The Curious Meaning and Origins of ‘One for All and All for One’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the surprising origins of a well-known phrase

Let’s begin this week’s Secret Library column with a quiz question. Which famous writer gave us the phrase ‘one for all, or all for one’? To make it easier, let’s make it multiple-choice. Was it: a) William Shakespeare; b) Alexandre Dumas; or c) Virgil?

Of course, it was b) Alexandre Dumas who made the phrase world-famous, as the motto of the ‘three musketeers’ (technically four, since Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are joined by their new recruit, d’Artagnan) in his hugely popular 1844 novel. ‘One for all and all for one’ is synonymous with the musketeers of Dumas’ swashbuckling adventure tale.

Curiously, although the title-page of The Three Musketeers bears Dumas’ name alone, it wasn’t exactly a solo effort: he had more than a bit of help from another writer, Auguste Maquet. Maquet came up with a fair number of the plot details and conducted the historical research, before passing the outlines over to Dumas for him to work his magic over. Maquet also worked with Dumas on two sequels, Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne, which feature d’Artagnan’s later adventures.

In Dumas’ original novel, the phrase appears in French, of course: Un pour tous, tous pour un. But ‘one for all and all for one’ has also been translated into Latin, as Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno, and in this form it is the unofficial motto of Switzerland. The phrase is an example of chiasmus, a curious rhetorical device in which two clauses are balanced against each other by reversing their structures: so ‘one for all’ becomes ‘all for one’.

But the phrase was old when Dumas used it. So if you answered b) Alexandre Dumas to my question, then I’m sorry: it was actually a) William Shakespeare. (Isn’t it always?)

The phrase in question appears not in any of Shakespeare’s plays, nor in his sonnets. Indeed, the work he was perhaps most celebrated for among the influential during his lifetime, at least during the 1590s, probably wasn’t his work for the theatre or his sonnets (which were possibly circulated in manuscript in the mid-1590s but only published in full in 1609). Instead, the work that helped to establish Shakespeare as a major new literary figure was his narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

It’s widely believed that Shakespeare wrote these longer works in response to the closure of the theatres in the early 1590s. The bubonic plague was ravaging London again, and theatres were closed to try to curb the spread. Nevertheless, a change of direction didn’t hurt Shakespeare, who, in the absence of any playwriting work, took the opportunity to pen some decorous narrative poetry based on classical subjects. The first of these, Venus and Adonis, appeared in 1593, and the following year, a second poem, The Rape of Lucrece, appeared.

The poem is about two Roman soldiers, one of whom is married to the beautiful and chaste Lucrece. The other soldier likes the sound of his friend’s wife, so he travels to where she lives while his friend is away and forces himself on her. When her husband returns, she tells him what happened, before taking her own life. Poor Lucrece feels shame for something that was utterly out of her power to prevent. The man who raped her gets off relatively scot-free, merely being banished from the city with his family.

As you can tell from this somewhat potted summary, it’s not the cheeriest work. But it does give us the first instance of ‘one for all, and all for one’, some 250 years before Dumas would make the expression even more celebrated:

The aim of all is but to nurse the life
With honour, wealth, and ease, in waning age;
And in this aim there is such thwarting strife,
That one for all, or all for one we gage;
As life for honour in fell battle’s rage;
Honour for wealth; and oft that wealth doth cost
The death of all, and all together lost.

It’s oddly fitting that the phrase should make its (apparent) debut in a narrative about soldiers bound together by honour and military service (even if one of them proves to be thoroughly dishonourable), given the later association of the expression with Dumas’ brave musketeers.

So, the phrase ‘one for all and all for one’ (or, at any rate, ‘one for all or all for one’) appears to have originated with the writer who has been credited with coming up with so many other phrases: William Shakespeare. But the sentiment behind ‘one for all and all for one’ is even older: it is arguably the same ethos or moral behind several of Aesop’s classical fables. ‘The Four Oxen’, for instance, carries the moral ‘united we stand, divided we fall’. ‘One for all and all for one’, complete with its semi-chiastic structure, is a variation on this old piece of wisdom.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.

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