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A Portraiture of Quakerism, Volume 1 by Clarkson

So that the word you in the plural number


It

will be difficult for those, who now use the word you constantly to a single person, and who, in such use of it, never attach any idea of flattery to it, to conceive how it ever could have had the origin ascribed to it, or, what is more extraordinary, how men could believe themselves to be exalted, when others applied to them the word you instead of thou. But history affords abundant evidence of the fact.

It is well known that Caligula ordered himself to be worshipped as a god. Domitian, after him, gave similar orders with respect to himself. In process of time the very statues of the emperors began to be worshipped. One blasphemous innovation prepared the way for another. The title of Pontifex Maximus gave way at length for those of Eternity, Divinity, and the like. Coeval with these appellations was the change of the word thou for you, and upon the same principles. These changes, however, were not so disagreeable, as they might be expected to have been, to the proud Romans; for while they gratified the pride of their emperors by these appellations, they made their despotism, in their own conceit, more tolerable to themselves. That one man should be lord ever many thousand Romans, who were the masters of the world was in itself a degrading thought. But they consoled themselves by the haughty consideration, that they were yielding obedience, not to man, but to an incarnate demon or good genius, or especial envoy from heaven. They considered also

the emperor as an office, and as an office, including and representing many other offices, and hence considering him as a man in the plural number, they had less objection to address him in a plural manner.

The Quakers, in behalf of their assertions on this subject, quote the opinions of several learned men, and of those in particular, who, from the nature of their respective writings, had occasion to look into the origin and construction of the words and expressions of language.

Howell, in his epistle to the nobility of England before his French and English Dictionary, takes notice, "that both in France, and in other nations, the word thou was used in speaking of one, but by succession of time, when the Roman commonwealth grew into an empire, the courtiers began to magnify the emperor, as being furnished with power to confer dignities and offices, using the word you, yea, and deifying him with more remarkable titles, concerning which matter we read in the epistles of Symmachus to the emperors Theodosius and Valentinian, where he useth these forms of speaking, Vestra AEternitas, vestrum numen, vestra serenitas, vestra Clementia, that is, your, and not thy eternity, godhead, serenity, clemency. So that the word you in the plural number, together with the other titles and compellations of honour, seem to have taken their rise from despotic government, which afterwards, by degrees, came to be derived to private persons." He says also in his History of France, that "in ancient times, the peasants addressed their kings by the appellation of thou, but that pride and flattery first put inferiors upon paying a plural respect to the single person of every superior, and superiors upon receiving it."

John Maresius, of the French Academy, in the preface to his Clovis, speaks much to the same effect. "Let none wonder, says he, that the word thou is used in this work to princes and princesses, for we use the same to God, and of old the same was used to Alexanders, Caesars, queens, and empresses. The use of the word you, when only base flatteries of men of later ages, to whom it seemed good to use the plural number to one person, that he may imagine himself alone to be equal to many others in dignity and worth, from whence it came at last to persons of lower quality."


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