Mike Aquilina

New Yorker Locuta, Causa Finita

Tuesday August 14th 2007, 3:02 am

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.