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.