Monday, July 23, 2007

Book Review: The Tyranny of Words

The Tyranny of Words by Stuart Chase (ISBN 0-15-692394-7) raises an interesting issue. The author points out that for most words (the exception being words that denote things to which one can point), everyone has their own idea of what each word means. As an example, ask a few people what freedom means to them. The problem with this is that if you say something to someone, because they have their own idea of what each word means, they won't understand you, but because they think they do, they won't ask for clarification.

As an example, if someone were to say "They hate us because we're free," a listener who thought of freedom as meaning the right to do whatever one wanted as long as no harm was done to other people or their property would have a different understanding of what was said, as opposed to a listener who thought of freedom as meaning that we (as a nation) don't have to take orders from any other nation. The two listeners would each believe that they understood the statement, but would have very different ideas about what the statement meant, and wouldn't even know that they understood it differently.

Now why does this matter to us? Those of us who have read anything by Plato will agree that this was a known issue even back then. Of course the age of Plato was the same time period when many classic works, including the Bible, are thought to have been written. Since the ancients knew they would be misunderstood if they tried to convey their wisdom in literal terms, they needed an alternative method of getting their message across. Metaphor, simile and allegory have the advantage of being able to use words that refer to things that can be pointed at. A writer could say "the Israelites escaped from bondage in Egypt and wandered in the desert for forty years before reaching the promised land," and the literal meaning wouldn't change much over the years. As a result, the metaphorical meaning wouldn't change either.

So my theory is this: any writing dated before the 19th century which appears contradictory, impossible, or immoral taken literally may in fact have a symbolic meaning that makes sense. Our job is to find that meaning.

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