Royal Society

The Royal Society’s motto ‘Nullius in verba’, roughly translated as
‘Take nobody’s word for it’, dates back to 1663, and is an expression
of the determination of the Fellows to withstand the domination of
authority (such as in Scholasticism) and to verify all statements by an
appeal to facts determined by experiment. The Latin words (see below)
are taken from a passage of Horace in which the poet compares himself
to a gladiator, who, having earned peace and retirement, is free from

‘Nullius in verba’ was chosen to accompany the arms given to the Society by Charles II in the second charter
of 1663. John Evelyn had sketched a variety of possible ‘Armes and
mottoes proposed for ye Royal Society, 1660’, which included the motto
eventually chosen and still used today. Designs which failed to make
the final cut included a vessel under sail with the motto ‘Et augebitur
scientia’, a hand issuing from clouds holding a plumb-line with the
motto ‘Omnia probate’ (1 Thess. 5.21), two telescopes extended in
saltire with earth and planets, motto ‘Quantum nescimus!’, and a shield
bearing the sun in its splendour inscribed ‘Ad majorem lumen’, plus on
one side of the shield ‘Quis dicere falsum audeat?’. A final design, a
shield charged with terrestrial globe and human eye, is headed ‘Rerum
cognoscere causas’ from Virgil’s Georgics, alongside which is the word
‘Experiendo’ and a repetition of ‘Nullius in verba’. All were rejected,
with the exception of the latter, and the arms were entered into the
official volume, ‘Royal Concessions in the College of Arms’, approved
by the King on 22 April 1663 and entered into the record by Elias
Ashmole on 30 June 1663.

Ac ne forte roges, quo me duce, quo lare tuter,
Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri.
(Horace, Epistles I.i, 1.13-14)

You shall not ask for whom I fight
Nor in what school my peace I find;
I say no master has the right
To swear me to obedience blind.
(trans. C.T. Carr)

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