JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter IV.
Language and Literature.

CLIMATE, in contributing to stamp the character and genius of a people, also determined several traits in its language.{1} And the language reacted in determining and moulding the thought. Thus, there is as clear a contrast between the soft-flowing language of the Italian and the guttural speech of the German as there is in the natural dispositions of each people, and the using of one or the other tongue begets in the speaker different states of mind and feeling. If the Greek has given in poetry and in sculpture the most complete forms of beauty -- if the idea of the fair and the beautiful is elementary in his thought, assuredly the graceful construction of his language had much to do in developing that happy disposition of mind that knew not how to give even a name of ill omen to a place. In like manner, if the Sanskrit, the language of the Hindu of old, in its transparency carries the mind back to the most elementary forms of thought, to it in a measure may be attributed that vast system of mythology that numbers not less than millions of gods; for the intelligence that pries into every nook and corner of nature, and has a significant name for all it perceives, and then brings an active imagination to bear on both the word and the thing, is profoundly affected by the mysteries it everywhere meets and has no solution for. Even nothingness becomes for it a thing positive, and is deified as Nirvana. Again, in the comparative inflexibility of the Hebrew language there is imaged the persistency of character peculiar to the race. It is a solemn language, suited to a solemn subject. "In its profound significancy," says Schlegel, "and compressed brevity -- in its figurative boldness and prophetical inspiration, far more than in any chronological precedence of antiquity, consist the peculiar character and high prerogative of the Hebrew."{2} No wonder, then, that it has been the instrument of prophecy and of the Sacred Book that rules our modern civilization.

But there are other elements that mould a people's language, and give color to a people's literature, and they are not to be lost sight of. Such are the occupations that enter into a people's daily round of life. They supply the vocabulary of words that become most familiar from constant use. Men think in the language that is made up of ever-recurring words; even their spiritual thoughts they will translate into this language. Its metaphors and its similes will be drawn from the familiar objects and the familiar actions. Other influencing elements grow out of a people's physical and social environment. The Greek city and the Greek clan-spirit are traceable throughout Greek literature, just as Hindu village and agricultural life and the Hindu system of caste run through all Hindu literature.

And here a profound question is suggested. How comes it that Aryan intelligence and Aryan civilization, through one Book and one Teacher, have bent submissive to Semitic influence, so as to become almost Semitic in thought and action? In cast of mind there is little common to the two races. The Aryan has great flexibility of thought, and can easily adapt himself to any conviction. He is speculative and theorizing. His language is plastic, suited both to the highest poetry and to scientific precision. The Semitic languages have no aptitude for science and speculation. They are admirably adapted to prophecy and the poetry of feeling. In proof, the Semitic mind has originated no science. It gave Aristotle to Europe, but it got him from the Greeks, or perhaps found him in the cell of some unknown hermit. In algebra, we owe it nothing but the name, and to call its numbers Arabic is a misnomer; for both it first learned from the Hindu. And still we are under the domination of that mind through its sacred Book. There was nothing in the doctrine of that Book attractive to the Aryan. It destroyed his glowing system of mythology. It imposed upon him mysteries of a most fabulous character, but shorn of all the halo of fable, and he was bound to hush his reason and say, "I believe." It revolutionized art. The Aryan loved the nude and the sensuous, but under the spell of that Book he symbolized the three persons of the Godhead as an old man, a fish, and a dove. He loved to contemplate nature until it grew into his being and became part of his thinking, and the one pulse animated both; and the strange Semitic influence taught him to be more spiritual, to look to the Invisible One, to study his every thought and word and deed with all the severity of an impartial judge, and in the light of laws beyond his imaginings. There is nothing in the nature of things to justify this revolution. But the work was beyond the power of natural influence. It was not a man and a book that did it. It was God; it was His Holy Spirit that breathed upon the nations and renewed the face of the earth. It was His all-convincing Mind that raised up the Aryan and the Semite so far as they would, and spiritualized the thoughts of the one, and gave him religious convictions beyond the grasp of his theorizing mind, and broadened the intellectual grasp of the other; thus bettering the natures of both.{3}

Considering language psychologically, we find it to be the symbol of thought, necessary to guide and direct it through the different stages of a reasoning process. It must not be confounded with thought. Each is distinct; and the symbol is always less than the thing symbolized. Hence the utter impossibility of putting in words the whole process of thought by which an idea comes home to the mind. Genius, in its brightest moments, may approach a rounded expression of an idea in all its relations, but it is beyond the power of inferior intellects to do so. There are under-currents of thought that seem to be independent of all language. No intellect, no matter how powerful its grasp, can give an account to itself and put in intelligible language all the reasons and motives and hidden sympathies that go to make up a conviction. "Thought is too keen and manifold; its sources are too remote and hidden; its path too personal, delicate, and circuitous; its subject-matter too various and intricate, to admit of the trammels of any language, of whatever subtlety and of whatever compass.{4} It is beyond the conditions of space and time in its activity.

There are fixed relations in which language stands to literature. When a people is in a transition state when old forms and old landmarks are breaking up, and a new order of things is ushered in with time; when the horizon of men's experience is widened, and hitherto unknown wants are felt, then speech seems a confused mass; it is neither old nor new its elements shift their long-standing, stereotyped positions, and it seems to have outgrown its grammatical laws. A man -- a genius -- appears at these "plastic moments," to use a happy expression of Schlegel's, and balances himself in the chaos of language, and culls, arranges, and moulds for all future time the elements at his command, and points out the direction in which they must germinate and develop while they are a thing of life. Such a man was Caedmon. He weaned the Old English from their pagan myths and pagan traditions and by his noble songs imbedded in their hearts Scriptural language and Scriptural allusions. Such a man was Shakspeare, in the Elizabethan era of our literature. He moulded all the elements of the language for the first time into a consistent whole, and made it the modern English which we now speak and write. Such is the relation that Dante holds to Italian literature. "Dante again stood between the remnants of the old Roman civilization and the construction of a new and Christian system of arts and letters. He, too, consolidated the floating fragments of an indefinite language, and with them built and thence himself fitted and adorned that stately vessel which bears him through all the regions of life and death, of glory, of trial, and of perdition."{5} The author of the poem of the Cid did a like service for Spanish literature, by giving it that decisively Castilian cast that separates it forever from the Latin. Such, also, is the nature of the influence exercised by the minstrel author of the Niebelungen-lied on the German language. Finally, such was the chief trait of Homer's greatness. He gathered up the traditions of the heroic ages as they were passing from men's minds, and crystallized them forever in the inimitable language in which we read them to-day; and to him, more than to any other individual, is Greece indebted for that graceful expression that is the glory of her literature.

All these geniuses were masters and legislators of language -- not so much because they coined words and invented phrases, as on account of the weight of their names, due to their artistic skill and great natural ability. Their views were profound, and they expressed them better than their contemporaries. Children of their age, living under its social and physical influence, they had words of wisdom for it and for all succeeding time; and they therefore became the pride and glory of their nation. Their works were revered and preserved; for they embodied the nation's spirit and symbolized the age in which they were written.

{1} "Whenever any dialect, founded on human organization, has been permitted to develop itself without restraint, we clearly trace in it the operation of climate and situation. In every mountain dialect we remark a predilection for the strongly aspirated CR ; on the seacoast the softened SCH and the nasal tone are heard ; while, on the contrary, a broad tone and sharp accent indicate a level country and an agricultural population." -- F. SCHLEGEL, Romance Literature, Part ii., p. 232, Bohn's trans.

{2} Philosophy of Language, lect. iii., p. 405, Bohn's ed.

{3} It may be said that the Koran wielded an equally wide influence on the Turanian and some of the Aryan races, and thence inferred that the change here spoken of is due to persistency of character. To this we reply that, while Christianity raised up human nature, Mohammedanism degraded it. The course of the latter is exactly the opposite of that of the former. One opposed men's most cherished notions; the other adapted its spirit to the most deeply-rooted customs and superstitions of the Asiatic mind. The penetrating genius of Mohammed was alive to the weaknesses of his countrymen's natures, and made use of them to further his designs. Had be not succeeded, the great problem would he to account for his want of success. {4} J. H. Newman, Grammar of Assent, p. 273.

{5} William Shakspeare, by H. E. Card. Wiseman, 1865, p. 21.

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