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New Yorker Locuta, Causa Finita

Last year, with several others, I got caught up briefly in Father Z’s dispute over the attribution of several chestnuts to St. Augustine. Everyone knows, for example, that the man from Hippo said “Roma locuta, causa finita” (Rome has spoken; the matter is settled). And everyone knows that he said “In necessariis unitas …” (In necessary matters unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity). The problem with these quotations — and several others, including “He who sings prays twice” — is that no one can find them in the works of Augustine.

I proposed that they represent the crystallization of Augustine’s arguments. “Roma locuta” is a summary of his Sermon 131.10. “In necessariis” is a summary of his famous Letter to Januarius. Good teachers tend to distill long treatises into simple, memorable principles. Augustine himself did this, and I think he inspired others to do the same for him down the centuries. It was a habit (and useful mnemonic) in the Middle Ages, when I’ll wager these sayings found their brief and lovely form.

All this came back to me when a friend — who was way behind on his reading — passed me an article from the February 19 & 26 New Yorker: “Notable Quotables” by Louis Menand, in which the author discusses the evolution of “quotes.”

Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson” … Leo Durocher did not say “Nice guys finish last” … William Tecumseh Sherman never wrote the words “War is hell” … Gordon Gekko, the character played by Michael Douglas in “Wall Street,” does not say “Greed is good”…

So what? Should we care? Quotable quotes are coins rubbed smooth by circulation. What Michael Douglas did say in “Wall Street” was “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” That was not a quotable quote; it needed some editorial attention, the consequence of which is that everyone distinctly remembers Michael Douglas uttering the words “Greed is good” in “Wall Street” … When you watch the movie and get to that line, you don’t think your memory is wrong. You think the movie is wrong.

“For lack of a better word” spoils a nice quotation — the speech is about calling a spade a spade, so there is no better word … What Leo Durocher actually said (referring to the New York Giants baseball team) was “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.” The sportswriters who heard him telescoped (the technical term is “piped”) the quote because it made a neater headline. They could have done a better job of piping. “Nice guys finish seventh” is a lot cleverer (and also marginally more plausible) than the non-utterance that gave immortality to Leo Durocher. But Leo Durocher doesn’t own that quotation; the quotation owns Leo Durocher, the way a parasite sometimes takes over the host organism. Quotations are in a perpetual struggle for survival. They want people to keep saying them. They don’t want to die any more than the rest of us do.

I like that. We haven’t been inaccurate. We’ve been “piping” Augustine, “telescoping” him. We’re salvaging his quotes by misquoting him. Such goodness, surely, is even better than greed, and certainly better than finishing last — or, perish the thought, getting dropped from the next edition of Bartlett’s.

12 thoughts on “New Yorker Locuta, Causa Finita

  1. In other words, these popular misquotes form a kind of catena – a way of remembering the gist of what was written without having to wade through all the detail.

  2. Or a kind of Cliff’s Notes, the little booklets that got so many of us through freshman year without actually having to read the fashionable American authors of 1981.

  3. Well the greatest saints do seem to get a lot attributed to them after death. Look at St. Francis who gets attributed for a lot of things never recorded that he said and even a prayer turned song. Though in most cases the attributions are pretty close to the saints charism in the first place.

  4. Well said, Jeff! And I think that’s true of all of these Augustinisms.

  5. Regarding the second quotation in question, perhaps this may shed some light, or open a trail for further investigation….

    In November 1884, Archbishop James Gibbons, in his remarks convening the Third Plenary Council in Baltimore “quoted St. Vincent Lérin’s maxim ‘In essentials unity, in doubtful things liberty, in all things, charity.’ ” [as related in “Prince of Democracy: James Cardinal Gibbons” (Bouchar & Tehan, Hanover House, 1962)]

  6. “Archbishop Gibbons, as the apostolic delegate, opened the [Third Plenary Council in Baltimore on November 9th, 1884] with a brief address in which he quoted St. Vincent Lerin’s maxim ‘In essentials unity, in doubtful things liberty, in all things, charity.’ ”

    [As related on page 118 of “Prince of Democracy:James Cardinal Gibbons” (Bouchar & Tehan, Hanover House, 1962)]

  7. Well, the Augustinish statement is often used in conjunction with Vincent’s canon: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” I can see how attribution could shift for skimming eyes. But I can’t find anything like it in Vincent either.

  8. Mike, I wondered if you ever found the source for the supposed St John Chrysostom quote “the floor of hell is littered with the skulls of bishops”? I know you were surprised that you couldn’t find the source in St John’s writings (as it does sound like something he’d have said!).

    Do you suppose it is also a kind of condensed or altered version of something he wrote? Or something modern attributed to the Saint to give it more weight? I’ve been looking for the source of that quote for a long time! God bless – shana

  9. Shana, I never found it, no. I still haven’t given up on it, though. It must be the anti-clerical Sicilian in me…

  10. Humphrey Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam,” either. Ummm, not quite on the same level, I know, but I’m a bit of a stickler.

  11. The New Yorker piece actually mentions the Bogart — and many others. (Jimmy Cagney never said “You dirty rat.”) I had to edit it down to make it bloggable!

  12. How about “God has promised forgiveness to your repentance; but He has not promised tomorrow to your procrastination”? I’m thinking exposition of Psalm 103

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