Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Word of the Day: Devoir

This is a rare word in English. The idea of devoir stems from medieval French, in which it connotes a duty to be carried out as a token of respect, whether from a superior to an inferior or vice versa. Perhaps one of the more common contexts in which I have seen this word is the motto, "Simple dans ma vertu, forte dans mon devoir." It is the motto of several religious orders, and can be found emblazoned on the crests of many Catholic schools and convents.

The phrase is often translated, "Simple in virtue, steadfast in duty." This translation is pretty good, as such things go, but I think it sometimes hides three key elements. The first is that 'simple virtue' is not as simple as it seems; the 'simple' here means 'without artifice or complication'. Perhaps the best way to think of it is to read Ecclesiastes 7:29, which says as if in counterpoint, "Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions."

The second is that 'forte' does indeed imply a kind of staying power, but it also can imply dynamic strength. 'Forte' has been translated as 'strong' in many texts, and 'strong in my devotion' is as good a translation as any – which brings us to the third point, and back to devoir.

Devoir is that service which is owed for reasons of respect. It is as much the duty of the inferior to serve the superior as it is the reverse. What irks me a great deal is to see this balance destroyed by superiors who forget that 'administration' means 'service'. To speak of an 'administrative service' is to speak with redundancy, for what else should administrators do but serve? I can only say that if the Golden Rule is a statement of eternal justice (or even if it is merely one of ethical philosophy), then many who act as lords and masters have a lot of unpleasantness coming their way.

This is because those who fail in devoir will fall into calumny for their gross negligence. Best then, that we all learn to respect one another, with that sense of devotion that comes from every person's human duty. For the third point really is that the motto makes it personal: it is my virtue, it is my devoir — mine, yours, and that of every blessed one of us all.

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