Ars longa, Vita brevis - a debatable phrase

Ars longa, Vita brevis - a debatable phrase


Human quest and curiosity for knowledge is insatiable. Father of medicine - Hippocrates began the quest and led us with a lamp where he saw cures and treatments were possible for human agony. His insight into medicine has brought human lives out of miseries of various kinds and his way with words was no less soothing, full of wisdom. Human curiosity and quench for knowledge has led to advancements in medical science and in literature too. Hippocrates' Greek aphorism, later translated into Latin has also been under the scrutiny of literary gurus who have found their own interpretations in English. The Latin phrase is: "Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile." The English translation of the initial phase is derived to be: "art is long, life is short." However, there have been two different interpretations of this phrase with meanings that are poles apart. While one of the interpretations is based on pure literary meaning, the other finds its base from the context in which the phrase appeared.

Literary meaning:

1. Literally the translation of the phrase in English is, "Life is short, and art long, opportunity fleeting, experience perilous, and decision difficult." Some have taken the interpretation in the simplest way that can be possible. They believe that the phrase simply means that while the artist might not survive forever, his work of art is passed on from times and generations. While human are mortals with a short life span, his art can be popular and live forever.

2. The Latin word "ars" can be best translated into English as skill or technique. The interpretation of the entire phrase could be that life is too short to lean all sorts of skills and techniques. The artist could put all his life into the invention of a particular technique which he experiments with, knowing the risks of failure. If he succeeds, his skill is passed on through ages and live longer than the artist.

3. This phrase also means that one should utilise the time of his life in doing creative and useful things. Life is short and instead of wasting it doing nothing, one should invest it in developing skills or art that would live even when the person dies. And since life is unpredictable, one should never waste time fearing that he would run out of it for things he planned to do.

4. Some people have simply condemned the literal meaning of the phrase for the contextual meaning calling them misinterpretations. Even if the context in which Hippocrates wrote the original text brings out an entirely different meaning, there is no harm in going by the literal meaning so as to use the phrase in different contexts. There are phrases with intended pun to bring out both the meaning and this one is also not an exception.

Contextual meaning:

1. Medical inventions is synonymous to the great philosopher who originally wrote these lines. Indeed the context is on medical experiments and the risks involved in the process. It takes a very long time for one such experiments to be successful but life is short and it becomes extremely difficult at times to decide upon a medical treatment apt for a suffering soul who may lose the battle even before the experiments get their chance at trial.

2. It was a time of war. People were ailing from wounds and unsuccessful means of saving lives. These lines are a straight line to the thought of the father of medicines and what motivated him to work harder on his experiments with sincere intention of saving lives wounded by war.

3. Even though Hippocrates did not live to see how far we have come in the field of medicines, the world has not and will never forget his selfless contribution to mankind. It must have taken a great deal of work and efforts from him to give us support system for ailments. He must have gone through all sorts of hardships, anticipations and anxiety to take the risk of experimenting with something that was never tried before until then and this is clear from the contextual meant of the phrase.

4. The knowledge we received from Hippocrates is eternal. All that he accomplished in his lifetime still lives after him. What follows the initial lines, makes it clear that the contextual meaning is more relevant and should not be confused with the mere literary translation of the Greek phrase intro Latin.


"Ars longa, Vita brevis" is perhaps one such phrase which is highly debatable on its meaning. However, it is evident that both the meanings have one thing in common, the essence of working hard in one's area of expertise which makes their work immortal and lives even after the creator is gone. Whether it is art or medical science, it takes dedication from the creator to achieve something that would live after them, continue to heal lives, and encourage others to follow their footstep.
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  • RE: Ars longa, Vita brevis - a debatable phrase -Deepa Kaushik (08/05/15)
  • Ars longa, Vita brevis is the truth of life. We can debate over its meaning, but it holds true in any and every sphere of life. Ars longa may be the art, or talent or skill. It could be in the field of medicine or any other field, that skill always remains eternal.

    Art when we take it to be the literal meaning is again a form of skill which comes from the talent within an individual. Talent is an inborn ability in an individual which is put forth through his skill, which is his sbility to deliver his tyalrent and the final result that is seen is the Art. So, for an art to be eternal, the individual need to deliver his skills aptly and for the skills,he need to be talented. The nicely delivered Art always remains that is what is called long lived. And with the Art lives the skill and talent of the individual.

    Vita Brevis is a known fact. Life is short in comparison to the enumerous things to be explored in this Universe. Though Hippocrates used this term in context of medicine at an era when the medical field had just put forth its primary step. Still, we have some or the other new inventions coming up every now and then. Though a lot invented, still research is continuously on to create some new concepts in the fields of medicine. This concept is applicable even outside the medical world. It is not possible to explore everything within the short human life span.

    We have seen many great inventors working on projects for long years till their destiny, but unable to give it the desired result. Still, their hard-work never goes in vain. Their talent gets enlightened by others who carry-on their projects. The talent of the initiator definitely gets glory in the world even after the individual has found his life destiny. Thus, the core fact of the phrase always holds true' "Ars longa, Vita brevis".