The Latin translation of this phrase served at the motto of the United States until 1956, when the McCarthy scare changed the motto to “In God We Trust.” For me, this marks one of the critical points in US history that determined the course the nation took and is, if only symbolically, a great example of where the nation is today.
To me, “E Pluribus Unum” is a statement that embodies the very thing a nation (or business, group, household, what have you) is or should be. It is a declaration that we are, together, greater than the sum of our parts. It was a united effort that ended World War II, that put us on the moon, and it saddens me that the current wave of individualism appears to be overriding that idea. I am very much of the opinion that it is doing catastrophic harm in the long run.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against people wanting to make it on their own. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes from accomplishing a task by yourself, and I totally understand not wanting to feel dependent on others. By the same token, my experience in talking with people who hold these beliefs (often to a fanatical level), is that they take for granted, forget, and/or choose to ignore just how much they already depend on the work other people have done to live as they do, be that barely scraping by in an apartment or as CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
In this drive to become, or at least feel, self-sufficient, it seems as though a growing number of people forget that, while they earn the paycheck that allows them to buy their own food, they are still dependent; they do not produce, transport, or stock the food at the store, and therefore are not truly independent beings who rely on no one else for sustenance. Likewise, the majority of people have not built their own homes, personally laid and installed the infrastructure to power, water, or remove waste said homes, nor have they likely had a hand in paving the roads that make traveling to and from places of work and leisure all that much easier. These were, in the overwhelming majority of cases, done by other people, sometimes decades ago. Such examples of our interconnectedness and accomplishments through mutual contributions are legion, and I could easily go into greater detail about the phenomenal effort required to provide the average person with what necessities and luxuries they have.
Perhaps it’s an easy thing to forget; out of sight, out of mind, as they say. It may even be an unintended consequence of the age. I was born in 1990, well after the majority of the country’s infrastructure was designed and built. My generation, as well as the one before it, doesn’t really know a country without the internet, electricity, water on demand, or interstate highways. It’s easy to forget that all the things we take for granted were put into place by the blood, sweat, and backbreaking labor of thousands, if not millions before us. The fact that we don’t know a world without these things makes them that much easier to take for granted.
Imagine how long it would take to construct a highway, such as Interstate 10, if one rugged individualist set out to do it by himself. How far do you suppose that one person would get before dying or injuring himself so severely he could not continue? Or if a teenager who dreams of being a mechanical engineer had to develop the mathematics and understanding of physical laws necessary for such a career single-handedly, without the assistance of multiple teachers, tutors, study groups, textbooks, or universities.
The fact of the matter is that a society of true individualists would be reduced to farmers and hunter-gatherers. It is by banding together as families, communities, and nations, that humanity has accomplished the feats for which we should be proud of. From building the first cities, to putting probes on the surface of Mars, our greatest accomplishments have come from banding together and putting our collective resources and willpower towards a given goal.
Humans have always risen to greatness, above and beyond all natural constraints, by working together in groups. Our ancestors built the first villages and cities, feeding, defending, and expanding them though massive group effort. Countless nations were formed and conquered, all forms of higher education developed by the hands of millions. Seafaring vessels were designed and built in an attempt to sate our ever-growing need for resources and adventure. Combustion engines and mastery of electricity forever changed the world. We became the first species to leave the confines of the planet, and send our creations beyond the boundary of the solar system. While many of the advances and discoveries the made these feats possible may rest, more or less, on the shoulders of one person, they would have been impossible without assistance, from workers to aid in construction, or lab techs to run experiments and tests more quickly, to the society itself providing a surplus of food that allows great minds to focus on their work instead of merely surviving the coming winter.
This is why E Pluribus Unum is one of the most powerful phrases and mottos ever written. It fully encompasses everything that makes humanity truly great. It is when we stand together, regardless of our religious beliefs, income level, skin color, or political leanings, that we accomplish feats once deemed impossible. Through cooperation and working for mutual benefit, humanity has shown, time and again, that when many act as one, we can achieve the feats of gods.
Photo: Flickr/Steve Jurvetson