Words and Actions

Morris West in his memoirs reminds us of the words he puts into the mouth of Giordano Bruno in his play, The Heretic: Ever since the Greeks, we have been drunk with language! We have made a cage of words And shoved our God inside, as boys confine A cricket or a locust, to make him sing A private song! And look what great gob-stopping Words we use for God’s simplicity, Hypostasis and homoousion! We burn men for these words - a baboon chatter Of human ignorance! - we burn men! (102) A powerful condemnation of the misuse of words, done with words and an illustration that it is an inescapable and abiding fact is that we live in and by language. We work, create, do, within language whose words give meaning to our life and world and make the very way we live possible. There are very few human activities we could conduct without words, from putting up a house to educating a child to engaging in commerce to organizing a political party to shaping a society. Many of these areas of discourse involve persuasion and the moving of hearers through eloquence. Despite the much quoted activist credo of ’deeds, not words’, in fact many of the deeds implicitly being encouraged here either involve words or actually are words. Making peace involves many words, as does a vast spectrum of other worthy human actions - thinking, inventing, intervening, leading, recognising, organising, entertaining, loving, praying. In an age of democratic consultation, the tedious meeting is an indispensable step to achieving anything, and meetings involve many, many words. Like all things human these activities which are intimately involved with words can be manipulated, hijacked and perverted to the service of evil. But it fails to follow that we can opt out of language and make do with ’dumb’ acts. It suffices to imagine the chaos that would occur if the human race were to be suddenly struck speechless. The Babylon myth tells a simple but deep truth - without the communication of language human activity becomes impossible, the transgressing tower cannot be built, but neither can anything else. Chris Chatteris
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A woman holds up a sign during a rally against assisted suicide in 2016 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. (CNS photo/Art Babych)
The American College of Physicians called for better promotion of palliative and hospice care, which opponents of physician-assisted suicide say are underutilized areas of medicine that could address concerns of patients facing difficult illnesses.
Michael J. O’LoughlinSeptember 21, 2017
(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
"We have a priest who makes everyone feel welcome, says Mass with great reverence and gives meaningful homilies"
Our readersSeptember 21, 2017
Photo by Victor Lozano on Unsplash
Any willingness to cooperate across party lines is praiseworthy. Unfortunately, brinkmanship remains the preferred legislative strategy.
The EditorsSeptember 21, 2017
Pope Francis, seen here at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican on June 28, has announced two significant reforms in recent weeks by releasing statements motu proprio. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
When a pope issues a document “motu proprio,” it means he does so by his own motivation, and it can mean a significant change to church law.
Michael J. O’LoughlinSeptember 21, 2017