The Department of Greek and Latin at The Ohio State University
Mourning Athena
[Classics-L 1999: January]
Re: vigilantesque Latinity

From: David Lupher (dlupher_at_ups.edu)
Date: 01/08/99



Many thanks to Alfred Kriman for drawing my attention to Bartlett:
> under Anonymous: Latin (p. 119, #2 in the current edition, 16/e):
> _Fiat justitia ruat coelum_
> -- Proverb, sometimes attributed to Lucius Calpurnius Piso
> Caesoninus [d. 43 B.C.]

But I would second Prof. Butrica's query:
>But where in our ancient sources are these words recorded? [snip]

Much fuller than Bartlett is the entry on pp. 1030-1 of Burton Stevenson's "Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern" (Dodd, Mead, 1967):

        Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.
        (Fiat justitia et ruant coeli.)
        William Watson, "Ten Quodlibetical Quotations Concerning
        Religion and State" (1601).  The whole quotation is: "You
        go against that general maxim in the laws, which is 'Fiat
        justitia et ruant coeli.'"  This is the first appearance
        in English literature, so far as is known, of what was 
        apparently a maxim even in 1600.  It was used by William
        Prynne ("Fresh Discovery of Prodigious Wandering New-Blazing
        Stars," 1646), by Nathaniel Ward ("Simple Cobbler of Agawam,"
        1647), and frequently thereafter, but it was given its
        widest celebrity in 1768 when it was quoted by Lord Mansfield
        in Rex vs. Wilkes.  The maxim is given in various forms:
        "Fiat justitia et ruant coeli" (Watson); "Fiat justitia
        et coelum ruat" (Manningham, Diary, 11 April, 1603);
        "Justitia fiat, ruat coelum" (Lord Mansfield).

Stevenson proceeds to cite Mansfield's use of the motto, which seems closest to the Vigilantesque version:

        The constitution does not allow reasons of state to influence 
        our judgment.  God forbid it should!  We must not regard
        political consequences, however formidable they might be;
        if rebellion was the certain consequence, we are bound to
        say, 'Justitia fiat, ruat coelum.'
                William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, Judgement of Rex
                vs. Wilkes (Burrows, 'Reports,' Vol. iv., p. 2562).
                In this judgment, Lord Mansfield reversed the 
                sentence of outlawry passed upon John Wilkes for
                the publication of the North Briton.

Stevenson proceeds to cite some other uses of the motto:
        
        Let justice reign though the heaven fall.
        (Regnet justicia et ruat coelum.)
                Duke of Richmond, Speech, House of Lords,
                31 Jan., 1642 (Old Parliamentary History,
                Vol. x, p. 28.)

        Let justice be done though the world perish.
        (Fiat justitia et ruat mundus.)
                Unknown, Egerton Papers, p. 52 (1552),
                (Aikin, Court and Times of James I,
                ii., 500, 1625.)  Said to be the motto
                of Ferdinand I, Emperor of Germany.
                (Johannes Manlius, Loci Communes, ii.)

        Let justice be done though the world perish.
        (Fiat jus et pereat mundus.)
                St. Augustine.  (Attributed to him by
                Jeremy Taylor.)

        Though the heaven falls, let thy will be done.
        (Ruat coelum, fiat voluntas tua.)
                Sir Thomas Browne, "Relilgio Medici,"
                Pt. ii, sec. 12

        Do well and right, and let the world sink.
                George Herbert, "Country Parson," Ch. 29


Stevenson's uncharacteristically unthorough reference to Augustine and Jeremy Taylor is intriguing. Maybe this weekend I'll set aside a little time and read through the entire works of both gents to locate the passages. (Apologies to Isidodre of Seville!)

It's interesting that Stevenson makes no reference to Piso.

In any case, Stevenson's entries persuade me that the tag was indeed familiar enough in legally and politically literate Anglophone circles, and I need not have conconcocted my fantasy of the subterranean influence of California's anterior culture.

Say, what about proposing that some form of the motto be adopted by the U.S. Senate as the slogan for their current project? I see that it's too late to get it printed on the tickets of admission, but a banner could still be unfurled. It would look great behind those snazzy stripes on Rehnquist's gown (purportedly inspired by his viewing of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanathe"---I must say that this is the first time I've learned that Rehnquist has a sense of humor).

As for the S.F. Committees of Vigilance, how about a last word from a great philosopher and great Californian, Josiah Royce? Terming the careers of these committees the "greatest of the popular movements in California history," he adds:

        Under the circumstances, as we have seen, it was inevitable.
        What had made it inevitable was a long continued career of
        social apathy, of treasonable public carelessness.  What it
        represented was not so much the dignity of the sovereign
        people, as the depth and bitterness of popular repentance
        for the past.  What it accomplished was not the direct
        destruction of a criminal class, but the conversion of 
        honest men to a sensible and devout local patriotism.
        What it teaches us now, both in California and elsewhere,
        is the sacredness of a true public spirit, and the great
        law that the people who forget the divine order of things
        have to learn thereof anew some day, in anxiety and pain.       
                Josiah Royce, "California: From the Conquest in 1846 
                to the Second Vigilance Committee in San Francisco:
                A Study of American Character" (Houghton, Mifflin,
                1888), p. 465

(Lest Royce's words inspire any list members to sign up for their local Posse Comitatus, I hasten to add that Royce contritely began the last paragraph of his interesting book thusly: "After all, however, our lesson is an old and simple one. It is the State, the Social Order, that is divine. We are but dust, save as this social order gives us life." p. 501)

David Lupher
Classics Program
Univ. of Puget Sound


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