To the ancients, the Strait of Gibraltar marked the very end of the world. There stood the mythological Pillars of Hercules. And the pillars had a stark warning chiseled on their sides:
“Nec plus ultra”
“Nothing further beyond.” Even Hercules himself did not venture beyond the Strait, and the words were a warning meant for sailors.
The world ends here.
Hundreds of years later, Charles V, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1500s flipped that warning on its head and adopted the opposite statement as his personal motto: “Plus Oultre.”
That translates as “The Great Beyond,” or “More Beyond.” Charles V (who also served as the Spanish Emperor, Charles I) adopted the motto at the urging of his doctor and advisor Luigi Marliano. The idea was to encourage the ruler to “take risks, surpass himself and go ‘farther beyond.'”
To this day, that phrase is immortalized on Spain’s flag.
Another one of my personal heroes, tile-maker Henry Mercer, adopted Plus Ultra as his motto. His incredible poured-concrete castle north of Philadelphia (pictured above) has the phrase tiled throughout. It’s a clarion call that demands we refuse to impose limits on where we go and who we become.
Mercer himself went beyond when he built his home. Architects across the country told him it couldn’t be done. Poured concrete buildings simply didn’t exist. Mercer, whose background in tile drew him to poured concrete, was undeterred. He sketched drawings of his dream home based on memories from his travels long ago in Europe. Then, he hired unskilled laborers to help him turn the drawings into reality.
They built by trial and error. When you tour the property, you can see that every room, archway and staircase was an experiment. The walls are crooked, imperfect and made of recycled materials. And yet, you can see the would-be builder learning. The walls get straighter and more elaborate the higher you move in the house, and every room is covered from floor to ceiling in Mercer’s own elaborately sculpted tile.
Fonthill stands as a monument to a man learning to do what people told him was impossible. It’s Mercer going on his own personal journey into the beyond.
As writers, we venture into the beyond every time we sit before a blinking cursor. We summon words where once none existed, and we do it on an act of faith that they may one day prove meaningful to others.
Find your own beyond
The thing that separates all great achievers from the rest of humanity is the ability to throw themselves into the beyond – not just once, but again and again.
If we refuse to go beyond what we’ve already achieved, we accomplish nothing new. We’re stuck in the same mediocre world we’ve always inhabited, adding bricks to the walls that hem us in. Going beyond helps us discover who we are and what we’re capable of. Plus Ultra. We owe it to ourselves to see what lies on the other side of life’s obstacles.