You would think that a university motto’s meaning, the very essence of a university’s mission and purpose, would be common knowledge or at least warrant critical examination.
I am afraid that in our own university’s case, we fall short on both counts. I refer, of course, to Pro Humanitate — For Humanity. While I appreciate and applaud the notion of community service that is typically invoked like clockwork upon mention of the phrase, this popular interpretation is undeniably misleading.
The humanity which the Latin word Humanitate, or rather Humanitas, denotes is not the collective assembly of humans on the planet; it is rather humanness, the quality of being human, for which we are meant to advocate in both sweeping rhetorical strokes and in our time generally at Wake Forest. To be sure, in serving our community and our world, we are serving humanity, but our motto specifically urges us to cultivate our own humanity, our character and our virtue.
I do not criticize per se the general, if unevaluated, understanding of our motto. I propose instead that our current understanding would benefit from a more complete chain of reasoning. After all, it is our motto.
Our university is for humanity, yes, and we serve our human brethren, yes, but in doing so, we are also serving ourselves. By studying, by leading, by befriending,and by giving, we are becoming better humans. It is noble to serve others, and we are nobler for it if we understand that we are exercising and refining the good in us — our humanity.
I am certainly not the first to clarify our motto’s meaning, but I have never had reason to believe that most of my fellow students, and even our top administrators, know the difference. Six years ago at Founders’ Day Convocation, Dr. James Powell, beloved professor of the classics, noted that we can truly serve humanity by considering our humanity — what makes us human — and how we flourish as humans. Our true commitment is to humanness and how we cultivate it. Just last semester at Student Union’s “Last Lecture,” Dr. Michael Sloan, another beloved professor of the classics, said that Pro Humanitate refers more to human refinement than to all humans. These are considerations that I myself was made aware of by Dr. John Oksanish in our study of one of Cicero’s speeches in Latin.
How most of us think of our motto — as a call to service — is not and should not be displaced, but rather is and should be developed, by this classical insight. Our motto is still a call to service for the sake of humanity. Every time we serve, though, we serve each other and ourselves. We are here to become better humans, so whenever you hear, see, or say Pro Humanitate, know that ultimately you are part of an age-old conversation about what it is to be human. That is why I am proud to be a Demon Deacon.