Aux armes · mottoes

Le vent se lève ! … Il faut tenter de vivre !
The wind is rising! … We must try to live!

Paul Valéry (1922). Charms: Le Cimetière marin.*

We are always hearing of people who are around SEEKING AFTER TRUTH. I have never seen a (permanent) specimen. I think he has never lived. But I have seen several entirely sincere people who THOUGHT they were (permanent) Seekers after the Truth. They sought diligently, persistently, carefully, cautiously, profoundly, with perfect honesty and nicely adjusted judgment — until they believed that without doubt or question they had found the Truth. THAT WAS THE END OF THE SEARCH. The man spent the rest of his life hunting up shingles wherewith to protect his Truth from the weather. … In any case, when he found the Truth HE SOUGHT NO FURTHER; but from that day forth, with his soldering-iron in one hand and his bludgeon in the other he tinkered its leaks and reasoned with objectors.

Mark Twain (1906). What is Man?

Motto, under the arms

Be bright: be daring: be joyful.

This seemingly classical tricolon evidently urges mindfulness — in the manner of the now somewhat trite carpe diem[a] (Latin ▸ pick, pluck or gather the day) or laetus in praesens[b] (Latin ▸ joyful in the present moment): perhaps more quietly expressed in the Zen notion of ichigo ichie ( “one moment, one meeting”) — yet the motto was once merely clarere audere, a double pun on familial surnames. The later felicitous addition of gaudere completed the tricolon:

A patrilineal, Geal:

Clarere (Latin) ▸

  1. Be clear or bright, shine;
  2. Be clear, evident, lucid, manifest;
  3. Be distinguished, illustrious, renowned (ante-classical).

Geal is Irish Gaelic for bright, clear, white; Scottish Gaelic for white, bright, fair; related to Ancient Greek αἴγλη (I. the light of the sun or moon; II. radiance, gleam; III. metaph., splendour, glory); from Proto-Indo-European *ghel- ‘to shine’.⁠2

A matrilineal, Hardy:

Audere (Latin) ▸ to venture, dare, be bold, risk.

Hardy is Middle English for bold, courageous, daring; from Anglo-Norman French and Old French hardi (hardy, tough, durable), of Germanic origin.

Completing the tricolon:

Gaudere (Latin) ▸ to rejoice, be glad, be joyful, from Ancient Greek γαῦρος (exulting in).

Motto, over the crest

Seek the truth.

This Ancient Greek quotation accords with several interpretations of the crest (Fig. 1): for instance, as an eagle is a traditional attribute of St. John the Evangelist, to Christians the crest and motto taken together may evoke a passage in the New Testament:

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. John 8:32

although the implicit scepticism3 of the motto contrasts with the absolute certainty of the biblical promise.

Nor is the centrality of truth peculiar to Christianity, the indistinguishable concepts of Sathya (सत्य) in Hinduism and Sacca in Buddhism are essential to those religions.

Whereas in the Middle Ages devices such as the crest would likely have been evocative of the Johannine message — even without the distinctly post-medieval motto — it is now more probably taken as representative of freedom triumphant over bondage and the motto as urging an unrelenting endeavour necessary for liberty4 (and much else besides) to flourish and endure.

Then you must know from the start that if you want the truth without flummery you must seek it and seek it diligently.

Ibn Tufayl (early 12th century). Hayy Ibn Yaqzān.[c]


* The poem has a prefatory verse from a Pindar ode:

μή, φίλα ψυχά, βίον ἀθάνατον σπεῦδε, τὰν δ’ ἔμπρακτον.
Do not crave immortal life, my soul, but use to the full the resources of what is possible.

Pindar (c. 474 BC). Pythian Odes 3.61. (English translation).

The urgency of Valéry's poem is shared:

?אם אין אני לי, מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי
If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? When I am only for myself, then what am “I”? And if not now, when?

Hillel (fl. 30BC–10AD. Attributed). Pirkei Avot 1:14.

and was in turn, with striking but unwitting fidelity, evoked in an innocently hedonistic call of American West Coast youth in the 1960's, Surf's up!

\,,,/ Hang loose!

And from a clear-eyed and stern critic of human folly, a nevertheless tender benediction on all who are heedless of time's passing:

May you live all the days of your life.

Jonathan Swift (c. 1738). Polite conversation in three dialogues.

Mottoes are not blazoned in English heraldry. Their selection and display has always been subject to the absolute will of the bearer alone — likewise, any subsequent bearer may freely alter a motto. See: glossary.

  1. Carpe diem:
    Horace (Q. Horatius Flaccus). Odes: Carmen I:XI.
    Latin | English (Trans. John Conington, 1882) | Paul Shorey (1910). Commentary on Horace, Odes, Epodes, and Carmen Saeculare: carpe diem.
  2. Laetus in praesens:
    Ibid., Carmen II:XVI.
    Latin | English (Trans. John Conington, 1882) | Paul Shorey (1910). Op. cit.: laetus in praesens.
  3. Ibn Tufayl (c.1105–1185). Hayy Ibn Yaqzān - a philosophical tale, trans: Lenn Evan Goodman. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
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Figure 1: the crest: On a Wreath Argent and Azure out of a Circlet of Chain broken Argent an Eagle wings expanded Or grasping in the talons the Chain.

Figure 1: the crest

Crest: On … a Wreath Argent and Azure out of a Circlet of Chain broken Argent an Eagle wings expanded Or grasping in the talons the Chain.

Copyright © 2006, 2010 Alan Geal