Justum et tenacem, propositi virum

“A just man, firm in purpose.” – Horace

Last week my husband brought home from the public library a graphic novel version of The Count of Monte Cristo, originally written by Alexandre Dumas. I picked it up, started flipping through it, and realized that although I have read this book before and remembered the plot in general terms I could not even remember the names of the characters. So yesterday I decided to download a free Kindle version and read it again. Right now I am about halfway through it.

I am sure that when I first read the novel, I did not fully appreciate all of the nuances therein, since I believe that at the time I was still a high school student in the state of Teenage Angst. Naturally, I focused on different aspects of the novel then and viewed it through the sophomoric lens of my own limited experiences. I skipped over the parts and details that I didn’t understand, such as references to French history and its notable figures, culture and quotations from the classics. I was reading the book for fun instead of explicating it for class, after all, so I was more interested in what happened to the characters and the overarching theme of the story than I was in “all that other scholarly minutiae.”

At the time, I did not have convenient means at hand for translating phrases rendered in language foreign to me or immediately researching the names dropped in the narrative. For example: What the heck does this French “ma foi” phrase mean that keeps popping up in the dialogue? (Answer: It’s an interjection that translates to “my faith!” and serves the same purpose as saying “my goodness!” “well!” or “indeed!” would in English.)

Praise be to God for the existence of Google and the invention of touch screens!

Much like the double-edged sword, modern technology can be a wonderful blessing as well as a pernicious curse to humankind.

In any event, in reading the Count of Monte Cristo again I am noticing details in the narrative that as a moon-eyed adolescent I previously glossed over. For example, the scene where King Louis XVIII is reading a poem by Horace, which is in Latin. The king occasionally quotes snippets from this piece of classical literature while his courtiers are trying to convince him of a conspiracy staged by the Bonapartists. One of these Latin phrases struck me as particularly significant after I looked it up: justum et tenacem propositi virum. (In English: the just man, firm of purpose.) This is part of a larger exposition that I feel is pertinent:

“The just man, firm of purpose cannot be shaken in his rocklike soul, by the heat of fellow citizens clamouring for what is wrong, nor by the presence of a threatening tyrant.”

What does it mean to be a “just” man? What did Horace mean by it, and for what reason did Dumas include this excerpt? At first glance, this phrase appears to describe the protagonist Edmond Dantes because it resonates so strongly with his activities; I say “appears” because on a deeper level I feel that it is also somewhat ironic. Edmond Dantes is “rocklike” and “firm of purpose” in seeking vengeance on those who have so cruelly wronged him out of base envy and avarice. True, he was innocent of the crime of which he was accused. He was wrongfully imprisoned for over fourteen years, his hopes and dreams for marriage with Mercedes and a career as a ship captain utterly devastated.

In our heart of hearts, don’t we in 2019 still sympathize with Edmond wanting to strike back at his oppressors? We would wish to do the same as he did if we had the means and the motive. Nowadays we say: “Yes, revenge is bad for you, blah blah blah,” and pay lip-service to this sentiment, but in that culture it was expected and a matter of honor that one would seek vengeance for wrongs done to oneself or to those under one’s protection.

The Count of Monte Cristo certainly raises an interesting question: if we had vast wealth of a hidden treasure at our disposal, how would we use it? We might have these grand and altruistic plans to be magnanimous to the less fortunate, but dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover the impulses of the sinful nature – to punish our persecutors in a way that we feel suits the crime.

Because it is Holy Week, in reading of Edmond’s plight I was struck by an odd parallel to Jesus Christ’s trial and wrongful execution. There two similarities: both are “just” – innocent of any crime – and both are firm in purpose. However, in practice the two men are complete opposites.

For the sake of argument, you could claim that Edmond Dantes is “just” because he is not guilty of the charge of which he is accused: treason. In Old Testament fashion, Edmond seeks an eye for an eye when he escapes the Chateau d’If. By law, the guilty should be punished for their crimes. However, Edmond feels that the legal system falls short and cannot touch his enemies, so he takes the role of judge, jury and executioner upon himself. He is consumed by his desire for revenge and determined not to waver from the path he has chosen. But I have to wonder: is dedicating one’s life to the pursuit of revenge the action of a truly “just” man?

And by the end of the book, did Edmond remain firm in his purpose to avenge himself, or would human mercy sway his “rocklike” resolve?

Jesus Christ was also a just man, firm of purpose. He was not shaken from his resolve to complete his mission of mercy – the very antithesis of vengeance. By rights, we as rebellious sinners all deserve to suffer God’s eternal wrath. That would have been justice. But Jesus was punished in our place. No human being could have predicted that. One would expect an angry God to smite his enemies for daring to lay hands on him. Just as Edmond was wrongfully incarcerated, Christ did not deserve to suffer and die on the cross. But He stayed the course, endured the agony, and emerged victorious. A truly just man, truly firm in His purpose.

Happy Easter everyone…or as they would say on Tehara: have a blessed Resurrection Festival.