The motto appears on a scroll below the achievement in the College's Coat of Arms. It was chosen from several collected in 1930 by the noted antiquarian E. Wilson Dobbs.
The motto is a single-line text which follows the folds in the scroll. According to the conventions of heraldry, the inscription can only be read Fax + mentis + incendium + gloriæ.
RACS is not the first to use this motto. It properly belongs to the family of Hastings-Forbes, Earls of Granard. The Earldom was created in 1675, so presumably the motto was adopted about this time. Debrett translates it as "The incitement to glory is the firebrand of the mind".
Possible Ways of Translating the Motto
The most straightforward of the accepted translations is the one in the RACS Handbook, "The torch of the mind is the flame of glory". Given however the number of meanings which each Latin word can carry, there are several conditions which can be placed upon this translation:
- faxis primarily a torch which provides light, which illuminates; but it also carries the secondary meaning of 'firebrand', and metaphorically of 'inciter';
- mensprimarily refers to the reason, to memory and to the intellectual faculties; but it also carries overtones of intent, purpose and will;
- incendiumis is a heavily loaded word, meaning 'conflagration', emphasizing the destructive power of fire; but it can be used in a neutral sense of 'burning' or 'fiery heat'; its most significant later development is acquiring the meaning 'arson';
- gloriais is the easiest word to translate, simply as 'glory', and also carries related meanings of honour, fame, renown and praise; but more importantly, it was just as often used in Classical Latin in its opposite sense of vainglorious boasting, false pride and vanity.
Word for word, Fax mentis incendium gloriæmeans "the torch of the mind the fire of (vain) glory". There is no reason why this cannot stand as a complete translation, although most people would want some sort of elaboration or explanation. But once this is attempted, the clarity and conciseness of the message disappears. Even the RACS Handbook version moves slightly away from the purity of the original Latin.
Debrett's translation of the Granard motto inverts the Latin word order: in order for the translation to read "The incitement to glory is the firebrand of the mind", the Latin must be read as Incendium gloriæ fax mentis. This is grammatically possible, but it complicates the straightforward phraseology of the Latin. The translation "The torch of glory kindles the mind" enfolds the Latin word order. Other elaborations, such as "The flame of glory is the torch of the mind" and "Incitement of the mind is a blaze of glory" and "The stimulus of the mind is the kindling of glory", extract some sense from the words but lose the simplicity of the message.
An Alternative Interpretation
In the light of the accepted translations, all of which have difficulty in extracting the meaning, what does this motto have to do with medicine or surgery? It is the motto of an old and distinguished family with no medical connections. The words have no known connection with either Apollo, Chiron or the Sphynx. So why was it selected?
The answer may be that all the traditional translations have missed their mark, by not recognizing the import of the last two words. There is a sting in the tail of this motto:
The ordinary Latin word for fire isignis. The warm glow in the home fireplace, or the fire on which food is cooked, is focus. Incendiumis the fire that burns down houses, barns and villages, the fire that ravages fields and forests. It is dangerous, destructive and violent. The word retains these characteristics through the Middle Ages, even gaining additional force with new meanings such as 'arson' and 'burning at the stake'.
Gloriais so close to the English word derived from it that it is easy to forget, or even not to realise, that it is a two-edged sword, and in Classical Latin the word was used just as frequently to mean 'vainglory', 'boasting', 'false pride' and 'vanity'.
If gloriais interpreted in its positive meaning, then why is the torch of the mind a fire which destroys renown? But if gloriais interpreted in its negative sense, then the torch of the mind becomes a fire which destroys boasting and false pride.
Once this is understood, the motto takes on a rather satisfying symmetry. The first half is positive, the second half negative, but the action of the first half on the second ensures a positive outcome. Light prevails over heat, reason over emotion.
The message behind the words can now be seen. The torch of the mind is of course knowledge, and knowledge comes through education. This forms a connection with Chiron, the archetypal teacher, and with the (Greek) Sphynx, who destroyed all those who could not solve her riddle. Knowledge destroys the false pride of the ignorant. But who are these vainglorious boasters? Clearly, they are the traditional enemies of good medicine, the mountebanks and charlatans who stand up on soap boxes and promote the wonders of snake-oil panaceas. RACS is an educational institution. One of the chief aims of the founders of RACS was, as one commentator put it, to get rid of 'cowboy' surgery. Thus the motto encapsulates in just four words the aims and ideals of RACS, which is why Dobbs selected it, and Council accepted it.
Geoff Down, College Curator, June 2003