Nemo dat quod non habet

We have in the studio Bertrand Russell, who talked to us in the series “Sense Perception and Nonsense: Number 7, Is this a dagger I see before me?” Bertrand Russell.

Russell: One of the advantages of living in Great Court, Trinity I seem to recall, was the fact that one could pop across at any time of the day or night and trap the then young G. E. Moore into a logical falsehood by means of a cunning semantic subterfuge. I recall one occasion with particular vividness. I had popped across and had knocked upon his door. “Come in,” he said. I decided to wait awhile in order to test the validity of his proposition. “Come in,” he said once again. “Very well,” I replied, “if that is in fact truly what you wish.”

I opened the door accordingly and went in, and there was Moore seated by the fire with a basket upon his knees. “Moore,” I said, “do you have any apples in that basket?” “No,” he replied, and smiled seraphically, as was his wont. I decided to try a different logical tack. “Moore,” I said, “do you then have some apples in that basket?” “No,” he replied, leaving me in a logical cleft stick from which I had but one way out. “Moore,” I said, “do you then have apples in that basket?” “Yes,” he replied. And from that day forth, we remained the very closest of friends.

Classic text on bare plurals

There is the risk when engaging in analysis approaching the philosophic that the enterprise is mockingly reduced to overstatement, absurdity and inutility. Certainly the want of pragmatism is regularly warranted but to describe the endeavour as embroidery or stupidity is unfair. In my era of undergraduate studies at Glendon Hall in the liberal arts with a formation in philosophy there may indeed have been some strength to the accusation. I recall for example that a professor suggested the bounding thesis of one of my papers was that “Art is Fart” which I can tell you was more than a little disturbing not to mention insinuating!

I shall nonetheless venture upon the task of explaining my choice of the Latin maxim “Nemo dat quod non habet” as an underlying adage for my website. I am mightily encouraged in my dissection by the practical and serendipitous advantage of having studied law. This study in graduate school at Dalhousie University introduced me to the hitherto unexamined niceties of logic which more than anything capture the rational feature of sound judgement in the candid and critical ambience of commerce.

The Latin Maxim

The epigram “Nemo dat quod non habet” is Latin for “No one gives what he does not have“. It is equivalent to the even more tortuous civil (continental) rule “Nemo plus iuris ad alium transferre potest quam ipse habet” which means “one cannot transfer to another more rights than he has“. I will not venture into the entirely esoteric discussion of the rights of a bona fide purchaser from an unlawful seller. To me the salient benefit of this predominantly legal rule is it overriding axiomatic truth; namely, the prohibition of what is often the unwitting enlargement beyond one’s capacity and the resulting exposure to injury on all sides. For example when a landlord makes a contract with a tenant, the tenant should not mistakenly assume that if the rent is paid all will be well. If the landlord by contrast fails to pay his mortgage, the lender is entitled to evict the tenant notwithstanding the tenant’s compliance with the terms of the deal with the landlord. I mention these specifics not for the purpose of boring my legal colleagues but as a reminder that things are not always fully apparent even from what is written, at least not without further examination and enquiry. The maxim is a broader reminder that in plain English things are not necessarily or completely what they appear. One should accordingly approach even the most distinguished and impressive circumstances with introspection. It is dangerous to be persuaded by mere outward form no matter how distinguished the trappings in which it appears.

The Symbolic Significance

Just as I have derived indisputable persuasions from my public school and university studies so too have I adopted certain mystical themes from Masonic ritual, having at one time been Master of Mississippi Lodge No. 147 constituted by Grand Lodge of Canada in 1861. The well-known symbols of Masonry are the square and compass.

For purposes of this discussion I will confine my comments to those relating to the compass. Aside from the patent import of the compass for architecture, there is a further behavioural influence.

Some Lodges and rituals explain these symbols as lessons in conduct: for example, Duncan’s Masonic Monitor of 1866 explains them as: “The square, to square our actions; The compasses, to circumscribe and keep us within bounds with all mankind”. However, as Freemasonry is non-dogmatic, there is no general interpretation for these symbols (or any Masonic symbol) that is used by Freemasonry as a whole.

My less than learned interpretation of the compass is its demonstrable limitation upon scope notwithstanding its variety of direction. This is a forceful ingredient in the decisions to be made on a daily basis; namely, just how far does one seek to extend oneself? This is a consideration which I have heard encapsulated in another adage, “If you do what you like then you’ll like what you do“. It bears recognition that performing what one enjoys does not constitute submission; rather it is the skilful manner in which to construct one’s internal architecture. Nor similarly is it any indignity to contemplate what nature routinely offers as examples of mystery but inherent constraint. The incredulity of the common bee in creating its hives and combs does not mean its inability to perform as may a cat or dog is an insufficiency.

The Psychology of Constraint

Here the profundity of the maxim may afford its most fearful poison. The theory is not merely that one cannot give what he does not have, but as importantly that one should not give what he does not have. In spite of the expansion of maturity and education it requires but modest observation to discern that not only does the seed fall close to the root but that most of us are manifestations of what we have been practically from birth – whether we blame our parents or ourselves. The frozen truth is that we are what we are and that any attempt to discolour or ornament the reality is doomed.

The good news is that the acknowledgement of this inscrutable idiom is the secret not only to facility and happiness but also expansion of purpose and meaning. Once confessed the adoption of the theme releases the inner juices in the same way a religious experience ignites the soul. I do however encourage the espousal of this credo as a far more practical and efficient means of living.