Their mottos might suggest to uninitiated visitors from abroad that Latin is still the lingua franca of our universities. Lux with its implication of enlightenment, along with truth (veritas), and knowledge (scientia) are among the favored terms, from Harvard’s veritas by way of Yale’s lux et veritas to Berkeley’s fiat lux and Michigan’s artes, scientia, veritas.
Probably no campus bristles with more Latin inscriptions than Princeton, even though its motto—Dei sub numine viget—promises that we will thrive under the auspices of the deity rather than truth. The mantelpiece in Procter Hall of the Graduate College announces bonus intra melior exi (“You’re good when you arrive; be better when you leave”)—an inscription (from a North African temple of Aesculapius) that a dean can still find useful in welcoming incoming students and bidding farewell to graduating Ph.D.s, as well as greeting potential donors.
The elevators in Firestone Memorial Library quote Ovid and promise to aspiring scholars that “your harvest is still ripening” (adhuc tua messis in herba est)—a questionable double-entendre in these days of sexual harassment when “no means no” (it is taken from a suggestive passage in the Heroides ending the encouraging letter that Helen writes to her potential seducer, Paris of Troy. Virgil formerly reminded chemists entering their library in Frick Hall that “blessed is he who has learned to know the causes of things” (felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas). (One wonders if the inscription will hold the same meaning for the new occupants as the chemists move out of the remodeled building and the alchemists—I beg your pardon: the economists—move in.)
No inscription is more conspicuous than the one decorating the south façade of Alexander Hall in center campus: Nil dulcius est bene quam munita tenere / edita doctrina sapientum templa serena.Even students who know enough Latin to decipher the words—“Nothing is more delightful than to occupy serene temples, lofty and informed by the teachings of the learned”—are probably unacquainted with their author. Lucretius (ca. 99-55 BCE) is much less familiar today than his Roman successors Virgil and Ovid. His classic work of natural philosophy, De Rerum Natura, is glaringly absent from the standard curriculum of high school Latin courses.
This contemporary neglect is surprising in light of the enormous esteem Lucretius enjoyed from the time of his rediscovery in the Renaissance down to the early 20th century. It was not only the philosophers who read his work. In The German Ideology (1845), Karl Marx praised Lucretius as “a hero who first overturned the gods and trampled religion under his feet.” Nietzsche recommended Lucretius to those who want to understand what Epicurus was combating: “Christianity, that is to say, the ruin of souls by the concept of guilt, punishment, and immortality.” And Albert Einstein, in his introduction to a 1924 German translation of De Rerum Natura, wrote that “Anyone who has not succumbed wholly to the spirit of our time but occasionally feels himself to be an onlooker vis-à-vis the surrounding world and the intellectual positions of his contemporaries will be susceptible to the magic of Lucretius’s work.”
In Lucretius’s text (book 2, lines 7-8) the inscription on Alexander Hall looks at first glance like an expression of mild Schadenfreude. It is pleasing, the passage begins, to watch from shore when another is undergoing tribulations in a stormy sea; to observe the battles of war from a safe position. But nothing is more pleasant than to occupy serene temples, from which one may look down upon others wandering astray and seeking the path of life.
It is at this point that his examples become relevant to the situation on campuses today. For what is Lucretius criticizing? The contest of intellects and the struggle for precedence (certare ingenio, contendere nobilitate) that he describes sound suspiciously like the striving for higher test scores and the attempt to construct a persuasive CV with extracurricular activities that win admission to college in the first place and then obsess so many students: courses and activities that will enable them, as Lucretius continues, to attain the greatest riches and to acquire power (ad summas emergere opes rerumque potiri).
But, he argues, such earthly treasures and positions do nothing for our bodies and are also without benefit for the mind. The uncertainties of the spirit, he informs us, can be dispelled only by an understanding of the laws of nature, by which Lucretius means not only physical nature but also humankind’s social nature. He rejects the patchwork learning of what 19th-century German scholars called Brotgelehrte—“bread scholars,” those who learn only what they need to get a job and make a living—and recommends the course of those concerned with issues of philosophy.
Neither Lucretius nor the Germans who created what became the model of the American university had in mind professional philosophers; they meant, rather, those who seek a well-rounded education in the sciences and humanities in “serene temples informed by the teachings of the learned” as the essential background for advanced degrees in law, medicine, theology, business, or other fields.
During a relatively brief period—say, from the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810 down to the mid-20th century in the United States—many leading universities could indeed be compared to “serene temples” where students and professors pursued knowledge for its own sake. This knowledge was understood as unified and underpinned by “philosophy”: that is, the liberal arts and humanities. In 1894 the quotation from Lucretius could be inscribed on a university building with no sense of irony.
Today high-school advisers urge students to fill their dossiers with extracurricular activities and their teachers train them for their SATs; admissions committees look for everything except a dedication to learning; faculty mentors advise students to focus on their fields of concentration; appointments committees seek candidates with a high degree of specialization; departments offer seminars on specialized topics rather than courses of a more comprehensive and synthesizing nature; and uni-versities are disjoined into an organizational chaos of schools, divisions, departments, institutes, centers, and programs.
In this world it is with a sense of melancholy that the occasional passerby contemplates Lucretius and his vision of templa serena based on a unified conception of knowledge. Perhaps the shield of the 21st century should promise, rather than lux et veritas, the Lucretian opes et res.
Theodore Ziolkowski is a professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of Lure of the Arcane: The Literature of Cult and Conspiracy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013