May 13, 2007

Nemo est supra leges

In English: No one is above the laws.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's saying about Caesar not being above the grammarians. Today's saying is standard fare in legal Latin. You can also find it in a variant form, nemo est supra legem, "no one is above the law."

The notion of who is, and isn't, above the law is a problem that plagues all societies which have a legal code. I found a great passage in Pliny the Younger's Panegyric for the Emperor Trajan, which praises Trajan precisely because he did not place himself above the law (at least, not according to Pliny's glowing assessment). Pliny is delighted that Trajan does "the same thing as a prince that he did when a private citizen; the same thing as emperor, as when he was the emperor's subject," idem principem, quod privatum; idem imperatorem, quod sub imperatore.

There is clearly a difference between princes and private citizens and laws are written for private citizens, not for princes - yet according to Pliny, Trajan willingly subjected himself to those laws: ipse te legibus subiecisti: legibus, Caesar, quas nemo principi scripsit.

For Pliny, this is something completely unheard of. Quod ego nunc primum audio, nunc primum disco, "I am hearing this for the first time, I am discovering this for the first time." And just what it is that Pliny has discovered? Non est princeps supra leges, sed leges supra principem, "The prince is not above the laws, but the laws are above the prince."

So, that's why I chose this passage from Pliny as a commentary on today's proverb. Nemo est supra leges, not even Prince Trajan.

As for our own Prince, George W., well... I doubt he will find himself as elegant a panegyric writer as Trajan had in Pliny.

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

408. Nemo est supra leges.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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3 comments:

Alex Moore said...

Does Nemo mean "no one"? I'm wondering if Jules Verne named his famous character "Captain Nemo" for a (Latin-based) reason or if it was just happenstance!;)

Laura Gibbs said...

Yes, Alex, exactly - Captain Nemo is Captain Nobody! I'm quite sure it was on purpose... and it also alludes to a really famous scene in the Odyssey, when Odysseus says to the Cyclops that his name is "Nobody" so the poor Cyclops yells "Nobody is attacking me!" - and so none of the other Cyclops come to help him! :-)

Laura Gibbs said...

P.S. I should have explained also the etymology of the word: it is ne+homo, and because the h was not pronounced, it's very easy to see how the word kind of collapsed in on itself: ne-homo -> ne-omo -> nemo.