Saturday, December 19, 2015

Cuique Suum: Responsibility, Diversity, Motivation ... all in two little words

Matt Crosslin left some really detailed comments on an earlier post that I need to ponder before responding because they are about pedagogical theory and such, not the stuff I usually write about so I will have to time some time to respond. But there was a final comment he made about the Latin cuique suum, and I am really glad he brought up. Since that proverb is a personal motto for me, one that I invoke often (as I did in the blog post to which Matt was responding), it's about time that I wrote up something about it. I've meant to do this for literally years, and Matt has finally given me a perfect occasion: thank you, Matt! I'm not sure this will be of interest to Matt in all its extravagant detail, but it's something I have wanted/needed to do for ages.

CUIQUE SUUM, a saying expressed in just two little words, is actually a powerful cultural lens we can use to look at the concept of individualism and the different ways that individualism plays out in different contexts.

Plus, I should note that this is also very relevant for the current tidal wave of hype sweeping through the ed-tech world: personalization. So, if you would like to add some Latin to your rhetorical resources for talking about personalization, read on!

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Back to Matt's comment — here's what he said: A better translation of suum cuique is "may all get their due" - often used by enforcement divisions in a punishment mindset. 

Matt is not right about mistranslation because the translation is unambiguous (see below), but there is a wide range of interpretation and context, as often the case with proverbs, especially syncopated ones like this. What's really cool is that from ancient times up through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, many people restated the Latin proverb in a fuller form in order to emphasize their own interpretation. That reformulation strategy is itself another example of the "cuique suum" phenomenon, which makes for a very cool meta-moment: each person gives their own interpretation of "to each his own." Matt's interpretation falls into what I would call the "retributive" type, but there are other important types of interpretation. In this post, I'll explain the literal translation and then survey the different general interpretations you can find in Latin.

TRANSLATION. So, the literal translation is very simple: "to each, his own," or "to each, her own," or "to each, their own" — for this particular pronoun, the Latin does not make any gender or number distinction:
suum: own (thing - neuter singular)
cuique: to each

There's no verb in that statement, which is common in Latin proverbs. Latin is a synthetic language, with lots of meaning synthesized into an individual word; it has "more morphemes per word" as it were. So, you can tell that "cuique" is the indirect object of a verb even though there is no verb, and that means the verb can be left out while the sentence is still complete in a grammatical sense. English, on the other hand, is an "analytic" language (and it has become more and more analytic over time), which means that contextual elements like word order are essential to understanding the meaning and function of words in a statement. (This is a really fascinating topic if you want to learn more at Wikipedia: synthetic languages and analytic languages.)

So, cuique suum is a very elegant example of Latin synthesis. That statement can stand on its own grammatically, and it even conveys a powerful meaning on its own, but that meaning is not highly specified. As a result, people might feel compelled to make the statement more specific by adding words. Every single variation on the proverb has its own charm and its own special purposes (cuique suum once again!), but it is possible to group them into three main types: RETRIBUTIVE (reward and punishment), INDIVIDUAL (each person's special qualities), and PSYCHOLOGICAL (we each like what we like).

RETRIBUTIVE. These retributive interpretations emphasize reward and punishment. You might call it justice, or you might call it karma. Note that in this category, the emphasis can be on how you, the actor, should weigh your actions in light of their consequences, but the emphasis can also be on you, the arbiter, deciding how to weight other people's actions. In these examples, the verbal activity involves giving and getting:

Sua cuique nocet stultitia. Each person's foolishness does him harm.

Sui cuique mores fingunt fortunam. Each person's habits are what make his luck. [I really like this one, as it is a protest against "good luck" or "bad luck" that instead puts the responsibility on a person's own actions.]

Unicuique iuxta opera sua. To every single person according to their works. [The word unicuique is a compound: uni-cuique.]

Suum cuique tribue. Give to each his own.

Ius suum unicuique tribue. Give their right due to every single person.

Suum cuique reddere decet. It is fitting to give back to each person their own.

Redde cuique quod suum est. Give back to each what is his.

Redde unicuique secundum vias suas. Give back to every single person according to their ways.

Deus reddet unicuique secundum opera eius. God will give back to every single person according to his works. [In the holiday season right now, Santa Claus is the one who is carrying out that retributive role!]

INDIVIDUAL. In other cases, cuique suum is more about each person having their own distinct qualities, rather than karmic rewards and punishments. It means that each person has their own distinctive qualities, which are not the same as the qualities of others. In these examples, the verbal activity involves being and existing:

Gloria cuique sua. Each person has their own renown. [One of the most common implications of the Latin dative is possession: for something to be cuique means someone "has" something.]

Sua cuique utilitas. Each person has their own usefulness.

Suus cuique genti mos. Each nation has its own custom. [This is a great one: not just individual diversity, but cultural diversity!]

Sua cuique sunt vitia. Each person has their own faults. [Note the emphasis on the plural: not just fault... but faults — plural. In a moralizing context, this could also be translated "vices" in English.]

Sua cuique hora. Each person has their own moment.

Stat sua cuique dies. There is for each person their own day. [Compare the English proverb, "Every dog has its day."]

Est locus unuscuique suus. Every single person has their own place.

Sors est sua cuique ferenda. Each person must endure his own fate. [The Latin word "sors," or "fate," can also be translated as "lot," as in your "lot in life, allotment" — and it is the origin of the common English word "sort." Note also how this interpretation about fate stands in direct opposition to the one above about individual responsibility rather than luck: the same cuique suum can be interpreted in outright opposite ways.]

PSYCHOLOGICAL. Finally, there is what we might call a psychological or even solipsistic inflection, where the emphasis is how each person sees the world through their own lens, different from how others experience the world. This is the more subtle and provocative interpretation in my opinion, and it is also the one that really informs my practice as a teacher. When we are talking about intrinsic motivation, we are talking about this variety of cuique suum. In these examples, the verbal activity involves cherishing and enjoying:

Cuique suum studium. Each person has their own passion.

Sua cuique voluptas. Each person has their own pleasure.

Suum cuique placet. Each person likes their own.

Suum cuique pulchrum. To each their own is beautiful.

Suum cuique pulchrum videtur. To each their own seems beautiful.

Sua cuique res est carissima. Each person's thing is the dearest to them.

Unicuique delectabile est quod amat. For every single person what they love is delightful.

Meum mihi, suum cuique carum. Mine is dear to me, each's own is dear to them.

Sua cuique cara patria. To each person, their fatherland is dear.

Patria sua cuique iucundissima. Each person's fatherland is most agreeable.

Patria est ubi bene sit cuique. Each person's fatherland is where it is good for him. [That's a cosmopolitan one; the idea is that your homeland is not necessarily where you were born, but where you thrive.]

Est avi cuique nidus formosus ubique. For each bird everywhere, their nest is beautiful. [That one has internal rhyme, cuique-ubique; the Romans did not like rhyme, but medieval Latin speakers loved rhyme and it's a hallmark of medieval Latin proverbs.]

Diversis diversa placent; sua cuique voluntas. Different things please different people; each person has their own impulse. [Compare the American saying, "Different strokes for different folks."]

This can take on a sharply satirical sting, as in these two hilarious inflections which point out that what is our own may not be so sweet to others:

Suus cuique crepitus bene olet. To each person, his own fart smells nice.

Stercus cuique suum bene olet. To each person, his own shit smells nice.

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This post, of course, is a great example of solipsistic passion. I love Latin proverbs — well, I love all proverbs, but Latin proverbs are the ones I collect and study. It's my studium, my passion.

At the same time, I know that not everyone shares this passion... and that's okay too, as the proverb tells us.

So, in those two little words — cuique suum — Latin manages to encapsulate a lot of things that I believe: our acts have consequences, we are each going to act in our different ways based on our different preferences, and those preferences may be laudable or laughable; it's all a matter of perspective.

So, when I invoke "cuique suum" (as I often do), I'm trying to invoke all of those ideas at once. I'm very glad that the Romans rolled them up very nicely in two little words that are so quick to type and so worthy pondering. Or, at least, I like to ponder them. Cuique suum studium. :-)

Here are some of the illustrations I've made for cuique suum over the years:

(All the images above come from my Proverb Laboratory.)


  1. my Latin maestra, cat-person, medievalist, UC grad school bff sent me a Latin proverb/insult tee (possibly medieval but more likely modern, a take-off on "if you can read this..." genre). It translates more than one way, still an insult. Since I learned Latin from Spanish, translating to English is awkward.

    si hoc legere scis nimium eruditionis habes

    PS She really likes the Latin LOLCats...

    1. Ha ha, I know that T-shirt!!! :-)

      The "habes" there is more English style than Latin style, but it still works: if you know how (si scis) to read this (hoc legere), you have (habes) too much erudition (nimium eruditionis).

      Who is this person? I wonder if I know her!


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