugh […]".

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    November 1, 2019 @ 9:02 am

    I find Ben's analysis very insightful, but I would comment on one part : where Ben writes '"Sedulo curavi, humanas actiones non ridere […]" paints a different word-picture than does "Humanas actiones sedulo curavi non ridere […]", doesn't it? To me it does, at least', I fully accept what he says, but wonder what word-picture would have been painted in the mind of an L1 Latin speaker with no familiarity with other languages. Ben's word-picture is, I would suggest, painted as it is because Ben has a language other than Latin as his L1, a language (I assume American English) in which word order is not only significant but an integral part of the language …

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 1, 2019 @ 10:06 am

    Hmmm…I don't see any awkwardness in "I have labored carefully not to ridicule, not to lament, and not to detest, but to understand human actions."

    In fact, I think it reads quite well.

    [(myl) On reflection, I guess it can work if you know where it's going, and your mental (or actual spoken) prosody is in tune with that structure. But read cold, I suspect that human parsers are like to make the same mistake as the Stanford parser does:

        (NP (PRP I))
        (VP (VBP have)
          (VP (VBN labored)
            (ADVP (RB carefully))
            (ADVP (RB not))
            (PP (TO to)
              (NP (NN ridicule)))
            (, ,)
            (PP (RB not)
              (PP (TO to)
                (NP (NN lament)))
              (, ,)
              (CC and)
              (RB not)
              (PP (TO to)
                (NP (NN detest)))))))
      (, ,)
      (CC but)
        (VP (TO to)
          (VP (VB understand)
            (NP (JJ human) (NNS actions)))))
      (. .))

    Or worse, the Berkeley parser:


  4. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    November 1, 2019 @ 3:07 pm

    To Phillip Taylor, who said: "I […] wonder what word-picture would have been painted in the mind of an L1 Latin speaker with no familiarity with other languages."

    This is the part where you start to get into "Sapir-Whorf" stuff, and then the actual linguists tend to get snippy whenever non-linguists, such as myself, go running our mouths off about things we know very little about. I don't have a strong (or weak — get it?) opinion on the issue, except to say that I've been trying to learn Japanese, which, syntactically, is more or less exactly backwards from English (e.g., "(my) Mother-to letter-(direct object marker) wrote" for "I wrote a letter to my mother"), and I have to say that it seems obvious that language has _some_ effect on thought. The extent to which yinz linguists can figure out.

    Thinking about Biblical translations, it occurs to me that word order can't be all that important, where the translators of the Septuagint sort of "bent" Greek to conform to Hebrew and Aramaic syntax in many cases, and St. Jerome, in translating the Vulgata, sort of "bent" Latin into adopting Demotic Greek syntax and other elements.

    P.S. Since you asked, I'm a Pittsburghese L1 speaker, and Standard Northeastern U.S. American English L2 speaker.

  5. Bloix said,

    November 1, 2019 @ 3:50 pm

    English used to be much freer with word order, even without the help of inflection:

    "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
    I summon up remembrance of things past,
    I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
    And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste."
    – Wm. Shakespeare

    "Thus this law of reason makes the deer that Indian's who hath killed it; it is allowed to be his goods, who hath bestowed his labour upon it, though before it was the common right of every one." – John Locke

    There would be nothing ungrammatical or unintelligible about a translation of the Spinoza quote that kept his word order:

    Diligently I have striven, human actions not to mock, nor to lament, nor to detest, but to understand.

    And what would be wrong about translating Spinoza in a more old-fashioned way? He and Locke were born in 1632, so shouldn't he sound more like Locke than like us?

  6. Nat said,

    November 1, 2019 @ 4:11 pm

    No comment on the switch of adverb and verb in the translation? Why not "I have laboriously taken care…"? Well, I guess that's awful. "I have diligently taken care…"?

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 1, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

    To one of Benjamin Orsatti's points, it seems overwhelmingly clear that the translators of the Septuagint often violated the consensus wisdom of the last century among mainstream Anglophone Bible translators as to The Right Way to Do It. Whether the conclusion from that should be that they just Did It Wrong or should instead be that the conventional wisdom of our age may not be as definitive (or pleasing to the Lord) as its proponents might like to think is a different issue.

  8. Noel Hunt said,

    November 1, 2019 @ 6:27 pm

    I must agree with Ralph Hickok in that I find nothing awkward with your translation, nor is the Gosset translation awkward in any way.

  9. Brendan O'Leary said,

    November 2, 2019 @ 9:29 am

    Mark, I am honored to have made an entirely unexpected entrance to your blog. I must confess, and in doing so may amuse those who come across this entry. Publishers now dislike epigraphs, and leaving Latin epigraphs untranslated, reasonably enough, is regarded as elitist. So, I used my old Collins Latin-English and English-Latin dictionary (kept from my Northern Irish grammar schooldays) in order to check Spinoza's verbs, and to see whether I had some freedom to make the passage more contemporary than the translations I had found. When doing so, I realized that the passage was not quite right for what I had actually done in my treatise. I had indeed labored carefully. I had sought to understand, and had not sought to ridicule. And I had largely avoided detesting. But I had "lamented" (or mourned) at various junctures. My solution was simple: to exclude "lugere" from my translation. I gave no other thought to the matter, and never imagined that anyone would notice my "free" translation. Leaving out "human actions" was deliberate, but if I recall correctly that was just because I thought it was unnecessary. In the warm hope that you will go on to to read other sentences, may I say ave atque vale (for now).

  10. Martin said,

    November 2, 2019 @ 12:43 pm


    I recently was in a bookshop and read in a German translation of Plato, namely rowohlt's edition of his entire work ("Sämtliche Werke"). The foreword noted that they mostly kept with the translation by Schleiermacher who translated Plato in the early 19th century. It goes on to explain that this is not out of "habit", but rather because this period of naturalism was a time of very careful source study and a correspondingly high quality of translations that is in many respects unsurpassed to this day. They also note that the German style itself is somewhat antiquated, but argue that this can actually be seen as an advantage, as it avoids readers falling all too easily into modern thought patterns, which would supposedly by supported by a modern translations with its all-too-familiar phrases and words.

    That said, I have my doubts that word order in Shakespeare's works says much about the degrees of freedom of word order back when: Isn't this rather a statement about lyrical writing, the very symbol of artificial (not in a negative sense) language use? This is not specific to English: There was this famous debate among authors of the "Golden Era" of Spanish literature about the "latinized" style quasi-synonymous with Góngora ("culteranismo") and that related with Quevedo ("concepitsmo"), supposedly more accessible. None of this related to language use in the scholarly setting above. Also, slowly, and with a dictionary, I manage to read Spinoza with my middle school knowledge of Latin. Give me Ovid's lyric with its maximally liberal word order and I'll throw a hissy fit within minutes. Its not, or not only, because of the time differential (e.g., Livy is also comparably "readable"): The aim is entirely different, and what might be an advantage in lyrical writing would be obfuscating when writing a philosophical tract.

    In your Locke quote, I cannot see that free word order reigns: It seems somewhat antiquated, but the only instance of noticeably "freer" (not only "different from modern") word order seems to be "Thus this law of reason makes the deer that Indian's who hath killed it" – where the freedom is exactly bought by morphologically case-marking "Indian's" (substituting "that Indian's" with "the possession of that Indian" makes me doubt that there is even much free word order going on, it just tightens the information flow somewhat). What I find most interesting is "it is allowed to be his goods, who hath bestowed his labour upon it": It seems that this only works if the anaphoric/cataphoric possessive clitic "his" is stressed – which seems no possible in modern English, except the possessive is used as a deictic expression – ? But my native language is German, so this might be entirely off…

    Finally, doesn't your alternative translation of Spinoza have the exactly same problems as the "modern" one? You just move the object in front of the verbs, the reference (or difficulty to detect it) seems exactly the same.

  11. yoandri dominguez said,

    November 2, 2019 @ 1:43 pm

    Hello! Your are all looking too syntactically, folks. Spinoza uttered the words and they likely seemd sweet to him. Besides the translations could be made in other ways, like saying 'cared' and not 'labored'. My take,

    "folks' deeds I busy didn't cared to laught at, bemoan, nor curse, but to get.

    in other words, negative shifted from after 'curavi' to before. Besides, he was dutch and dutch like all germanic besides english is unlike latin—so seldom 'NEG V'. He likely spoke Dutch in everyday life.

  12. Martin said,

    November 2, 2019 @ 4:21 pm

    @yoandri dominguez

    What do you mean "seldom 'NEG V'"? The sentence in question does not really work with any other negation than 'NEG V' in German (and probably Dutch) either. A negation of the "human actions" with "kein" (or "geen") would need a complete rephrasing. The reason is simply that if you negate the NP complement with "kein", this corresponds to a negation of *all* head verbs (plus a slight semantic shift). But in the example at hand, the key point is that one verb (understand) is not negated. So a non-'NEG V' negation is confusing (at least) the same way as the English attempt with 'no' would be, as in "I have laboured carefully to mock, lament, or execrate no human actions, but to understand them".

  13. Chris Button said,

    November 4, 2019 @ 9:10 pm

    Remove two commas and it reads well to me:

    "I have laboured carefully not to mock, lament or execrate human actions, but to understand them"

    The first comma after "carefully" is not really appropriate in English and the Oxford comma after "lament" is a weird case where it seems to obfuscate rather than elucidate.

  14. Chris Button said,

    November 4, 2019 @ 9:43 pm

    Then again, I suppose that could theoretically be understood to imply that the person has worked hard to avoid doing something…

    So I would then go with:

    "I have laboured carefully to understand human actions, not to mock, lament or execrate them"

    And would possibly replace the first comma with an "em dash"

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    November 5, 2019 @ 2:22 pm

    In term of rhetorical effect, I have to say I prefer the inverted form, which I mentally parse as "I have labo[u]red carefully, ((not to ridicule, or detest), but [rather] to understand), human actions". Straightening it out, as in "I have laboured carefully to understand human actions — not to mock, lament or execrate them" seems to me lacking in rhetorical vigour. In the inverted form, despite the fact that the final comma separates the verb from the object, I would nonetheless leave it there as it represents (in my mind) a deliberate pause during oral delivery.

  16. Philip Anderson said,

    November 6, 2019 @ 8:01 am

    @Philip Taylor
    Since Spinoza was born in 1632, his words can never have been read by a monolingual Latin speaker, or even by an L1 speaker. His own mother tongue appears to have been Portuguese.

    But I wouldn't that Classical Latin style always have been consciously artificial?

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