Lots of pendulum swings happen in the history of thought, but these pendulum swings sometimes resemble more the bending of a line towards the form of a circle instead of opposite points on a line horizontally. In other words, when certain positions get to their extremes, they start to resemble what they claim to oppose. Reality, when warped, curves back on itself.
For example, one could argue that the age of imperialism in Europe came from the conviction that a) We are better than you, and b) We are different than you. This is a caricature, but we can let it stand for our purposes. In turn, this attitude called forth the work of Joseph Cambell, who argued in his religious analysis that actually, nothing has any difference from anything else. Narcissus, Christ, Osiris, and so on all participate in the same reality and are basically the same god. On the surface this looks like the opposite end of the imperialist impulse, but as imperialism grew, the mingling of cultures grew, and the differences between the cultures start to blur. For example, we have Rudyard Kipling as one of imperialism’s strongest advocates, but much of his writing shows a fascination not with English culture, but with that of India and Afghanistan.
So . . . McBain was entirely correct to conflate the Commies and the Nazi’s.
Plato and Aristotle give us the foundation to western philosophy. Many first notice their differences, and certainly they parted ways in key areas. Plato emphasized the unity of things via the world of the forms. He sought to draw everything up into the eternal, i.e., when we come to know and understand something, we are in fact remembering something we used to know.* Aristotle differed from his teacher and focused on particulars. We know him best through his extensive categorizations. He separates that we might see things more clearly. It seems they occupy opposite points on a line, with opposite strengths and weaknesses. But in certain ways they share the same strengths and faults. Aristotle critiqued Plato’s overgeneralizing of concepts, but he himself seemed to overgeneralize everything in the mythical/spiritual realm, consigning it all to irrelevancy. Like Plato, he criticized aspects of Athenian religion but could not see the particular threads of truth within it. In turn, Plato’s focus on finding the eternal kernel of truth led him to define concepts so finely that in the Laches a general does not know what courage is due to his faulty definition. They both over-generalized at times, they both hyper-categorized other times.
Avoiding this warping effect might involve taking Aristotle’s “advice:” If you drill a hole all the way through the earth and fall down from the North Pole, stop and hover at the halfway point. The key to healthy societies as well as healthy thought comes from fusing “Heaven” and “Earth,” and not by camping out at either locale.
I never knew that Plato’s dialogue Cratylus even existed until a few weeks ago. Rather than the usual meandering conversation in most of his work, here he focuses entirely on the role of language, and names in particular. The issue has relevance especially in times of societal breakdown. Without a common cultural framework, language loses its power as a conveyor of meaning and a means of discourse, i.e., we no longer have an agreed upon meaning for important words such as “male and female,” “racism,” “love,” and so on.
The dialogue begins with one extreme tentatively suggested by Hermogenes, who argues that, “whatever anyone agrees to call a particular thing is its name.” Socrates teases out the implication of such a position, which means that something can have infinite names, “And however many names someone says there are for each thing, it will really have that number at whatever time he says it?” Hermogenes reluctantly agrees.
Of course this won’t do, and Socrates leads Hermogenes out of this thicket. The problem of meaning has a link to the problem of virtue. If we can give names to anything we wish and have that in fact be its name, then we in effect, become the arbiters of reality itself. For, “some statements are true, while others are false,” and “it is possible to say things that are and that are not in a statement.” We are not God and cannot make reality come into being by merely declaring it so. Otherwise good and evil have no real existence outside of our own minds, and so we can call nothing truly good or evil at all. Meaning and coherence break down. The question of language is much more than academic.
So words and their meaning cannot come into being from below. The “bottom of the mountain,” so to speak, has too much individuation and division to provide a platform for societies. As our examples above show (i.e., Kipling, etc.), this extreme individuation shakes hands with extreme unity, for it cannot properly divide anything at all according to its nature. So in the end, with this view, everything mashes up together.
Socrates and Hermogenes then seek to go up to the “top of the mountain” to attempt to find the origin of names. Names function as a means of instruction, as a means of “divid[ing] things according to their natures. As Socrates comments,
So just as a shuttle is a tool for dividing warp and woof, a name is a tool for giving instruction, that is to say, for dividing being.**
Just as not all can use the loom, so Socrates asks, “Do you think every man is a rule-setter, or only those who possess the craft?” Hermogenes concedes that one must have the craft. Control of language cannot belong to the individual alone, but nor to “every man.” One must have “the craft.”
So Cratylus is right in saying that things have natural names, and that not everyone is a craftsman of names, but only someone who looks the natural name of a thing and is able to put its form into letters and symbols.
Undoubtedly language shapes our perception of reality, and possibly more than that, for in Genesis God’s speech creates reality as we know it. The names He gives fixes the distinctions between things, and Adam’s naming of animals gives humanity a cooperative role in the creative process.
The theological dilemma of, “Is something good because God declares it to be good, or does God declare something good because it is good already,” has a mirror in the dilemma about language.^ No one person can simply declare a word to be a word and have it fixed for all time. Socrates struggles with finding the absolute in each word. He had penetrating insights regarding the essence of truth, but stumbled in its application. The same hold true in Cratylus. The dialogue continues on a long excursion where Socrates seeks the unity of the principle embodied in names, and their particular Greek phonetics. Some of these endeavors succeed more than others. But in the end, Socrates must face reality–other cultures have different phonetical constructions for words embodying the same principles.
Socrates: Here is what I suspect. I think that the Greeks, especially those who live abroad, have adopted many names from foreign tongues.
Hermogenes: What of it?
Socrates: Well, if someone were trying to discover whether the names had been reasonably given, and he treated them as belonging to the Greek language rather than the one they were really from, then he would be in a quandary.
Hermogenes: He very probably would.
Socrates: . . . Consequently, though one might say something about these names, one mustn’t push them too far.
This realization leads Socrates nearer the truth, that language, like truth itself, involves a union of the masculine principle of declaration from those “who know,” from above, and the fluidity of things on earth. Socrates comments,
Perhaps you didn’t that [the names] are given on the assumption that the they name are moving, flowing, and coming into being. . . . Wisdom (phronesis) is the understanding of motion (phoras noesis) and flow. Or it might be interpreted as taking delight in motion. . . . Wisdom signifies the grasping of this motion.
For the rest of the dialogue Socrates struggles to find a way to unite the masculine and feminine aspects of language, but can’t quite get there. Still, he makes the crucial realization of the need for the seed from above, the plant from below, or the pattern and its manifestation must go together. For Adam in the Garden (Genesis 2) his names correctly manifested this, for at that time he had perfect communion with the Father above and the (Mother) Earth below. But since the sin entered the world, we essentially fail in proper manifestation of language, which furthers confusion of meaning.
But though we fall short, we still have the image of God within us, and can use Socrates’ insight to evaluate how we use words and their relationship to truth. There exists, for example, a certain method of Bible study among Christians that involves
- Finding out the Hebrew/Greek meaning of a particular word
- Grabbing a concordance to see where that word gets used in different parts of the Bible, and then
- Using the meaning in one context to determine its meaning everywhere in Scripture.
This ignores the fluid aspects of language, and the central importance of context over strict phonetics. We all know that the word “radical” can be a math term in one context, an outdated term from the 80’s in another, an adjective for a political ideology, and so on.
Many of our current cultural debates, however, center around ignoring the fixed aspects of language. We can all acknowledge that the meaning of “male” and “female,” for example, have certain contextual fluidities determined in part by culture. Some men may be more effeminate, some women more masculine, than others of the same sex. But surely being either male or female cannot mean anything we wish it to mean. Biology certainly gives us constraints on the meaning of sex. The very fact that we call some men more masculine than other men shows that we have a defined concept of masculinity we cannot escape even if we wanted to. Indeed, some of those who wish to introduce more fluidity to the concept of sex/gender also decry “toxic masculinity” more than others.
It seems that we must see language, along with the reality language describes/creates, existing in a hierarchy. At the top we have God, who in Christian theology can only be defined as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons. Then at the bottom we have words like “green,” a collection of phonetic sounds that can refer to a color, a newbie on the job, a person with sea-sickness, and so on. Yet while these phonetic sounds can take on meanings essentially unrelated to each other, they each manifest connections to a particular idea. More fluidity in language exists at the bottom of the mountain, but . . . not chaos. Then somewhere in the middle of reality, we have words such as “male and female,” which have more defined limits, along with a degree of contextual meaning.
Though the Cratylus fails to stick the landing on a unified theory of language, Socrates rightly intuits that correct naming is a “beautiful work.” We recognize beauty when we recognize a pattern, a pattern of the marriage of heaven and earth, of unity and diversity.^^ When this reality gets warped both the language absolutist and the language relativist both destroy the beauty of language and its meaning. Contrary to some, language is not a tool of power, but of meaning. When weaponized we lose beauty, wisdom, and also power. For in reality, power cannot truly exist without its connection to Heaven.
*I should state now that I am a rank amateur in my knowledge of Plato and Aristotle. My critique is not meant to deny their rightful place in the history of philosophy.
**Here we see more evidence of Andrew Kern’s suggestion that weaving and wisdom are interrelated in the ancient world, thus, the Luddites rebellion against mechanical looms had little to do with economics and much more to do with maintaining meaning and coherence in society.
^This dilemma is really no dilemma at all to those who understand Christian theology. The Church has always said that the answer to the above dilemma involves splitting the horns–things are “good” because God made them, and are stamped with God’s being and character.
^^I will attempt an explanation of my meaning by thinking about a spectacular sunset. We look up, and see light from above-that’s purity/Heaven. The light then transforms, becomes more fluid/diverse as it interacts with matter, the stuff of Earth. This combination produces the beauty we are drawn to.
While only God is eternal and infinite, this union of Heaven and Earth will continue into eternity. In His resurrection Christ continues to have a physical body. And when He returns, He will descend, and we will rise to “meet Him in the air.”