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From The Godfather:

And so it was Fanucci alone. Or Fannucci with some gunmen hired for a special job on a strictly cash basis. Which left Vito Corleone with another decision. The course his own life must take.

It was from this experience came his oft-repeated belief that every man has but one desteny.

I expected that only would have been instead of but there. Therefore I'd like to ask the reason for using but in that sentence.

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But: adv formal only; just - Cambridge Dictionary

Examples:

I was considered but a nuisance to the team.

What was I but a glimpse of time?

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This use of but in the sense “merely, only” rests on ellipsis of a prior negative:

I have no life but one life to give for my country.
Every man has none but one destiny.

It's been around in English for a very long time, but began to fade in the 19th century; today it has an oldfashioned, literary ring. Note that this is characteristic of Don Vito’s speech and thoughts: it reflects both his non-native command of English and his devotion to archaic, almost chivalric notions of community and honour.

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  • I never read The Godfather, but I was struck by the rather neat clipped "Hemmingwayesque" style, which nicely reflects Vito's slow methodical "one thing at a time" way of thinking (and which I know from the movies). But I couldn't help thinking the transition from the first to the second sentence looked comparatively clunky. So I found a copy of the original, and was gratified to discover OP had missed out the word alone. I like your point about the old-fashioned usage reflecting Vito's stance re things like family, community, honour. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Apr 17 '15 at 21:19

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