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This is a monologue from the film Gladiator 2000:

We mortals are but shadows and dust, shadows and Dust, Maximus.

Could someone please explain this sentence? Apparently, the words dust and shadows are used figuratively. Does this but mean only?

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In life we are shadows. In death we become dust. Nothing more. –  user11714 Nov 6 at 4:35

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

"but" in your example is an old expression equivalent to "nothing but". Here are some examples of use:

  • I hear of your tricks; you disown me for your mother, and say I am but your nurse. Is not this true?

  • Well, say the holy Scriptures of Truth, there is but one God.

  • in respect to which all these glories are but smoke, all these riches are but dirt, all these delights are but dreams, all these businesses are but triflings, ...

In your example, Maximus is simply stating that human life is ephemeral. The word shadow is used as a reference to Plato's cave and the word dust may be a biblical reference:

  • Genesis 2:7 - And the LORD God formed man [of] the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

  • Ecclesiastes 12:7 - Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

And here, you can see the decline in use:

Imgur

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But it is not necessary to be with "to be" ... MW has the sentence "They have but two weeks to get ready." –  Stan Mar 3 at 15:11
    
@Stan, thanks. I've updated the answer. –  Nico Mar 3 at 15:15
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In addition to the biblical references above also note the phrase "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" is from the funeral service of The Book of Common Prayer. –  AllInOne Mar 3 at 20:45
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Something came to my mind: This film is about a gladiator in ancient Roman times. Is it sensible to refer to something in Bible in that time? As far as I remember the story of this film happens before the Christ. –  Juya Mar 3 at 21:51
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@Juya, it is possible. Gladiator's plot starts in 180 AD. –  Nico Mar 3 at 22:37

“In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his sense a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, his fame doubtful. In short, all that is body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapors.”

― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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