… in a healthy body

Everyone agrees with Juvenal’s famous hexameter half-line:

mens sana in corpore sano

A healthy mind in a healthy body.

This has never felt more urgent and more true than this year. With mental health deteriorating in many countries affected by Covid-prompted restrictions, the Roman satirist Juvenal feels very modern. Look after the body, but also after the mind. Syntactically, if not also philosophically, the mind comes first, the body follows. Although everyone assents, there is a growing awareness that we’ve let the mind down as we’ve focused almost exclusively on the body during the crisis. But who am I to say? I’ll just note that if Juvenal were here, he’d urge us to check out the rest of his Satire 10 where his dictum occurs, and especially at the next couple of verses.

For context, the full line in which the adage occurs is this:

Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.

One should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.

But then Juvenal goes on to say:

ortem posce animum mortis terrore carentem,
qui spatium vitae extremum inter munera ponat

Ask for for a strong heart which has no fear of death
Which regards the number of days the least of nature’s gifts

A complete English translation of Satire 10 is available here

The petition for the mind-body hygiene is conditional upon a worldview that rejects future-proofing. The investment in the mind-body capital serves the present moment, not the future. It is meant to enable life in the here and now. It is not a life insurance or an appeal to eternization. Juvenal invites us to look after our mind and body out of fearlessness, not out of a sense of apprehension for what tomorrow may bring.

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