Playing to win at Latin tag

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is only fleetingly charmed by traditional shout-lines

March 1, 2012

Rarely, educational institutions have appropriate mottoes. I love the one contrived for the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, Spain’s equivalent of The Open University: Omnibus mobilibus mobilior sapientia. Since the institution’s foundation in 1972, electronic transmission of data has confirmed that “Knowledge moves faster than anything else that moves”. It seems a shame, however, that (as far as I’m aware) there is no genuine classical source for this elegant shout-line, which must have sprung from the wit of some clever Spanish bureaucrat (I’m sure a reader cleverer than I will tell me if I’m wrong). The walls of the college where I was an undergraduate, and the motto of an affiliated school, proclaim its virtues with an allusion to a simile of Christ’s: Sicut lilium. Since Magdalen undergraduates in my day were often idle and flashily attired, the comparison with the lilies of the field seemed apt.

Almost as good is Dartmouth College’s Vox clamantis in deserto - chosen for an institution founded to educate Native Americans in what was then the wasteland of New Hampshire. The environs of Dartmouth are pretty slick and sophisticated now; the Native Americans have been exterminated or expelled, and there is no intellectual desert nearer than Concord, the state capital of New Hampshire. But the motto remains amusingly apposite, whenever attention in class wavers. In a figurative sense, many a professor feels that his is “the Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness”, and that, like John the Baptist, he would be unable to compete with Salome for the attention of his audience.

More usually, mottoes are vacuous platitudes or unexceptionable abstractions, like Harvard’s admirably pithy Veritas, which has inspired countless wordier imitations, or the unchallengeably introspective Floreat Etona. Sometimes they express pious hopes. Postera crescam laude, announces the University of Melbourne, apparently renouncing hope of present fame in the expectation that I Shall Grow in Praise Afterwards. This, presumably, serves to deter students with poor grades from dropping their courses. I like the optimism of my own university, Notre Dame, whose motto is Vita, dulcedo, spes in reference to the Blessed Virgin’s virtues of life, sweetness and hope, as advertised in the Salve Regina. That great traditional hymn of the Church is rarely heard at Mass these days, but at Notre Dame we sing it every Sunday night after Vespers. Even so, an unscientific poll in my class shows that half the students neither recognise where the motto comes from nor know what it means.

The most intriguing mottoes, of course, are those that make only comedic sense. Is Wikipedia misleading me when it claims that the motto of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad is The university brings out all abilities, including incapability? Can it be true, as I learn from the same source, that students of the University of Antananarivo study under the legend Foolish is he who seeks only to imitate his father? The motto of Simon Fraser University, Nous sommes prêts, with its evocation of the Boy Scouts, may not have been intended to be funny, but recent controversy over campus contraceptive dispensers provides a context in which it can seem up to date. I know little of the University of Cambridge, but had I been aware at the time that its motto was Hinc lucem et pocula sacra (which I construe as an advertising slogan to mean “Come here for light and lots of divine tipples”), I should have applied to go there as an undergraduate. I have always liked to drink heavily and have always hoped that if I managed a few more pocula than my constitution allows, the effect would be enlightening.

Some mottoes seem downright deplorable. Many take the name of God in vain, to the equal disgust of the devout, to whom the effect is of profane cussing, and of atheists who claim to be offended by routine, vapid invocations of the Almighty. My children, when little, went to a school whose motto - improbable as it may seem - was Mens sana in corpore sano. I’m sure that when Juvenal formulated the claim that “A healthy mind is in a healthy body”, he was being ironical. Only fascists and muscle-cultists could take literally this abominable over-valuation of physique in relation to intellect. I prefer the wisdom of Robert Hutchins, the legendary University of Chicago president: “When I am minded to take exercise, I sit down and wait until the mood has passed.”

One wonders why institutions bother to have mottoes, when few people know what they are and fewer take any notice of them. Notre Dame graduates, by and large, are quite sweet, but are Harvard’s truthful? Do Magdalen’s still resemble lilies in any respect except that asserted by Shakespeare (“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”)? The best one can say for most mottoes is that, like the best pornography, they remain shrouded in the decent obscurity of a learned language. I think they should be left there. If nowadays university administrators were allowed to tamper with them, they would probably be redrafted or trendily retranslated in the style of a dot-com shout-line. Veritas would yield to Useful and reliable knowledge. Hinc lucem et pocula sacra would become Stoning ourselves out of our minds. Oxford’s Dominus illuminatio mea - an allusion to the Psalmist’s assurance that “the Lord is my light and my salvation - whom then should I fear?” - would demand reformulation as The Lord is my impact, or perhaps secularisation as Impact is my illumination. But God forbid that we should abolish mottoes: silliness, vacuity and baffling nonsense are among the most reliable enhancers of life.

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