Introduction: an Example from Kingsley's Sermons

Another chief device of the sage, one common to all forms of argumentation, is definition. By providing the meaning of terms crucial to one's discourse, one obviously moves that discourse in directions one can control. Moreover, such acts of definition implicitly assert that the audience, whether listeners or readers, depends entirely upon the sage for without the sage, the person who knows the true meaning of things, members of the audience ostensibly cannot even communicate, either with one another or with reality. The essence of such a far-reaching claim lies in the fact that the sage (or someone else who uses such techniques of definition) purports to know as others do not the true relation of language to reality. Just as the sage's moral stature derives from the fact that he knows the good and his audience has lost sight of it, so too his intellectual stature here comes from the asserted fact that he alone can use language correctly. In fact, the sage implicitly — and sometimes explicitly — maintains that he, and he alone, can restore language to its supposedly pristine efficiency and authenticity.

Both the sage's claims to know the true meaning of essential terms and the moral emphasis with which he makes them derive from the homiletic or sermon tradition. Victorian preachers like Charles Kingsley emphasized that in religious matters the believer had a moral duty to get language right and use words correctly. Thus, in differentiating between religion and godliness in a sermon on that subject, Kingsley earnestly instructs his listeners that "a difference in words is a very awful, important difference." He does so in part to make the preacher's usual claim to understand the correct meaning of essential words — and his further claim to restore true meaning to such words and thereby place his audience once again in a proper, healthy, vital relationship to reality. Kingsley therefore assures his listeners:

A difference in words is a difference in things. Words are very awful and wonderful things, for they come from the most awful and wonderful of all beings, Jesus Christ, the Word. He puts words into men's minds. He made all things, and He makes all words to express those things with. And woe to those who use the wrong words about things! For if a man calls anything by its wrong name, it is a sure sign that he understands that thing wrongly, or feels about it wrongly; and therefore a man's words are often honester than he thinks; for as a man's words are, so is a man's heart ... and, therefore, by right words, by the right names which we call things, we shall be justified, and by our words, by the wrong names we call things, we shall be condemned. '

Furthermore, Kingsley also sounds a familiar theme of the sages when he emphasizes in "The Spirit and the Flesh" that "according to a nation's godliness, and wisdom, and purity of heart, will be its power of using words discreetly and reverently" (43). Placing such importance upon the ability to use language correctly, Kingsley as preacher expectedly opens many sermons with questions of definition. For example, he begins "Self-Destruction," a sermon on 1 Kings 22:23, by directing the audience's attention to the way in which the appointed text provides "an insight into the meaning of that most awful and terrible word, — temptation" (59), and he begins "The Courage of the Saviour," a sermon on John 11:7-8, by defining fortitude (184-85).

Preacher's Definitions: Carlyle

Carlyle employs the preacher's emphasis upon definition for an appropriate subject in Past and Present. The "Gospel of Mammonism" asks the reader if he knows the meaning of the words heaven and hell. "I rather apprehend, not. Often as the words are on our tongue, they have got a fabulous or semi-fabulous character for most of us.... Yet it is well worth while for us to know, once and always, that they are not a similitude, nor a fable nor a semi-fable; that they are an everlasting highest fact!" (10.144-45).

Citing as authority Sauertieg, a character he created in Sartor Resartus, Carlyle first quotes his remarks that although the English use the word hell frequently, they do so with such lack of clarity that one cannot "ascertain what they meant by it," after which, speaking through the mask of Sauertieg, he argues by means of a series of definitions:

Hell generally signifies the Infinite Terror, the thing a man is infinitely afraid of, and shudders and shrinks from, struggling with his whole soul to escape from it. There is a Hell therefore, if you will consider, which accompanies man, in all stages of his history, and religious or other development: but the Hells of men and Peoples differ notably. With Christians it is the infinite terror of being found guilty before the just judge. With old Romans, I conjecture, it was the terror not of Pluto, for whom they probably cared little, but of doing unworthily, doing unvirtuously, which was their word for unmanfully. And now what is it, if you pierce through his Cants, his oft-repeated Hearsays, what he calls his Worships and so forth, — what is it that the modern English soul does, in very truth, dread infinitely, and contemplate with entire despair? What s his Hell, after all these reputable, oft-repeated Hearsays, what is it? With hesitation, with astonishment, I pronounce it to be the terror of "Not succeeding"; of not making money, fame, or some other figure in the world, — chiefly of not making money (10. 145-46)

This kind of hell, he decides, "belongs naturally to the Gospel of Mammonism, which has also its corresponding Heaven. . . . About one thing we are entirely in earnest: The making of money" (10.146). Carlyle, who denies the importance of belief in a hell as a literal place, here writes about the kind of issues discussed by the preacher and takes the preacher's attitude toward a congregation.

Simple Definition: Ruskin

The sage's acts of definition take four basic forms — definition, denying someone else's definition, corrective redefinition, and satiric definition.

Ruskin's definitions of imitation, truth, beauty, imagination, theoria, and composition in Modern Painters and wealth and value in Unto This Last exemplify simple definition, the most basic form of this technique and that kind found in all types of discourse.

His definitions of imitation and truth, which play an important part in his polemical defense of Turner and nineteenth-century painters of landscape, have little explicitly polemical about them, and this is because Ruskin wishes both to set forth the theoretical bases of his defense of the new art and also to convince his reader that, however much a polemicist he may appear at times, his argument derives from the most rational premises.

Perhaps the most important of these premises is that the visual arts chiefly involve statements of truth rather than of imitation. According to the chapter "Of Ideas of Imitation," Fuseli, Burke, and Coleridge falsely distinguished between imitation and copying, both of which produce a rather low and limited, but nonetheless authentic, form of pleasure, for

whenever anything looks like what it is not, the resemblance being so great as nearly to deceive, we feel a kind of pleasurable surprise, an agreeable excitement of mind, exactly the same in its nature as we receive from juggling. Whenever we perceive this in something produced by art, that is to say, whenever the work is seen to resemble something which we know it is not, we receive what I call an idea of imitation. (3.100).

Although he admits that imitation, which earlier critics had made the central principle of the arts, does produce a genuine source of aesthetic pleasure, he argues that it is but a comparatively minor one; for art proceeds by statements about form, rather than by imitations of it. For example, a marble statue of a man, says Ruskin, is not an imitation of a human being but the actual form of one. "Form is form, bona fide and actual, whether in marble or in flesh — not an imitation or resemblance of form, but real form. The chalk outline of the bough of a tree on paper, is not an imitation; it looks like chalk and paper — not like wood, and that which it suggests to the mind is not properly said to be like the form of a bough, it is the form of a bough" (3.101). Ideas of truth, rather than ideas of imitation, therefore, provide the central pleasures of visual art; and "the word Truth, as applied to art, signifies the faithful statement, either to the mind or senses, of any fact of nature. We receive an idea of truth, then, when we perceive the faithfulness of such a statement" (3.104).

Denying Someone Else's Definition

The technique of denying the validity of an accepted definition or common application of one, takes a purely negative form. As Thoreau's "A Plea for Captain John Brown" shows, one particularly aggressive, effective way that the sage can show his audience that it misunderstands and misuses language is by directly contradicting common usage. In his defense of the great abolitionist, he thus attacks the way his contemporaries have labeled John Brown insane: "Insane! A father and six sons, and one son-in-law, and several more men besides, — as many at least as twelve disciples, — all struck with insanity at once; while the sane tyrant holds with a firmer gripe than ever his four millions of slaves, and a thousand sane editors, his abettors, are saving their country and their bacon" (126). By the time Thoreau completes this sentence, he has shown that his countrymen, who have committed themselves to live by the principle of expediency rather than those of truth, religion, and justice, misapply the word insane. After first suggesting how improbable such a simultaneous attack of madness would have been, he makes clear that, in a society which allows slavery, sanity is equivalent to evil and expedience. The tyrant is sane, and a thousand newspaper editors support the enslavement of other human beings in order to protect their own means of gaining a living.

These editors, Thoreau implies, corrupt the language for financial gain. At this point in his attack upon his contemporaries' use of the words sane and insane, he points to the fact that his northern neighbors did not judge Brown's successful efforts in Kansas to be insane, and he directs his audience to ask the tyrant, who is his most dangerous foe — the sane or the insane man? Finally, he inquires: "Do the thousands who know him best, who have rejoiced at his deeds in Kansas, and have afforded him material aid there, think him insane? Such a use of this word is a mere trope with most who persist in using it, and I have no doubt that many of the rest have already in silence retracted their words" (126).

Thoreau's various ways of using this device of attacking a commonplace definition reveal how he makes it the focus of the entire passage. This technique, which gathers others to it, emphasizes both the intellectual and moral weakness of the position he opposes. Then, when he compares the "manly directness and force" of Brown's words on being captured at Harper's Ferry to the speeches of the members of Congress from Massachusetts and other northern states, Thoreau makes explicit the point at the heart of his strategy: Correct use of language, true language, can appear only in the mouths of the good, for moral and political corruption corrupts language and its users. Brown, therefore, speaks an authentic language: "Truth is his inspirer, and earnestness the polisher of his sentences. He could afford to lose his Sharps' rifles, while he retained his faculty of speech, a Sharps' rifle of infinitely surer and longer range" (127).

Arnold's Corrective Definitions

Matthew Arnold's famous definition of culture, which also makes use of the same intertwined claims of intellectual and moral superiority, well exemplifies the next step or stage in this series of associated techniques: corrective redefinition. Whereas Thoreau's attack upon the application of the word insane to Brown and his followers is a purely negative technique, used only for purposes of attack, corrective definition (or redefinition) follows an initial attack upon received meaning by the sage's assertion of a correct one. Like the sage's use of the prophetic pattern, corrective definition follows negative by positive. For example, at the opening of Culture and Anarchy, Arnold directly confronts opposing points of view, which are in fact opposing interpretations, by claiming that his opponents do not in fact understand the words they use. According to him, "the disparagers of culture make its motive curiosity; sometimes, indeed, they make its motive mere exclusiveness and vanity." These latter opponents of culture claim that "it is valued either out of sheer vanity and ignorance or else as an engine of social and class distinction, separating its holder, like a badge or title, from other people who have not got it."

Like Ruskin, Arnold well knew the standard code words that had such appeal to many Evangelicals in his intended audience, and he uses one of them — serious — to advance his cause. Many raised as evangelicals both within and without the Church of England took rather puritanical attitudes toward secular culture because they believed the truly serious person, the person concerned with the things of Christ, did not have much time, energy, or attention for such essentially trivial activities.

Confronting this source of opposition head on, Arnold uses a device particularly popular in the Evangelical sermon, claiming that those who thus interpret the meaning of the term culture both do not know the meaning of the word and also, by their misuse of it, demonstrate that they are not "serious" people: "No serious man would call this culture, or attach any value to it, as culture, at all" (5.90). As Arnold, who would have made a fine advertising copywriter, was well aware, his charge that his opponents were not "serious" bore with this suggestion of a basic lack of earnestness a subtle suggestion that such intellectual lightness and frivolity undoubtedly connected to an unenviable moral and spiritual state. Then, having first turned the tables upon his self-righteous opponents by appropriating one of their favorite cant terms, Arnold again turns the tables on them when he argues that he and all other lovers of culture are the truly "serious" men, for according to him, culture implies both the "desire to see things as they are" and a corollary "balance and regulation of mind." Culture, he adds, is "properly described" as deriving from "the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection. It moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for pure k knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good" (5.91). Culture, in other words, hardly implies, as its opponents had charged, either idle curiosity or exclusiveness and vanity. Rather culture turns out to be, in contrast, an essentially moral and religious matter — a matter, in fact, of particularly high seriousness, a matter to engage the minds and souls of all truly "serious" men and women.

Satirical Definition: An Example from Thoreau

The last kind of definition, the satirical, does not mock some particular received meaning but uses definition as part of a satiric attack upon something else. In "A Plea for Captain John Brown," Thoreau makes a characteristically aggressive use of satirical definition to provide a climax to his attack on those who will not resist slavery. His satiric definition first charges contemporary Christians with ignoring any aspect of their faith that might force them to undertake difficult acts:

The modern Christian is a man who has consented to say all the prayers in the liturgy, provided you will let him go straight to bed and sleep quietly afterward. All his prayers begin with "Now I lay me down to sleep."

Although willing after a fashion to perform certain long-established charities, he "does not wish to hear of any new-fangled ones; he doesn't wish to have any supplementary articles added to the contract, to fit it to the present time."

Like Ruskin who charges in "Traffic" that the contemporary Christian is a Christian only in church, Thoreau mocks him for showing the "whites of his eyes on the Sabbath, and the blacks all the rest of the week" (121). Thoreau in fact occasionally holds that any established faith must be an inauthentic, purely nominal one in the nineteenth century:

Really, there is no infidelity, now-adays, so great as that which prays, and keeps the Sabbath, and rebuilds the churches.... The church is a sort of hospital for men's souls, and as full of quackery as the hospital for their bodies. Those who are taken into it live like pensioners in their Retreat or Sailor's Snug Harbor, where you may see a row of religious cripples sitting outside in sunny weather.

A somewhat different form of satiric definition appears in "Slavery in Massachusetts," which uses a fairly straightforward examination of the meaning of the word governor to set in motion a series of contrasts between ideal and actual, theory and practice. In particular, this prophetic attack upon contemporary iniquity contrasts what a governor of Massachusetts is supposed to do — enforce all the laws, including those that protect everyone in the state — with the present governor's failure to perform these duties by permitting someone living in the state to be returned to southern slavery. This examination of the term governor is part of Thoreau's main or underlying point that the seizure of a single person of another race is not only relevant to the lives of every member of his audience but centrally so since the act directly limits and threatens their own freedom. This exercise in definition produces a second implication as well: Since the governor, the chief executive officer of Massachusetts, did not guard the rights of one who lived in his domain, he has therefore proved himself not to be a governor at all, and therefore, Thoreau implies, he has forfeited the obedience due one.

Thoreau begins his definition by taking the satirist's pose of the ingenuous novice the honorable, childlike idealist who believes all he is told. "I had thought that the Governor was in some sense the executive officer of the State; that it was his business, as a Governor, to see that the laws of the State were executed; while, as a man, he took care that he did not, by so doing, break the laws of humanity.... Perhaps I do not know what are the duties of a Governor; but if to be a Governor requires to subject oneself to such much ignominy without remedy, if it is to put a restraint upon my manhood, I shall take care never to be Governor of Massachusetts" (94). Much in the manner of Evangelical ministers and writers of tracts, he thus proceeds by claiming that the governor is a false governor, not a true one — a governor in name only, not in act. Thoreau relates that when he searches for a governor, he only finds an empty simulacrum, a shell, a pageant-governor:

I listen to hear the voice of a Governor, Commander-in-Chief of ; the forces of Massachusetts. I hear only the creaking of crickets and the hum of insects which now fill the summer air. The Governor's exploit is to review the troops on muster days. I have seen him on horseback, with his hat off, listening to a chaplain's prayer. It chances that is all I have ever seen of a Governor. I think that I could manage to get along without one. If he is not of the least use to prevent my being kidnapped, pray of what important use is he likely to be to me? When freedom is most endangered, he dwells in the deepest obscurity. (92)

Even before pointing out that the governor who does not defend one's freedom does nothing, Thoreau implicitly defines him as one who does nothing while simultaneously mocking another group he takes to be respectable do-nothings: "A distinguished clergyman told me that he chose the profession of a clergyman because, it afforded the most leisure for literary pursuits. I would recommend to him the profession of a Governor" (92-93). As these examples reveal, Thoreau combines straightforward acts of definition with those of a satirical nature. Having first stated the true meaning of a central term, he then mocks those who have not lived up to it. The implication of such a manner of proceeding is, once again, that the speaker, the definer of important terms, resides at the center of meaning. He alone knows what things mean. He also sees clearly enough to warn others that they have fallen away from the ways of God and nature. To find that way, claims Thoreau the sage, his audience must first understand the true meaning of words, and therefore he begins with the word governor and follows this definition with others, such as slavery, which are even more central to his argument. By the time that Thoreau has finished attacking the governor of Massachusetts with this satirically employed definition, he has transformed him, his office, and the element of sham they share into a grotesque metonymy of his age and nation.

Thoreau's entire strategy here seems to derive from Carlyle's French Revolution, which explains that central phenomenon of modern history as the necessary purgation of government that does not govern. This thematized technique of contrasting definition and actions that fail to match it derives in turn from the common Evangelical Protestant distinction between practical (or practicing) and nominal religion spread by William Wilberforce's enormously popular devotional work A Practical View of the Prevailing System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity (1819), commonly known as Practical Christianity.

The Victorian sages use the distinction between practical and nominal religious, moral, and political belief for powerfully satiric effects. For example, in "Traffic," after Ruskin has instructed his audience that a nation's architecture inevitably expresses its basic attitudes and beliefs, he explains those implicit in Greek, medieval, and renaissance styles and then asks, "Will you tell me what we worship, and what we build? You know," he confides to his audience, "we are speaking always of the real, active, continual national worship; that by which men act, while they live; not that which they talk of, when they die" (18.447). According to Ruskin,

we have, indeed, a nominal religion, to which we pay tithes of property and sevenths of time; but we have also a practical and earnest religion, to which we devote nine-tenths of our property, and six-sevenths of our time. And we dispute a great deal about the nominal religion: but we are all unanimous about this practical one; of which I think you will admit that the ruling goddess may be best generally described as the 'Goddess of Getting-on', or 'Britannia of the Market"' (18.447-8).

When Ruskin thus defines the religious faith of his Midlands audience, emphasizing that he seeks an essential, not superficial, meaning of the term, he obviously follows William Wilberforce's method, one with which his audience would have been very familiar.


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Last modified 14 July 2008