Mens Agitat Molem

Rossall School shares its motto with various other illustrious institutions including the University of Oregon, the University of Warwick and Eindhoven University of Technology. However, unless you are a classical scholar, its meaning might not readily be apparent. You might conclude that it has something to do with unkind men irritating velvety little creatures who dig up lawns. Rather surprisingly, it was the motto of the student’s union at Newcastle University until fairly recently. This resulted in the student bar being referred to simply as ‘Mens’. As you can imagine, this caused no small degree of confusion from undergraduates who believed that its appellation was little more than a sexist nod towards the patriarchy. It was not, but if a joke has to be explained then it is not really a joke. Mens Bar has now become Luther’s Bar in honour of  Martin Luther-King’s 1967 visit to Newcastle University where he gave one of his greatest speeches which included the wonderful lines:

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation, and of all the nations of the world, into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood and speed up the day when all over the world justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

So our motto has nothing to do with moles and nor has it anything to do with men –  as the undergraduates of Newcastle University unwittingly presumed. The phrase first appears in Book Six of Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid. The Aeneid is Virgl’s masterpiece and tells the story of the hero Aeneas, a Trojan, who fled the fall of Troy and travelled to Italy, where he was destined to become the forefather of the Roman people. In 9,896 lines of dactylic hexameter we learn of the sack of Troy, perilous storms at sea and the doomed love affair between Dido and Aeneas. The action then moves from Carthage to Italy itself where the Trojans are forced to fight for the establishment of a new homeland – Latium. The gods frequently intervene in the action to either frustrate or aid the mission of Aeneas and his fellow warriors.

In Book Six of the Aeneid, Aeneas journeys to the Underworld where he meets many of the casualties of the Trojan War. Immediately after crossing the River Styx, Aeneas has the opportunity to meet with his dead father Anchises. Aeneas asks his father if it is indeed possible for souls to return from the Underworld.  His father replies that it is possible and seeks to explain the relationship between the spirit and matter. This section of the Aeneid is concerned with the metaphysical world and enters the realm of speculative philosophy. It is a far cry from the action-packed books that precede and succeed it.  

Aeneas in the Underworld  Jan Brueghel the Elder (c. 1600)

There is no universally agreed translation of the phrase ‘Mens Agitat Molem’ but it means something along the lines of ‘mind moves matter’ or ‘mind over matter’. It is not surprising that this phrase resonated especially well with nineteenth century educationalists. Rapid industrialization must have led many to conclude that intellectual rigour and strength of will was, of itself, enough to achieve great things. Advances in medicine, the construction of railways and mighty steamships, the building of modern factories, the exploration of new territories and  the invention of such marvels as photography must have bolstered the belief that the human spirit really was capable of accomplishing pretty much everything. The Victorian Age was an age of unbridled confidence which gave rise to colonial conceit and the concept of muscular Christianity. It was an age which prized mental and physical resilience and it is easy to dismiss our school  motto as an appeal to unthinking toughness. However, a gentler reading of our motto would remind us that we possess the potential to affect positive change within the world around us.

It is a motto drawn from the classical world and has little to do with Christrian doctrine. However, some will choose to draw a parallel with the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus informs his disciples that, ‘if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’, and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you’.

Of course, it is not possible for us to control all aspects of our existence  through the strength of our faith or through the strength of our intellect. Fate is a capricious companion and we are sadly forced to confront immense challenges such as ill-health or familial bereavement. There are things that we cannot change and it is important that we learn to accept adversity with courage and grace.

The Serenity Prayer (much utilised by Alcoholics Anonymous) embraces a contrastingly stoical philosophy which would not have been out of place in the Roman world.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.    

The Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus mused that ‘some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, so are our impulses, desires, aversions.’

Epictetus goes on to point out some of the aspects of our lives which are beyond our control. The eleventh century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol points out the importance of discerning between that which is within our power to change and that which is beyond our power.  Similarly, Buddhist scholars highlight the same point and you do not need to look far to find such ideas in modern comic strips and Hollywood blockbusters.

Of course, there is much in this world that we cannot change and no amount of mental strength will give us the power of teleportation or the ability to time travel. However, we do have the ability to overcome hardship or conquer negative emotions. We do have the power to endure physical trials and work through intellectual challenges. Time and again we see the indomitable strength of the human spirit at work.  Throughout history, humankind’s capacity to survive has been tested; often in the most unforgiving of environments. The Holocaust is a tragedy of unfathomable depths but many of the survivors whom I have had the good fortune to work alongside have survived that which seems entirely unlivable. The example set by their strength is endlessly inspiring.

Primo Levi 

In his memoir, ‘If this is a Man’  Primo Levi tells the story of Steinlauf, a middle-aged Hungarian man who had previously served in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Early on during Primo’s time in Auschwitz, Steinlauf talks of the importance of staying clean even though the water in the washrooms is rancid and the inmates will almost certainly become dirty almost immediately after they have finished washing. Primo was reluctant to bother washing until he perceived the point that Steinlauf was making. He writes:

Precisely because the camp was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization.

Steinlauf made the point that despite the effort to reduce them to animals, they could choose to resist within their hearts and, by washing, not consent to being defined as subhuman.

So our motto should not be taken too literally. We cannot move physical matter through the power of our thoughts and there are many aspects of our lives over which we have little control. However, through perseverance and the application of our intellectual faculties we can accomplish great things. We must have the wisdom to know the difference between that which we can change and that which is beyond our control but we should place great faith in our intellectual faculties and the spiritual dimension of our beings. If our motto provokes us to reflect upon such matters then it serves a very useful purpose indeed.  

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School