Monday, September 13, 2010

The Importance of a Good Motto

Near the end of the movie The Wizard of Oz, the wizard tells the Cowardly Lion that many heroes parade their fortitude once a year with no more courage than the Lion has.  "But," he says, "they have one thing you haven't got: a medal."  Similarly, he tells the Tin Man that many people do good deeds all day with no more heart than the Tin Man has.  "But," he says, "they have one thing you haven't got: a testimonial."  And in the same vein, he tells the Scarecrow that many people go to universities and come out of them and think great thoughts with no more brains than the Scarecrow has.  "But," he says, "they have one thing that you haven't got: a diploma."  (Poor Dorothy!  "Oh, I don't think there's anything in that black bag for me!")

I've been thinking about the fame of the Scarecrow and other great thinkers.  It occurs to me that while many people think great thoughts and aren't remembered for them, others become famous for the very same thoughts because they have one thing the first haven't got: a motto.  I was happily amazed the other day when I read the following in Augustine's City of God: "I am most certain that I am and that I know and delight in this. . . .  I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, 'What if you are deceived?'  For if I am deceived, I am.  For he who is not, cannot be deceived."  I did not know that Augustine said anything like this.

I did, however, know that 1200 years later, Descartes said something astonishingly similar.  In the Meditations, we read, "I assuredly existed, since I was persuaded. But [suppose] there is I know not what being, who is possessed at once of the highest power and the deepest cunning, who is constantly employing all his ingenuity in deceiving me. Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived."  Why is Descartes remembered for this same thought and sometimes even credited for discovering it?  It must be because he had a good motto.  Covering the same ground in the Discourse on Method, he summarizes the argument, famously, "I think, therefore I am."  Everyone knows it.  Descartes's line works so well for us, we know it in two languages: "Cogito, ergo sum."

What power lies in the great motto!  You know the person and what our culture expects you to think of that person when you hear his motto.  "I came.  I saw.  I conquered."  "I cannot tell a lie."  "Bully!"  To reflect current technological trends, we now call these quotations sound bytes.  But the effect is the same.  We know Jim Lovell's cool-headed courage from his famous words, "Houston, we have a problem."  All the fatherly reassurance and inspiration of FDR's fireside chats resounds in his reminder, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." 

Augustine, of course, had his own memorable, quotable lines.  "As we are, such are the times."  "Make me chaste, but not yet."  Perhaps his greatest motto comes near the beginning of the Confessions: "Thou madest us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."  If all we knew of Augustine were these three statements, we would know of a man of faith and humility, a man willing to confess his weakness publicly before strangers around the world and for centuries to come.  Such a person is certainly happy not being known for the response to extreme skepticism.  Leave that for Descartes.

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