These words are inscribed over the entrance to the University of Pavia:

Quid hic? Intueri naturam. Quo munere? Curiosum esse.

They're translated here into Italian, which I'll translate into English as:

What do you do here? Study nature. What for? Pure curiosity.

The Latin was written by Linnaeus in the introduction to the Systema Naturæ. While struggling to read the whole introduction, I've come to wonder if the Italian translation has it wrong. At my elementary level of Latin, the question seems to turn largely on whether the vowel in hic is long or short.

Here's Linnaeus's original opening:

Homo mundi intraturus theatrum quæritur Quis fit: Unde ortus? e stemmate Creationis; Quo tendat? ad vitam beatam; Quid hic? intueri naturam; Quo munere? Curiosum esse similemque quidem reliquis animantibus (quæ vorant, ludunt, pruriunt, generant, multiplicantur, dormiunt, commoda stabula quærunt, proximis sui generis inserviunt, vitam tuentur, sentiunt, percipiunt) sed nobiliorem, utpote qui curiosius observat quæ sensibus patent, indeque sapientibus ratiocinando rite concludit, adeoque miratur pulchrum sapientis opus Artificis. O quam contemta res est Homo, nisi supra humana se erexerit! Quid enim erat cur in numero viventium se positum gauderet? an ut Cibos & Potiones percolaret? ut hoc corpus casurum periturumque farciret? quae tanta necessitas in fundum telluris intimæ hominem mersit, ut oblitus dierum, oblitus fortunæ melioris, ab hoc se averteret? puto certe multos ad sapientiam perventuros, nisi superbia magnæ fortunæ inflati, putassent se pervenisse. Sapiens utique est, qui fines respicit.

Finis Creationis Telluris est gloria DEI, ex opere Naturæ, per Hominem solum.

Here's my very uncertain translation. Unlike with the Italian, I had to go to the dictionary many times, which is a sure sign that I'm misunderstanding something important. In particular, I was stumped by the various definitions of munus.

For Man, about to enter into the theater of the world, the question arises, Who is being made: Whence did I arise? out of the crown of Creation; What should I strive for? the happy, blessed life; What's that? contemplating nature; By what duty/power? the duty/power of diligent inquiry—which is like the powers of the other living things (who eat, play, itch, reproduce, are multiplied, sleep, seek comfortable places to rest, attend to others of their kind nearby, maintain their life, feel, perceive) but nobler, since one who observes more diligently what is open to the senses, and from there proceeds by wise deduction, solemnly discovers how truly marvelous is nature—the beautiful work of the wise Maker. O what a despicable thing is Man, unless he raises himself above the human! For why should he rejoice to count himself among the living? to filter food and drink through himself? to stuff this body, soon to fall and perish? what necessity is so great as to immerse a man in the most profound depths of the Earth—to forget days, forget greater prosperity, turn himself away from it? Surely, I reckon, many about to attain wisdom, if not puffed up by the pride of great fortune, had supposed themselves to have already attained it. Undoubtedly, wise is one who considers the ends of things.

The end of the Earth's Creation is the glory of GOD, out of the work of Nature, through Man alone.

I'm uncertain of much of this translation, but hĭc vs. hīc and the appropriate sense of munus are my biggest sources of confusion. If it's actually hĭc, then the passage is not about what happens "here", but a sermon about man's place in the universe. Lacking a macron, I'm inferring the vowel quantity from the rest of the paragraph!

Of course, if you'd like to correct any of my other errors, I'd be grateful. I must be wrong about what inflati modifies: my interpretation would make it inflatos; and my reading of putassent mixes the subjunctive with the accusative-and-infinitive. I've looked into other English translations of the introduction, and they've been abbreviated and/or lacked the poetry and passion of Linnaeus's writing—or at least, from what I've been able to discern so far, it sure appears that Linnaeus intended no dry summary, but to stir the soul with the spirit of science.

  • I had a very long answer all but finished addressing all your questions. But then my computer shut itself off, as it is programmed to do near bedtime, but it neglected to warn me 5 minutes before doing so, as it is also programmed to do. And somehow my browser could not restore the previous session properly including text-field data, so now I have nothing. flet
    – Cerberus
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 6:19
  • @Cerberus Oh no! Well, I hope you can rewrite it. I've had a number of experiences losing data, where after I got over the pain, my rewrite from scratch was better than the original. On the other hand, StackExchange normally saves what you're working on to protect against just this sort of catastrophe. You should be able to hit Reply and get the last version saved on the server.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 6:55
  • @C.M.Weimer How do hīc (here) and munus (purpose) fit into the context, especially that long parenthetical comment listing other things that living organisms do? I'm currently thinking, probably wrongly, that quo tendat? already covers purpose, so taking quo munere as "toward what purpose?" would be redundant.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 7:02
  • kmlyvens answered it well enough—*munere fungere* is the idiom used in Classical times. Re: hic for "that", you'd have the neuter instead. Otherwise you just have the subject and object without a verb, and that would make no sense here.
    – cmw
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 13:04
  • @BenKovitz Alas, neither SE nor Firefox saved my answer in this case, alas except the first couple of lines. But I see Lyvens has given you a long answer, which I will peruse momentarily.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 16:03

2 Answers 2


The first sentence becomes much clearer when ſ is transcribed correctly as s, not f:

Homo mundi intraturus theatrum quaeritur Quis sit:

Man, who is about to enter the theatre of the world, is being asked „who he is“:

The succeeding questions are in indirect discourse (so „quo tendat“ rather than „quo tendis/tendas?“). This dialogue, made out of formulaic questions, is similar to a questioning at customs – which makes sense, since we are here on threshold of entering the Theatre of the World:

„Unde ortus?“ „E stemmate creationis.“

„Where are you from?“ „I descend from the line of creation“

„Quo tendat?“ „Ad vitam beatam.“

„Where are you hurrying to?“ „To a happy life“

I believe that the

„Quid hic?“ „Intueri naturam“

assumes an omitted „facturus“, which correlates nicely with „ortus“ as an indirect question. „Quid hic [in mundo homo sit facturus]?“ Then the answer makes sense:

„What [are you going to do] here?“ „Observe nature“

„Quo munere?“ „Curiosum esse similemque quidem reliquis animantibus (quae ...), sed nobiliorem, utpote qui curiosius observat quae sensibus patent, indeque sapientius ratiocinando rite concludit, adeoque miratur pulchrum sapientis opus Artificis“

This is the last customs-like question. I believe that „Quo munere?“ supposes an omitted „fungatur“ in sense of „to perform an office“. „Of what office?“. The modernised sense of the question would be „Your profession?“.

The answer is „[Me] esse curiosum“ → „Curiosus sum similisque quidem reliquis animantibus, sed nobilior, utpote qui curiosius observo quae sensibus patent“.

„I am curious and similar to the other animals, but nobler as one who observes more curiously/carefully things that are open to the senses, who wisely reasoning properly concludes, who admires the beautiful work of the wise Artist/Creator.“

The following sentence is a verbatim quote from Seneca (Nat. Quaest. lib. I, 5):

O quam contempta res est homo, nisi supra humana surrexerit!

„perventuros [fuisse]“:

Puto certe multos ad sapientiam perventuros [fuisse], nisi[,] superbia magnae fortunae inflati, [illi] putassent se [iam] pervenisse.

I think that many would have attained wisdom, <..>

(Note: I am not a native English speaker, so the translations may appear stilted. Also, all of the preceding are primo obtutu interpretations without any scholarship references.)

  • Fantastic answer! I would never have thought of the little interview at customs, but now that you spell it out, it completely makes sense. Now Linnaeus sounds like a little like Ingmar Bergman! I also wouldn't have had the courage to supply so many elided words, but clearly they make the perventuros sentence make sense.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 9:55

I won't be able to top @kmlyvens ' excellent answer, but I'll just point out that there's something standing in the way of your translation from the beginning:

Quo tendat? ad vitam beatam; Quid hic?

can't be

What should I strive for? the happy, blessed life; What's that?

because vita beata is feminine, and hic is either masculine or an adverb. If he had meant, "what's that?" Linnaeus would have written quid hæc, no?

  • Indeed! Clearly the phenomenon of gender agreement hasn't yet become a habit (especially with hic).
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 9:58

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