Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

May all our laws be farious!

THE WORD NEFARIOUS is common enough. The etymology of nefarious is itself interesting, and reveals a gap in our language. The word nefarious comes to us from Latin nefarius, a combination of the negative prefix "ne" (=not) and "fari" (=speak). In Latin, the word nefarius was an adjective derived from the noun nefas, the word for crime or great wickedness. The word nefas is a compound word derived from the combination of ne (not) and fas (right, divine law, divine speech). Fas is perhaps the Western equivalent to the Eastern notion of dharma, or the Greek themis. As St. Isidore defined it in his Etymologies: Fas lex divina est, ius lex humana. Etym. V, ii. 2. Fas is divine law, ius is human law. The Roman historian Livy states in Book 33 of his History of Rome regarding the Isthmian Games and in reference to the Romans: "There is," people said, "one nation which at its own cost, through its own exertions, at its own risk has gone to war on behalf of the liberty of others. It renders this service not to those across its frontiers, or to the peoples of neighbouring States or to those who dwell on the same mainland, but it crosses the seas in order that nowhere in the wide world may injustice and tyranny exist, but that right and equity and law may be everywhere supreme. (ubique ius fas lex potentissima sint) By this single proclamation of the herald all the cities in Greece and Asia recover their liberty." Livy, 33.33, 7. The notion of fas carried with it the notion that there was a law (fas) above the law (lex and ius). Accordingly, someone who was nefarius was someone who engaged in nefas, that is one who was not in accord with, who had departed from, the divine law or divine utterance (fas). In Latin there was a common saying: per fas aut (or et) nefas, meaning through right or wrong, or as we may say it, by hook or by crook.

It is unfortunate that the positive notion of farius did not also come into our language. In other words, though a law may be said to be nefarious, it would be a neologism to say that a law is farious or in accord with divine law. Though the adjective farious is not commonly used in the English as meaning in accord with divine law, it has found its way into common use in the fields of biology or botany. The word farious is used by biologists and botanists in the sense of arrangement, order, or ways. Thus, bifarious is an adjective that describes plants pointing in two ways, or in two rows. The word also finds use in unifarious (one part, row, ordering, or ranks), trifarious (three ranks), quadrifarious (arranged in four ranks), quinquefarious (five), septifarious (seven), and omnifarious, or plurifarious (many orderings or ranks). More commonly, we see the concept in the word multifarious, a word which has found its way in common English usage, and which means including many parts or things, a great multiplicity of parts or ways or orderings.

White Veratrum (Veratrum album)
and its trifariously arranged leaves

Used in its original sense, a nefarious law is no law at all, something with which St. Augustine in his On the City of God, St. Thomas in his Summa Theologiae, or Martin Luther King in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" would be in agreement. A farious law, on the other hand, is a law consonant with divine law, with the natural law. A farious law is one that binds in conscience, for even human law, if consonant with divine law, binds in conscience. A farious law is one that is not crooked or out of the way, but, quite the opposite, is straight, singular, and on the way.

May all our laws be farious!

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