language conservation

In one of the finest books dealing with T.S. Eliot, The Art of Eliot (1949), Helen Gardner attempted to explain the poet’s employment of the language of his day.

“Our age, with its undigested technical vocabulary, its misuse of metaphor, and its servitude to cliche, cannot be regarded as propitious for a poet. It is part of Mr. Eliot’s greatness as a poet that he has accepted for poetic transformation the idiom of his day.”

How true this is.

In many ways, this has resulted from the embrace of modernity in culture and progressivism in education. As that great Italiano-German Romano Guardini wrote in the 1920s (sadly, in a work never published in English):

“Each sphere seeks its own specific meaning and purpose, its own basic values, its authentic standards of validity and its corresponding norms….Science recognizes nothing except what arises in methodical consequence from the quest for truth within its own sphere….Politics has no other aim but to maintain and increase the power and welfare of the state….Each domain asserts itself so emphatically that the unifying view of the whole is lost before each domain’s claim to autonomy.”

Words, Guardini understood, become nothing but tools of power for the lustful and the ideological.

In a brutal scene in 1984, George Orwell makes the same point. To lessen words, to combine words at the expense of one over the other, and to attenuate meanings is to, in the long run, diminish not only the exactness of thought but the very ability of thought itself.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?  In the end, we shall make Thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

From a religious humanist perspective, as thought diminishes, so diminishes not only the extent of our humanity, but also the extent of our participation in the divine as well.

A quick survey of some of the best thinkers of the last 100 years reveals how important proper understandings of words are, how vital the exact definition is. For, if we as a people—whether as members of very specific communities or as members of the human race—cannot agree on basic definitions, we have no starting point for real discussion. If we cannot think, we cannot communicate. If we cannot communicate, we cannot form community, and one generation becomes distinctly different and probably alien from those before and after it.

Christopher Dawson thought language, history, and culture could never be separated one from another without violence and rape being done to the human person, if not immediately, then over the long haul.

What about other intellectual heroes? Tolkien was, professionally, a philologist. Richard Weaver, a rhetorician. Eric Voegelin, a philosopher or symbols and language. Others of these twentieth-century generations, including Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Bradbury, and many others, explored the complexities of language as well.

William F. Buckley offered definitions at least twice a month to his readers. Indeed, as a young man rather obsessed with words and language, I turned first in every arriving copy of National Review to the words Buckley considered. Though I have taken no surveys, I would assume I was not alone in this among devout readers of NR.

Following in Buckley’s footsteps, the world’s leading scholar of Dante today, Tony Esolen (did you think I was going to name Dan Brown?), offers grammar lessons on various social media platforms. My hope is that as many citizens of western civilization as possible follow Esolen’s work. Or, consider The Imaginative Conservative’s own Steve Masty, a master of parody, language, and poetic diction. I would challenge anyone to find a website with articles as consistently and properly well written as those on The Imaginative Conservative, as well as those by a number of other conservative/classical liberal website writers (think of Steve Hayward, Jim Otteson, or Sarah Skwire).  When it comes to education, conservatives are Mosaic, Stoic, and liberal.

Language matters, as does beauty. With Plato, the modern conservative (That is, the real conservative. I’m not including the bombastic media types who have appropriated, assaulted, and remade with plastic surgery the noble concept of conservatism) and religious humanist knows that the good, the true, and the beautiful can never be separated one from another.

It’s worth considering at this point in the post the patron saint of The Imaginative Conservative, Russell Amos Augustine Kirk (1918-1994). Two of Kirk’s most important works served as “essays in definition”: The Conservative Mind (1953) and Academic Freedom (1955). The founder of modern conservatism also pursued definitions of republic, order, and liberty. His final project, never completed, was to be a study of the concept and history of “justice.” It would have been another “essay in definition.”

As Kirk understood it, the recovery and protection of words and their meanings was a holy cause.

“The principle support to academic freedom, in the classical world, the medieval world, and the American educational tradition, has been conviction, among scholars and teachers, that they are Bearers of the Word—dedicated men, whose first obligation is to Truth, and that a Truth derived from apprehension of an order more than natural or material.”

So Kirk wrote in his 1955 forgotten and neglected masterpiece, Academic Freedom.

Considering the essential elements of the Genesis story, how could anyone in the Judeo-Christian tradition doubt this, even if one believes the Creation account merely a fanciful story? Exact or approximate, it reveals to us the absolute importance of language to the very order of existence and to the essence of our being. Without such order, how can we expect any reign of sanity in our culture?

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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12 replies to this post
  1. Thank you, Brad, for kind words within a beautifully written and well-needed column.

    I wonder if we can demystify even further the degradation of language; some is wicked socio-political engineering but some may result from what Adam Smith first recognised as the division of labour and specialisation. If so, (to take but one example) scientific complication means we can no longer speak plain English to Sir Isaac Newton, and instead words that mean something to modern scientists we amateurs debase into jargon. CP Snow touched on this in the 1950s on the Two Cultures (scientific an d non scientific) . It’s true in hard sciences, applied sciences, arts, business, media technology and law enforcement, etc. If so there is great irony here; the species that mastered communication grew so successfully complex that we became unable to understand one another.

    • TS Eliot somewhat touched on this theme in the Chorus of the Rock: “Where is the Wisdom we have Lost in Knowledge?” Note how nowadays no one bats so much as an eye at the notion that we live in the “Information Age”, rather than the Wise Age – let alone the Golden Age.

      Still, the linguistic differences between scientists and poet-philosophers pale in view of the disenchantment of the popular culture. Our egalitarian pretense demands that we all dissillusion ourselves of even the most beautiful myths in order to “know” the world, but not everyone is equally capable of such knowledge, and while myth is easy to shatter, it is hard to generate or renew. Thus we have men who do not believe and are incapable of knowing – yet convinced knowledge is their right as human beings.

      • My odd feeling is that the Information Age is coming to a close. What will follow it? Nobody yet completely or certainly knows. The actions of a particular man (and the reporter that enabled him) have forever scarred the ideals of that time, somewhat like how The China Syndrome destroyed the Nuclear Age by giving people a somewhat irrational fear of atomic power. When I was a kid they always thought ‘The Nanotech Age’ would follow it, and certainly there is nanotechnology, but such a technocentric view of ages or eras probably misses *why* technologies are seminal for a time.

        The technology that looks most like those technologies – nuclear physics, computation, did in their infancy is 3D printing.

    • Thanks much, Steve. You are certainly a master of the written word. Amen. I really think the problem is a problem of the world. In our relatively free societies, we’ve lost God–hence, we’ve lost a universal understanding of who we are, and all of our understanding has come from the particulars. In the unfree societies (say, the Germans under the Nazis or the Russians under the communists), particulars were traded for universals alone. This accounts for much of the diminution of language.

  2. Some thoughts from the ruins of Babel:
    There’s no question that worrying about linguistic meaning is crucial, and challenging the ways in which people make questionable use of its plasticity/elasticity is surely one of our infinite tasks. But what about the Tower of Babel? What is the condition of what we would preserve here?
    I get very nervous whenever our talk about language and proper definitions implies that there is such a thing as getting language exactly right (and hence getting the world exactly right). I don’t think my friend Brad intends this strong a statement, but I’m afraid it can be taken in this way. My sympathies run against a view of language that sees it operating as a nomenclature in an atomistic manner. I suspect that the reason why Newspeak could not be universally successful is precisely because the working of linguistic meaning requires looseness and ambiguity. This is NOT to say that something like Newspeak is not dangeroua; it very much is! But I think Big Brother’s project of making Thoughtcrime impossible, though it could do disastrous, unspeakable damage, could not succeed at being totalizing in the end.
    I suspect that there isn’t such a thing as getting definitions (linguistic meaning) EXACTLY PRECISELY right. One might think that a conservative couldn’t possibly think this, but I believe that a number of them have, and do!
    How could belief in truth (along with goodness and beauty) be possible, in that case?
    Well, consider how there might then also not be such a thing as getting language/meaning exactly/precisely expressive of a DESIRED totalizing order rather than a TRUE one, as Big Brother would ultimately wish to do. I.e., perhaps one could not possibly get it totally WRONG either. We can get it more or less right precisely because getting it right in this vale of tears is not a matter of finalized perfection here and now. Consider that the Word in the New Testament, though it certainly may be spoken ABOUT more or less rightly, is ultimately LIVED, incarnate in the life of a person, and that the primary ways in which that person spoke were poetic/narrative, such that ambiguity and lack of “precision” might be precisely the conditions for the possibility of their continuing to speak truly.

    • I get the feeling you’re arguing just to argue. A quick search on the page will reveal that only your comment has the word “precise” in it.

      • Brad, I was expressing concern about how some of what you say can be (and often is, I think, though I might be wrong about this) taken by some conservatives, clearly stating that I was not attributing TO YOU the view I reject. If you think that is “arguing just to argue” I strongly disagree, and for reasons directly related to my prior comment. I understood myself to be making a supportive comment, not an argument against you.

        • Ok, thanks, Pete. I was scratching my head, trying to make out the purpose/intent of the comment. This makes sense. Thanks. Argue away, my friend!

  3. It might also be worth considering Walker Percy in such an essay. He liked to discuss his theory of language and I seem to recall him referring to words that have been “ruined” in modern use. I just reread “Lost in the Cosmos” after seeing an essay on it in TIC and immediately thought of his interest in language and signing, and knowledge of the self, when reading this essay.

  4. As Gardiner said of Eliot, “he has accepted for poetic transformation the idiom of his day.”
    It did not work. The idiom remains resolutely untransformed; the poetry is ruined.

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