Every word, which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found as borrowed from some material appearance.
Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrow. We say the heart to express emotion, the head to denote thought; and thought and emotion are words borrowed from sensible things, and now appropriated to spiritual nature. Most of the process by which this transformation is made, is hidden from us in the remote time when language was framed; but the same tendency may be daily observed in our children. Children and “savages” use only nouns or names of things, which they convert into verbs, and apply to analogous mental acts.
But this origin of all words that convey a spiritual import, — so conspicuous a fact in the history of language, — is our least debt to nature. It is not words only that are emblematic; it is things, which are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture.
For example, an enraged man is a lion, a cunning man is a fox, a firm man is a rock, a learned man is a torch. A lamb is innocence; a snake is subtle spite; flowers express to us the delicate affections. Light and darkness are our familiar expression for knowledge and ignorance; and heat for love. Visible distance behind and before us, is respectively our image of memory and hope.
Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things?
Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.
Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, which we call Reason: is not mine, or yours, or his or hers, but we are its; we are its property and men and women.
And the blue sky in which the private earth is buried, the sky with its eternal calm, and full of everlasting orbs, is the type of Reason. That which, intellectually considered, we call Reason, considered in relation to nature, we call Spirit. Spirit is the Creator. Spirit has life in itself. And man in all ages and countries, embodies it in his language, as the FATHER.
It is easily seen that there is nothing lucky or capricious in these analogies, but that they are constant, and pervade nature. These are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there, but we are analogists, and study relations in all objects. We are placed in the center of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to us. And neither can we be understood without these objects, nor these objects without us.
All the facts in natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren, like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life. Because of this radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts, savages, who have only what is necessary, conversed in figures.
As we go back in history, language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy, when it is all poetry; or all spiritual facts are represented by natural symbols. The same symbols are found to make the original elements of all languages. It has moreover been observed, that the idioms of all languages approach each other in passages of the greatest eloquence and power.
And as this is the first language, so is it the last.
This immediate dependence of language upon nature, this conversion of an outward phenomenon into a type of somewhat in human life, never loses its power to affect us. A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss.
The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, — and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which they are not. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate understanding or affection.
We know more from nature than we can at will communicate. Its light flows into the mind continuously, and yet, we forget its presence.
Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic.
Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass.
“The visible world and the relation of its parts, is the dial plate of the invisible.”
The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. Thus, “the whole is greater than its part;” “reaction is equal to action;” “the smallest weight may be made to lift the greatest, the difference of weight being compensated by time;” and many similar propositions have an ethical as well as physical sense. These propositions have a much more extensive and universal sense when applied to human life, than when only confined to technical use.
In the same way, the memorable words of history, and the proverbs of nations, consist usually of a natural fact, selected as a picture or parable of a moral truth.
Thus; A rolling stone gathers no moss; A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; A cripple in the right way, will beat a racer in the wrong; Make hay while the sun shines; ‘T is hard to carry a full cup even; Vinegar is the son of wine; The last ounce broke the camel’s back; Long-lived trees make roots first; — and the like.
In their primary sense these are trivial facts, but we repeat them for the value of their analogical import. What is true of proverbs, is true of all fables, parables, and allegories.
This relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all of us. It is the standing problem which has exercised the wonder and the study of every fine genius since the world began; from the era of the Egyptians and the Brahmins, to that of Pythagoras, of Plato, of Bacon, of Leibnitz, of Swedenborg.
A fact is the end or last issue of spirit. The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world. “Material objects,” said a French philosopher, “are necessarily kinds of scoriae of the substantial thoughts of the Creator, which must always preserve an exact relation to their first origin; in other words, visible nature must have a spiritual and moral side.”
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Filed under: Philosophy Tagged: ancient egypt, communication, language, Moral, nature, Ralph Waldo emerson, spirit, Words
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