Nullius in Verba

I got my fourth tattoo today from Niah and the fine folks at Black Gold Tattoo here in Tulsa, OK. It had been a number of years since I have gotten any new ink, and today seemed like just as good a day as any. It is my brother’s birthday as well, and he is a tattoo nut, so this is in part for him as well.

The reactions have run the gamut from “Wow, cool!” to “But why?”. To those on the lower, disapproving end of the spectrum, I played it off as just something I wanted to do, or simply replied, “Why not?”

But the truth is that this phrase is the most important thing I have learned thus far in 2020, which is saying a lot. So far this year, I have had to learn to live on my own again, I have taught myself ukulele, I have tried to learn Python, I have begun studying philosophy again. Yet all of these things pale in comparison to the effect these three simple Latin words have had on my life in 2020.

Nullius in verba is Latin for “on the word of no-one.” More loosely translated, it is taken to mean “think (or do) for yourself.”

I have spent much of my life doing was I was told to do, believing what I was told to believe. From my religious upbringing, through my military service, through my varied jobs in the private sector, and through two failed marriages, I have always tried to do what I thought the other party felt was right.

Perhaps I paint with too-broad strokes here – it is not like I was a robot following orders. I have had my fun, and made my share of stupid mistakes that were 100% my idea alone. However, there were definitely times where I felt like an automaton, and this characterization is probably pretty accurate more, often than not.

This year, one of my (many) foci has been to attempt to figure out where I belong, where I fit in to the grand scheme of things. Everything else – ukulele, coding, philosophy, etc. – has been window dressing for the real search, the search for personal meaning and validation.

What these three simple words remind me of is this: there is no better judge of things than myself.

Does this mean I completely dismiss the words of subject matter experts and authority figures? Absolutely not.

What it DOES mean is that everything that is meaningful is also independently verifiable. Am I going to run my own lab tests to ensure the eventual COVID-19 vaccination works? Of course not. But will I pay more attention to who it is that is telling me that it works? Absolutely.

Am I going to vote for someone simply because they are a registered Democrat, or against someone because they are a registered Republican? Nope, not anymore. I have taken the time to actually delve into what each individual candidate stands for, what each individual ballot measure means and what the pass/fail ramifications are.

Closer to home: am I going to stop forcing my will on others because it is what I think is best for them? Can I accept that others know what is in their best interest, just like I have some idea of what is in my best interest? Hopefully.

And these are just a few of a million little things that bears closer scrutiny, starting with myself. It will be the ultimate introspective exercise. Socrates (via Plato) once indicated that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and this is precisely what he meant. I’ve wasted so much of my life believing one thing and disbelieving another, simply because it was easier to follow the crowd instead of expending a little extra time and effort to do the research myself.

On the word of no-one; think for yourself.

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