New Order of the Ages

obverse

Maybe it was the result of an unsuccessful brainstorming session, but the newly-independent United States had, not one, but three Latin mottoes.

E Pluribus Unum – Out of many, one.
Annuit cœptis – Our plan is approved.
Novus ordo seclorum – New Order of the Ages.

They feature on the Great Seal of the USA, which was first used in 1782. The front, or obverse, of the Seal has the Bald Eagle in heraldic pose, clutching arrows for war and the olive branch for peace, and the first of the slogans: E Pluribus Unum. The reverse of the Seal has the other two mottoes, along with a curiously arcane design of an eye and pyramid.

The design on the reverse is sometimes claimed to be of Masonic origin, but the opposite is true: Masons didn’t begin to use the Eye symbol until after the publication of the Great Seal. The official, and likely, expanation of the symbolism is that the design represents the “Eye of Providence” approving and watching over the “building” of the new country. The unfinished pyramid has 13 levels, representing the first 13 States.

The concept of the Eye of Providence may have been chosen in order to be vague enough to satisfy most kinds of religious belief. Many of the famous leaders of the new USA were not Christians, strictly speaking. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison and others were Enlightenment intellectuals who adhered to the beliefs of Deism — that there is an abstract God and Creator, but that God does not intervene in the World.

Jefferson, for example, had carefully read the Bible and concluded that Jesus was not divine, nor had ever claimed to be, and that His worthy message had been corrupted and embellished ever since His Crucifixion. While President, Jefferson wrote a condensed version of the New Testament, omitting “untruth, charlatanism and imposture” and “palpable interpolations and falsifications”. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, known as the Jefferson Bible, is still in print today. (And available on line at the University of Virginia [http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/JefJesu.html].)

The selection of the three Latin phrases also avoided any particular religious slant. “Annuit cœptis“, being particularly terse, is open to interpretation. Who approves? The original artist had proposed a slogan with a direct reference to God, but Charles Thompson, secretary to Congress (and a native of Maghera) replaced it with the vaguer one. “Novus ordo seclorum” is sometimes mistranslated as “New World Order”, or even “New Secular Order”, but “seclorum” means “of the ages”. New Order of the Ages.

Both of those latter phrases were adapted from the work of the Roman poet Virgil. The first one, “E Pluribus Unum – Out of many, one.” comes from a poem also thought by the Founding Fathers to be by Virgil, although modern scholars aren’t so sure. The poem is long and discursively allegorical, but the subject is the Moretum. That’s an ancient Roman dish made of herbs, fresh cheese, salt, oil and some vinegar.  “Out of many, one” refers to grinding up the ingredients in a mortar.

It was spread onto a bread base. Basically the ancient Roman equivalent of pizza. E Pluribus Eat’em.

reverse

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