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E Pluribus Unum—Of Many One
Some weeks ago I wrote a post about the phrase E Pluribus Unum but didn’t publish it. It just seemed like it wasn’t the whole story. I’m happy I waited because there was more to come.
Then a couple of weeks ago I was watching a national news program and the head of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry—who presided over the marriage of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry—was interviewed about his new book Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times [I haven’t read this book, but agree love is one way out of troubling times]. He is a descendant of enslaved people and the first black man to lead his church.
In the interview, Bishop Curry mentioned the very American concept of E Pluribus Unum, which means “of many, one.” He said the phrase E Pluribus Unum can be traced back to Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, who wrote “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many” (unus fiat ex pluribus).
Of course, I had to immediately look this up and find out more.
It turns out Cicero wrote this sentence in a book, written in the form of a letter to his son in the year 44 BC. De Officiis (Of Duties or On Obligations) was Cicero’s attempt to define ideals of how men should behave in society in order to achieve lasting and happy relations.
So how did E Pluribus Unum come to be the motto of the United States of America? Well, I do know that Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of Cicero. E Pluribus Unum first appeared on the title page of the annual volume of the Gentleman's Magazine next to a drawing of a hand holding a bunch of flowers which illustrates that many flowers together make up one beautiful bouquet. Here America originally likened its citizens to a bouquet of unique flowers, where unity and individuality coexisted, rather a "melting pot" that blended everyone together into a single soup.
This is consistent with American values of personal independence and "we the people."
Because I followed through with the string presented by E Pluribus Unum, I started reading Cicero's book, which I had never heard of before. Right near the beginning, he makes a very lifely connection between Nature and the abilities of man in daily life:
First of all, Nature has endowed every species of living creature with
- the instinct of self-preservation...
- avoiding what seems likely to cause injury to life or limb...
- procuring and providing everything needed for life—food, shelter, and the like
But the most marked difference between man and beast…[is] reason, by which he
- comprehends the chain of consequences,
- perceives the causes of things,
- understands the relation of cause to effect and of effect to cause
- draws analogies and connects and associates the present and the futures
—easily surveys the course of his whole life and makes the necessary preparations for its conduct.
After working on this post, Larry and I went on a longer-than-usual drive to a farmer’s market in the next county, where we occasionally buy a 20-pound bag of our favorite organic brown rice.
As we were driving, I was telling Larry what I had learned about E Pluribus Unum and was repeatedly mispronouncing it. As he was helping me with this I realized that the word “pluribus” had the same root as our English word “plural,” which means more than one. And the suffix “bus” sounds like, well, a bus that holds many people. It then became easy to pronounce and spell pluribus because it’s a “bus full of many.”
Then I realized that right now in this country we are actually experiencing E Pluribus Unum as many of us come together to vote with one voice to restore principles of democracy to our government that have been falling away.
E Pluribus Unum indeed!
Because I wrote this post and became familiar with Cicero’s work, I have been reading it voraciouly. I had to write another post about Cicero's views on justice, which you can read at Justice According to Marcus Tullius Cicero.