Frequently in public forums, people forget Augustine’s simple truth: Words fail or succeed based on what truth or reality they represent to their audience. Augustine would ask us to further the “mutual intercourse of men” and remember that words serve us by their remembrance, their representation, and their reality.

As a literature teacher, I thought I would never say it: Adjectives have begun to bother me. Words like vitriolic, worrisome, slanderous, and chaotic. The strength of words in these times, in any era really, is undeniable and at times overwhelming.

No one doubts words are tools. But when we wield tools, we employ unusual power. When a tradesman works with raw iron, working the ore requires strength and skill. When he stands back to survey his efforts, can he tell if he has more to learn or if he has done well? Has he crafted something of merit? How does he know?

More importantly, if the metaphor holds, would a wordsmith who trades in words and works with them bother to ask the same? I wonder more and more who, if anyone, understands the responsibility of using words, let alone the skill of wielding them.

This care of words reminds me of Augustine’s consideration of Aristotle’s “signs” in On Christian Doctrine. Signs could be both nonverbal and verbal and include sounds like music. These signs, many of which happen to be words, are paramount to understanding literature and scripture:

Of conventional signs, words are the most numerous and important… For among men, words have obtained far and away the chief place as a means of indicating the thoughts of the mind.

Augustine’s perspective then conveys one theory of the importance of words in human language and thought. Signs, for him, are always about understanding language and how it’s used. And a sign always allows something else to be inferred.

In his dialogue with his son, Augustine describes Christ’s use of words. Christ did not teach his disciples to pray in set forms of words because God would have no need of being taught or reminded of men’s needs. This difficulty is solved by agreeing that Christ “did not teach them words, but realities by means of words. Thus they [the words] were to remind themselves to whom to pray and what to pray for…” (de Magistro I.2). Here, words remind the disciples and us of spiritual reality, and perhaps bring us back to it.

And if words serve as signs reminding us of reality, or truth, the act of remembrance must be a part. As man records his thoughts, these signs or words suggest a permanence: “Because words pass away as soon as they strike upon the air, and last no longer than their sound, men have by means of letters formed signs of words… sounds of the voice are made visible to the eye… by means of certain signs.” The written word is a means for recording and for remembrance. In both of Augustine’s works, words reminded Christ’s disciples of reality. But what if we have no connection to a word or a reality hasn’t formed?

Augustine explains that we are ignorant at times. Words or signs can fail. When he first heard the word caput, he simply couldn’t understand it until he saw it in writing. What can you infer if you have no idea what a word is? He writes, “This word was a mere noise to me; but I learned that it was a sign… And that reality I got to know, as I said, not from being signified to me, but by seeing it” (de Magistro X.33).

This principle also works in arguments. Failure in communication can only be remedied by an explanation of the word or sign that failed. What reality was it supposed to signify? “What I am above all trying to convince you of, if I can’t, is that we do not learn anything by means of the signs we call words. For, on the contrary, as I have said, we learn the meaning of the word… only after recognizing the reality which it signifies.” Over and over, Augustine insists that words are reminders of the realities, the true meanings, behind the letters.

And over and over in public forums, men and women of every color and age forget Augustine’s simple truth. Words fail or succeed based on what truth or reality they represent to their audience. We don’t want our words to be “mere noise.” Surely not. Or how will we reconcile the truth of what people say when we don’t understand their meaning, the reality behind their words?

Spoken or written, words will always have a unique power, especially for those who wield them well. Augustine would ask us to further the “mutual intercourse of men” and remember that words serve us by their benefit, their remembrance, their representation, and their reality.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


See also R.A. Markus. “St. Augustine on Signs.” Phronesis 2, no. 1 (1957): 60-83.

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened slightly for clarity.

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