Being that can be understood is language.
—Hans-Georg Gadamer (Truth and Method, 1960)
In the last chapters we strove to understand the post-truth phenomenon, which we discovered to be a symptom of nihilism in one of its manifold expressions. We strove furthermore to establish the threefold identity of being, truth, and meaning. We discovered a promise of deliverance from the abyss in the recognition that any doubt in this triunity is a closet confidence in the truth of one’s own judgement, which is to say, a trust in one’s own faculty to know the truth. For this reason, the objection of the global sceptic serves only to confirm that the hope of our present investigation is not in vain. Our question is no longer, therefore, whether there is truth, but rather to what degree we can prepare ourselves to comprehend it. We discovered in the last chapter that, with the advent of the modern scientific method, the intellectual evolution of the last centuries has left us distinctly unprepared for comprehension of reality beyond a mere cataloguing, calculation, and categorisation of facts. Thus, we have developed a science of facts without a science of knowledge, which is the only thing that could interpret their meaning. A post-truth era is a very natural outcome of such a situation for the same reason that an illiterate would suppose that text had no meaning. The last philosopher of antiquity, Boethius, reflected on just this subject in prison during the final year of his life as he awaited execution by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great:
People think that the totality of their knowledge depends on the nature and capacity to be known of the objects of knowledge. But this is all wrong. Everything that is known is comprehended not according to its own nature, but according to the ability to know of those who do the knowing. (Consolations of Philosophy, 523 AD)
Let it be our aspiration, therefore, to heighten our ability for knowing. Given the threefold identity above, it will be clear that the scope of this exploration is no less than the world itself. For this reason, we cannot expect to exhaust the subject. Instead, with confidence in our ability to increasingly apprehend, but not exhaust, the truth of things, let it be our purpose not to say anything not worth saying, but also not presume to have said everything, even if we manage to uphold this resolution.
How can we say anything at all? This unassuming question nevertheless inquires into the very loftiest regions of philosophy: “a mustard, if you can understand it right, contains the image of all higher and lower things.” (1) So in a similar manner, the simple fact of speech reveals the secret of existence. In this chapter, we will continue our exploration of being as truth as meaning. No term more expressively conveys this threefold than “Lógos” or λóγος. Hereafter we will use Greek spelling as an invitation to look upon the idea with fresh eyes. Such an attitude is philosophically fruitful, since “not already knowing” is the sine qua non for learning anything one does not already know. λóγος is a perfect word to convey this meaning, since λóγος means “meaning” and it also means “speech,” “word,” “account,” or “language.” Thus it captures both what we wish to convey as well as the medium by which we seek to convey it. Λóγος is also the best word to employ because of its immediate associations with what is divine, and “everything by nature has something divine in it.” (2) C. S. Lewis famously translated “λóγος” as “Tao” in an effort to emphasise its transcendent nature. By calling it anything, however, we are also rendering it immanent—incarnating meaning into a word, or crucifying it, one might even say, to the matter of syllables. In this manner, however, we allow the λóγος to unite the opposites, thereby drawing the transcendent into immanence. Then in successful communication, the crucified λóγος ascends again into meaning. The Platonic tradition referred to this reciprocal lending as “procession” and “reversion.” The Scholastic tradition employed the terms “exitus” and “reditus” to denote a similar principle. Each of the Gospels In the New Testament also expresses this phenomenon in its own way.
Perhaps the most transparent and well-known testament to the λóγος appears in the Prologue to the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the λóγος, and the λóγος was with God, and the λóγος was God.
The Latin translation substitutes for, and thereby curtails the meaning of, λóγος with the word “Verbum,” while most English translations employ the word “Word” to the same effect. It is tempting to imagine we know what “word” means and that we have therefore understood the text. The writer of the John Gospel would not, however, have bothered to compose the work in the first place, nor would the latter have been preserved through so many centuries, if it had no meaning. If we wish, therefore, to understand the Evangelist’s message, we either have to assume that the writer is, in the context of the John Gospel, employing “word” differently than we ordinarily employ it, or that language itself is greater than we ordinarily suppose. Likely both are true to some extent. In an attempt to prevent the urge to interpolate prior associations with this concept, therefore, we intend to employ the Greek original, as we indicated above.
The John Gospel continues to recount that the everything was made by the Λóγος, and “without him nothing was made that was made.” This is to say that the syllables of creation are intelligible in a manner analogous to that by which we read a text, or as Gadamer expressed it in the epigraph to this chapter, “being that can be understood is language.” The physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz offers a consummate enunciation of the impulse that has contravened such understanding when the former declared, in the nineteenth century, that the ultimate goal of natural science was to reduce all phenomena to mechanics (“sich in Mechanik aufzulösen”). It will be obvious to anyone that a text is intelligible insofar as it is read, or that speech is intelligible insofar as it is comprehended. This presupposes, however, that one approach it as language and not as mechanics, acoustic or otherwise. This is to say that to understand the λóγος of a phenomenon is to approach it as a sensible expression of an intelligible meaning. Similarly, we might characterise a text as potentially intelligible, and the reading of it as an actualisation of the said potentiality. In the same measure, however, if a person presupposes that something is not language, which is to say, that there is no meaning to which the outer elements are a sign, then one will indeed find it unintelligible. This only proves that one has failed to understand it, however, and not that there is nothing in it to be understood. Saint Anselm of Canterbury is easily derided, in the name of science, for his notion of “credo ut intelligam” or “I believe that I may understand.” Anselm’s intent, however, is nothing other than to contradict the hermeneutical passivity that expects meaning to be identical with the medium that communicates it. In the last chapter of this exploration, we traced the development of just this manner of thinking, which we called “the spirit of materialism.” The latter can be very precisely defined as an intentional disposition that assumes things do not mean. Since things do not mean, they are just matter. The consequence of such a worldview will always be nihilism, as we discovered in the last chapters.
In the first instance then, the antidote to nihilism is to recognise the Λóγος of creation, which is its truth and its meaning, and which was “in the beginning…[and through which] all things were made; without him nothing was made that was made.” In a 4th century sermon, Saint Augustine of Hippo offers one of the clearest exhortations to this insight:
Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: “God made me!”(2)
Mankind has approached a condition of deafness to the language of creation, which has come to a crisis in recent centuries for the reasons that we explored in the last chapters. This deafness, however, was evidently already materialising in the ancient past. Indeed, we might suppose with reasonable justification that the expulsion from Eden represents an initiation of this trend. The taste from the fruit of which Adam and Eve partook is a real symbol of reflexive consciousness. Just as one will fail to understand a text to the degree that one’s attention is distracted from it and rather engaged in discursive and self-referential thought, so mankind has increasingly estranged itself in consciousness from intuitive participation of the Λóγος: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern,” as William Blake so expressively characterised this condition. (3) Similarly, the John Gospel recounts that “the light shineth in the the darkness, but the darkness comprehended it not.” The same continues:
That [Λóγος] was the true light, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world. He [the Λóγος] was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
Thus, a condition of ignorance characterises mankind—an opacity to the light of the world. As a text is illegible without light, so the condition of darkness fails to comprehend the meaning of the world—the inner word, or signature, had been estranged from the outer one, or its meaning. To atone for this estrangement, the Λóγος itself assumed the same condition as those who had fallen away from participation in the divine light, to lead them back into communion:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (John 1:14)
A Gnostic fragment, roughly contemporaneous with the John Gospel, provides a similar account. The “Nasseene Psalm,” recorded by Hippolytus in his Refutation of All Heresies describes the soul, stumbling in the fugue of material existence, and her subsequent salvation through the Incarnation of the Λóγος:
…Sometimes she is misled down a labyrinth of evils, trapped in a corner and with no way out.
And Jesus said: “Behold, O Father, how, distant from Thy Breath,
This poor creature upon Earth
Wanders, the victim of all ill,
Lost and perplexed she stumbles
In attempt to flee the bitter Chaos —
Therefore send me, O Father!
Descending I shall bear the seal of Heaven,
Traversing all the Æons,
I shall impart to her all sacred knowledge
Thus, O Father, may Thine image be made manifest;
And ‘Gnosis’ it shall be for humankind.”
The subtle Manichaeanism and other unorthodox elements need not distract us from the spirit of this hymn, which sounds in perfect consonance with the Prologue of the John Gospel, and sings of the same procession and reversion, or exitus-reditus, fall and redemption, or death and resurrection, that lies at the metaphysical heart of the world and of nature. In the beginning, humanity subsists within this metaphysical heart. Then it is cast out, and meaning is sundered from matter, speech separates into an outer and an inner aspect, signs divide from their significance. The Tower of Babel story of Genesis communicates this division. Mythos is manifestly not contrary to lógos. Rather mythos is a language by which lógos is communicated, provided that the former is not, in the manner of materialists, approached with the assumption that it has no meaning beyond its matter, or literal content. In this respect, the world is a myth, since both manifest an outer signature of an inner significance. The Stoic philosophers also expressed such a distinction when they spoke of the lógos endiathetos, the “indwelling word,” and lógos prophorikos, the “expressed word.” Naturally, Augustine characterises this phenomenon in the clearest manner:
Thus in a certain fashion our word becomes a bodily sound by assuming that in which it is manifested to the senses of men, just as the Word of God became flesh by assuming that in which it too could be manifested to the senses of men. (4)
Finally, the reditus or reversion consists in the reintegration of these sundered aspects. This is the meaning of the name “Jesus Christ,” as an union of the human and the divine, the sensible and the intelligible, which is the essence of the Λóγος. It is also the meaning of Jesus’ words as John the Evangelist bore witness to them:
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life…the only way to the Father is through me.
This means that the answer to the age of nihilism is to recognise the Λóγος. Post-truth does not mean that there is no longer truth. Instead, it means only that humankind has conditioned itself to ignore it. Nihilism means that we are ignoring the language of being—presuming that being has nothing to communicate, and that understanding and quantification are the same thing. The goal of this exploration has been to investigate the nature of truth. At the conclusion of this journey, we can proclaim that being can be understood, and “being that can be understood is language.” Therefore, Being is λóγος—λóγος that becomes beings as the former proceeds, self-differencing, finally to manifest materially in manifold degrees, modes, and modifications. Truth is reversion in respect to the procession above, but truth is not something past. Indeed truth is outside of time, since time is contained in truth, and determined by the λóγος (5). We can know the truth when we approach reality as λóγος, in a manner akin to the comprehension of a text, or of the understanding of the spoken word. Truth arises as meaning in the soul that has prepared herself to understand it. When the λóγος is received as truth and understood as meaning, this is theoria. Theoria means beholding the Λóγος of creation with the same λóγος in oneself; the same Λóγος “[through which] all things were made; without him nothing was made that was made.” The scales fall from our eyes, and being reveals its nature as theophany.
Thanks to all of the wise people from whom we inherit such sublime wisdom, and to all of my readers, which two categories are not necessarily exclusive.
(1) Angelus Silesius, The Cherubinic Wanderer. Quoted from memory.
(2) Sermon 126.6 in the Angelo Mai collection, Miscellanea Agustiniana 1:355-68, ed. G. Moran (Rome, 1930), in Vernon Bourke, trans. The Essential Augustine, Hackett, Indianapolis, 1974, p.123.
(3) The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
(4) Ita enim uerbum nostrum uox quodam modo corporis fit assumendo eam in qua manifestetur sensibus hominum sicut uerbum dei caro factum est assumendo eam in qua et ipsum manifestaretur sensibus hominum. (De Trinitate)
(5) As sung by the Chorus Mysticus in Goethe’s Faust:
Ist nur ein Gleichnis;
Hier wird’s Ereignis;
Hier ist’s getan;
Zieht uns hinan.
Is but a parable
Here finds fulfilment
Here becomes deed
The Eternal Feminine
Draws us onward.”