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The meaning and origin of the expression: Ars longa, vita brevis

Ars longa, vita brevis


'Ars longa, vita brevis' is the translation into Latin of part of a quotation by the Greek 'Father of Medicine' - Hippocrates.

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Ars longa, vita brevis'?

Ars longa, vita brevisThis is one of those rare phrases in which the meaning is more debated than the origin. What is usually understood by 'Ars longa, vita brevis' is something along the lines of 'art lasts forever, but artists die and are forgotten'.

That is questioned by some, who say that it is a misinterpretation based on a misunderstanding of the translation of 'ars' as 'art'. If we accept that the Latin term 'ars' is equivalent to the Greek 'techne' and that 'ars' is better translated into English as 'skill' or 'craft', we may opt to interpret the phrase differently. The full quotation, in Latin, is

"Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile."

This can be rendered into English as 'life is short, the art (craft/skill) long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgement difficult'.

That would lead us to interpret the meaning as 'it takes a long time to acquire and perfect one's expertise (in, say, medicine) and one has but a short time in which to do it'.

Ars longa, vita brevisArs Longa, Vita Brevis was chosen by the 1960s progressive rock band The Nice as the title of their second album. The 'art last forever' meaning of the phrase now makes that look like a poor choice as the album is now largely forgotten.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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