In a monastery cloisters on the edge of Venice is a sundial inscribed with the motto Horas non numero nisi serenas.

Literally that means “I don’t count the hours unless they are serene ones” (or “I count only the sunny hours”).

“But it really means, ‘When I come to die, the only moments that matter will have been the moments when I was at ease,'” writes Harry Mount in Amo, Amas, Amat and All That.

Of the motto, William Hazlitt wrote, “There is a softness and a harmony in the words and in the thought unparalleled.”

The Robben Island Notebooks

Sentenced in 1964 to life in prison, anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada got permission during his confinement to pursue a history degree through the University of South Africa. He used his access to books and writing materials to compile a series of secret notebooks in which he recorded quotations that inspired him. Together they form what used to be called a commonplace book — a series of personal memoranda that, taken together, illuminate the spirit of the compiler:

Ofttimes the test of courage becomes rather to live than to die. — Vittorio Alfieri

It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. — Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University Defined (1873)

One owes respect to the living; but to the dead one owes nothing but the truth. — Voltaire

The triumph of wicked men is always short-lived. — Honore de Balzac, The Black Sheep

(Form of oath-taking among Shoshone Indians is:) The earth hears me. The sun hears me. Shall I lie?

Conrad wrote that life sometimes made him feel like a cornered rat waiting to be clubbed.

Nobody knows what kind of government it is who has never been in prison. — Leo Tolstoy

Leve fit, quod bene fertur onus. (A burden becomes lightest when it is well borne.)

To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. — Sun Tzu

Verba volant, scripta manent. (The spoken word flees; the written word remains.) — Ancient Roman adage

(Peter Ustinov explains why he reads so much:) “If you’re going to be the prisoner of your own mind, the least you can do is to make sure it’s well furnished.”

To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness. — Bertrand Russell

Altogether “Kathy” compiled seven notebooks over 26 years, drawing not just on his study materials and smuggled newspapers but on 5,000 books donated to the prison library by a Cape Town bookstore. Finally released in 1989, he went on to become a member of Parliament after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 and served as President Nelson Mandela’s parliamentary counsellor until 1999.

One of his former warders, Christo Brand, told him, “I was supposed to be your master, but instead you became my mentor.”

(Sahm Venter, ed., Ahmed Kathrada’s Notebook From Robben Island, 2005.)


  • Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe all died on July 4.
  • Australia is wider than the moon.
  • NoNRePReSeNTaTiONaLiSm can be assembled from chemical symbols.
  • 1 × 56 – 1 – 7 = 15617
  • “‘Needless to say’ is, needless to say, needless to say.” — Enoch Haga


“Foreign nations are a contemporaneous posterity.”

— “A forgotten American essayist,” quoted by Brander Matthews in his introduction to The Oxford Book of American Essays, 1914


“Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to be, when our memory shall have perished. The world is a poor affair if it do not contain matter for investigation for the whole world in every age.” — Seneca


“It was the irony. It was the same irony that caused me to think, pause, and just inwardly chuckle, just momentarily, that, God, here are two guys further away from home … than two guys had ever been, but there are more people watching us than anybody else has ever watched two people before in history.” — Buzz Aldrin

Worldly Wisdom
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Proverbs from around the world:

Every fire is the same size when it starts. — Seneca, North America
Youth is intoxication without wine; old age, wine without intoxication. — Peru
We cannot love that which we do not know. — Guinea
Second thoughts are best. — Greek
Do not propose to a girl whose home you have not seen. — Yaunde
Silence never makes mistakes. — India
Adversity makes men, prosperity monsters. — France
The threshold is the tallest mountain. — Slovenia
Punishment is a cripple, but it arrives. — Spain
Not the mouse is the thief, but the hole in the wall. — Aramaic
Praise does a wise man good but a fool harm. — Italy
A man does not seek his luck; luck seeks its man. — Turkey
He is young enough who has health, and he is rich enough who has no debts. — Denmark
God gives the wine but not the bottle. — Germany
Money likes to be counted. — Russia
Experience is a comb which nature gives us when we are bald. — China