Naming - July 9, 2012
I have called this blog “Rectifying Names” after the passage in Confucius’s Analects that appears at the top of this page. There, Confucius says that what the administration of government needs to succeed is, first of all, the correct naming of things. After an initial brush-off by Tsze-lu, Confucius gives a series of conditional clauses showing the degeneration of morality and, eventually, societal collapse begun by having the wrong names. First, he says, if names are not correct, language’s ties to truth is poisoned. If that happens, actions of people cannot be successful, and if that happens, “proprieties and music” (i.e., culture) will not flourish. When the culture declines, right and wrong (as seen in punishments and rewards) are not properly awarded (i.e., the law becomes corrupted). Without law that people have confidence in, citizens become paralyzed. Names, he says, must be appropriate, for the failure in naming ends up being a failure in culture, law, and morality.
Confucius begins with the concept of truth, which is known through communication. Without words, without the most important words, i.e., names of things, there can be no concept of truth, no way of judging. Put another way, without words, we cannot escape corruption. Take Aldous Huxley’s comment, for example: “Words, words, words! They shut one off from the universe. Three quarters of the time one’s never in contact with things, only with the beastly words that stand for them.” Here is a man whose fame and, one might say, existence depended on words. But his comment would lead you to think that direct contact with things is somehow inhibited by words. Is he describing a lower animal? (And, believe me, I don’t mean dogs, cats, horses, or virtually any “higher” animal; I mean something like an amoeba. Here we have an animal shut off completely from words, from truth, and in direct contact with its universe. O brave new world that has such Protozoa in it.)
Even T.S. Eliot’s vulgarian anti-hero Sweeney says (in Sweeney Agonistes), “I gotta use words when I talk to you,” indicating he didn’t have direct contact with the universe either.
You may say, but didn’t Shakespeare, the English language’s greatest wordsmith, have Hamlet say what he was reading was not the truth but simply “words, words, words.” But I seem to remember that Hamlet was feigning insanity at the time. Juliet, said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” indicating her love for Romeo needed no artificial conventions like the “Montague” name. So Romeo, out of love for Juliet, rejected his family name and vowed to “deny [his] father” and instead be “new baptized” as Juliet’s lover. This rejection of family, society, culture, and, indeed, the truth of things led inexorably to the tragic end for both lovers.
Humans, who use words to reflect on and embrace the universe rather than shut themselves off from it, are made of the stuff of the universe itself, stuff that ties truth to the power of names, which ground us to reality, to truth, perhaps even to holiness.
In our own time, when we name children after the artificial names of celebrities or mere common nouns or completely made up words from some poetry-less vernacular, it may be hard to conceive that only recently the names of our children were anything but frivolous, and tied them to their family’s past, that names themselves had power and brought with them expectations and honor. This is still the way many societies continue to name their offspring. It situates a child as part of a family, a culture, a world with meaning.
The importance of rectifying names was one of the many great lessons I learned at the feet of Gerhart Niemeyer. It was one of the attractions of book publishing, which, at its best, can be a force for rectifying names, though each of us may choose to be an ambassador to the rectification of names by being forthright, by calling a lie a lie, rather than a mistake, by understanding that there is an inextricable connection between the words we use and the truth we seek, by refusing the easy falsehood in the name of a squalid peace that will disappear at the first trial, since it has no substance.
What Confucius promulgated for correct governance was not an easy way. It was truly “speaking truth to power,” a phrase that is now meaningless because it only signifies speaking as a parrot speaks, not as a human should speak, i.e., tied to action and at a cost. Until our words recapture the power derived from this action, we will remain a nation of rhetorical sophists, assuming that the power is not in the words but in the lack of action behind them. Humans were made to take words seriously, to take communication seriously, to take our past seriously, and to fix our star’s future based on the solidity of truth.
After all, we know from Genesis that naming was the sole work of paradise.