“The Date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence, and the words under it signify the beginning of the new American Æra which commences from that Date”, concluded Charles Thomson about his accepted design of the Great Seal. He never provided a translation, that is, he never wrote what the Latin phrase denotes exactly.
Wikipedia refers the Great Seal motto, NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM, to Virgil’s Eclogues and ancient pagan ritualists, sibyls.
ab integro sæclorum nascitur ordo
Wikipedia adds, “The phrase is sometimes mistranslated as “New World Order”, by people who believe in a conspiracy behind the design; however, it does directly translate to “New Order of the Ages”.
Conspiracy theories are not reasonable, but they always feed on something. Here, the Great Seal belongs with US powers to involve the executive. Charles Thomson was a Presbyterian, not a mantic. He — same as many people, me included — would not have a sibyl for an elder, authority, or factor of strength. The rituals involved narcotics and burnt offerings.
More, we can say “an age” as well as “a century”. A “new order of ages” implies an altered approach to time, and we could not have Romanticism before Enlightenment, and Renaissance only after. It would be as trying to have the 19th century before the 18th, and the 14th century only after.
I have never interpreted the Latin as a “new order of ages”. However unbelievable this might look or sound for a university graduate, I realized my comprehension was different from the official a few years ago, over the Internet. The Seal never was of my special focus, and there was not a lecture on it at the uni, where you are expected to study mostly on your own.
I have looked up the details, and here, I yet would like to try defending my view. There is a feature in Mr. Thomson’s report that seems overlooked. His spelling did acknowledge the Latin digraph æ. We can see it in the report.
…the new American Æra…
(Charles Thomson’s report)
The “seclorum” in the Great Seal does not have the digraph. The “sæclorum” in the Eclogues has it. Possibly, the Eclogues are not the source.
There was a man who had a talent for persuasion, and his thought influenced the Framers. The man was Thomas Paine. He titled his work “Common Sense”. The links here allow downloading it from a Project Gutenberg file, as well as reading my translation for public domain.
If we search the Gutenberg Common Sense for “æra”, we get:
“By referring the matter from argument to arms, a new æra for politics is struck…”
“…the independancy of America, should have been considered, as dating its æra from, and published by, the first musket that was fired against her…”
Let us search Thomas Paine’s Common Sense for the word “order”:
“Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation…”
“It is repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages …
“England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature…”
“he who can calmly hear, and digest such doctrine, hath forfeited his claim to rationality—an apostate from the order of manhood…”
“Do they take within their view, all the various orders of men whose situation and circumstances…”
Thomas Paine would have written about examples from former ages, but he would not have put them into an alternate order. In his use, we could paraphrase the word “order” as a “pattern” or … “people”.
The “ordo” in the Seal is a Latin word. We can compare Cicero’s Second Philippic. In linguistics, we can call it learning from the usus.
“Accuse the senate; accuse the equestrian body, which at that time was united with the senate; accuse every order or society, and all the citizens; (…) at all events you would never have continued in this order, or rather in this city; (…) when I have been pronounced by this order to be the savior of my country; (…) when you, one single young man, forbade the whole order to pass decrees concerning the safety of the republic…”
Here again, if we tried to picture an “order”, we would think about people.
Marcus Tullius Cicero was of considerable influence on the Founding Fathers. Mr. Thomson might have been influenced with Cicero, or he might have followed the usus as he disambiguated it from Latin resources generally. Pointing at a particular source of usus might be impossible, without the author’s indication.
When we people speak, we do not take our words from books, magazines, or other resources. Latin was a dead language when Charles Thomson was making the motto, but he was alive. I think he formed the motto on his own.
Resources continue to differ in presenting the Latin language. We may compare The Rudiments of Latin and English Grammar by Alexander Adam, of about 1786. On page 141, he presents seclor as a consequent of sequor.
We can compare the Latin secludere as to stand apart, and seclusus as separate. The form seclorum would be the plural genitive of seclum. The word is translated broadly, as “a race, generation, age, the people of any time” (see Perseus word study tool). Backtracking, the Latin verb secludere had a Perfect participle seclusus that became used as an adjective, which in turn originated the noun seclum.
The form seclusum would have been still an adjective, gramatically neuter: seclusus est: he is separate; seclusa est: she is separate; seclusum est it is separate. We can say that seclum generally meant “people who are separate / different with a regard”, be it features, chronological age, or even decisions made a given time.
With the Latin ordo as a group, arrangement, or class, we can have the Novus Ordo Seclorum for “A new people come”, that is, a new formation by people to have separated from others, to stand apart, as a nation, for example. Literal, word-for-word translation happens to be clumsy, also for ancient Latin (new form/order of/by the separate/separated?) In English, we have the form how come ― it can render the verb-participle-adjective-or-noun interplay.
“WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the Causes which impel them to the Separation”, says the Declaration of Independence.
We also might wonder, why did Mr. Thomson not use the word populus, if he meant people?
We derive the word form people from the Latin populus. Paths for word etymology and meaning happen to diverge. Today, we derive the word equal as well as the word adequate, from the Latin aequus. In practice, adequate remuneration may not mean equal money, and equal money might be inadequate for jobs of different specifics.
The Latin populus did not connote nationality in ancient times. It often referred to laying waste or degrading: perpopulor, to devastate, pillage; populabilis, destructible. The Senatus populusque Romanus, never a real power over the Roman military, can be associated with practices of times unpleasant to Christians.
Ancient Roman military did not have much sentiment for nationality. Their culture favored status. The Roman civitas was inseparable from the city of Rome. Latin had words as aerarius and aerarium, for Roman residents who had to pay tax, but were not allowed to vote or hold offices. The temple of Saturn had a special part to keep public offerings separate from those of the elites. Without legal rationale, caesars could give death verdicts among any people within their armed range. Ancient Rome was not as much or often a republic, as a practice at pretending it. We have to be very selective, seeking worthwhile aspects of the Antiquity. Feel welcome to compare the PIE, the Proto-Indo-European theory.
The word ordo had a dignified sense. Though translated scarce by Lewis and Short, we may compare Cicero, whose sense is obviously not that for just a few people to have convened with troops or monasteries. Ordo did not have to denote a linear arrangement, but it also could: Roman military, bringing territories down, happened to face local people in groups, or battle formations.
Nowadays, the noun people means a group of human beings, or a nationality. As a group, it takes a plural verb: The people here all speak English. The plural is for human persons, men or women. As a nationality or ethnicity, the noun may take on the plural itself: The peoples of Europe have formed a Union. Status can no longer decide on civil rights. The word sense of the present day does not translate into the ancient Latin populus.
Well, would the Declaration be for males only? “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” Feel welcome to practice on the civics, with my grammar course.
Interestingly, the Great Seal could make a rhyme, the people generally could remember along with children:
Out of many one,
With favor to the endeavor,
A new people come.
Learn to read the Seal in Latin.