Ars Longa, Vita Brevis:

I had always assumed that this means something like "art can endure even after an artist's death," and others seem to take the same view. (I had considered and discarded "having a large arse is bad for your life expectancy.")

But my father reported to me that the original meaning of the quote -- apparently by Hippocrates, in Seneca's translation -- is something like "There's much to know, and little time to learn it," with "ars" meaning (more or less) skill. What's more, that appears to be at least a common modern meaning, rather than just a historical meaning long abandoned by modern users. And it's always dangerous to use phrases that have multiple meanings, unless the multiplicity of meaning is part of your goal.

Patrick from OZ (mail):
I don't think I had ever heard the first meaning attributed to it, nor seen it used in that context - so I didn't realise there was a multiplicity of meanings!

Also, I always thought that the 'ars' was roughly 'the arts', as in the body of skills. An overly slight difference perhaps.
6.1.2009 1:03pm
ATS (mail):
Take it with a grain of salt, but Wikipedia says it's just part of a longer phrase attributed by Seneca to Hippocrates: "Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile." The full text is often [really?] rendered in English as: “Life is short, [the] art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.”

If I recall just a little bit of Greek from a couple of my theology classes way back when- the Greek word τέχνη, or "tekne," denotes a blend of both skill and art. I believe that this is the root of technique, technology, etc.
6.1.2009 1:21pm
Sigivald (mail):
I've never even thought of it having the sense you did - probably because of my weird background in historical re-creation, where everyone uses it in the sense you just discovered.

Or, as Chaucer echoed (translated) it, "The lyf so short - the craft so long to lerne".
6.1.2009 1:24pm
There is also the (somewhat) pseudoLatin mottom of MGM, "Ars gratia artis," in which Ars here is supposed to mean Art, not skill. But as ATS points out, the Latin notion of art was malleable: artifice, artificial, artifact, artful, etc.
6.1.2009 1:26pm
Dantheman (mail):
And here I thought it meant that Neville would not survive to the end of the Harry Potter books!
6.1.2009 1:27pm
Putting Two and Two...:
It's quite obvious that "ars" refers to the "art" of medicine. No reason to assume he was talking about something more general.

With that reading, he seems to be saying that one can, perhaps should, advance the science when opportunity knocks.

Here's the consent form. Sign here, here, here, and here. Initial here. And here's your gown. Cross your fingers!
6.1.2009 1:29pm
Nick P.:
Like Patrick from OZ, I have only seen the phrase used in the second sense and had no idea that people used it in the first sense. Prior to reading this posting, if I had run across the first meaning, I would have assumed the author made a mistake.

The very first time I encountered the phrase was in Robert Heinlein's "Glory Road." The two longhorses were named "Ars Longa" and "Vita Brevis" IIRC
6.1.2009 1:29pm
I would be surprised if using the word "art" to refer to painting, sculpture, and the like began earlier than the Renaissance.
6.1.2009 2:02pm
"Life is short, Art long, Occasion sudden and dangerous, Experience deceitful, and Judgment difficult." -Hippocrates

I don't know where this translation came from or how accurate it is, but it's a treasure.

A quick search shows it comes up in Encyclopædia Britannica's "History of Medicine," here: EBchecked/topic/372460/history-of-medicine/35650/Hippocrates
6.1.2009 2:23pm :

And it's always dangerous to use phrases that have multiple meanings, unless the multiplicity of meaning is part of your goal.

Well, that's arguably true.
6.1.2009 2:24pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
If you look up ars in a dictionary of classical Latin such as Cassell's, the definition you will find is something like "skill, way, method". The sense more like English "art" is subsidiary and special.
6.1.2009 2:24pm
And all this time I thought it was a translation from Jeremy Hillary Boob:

Ad hoc, ad loc, and quid pro quo! So little time — ha ha! — so much to know!
6.1.2009 2:25pm
Well, I had always been influenced by local high school Latin scholars, who generally adopt a simpler and more direct approach: "art is long, life is short." See, e.g., from a Latin Jeopardy-type contest:

I viewed this as meaning that good works, not necessarily "art," are worth the time and effort involved if they can be expected to last. But I can see the other views. I do not take multiple meanings to be a detriment, since my general theory is that all communication is simply an attempt to approximate shared experiences.
6.1.2009 2:30pm
David Mader (mail) (www):
Like other commentators, I'd never heard the first suggested meaning. Also, FWIW, I've always understood 'ars' to mean something like 'works' - that is, the *application* of skill, rather than the skill itself - such that the phrase might be translated as "so much to be done, so little time to do it." This is similar to, though not precisely the same as, the original meaning as reported by your dad.
6.1.2009 3:10pm
Bill Dyer (mail) (www):
It's about professional arts -- the craft of being a physician or a lawyer. I'm surprised you hadn't heard this before. I first came across it on an engraved desk placard in the office of a more experienced lawyer who I was asking for advice during the first year of my law practice.
6.1.2009 4:46pm
Bill Dyer (mail) (www):
(His translation, while not literal, is I think true to the original intent and true in general: "The life so short, and the craft so long to learn.")
6.1.2009 4:47pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
I learned a different Latin maxim that meant roughly what Professor Volokh thought Ars Longa meant.

Transit hora, opus durat. ("The hour passes, the work remains.")
6.1.2009 4:53pm
Gabriel McCall (mail):
I'm with the consensus here- the phrase has always meant "there's a lot to learn and life is short" to me, not "what you do will outlive you." The other meaning is not one I've ever seen anyone infer until today.
6.1.2009 5:03pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
The first example is the one I've understood, lo these past 50 years. That meaning was the one used in my first Latin classes. But maybe that's just a Catholic school thing. It seems the nuns were never too confident about the Greeks anyway.
6.1.2009 5:25pm
I first saw this in Asterix at age 8.

Even there it had a double entendre.
6.1.2009 5:56pm
Well, I think of Churchill and drink: So much to do, so little time.
6.1.2009 8:34pm
Pro Natura (mail):
Reminds me of my favorite quote from Galen: Post coitum omnia animala triste sunt praeter galla et mulierum.
6.1.2009 8:57pm
Reminds me of some long-lost research I did on GersonidesMaaseh Hoshev, often translated today as "the Art of Calculation", but in my (admittedly shallow) analysis of the Hebrew, the word translated "art" shows up several times in Exodus referring to the cunning work (i.e. skilled labor) required for the construction of the temple/tabernacle, in contrast to another word used for unskilled labor.

Given Gersonides' unique combination of rigorous theoretical proof with practical, messy examples in the work, I translated Maaseh Hoshev as "practical theory" or "theoretical practice" with "art" corresponding to the practical side, as it once did in the phrase "Arts and Sciences".
6.2.2009 12:37am
Stephen C. Carlson (www):
Ὁ βίος βραχὺς, ἡ δὲ τέχνη μακρὴ, ὁ δὲ καιρὸς ὀξὺς, ἡ δὲ
πεῖρα σφαλερὴ, ἡ δὲ κρίσις χαλεπή.
6.2.2009 1:40am
SocratesAbroad (mail):

Reminds me of my favorite quote from Galen

You mean:
Triste est omne animal post coitum, praeter mulierem gallumque

Today also marks the first time since high school Latin that I've seen mention of "certamen." My estimation of VC has risen markedly.
6.2.2009 7:30am
Smooth, Like a Rhapsody (mail):
Also, IIRC, this Latin maxim was the title of the first PhD thesis awarded in America.
6.2.2009 10:18am
ASlyJD (mail):
So Socrates, in you opinion, does gallum refer to roosters or the French?
6.2.2009 12:36pm
[insert here] delenda est:
6.2.2009 1:07pm