Sunday, May 20, 2012

What does "Respice Finem" really mean?

Originally published in TCK Family News in June 2008

I am not a Latin scholar to define the actual meaning of the college motto with any scholarly authority, but a recent discussion between a few young Trinitians about the meaning of “Respice Finem” brought out a few interesting facts that I felt was worthy of broader contemplation. ‘The Gesta Romanorum’ or ‘Deeds of the Romans’ was compiled in Latin in the early fourteenth century by an English cleric and published in 1473. In its 103rd chapter is a verse that reads: ‘Quidquid agas, prudenter agas, et respice finem’ which means ‘Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end’. Most of the authoritative sources that I have come across, also translate “Respice Finem” as “Look to the end”. Notably, most common interpretations of the phrase are limited to the borders of an action; “ do whatever you do cautiously...” “ consider the end result of your action”...

The simple question that begs to be asked however is; what would the founders of Trinity have intended when they adopted this phrase as the motto of this great institution? Would they have borrowed it from ‘The Gesta Romanorum’? Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps the founders of Trinity were more influenced by the 36th verse in the 7th Chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Holy Bible which says “Whatsoever thou takest in hand, remember the end, and thou shalt never do amiss” (King James Version).

Trinity College was founded on the Christian faith and its principles. Christianity’s strong emphasis on ‘salvation after death’ brought the concept of death itself and the mortality of life to the forefront of Christian thought and philosophy. It is also widely accepted that “Respice Finem” in the context of post classical European literature has been used as a “memento mori” – a reminder of our mortality and of death – just like the verse in the book of Ecclesiastes. Therefore in light of Trinity’s foundations on Christian values and philosophy, it seems likely that “...the end” refers to death itself. This may sound grim to the uninitiated, and an unlikely bit of advice for young schoolboy minds; however, it offers a most profound insight into life itself.

It is not only possible but most probable that the founding fathers of Trinity intended this motto to carry a much broader meaning; also as a reminder of the virtues of modesty and humility in light of the mortality of life’s glorious constructs. Standing behind a victorious roman General who is parading the spoils of war through the streets of Rome, would often be a slave who was assigned the task of reminding the General that though he is victorious today, death and destruction could only be as far away as tomorrow. Such a slave in chapter 33 of Tertullian’s Apologeticus tells his General “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento!” It means “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man!” Is it a coincidence that a similar message is found again in our adopted school song where it says;

“The stars and sounding vanities 
That half the crowd bewitch. 
What are they but inanities..”

“To speak of fame a venture is, 
There's little here can bide,”

“For though the dust that's part of us, 
To dust again be gone,”

The impermanence of material possessions, the superficiality of worldly glory and the virtues of following a 'middle path' is also at the core of Buddhist philosophy. This makes me stand in awe at the vision of those who adopted "Respice Finem" to be the guiding light of all Trinitians who have sought out a message that is not uniquely Christian, but one that is shared and understood by all.

Yet “Respice Finem” is not a pessimistic message of the futility of high ambitions and glory.

Perhaps it has been taken for granted that Trinitians will be natural heirs to 'glory' and 'greatness' and therefore, more in need of a reminder – like for victorious Generals - to "look to the end"; to the superficiality of Glory and fame in the face of the ultimate end; so that they may be inspired to be humble and modest, especially at the pinnacles of their life's achievements. Of course a phrase, poem or essay is only as rich as the breadth and depth in which it can be interpreted. The various interpretations or the phrase “Respice Finem” is perhaps the best testimony of its richness. I hope every Trinitian will be inspired to examine more critically, whether we have lived up to the highest meaning that the phrase “Respice Finem” holds within it. That - perhaps - would be the greatest of all lessons that Trinity has taught us.

Respice Finem!

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