Allen Upward - The New Word: Part 3 lyrics
THE CASTLE IN THE AIR
A Golden Talisman.—1. The Babu Speech.—2. Bad Language.—3. "Dynamite."—4. The Science of Shells.—5. Idol and Ideal.—6. An Algebraical Expression.
WHAT is the meaning of the word Idealist, or Idealistic, as used by Nobel in this Testament?
The question is not—What is Idealism? It is—what kind of books did the Testator wish to receive this Prize?
It will be seen at once that the second of these questions is very much easier to answer than the first. No one has ever succeeded in defining poetry to any one else's satisfaction—a chemist might define it as the crystal of prose—but universities and academies award prizes every year for poems, and no difficulty is felt as to what works are eligible for the prize. Again, an able writer named Austin once set himself to determine the province of jurisprudence. He died leaving his work unfinished; and the extensive fragment that remains is an endless chain of definitions, not one of them complete. He attempts to define a law, a right, and so on, and the more he toils, the more endless his task becomes.
[paragraph continues] Yet the Courts never sit for a day without using the words law and right in some practical application; and Austin was himself professor of jurisprudence.
The difference between a legal argument and a logical one is that the former is concerned with some practical issue, such as the disposal of a sum of money, and is determined by the judgment of a Court. That is the difference which Nobel has made by this bequest. This bag of gold of his has seemed to me a talisman, trusting in which we may adventure in the enchanted wood of words; by means of which we may conjure the demons that infest it, and compel the sorcerer's victims to resume their natural shape.
As well as a talisman, we are provided with a compass, by the words which are the governing clause of the whole Testament—"the benefit of mankind." Should we be tempted to stray into devious paths, should we find ourselves wandering round and round without advancing from our starting-point, we have only to glance at this compass, and it will point us forward in the right direction, towards the enchanted castle of the ogre.
So armed, so guided, the White Knight Errant ought to reach his bourn.
Ideal, Idealism, Idealist—these words are current in most of the languages of America and Europe, but they are not natives of any. They appear in the
same form in Swedish and in English, but they are not of Swedish nor of English growth. They wear a look of ancient Greece, but yet they are not genuine Greek words. Plato never heard of them; the Greek lexicon knows them not.
They belong to a large and increasing class of words which I can best characterise by naming them Babu.
The English in India, whether to make the task of government easier, or in the belief that our civilisation must be better for the Hindus than their own, have set up schools to train the natives in our ways, and, to begin with, in our speech. There is a large class of natives called Babus who learn very readily up to a certain point, that is to say, they spell our words correctly, and they have some notion of what the words mean; but English has not replaced their native speech, and hence it fits them like a borrowed garment, and they are betrayed into awkward and laughable mistakes in using it, which have given rise to the term Babu English.
Now that is just the process from which a great part of Europe, and especially England itself, has been suffering for many hundreds of years. Our speech bewrays us to be the freedmen of Rome. Our schools are Roman schools set up by missionaries from the Mediterranean in whose minds it was the very aim and end of education to tame the young barbarian of the North into an obedient provincial of the great Roman Raj. Saint Ninian, it is candidly
recorded, went to convert the Picts to Christianity in the hope of putting an end to their attacks upon their Christian neighbours. The work of the monks has remained practically untouched ever since. Our schools are still called grammar schools, which means Latin-grammar schools, and Latin is the chief thing taught in them. Latin is the official language of our universities, and by an educated man we mean a man who has been taught Latin. The whole theory of our education still is that the young Englishman should make-believe to be an ancient Roman. The king who still writes himself on his coins Britannorum Rex is doing homage for his crown to Pope and Caesar.
After the Normans came in aid of the monks England seemed to hang in doubt between the Gothic and Romance dialects. The result of this is seen in our vocabulary. We have, in a more marked degree than any other European people, two sets of words, folk words and book words. The first we learn at home, and use most in talking; the second we learn at school, and use most in writing. The folk words come to us as the wrappings of our earliest thoughts and feelings, and form, as it were, the mind's natural skin. The book words follow after the brain has began to harden, and are more like clothing which the mind puts on. We use them as children who walk in wooden shoes,—not with the same sure and elastic tread as they who go barefoot.
Let it not be thought that all this is beside the
question. It goes to the heart of the question. That schoolmaster's Latin should be a Latin which would make Cicero stare and laugh is a little evil. But that men should go through life talking to one another in words which they only half understand is a great evil. And that children should have their minds beaten and bent out of shape by such words has long seemed to me the most frightful evil in the world.
There is a word which we spell quack, and our Dutch kinsfolk kwak. With us it means a false pretender to knowledge; in Holland it is the nickname for a Latin-school pupil. The little Dutch street boy in the Middle Ages, listening outside the door of the Latin school, heard the boys inside repeating their hic hæc hoc, and it sounded to him like the gabbling of ducks.
I share the feeling of that little street boy. I also stand outside the door of the Latin school, and listen to the patter that goes on inside, without any reverence. I should like to break open the door of the Latin school, and take that dusty, dog-eared grammar-book out of the schoolmaster's hand, and put an end for ever to that miserable gabble.
Somehow I think that the work of the Idealist will have to begin here.
Unhappily the priests of science have shown themselves not less prone than other priesthoods to impose
on the mind of man by means of bad language. To the medieval plague of dog-latin there has succeeded in these latter days the plague of Babu Greek.
The apologists for this vice of science tell us that it is merely a kind of shorthand. I am sorry I do not find that it is really quicker to write dolichocephal than longhead, or ichthyosauros than eft.
But in any case the number of readers who carry at their tongue's end all the words found in the extant remains of Hellenic literature is very small. So that whatever trouble the specialist may save to himself by writing chaemoprosopic for broad-faced, he causes to his readers, who have to turn the shorthand into longhand as they go along. Hence a modern scientific work is not truly a book. It is more and more a manual in which the text is helped out by technical signs. It is not so much literature as algebra.
Nevertheless if the use of these bastard Mediterranean words were confined to the naming of things like rocks and plants and animals the quarrel with them might be left to the man of letters. Words like amoeba and neolithic are ugly and tiresome, but they are not false and mischievous. There is even a subtle elegance in naming fossils in a fossil tongue.
It is a very different matter when such words are
caught hold of to name thoughts instead of things; and when men make-believe that they have said something in shorthand which they could not say in longhand.
The difference cannot be illustrated better than by two words which are peculiarly associated with the name of Nobel—dynamite and idealist.
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Dynamite is the name of a mixture which Nobel made, and as long as we have the mixture itself the name is of no consequence. The mixture might as well have been named strongness or starkhet, or X, or nobelite; even if it had been labelled by the Greek word for weakness instead of strength it still would not have mattered. Because if we want to know what dynamite is we need not go to the Greek lexicon; we can go to the mixture itself.
Now that is just what we cannot do in the case of the word idealist. If Nobel had pointed out any book, for instance Swedenborg's Arcana Coelestia, or Kant's Kritik der reinen Vernunft, or Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, as the kind of book he meant to receive the prize, we should have had something in the nature of a mixture. As it is, "idealist" remains the name of a thought in Nobel's mind. Instead of being able to look past the name of the thing, we have to guess, if we can, the thought from the name.
It is just here that the harmfulness of Babu makes itself manifest. It is when we pass from the outer world of things to the inner world of thoughts that we need to be most careful of the words we use;
it is then that the Mediterranean words are apt to serve us like ill-made panes of glass through which the light comes crookedly; and the spirit of man, bound in these borrowed cerements, ceases to soar and grow.
It was not by accident that the Protestant Reformation began with the translation of the Bible, and ended with the translation of the Mass Book. The great reformers disagreed about many other things, but a common instinct made them teach men to pray in their native tongue. They reformed the churches—the pity of it is that they did not reform the schools.
The word before us, then, is not a label, the sort of word that the old Mediterranean grammar-books call a noun. It is what they ignorantly call an adjective; it is the expression of a feeling, like those unshapen cries in which speech began. It is the expression of a wish; perhaps a wish not quite distinct in the Testator's own mind; perhaps a hope rather than a wish.
It seems to me that he may have used an indistinct word because his wish was indistinct. He may have hoped that he could say in shorthand what he could not say in longhand, that Babu could say what Swedish could not say. I think, on the other hand, that if he had cast about to find a Swedish word it
would have helped us to understand his wish. I think that to translate his word would be almost to interpret it.
The mind may be likened to a tree whose roots are feelings and whose leaves are words. Some words leave off where they begin, they are emotions expressed in sound, like musical notes—such as the old grammar-books call interjections. But most words have taken shape by coming into touch with outside sounds, and with the sights and scents, the tastes and touches, that go together with the sounds. Whether the word thing or think comes first in history, a thought is a feeling outlined by means of things.
In this way there is in every word a native element of feeling, or a mark set on it by the word of sense, which cleaves to it through whatever uses it may pass and change. The word may be abstracted and refined away, till it appears like a balloon in the air; but still it will be a captive balloon, attached by some root meaning, as by a cord, to the firm earth beneath.
Philology is busy with the changes in the forms of words. Our lexicons have long been cabinets of shells. Yet the morphology of words is but a drudgery unless it helps us towards their physiology.—The word Idealist is such a shell. Let us see what its outward form can tell us of the life within.
Idealist is a Babu formation from the Greek Idea.
Idea, my Greek lexicon reports, is the appearance of a thing, as opposed to its reality. And it is unfortunately the case that some such sense as that of opposition to reality does haunt the word Idealist, and discredit it. No one is likely to believe that works of an apparent or unreal tendency are of much benefit to mankind. We must dig deeper.
Idea can be traced to ido, or eido, (for there were more Greeks than those who corrected Demosthenes)—meaning to look or see. It is the Aryan word which has become in English though. "It is as though" means "it looks like." And so the word idea, in its first sense, may be rendered pretty closely by the English look, in such uses as—"the look of the thing," "there is a look of his father about him."
The passage from the idea to the ideal was not made by the Greeks. But it seems that idea is the Ionian form of the word which meets us in other Greek dialects as eidos, and although the Greeks did not add the important letter l to Idea, they did add it to eidos; and their eidolon is spelt by us idol. What is the difference between the ideal and the idol?
The idol is the idea embodied in wood or stone. It seems to have grown solid by degrees. There was first the mere look, or likeness, and next the ghost.
[paragraph continues] We catch the shade of meaning in passing from "appearance" to "apparition." Lastly there came the marble likeness of the ghost; as it were, the materialised idea.
Now whatever else the ideal may be, it is not a marble image. Bacon, it is true, uses the word idol in a sense not far removed from ideal. He uses it as a Christian metaphor for thoughts that receive honour not their due, as the images of Jupiter and Venus received honour due to Christ. But if we should take ideal as meaning a thought that received too much honour, it is clear that a work of an idealist tendency would be harmful, rather than beneficial, to mankind. Nevertheless Bacon's usage gives us a useful hint. The ideal is evidently a thought rather than a statue, and to that extent it may be called a metaphorical idol.
In what, then, does it differ from an idea? The Greek lexicon has not half done its work in telling us that idea meant appearance. Even in Plato's time it had got farther than that. Aquinas, who wrote in Latin, and translates it by the Latin forma, explains idea as being the builder's plan of a not-yet-built house. Now my Dutch word-book renders "idea" (as an English word) by ontwerp, which is to say, out-throw—that which the mind throws out, and not what it takes in. And in Holland a builder's plan is called an ontwerp. When the mind of a great Roman theologian jumps with the common mind of a Dutch folk, we ought to be able to take
the result with some security. And it is the opposite pole of the meaning given us by the lexicon. The idea is not the appearance of a thing already there, but rather the imagination of a thing not yet there. It is not the look of a thing, it is a looking forward to a thing.
Here, then, is the difference between the ideal and the idol. The ideal is not the realisation in brick and mortar of the builder's plan, as the idol is the realisation in marble of the sculptor's plan. The ideal is not a house made with hands; it is a castle in the air.
The word ideal first appears in English as an adjective. The added l has much the same force in Greek and English, the force of -ly or like, the Swedish lik. It is hard not to see in this like a connection with look, such as that between idea and ido. English philology, however, speaking by the latest of its interpreters, traces it to the old English lic, meaning a body, like another Swedish lik (corpse). If that were so, the ideal would be again the embodied idea, in short the idol. It would be the house, and not the castle in the air.
Of course it is not so. It puts the cart before the horse. Philology has made its favourite mistake of thinking the noun is older than the adjective. The name of an outward shape is never the first form
of any word, unless it be a word like cuckoo, or the French word teuf-teuf. We must dig deeper. When we come down to such a word as lick, the Swedish slika, the very sound of the tongue in licking, we cannot go much farther; and we may be sure that we have got the root of the word, and all words naturally springing out of it. We do not need to look in Beowulf or the Saxon Chronicle for the meaning of such a word. English philology has gone blind through too much poring over manuscripts. The Old English manuscripts that have come down to us are few, and they are not very old. There are more fish in the sea than in the fisherman's net.
The early man was a poet before he was a philologist, and perhaps it takes a poet to understand those words of his, which were not dead shells, but living cells, growing and changing with his growing and changing moods. What the tongue does in licking is what the eye does in looking, it feels-forth, reaching outward from the man. The words look and see contain between them the whole secret of metaphysics. To look is to search forth for what may be there; to see is to take in what the look finds. Looking is the question, and sight the answer. Sight is materialistic, perhaps looking may turn out to be idealistic.
If, then, the mysterious l does not add a body to the idea, what does it add? It is, in its root-meaning, the same with idea. We seem to be dealing
with an algebraical expression. Ideal is idea to the second power. We might as well write it idea2.
The knot remains unpicked. For this powerful idea seems very much like an idol of the mind. The writer who has given the word most currency in English is Carlyle, and he uses it in very much that sense. He speaks of "low ideals" as well as "high ideals," and of the "ideal of brute strength" as a bad ideal. If there be bad ideals as well as good ideals, a work of an idealist tendency may easily be harmful, instead of beneficial, to mankind. The value of an ideal to mankind must depend on something else besides its power. Even if it should be argued that this bequest is meant for works of a fanatical tendency, yet it will not be argued that it is for all such works, including the fanaticism of the Dominican, and including the fanaticism of the Thug. Thus far the science of shells has brought us.
It is time to check Philology by Lexicography.