Si Vales, Bene Est; Ego Valeo

Recently there was a thing going around on Twitter about buying stamps to help support the USPS. It hasn’t been doing very well since the COVID-19 crisis kicked off an the sorts of Republicans who have been stacking the cards against it for years are hoping to swoop in for the kill, you see. So some well-meaning Twitterers thought that this presented a really excellent opportunity to buy stamps online: they’re pretty, they’re cheap, they fill your chest with a sense of patriotic duty, and they literally last forever. A good deal, all said and done, which is how I ended up with four sheets of stamps, including a sheet of succulents that I’m proud to report can be sent anywhere in the world. I also got a lovely set commemorating the anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, and while that’s a project with a fairly sordid history, I’ve always been a sucker for trains, and the stamps are certainly gorgeous.

Of course, having stamps is all well and good, but having stamps just to have them is kind of like eating your green beans just because you love green beans — I’m sure some people do it, but it’s not really the point (everyone knows that the point of green beans is to feel like you’ve earned dessert). So I put out a call on Twitter for the addresses of some of my mutual followers with the intent to write letters to them. (If you and I follow each other on Twitter, or Instagram, or Facebook, or even actually know each other, you should also feel free to DM me your address.) I think it’s a good idea: letters are a bit antiquated, sure, but I think that makes them all more special, and especially right now, I think there’s something to be said for being able to exchange something tangible with your friends.

I’m reminded of the Roman tradition of letter writing. One of the reasons we actually know a somewhat decent amount about the late Roman Republic is because of a single man, Marcus Tullius Cicero, a lawyer and politician of the time. Cicero was many things, not all of them admirable, but one which stands out for our purposes is a certain prolific epistolary habit. Cicero wrote letters to everyone, constantly, ranging from topics as serious as the fate of the Republic following the death of Caesar to complaining to a friend about how he can hear his neighbor snoring at night through the thin walls in his bedroom. By a stroke of good fortune, Cicero tended to keep copies of his letters (a smart idea, really, when you consider how long it took to send mail back in the day and the fact that half the time I can’t even remember what my friends are responding to on Snapchat). After his untimely demise, many of his letters were collected and published, giving us unprecedented insight into a pivotal moment of history from someone who witnessed much of it firsthand.

Roman letters, like ours, were highly formulaic: they began and ended according to certain conventions. Often these letters closed or opened with the abbreviation SVBEEV, short for the Latin phrase, “Si vales, bene est; ego valeo.” In English, this translates to, “If you’re doing well, that’s good; I am well”. I think it’s a great sentiment for a letter — I’ve always felt that implicit in this set phrase is a sense that the recipient’s good health is a prerequisite for the writer’s, that the ego valeo (I am well) is the apodosis1 in the conditional phrase just as much as the bene est (that’s good) is. If nothing else, I can hope that if my letters do not find my friends well, they will leave them well and bring smiles to their faces. After all, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Gif of Han Solo from A New Hope saying 'We're all fine here... now... thank you. How are you?'

Cover photo by Liam Truong on Unsplash.

1The main (or result) clause in a conditional phrase. In the sentence, “If it’s raining, the grass is wet”, the apodosis is “the grass is wet”.

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