Van Til Tool

Using the Van Til Perspective as the tool to discover what life means and how it ought to be lived.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

ANNUIT COEPTIS: Where It Comes From and What It Means

Annuit Coeptis: Where It Comes From And What It Means

Well, after all these years I finally found out where this famous Latin sentence comes from and what it means. (This is the motto found on the top of the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States.) My source is the fascinating newly published book Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin by the excellent writer and scholar Nicholas Ostler (NY: Walker & Co., 2007), where the following is found on pages 287 - 289.

Since the time I was a boy I was told that “Annuit Coeptis” meant “He has favored our undertakings”. This turns out to be close but not exact. According to Ostler the verb literally means “ nodded to”, as when a person who is asked a question nods his head “Yes”. The source for this famous Latin sentence is that very important epic of ancient Roman literature, Aeneid (ix, 625) penned by the great poet Virgil. It is recounting a famous episode in the life of Aeneas’s son Ascantius, who asks Jupiter for his nod of approval for the arrow shot he is about to take at an enemy soldier. In this passage, since Ascantius is beseeching Jupiter, the verb is in the imperative mood, so that the words are “annue coeptis”, i.e. “nod to my undertakings”. Jupiter nods his approval with a clap of thunder and Ascantius’s arrow successfully slays the enemy.
Now you may wonder what in the world this has to do with the founding of the USA. Well, you see, Aeneas founded a town which Ascantius moved to Alba Longa, where Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome were born. And Virgil regards the founding of Rome as proceeding according to a divine plan, just as many American Christians believe that the founding of America happened in accord with God’s plan. Our founders believed this, which is why they chose this motto “Annuit Coeptis”, which says of God that He has nodded his approval upon our undertakings just as Virgil says that Jupiter nodded his approval upon Ascantius’s undertakings. In both cases the results led to the founding of a new nation. (By the way in Rome, as in Greece, you had the city-state concept, i.e. a city as a state.) AND the founding of Rome was very important to the ancient Romans, who continually referred to it and who even developed their calendar accordingly, i.e. the years were numbered from the founding of Rome, which was designated by the initials A.U.C., Ab Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City).

Now I noted that Annuit Coeptis was at the top of the reverse of the Great Seal directly above the all seeing Eye of God, which is also extremely important in getting the context here because the word Providence, which comes from Latin, means Foresight in the sense of “seeing to it that the planned thing happens” (the Latin verb video means “to see”). OK, so on top we have God Providentially nodding his approval upon our undertakings, which produces the result indicated by the other Latin phrase at the bottom: Novus Ordo Seclorum, a New Order Of The Ages! And, guess what -- that also comes from Virgil and is found in the extremely important passage in his Fourth Eclogue which prophesies the coming of the Messiah from a Virgin. And the reworking of Virgil here is interesting because, you see, Ordo Seclorum is part of the phrase “a great order of the ages is born” and the Novus is referring to the Child, the new Child, sent from heaven above (“novus” means “new”).
Now Virgil was regarded as very important by both the early and medieval church for being granted this knowledge by God, and Dante revered Virgil so highly that he uses him as the Guide through the Inferno in his Commedia. At the time our nation was founded and for some time afterward until around the time of the dawning of the twentieth century, all educated men knew Latin and Greek and ancient Roman and Greek history so that what I have noted here was very well known to them. Thus, you see, all educated men then, Deists as well as Christians, knew all this and even the Deists believed in Divine Providence.
One final thing -- although the evidence for this is unclear, there are those who believe that the motto on the obverse side, “e pluribus unum” (“from many states, one nation”) also comes from Virgil. The source is an ancient poem called the Moretum which on pages 101-104 contains a recipe for making a savory dish by mixing together many ingredients. Out of these many ingredients (e pluribus), this one (unus) dish is produced. You know, I really like this analogy better than the melting pot notion because I abhor blast furnaces for their ultracrude technology. Blending good ingredients to produce a savory food is a much more pleasing metaphor!




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