Aux armes · the mottoes

Le vent se lève ! … Il faut tenter de vivre !

The wind is rising! … We must try to live!

Paul Valéry (1920). Le Cimetière marin.*

Hier scheiden sich nun die Wege der Menschen; willst Du Seelenruhe und Glück erstreben, nun so glaube, willst Du ein Jünger der Wahrheit sein, so forsche.

Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of the truth, then seek.

Friedrich Nietzsche. Letter, 1865.

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 (Abu Bakr Ibn Tufayl) (c. 1105–85). Hayy Ibn Yaqzan.


Having studied the world, one must seek joy,
For what use is the trap of passing honour?

Du Fu (杜甫) (c. 758). Winding River (1).a

Motto, below the arms

Be bright: be daring: be joyful.

That this seemingly classical tricolon urges mindfulness is plain and in the manner of the now somewhat trite, but still cogent, maxims carpe diem [b] (Latin ▸ pick, pluck or gather the day) and laetus in praesens [c] (Latin ▸ joyful in the present moment). Yet formerly only the first two elements of the tricolon formed the motto, these being a double pun on familial surnames:

A patrilineal, Geal:

Clarere (Latin) ▸

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

Geal is Irish Gaelic for I. white, bright II. clear; and III. (figuratively) bright, pure; glad, happy; dear, beloved, fond; Scottish Gaelic for white, bright, pale; from Old Irish gel (fair, white, bright, shining); from Proto-Celtic *gelos; related to Ancient Greek αἴγλη (I. the light of the sun or moon; II. radiance, gleam; III. metaph., splendour, glory); from Proto-Indo-European helh- ‘to shine’.⁠2

A matrilineal, Hardy:

Audere (Latin) ▸ be daring or bold, intrepid, courageous.

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) ▸ be glad or joyful, rejoice; from Ancient Greek γαῦρος (exulting in).

The syllabic balance of the isocolonic Latin is retained in another translation: [be] bright: bold: glad. Here the third element also provides yet another oblique pun on the bearer's name: in Old English the original sense of glæd was I. bright, shining II. cheerful; glad. Of proto-Germanic origin, *gladaz (shiny; gleaming; radiant; happy; glossy; smooth); related to Old Norse glathr (bright, joyous), from Proto-Indo-European hlad-, again from Proto-Indo-European helh- ‘to shine’.

Motto, above the crest

Seek the truth.

This motto, for Christians, obviously accords with the crest (Fig. 1). The eagle being a traditional attribute of St. John the Evangelist and hence the crest and motto may be taken to evoke New Testament passages:

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

… seek, and ye shall find … Matthew 7:7

However the implicit scepticism of the motto contrasts with the biblical self-assurance, although both cherish the centrality of truth — or, at least, honest attempts at the apprehension of reality — and affirm its necessity for the attainment of personal freedom.3

Whereas in the Middle Ages devices such as the crest would likely have been strongly evocative of the Johannine message — even in the absence of the distinctly anachronistic motto — now it may be more widely taken as representative of the triumph of freedom over bondage.

χρὴ γὰρ εὖ μάλα πολλῶν ἵστορας φιλοσόφους ἄνδρας εἶναι καθ'

Those who are lovers of wisdom must be inquirers into many things.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535–c. 475 BC). Diels-Kranz. Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Fragment 35.


* 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. Parallel Greek/English.

Valéry's urgency 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 (הלל) (fl. 30 BC–10 AD. Attributed). Pirkei Avot 1:14.

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

\,,,/ or \m/ hang loose!

The translation is taken from Lenn Evan Goodman's Ibn Tufayl. Hayy Ibn Yaqzan - a philosophical tale, University of Chicago Press, 2009. Others have expressed similar views:

Again, since this effort of the mind wherewith the mind endeavours, in so far as it reasons, to preserve its own being is nothing else but understanding; this effort at understanding is the first and single basis of virtue.

Baruch Spinoza (1677). Ethics. Part 4, Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions: PROP. 26.

Wenn Gott in seiner Rechten alle Wahrheit und in seiner Linken den einzigen, immer regen Trieb nach Wahrheit, obschon mit dem Zusatze, mich immer und ewig zu irren, verschlossen hielte und spräche zu mir "Wähle!" — ich fiele ihm mit Demut in seine Linke und sagte: "Vater, gib! Die reine Wahrheit ist ja doch nur für Dich allein!"

If God in his right hand held all truth and in his left hand the ever-active quest for truth, although with the reminder that I shall for ever and ever err, and said to me: "Choose!" — I would with humility choose his left hand and say: "Father, give. Pure truth is for you alone."

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1778). Eine Duplik: Anti-Goeze.

Wie viel Wahrheit erträgt, wie viel Wahrheit wagt ein Geist? das wurde für mich immer mehr der eigentliche Werthmesser.

How much truth can a certain mind endure, how much truth can it dare? These questions became for me ever more and more the actual test of values.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1888). Ecce Homo.

Upon this first, and in one sense this sole, rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: DO NOT BLOCK THE WAY OF INQUIRY.

On the other hand, to set up a philosophy which barricades the road of further advance toward the truth is the one unpardonable offence in reasoning, as it is also the one to which metaphysicians have in all ages shown themselves the most addicted.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1899). The First Rule of Reason.

  1. The Poetry of Du Fu. Translated and edited by Stephen Owen. De Gruyter (2015) — also available as an open access eBook and PDF.
  2. Carpe diem:
    Horace (Q. Horatius Flaccus). Odes: Carmen I:XI. Parallel Latin/English.
  3. Laetus in praesens:
    Ibid., Carmen II:XVI. Parallel Latin/English.
    This sentiment is not exclusive to classical European thought and is probably universal: for instance, it is found in Chinese, Persian and Hindu thought, and is widespread in Japanese classical literature, where if is also rather more obliquely expressed in several Zen notions, such as ichigo ichie ( “one moment, one meeting”).

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Figure 1: the crest: On a Wreath Argent and Azure within a Circlet of Chain fracted Argent an Eagle wings expanded Or grasping in the talons the Chain.

Figure 1: the crest

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

Copyright © 2006 Alan Geal