Tuesday, December 7, 2004

deo vindice

Classics professors are asked to translate Latin words or phrases all the time. Most people assume that we'll do it for free, since we'll be delighted that anyone has showed some interest in what we do. And they're right.

For example, I happen to know that most of the Latin that appears in the movie Gladiator is the result of harried phone calls from movie production assistants to the Latin teaching assistants at UCLA. The producers got what they paid for: most of the Latin in that movie is just goofy -- nothing that an ancient Roman would have written or said. (Maybe the Latin T.A.s were having a bit of fun with the Hollywood types.)

Anyway, I got one of those requests a couple of days ago. How to translate the phrase deo vindice? It came through a student, whose brother-in-law was having it engraved on a reproduction of the Confederate Seal. The student said that her relative, who is a "Southern Heritage" aficionado, told her he thought it meant "God will vindicate."

Most of these people do think it means God will vindicate, according to Google. But it actually means something a little different.

Vindex (vindice is a form of this word) often means "protector" or "champion," and I'm sure that's what the Confederate Seal maker was thinking; the intended meaning was "with God as our champion."

But there are plenty instances in classical Latin when vindex means "punisher." And that put me in mind of my favorite southern writer, Walker Percy. His love of the South was closely bound up with his hatred of racism; the race issue bothered him his whole life.

In Percy's novel Love in the Ruins, the main character, Dr. Thomas More, offers this musing about God's judgment on Americans:

God [was] saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you're the apple of my eye; because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me . . . . so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child's play for you .... One little test: here's a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him. That's all. One little test: you flunk!

In this light, deo vindice becomes tragically ironic: "with God as our punisher" seems a good epigram for our national failure of that "little test."

So let the sons of the Confederacy engrave deo vindice on their seal, and let the Latin mean what it will.

12 comments:

Sarah said...

I always wondered how the speakers of Latin looked at the world through their language: favor, help, please, trust, etc. are transitive in English but intransitive in Latin and take the dative case. So what does that say about those actions? You can't please someone; you can only please to (or at) them. Same with trust; they couldn't trust someone, only have trust for them. Or whatever the English phrasing would be. So how did that affect the way the Romans looked at the world? I'm reading Colleen McCullough's Man in Rome series.

Believe is a big one. The Romans couldnot believe directly; they had belief about. And obey. My gosh, not obey an officer, but give obedience? Hmmm...a different world, indeed.

David Wharton said...

I would be careful of concluding, just because the syntax of Latin verbs for "believe," "trust," "obey," is different from that of English, that the Romans believed, trusted, or obeyed in ways that are radically different from ours.

Think: English has no distinct verb morphology for the future tense -- rather, we use auxiliary verbs or temporal adverbs (e.g. "I'm spending next summer at the beach.") But you'd be quite wrong to conclude from this fact that English speakers can't conceptualize the future, or that they think about it differently than Latin speakers (who *did* have future inflectional morphology).

So just because the Latin verbs for believe and obey take dative objects, don't be fooled into thinking that the Romans conceived of obeying or believing much differently than we do. They didn't.

owen said...

Massachusetts was the first state to import slaves, and the last state to abolish slavery.

Virginia was the first state to abolish slavery.

Tribal leaders in Africa were the first to exploit their own, not dumb
southerners.

My family settled the south, starting in the Carolinas, and migrated north and south- None of the 10+ generations I have explored ever owned slaves, but we had hundreds in the fight for states rights. The term Deo Vindici is placed on the SCV markers of each of those identified as Confederate Veterans. The creator of the seal a Mr. Semmes is quoted here:
"In the latter part of April, 1864, quite an interesting debate was had on the adoption of the motto. The House resolutions fixing the motto as 'Deo Duce Vincemus' being considered, Mr. Semmes moved to substitute ' Deo vindice majores aemulamur.' The motto had been suggested by Professor Alexander Dimitry. Mr. Semmes thought 'Deo vindice' sufficient and preferred it. He was finally triumphant."
In this connection it is appropriate and interesting to reproduce the speech made by Mr. Semmes on that occasion. It was as follows:
"MR. PRESIDENT--I am instructed by the committee to move to strike out the words "duce vincemus" in the motto and insert in lieu thereof the words "Vindice majores aemulamur," "Under the guidance and protection of God we endeavor to equal and even excel our ancestors." Before discussing the proposed change in the motto, I will submit to the Senate a few remarks as to the device on the seal.
"The committee has been greatly exercised on this subject, and it has been extremely difficult to come to any satisfactory conclusion. This is a difficulty, however, incident to the subject, and all that we have to do is to avoid what Visconti calls 'an absurdity in bronze.'

Maybe that clears this up a bit

Anonymous said...

Get a clue, race pimp...tool.

Denny said...

Thanks Owen. Deo Vindice!

Anonymous said...

I'm a little confused.

You said: "Massachusetts was the first state to import slaves, and the last state to abolish slavery.

Virginia was the first state to abolish slavery."

I have read that the first record of slavery in colonial America was in New York in 1626. Massachusetts was apparently circa 1629.

Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783. Virginia, as a state, abolished slavery in 1870. (This was after Arkansas, Louisiana and Maryland in 1864, and Missouri and Tennessee in 1865.) Virginia was one of the last four states (with Mississippi, Texas and Georgia) that framed state constitutions that abolished slavery.

Perhaps you are thinking of the February 24, 2007 passage in the Virginia General Assembly of the first acknowledgement through a state's governing body of their negative involvement in slavery??

Anonymous said...

It does mean God will vindicate us,as the other poster stated a clear explanation was given as to it's meaning none of which is the meaning youve given instead you offered an opinionated deligently corrupted interpretation as most history books produced by the winners have distributed to the schools.

Anonymous said...

"With God as our champion" does seem to be a better translation. It should be remembered that slavery was a tertiary issue at best when the war started. It was much more a war of sectionalism, an aguarian society against an industrialized one, two separate populations with different european roots, patriotism towards native state rather than national state, plus taxation played a major role. Most Confederate soldiers had no real interest in the issue of slavery and fought for these other myriad reasons. Unfortunately, we place our 21st century logic & values on a war fought in the middle of the 19th century. Southerners truly believed God was on their side, which along with blind patriotism, kept an army that had >1,000,000 soldiers total in the field for four years. If one reads the actual written words of the soldiers what emerges is dedication to duty, patriotism, love of family & homeland.

Anonymous said...

Where's the follow-up from David Wharton to rebuke the apparent lashing he just took for deciding to interject his own opinion of words on something he, like most ignorant americans, knows nothing about, other than the brainwashing he has allowed himself to be subjected to by the U.S. Government since his birth? This is typical of how supposed intellectuals have succeeded in ruining generations, making every generation born think that white southerners want to own slaves, hate all humans other than themselves. The continued ignorance of a people that he apparently cannot relate to or understand is not our problem. We have read history books other than the ones that they pimp in schools and colleges. David Wharton can't even come to a conclusion to words that he's supposedly a professional at translating.

Anonymous said...

Deo Vindice is understood by those who use it in southern heritage lit, CSA, etc- "with God as our defender"

David Wharton said...

Owen's comments on the origin of the motto were helpful.

I generally don't respond to anonymous commenters, though. Why bother? If they don't care enough to personally stand behind their assertions, they are usually just wasting my time.

adgonzo said...

thanks for the help i was looking for St. Michael tatoos and i saw a banner over his head with those words in that context it would mean God's Protector so i think i might get that exact one