The Reformation of Romance

If today you invite a stranger to discuss art over a nice cup of tea, it would come as a surprise if you went into any subject besides paintings once you had sat down together.  Go back a couple of millennia to hold that same conversation with a conservative Roman, and you’ll find that a diversion into the more practical topics of carpentry, weaving, or any other kind of trade or profession is not only natural but inevitable.  The difference between the two discussions is the tea…or rather the ‘T’.  A Roman would not have discussed A-R-T but A-R-S, and by that Latin term, he would have referred primarily not to sculpture and pottery (much less to oil on canvas) but to crafts, trades, and skills in general.  Indeed, as the root of the word suggests (ar-, to join), ars has always been about any matter in which people fit old things together in order to create new ones, and in ancient times, this would have been thought of first and foremost from a pragmatic point of view.

So what happened to the word?  Why would a stodgy, grizzled Roman like Cato the Elder have concerned himself with the joining of wood to build wagons in place of the joining of colors to please the eye?  Indeed, there can be no doubt that, had Cato been our converser, we would have begun this imagined dialogue with the driest exposition on how to build a miserly carriage and ended it with the averring of some oddly arrived at conclusion that Carthage must be utterly destroyed!  That sort of discussion would be a far cry from its modern analogue, which would inevitably take on a register much removed from the practical concerns of daily life, since modern idiom has come to assume a certain allowance that our ancestors never made for the inutile.  Aristotle would suggest that this evolution is one of progress, that it is only natural for a society, once having achieved a surplus of whatever is necessary for survival, to begin taking an interest in beauty and truth for their own sakes rather than for some ulterior end (Metaphysics 1.980 ff.).

The Jews in the wilderness and on the mountaintop said: It is meet to be here. Let us build an altar to Jehovah. The Roman […] brought to every new shore on which he set his foot […] only his cloacal obsession. He gazed about him in his toga and he said: It is meet to be here. Let us construct a watercloset.

—Joyce, Ulysses

We can detect such a progression in the development not only of language but also of ‘myth’, as it were.  I refer to myth as a convention of semiology, however remote the concept might seem from the Postmodern world.  If we put yet another question to that contemporary stranger of ours and ask him what are the foundational myths of our society, he might tell us that the commonest myth he knows of is that a toilet flush will change direction depending on what hemisphere it’s in, when in fact this is not true.  Of course, our philological minds would have hoped for a rather different kind of answer—and in ancient Greece or Rome, those hopes would not have been disappointed.  At least to our assuagement is the knowledge that modern literature may play an analogous role to this dated concept of myth and may show equally well the lexical shift.  Indeed, the very fact that myth has been replaced by literature intimates the progression from practical to impractical.  In place of a craft that is necessary to society, the modern world has an unessential art that is taken up at leisure.

So let us briefly skim through this apparatus, this artistic compendium of myth or literature or whatever you’d like to call it.  We begin with the Greeks and Romans,  whose interest in ars and τέχνη centered around the crafty joining of things for needful purposes.  The joining of materials to create goods and the joining of persons to create persons.  Indeed, the latter kind of joining is spoken of openly in Greco-Roman myth, especially in the form of comedy.  We need look no farther than the character of Circe, a seductive temptress, or of Lysistrata, a masochistic wife, or of Dido, a desperate bedmate—no farther than these to realize that human copulation, in ancient Greece and Rome, was a needful craft, and it was assumed by the society that one could no more abstain from that kind of joining than from the necessary building of miserly carriages.  This was the character of pagan myth, and it wasn’t until Christianity came to the forefront of Western culture that our inveterate myths about love began to revise dramatically.

It follows that Medieval literature regards the art of procreation as a kind of sacred taboo.  Explicit references are replaced by innuendoes, and with the expurgation of so many long-winded discussions of the bedroom, space is made for a whole new kind of discussion: a version of romance that concerns the spirit rather than the body.  Hence, poets of the dolce stil novo are at leisure to praise the spiritual virtues of the beloved rather than being bounded by the “inescapable” drives elicited by the body.  There is now an Art of Courtly Love, rather than a craft.  The basic assumptions about romance have transformed entirely.  Pretty soon it will seem aberrational to suggest that Sex is the tyrannical despot of the human will, and of course, the moment that such a suggestion becomes so anomalous as to shock and appall will be the very same moment that it is opined most forcefully.

But setting aside this apprehension at present, we continue with the Renaissance artists of literature.  Here we still find plenty of vulgar innuendoes, in Shakespearean comedy for example, but nothing more explicit.  In Shakespeare and Spenser there is now a more refined interest in virtue, which has developed out of Medieval philosophy.  Medieval thinkers were the sort of folks that would run around organizing and categorizing every little thing they possibly could.  They would have liked nothing better than to fully index the human soul, and the assumption of this assiduously compiled index is what allowed a poet like Spenser to allude to “The Twelve Virtues”, with everybody pretty much knowing what he meant (thank you Thomas Aquinas).

Moreover, so rational an assumption about human nature—the assumption that it is systematic and organized—is an underlying myth in the Age of Reason as well.  Kantian morality and the concept of Natural Rights would have never been possible had we still been living under the anarchical rule of Sex.  Our understanding of Nature had by now been entirely reformed.  Mother Earth, the reckless, dictatorial, juggernaut, whom primitive man would propitiate for a favorable harvest, had been supplanted by an enlightened Nature, a civil, rational  ideal.

This rational outlook on love and life in general continues to dominate society into the Romantic era.  Of course, our mythology becomes more mystical, and there is now a prevalent belief in the irresistible power of passion, but the latter is always held in tension with an optimistic confidence in man’s aptitude to comport himself with diffidence and decorum even when he is under duress.  By now, Sex has fully abdicated her throne in favor of a Philosopher King, who we might call Reason, Truth, or at least Beauty.  The former tyrant is cloaked deeply in an abstruse garment of circumlocution, and in her place this transcendental other is believed to rule more democratically over nature.

Lest anyone should scoff at this crude generalization, let me be clear that I am referring not to a hard and fast rule about literature, but to a basic assumption inherent in language.  This is where the analogy between myth and literature breaks down.  By myth, I mean the assumptions built into language forming the ideological backbone of society.  These assumptions may be predominate in the literature of the culture, but of course, any person or author is equally at liberty to contradict the presuppositions of an audience for rhetorical effect.  If one should bring up Marquis de Sade as a counter example to the general outlook that I have described, then I respond that the foundational writings of sadism held rhetorical force precisely because they contradicted the foundational myths of society at large.  And so too with the foundational writings of Freudianism.  This is the apprehension that I alluded to earlier.  It is one of the frailties of human nature that, if left to her own devices, she will deconstruct immediately, contradicting whatever is most fundamental to her existence.  If there exists a society—as I argue there does—which has progressed from the tyrannical rule of Biology toward the democratic sovereignty of Beauty, then left to itself, that society will do everything in its power to oppose its own existence as such.  What I mean is that unless we had all been more careful, the onset of the Freudian age was inevitable simply because it wasn’t yet actual.

So what’s it to us if society is reverting to an older form of itself?  I might answer this question by turning once more to the authoritative wisdom of Aristotle—provided that my dear, Postmodern readers will find it in their hearts to forgive me for being so ingenuously classical.  I maintain that the reformation of romance I have described is properly considered progress.  Progress brought about by the onset of Christianity.  Progress bringing about the onset of freedom.  I could hardly imagine a sadder fate for the societies of the Western world than to surrender their own dearly established cultural democracy and allow this neologism of “art” to fall once more into obscurity before it has even fully flourished.  I fear it may be by this impending lexical shift, by which we hope to obliterate the last encumbrance of freedom, that we will instead do away with freedom all together.

In short, I believe that the cultures of the Western world stand at an exciting point in their history.  When the stakes are as high as I have described and we have so much to lose, we have equally as much to gain.  Our modern mythology is more conscious than it has been for several millennia of the greatest Adversary of human reason.  In this way, man’s desperate need for divine grace has never been more blatantly obvious, and our potential to recognize and respond contritely to that need may be enough to elevate art, love, and life generally to a quality which it has never before achieved.  Not a quality of earthly happiness and prosperity, but of austerity and supernatural joy.  We stand then both individually and collectively at a parting of ways.  As human fallibility confronts us head on in this uncertain age, this age in which the integrity of reason itself has been called into question, we may either respond with blissful denial and a naive faith in Human Potential, or we may surrender every last surety and confidence that we held in our own ingenuity to be utterly reformed by the hand of God.

The Rebirth of the Author

My Dear and Idle Ernest,

What follows is a brief thought-piece that I humbly put forth as a response to Ronald Barthes’ infamous essay, The Death of the Author.  Let it be clear to everyone reading that I do not mean to suggest, by publishing this during such a fallow period in your output, that you are somehow dead or lifeless–in a literary sense or otherwise–but I rather intend this merely as a bit of ‘intermission-music’, as it were, something to entertain us all philologically and philosophically while we await, with a psychological eagerness, your next philomathological letter.  Pardon my Greek.

While I don’t think you have to read Barthes in order to understand and enjoy what follows, I have provided a link to his essay above for those who are interested.  If you get bored, skip to the last paragraph.

Your Servant,


The Rebirth of the Author

In any act of reading, listening, or conversing, there is always entailed, whether in the foreground or background of thoughts, an ongoing exercise of information management, a process wherein the raw material passed from orator to auditor, or from writer to reader, as the case may be, is instantaneously converted into something else, some extracted object of greater relevance to the personal interests of the receiving agent than the mere words presented—that is to say, an interpretation.  And it is this interpretive process that we rightly regard as the ultimate source of all human rhetoric, the faculty alone responsible for our capacity to assign any significance whatsoever to the language of other people—a faculty, without which, every external exchange of words would be utterly inconsequential, a futile production of sounds or symbols that has no effect on the observer beyond a mere stimulation of physical senses.  Indeed, if we imagine a world without this normative process of interpretation, we quickly see the greatest philosophical pitfall of strict Empiricism, finding ourselves in a place where all objects, persons, words, and sounds, deprived of their corresponding Platonic Forms, immediately lose their entire meaning upon entering the mind of an observer, for the receiver of all such information, if lacking in this capacity, will be unable to do anything more with it than to remember how it was presented ‘word for word’.

But it is the profound enablement of the true cognitive model, this inevitable habit of the human mind, that it allows for endless possible linguistic choices to express a single idea, so that the abstract object of an ‘interpretation’ may be realised in whatever one concrete manner is most fitting to a particular context.  As a result, a reader may discuss wisdom found in books without direct quotation, a teacher may instruct his or her pupils based on knowledge rather than on words, and a student may be properly equipped, by virtue of a purely normative education, to solve real-world problems that never even arose in the theoretical realm of the classroom.  This is all due to the remarkable and unequaled paradigm of human communication: any given exchange of words in any given context may bear future consequence precisely because, for all parties involved, the corresponding ideas transcend and stand apart from every mode of expression by which they are put forth.

But we must also appreciate the equally profound danger of this paradigm.  The moment one interpretation has been extracted from a text, countless other possibilities, along with all their corresponding ideas and consequences, have been lost.  If after such has taken place, a single reader puts forth his or her interpretation as ‘the correct reading’ or the ‘authoritative perspective’, that is to say, the precise meaning that the author has intended, he or she will utterly miss all of those other abstract possibilities, which stand, while perhaps not in contention with the reader’s own, at the very least, as an invaluable elaboration or extension to what a single person can interpret alone.  It only stands to reason that any object extracted from another is always but a subset of the whole, so that the whole meaning of a text is always larger and more complicated than that of any extracted interpretation.

It is in light of this enablement and this danger that I hereby propose ‘a verbatim doctrine of philology’, that is, most generally, a methodological philosophy of literature wherein the text is always preeminent to the interpretation.  Indeed, the text is held as a dictionary of its own meaning, such that any rewording of its ideas or translation of its content, while valuable in a particular context, is yet understood as something short of the full situation presented by the author verbatim.  As may be deduced from the doctrine’s carefully chosen title, I regard this methodology as itself an interpretation of the omnipresent axiom found verbatim in John i, 1 of the Latin vulgate: In principio erat Verbum.

By this philosophy, I mean to suggest that upon each reading of a text, its author is born again, becoming once more like a living person and speaking to the reader in a very intimate and humane manner.  The living author is able, thanks to the process of interpretation, to address the unique concerns of an individual reader or a foreign culture in a way that is deeply vivid, real, and novel, even without loosing all of the wonder and mystery that comes with a regard for authorial intent.  The full scope of a text, like the full scope of a human being, remains forever unconquered by analysis.  Just as a biography written of an author will never be tantamount to an encounter with the real person, so will no work of criticism ever suffice to substitute a work of literature itself—for the meaning of which one must always turn again to the source.  But both the immeasurable, personal influence that the Author yet holds over the reader, as well as the ongoing, universal consequence that He still bears on the future, remain irrefutable intimations that, in the mind of every reader, this so-called Author and Creator of all His work is indeed fully alive once again.

“Ζῶν γὰρ ὁ λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ καὶ ἐνεργὴς καὶ τομώτερος ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν μάχαιραν δίστομον καὶ διϊκνούμενος ἄχρι μερισμοῦ ψυχῆς καὶ πνεύματος, ἁρμῶν τε καὶ μυελῶν, καὶ κριτικὸς ἐνθυμήσεων καὶ ἐννοιῶν καρδίας·”

“For the word of God is living and working continuously; it is more sharp than any double-edged sword, piercing even as far as the partition of the soul and spirit, and of joints and of marrow.  It is critical of the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)


A Public Poetic

From the very start of the Aeneid, Virgil makes it clear that his epic is to find its focus in two essential subjects: arma virumque, “arms and a man” (Virg. A. I.1).  These two major themes each carry larger significance that is developed throughout the epic: arma refers not only to arms, but also, by metonymy, to public wars, the deeds of arms, and virum refers to the private experiences and developments of a man as an individual.  So from the outset, Virgil offers his readership a poem that considers the human experience in both a public and a private context.  He reconciles these two perspectives in the character of Aeneas, who is both a public hero, as the founder of Rome, and a private individual, as a lover of Dido and victim of fortune.  This reconciliation is among the most clearly manifest poetic innovations that, several centuries later, would cause Dante Alighieri to say of Virgil, tu se’ solo colui da cu’ io tolsi / lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto onore, “you alone are he from whom I took the beautiful style that has done me honor” (Dante Inferno I.86-7).  However, Dante views the foundation of Rome not as a political conquest, but as a spiritual mission, and so accordingly, in the literary character of Dante, his own parallel of Virgil’s Aeneas, we find the reconciliation of a private drama with a public one that is not political, but spiritual—a divine comedy.

In the Aeneid, Aeneas is introduced as both a public leader and a private individual.  When he and his men find themselves in an unknown land, having lost thirteen ships, he encourages his men with a speech, after which Virgil’s narration affords us additional insight into his character: Talia voce refert curisque ingentibus aeger / spem vultu simulat, premit altum corde dolorem, “He relates such things with his voice, and sick with great worries, he imitates hope with his face, repressing pain deep in his heart” (Virg. A. I.208-9).  Here Virgil paints the image of a public leader, who puts forth a front of spei, ‘hope’, but as a private individual, carries great curas, ‘worries’, within—the nearly golden line (209) creates a powerful juxtaposition of these two facets of Aeneas’ Character.  At the same time, Venus expresses a similar two-fold interpretation of Aeneas when she raises her entreatment to Jupiter.  She says, Certe hinc Romanos olim volventibus annis, / hinc fore ductores, revocato a sanguine Teucri … pollicitus … / hoc equidem occasum Troiae tristesque ruinas / solabar fatis contraria fata rependens, “Surely, you have promised that the Romans, the rulers, shall be from these men, recalled from Trojan blood.  In this, indeed, have I found solace for the fall of Troy, holding fate against fate” (Virg. A. I.234-7).  Here she first expresses a public concern, the founding of Rome, but her reaction is private.  We are presented, in this single speech, with the images of both a patron goddess, longing for her promised and fated city, and a mother, grieving the misfortunes of her son.

However, for Dante, the significance of Rome’s destiny is not political, but spiritual: Per quest’andanta onde li dai tu vanto, / intese cose che furon cagione / di sua vittoria e del papale ammanto, “through this journey, from where you give him [Aeneas] praise, he understood things that were occasions of his victory and the papal mantle” (Dante Inferno II.25-7).  Here Dante acknowledges that Aeneas’ learnings are a personal victory, but the public founding of Rome, as it functions in the establishment of the Church, is not merely a political victory, but a spiritual one.  In this way, Virgil’s pagan force of fate is reinterpreted as a Christian force of providence, and the focus is shifted from the destiny of an empire to the will of the gods (or of God).  In both cases, a private drama is held against a public one, but for Dante, the public drama is only public in the sense that it is universal: just as the political issue of the founding of Rome made Aeneas’ private history relevant to the entirety of Virgil’s Roman audience—thus transforming it into a public history—so, for Dante, does the spiritual issue of God’s will make the private histories of both him and Aeneas relevant to his whole Christian audience, all of whom are to be subjects of quello imperador, ‘that emperor’ (God), and citizens of sua città, ‘his city’ (Dante Inferno I.124-6).  Thus, issues of politics are equated to those of salvation.

But with this Christianisation in place, Dante’s and Virgil’s tasks are really quite similar: they both endeavour to transform private stories of love and misfortune into public ones.  Dante expresses the need for such a transformation in the fortieth chapter of his Vita Nuova, where he tells the story of two pilgrims who seem ignorant of his local, private griefs, chè forse pensano de li loro amici lontani, li quali noi non conoscemo, “for perhaps they are thinking of their far away friends, whom we do not know.”  Here Dante expresses a frustration with the disconnect between his personal drama and theirs.  He acknowledges that each party has its own story, his being the drama of Beatrice and theirs being, perhaps, some drama involving distant friends.  But he then resolves to write parole le quali farebbero piangere chiunque le intendesse, “words that would make anyone who listens weep” (Dante Vita Nuova XL).  This universal appeal, which will exploit the commonalities of all private dramas, is to be the great accomplishment of the dolce stil novo, and is one of the major innovations for which Dante is in debt to Virgil.

The universal appeal of Dante’s dolce stil novo is accomplished through the transformation of his romance with Beatrice into a divine love, relevant to his entire audience.  This transformation plays itself out in two ways worth mentioning, both of which parallel phenomena in Virgil: (1) the equating of Beatrice’s love for the literary figure of Dante with that of God for man, and (2) the portrayal of love as an active, cathartic, and redemptive force, rather than a mere enslaving passion.  Virgil’s parallel for the first of these has already been mentioned: the love of Venus, who is both a mother and a goddess, for Aeneas.  Dante likewise transforms Beatrice’s love—which, while not the love of a mother, is still a private love—into a divine love.  He does so in the second canto of the Inferno, when the literary character of Dante has just expressed concern that his journey through hell, unlike Aeneas’, is not divinely willed, and is therefore unwise; whereupon Virgil corrects him, telling him that he was sent by Beatrice, who, moved by love, expressed the divine will that Dante complete his journey (Dante Inferno II.49-114).  Beatrice’s love is made divine, clearly, by the fact that she is a blessed soul from heaven, but also by its close association with the Virgin Mary.  Just shortly after Beatrice says, amor mi mosse, “love moved me” (Dante Inferno II.7), she explains that Mary, weeping before God, sent Beatrice (via the message of Lucia) to prod Dante onward (which she does via the message of Virgil) (Dante Inferno II.94-114); hence, Beatrice was moved, in one sense, by her own personal love, but in another sense, by the divine love represented by the Virgin Mary.  The weeping of Mary—who is a symbol of love—before God, sì che duro giudicio là sù frange, “so that the firm judgment on high breaks” (Dante Inferno II.96), closely parallels the weeping of Venus, the goddess of love, before Jupiter, the god of justice—both of which public dramas portray the universal theme of justice and love.

The second way in which Dante’s private romance is universalised comes directly from a reference to the dolce stil novo.  The title of dolce stil novo is first given to Dante’s poetry (and the works of his small poetic circle) in the Purgatorio, where Bonagiunta makes it clear that Dante’s canzone, Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore, typifies this new style (Dante Purgatorio XXIV.49-57).  In the canzone Bonagiunta mentions, Dante expresses, with his praises, the cathartic and redemptive power of his love for Beatrice: e qual soffrisse di starla a vedere / diverria nobil cosa, o si morria, “and whoever endures to stand there [near Beatrice] and to look on her either becomes something noble, or dies” (Dante Vita Nuova XIX).  Hence, Dante’s private love has been transformed into a redemptive force, something that purifies and promotes the salvation of souls.

It should also be noted that this new style is an active style, a style of praising.  Dante writes of the innovation that this new canzone presents: lo fine del mio amore fue già lo saluto di questa donna, … chè era fine di tutti li miei desiderii.  Ma poi che le piacque di negarlo a me, lo mio segnore Amore … ha posto tutta la mia beatitudine … in quello parole che lodano la donna mia, “the end of my love used to be the greeting of this lady, [Beatrice,] which was the end of all my desires.  But now that it pleases her to deny me that, my lord, Love, has put all my beatitude in those words which praise my lady” (Dante Vita Nuova XVIII).  This novissimo, most new, active desire of Dante’s stands in vivid opposition to his earlier passive one.  Instead of wishing for something to happen to him (namely, that he be greeted), he now wishes to do something (praise Beatrice).  This is the essential difference between the dolce stil novo and the older style; the latter of which is manifest in the first poem of the Vita Nuova, in which Dante addresses ciascun’alma presa, “every engrossed, or captive, soul” (Dante Vita Nuova III).  At this earlier point, he is love’s prisoner, only waiting for something to happen to him, but in the dolce stil novo, his narrative has a new-found authority, by which he is able to act all on his own.

In his De Vulgari Eloquentia, Dante points out the importance of this active voice in poetry.  He says that the word cantio, when used to describe the creation, rather than the performance, of poetry, has an active sense, et secundum istum modum Virgilius, primo Eneidorum, dicit Arma virumque cano, “and according to this usage of the word does Virgil say, at the beginning of the Aeneid, I sing of arms and of a man” (Dante De Vulgari Eloquentia II.viii.4).  So Virgil’s active declamation is important to Dante.  It contrasts Homer’s deferral of the duty to sing or speak to a muse—e.g. μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ, “Sing of the rage, O goddess” (Hom. Il. I.1) and ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, “Tell me of the man, O muse” (Hom. Od. I.1)—which makes Homer’s oeuvre an act of performance rather than of creation, and for Dante, it is therefore cantio only in a passive sense.

With his new, active style, Dante transforms his understanding of love from something that happens to him into something that he seeks.  For the sake of love, the purifying force, he journeys through hell and purgatory to salvation, which is his analogue of Aeneas’ trial-filled journey to Italy (because salvation is the destination of Dante’s spiritual journey, while Italy is the destination of Aeneas’ political one).  So the transformation of love into something of which one actively seeks to become worthy makes it a divine force—rather than a private affaire—that propels Dante to salvation.  In the same way, Virgil transforms love from a mere private affair between Dido and Aeneas into a fateful force that motivates Aeneas’ active quest for Italy, for Aeneas himself says, hic amor, haec patria est, “this [Italy] is my love, this is my fatherland” (Virg. A. IV.347).  In the cases of both poets, the transformation of love from a passion that is experienced into a calling that is sought after—which coincides with a poetic narrative that seeks to do something, whether lodare or canere, rather than express what is done—makes it public, and affords it universal appeal.

Are you alone?

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 omom 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,

R. P.