Mens Molem Agitat

Newcastle University's Mensbar. Photograph by R. Hammersley.

Newcastle University's Mensbar. Photograph by R. Hammersley.

Student votes rarely make the local paper, but last month the decision by students at Newcastle University to change the name of the student bar to Luther (after Martin Luther King Jr. who was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University in 1967) was discussed in the Chronicle. The reason for this publicity has less to do with the new name and its inspiration, than with the bar’s original label: ‘Mensbar’. It has long been a source of bemusement - and sometimes even shock - to new students at Newcastle that this name should be deemed acceptable in the twenty-first century. This is not, of course, a drinking establishment that is only accessible to half the student population (the absence of an apostrophe is - in this case at least - very deliberate). Yet shockingly, according to the Students’ Union education officer - Chris Duddy - in the Chronicle article, the name did originally refer to the bar’s refusal to admit women. The more common explanation on campus (and the reason the name has not been changed before) is that it is in fact a pun on the University’s Latin motto ‘mens molem agitat’. The University translates the tag as ‘mind moves matter’, which fits well with the commitment to civic engagement that is central to the University’s mission. The idea that minds can have a positive impact on the world, that they can effect change for the better, lies at the very heart of the idea of a civic university and is the antithesis of the image of the university as an ivory tower. Yet if Duddy is correct, and the Latin motto was ‘retrofitted’ to explain a name that had become distinctly uncomfortable by the 1990s, then it is by no means the first time that this particular Latin tag has been appropriated and altered to fit new ends.

The Newcastle University motto on the Bedson Building. Photograph by R. Hammersley.

The Newcastle University motto on the Bedson Building. Photograph by R. Hammersley.

Aware, as I was, of the University’s motto, I was somewhat surprised to come across it in Harrington’s most esoteric work The Mechanics of Nature. The work did not appear during Harrington’s lifetime, but was first published in the 1700 edition of Harrington’s works, which was produced by John Toland. This Harrington volume was part of a wider publishing campaign led by Toland which revived key seventeenth-century ‘republican’ texts and sought to make them palatable to the religious and political circumstances at the turn of the eighteenth century, and to serve Toland’s own campaigns. The status of The Mechanics of Nature within the Harringtonian canon has been particularly uncertain thanks partly to Toland’s notoriously unscrupulous attitude to editing, and partly to the circumstances in which the work was said to have been composed. As the preface to the text explains, the work was allegedly written after Harrington had been ill for approximately nine months and was, at least in part, designed to make sense of that illness, which had confounded his physicians. The aim, the preface suggested, was to ‘truly deliver to the world how I felt and saw Nature; that is, how she came first into my senses, and by the senses into the understanding’. (Toland, The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington Esq. London, 1737, p. xliii). According to both Toland and Harrington’s friend John Aubrey, Harrington had become ill as a result of his imprisonment following the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Aubrey’s description of the illness is worth quoting in full:

    His durance in these Prisons (he being a Gent of a high spirit and hot head) was the … cause of his … madnesse, which was not outragious, for he     would discourse rationally enough, and be very facetious company: but he grew to have a phancy, that his Perspiration turned to Flies, and     sometimes to Bees … and he had built, a versatile timber house in Mr Harts garden (opposite to St James’s parke) to try the experiment. He would     turne it to the sun, and sitt towards it; then he had his fox-tayles there to chase away, and massacre all the Flies and bees that were to be found there:     and then shut his Chassees. Now this Experiment was only to be tried in Warme-weather: and some flies would lye so close in the cranies, and the     cloath (with which it was hung) that they would not presently shew themselves a quarter of an hower after perhaps a fly or two or more might be     drawen-out of the lurking holes by the warmeth, and then he would crye-out, doe you not see it apparently that these come from me? (John Aubrey,     Brief Lives, ed. Kate Bennett. Oxford, 2015, I, p. 321).

The Mechanics of Nature, though incomplete, appears to be Harrington’s explanation for this phenomenon, since he there presents the idea of ministerial or animal spirits that work for good or evil in human bodies as well as in the universe more generally. The flies and bees that he claimed emerged from his body were presumably, according to Harrington, manifestations of these spirits. The somewhat curious idea of these animal spirits was grounded in the idea of nature as breath or spirit, as the ‘Anima Mundi, or Soul of the World’. It was to illuminate this point that Harrington quoted the passage containing the phrase Mens molem agitat or, in its original form, mens agitat molem.

In the beginning Spirit fed all things from within, the sky and the earth, the level waters, the shining globe of the moon and the Titan's star, the sun. It was Mind that set all this matter in motion. Infused through all the limbs, it mingled with the great body, and from the union there sprang the families of men and of animals, the living things of the air and the strange creatures born beneath the marble surface of the sea.    The living force within them is of fire and its seeds have their source in heaven, but their guilt-ridden bodies make them slow and they are dulled by earthly limbs and dying flesh.  It is this that gives them their fears and desires, their griefs and joys. Closed in the blind darkness of this prison they do not see out to the winds of air. (Virgil, Aeneid, translated by David West, 6. 724-729).

James Harrington's 'The Mechanics of Nature', in  The Oceana and Other works of James Harrington Esq. , ed. Toland (London 1737). Copy from a private collection.

James Harrington's 'The Mechanics of Nature', in The Oceana and Other works of James Harrington Esq., ed. Toland (London 1737). Copy from a private collection.


The meaning here, then, is less ideas having a practical impact on the world than mind or spirit animating or bringing life to earthly matter such as human bodies. As Harrington himself acknowledged in The Mechanics of Nature, there is a religious undertone to the idea. There he also describes nature as the ‘Word’ and the ‘Providence’ of God. The religious element is also evident in the original text from which the quotation is taken. It comes from book 6 of Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, a work which we know meant a great deal to Harrington, since he not only included quotations from it in his works on several occasions, but also translated several books from it - including book 6. The passage comes at the point when the hero Aeneas has just crossed the river Styx into the underworld to speak with his dead father Anchises. Aeneas asks whether there are really souls that return from the underworld to bodily form under the sky and in response Anchises confirms that souls can make that move and explains the interrelation between spirit and matter.

In Newcastle’s Mensbar bodies are perhaps animated more by alcoholic spirits than by the spirit of nature, but the campaign to change the name is itself an embodiment of the idea of mind moving matter - even if in this case the matter in question is only the signage at the entrance to the university establishment.