Summary · Man is a wolf to other man · Ex alieno incommodo lucrum · Mors tua, vita mea Articles

Homo homini lupus est

The bestiality of man in judgements

Man is a wolf to other man

This famous and lapidary sentence is said to derive from a line in the Asinaria, a comedy written by Plautus at an unspecified date between 211 and 206 BC. It is pronounced by the merchant who appears on stage in Act II: the latter, having to settle a debt with the wife of the old Demenetus, is joined by the latter's servant, Leonidas, who orders him to hand over the sum. However the merchant refuses, citing a very precise reason and ending up getting the better of the servant's demands:

Mercator: [...] Fortassis. Sed tamen me
numquam hodie induces, ut tibi credam hoc argentum ingoto.
Lupus est homo homini, non homo, quom qualis sit non novit.

Merchant: [...] That may be so, but today you will never persuade me to give you the money if I don't know you. When you do not know a man, you do not consider him a man, but a wolf to the man in front of him. (Plautus, Asinaria, II, 4, vv. 493-495)
Roman floor mosaic illustrating the myth of Romulus and Remus. Discovered at Aldborough (Isurium Brigantum) near Leeds, North Yorkshire (formerly West Riding), UK. Exhibited at the Leeds City Museum.

Once the particular circumstance had passed, the motto spread and is still used today in a more universal sense that looks at every human relationship, always ruthlessly focused on competition in the eternal struggle for life.

💡 Did you know? The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, for example, will use the formula Homo homini lupus in the dedicatory epistle of De cive (1642) to illustrate the violence between individuals in the state of nature, prior to state organisation.

Ex alieno incommodo lucrum

The concept was already well established in ancient culture, as can be seen from the various expressions that can be found referring to it.

Varro's Saturae Menippeae (c. 46 BC) contains the image of a large fish devouring a small one, an example of the right of the strongest among men:

natura humanis omnia sunt paria:
qui pote plus, urget, piscis ut saepe minutos
magnus comest, ut avis enicat accipiter.

In nature, all things are equal to those of man: he who can do the most crushes [the weakest], as the large fish often devours the smallest, as the hawk kills the birds. (Varro, Saturae menippeae, LII, 293, 81, 9)
Detail of the mosaic in the frigidarium of the baths depicting fish and molluscs, Roman ruins of Milreu, a luxurious rural villa turned into a prosperous farm in the 3rd century, Portugal

The idea of the advantage that man can take from the weaknesses of others (ex alieno incommodo lucrum) returns in Seneca's De beneficiis (c. 56-62 AD). Starting from the case of an undertaker, whose profit comes from the death of others, the philosopher states that on the basis of this criterion most men would be condemned, since they all work in their own interest:

Magnam hominum partem damnabis; cui enim non ex alieno incommodo lucrum? Miles bellum optat, si gloriam; agricolam annonae caritas erigit; eloquentiae exceptat pretium lilium numerus; medicis gravis annus in quaestu est; institores delicatarum mercium iuventus corrupta locupletat; nulla tempestate, nullo igne laedantur tecta, iacebit opera fabrilis.

You will condemn most men in this way; for who does not gain from the hardships of others? The soldier desires war if he desires glory; the farmer rejoices when the cost of food increases; the price of lawyers rises if the number of disputes increases; a time of epidemics is all profit for doctors; the corruption of youth makes merchants of luxury goods rich; if neither storms nor fire damage houses, the activity of those who build them will be depreciated.

And again, in Cicero's De officiis (44 BC), we read a firm condemnation:

Detrahere igitur alteri aliquid et hominem hominis incommodo suum commodum augere magis est contra naturam quam mors, quam paupertas, quam dolor, quam cetera, quae possunt aut corpori accidere aut rebus externis. Nam principio tollit convictum humanum et societatem. Si enim sic erimus adfecti, ut propter suum quisque emolumentum spoliet aut violet alterum, disrumpi necesse est eam, quae maxime est secundum naturam, humani generis societatem.

Therefore, that one man should take something from another and increase his own advantage by the disadvantage of another is against nature more than death, poverty, pain, and all other evils that can happen to the body or external goods: for this undermines human coexistence and society at its foundations: [if] we are so disposed as to dispossess or violate another because of his gain, of necessity that which is above all according to nature, namely, the bond between men, is broken.
Rogier van der Weyden: The Descent from the Cross

Mors tua, vita mea

There is no lack of significant later repetitions of the motif, again with variations.

In the Middle Ages, the motto Mors tua vita mea ('Your death is my life') is frequently read, mostly in a religious sense with reference to the sacrifice of Christ, whose death was salvation for the whole of humanity. In this case, the theme recurs in formulas such as Mors tua vita fuit ('Your death was [our] life') or Mors Christi vita mea ('Christ's death is my life').

Equally close is the proverb Duobus litigantibus tertius gaudet ('Between the two quarrels the third enjoys'), whose precedent would seem to be found in the Elucidationes variae of Pseudo-Hugh of St Victor (12th century):

Primus dormit in spe, secudus vigilat in spe, tertius gaudet in re

The first sleeps in hope, the second keeps watch in hope, the third rejoices in reality (Pseudo-Hugh of St Victor, Elucidationes variae, 6.21).
By Vincenzo Canto
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