March 16, 2008
James Madison and the Ablative Absolute
Tomorrow, when the Supreme
Court of the
The second amendment confuses many modern readers because it contains a construction increasingly rare today: an absolute phrase. In English, an absolute phrase is formed from a noun or pronoun and a participle. It modifies the entire sentence in an unspecified way. Examples:
· The claymore being sharpened, Cameron entered the cave.
· Pipes skirling in the fog, the Cameron men passed through the narrow defile.
· Our pastimes done, possess a golden slumber (Titus Andronicus, II.3.26)
It should be abundantly clear that in these examples no causal relationship is implied between the absolute phrase and the main clause.
The absolute phrase is not
native to English, having been introduced rather late in imitation of a Latin
construction called the ablative absolute. (see Matt
Rissanen et al., History of Englishes: New Methods and Interpretations in
Historical Linguistics [
This is not an elementary Latin tutorial so I will cut this short and observe that the ablative case is one that indicates “from”, “with”, “by means of”, “in the time of”, or when used in the absolute form, some kind of relationship, never explicitly stated, to the rest of the sentence.
Remember that: the exact relationship between the ablative absolute and the rest of the sentence is NEVER explicitly stated. Oracles liked to take advantage of quirks like this, and so did James Madison.
A couple examples:
· Urbe capta, Aeneas fugavit
This one is easy. “The city captured, Aeneas fled.” A causal relationship between Aeneas’s flight and the capture of the city can be inferred.
· Paupere honeste vivente, fur ditatur.
This one is harder. “The poor man living honestly, the thief prospers.” There is certainly no implied causal relationship; the poor man’s living honestly does not cause the thief to get rich. There is an implied temporal relationship, though that of course is not the point. Irony is the point. The best English rendition might be “The poor man lives honestly, yet the thief prospers.”
So now we come to the Second Amendment, written by the accomplished Latinist James Madison, who, I think it could be convincingly argued, thought in Latin when he wrote anything important.
well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a
There you have the absolute
phrase – “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a
Now, there are those who
suggest that we should just ignore
The founders — most of whom were classically educated — would have recognized this rhetorical device as the “ablative absolute” of Latin prose. To take an example from Horace likely to have been familiar to them: “Caesar, being in command of the earth, I fear neither civil war nor death by violence” (ego nec tumultum nec mori per vim metuam, tenente Caesare terras). The main clause flows logically from the absolute clause: “Because Caesar commands the earth, I fear neither civil war nor death by violence.”
Actually Freedman’s translation is rather poor – “While Caesar rules the land” would be better. The point however is that Freedman is, as we have seen, obviously wrong -- the ablative absolute does not always introduce a main clause that “flows logically from the absolute clause.” Sometimes it does, sometimes it does not. It is a construction that delights the mind with its sibylline subtlety.
I suggest that