If words didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to read this sentence.
Dear and Deliberative Humphrey,
In your last dispatch, through whatever form disparagement and flower diversion as is your wont, you seemed to make but one thing remotely clear, or at least very nearly verging on or flirting with the possibility of being intelligible to me. I mean simply this: you are locked inside your own mind. Aside from that I can’t say I made anything of the entire letter; the good Lord knows I can’t understand a word of your philosophical rambling and intellectual bereavements. Furthermore, I can’t seem to truly understand even the small portion that I was able to interpret. If you’re isolated in your own mind, then why on earth are you telling me about it? It’s your mind, what am I supposed to do? Nonetheless, allow me to offer, in reply, a bit of ancient wisdom and a few spontaneous outburstings of interpretative fancy. I ask that you begin by considering with me these words:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος. I will not tell you what these words mean, because I am not sure of this; instead, I will write of them obliquely, and perhaps somehow you, by your honourable wisdom and scrupulous understanding, will discern my words and even these.
The LSJ, a Greek-English lexicon, defines λόγος as “I. the word by which the inward thought is expressed: also II. the inward thought or reason itself”. This hardly explains anything. It simply means that λόγος refers, whether indirectly or directly, literally or metaphorically, by definition or by metonymy, to some normative or empirical element, feature, or aspect of the real, imagined, or supposed universe, or to some such item—idealist or realist, specific or universal—that exists beyond the scope of the natural and supernatural universe as we define it. So a λόγος is something that either communicates something else, or is a thing to be communicated by something else, or else it is the very action of communication, or the universal or circumstantial standard to which things that are communicated ought to be held.
Anyway. It stands a worthy question for both of us whether thoughts precede words or words precede thoughts. People often use the word circumlocution. They talk of forgetting common phrases and being lost for words; as if words were independent objects sitting around somewhere in normative space like scattered buoys, long since set loose across the sea, and now waiting to be found anew or even discovered for the first time. Neither is the thought often pilloried to fancy a man, at least intellectually, as a lost, normative pilgrim, wandering alone through that very same space, and looking, as it were, for external trappings, to satisfy his inner ardor for expressivity. The mind is often conceived of as naked and independent agent, shameful and unfit for public exposure; it must be properly clad—by some nameless standard—in lexical decency before departing from the Platonian cave of knowledge. But was Plato’s a cave of words or of thoughts? If ever a philosopher thought of a word, did he not do so without using words? What words could constitute the wording of thoughts?
Any philologist you ask will tell you that ἦν is a form of εἰμί, the ancient Greek ‘verb of being’. Every language has to have one; you can’t talk about things without them existing or existing in a certain way. And it’s no secrete, to anyone curious enough, that verbs of being are always among the most morphologically abhorred of lexical units. They are used so much more frequently than any other word or idea that it’s simply disgusting. And all those responsible for the existence of ancient Greek seem to have gone out of their way to make existence especially existentially challenging in that language, always to be confused with going or hastening, or beginning a conditional, or a relative clause (sometimes those particles hardly mean anything at all; still, that won’t stop us from writing massive books about them). But as imperfect as ἦν is, or was, or was being, at least it denotes that much. The Greeks never made an aorist form of existence; things existed in the past, but always progressively. Perhaps the concept of instantaneous existence, some romantic, ephemeral beauty, is after all incompatible with the teleological nature of reason and human thought. That which truly dies never truly was; such things are only beautiful in potential. Hence, ἦν ὁ λόγος.
Nor, for the teleological Greeks, was seniority any different from sovereignty. Few people question whether that which comes before is of greater consequence than what follows. It’s vital for a man thundering away in the desert to make clear that the subject of his shouts precedes the actual words he uses, otherwise his words are worthless in themselves. But perhaps even in the desert, where there is no one around to hear, the very sense of one’s words, the thoughts that they express, can hold value if the λόγος of them was existing ἐν ἀρχῇ. Perhaps it’s hermeneutically irresponsible and academically barbaric or uncouth, but I consider it neither poetically offensive nor rhetorically dishonorable to offer a large number of equally authoritative translations: “Reason held sovereignty,” “Logic was in power,” “His word existed first as something separate but προς (beside) Him, but also existed first as the perfect μίμησις (representation, Aristotelian) of Himself, and therefore, θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος (God existed as the Word)”.
It is also curious that for the logically positive medievals, something already as physical as a verbum would have to become flesh. It seems a λόγος must be something both transcendental and substantial. It is not an om. om isn’t a word. That’s because om doesn’t mean anything. I believe a λόγος, while perhaps not merely a word, is surely something that means something, or else is the thing it means. If we suppose that all words are defined using other words, then there is an infinite web of lexical connections that never explains itself. But perhaps the inclusion of the definite article to describe ὁ λόγος makes it something real, and as such, something of infinite meaning—it is a worthy consideration whether ὁ λόγος might be the ultimate explanation of the endless, tiresome lexical-web. Perhaps this is the difference between ὁ Σωκράτης and Σωκράτης. A λόγος may very well be just another thing—something that exists in a single context at a single point in history. But then we could hardly doubt that ὁ λόγος must be more than this. ὁ λόγος must be The Idea, The Universal Truth, Reason, or The Sacred Word, that, while real and physical as the very sounds of one’s voice, or as Socrates himself, yet exists in absolute sovereignty and seniority, standing to the end as it was in the beginning, as something a priory, significant, and personal to all that follows across all nations, tongues, and ages.
Lexically and Intellectually Yours, to Whatever Extent Such a Thing Were Metaphysically Possible,