Allen Upward - The New Word: Part 4 lyrics
THE PLAY UPON WORDS
Johnson's Dictionary.—1. The Missing Word.—2. Recurring Decimals.—3. A Puzzle for Atheists.—4. Plato Refuted by Plato.—5. Books in Chains.
ON reading this Will for the first time, and wondering what the word Idealistic meant to others than myself, I turned to an English dictionary.
The dictionary which I found to my hand happened to be the famous work of Doctor Johnson, or, to speak carefully, one founded on that work by Doctor Latham, who was an esteemed philologist, and professor of the English language. It is in four vast volumes, published just fourteen years before the date of the Testator's death, by nineteen publishers, and it should be fairly representative of the science and art of lexicography in England.
The words are taken in the order of their spelling; each one is given a Latin label such as substantive or adjective; if in its sounds or spelling it shows the mark of the Roman mint a Mediterranean word is quoted as its original; then follows the explanation
[paragraph continues] (the thing I was in search of)—and Johnson's Dictionary is renowned for its explanations; and lastly there come extracts from books in which the word is used.
These extracts were styled by Johnson his authorities. His whole habit of mind withheld him from seeing that the speech of the English folk is a higher authority than any book. "Of the laborious and mercantile part of the people (he writes), the diction is in a great measure casual and mutable." That is not so. The folk keep their native words much longer and much better than the bookmen. Hundreds of English words long buried under the dust of Dryasdust are coming to light, and are returning into English literature from the ends of the earth, to-day. Johnson, it is plain, could not rid himself of the old monkish way of looking at it. To him the right English was a barbarous provincial dialect; the language worthy of a scholar's attention was that which came closest to the Roman pattern. He has told us this, by calling his work a dictionary and not a word-book.
The same wrongheadedness makes itself manifest in his treatment, and in Latham's treatment, of some words admitted to these volumes.
There are many words common to both the Baltic and the Mediterranean; some of them common to every Aryan dialect; some of them older than the Aryan invasion, if there was an Aryan invasion, relics of the old stone-cutting race that crossed from
[paragraph continues] Africa in the wake of the retreating ice. The Roman missionaries latinised some of these words, much as they christianised the pagan folklore. And so to-day the Johnsons and the Lathams mark as Roman importations words that are only Roman in the spelling, words that were rooted in the northern speech before one stone of Rome was laid upon another.
Many of the words thus treated dropped out of spoken English, and their place was taken by others whose outline was too stubborn to be effaced by foreign spelling. Thus the English folk, robbed of verihood by the monks, instinctively refused the Roman verity, and took refuge in truth.
If a man does not know these things by heart, if he has never caught a true glimpse into the history of words, what can he tell us about their meanings? If he cannot see that even the spellings, the outer shells of words, are often palimpsests in which the writing on the surface hides another and yet another writing underneath—if he cannot see this, how can we hope that his glance will be keener when he comes to consider the meaning which is the life of the word; and that his explanation of it will be anything better than the gabble of the Latin school?
I turned to Doctor Latham's volumes with misgiving, and the first discovery I made was an ominous one. The word used by Nobel was not there.
Instead I found this entry:—
"IDEALIST substantive. Supporter of the doctrine of idealism."
The only inference was that a work of an idealist tendency must be one supporting the same doctrine. I asked Doctor Latham what the doctrine was, and I got this answer:
"IDEALISM.—System of metaphysical philosophy founded upon the doctrine that the objects of the external world are what they are, less on the strength of any material properties of their own, than through the action of the mind, in which they exist as ideas."
At the first blush my plight seemed to be worse than Herakles', when he cut off the hydra's head; I had a dozen Babu words to deal with instead of one. I made shift to turn some of them into English.
"The stones and trees of the outside world are what they are, less on the strength of any stuff of their own, than through the working of the mind, in which they stand forth as—ideas."
Before examining the doctrine further it seemed desirable to know Doctor Latham's meaning for the word idea. Here surely was the key-word. Without
understanding it, it must be hard to understand Idealist.
I looked again, and found an explanation as short as the other had been long.
Good. But the word image is sometimes used in a loose sense by poets. To make more sure I turned it up.
"IMAGE—Any corporeal representation: generally used of statues."
This time there could be no doubt. The image was not a metaphor, it was a thing of stone and marble. Yet I was struck by the curious result of adding this explanation to the last one.
Ideal = mental image.
Image = corporeal representation.
Idea = mental corporeal representation.
Mental-corporeal? The words seemed to unsay each other. It was like what the logicians call a contradiction in terms. In order to be fair to Doctor Latham I went to the word representation.
The reappearance of the image so soon was disconcerting. It seemed to dog the lexicographer as
the Commander's statue dogged Don Juan. His last two explanations worked out thus:—
Image = any corporeal representation.
Representation = image.
Image = any corporeal image.
This time it was not an unsaying, but a saying over again, like what the logicians call an identical proposition.
Meanwhile, instead of getting nearer to the meaning of idea, Doctor Latham seemed to be going round and round it. He seemed like a squirrel trying to climb up in a revolving cage: the cage goes round, but the squirrel gets no higher. I began to see there might be books in which the words went round and round, but the author got no further,—books not altogether outside the scope of this enquiry.
It was all very well to say that the stones and trees were only representations in the mind, but if there were no stones and trees, what did the representations represent? In order to give Doctor Latham every chance, I followed him to the word mind.
Here was a word which he confessed to be of English growth, no doubt because it happens to be found in some old English book, where it is spelt gemynd. It is indeed a folk word, and almost a cry. "Mind what you do!"—"I have a great mind to!"—"He is out of his mind!"—all these are utterances heard every day. Such a word should be a fair test for a professor of the English language.
Doctor Latham explained it in this manner:—
"MIND. 1. Intelligent power. 2. Intellectual capacity. 3. Liking; choice; inclination; propension; affection. 4. Quality; disposition. 5. Thoughts; sentiments. 6. Opinion. 7. Memory; remembrance; recollections."
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I sought further light from two more entries.
"INTELLECTUAL.—Relating to the understanding."
It was another recurring decimal in words. Intellectual meant relating to the intellectual powers.
And yet understanding is one of those words that explain themselves. Like the Swedish forsta, which is still found in some parts of England as forestand, it tells its own story. A picture of Leighton's shows it to the eye. A man is teaching a boy the use of the bow. He leans over the boy from behind, grasping the boy's hands in his, and guiding them while the bow is drawn. That boy is understanding how to draw a bow.
When we have got as far as that we need go no further. We have got to the mixture. Words of this kind are on the same footing as the names of things outside us. They are the names of actions,—I will call them play words. When we have seen the play, the word has served its office.
One more example of lexicography and I must
leave Doctor Latham swimming round and round for ever in his Mediterranean maelstrom.
One of his explanations of mind was thoughts. And this was his explanation of thought.
"THOUGHT.—Operation of the mind; idea; image formed in the mind."
And so at the end of my effort to learn from him the meaning of the word idea, he had brought me back to the starting point.
I put the two last explanations together, and they gave me an equation, the like of which perhaps is not in human language.
Mind = thoughts.
Thought = image formed in the mind.
Mind = images formed in the images formed in the images formed in the
It is time to return to the doctrine of Idealism.
"The stones and trees of the outside world are themselves, less on the strength of any stuff of their own than through the play of the mind, in which they stand forth as"—(recurring decimal) .
That is to say, the stones and trees outside us are really not outside us, but inside us. They are not things, but thoughts. A wit has put it still more
wittily,—"The universe is a thought, and I am thinking it."
This doctrine, or this play upon words, was invented by Bishop Berkeley in order to confound the atheists, a class of men who, it may be suspected, are what they are, less on the strength of any materialism of their own than through the working of the reverent mind, in which they exist as bogeys.
It is impossible to refuse to Berkeley the admiration due to the man who has said the last word in his own department. His doctrine is the perfection of metaphysics, if it be not a parody on metaphysics. Nobody has ever refuted it; and nobody has ever believed it.
Berkeley himself of course did not believe it, because it is evidently an inverted pantheism, with oneself as the creator; and Berkeley was a deeply religious man. There is no record of any atheist who was ever confounded by it. And that is the only point which we have to consider.
We are freed, by the words of the Will, from inquiring whether this language, or other language like it, is true or false. We have to ask the easier, but much more searching, question, does it materially benefit mankind?
Every work that runs counter to our settled habits of thought and speech, driving us to weigh the meanings of our words, and question the soundness of our views, is of benefit to mankind, in so far as it
tends to break up those lumps and knots in the mind which are called prejudices, and which hinder us from thinking and speaking truly. In so far as Berkeley's book did that, or does that, it is a good book. But apart from that it seems to have no tendency whatever. It is like the famous English Act of Parliament the only effect of which was to add three words to every conveyance. An idealist, in Doctor Latham's sense of the word, instead of saying to his gardener,—"Gardener, plant that rose-tree in this bed," would have to say,—"Perception of a gardener, plant that perception of a rose-tree in this perception of a bed." The doctrine leaves us where it found us. If some of our thoughts pretend to be stones and trees, and are called stones and trees in consequence, how can it benefit mankind to call them anything else?
The question is whether this doctrine has borne fruits. Who has believed it, and been the better for believing it? Berkeley himself refused to be translated from a poor bishoprick to a rich one. If he had been asked if this was because he did not believe in the existence of Matter, he would have answered no, but because he believed in the Gospel.
There is an older doctrine of which this idealism seems to be the insubstantial ghost. A greater than Berkeley once taught that all the material world was illusion—Maya. But in the mouth of the Buddha that teaching was not a clever paradox; it was a living truth by seizing on which men might win their
way out of sorrow. It was not a metaphysical doctrine, but a practical rule of behaviour;—Set not thy heart on the things of this world, for they are vain.
And yet I am not sure that even the teaching of the Buddha was of an idealist tendency, within the meaning of this Will.
Latham, one sees, has faithfully explained the word Idealism, as a technical term in use among metaphysicians and moral philosophers. That the word stood for anything besides the mock scepticism of Berkeley; that it had passed into common use with a meaning almost the opposite of scepticism; he evidently did not know. Indeed, as we have seen, he had never met with it as an adjective at all.
What is more strange is that he should have overlooked an older sort of Idealism, familiar in metaphysical and moral-philosophical writing long before Berkeley's day; the Idealism of Plato, father of all such as work in metaphysics, and patentee of the metaphysical Idea.
There are two Platos; one the companion of Socrates, walking in the market-place with his master, and showing us as in a stage play how the great truth-seeker pierced his way through cunning webs of words; the other the teacher in the Academy, weaving his own webs, and decorating them with
his master's name. It is to the second Plato that we owe the doctrine of Ideas.
Let me see if I can state it in words as homely as those of Socrates.
The doctrine of the first Plato, or rather of his master Socrates, the verihood underlying the early dialogues, which they lead towards, even if they do not openly declare it, comes to this. We give expression to our likes and dislikes by such words as nice, nasty, good and evil. When we write such words a little differently, as Niceness, Nastiness, The Good and The Evil, we do not change their nature because we have changed their spelling. They have not ceased to be the names of our own feelings, and become something else, merely because we want to use them as nouns instead of adjectives. We have not created a mixture by creating a name. The words in their new shape are shorthand words, by whose use we can say what we want to say more quickly. By The Good we mean that which all men deem good, or rather that which we think all men ought to deem good,—for all men do not worship the same God.
The doctrine of the second Plato is the first doctrine read backwards, as the Devil-worshippers used to read the Lord's Prayer. It is that the adjectives come from the nouns, and not the nouns from the adjectives. Niceness and Nastiness, The Good and The Evil, are not the names of thoughts inside us, but of thoughts outside us; perhaps the Thoughts of
an eternal Thinker, of which our thoughts are copies.
Here is at least an Idealism of a more idealist tendency than Berkeley's. Perhaps were Plato writing now, he could not fairly be refused the Nobel Prize. Tried by the test of ontology, however, his teaching is imperfect. For the electric current induced by a Current outside, goes the other way. And so we find the real Thoughts outside us stir up thoughts within us not in sympathy, but in antagonism, The cruelty of Nature teaches us, not to be cruel, but to be kind. Her carelessness makes us careful. Her hardship leads us toward luxury. Her riddles give birth to our science. And so throughout life necessity answers to necessity. The Picts draw their conversion on themselves. The king is man's reply to anarchy; Christianity is his reply to Caesar; peace is his reply to war; the Idealist is his reply to Materialism. He turns leaf after leaf of the great Lesson-Book, and the word Finis is not on any one.
There is another test, and a very practical and memorable test, under which Plato breaks down.
In the year 1474 a remarkable sight was to be seen in all the public libraries of France; the sight of books in chains. A controversy had been carried on between two parties, calling themselves Nominalists
and Realists, and now the writings of the Nominalists had been placed in iron chains by order of King Louis XI, at the bidding of Pope John XXIII, to keep them out of the hands of the young student.
It seems to me that there can be no much better test than that, of whether a work is of an idealist tendency. When I see a book in chains, and when I know that the chains have been placed on it by a king at the bidding of a pope, that is enough for me. I do not need to open it to be sure that it is worthy of the Nobel Prize.
And what was it that these fettered books taught? What was the heresy of the Nominalists? It was that of Socrates over again in another form. It was that names are not things; that shorthand does not say more than longhand, that when, instead of thinking of men one by one, you think of all of them at once, and call your thought humanity, you have merely added a new word to the dictionary, and not a new thing to the contents of the universe.
Such was the doctrine that alarmed a Roman Pope, and not without good reason; for the Nominalists of that generation became the Reformers of the next. Nor is Pope John XXIII yet dead, neither have all the chains yet been taken off. I have myself found the very harmless essays of the late Professor Huxley under lock and key in a so-called Free Library.
Judged by this test a work of an idealist tendency must be a work that some one will want to put in iron chains.