The proverb “Vox populi, vox Dei” – “The voice of the people [is] the voice of God” – can be traced back to the eighth century, though earlier origins are probable. Yet the eighth-century version, considered in its entirety, actually meant the opposite of what most people think today.
In a 798 A.D. letter to Charlemagne, Alcuin wrote: “Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit, which translates into English as: “And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.”
Eighteenth-century conservatives and right-wingers, otherwise known as the aristocracy, certainly agreed that “vox populi” was “close to madness.” On the morning of Oct. 5, 1789, some Parisian women, suffering from an overpriced-bread shortage, led a 12-plus-mile march on Versailles to appeal to King Louis XVI for redress. They surrounded his palace and forced the king, his family, and the government to move to Paris, where, from then on, these aristocrats were subject to popular control.
A Slogan with Legs
Abraham Lincoln referred to something resembling the voice of the people in the magnificent conclusion of his Gettysburg Address, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Five years earlier, on July 9, 1858, Lincoln’s opponent in debate also referenced the voice of the people. Stephen Douglas said, “In my opinion this government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men, in such a manner as they should determine.”
Today’s voices are increasingly influenced by global media. What people hear about many important subjects is professionally packaged news feed. Hearing the voice of the people is no simple matter.
7 Billion Voices
Once upon a time there were fewer than 100 human voices. Eventually there were a million, and then a billion. And now there are 7 billion human voices.
Lincoln was a Republican. Douglas was a Democrat. Our world keeps changing. Who represents the people’s voice (vox populi) in America now: the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the 99%, the silent majority? Isn’t this diversity of voices one of America’s greatest strengths?
Many blogs pontificate about good and bad guys. This blog is more about asking questions than answering them. What do you think? Please share your voice.