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 Philology and the Incarnation 


Owen Barfield


Sir Thomas Browne, that mystical, or quasi-mystical, author of the seventeenth century, wrote a book which he called Religio Medici, The Religion of a Doctor, A Medical Man. Many, many years later — in my own youth, in fact — Professor Gilbert Murray, who is well known in England and is probably known over here as a Greek scholar and humanist, wrote a little book (or it may have been no more than a single lecture reprinted) called Religio Grammatici, The Religion of a Scholar or Man of Letters. It occurred to me after I had given the title of this lecture, that if I had been a little more pretentious or a little more brash, perhaps I might have ventured to call it Religio Philologi, which I suppose would mean the Religion of a Student of Language, perhaps especially a student of the historical aspect of language.

It is impossible to give much attention to words and their meanings, and more especially the history of words and the history of the changes which those meanings have undergone, without making a number of interesting discoveries. Moreover, in my experience the discoveries one then makes are of a kind which it is impossible to make without being forced by them to reflect rather intensively on the whole nature of man and of the world in which he lives.

Let me give you a very simple example. Has it ever occurred to you, I wonder, that the epithet charming, as people use the word today, has certain very odd features about it? In the first place, it is the present participle of a very active verb, namely the verb “to charm.” Grammatically, therefore, when we speak of an object, a garden, for instance, or a landscape, or perhaps a person, as “charming,” we make that object or person the subject of a verb which denotes an activity of some sort. That is what we do grammatically, but it is not at all, or it is only very rarely, what we mean semantically. When we speak, for instance, of a child as charming, we do not mean that the child himself is actually doing something. On the contrary, as soon as we notice that anyone, a child or a woman, is “charming” us in the verbal sense [in which case we rarely use the simple verb by itself, but we find some other expression such as “putting on charm” or “exerting charm” so as to ring out the notion of a willed activity], when that happens, the charmer who is charming in the verbal sense generally ceases to be charming in the adjectival sense!

Well, you could say the same thing about the word enchanting. I mention these two words because they're good examples of a whole class, quite a noticeable group of words in our language which possess the same peculiarity. One has only to think of such words as depressing, interesting, amusing, entertaining, fascinating, and so on to realize that we tend to allude to qualitative manifestations in the world outside ourselves by describing the effect they have on us, rather than by attempting to denote the qualities themselves.

The next thing that you find about this little group of words, if you go into the matter historically, is that these words, when used with these meanings, are all comparatively recent arrivals. Most of them first came into use in the eighteenth century — none of them is earlier than the seventeenth, I think. The kind of question one is led to ask is: is this just as accident, or has it any wider significance? That is just the kind of question which the philologist, the student of language in its historical aspect, is led on to ask himself. Is the appearance of these words at this comparatively late state just something that happened to happen, or is it a surface manifestation of deeper currents of some sort? So you have a linguistic habit, one must say, arising in the West in the course of the last few centuries, of describing or defining or denoting the outer world in terms, as it were, of the inner world of human feeling.

Now, let us take a look at another group of words, a very much larger group this time, indeed an almost unlimited one. I am referring to all those words which go to make up what the nineteenth century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham called the “immaterial language.” In other words, I mean all those innumerable words in any modern language which do not refer to anything in the outside world at all, but only to the inner world of human feeling, of human thought — only to states of mind or mental events — hope, fear, enthusiasm, conscious, embarrass, humility, ambition, concept — you can go on reeling them off, any number of them, of course. If you take the trouble to look up the etymologies of these words, you will find that in every case either they or their predecessors in older languages from which we have taken them, at one time referred not only to states of mind or mental events but also to some thing or some event in the outer world; that is of course what one might call elementary etymology. Only this time it is not usually a matter of looking back just a few hundred years into the past. We have to take a much longer survey if we wish to observe the historical process to which I am not seeking to draw your attention.

First, let me make this point — everyone is agreed, and I repeat, everyone, that there was such a historical process. Now you may ask, how do I establish that rather bold proposition? And the answer is: I establish it because I am in a position to call two witnesses to it from the very opposite ends of the earth. In saying “the opposite ends of the earth,” I am not only alluding to the fact that one of them is American and the other is English, though that happens to be the case, but I am thinking much rather of the fact that they represent diametrically opposite philosophies, diametrically opposite points of view and beliefs about the whole nature of man and his relation to the divine disposition in the world. The two witnesses I'm thinking of are the transcendentalist, Emerson, and the positivist philosopher to whom I've already referred, Jeremy Bentham. You'll find in the section on language in the longer of Emerson's two essays which are entitled “Nature” the following passage: “Every word used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from material appearance. Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrows. We say heart to express emotion, the head to denote thought, and thought and emotion are words borrowed from sensible things, and now approached to spiritual nature. Most of the process by which this transformation is made is hidden from us in the remote time when language was formed.” Well, that is Emerson.

Then you find Jeremy Bentham, hard-headed positivist Jeremy Bentham, in an essay of his also entitled "Language,” [it comes in section four of the essay], writing as follows: “Throughout the whole field of language, parallel to the line of what may be termed the material language, and expressed by the same words, runs a line of what may be termed the immaterial language. Not that to every word that has a material import there belongs also an immaterial one; but that to every word that has an immaterial import there belongs, or at least did belong, a material one.” When, therefore, we approach this immaterial language, these words which refer to the inner world only, we know that we have to do with words that at one time were words of the material language. We know that there has been a transition from the material language into an immaterial one.

Can we go still further and, at least in some cases, observe the transition taking place? The answer is that in some cases we can. You see, if in the case of any word of the immaterial language, we can lay our finger on a period in its history when the older material meaning had not yet evaporated, if I may put it that way, while the later immaterial meaning had already appeared, then we shall have located the transition itself.

Now let me take one of the examples which Emerson himself gives, where he writes: “spirit means primarily wind.” I imagine that is as good an example as any you could choose of an immaterial meaning which was originally a material one. In this instance we have the best possible evidence that there was a particular time when the material meaning and the immaterial meaning still operated side by side in the same word. Not only so, but we know that that time was the time, about the beginning of our era, in which the New Testament was being written. Because in the third chapter of John's gospel you read in the account of our Lord's encounter with Nicodemus, first the words, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.” But in the Greek it is the same word pneuma that is used, whether it is wind or spirit that is being referred to. In rendering the two phrases, which occur in one and the same verse, “the wind bloweth where it listeth,” and “every one that is born of the Spirit,” the translator has to use two different words for what in the original text is one and the same word. The two meanings, the material and the immaterial, were present side by side, or mingled, in the one Greek word.

Now I want to suggest that if we set side by side the two linguistic phenomena which we have been looking at, we see on the one side the thing I spoke of first, the relatively recent tendency to refer to the qualities in the outside world, [call it the world of nature, if you like], in terms of their effect upon ourselves. Then you see on the other side a much older habit, [I call it a habit, because this time it is universal to refer to it as a mere “tendency”], that much older universal habit of referring to ourselves and our thoughts and affections in terms of the world of nature, the outside world. So we see, reflected in language, a curiously equivocal relation between this outside world and the inner man, the self or ego of the human being which experiences it. But we see something more than that. If you survey that equivocal relation, as I've called it, historically, you can't fail to be struck by the fact that there has occurred in the course of ages a change of emphasis. One could really say a change in the center of gravity, a change of direction in the way in which this equivocal relation operates. Looking back into the past, we observe an external, an outer language, a material language referring to the outer world of nature, which becomes more and more used in such a way that it becomes an inner language or an immaterial language, as Bentham called it. And this is clearly a very important process, for it is only to the extent that we have a language in which to express a thing that we can really be said to be properly conscious of the thing at all. That may sound a controversial proposition, but I think it's an experience which we all have as children, when our learning to speak on the one hand, and on the other our whole awareness of our environment as a coherent and articulated world, increase side by side as correlatives to one another.

What then was the thing of which this gradual historical development of an inner or immaterial language out of an outer or material language enabled mankind as a whole to become ware? The answer is clear, I think. It was none other than the existence, hitherto unsuspected, of an inner world in contradistinction to the outer one. In other words it was the existence of a man's self as a conscious individual being. Clearly, it was with the help of language — it was through the instrumentality of language — that individual men first began discovering themselves.

But now, what do we imply when we say that something has been “discovered”? If it was discovered at a certain point or during a certain period of time, as it must have been, we imply that there was a previous period during which it was not yet discovered. But please note carefully that, although this must always be the case, it may have been the case for either of two reasons. The thing may have been undiscovered because, although it was already in existence, although it was always there, no one had so far happened to notice it. That's the one reason. Should I be in order, I wonder, here in placing the discovery of America as an example of that category? I don't know. But anyhow, there are plenty of other examples. Take the planet Neptune, for example. That's the first kind of discovery: not discovered because it didn't happen to be noticed although it was already there. But the thing might also have been undiscovered, for a different reason. The reason might be simply that it wasn't yet there. If you discover a new, wild flower in your garden, next spring, let's say it's an annual, the reason you didn't discover it last spring may be that the bird or the wind which carries the seed didn't happen to have passed that way, whereas this year it did. That is the second kind of discovery. We cannot always be certain which of the two causes any particular discovery belongs to. It is conceivable, for instance, that even the planet Neptune might not have been in existence until about the time it was discovered, though I expect we are right in classifying that as a discovery of the first kind.

But there is one case where we can be absolutely certain that the discovery was not of the first kind, and therefore was of the second kind [the discovery of something which did not exist until it was discovered]; and that is the discovery by man of his own existence as a self-conscious being. The reason is plain enough. It simply does not make sense to say that at one time self-consciousness was an existing fact which had not yet been discovered. You can be unaware of many things, but you cannot be unaware of being aware. In this case, therefore, the discovery and the birth of the thing discovered are one and the same event.

We see, then, looking back into the past, a condition of affairs in which it was not yet possible to speak of an inner world or an individual self in contradistinction to an outer world. And when this did begin to become possible, the inner world at first could only be suggested by the way in which one employed the language of the outer world. We see this particular way of using word, the [if you like] “symbolical” way, or the way of imagery, gradually growing in strength and variety until there comes into being whole rich, immaterial language, a rich treasury of words, which had at one time, indeed, an external reference, but from which, in common usage, all external reference has long since passed away. That is what we see when we look back into the past. And then we see looking at the present a state of affairs in which the tables have been turned. The tables have been turned in the linguistic relation between man and nature, or between the individual self and its environment. Because, as I pointed out at the beginning, if a man now wants to say anything about his natural environment, anything rich or qualitative, as distinct from the purely quantitative measurements of natural science, he has to do it by employing a language whose literal reference is to something that is going on within himself, but employing it in such a way that he somehow suggests that those qualities exist not in himself, but in the world outside himself.

I have, it is true, given only a single indication of this last, namely, a particular small group of words. There are, in fact, plenty of other indications of what I am saying, but it would take too long to go into them. I'm not, and I should like to make this very clear, attempting to argue a case. I can go no farther than stating it.

Now, a change of direction is, by its very nature, a change which must have taken place at a definite point in time. The moment of change may be easily observable, may be easy to determine or locate, or it may not. In the case of a billiard ball hitting the cushion and rebounding, it is easy enough. In the case of a more complex phenomenon, it may be very much harder. The waves, for instance, keep on coming in even after the tide has turned. And an extra large wave may make us doubt whether it has turned yet after all. In the case of an infinitely more complex phenomenon, such as the evolution of human consciousness, it is even less likely that the actual moment of change will be easily observable. But that there was such a moment, even though we are unable to locate it exactly, is a conclusion to which reason itself compels us; for otherwise there could not have been a change of direction at all. Moreover, if the moment of change or reversal cannot be exactly pin-pointed, that does not mean that it cannot be placed at all. I don't know the exact moment at which the incoming tide changed to an outflowing one, but I do know that it is an outflowing one now, and theat five minutes ago, let's say, it was still coming in.

And now, if I may leave my analogy of the turning of the tide, and return to this change I have been speaking of, this reversal in the direction of man's relation to his environment, this change from a period, in which, with the help of language, man is drawing his self-consciousness, as it were, out of the world around him, to a period in which he is, again, with the help of language, in a position to give back to nature something of the treasure he once took from her, then a student of the history of word-meanings can certainly be as definite as this: he can say with confidence that the great change of direction took place between, well, let's say between the death of Alexander the Great and the birth of St. Augustine. Indeed, there are indications which would tempt him to be much more precise.

Again, I'll only give one such indication. If one contrasts the meaning of the Greek word for word or reason or discourse [for it could mean all three: I'm referring to the word logos], if one contrasts the meaning of that word, as it stood in the time of Plato and Aristotle, with its later meaning; or to put it another way, of one contrasts the meaning of the old word logos, with the meanings of the words which we have to use to translate it; and if one then moves the microscope a little nearer, so to speak, so as to determine, if possible, the moment, or at least the single century of transition from the old to the new, then one is struck immediately by the way in which this word logos was being used, in Alexandria, for instance, used by Greeks and used also by Jews, in the first century B.C. One may even be a little more pedantically precise, and remark that that particular word was in especial use in the Stoic philosophy, and that it was in expounding the Stoic philosophy that the concepts objective and subjective first make their appearance in a clearly recognizable form. In other words, it was then that the fundamental duality with which we are now so familiar was first clearly formulated, was first sharply focused, a duality no longer merely between mind on the one side and senses on the other [which had been long familiar to the Greeks], but a duality between a self on the one side and its environment on another.

And so, if it were possible [and of course it is not] that a man should have pursued the kind of studies I have been speaking of, without ever having read the gospels, or the epistles of St Paul, without ever having heard of Christianity, he would nevertheless be impelled by his reason to the conclusion that a crucial moment in the evolution of humanity must have occurred certainly during the seven or eight centuries on either side of the reign of Augustus and probably somewhere near the middle of that period. This, he would feel, from the whole course of his studies, was the moment at which the flow of the spiritual tide into the individual self was exhausted and the possibility of an outward flow began. This was the moment at which there was consummated that age-long process of contraction of the immaterial qualities of the cosmos into a human center, into an inner world, which had made possible the development of an immaterial language. This, therefore, was the moment in which his true selfhood, his spiritual selfhood, entered into the body of man. Casting about for a word to denote that moment, what one would he be likely to choose? I think he would be almost obliged to choose the word incarnation, the entering into the body, the entering into the flesh.

And now let us further suppose that our imaginary student of the history of language, having had up to now that conspicuous gap in his general historical knowledge, was suddenly confronted for the first time with the Christian record; that he now learned for the first time, that at about the middle of the period which his investigation had marked off, a man was born who claimed to be the son of God, and to have come down from Heaven, that he spoke to his followers of “the Father in me and I in you,” that he told all those who stood around him that “the kingdom of God is within you,” and startled them, and strove to reverse the direction of their thought — for the word metanoia, which is translated “repentance” also means a reversal of the direction of the mind — he startled them and strove to reverse the direction of their thought by assuring them that “it is not that which cometh into a man which defileth him, but that which goeth out of him.”

Lastly, let me further suppose that, excited by what he had just heard, our student made further inquiries and learned that this man, so far from being a charlatan or lunatic, had long been acknowledged, even by those who regarded his claim to have come down from heaven as a delusion, as the nearest anyone had ever come to being a perfect man. What conclusion do you think our student would be likely to draw?

Well, as I say, the supposition is an impossible one, but it is possible — I know because it happened in my own case — for a man to have been brought up in the belief, and to have taken it for granted, that the account given in the gospels of the birth and the resurrection of Christ is a noble fairy story with no more claim to historical accuracy than any other myth; and it is possible for such a man, after studying in depth the history of the growth of language, to look again at the New Testament and the literature and tradition that has grown up around it, and to accept [if you like, to be obliged to accept] the record as an historical fact, not because of the authority of the Church nor by any process of ratiocination such as C. S. Lewis has recorded in his own case, but rather because it fitted so inevitably with the other facts as he had already found them. Rather because he felt, in the utmost humility, that if he had never heard of it through the Scriptures, he would have been obliged to try his best to invent something like it as an hypothesis to save the appearances.


[Originally given as a lecture at Wheaton College, Illinois. Journal For Anthroposophy, Number 24, Autumn, 1976. © 1976 The Anthroposophical Society in America.]

Other Works by Owen Barfield
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