arc of history

Chatty Guy

China, Chinese
Obama in his stump speech frequently quotes King's remark that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
I came accross the word in "The Arc of Triumph", "The Arc of Triumph", "The Arc of Covenant". What of this "arc of history"?
  • yourfairlady05

    Senior Member
    English - United States
    He means "arc" as in the geometrical shape. It starts at one point and shoots upward and bends back down ("towards justice" in his speech).


    Senior Member
    English (U.S.)
    Well, arcs are incomplete sections of circles, basically. Your examples are really weird though, because they're both wrong. The Arc de Triomphe, which is a big statue with a curve in the middle, translates to "the Arch of Triumph" in English. And it's the Ark of the Covenant.

    King was speaking in images; history being arc-shaped is an extended use of the word. He was basically saying that maybe things aren't just now, but they will be eventually.


    Senior Member
    English - United States
    "Ark" just sounds the same, it's a homophone. It means "boat" (usually in reference to the biblical story of Noah) or the chest that Moses carried the Ten Commandments in. It has nothing to do with the geometrical half-circle shape that King and Obama are referencing here.


    Senior Member
    I believe it is part of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. But it is not clear to me what it means. Now I'm reading Hillary Clinton's recent book, in which I read this phrase:
    “A writer named Charles Finch tweeted, “There are days when you believe the arc of history thing.” That’s exactly how it felt: like all of us together were bending the arc of history just a little bit further toward justice.”

    Source: Hillary Rodham Clinton. “What Happened.”

    In book, it is mentioned when Hillary Clinton won the primaries and everybody was happy that a woman became a candidate by a major party.


    Senior Member
    USA - English
    Martin Luther King did not create the phrase; it was more than one hundred years old when he quoted it from a different writer named Theodore Parker. The meaning of the phrase becomes much clearer when you look at how Parker used it. Parker was a Unitarian minister and an opponent of slavery, and in 1853 he published a book called Ten Sermons of Religion. The third sermon was named "Of Justice and the Conscience", and it contained the following statement:
    Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
    Parker is comparing the way human appreciation of what is right changes over time to looking at a small piece (or arc) of a much larger curved line. One cannot see where the curved line ends, but one's mind can calculate where the end point will be -- and in the same way, human morality develops towards a greater and greater appreciation and practice of justice.


    Senior Member
    English - US
    I came across the word in "The Arc of Triumph", "The Arc of Triumph", "The Arc of Covenant".
    "Arc de Triomphe" (in French) is a triumphal arch. If someone translates it as "Arc of Triumph" instead of "Arch of Triumph", I would call it a mistake.
    The "ark" in The Ark of the Covenant and Noah's Ark is an unrelated word whose root means "box" not "curve."
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