Philology
the love of the word

        Text studies was an ancient science some three and a half thousand years old by the time I came upon the scene.  The so called "religions of the book," inherited this kind of study from Constantinople and Venice.  But scrutiny of the text came especially to the fore in Renaissance Italy when Levantine scholars took refuge there
after Constantinople fell to Mehmed the Conquerer in 1453.   The practice of recovering and clarifying ancient texts culminated in the nineteenth century as the science called philology.  Philology was based on the notion that--on the one hand--the peculiarly human gift of language culminates in literary monuments, but to understand these works demands--on the other hand-- a thorough understanding of the peculiar language of each.  Philology treated poets with reverence and conceived poetry's higher, ennobling purpose as the very basis of civilization.  Before I left Arkansas, I chanced upon The Sounds and History of the German Language by Eduard Prokosch (1916).  It began with the elements of phonetics and then traced what one might today call the development of German phonology.  I do not think it at all treated grammar or vocabulary, but it was the most absorbing book I had ever read.   It constituted my introduction to serious study.

        Only some years later was I to learn how the Ancients set the mastery
language (rhetoric) as the main component of education.  They presumably imagined that if one can learn to talk straight, then one has to think straight, too.  Already as a boy I must have come to a similar conclusion, i.e., that I was cognitively dependent on language.  I never became an accomplished linguist, but I am acutely aware that encounter with other languages develops, i.e., changes my mind.  To this day I find reading to be more interesting in a language with which I am not too familiar.  I respond powerfully to the printed word.  Though I am easily moved by music, song touches me more sweetly.

        The German Romantic poets knew how language can stir one's most profound feelings.  By maintaining critical distance through irony, especially the Germans learned how to sharpen those sentimental pangs.  The Romantic appeal to a young man can scarcely be exaggerated.  I remember particularly Ludwig Tieck's Novellen and those of his contemporaries, also Heinrich Heine's sardonic ditties, his knowing transfiguration of history as in "Die beiden Grenadier" or "Belsazar".  Such writers offered me a first perspective on my own English tradition, but also on European philosophical developments from the British empiricists to the solipsism of Fichte and Schleiermacher.  In sum, I became convinced that the mind is, for all practical purposes, reality. 

     This recognition, of course, leads toward higher implications, so that I thought I had found the principle that underlies our humanity.  In its more pallid form we may call the principle Platonism; it is the central teaching of the Old Testament, "Against Thee alone have I sinned" (Ps. 51, 4); and of the New, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Matt.25,50).  Augustine made straight thinking fundamental to Christianity.  He simply called it recta ratio, declaring such pettifoggery as Arianism, Donatism, even Manichaeism to be heresies.  As the underpinning of law, we are prosecuted for our crime
not aagainst a particular victim, but against the state--in the same way as common sense holds us to principle and abjures anecdotalism.  As I came of age, this supremacy of the idea was dawning on me in the misty light of German Romanticism.  It culminates of course, in deity.

If you take pleasure in material things, well then be sure you acknowledge their Maker, lest your own pleasure displease Him.  If you take pleasure in people, then be sure your love for them goes to their Maker.  People themselves are so very changeable.  In their Maker they remain constant; apart from Him they flutter and die.  So love them in Him, and if you can, take them along to Him.  Say to them:  Let's love Him.  He made all these people we love, and is not far from them.  He did not just make them and run away.  They come from Him and are still in Him.  Now look here:  if you ever get just an inkling of the truth, lo, right there He is.  He is the very core of your heart, a heart wandered away from Him.  Return, you silly wobblers, come back to your own heart and stick with Him who made you.  Stand with Him and you stand steady.  Rest in Him and be at peace.  Why go down all these bumpy roads?  Where are you headed, anyway?  The good things you love all come from Him.  Insofar as they go back to Him they are sweet.  But insofar as the things that come from Him are enjoyed apart from Him, unnaturally, they only naturally turn bitter.
Augustinus,
Confessions Book IV

No doubt this insight drew me to the faithful Augustinian Martin Luther; I deeply sympathized with his lashing out against rules and regulations, and with his brusque dismissal of any notion of human merit.

        As to the other German with whom I spent much of my life and whom I so like to quote, Wolfgang Goethe, I am not aware he had any such strong influence on my own thinking.  I shamefacedly admit how I came in my middle years to identify with Goethe, so that his thinking may have become so much a part of me that I don't even know it.  Still, at my present remove I find Goethe more companion than guide, and think him too narcissistic to declare "Against thee alone have I sinned."  I still read him, gladly learn from him, puzzle over him, used his words to justify my present self-description.


< back to Academia                       Home                       forward to Research >

Please send your comments