July 30, 2007

Haec manus inimica tyrannis

In English: This hand is hostile to tyrants.

After posting all last week about "ears" in Latin, I thought I would feature a different body part this week: the hand, Latin manus. This is a productive root for many English words, as in "manual labor," etc.

Today's proverb is adapted from a larger saying, Manus haec inimica tyrannis ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem, "This hand (manus haec, an enemy to tyrants (inimica tyrannis), seeks with the sword ( ense petit) calm peace in freedom (placidam sub libertate quietem)."

In another adapted form, this saying is the motto of the state of Masschusetts: Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem, "It seeks by the sword a calm peace in freedom." You can read about the history of this motto in the state of Masschusetts at the great netstate.org website. It was incorporated into the state seal of Massachusetts already in 1775, as you can see in this image of the old state seal.

The Latin original is attributed there to Algernon Sidney, a 17th-century English politician. You can read about his life and political career at wikipedia, which explains that he was convicted of treason and executed in 1683. He was a committed anti-Royalist, and his works apparently exerted quite an influence on American revolutionary thinkers.

Here's another curiosity: Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government is the origin of the phrase "God helps those who help themselves." You can read his Discourses online at constitution.org, and see the famous phrase in context.

That phrase has become one of the best known sayings in the English language (at least in America), thanks to Ben Franklin. As a result of its enormous popularity, many people are convinced (erroneously) that you can find it in the Bible! One of my favorite books of last year is Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy, and this saying is one of the items he used in his "religious literacy quiz."

Meanwhile, hoping you have managed to steer clear of tyrants today, here is today's proverb read out loud:

540. Haec manus inimica tyrannis.

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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