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People who are addicted to things e.g. narcotics, gambling, eating; those who succumb to internet confidence-tricks; others, who cope badly with life and make appalling mistakes are castigated (by some) for what appear to be self-inflicted wounds. Expressions e.g. "He is his own worst enemy," are used and other things even less complimentary.

In the Roman world there must have been people who struggled with their own weaknesses and susceptibilities. Is there a Latin idiom for this? If not how would it be expressed?

Here is a guess using "inimicus" for a personal enemy, as opposed to "hostis", an enemy of the state. Also, a reflexive pronoun (genitive) and an intensifier from "ipse"--"self":

"sui ipsius pessimus inimicus est,".

"He is the worst enemy of himself,".

Does this translation work?

3 Answers 3

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No, the translation doesn't quite work. You have the genitive of suus ipse, but "himself". The reference is unclear. I don't recall seeing suus together with ipsius — the acceptability of such a pair would make a good separate question.

Drop ipsius and put sui in the nominative suus and it works.

For a general sentiment, I'd offer something along the lines of:

Suus quisque inimicus pessimus.
Each man is his own worst enemy.

All four words are in the same nominative case which can be confusing. If you want to increase clarity and reduce the potential for misinterpretation at the cost of lost conciseness, you can say something like:

Suorum inimicorum pessimus est ipse.
He himself is the worst of his enemies.

I think inimicus is indeed better than hostis. You are not talking about members of an opposing army but about people or things that are hurtful or hostile. Interestingly, L&S mentions that hostis is "an enemy in arms or of one's country (opp. inimicus, a private enemy, or one who is inimically disposed)."

I agree with the comment that my translation is a bit of a calque. It is understandable and grammatical, but perhaps not quite as idiomatic as it could be. Replacing pessimus with nocentissimus (most harmful rather than worst) would be a step forward.

One thing worth keeping in mind that "one's own worst enemy" is something of a set phrase in English and there is no corresponding set phrase in Latin. Therefore no translation will be as canonical as the original, so the best translation will depend on context. Perhaps a simple sibi nocet would work in many cases.

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    I think he's using the pronoun sui, not the adjective (see, for example, seipsum in thr accusative): I still like your suggestion though!
    – brianpck
    Apr 11 at 13:12
  • @Joonas llmavirta: Thank you. I thought about "suus" until I remembered "sui generis"--"of his own people". Brian's comment reminded me of the Delphic, "nosce te ipsum"--"learn to know yourself!", which has a nodding acquaintance with this.
    – tony
    Apr 11 at 16:58
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    To me, inimicus pessimus feels like a calque. I wonder whether a simple inimicissimus could work -- or even something like nocentissimus, which seems to get more to the essential point?
    – cnread
    Apr 11 at 19:34
  • @cnread I was a big unhappy with pessimus too but couldn't think of a better one. I wouldn't compare the word itself, but attaching a different superlative sounds promising. I'll update the answer when I get to a computer.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Apr 12 at 4:01
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There is a nice example (Ad Att. 10, 12a) where Cicero talks about various people who are not particularly sympathetic to C. Iulius Caesar – the people of Massilia who apparently did something to defy Caesar (according to one commentary, not opening the city gates for him), the legions that he raised in Italy, who've grown estranged – and then continues:

sed tamen nihil inimicius quam sibi ipse

… which, if you will, you can translate very literally as, “but still nothing is more hostile than he himself to him,” but I think we can agree that a far better translation would be: he is his own worst enemy.

(Notandum mihi videtur nomen Caesaris nusquam esse scriptum in illa epistula; ex cuncta narratione effici potest de quo sit sermo.)

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    Great find. +1.
    – cmw
    Apr 13 at 0:33
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    @cmw As usual aided by a dictionary and Google; Georges, s.v. Feind, offered nihil inimicius homini quam sibi ipse, and guessing that he must have based this on a classical example, I quickly located the original. Apr 13 at 6:47
  • @Sebastian Koppehel: It's +1 from him (cmw) and it's +1 from me!
    – tony
    Apr 13 at 6:56
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Here is a variation on the theme expressed in Seb's answer, also from Cicero: "de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum" 5. 28:

"necesseque est, si quis sibi ipsi inimicus est, eum quae bona sunt mala putare,"

"and it must be that if someone is an enemy to themselves, they consider good things as bad,"

which indicates that the concept of someone being their own (worst) enemy was well-understood in the Roman world.

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  • Excellent! Apparently it doesn't matter much whether one writes ipse or ipsi here. Apr 24 at 5:51

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