Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mottoes and Morality

In Europe in the early modern period (loosely defined,14th-17th centuries), humanists (ie: men--and some women--educated in the classical tradition) took mottoes from ancient moral philosophers like Seneca or Cicero that they felt defined their own personal philosophical values. These mottoes they used as kinds of identifying signatures in alba amicorum, or friendship books, that functioned in the same way calling cards did, or I suppose, facebook wallposts do now. What, you ask, do these humanists mottoes have to do with running and Planned Parenthood?

Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, St. Bavo's, Ghent, Belgium c. 1432

 Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man, c. 1433. National Gallery, London

Last night, I was teaching my students about Jan van Eyck, master of the Ghent Altarpiece and eminent court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Jan is also well known for his contributions to portraiture. In the Portrait of a Man, almost certainly a self-portrait, he inscribed in pseudo-Greek letters "Als ich kan"--"As I can" on the frame. This was the first part of his personal motto, "As I can, but not as I would." Such a motto suggests the virtues of duty and humility. In discussing the portrait with my students, I mentioned how I wish I had a personal motto...and quipped it would probably be "Just do it!" But bummer! As we know, Nike got to that one before me!

Still, it got me to thinking. I've always found something compelling about the distillation of philosophy into a one-liner. Really, shouldn't how we want to live our lives be easy to remember? I've been drawn at various times to the now cliched "mens sana en corpore sano" "sound mind in a sound body" (now co-opted by the running shoe company Asics), as well as the less well known personal motto of sixteenth-century Dutch physician and collector Bernardus Paludanus (Berent ten Broecke) "pers angustus ad augustus" "through difficulty, wisdom." As we know from our contemporary politicized media spectacle, the quip, the sound byte, the one-liner can make or break you. Words, as many others have explicated, can be mightier than swords.

Mottoes and parables are indeed meant to be easy to remember, and often memory is prompted by visuals. That's why we find them throughout history and across cultures. Pieter Bruegel painted the many Netherlandish proverbs, and Akan cultures like the Asante use the verbal-visual nexus to instill moral virtue in their communities.

When I was in Ghana in 2010, I particularly liked the proverb told to me by the carver pictured above--"one cannot reach the top without help from below."

For me, these mottoes and proverbs are encapsulated in running and in the support services provided by Planned Parenthood. It's no wonder that Nike and Asics have appropriated mottoes as advertising slogans. Yet there is a moral purpose to many of them that should be made explicit. It's not just about being one's best, or leading the virtuous life for oneself. As the Akan proverb demonstrates, one cannot go it alone. This is true in running, and in life. Perhaps running is the distillation of a life--hard work, pain, success, joys...all in an environment over which one only has limited control, and which one shares with many others. Planned Parenthood provides services and resource to raise up people to be their best, both in mind and body by providing the information to make smart choices to have a high quality of life for oneself--and for one's partner(s), and whatever offspring one might bring into the world in the future.

So--after all that....I'm still left with the problem that came up in class last night. What should my personal motto be? I solicit your suggestions!

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