nullius in verba

13. Ac ne forte roges quo me duce, quo Lare tuter;
nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri,
quo me cumque rapit tempestas, deferor hospes.

13. But do not ask me which I was the leader,
to which household deity I belong;
I am not bound to swear to the words of the master,
and wherever the weather blows, I make myself at home.

13. In case you ask who’s my master, what roof protects me,
I’m not bound to swear by anyone’s precepts,
I’m carried, a guest, wherever the storm-wind blows me.

13. And lest you should perchance ask under what leader,
in what house [of philosophy], I enter myself a pupil:
addicted to swear implicitly to the ipse-dixits of no particular master,
wherever the weather drives me, I am carried a guest.

Horace, Epistulae 1.13-15

Derived from this passage in Horace’s Epistles is the motto for the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, nullius in verba, which translates as “on the word of no one”.

The passage in context provides a more comprehensive picture of where this motto was derived. Horace is writing Maecenas, who is Horace’s patron, or the one who financial supports his intellectual pursuits. He’s explaining his departure from lyrical prose and poetry to apply his efforts to philosophical undertakings. In this particular passage, he’s explaining that he’s not an adherent of any particular school of philosophy, that he has no allegiance, that he’s not obligated to any set of precepts, other than wherever the weather carries him or, rather, wherever his private investigations lead him.

In this way we see that, rather than subscribing to a school of thought based on the findings and anecdotal experiences and reasoning of others before him, he’ll arrive in his own way where his convictions take him.

Thus we derive nullius in verba from his assertion that he is bound to no master, or on the word of no one. 

This is a beautiful idea.

We must not take anyone’s word. We must experience it ourselves, first hand, if we are to arrive at a stolid conviction of its nature, and develop an authentic knowledge of our own.

Second hand experiences derived from perceived or socially accepted sources of authority often times appear to offer a quick and expedient remedy to challenges and problems, but they will never be a satisfactory substitute for first hand, genuine experience guided by the investigative nature of an inquisitive spirit on its quest for wisdom and understanding and enlightenment.


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