Non est mortale quod opto.

Perhaps it’s the historian in me, but I love marginalia — when it is done well, at least.  I recently found this phrase written on the title page of a 1573 English copy of Pierre Viret’s Christian Instruction.

Viret page

As it turns out, “non est mortale quod opto,” which according to my very weak Latin skills is something akin to “what I desire is not mortal,” was a common phrase used in a variety of inscriptions on chairs, doorposts, and even inserted into books by book collectors. It originates from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Liber II, line 56, which actually reads: “sors tua mortalis, non est mortale, quod optas.”

It comes as Phoebus (the Sun) replies to his son Phaethon’s request to have control of his father’s chariot and wing-footed horses for a day.  Phoebus replied that he was asking too great a favor, one that is unfitting for his strength and youth.  Not even Jupiter, the mighty lord of Olympus can can drive this team of horses. He continues, “sors tua mortalis, non est mortale, quod optas,” that is, “your fate is mortal, what you desire is not mortal.”

So it appears that this quote has for centuries been reappropriated to express the human desire for the divine.  I wonder what the writer of this phrase onto the title page of Viret’s magnum opus intended to convey by this.  Was he commenting on the text, or just following a common practice?

Leave a Reply