Niek Janssen

Niek Janssen (Yale University) :  « Decorum : In search of an “Appropriate” Translation »

     The Latin words decorum, and its cognates decere and decor, are “untranslatables” in more ways than one. These words describe “the quality of being good or right given a certain set of circumstances,” a “conditional good” that differs from situation to situation and from person to person. They are used in the field of moral philosophy, but also in rhetoric, literary criticism, and architecture, thus bridging the ethic and the aesthetic domain. Decorum’s most common English translations, “appropriateness” (cf. French “bienséance”) and “fittingness” (cf. German “Angemessenheit”), only cover only part of its complex denotations and connotations. What’s more, the contemporary English homonym “decorum” is far more specific in meaning than its Latin source, denoting the etiquette or polite manners of “civil society.” As a technical term of philosophy and rhetoric, moreover, decorum is itself a translation of the τὸ πρέπον, introduced by Cicero to render a Greek notion with a complex history of its own (cf. Pohlenz 1933).

      In this contribution, I argue that the untranslatability of decorum is not just the result of its reception in modern European languages, but also of the capaciousness and polysemy of the Latin term itself. In other words, I suggest that the Romans already struggled to pin down this protean notion, so that it is hardly surprising that the concept can seemingly not be captured by a single English, German, or French word. This impossibility, I argue, can be attributed to three inherent tensions in the concept of decorum.

       When Cicero coins the technical term decorum to render τὸ πρέπον in De Officiis 1.93-94, he already hints at the first tension, namely that decorum is almost indistinguishable from the morally fine in itself (honestum / τὸ κάλον). A brief sketch of pre-Ciceronian usages, notably in Plautus’ Asinaria and in late-republican inscriptions (e.g. CLE 171-176), shows that Romans effortlessly conflate or toggle between the specific sense of decorum (= aptum, conveniens) and the more generic understanding of decorum as “good” or “right” (= aequum, par, pium).

      A second tension is that decorum was considered a centrally important value for ethics and aesthetics, but at the same time seemed impossible or inappropriate to talk about. Many Greek and Roman authors comment that a comprehensive account of decorum / τὸ πρέπον is an adunaton, precisely because quid deceat is infinitely changing from situation to situation (e.g. Cic., Or. 70; D.H. Comp. 12, 20; Hermog. Id. 2.9; Quint. 11.3.177). Others (e.g. Cic. De Or. 2.210-212) consider an innate understanding of decorum as so central to the Roman elite identity that explicitly discussing the concept was unnecessary for anyone worth talking to. As a result, few of our sources actually attempt to define or describe decorum.

    When our sources do describe decorum, they often reveal a third tension. While norms of “appropriateness” are of course social constructs, the Romans seem to think of decorum as a purely rational, empirically self-evident concept. If one could oversee all operative variables in a given circumstance, one would be able to almost mathematically determine what the decorous course of action would be (Kaster 1982, Hariman 2001). As a result, a text like De Officiis 1.93-151 often talks about decorum through empirical (aural and visual) metaphors. In the concept of decorum, the ethical and aesthetic are intertwined in a way that is nigh-impossible to capture in English.

Selected Bibliography

Bettini, M. 2015. Il dio elegante: Vertumno e la religione romana. Turin.

Connolly, J. 2009. The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome. Princeton.

Gibson, Roy K. 2007. Excess and Restraint: Propertius, Horace, and Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. London.

Hariman, R. 2001. ‘Decorum,’ in Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. Thomas O. Sloane, vol. 1, 199-209. Oxford.

Müller, Jan Dietrich. 2011. Decorum: Konzepte von Angemessenheit in der Theorie der Rhetorik von den Sophisten bis zur Rennaissance. Berlin.

Lausberg, H. 1998. Handbook of Literary Rhetoric: A Foundation for Literary Study, ed. D. E. Orton and R. D. Anderson. Leiden.

Kaster, R. A. 1982. “Decorum,” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association in Philadelphia, 29 December 1982.

Pohlenz, M. 1933. “Τὸ πρέπον: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des griechischen Geistes,” Nachrichten von der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, philosophisch-historische Klasse 16: 53-92.

Rutherford, I. 2013a. “Decorum,” transl. Lisa Gondos, in Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik Online, ed. Gert Üding. Boston. [Accessed May 10, 2021.]

Vallbracht, Sophia. 2019. Die normative Kraft des Decorum: Angemessenheit bei Cicero, Ambrosius, und Augustinus. Tübingen.


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