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I thought "videtur quod" meant "it seems that", but I've seen it also translated as "it is seen that". "To seem" ≠ "to be seen" (the latter being a stronger, more affirmative sense than the former). How do I know which sense is intended?


For example, in Summa contra gentiles cap. 123 [6], St. Thomas Aquinas says (minor premise of his argument proving the indissolubility of marriage):

Inter virum autem et uxorem maxima amicitia esse videtur

One translation states:

Now, there seems to be the greatest friendship between husband and wife

Another (p. 55) says:

Between the husband and wife there is seen in existence the greatest friendship

Which is the more correct interpretation? It would seem the second is more correct because he doesn't appear to be making only a probable argument.

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Context, and a good understanding not only of the nuances of Latin, but also those of your target language (English), will be your guide to the best translation. For example, even in the active voice, videre is not always translated as “see.” In many cases, you would rather say: look, watch, gaze upon, behold, countenance, take a gander, etc., also: realise, come to understand, perceive, experience; also: offer a view, see to it that, etc.

“It is seen” is the only the basic literal meaning of videtur, but usually not a good translation, because English speakers rarely talk like that. In Latin, when the passive videri is used, and no agent is specified, the idea is often that no seeing actually needs to take place, just that it is possible, that something is apparent, offers a certain appearance to the senses. This is the “seem” meaning.

But this “seem” meaning can be ruled out in certain cases:

  • when the subject is not qualified in any way: Lucius videtur: “Lucius is seen” (by contrast, Lucius astutus videtur suggests: “Lucius seems clever,” but could also mean: “Clever Lucius is seen.” In that case you have to rely on context.)
  • when an agent is specified: Fur astutus a vigilibus visus est: “The clever thief was seen by the watchmen.”

On the other hand, you should translate as “seem” when a second party is given in the dative:

  • Lucius mihi astutus videtur. “Lucius seems clever to me.”
  • Fur astutus vigilibus visus est. “The thief seemed clever to the watchmen.”

You are also liable to encounter uses of videri with a nominativus cum infinitivo (n.c.i.) like this:

  • Puella multis ab iuvenibus amari videtur. It seems like (or: it is evident that) the girl is loved by many youths.

Note that the Latin here is simply ambiguous because the situation is ambiguous. Everybody can see the girl is much loved, it is obvious. But is it really so? We cannot see into their heads, maybe they're only after her dowry. Many “obvious” assumptions turn out wrong. In Latin this fact is already built-in, if you will.

I will hazard a guess that the background of this question is that you are reading scholastic philosophy. In these texts, especially in St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae, the “videtur quod” is a highly formulaic expression, which is part of the standard structure of each article and always introduces a mistaken belief, which the author then proceeds to disprove:

  • Videtur quod ...
  • Sed contra ...
  • Respondeo ...

The videtur quod section is presented as reasonable if mistaken opinions that could be and possibly are held by sensible people. So ask yourself, how would you introduce such a section in English? With “it is seen that”? Certainly not! You could say for example:

  • One might think that ...
  • On first sight it looks like ...

and so on, but these are rather free translations. “It seems that” is a good compromise between idiomatic English and closeness to the original Latin.

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    I was reading St. Thomas. See the example I added to my question.
    – Geremia
    Oct 9 '20 at 22:21
  • @Geremia I agree that in the example you quote, given the context, "seems to be" is unnecessarily guarded. This seems to be (!) a plain impersonal passive, as we often find in Latin. But don't you also agree that "there is seen in existence" is very stilted English? (And it is not even all that literal.) I would suggest: "One sees" or even "it is clear". Oct 10 '20 at 7:04
  • Yeah, I'm not sure why they added the "in existence" part.
    – Geremia
    Oct 10 '20 at 22:52
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It was taught to me that in the passive, video takes on a different meaning. So "video" means I see, whereas "videtur" means I seem or appear.

I don't know if the distinction you're making between strength of affirmativeness in the active and passive would be preserved in Latin. After all, they would use the subjunctive if they cared to mention the uncertainness of a thing.

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  • "To seem" means the same as "to appear", doesn't it?
    – Geremia
    Oct 8 '20 at 23:15
  • In English, yes. They're sort of remark-upon words. "Ah, it appears I left my coat in the break room." That kind of thing.
    – Nickimite
    Oct 8 '20 at 23:18
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    Video can take on a different meaning in the passive, and often does do; but there are still many instances where 'be seen' is clearly the better English translation, based on the context.
    – cnread
    Oct 9 '20 at 1:29
  • @cnread If you have an example or two for both translations, I think it'd make a nice answer. That would justify that the answer is "depends on context".
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Oct 9 '20 at 4:55

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