I came across the phrase ad astra per aspera — "to the stars through difficulties." I think I know what it means, but my interpretation appears to be at odds with others. For example:

The motto of Kansas, "Ad Astra per Aspera" is Latin for John James Ingalls coined the motto in 1861 stating, "The aspiration of Kansas is to reach the unattainable; its dream is the realization of the impossible." According to the Office of the Governor of Kansas: "This motto refers not only to the pioneering spirit of the early settlers, but also the difficult times Kansas went through before becoming a state. The anti-slavery forces and slavery proponents waged battles in the electoral process as well as on the battlefield. Kansas earned the nickname "Bloody Kansas" because of the war regarding slavery, much of which was fought on Kansas' soil."

Sure, I would agree with this meaning, but this is the context I would like to use it in:

First, it's an aspirational statement about achieving great things. However, it's just as equally a moral claim that if greatness is acquired without suffering, hardship, or toil, then something is lost. Yet it also appears to be a claim that it is from these very hardships that one acquires this greatness.

Am I reading into this a little too much?


As with any ambiguous phrase, there is a lot of room for interpretation. For the phrase ad astra per aspera, the meaning that should first come to mind is the very literal one: the accomplishment of great things through the endurance of hardship. Your interpretation breaks down into three claims from what I can tell.

  1. "It's an aspirational statement about achieving great things"

    • I would agree with this, as it most easily matches the literal translation of the phrase, and the meaning that comes from that. Great things can be accomplished if only you work hard. It also is a reference to the past: we are in the great position we are now due to our hard work and dedication through adversity.
  2. "However, it's just as equally a moral claim that if greatness is acquired without suffering, hardship, or toil, then something is lost."

    • This is where I feel you get a bit further away from the core message of the phrase as seen in #1. Nowhere do I think it is implied that just happening upon greatness without doing anything for it is a detriment to the greatness itself. The phrase is ambiguous as to whether it is a command that you must achieve great things through hard work, or whether it is a statement of past events that lead to the current situation. One can certainly argue for your point here, but as an argument separate from this specific phrase.
  3. "Yet it also appears to be a claim that it is from these very hardships that one acquires this greatness."

    • This is similar to #1, and again more closely matches the phrase directly. In the example of Kansas, only through terrible struggle and loss were they able to achieve the great state that they are in today (pun not intended). It is important to keep in mind that not all hard work is paid back with equal rewards, so in the context of the motto of Kansas, it is more a reference to the past with an indication to the future, rather than some moral claim or a purely "look to the future" sort of statement.

As I said in the beginning, one can interpret this phrase in any number of ways. There may not be one right answer, and the explanations I have put forth here might not be satisfactory to you. It is really a judgement call, but I hope this helps clarify the various arguments.

  • TY, that's what I was looking for. I think you're correct regarding #2. My interpretation was derived from the use of this phrase in a paper arguing against genetic enhancement due to the value of hard work. – faustus Dec 4 '17 at 10:47

In life one strives for things, but accomplishment means going through "difficulties", stops, barriers, counter intention, and even people and governments, all the things we have to contend with to make our greatest aspirations come true. It may or may not be hardship, that is why I prefer "difficulties" as it can include hardship without insisting upon it.

  • Found your comment when looking up this phrase in PDC#28 which you may be familiar with :-) – Ian Horwill Mar 13 at 18:13

Perhaps, it also means that one can achieve his greatest goals by working hard; that great accomplishments are only made by experiencing diffuculties.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • 1
    Welcome to the site, Mohamed! Can you edit your answer to elaborate on its relation to the answer given by Sam K? It seems to me that he already said what you are saying, but perhaps I'm missing something. – Joonas Ilmavirta Feb 24 at 17:30

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