I find Brown's motto confounding. In my experience, theists describe their "belief," "faith" or "trust" in God (or gods) rather than their "hope." "Hope" indicates a degree of uncertainty, as in, "I hope that God is coming, but I'm not convinced." Non-theists do not hope in God either; it makes no sense to have any desires about a non-existent thing. So is "In Deo Speramus" supposed to represent Brown as full of longing agnostics or believers going through a time of spiritual darkness?
Hope is very important. We all hope for things despite the odds against them — for cures for diseases, for comprehensive solutions to climate change and resource distribution problems and for peace and agreement between warring factions despite years of animosity. I hate getting all sentimental, but honestly, if we don't hope for these things, we can't feel like we are even able to "discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation" — and there's not much point in getting out of bed in the morning, is there?
For the non-theist, hope for things despite all odds requires personal hope and hope in humanity. I do not want to take the space to defend non-theists against charges that our lack of religious beliefs leads us into nihilism. Rather, I merely wish to observe that it would be ridiculous to say that non-theists do not hope or have faith; we obviously have enough to go about our daily lives.
I have no problem with hoping, but the word itself does not quite capture how it is that we can act to make some difference when faced with the realization that we need to hope. We are not going to be able to single-handedly change the world. I worry that "In Deo Speramus" calls for us to wait for a literal deus ex machina to solve our problems. Our motto encourages complacency and apathy by telling us that it is fine to sit around and hope that God exists and will take care of things for us. Even if someone believes that everything is presently going according to God's plan, our actions must be part of that plan and we still ought to take responsibility for them. I am not content to hope in God in a passive way, and I do not think agnostics or theists should be either.
As mottos go, I suppose we could have it worse, like Princeton does. "Under the protection of God she flourishes"? Talk about vanity. Still, "In Deo Speramus" implies that we are resigned to be helpless when faced with our own future. Additionally, although I think there might sometimes be room in a secular society for references to God out of respect for tradition, this particular reference has the potential to render the motto completely irrelevant for some of the Brown population.
"In Deo Speramus" is splashed on library books, buildings and everything in the Brown Bookstore, but does its pervasiveness make it invisible? To go further, if we did not see it all over the place, would it lose any semblance of importance?
Probably. A motto is not like a mantra for a university. It is supposed to state a guiding principle, to be sure, but it does not contribute any practical motivation. Institutional trappings like school songs that carry so much weight at other schools do not seem to matter as much at Brown. Maybe the meaning contained in a motto is either too obvious or too elusive to be worth stating. Maybe we should do away with ours entirely.
I like the idea of some statement of universal intention, even if it is fairly trite, so I would suggest changing the motto instead. This would not be unprecedented, as "In Deo Speramus" is actually Brown's third motto. From its inception to the Revolutionary War, our motto was "Amor et deliciae humani generis," (Love and delight of the human race). After the war, the motto was changed to "Virtus magis colenda" (Virtue is more to be cultivated).
In 1833, the seal was belatedly altered to reflect the institution's name change from "Rhode Island College" to "Brown University," and the motto became "In Deo Speramus."
Brown has undergone many changes since 1833, including the incorporation of Pembroke College, and it might be time for a revision of the motto. To keep the focus on hope and agency, I would suggest, "Despite the odds, we hope and we act."
Emily Breslin '10 is a philosophy concentrator from Harvard, Massachusetts. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.