FECI QUOD POTUI.

One of the many Latin tags floating around the Western world is Feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes: “I have done what I could; let those who can do more.” It seems to have been well known in Russia a century and more ago; Michael Shapiro of Language Lore has a post on it, citing Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Stanislavsky’s My Life in Art and going on to this interesting observation:

This interpolation of Latin material in an otherwise straightforward Russian discourse is clearly a cultural feature of Russian speech. It mimics and continues the pan-European practice of quoting Latin locutions in order to give one’s utterances a special punch, not necessarily connected with the aim of parading one’s erudition. In this respect, modern Russian resembles older forms of English learned discourse that have largely become extinct. There can even be an interesting interplay in Russian between Latin and Church Slavonic (the liturgical language of Eastern Slavic Orthodoxy), for example with reference to the Latin phrase vox clamantis in deserto ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’, which derives from Isaiah 40.3 (“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”) via John 1:23 (“He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”). The Church Slavonic version is glas vopiiuscshego v pustyne (глас вопиющего в пустыне). The latter is much more frequent today, but someone speaking Russian can also recur to the Latin for extra paroemic force.

Now, according to Wikipedia the saying goes no farther back than Henry Baerlein’s 1908 translation of the Diwan of Abul ʿAla (page 7), but that (unsurprisingly) is far from true; Boswell quotes it on page 10 of his Account of Corsica (1768), calling it “a simple beautiful inscription on the front of Palazzo Tolomei at Siena” (and translating it “I’ve done my best; let abler men do more”). But what I found interesting is that Baerlein, in his dedication to E. J. Dillon, quotes it in connection with Russia:

When you receive this book, presuming that the Russian Censor does not shield you from it, I have some idea what you will do. The string, of course, must not be cut, and you will seriously set about the disentangling of it. One hand assists by holding up, now near the nose now farther off, your glasses; the other hand pecks at the string. After, say, twenty minutes there will enter the admirable Miss Fox—oh! the tea she used to make for us when we were freezing on the mountains of Bulgaria, what time our Chicagoan millionaire was ruffled and Milyukov, the adventurous professor, standing now not far from Russia’s helm, would always drive ahead of us and say, with princely gesture, that if we suffered from the dust it was advisable that he should be the one to meet the fury of the local lions. But do not let us lose the scent: Miss Fox, that woman of resource, will cut the string. And later on, while to her you are dictating things political while your other secretary is discoursing music, mournful Russian music, then with many wrinkles on your brow you will hold the book at arm’s length.
“The Serbonian Bog,” says Miss Fox, repeating the last lines of the dictation.
Your face is held sideways with what is called, I believe, a quizzical expression.
Morocco,” says she, “viewed from the banks of the Seine, is becoming more and more like the Serbonian Bog.” Then she waits, discreet as always, while you think. Miss Fox, his thoughts are on the Adriatic!
There his boat, eleven years ago, was sailing underneath a net of stars and he was talking to a fellow-traveller. They had been joined at first by common suffering,—and how shall mortals find a stronger link? On board that boat there was an elderly American, the widow of a senator’s brother-in-law, whose mission was, she took it, to convert those two. What specially attracted her to them was not, perhaps, that they excelled the other passengers in luridness, but that they had the privilege of understanding, more or less, her language.
“Feci quod potui,” said Dr Dillon, “faciant meliora potentes.”

Coincidence? Or did the dedicatee—who was Russian correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, professor of Comparative Philology at the University of Kharkov, and a friend and associate of Sergei Witte, and who married a Russian woman—use it because he’d learned it from the Russians?

Comments

  1. Yeesh, paroemic. What, he couldn’t say proverbial like the rest of us?
    In other news, in an email posting today I found myself saying “[Such suggestions] roll off him like water off the proverbial.” Getting transatlantic in my old middle age.

  2. It’s a hexameter.

  3. slawkenbergius says:

    The only Russian person I’ve heard ever draw on Latin is my father, a classicist, and even he does it only with heavy irony or relish. Whether this was a “cultural feature” a century or two ago I can’t say, but the examples cited are certainly not representative of Russian culture more broadly, no matter how much certain fetishistically-minded folks might wish to identify it with the culture of overeducated nineteenth-century Petersburg gentry.

  4. slawkenbergius says:

    Also, I don’t see how this is all that different from, say, Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus’s Latinate banter in Ulysses. In both cases what’s being displayed is the schoolroom, not anything more specialized or scholarly.

  5. Our flat’s bathroom – a toilet to be precise, for we lived in a civilized world where toilets and bathrooms were separate – was inscribed Hoc age on the inside of the door: “Do what you came for” (ostensibly to discourage reading books). So I would say, Latin was alive.

  6. I seem to remember that this phrase was used by consuls at the end of their year in office.

  7. Correction: I seem to remember READING that: naturally, I don’t have memory of what consuls used to say at any occasion.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    Interesting. I didn’t even know that phrase, and I had 6 years of Latin.

  9. I did some quick research, and the line is quoted, with some slight variation, in Boswell’s An Account of Corsica (1768), Introduction p. 10: “I would adopt for this work a simple and beautiful inscription on the front of the Palazzo Tolomei at Siena, | Quod potui feci; faciant meliora potentes. | I’ve done my best; let abler men do more.”
    It’s also in Carlile’s “The Lion” (in 1828), in a discussion of Corsica, but without reference to Boswell. There are other citations around that time, and it must have become some sort of cliché in the following years. (e.g. Beer/Madler: Der Mond. Berlin 1837, p. 362; etc.)
    Regarding the inscription itself, I wasn’t able to find anything at short notice, but maybe some specialists will weigh in.

  10. (I’m sorry, I somehow got distracted by the comments, and completely missed the fact that you had already mentioned Boswell in your OP.)

  11. I can’t seem to find a close-up of the front of the Palazzo on Flickr. There is a newer inscription with the couplet from Dante spoken by a famous resident which we know from “The Waste Land.”

  12. Bill Walderman says:

    I strongly doubt it’s what consuls uttered on departing from office, though I found that story in one site on the internet, without attribution. You would expect something in archaic, pre-classical Latin, not classical Latin and definitely not a hexameter. I also found the line attributed to Ovid and to Quintilian. I ran a search on the Perseus project, which has a substantial portion of Latin and neo-Latin literature in searchable form on-line — nothing. So I don’t think it’s Ovid, even if it is Ovidian. Not all of the works ascribed to Quintilian seem to be available (the Institutio Oratoriae is there, but not the Declamationes Maiores and Minores), so it’s possible that it shows up somewhere in one of those works. But I suspect it’s just a catchy line some anonymous person made up sometime over the course of about 1500 years.

  13. March 10, 1660.
    Excellent find! Note that Reinesius misquoted it, ruining the hexameter. Some people have no ear for poetry.

  14. @slawkenbergius
    The only Russian person I’ve heard ever draw on Latin is my father, a classicist.
    Him and Peter the Great.

  15. I may have picked up the story about consuls in Wheelock’s Latin, but I’m not at all certain.

  16. It’s March 20 (XX), and it’s a letter TO Reinesius from Chr. Daumius.

  17. My favorite postclassical hexameter is Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando? It’s often attributed to Cicero, and it is a sort of epitome of something he says, but the long vowel in ubi rules out Ciceronian authorship.

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