3 The Spirit as Speech
All speech is the precipitation of the intensified respiration which we experience as members of a community, and which is called the Spirit.
The spirit of man is the Holy Spirit.
One knew that the distinction between immanence and transcendence disappears in language.
IT WAS DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR that the ideas presented in those epigraphs, about the spirit as speech, first saw the light of day. Eugen Rosenstock was fighting on the western front at Verdun, while his close friend, Franz Rosenzweig, was stationed on the eastern front in Macedonia. (Eugen Rosenstock added “Huessy” to his name in 1925, having married the Swiss Margrit Huessy in 1914.) Throughout the summer of 1916 these two young men engaged in an intense trench-to-trench correspondence on Judaism and Christianity. Their letters were later published, and have been widely discussed. The Jewish scholar Hans Schoeps described them as “the purest form of Judaeo-Christian dialogue ever attained, perhaps even for ages to come.”
In his final letter of this correspondence, dated December 1916, Rosenzweig asked Rosenstock to tell him more about his new understanding of language. Rosenstock replied in early 1917 with such a long letter that it eventually became the text for a book, published in 1924 as Angewandte Seelenkunde (Practical Knowledge of the Soul).
After the war, Rosenzweig became famous for the book he completed in 1921, The Star of Redemption, a contemporary interpretation of Judaism and Christianity based largely on understanding speech as God’s action in us. Revelation, redemption, and creation, he said, are continuing processes in human life, not one-time biblical events.
“Man became man when he first spoke,” Rosenzweig wrote. True speech is revelation itself. As he put it, “one knew that the distinction between immanence and transcendence disappears in language.” Rosenzweig actually began writing The Star in 1918, over a year after his correspondence with Rosenstock on Judaism and Christianity had ended. And he gratefully acknowledged that “the main influence” for his book had been that letter on language, which Eugen had sent to him early in 1917.
Shattered by their experience of the war, both Rosenstock and Rosenzweig felt that timeless abstract philosophizing and theologizing no longer addressed what really happened in our lives. Rosenstock-Huessy addressed this theme in many works. For example, in his Speech and Reality, he points to how Rosenzweig had opened The Star with these words: “From death, and from the fear of death alone, springs all knowledge. Philosophy tries to throw off the fear of things earthly, to rob death of its poisonous sting.”
The dialogue between Rosenstock and Rosenzweig was remarkably deep and creative. Rosenstock’s parents were Jewish, but they were not religious observants. He had first met Rosenzweig, two years his senior, in 1910, when they had both gone to a scholarly conference in the German spa town, Baden-Baden. On the evening of July 7, 1913, in Leipzig, they had a long conversation on religion, as a result of which Rosenzweig decided that he should abandon his Jewish heritage, to which he felt little attachment, and adopt Christianity. However, he wanted to attend one final synagogue service, the Day of Atonement, October 11. Hearing the sound of the ram’s horn at that service so moved him that he reversed his decision. He proceeded to become a profoundly believing Jew. As The Star reveals, however, his profound belief was matched by a profoundly contemporary conception of what belief really means.
In a 1924 essay entitled “Das neue Denken” (“The New Thinking”), Rosenzweig clarified the ideas he had presented in The Star. One bold claim he made in “The New Thinking” was that the “method of speech” he and Rosenstock were developing “replaces the method of thinking maintained in all earlier philosophies.” Whether Rosenzweig’s extravagant claim can be justified is an underlying theme of this book.
The last decade has seen an explosion of interest in Rosenzweig. Mark Lilla, an essayist and historian of ideas and currently teaching at Columbia University, reviewed eleven recent books by or about Rosenzweig in the December 2002 New York Review of Books. Unfortunately, Lilla showed not the slightest interest in Rosenstock-Huessy. Instead, he calls him Rosenzweig’s “confused young friend.” Dismissing the “new thinking” on language as of little significance, Lilla sees Rosenzweig primarily as an innovative thinker on religion. Lilla’s flippant remark about Rosenstock-Huessy is a classic example of academe’s response to him.
The Law of Motion of the Spirit
Academics generally do not want language to be tainted by “spirit,” which evaporated for most of them with the Enlightenment. For a Lilla, “new thinking” about speech and the spirit, giving rise to “the method of speech,” is simply confusing.
Of course, it is the method of speech that is made visible on the Cross of Reality. Indeed, that cross is best understood as a dynamic model of just how speech works in us. It shows us that we live in an infinitely richer realm than that described to us by natural science or by most traditional theology. We are neither the cold observers of the world outside us nor the faithful children of a God above. Instead, we live at the heart of reality. We are the agents for the evolution as well as the revolution of matter and spirit. There is no outside prime mover like the God described by Descartes, Spinoza, or the deists. Nor is there a supreme being, above and beyond, like the God of theists. The only motion of the spirit is within human souls and between human souls. God speaks, or fails to speak, in each of us. He is infinitely close, not infinitely distant.
Now, if the only motion of the spirit is in and between us, is it possible to describe that motion? Rosenstock-Huessy suggests a specific law of motion of the spirit. This law, showing us how the spirit moves within us and how the soul is formed, becomes clear only when we realize that spirit is not something nebulous in the air. Rather, spirit is audible; it is the higher kind of all human speech. And such speech does not have an infinite variety of forms. Again, there are only four basic kinds of speech, and they move us through the four stages of any significant experience:
- Imperative (vocative) speech is what calls us to the future. We hear ourselves addressed as thou (you). Such speech wakes us up and inclines us to respond. Go thou! Fulfill what you are called to do.
- Subjective (poetic, prayerful, and philosophical) speech is what we use to address our inner self, our I. Now the grammatical mood becomes subjunctive. What if I were to go? Inner questioning arises in response to the pressure of imperatives.
- Narrative (historical) speech enables us to recall past time or tell the current history of our lives. We becomes our grammatical person because creative action requires more than one person. We went, or we are going. Learning from what has happened in the past, we start interacting with others.
- Objective (scientific) speech makes it possible for us to analyze the world outside us. Now we and others can see ourselves as he, she or they. She went; they went. No longer “moved” by speech, we step back and assess what is going on.
Those four stages of any memorable experience are universal and inevitable for all of us. As we move through them, we are conjugated into those four different grammatical persons: thou (you), I, we, he or she.
This law of motion of the spirit is central to a dialogical method. Rosenzweig called it “the speech method,” and Rosenstock-Huessy called it “the grammatical method.” All three names refer to the same thing. Sometimes this focus on language has been called “dialogical thinking” or “speech thinking.” Whatever it is called, it appears that its first 20th-century expression was in that 1917 letter of Rosenstock’s to Rosenzweig, which was subsequently published as Practical Knowledge of the Soul:
Does the soul have a grammar? Now, as the Word comes out of the soul, and the truest Word comes straight from the very depths of the soul, . . . then, just as the mind has logic, the soul will have a sense of the way words fit together—that is, “grammar”—as its inner structure. . . . He who would explore the soul must fathom the secrets of language.
This passage reveals those secrets, in their simplest form. A key secret is that language turns us into the four grammatical persons: thou, I, we, he or she—and in that order. A related secret is that language, more surely than reason, creates our sense of the future and the past, our inner selves, and the outer world.
Revelation Is Orientation
Of the many seminal ideas that Rosenstock gave to Rosenzweig, there is one that seems immensely fruitful, and incredibly concise: “Revelation is orientation.” Rosenzweig considered this a breakthrough insight, one that integrated religious revelation, creation, and redemption with what goes on in our daily lives.
Reflecting on what Rosenstock meant by “revelation is orientation,” I have come to see it as telling us what happens to us in the interior language of prayer. Not prayer as sponsored by organized religion, but prayer as engaged in by all human beings, whether they are religious or not. Prayer in this larger sense is not like reaching up to be in touch with an all-powerful divine Father who can advise, guide, intervene, and save. Instead, it is like centering oneself at a place where one’s interior life meets one’s tasks in the exterior world. And like drawing strength from one’s own past, and the past of the whole race, as one seeks to find the way into a meaningful future. At this center of the cross in which we live, God reveals himself to us. Revelation becomes a new orientation to the times of our personal history and all history, just as it becomes a new orientation of our inner self to the world outside us.
We can now see that Rosenstock and Rosenzweig have raised our understanding of language from being simply a mode of communication to something at a distinctly higher level. They have enabled us to perceive speech as the body of the spirit, indeed as the body of the Holy Spirit.
But their concerns were not simply in the realm of spirituality or religion. Both Rosenstock and Rosenzweig were clear that they were working toward disclosing a method for the human sciences, including philosophy and theology, just as surely as Descartes perceived that his goal was a new method for natural science (one he thought would apply to all realms of knowledge).
At the time of the First World War, when Rosenstock and Rosenzweig began their conspiracy against the accepted wisdom of that era, anthropology and psychology were quite new disciplines. The leading lights in each were inclined to treat language simply as a wonderful tool, the means by which we communicate with each other, a way of transferring ideas out of one mind and into another. Rosenstock and Rosenzweig, by contrast, saw language as something much more fundamental and more marvelous: Language had turned us into human beings—and eventually into religious human beings.
Rosenstock-Huessy’s essay, “The Origin of Speech,” distinguishes between two kinds of speech. On the one hand, we have the formal or high speech that we use “to sing a chorale, to stage tragedy, to enact laws, to compose verse, to say grace, to take an oath, to confess one’s sins, to file a complaint, to write a biography, to make a report, to solve an algebraic problem, to baptize a child, to sign a marriage contract, to bury one’s father.” On the other hand, we have the informal or low speech that we might use to show “a man the direction to the next farm on the road” or to stop “a child from crying.” Such low speech, which makes up “our daily chatter and prattle,” often serves “the same purposes as animal sounds.”
It was only after reading that “Origin” essay that I came to understand what Rosenstock-Huessy meant by “high speech.” He meant the intentional, relational, and dialogical speech, the fully articulated speech we use when we seek to tell the truth or establish relations with others. It is the language we use to advance any cause, large or small, social or personal. It is not the language we use when we say, “Please pass the salt” or “Goodbye.” But it is rare to go through a day without using this higher form of speech. As a matter of fact, there is a vestige of high speech in “Please pass the salt,” since “Please” establishes a cordial relationship. Similarly, “Goodbye” is a vestigial remnant of its origin in the heartfelt blessing, “God be with you.”
The higher kind of speech is “bound to time and nourished by time,” as Rosenzweig expressed it. Whenever we use such speech, we create a tension between past and future; we speak to change the listener and our times.
It also helps to grasp the idea of high speech when we make a distinction between what we mean by language and what we mean by speech. Language can be simply any use of words, while true speech involves not only speaking but listening. The word that we have heard from another stays with us and frames what we do, from our smallest to our largest actions.
In other words, high speech always implies its own enactment. The words that initiate such speech stay alive and guide us through their realization. We never leave the fields of force created by high speech, from a well-timed word of encouragement from a parent or teacher to an order given in combat.
While it is certainly not always the higher form, even what goes on inside our minds is speech. As Rosenstock-Huessy puts it, “thinking is nothing but a storage room for speech.”
The Many Kinds of High Speech
Although Rosenstock-Huessy emphasizes the spoken word in his writings, he certainly suggests that all intentional and truth-telling human expression is high speech. From the first drawings of a bison in caves, to tribal dancing and chanting, to a symphony by Beethoven, to a painting by Paul Klee, to a house by Frank Lloyd Wright, to a book by Dostoevsky, to a poem by Robert Frost, we speak about who we are, we keep the past alive, and we feel called to our future.
So speech is not simply words. It is not simply our informal chatter or the tool we use to survive, though those are “low” speech. It is not simply earnest dialogue, debate, drama or sermon, although those are “high” forms of speech. It is not only what we say with our mouths; it is also what we write on paper as poetry, literature, or drama. Beyond all those word forms, speech is any fully serious human expression, from a hug or caress to a dance or a symphony.
High speech is even serious humor. Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” is a good example. In humor we show that we can juggle the different kinds of speech; we play with them. Indeed, humor is a vital kind of speech, lubricating, as it were, the transmission of all the others. As serious a philosopher as Solovyov wrote a humorous satire about himself—and once defined man as the laughing animal. Rosenstock-Huessy’s culminating chapter in Out of Revolution is titled “The Survival Value of Humour.” There he says, “Common sense. . . acts on the principle that a man who fails to apply laughing and weeping in the discovery of vital truth simply is immature.”
High speech becomes frozen in the architecture of our buildings and the environments we create in our towns and cities; it is expressed by our monuments and gravestones. In fact, everything we create, every form of human expression, is a form of speech. Even thinking and prayer, or reading, are acts of speech inside us. They resonate and reflect on the open speech that carries us through life.
This understanding of speech accounts for the deaf and blind, people like Helen Keller. The miracle of Helen Keller’s life was brought about by the loving care of her family and her teacher-friend Anne Sullivan. If they had never “talked” to her, she would never have uttered a word, and the name Helen Keller would mean nothing to us.
So high speech includes all language, verbal and non-verbal, that serves a constructive social purpose, all language that is intentional, relational, or seeks to tell the truth. Examples of what it does not include are chatter, gossip, ranting, lying, propaganda, and advertising.
The most important thing to say about high speech is that it frames and determines all our actions in life. Any social act is the carrying out of an intention that had been created in us through listening first, then responding inside ourselves, and finally deciding to do something. The action is simply the outer completion of the speech that began as an inner listening. All our experiences from birth to death are framed by what is spoken to us and what we reply. We are the most plastic of all creatures; we are the receptacles and organs of speech.
If our personal lives are framed by speech, so our history has been created through speech. Our entire organization and interpretation of the world are accomplished through what we have heard from preceding generations and what we say to the next. Through speech we learn what it is to have a future and a past. Without speech we would not be conscious of historical time. With our consciousness of time, of timing, of seizing the right moment, and saying the right word, we place ourselves at the center of the creative process. The story of human progress is the story of when we have said the right words at the right time.
Politics is not so much the art of the possible as it is the art of the spoken word. We attain political office, or any significant position in life, through what we are able to say, and especially through what we are able to say without advance preparation. It is what we say without a written speech, when we are on our feet before an audience, that enables our listeners to decide whether we can be trusted as leaders in our times. If we cannot think and talk on our feet, then the public quite rightly knows that we will not be able to act on our feet when the time comes for us to take immediate action. The complete person, the whole person, the person who can be trusted with great responsibility, is the person whose speech comes so naturally that one senses his or her integrity. Indeed, a person’s integrity is the coincidence of thinking, speaking, and acting.
The Four Forms of High Speech
Rosenstock-Huessy has shown us that all high speech takes just four forms—imperative, subjective, narrative, and objective. Those forms, taken together, create the Cross of Reality in which we live.
Now we might focus, even more closely, on how these quite different ways of speaking orient us throughout our lives.
1. Imperative Speech: Toward Future Time
Imperative speech is what calls us to any important undertaking in life. It establishes our commitments, loves, avocations, and (if we are fortunate) our vocations. Thus, “vocative,” which emphasizes “calling,” is another name for the imperative. We hear such speech from parents, teachers, or any other person whose guidance we seek. We hear it as the Ten Commandments or Isaiah; as Luther’s 95 Theses or the Declaration of Independence.
To give us a fresh sense of this future-creating speech, and to contrast it with subjective and objective speech, Rosenstock-Huessy has proposed that we also call it “prejective” speech.
We hear such speech in the words of anybody who cares for us, addressing us as thou. Any speech that casts a net of faith into the future is a vocative, like “Will you marry me?” That is not a request for information.
A person who is starved for such speech cannot discover who he or she is and therefore cannot speak his or her own imperatives. A society that cannot speak its own imperatives gives way to decadence. Decadence is the inability of one generation to communicate imperatives to the next. All education, therefore, that is not simply technical, aims to create and maintain imperatives. This future-creating speech precedes and determines all the others. Until we sense this orientation and feel overwhelmed by it, we never really begin anything new in our lives.
In religious terms, it is hard to imagine a resurrection for the person who has not been moved by the imperative, and lives simply for his or her own time. We are only a little lower than the angels, and we are supernatural, because we are the creature that can hear the call to enter the future.
2. Subjective Speech: Toward Our Inner Space
Subjective speech arises in response to imperatives and vocatives. It creates the inner space where we begin to feel personally responsible for the appropriate answers to life’s questions.
Now just why is it that subjective speech follows the imperative in a necessary sequence? What is the connection between listening to the imperatives of a leader or a teacher who inspired you, and going to the theater, listening to music, or simply going for a walk? Well, after you hear somebody tell you to change your ways, you want to stop and sort things out. That is why the speech that takes us from the call of the future to our inner orientation is in the subjunctive, conditional, or optative mood. We turn inward, start questioning, and consider different responses.
Art, music, literature, poetry—in fact, all the voices of culture—are subjective speech. The arts remind us of all the possible ways to reply to imperatives. We can be the doubting Ivan Karamazov or we can be the faithful Alyosha.
A critical kind of interior speech is prayer. Prayer is a concentrated pondering of one’s reply to the callings of the future. For the religious, prayer means a listening to God’s imperatives, a recognizing that we are being addressed. How should I respond—although I know I will be changed?
However, we all participate in prayer, even if we profess no religion. Constructive prayer does not aim to carry us deeper and deeper into an interior life. It aims to take us momentarily into this interior, and then to become more purposefully engaged in solving the crises of our own lives—and the larger crises of society.
We develop our unique personality by selecting, from the many imperatives that address us, the particular callings and the particular causes that move us to respond. We are not just bundles of nerves, but we are just bundles of responses.
“Go thou,” the prophets of preceding generations say to us. “I’m not sure whether I’ll go,” we reply. As we question and decide just what we will do, we discover our identity, our I. We then feel different from “the establishment” of any preceding generation. From an orientation toward the future of the whole race, created by the imperative thou, we proceed to the singular, inward space of the individual who replies, the I.
3. Narrative Speech: Carrying the Past Forward
We enter historical time when we leave the subjective orientation of I and decide to express ourselves openly in the world. That means taking responsible action with some other person or group. This is our answer to the questioning that went on in our second, interior orientation. It may mean marriage or becoming wedded to one’s career, but in every case it forms a dual relationship: You cannot act historically by yourself. You incorporate, you embody. Therefore, our speech and actions are now in the narrative mood and the grammatical person of we.
Marriage is the most obvious dual required to continue creation, but unmarried persons form generative attachments whenever they relate themselves to some significant cause or institution.
Through narrative speech we participate in past time, not only as a part of the world’s history but also as a part of the “current history” of our own lives. Let us consider why narrative speech does not face backward but carries forward. Rosenstock-Huessy suggested that we name our orientation to past time as “trajective.” There is no better statement of what trajective speech means than the one made by Vladimir Solovyov in his story, “The Secret of Progress,” about a hunter lost in a forest. Despairing of getting out, he is offered help by a repulsive old woman. She assures him that she can show him the way if he will only carry her across a stream. As he does so, the heavy old lady becomes lighter and lighter; at the other side she is turned into an enchanting maiden.
Here are Solovyov’s moving words as he comments on this story:
The modern man, hunting after fleeting, momentary goods and elusive fancies, has lost his right path in life. The dark and turbulent stream of life is before him. Time like a woodpecker mercilessly registers the moments that have been lost. Misery and solitude, and afterwards—darkness and perdition. But behind him stands the sacred antiquity of tradition—oh, in what an unattractive form! Well, what of it? Let him only think of what he owes to her; let him with an inner heartfelt impulse revere her grayness, pity her infirmities, feel ashamed of rejecting her because of her appearance. Instead of idly looking out for phantom-like fairies beyond the clouds, let him undertake the labor of carrying this sacred burden across the real stream of history. This is the only way out of his wanderings—the only, because any other would be insufficient, unkind, impious: He could not let the ancient creature perish!
The modern man does not believe in the fairy tale, he does not believe that the decrepit old woman will be transformed into a queen of beauty. But if he does not believe it, so much the better! Why believe in the future reward when what is required is to deserve it by the present effort and self-denying heroism? Those who do not believe in the future of the old and the sacred must, at any rate, remember its past. Why should he not carry her across, out of reverence for her antiquity, out of pity for her decay, out of shame for being ungrateful? Blessed are the believers: While still standing on this shore they already see through the wrinkles of old age the brilliance of incorruptible beauty. But unbelievers in the future transformation have the advantage of unexpected joy. Both the believers and the unbelievers have the same task: to go forward, taking upon their shoulders the whole weight of antiquity.
4. Objective Speech: Toward the Outside World
Our life in the first three speech orientations—imperative, subjective, and narrative—comprises all of our “high” experience. But we cannot live through these experiences, we cannot complete them, understand them, or be open to new experience without our fourth orientation via objective speech. Thus, this strictly rational orientation plays as vital a role in our lives as the first three. The only mistake made by today’s academic, scientific, and technology-obsessed minds has been to identify such speech as the primary and supremely “real” one.
Objective speech states as an outward fact what was first a powerful calling (thou), then an inner secret (I), next a shared experience (we), and now is simply a commonplace for everyone (they, he, she, or it).
In our daily lives we hear objective speech whenever we analyze our own or somebody else’s experience. Most journalism is objective speech. So are all the facts and figures, all the data that we use to organize our lives and our economies. Mathematics and statistics are necessarily objective.
The natural sciences are, of course, quite properly objective; but today’s social sciences suffer from being improperly objective. They imitate natural science by adopting its numerical, statistical, and analytical method.
While he devoted all his energies to attacking the dominance of objective speech in today’s world, Rosenstock-Huessy never suggested we retreat to our inner orientation or reject our outer one. In fact, he positively celebrated the role of rational, analytical speech:
The fourth phase, analytics, is indispensable, too. . . . In this phase the movement dies and is discarded as merely natural. “Nature” we call everything which exists without “you,” without “me” and without “us.”. . . In the “natural” the act is dismissed. . . . The fourth phase of speech is the spirit’s death. If we call the impetus by which a total experience subjects one man to the four phases through which the experience is realized “spirit,” i.e., a breath of life, then phase four is the phase in which the spirit dies but the specimen recovers. If phase four did not abstract us from our spells, freedom could not exist to start a new phase.
The Four Moods of Literature and Theater
Rosenstock-Huessy made clear that high speech is more than aural when he described how all literature and theater express themselves in just four moods, four primary kinds of speech.
First, there is the dramatic, heavy and imperative in style, challenging us to move toward the future.
Second, we have the lyric, which is light, personal, and includes comedy. Its inner orientation is subjective.
Third comes the epic, the historical narrative, such as the Iliad or the Odyssey.
Fourth, and finally, we have the prosaic, the outward and objective presentation of life, the “realistic.”
It is not simply that literature and theater divide into those four ways of speaking. Almost every human language has at least four moods that change the verbs of any sentence. In English we have the imperative “Go!”; the subjunctive “Were I to go?”; the narrative “I am going”; and the indicative “He went.”
Language Does Not Describe
To sum up, we can now perceive why Rosenstock-Huessy called speech the “only miracle.” As we speak in future, past, inner, and outer directions, we actually create those directions. They were not there before we said so! History exists because we tell it. Without prayer, music, and poetry, there would be no inner self. Without vocatives and prophecy, no future. Without measurement and analysis, no science. In Rosenstock-Huessy’s concise formulation: “By speaking we create times and spaces. Language does not describe. It creates a before and after as well as a here and there.”
I Have Been Spoken to, Therefore I Am
We can now also perceive why speech is a more fundamental category in the human phenomenon than reason or thinking. All significant human experience—personal, social, and historical—takes place in the context of speech and can be interpreted by a full understanding of speech. Our lives are framed by the speech of others; our own contribution to history is what we “say” by word and deed. As persons we are simply the embodiment of speech. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” We reply, “No, René, you have it wrong. What you really mean is, ‘I have been spoken to, therefore I am.’”
Our presentation of the four forms of speech tells us that, in the human community, speech does much more than express ideas; it establishes relationships. When used for its purpose, such “high speech” establishes peaceful or healthy relationships—for us as individuals, as groups, or as nations—with all our speech partners.
When we perceive speech in it fullness, we overcome our inheritance from Aristotle and Descartes: imagining that being rational is the main goal of the human mind. What the Cross of Reality shows us, as it arrays the four forms of speech—in their relationship to changing the times and renewing the self and the world—is that our goal is to be “supra-rational.” That is, reason (with its objectivity) should always be present in any complete experience of thinking, speaking, and acting. It is simply that reason does not trump the other three ways we apprehend reality or tell the full truth.
William James on the Soul
The philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910) said he would rather not say anything about the soul until he could grasp the pragmatic significance of that term. What we have de-scribed above as our four speech orientations, seen as one sequence informing any important human experience, may also be seen, quite pragmatically, as describing the formation of the soul.
Our soul—or in secular terms, our psyche—is what we form when we move responsively through all four speech orientations. It is our power, expressed by speech and act, to live so that we represent past and future times and inner and outer spaces. Our soul grows larger the more we feel compelled to listen and speak imperatively, subjectively, narratively, and objectively. Our soul does not belong to some other world, or go to some other world, as religious thought often suggests. No; the soul is the way we incarnate the word down here.
Logos: In Heraclitus and St. John
While it is quite correct to see Rosenstock-Huessy’s and Rosenzweig’s understanding of language as something genuinely new, it is also, paradoxically, quite correct to see it as something very old. Indeed, it dates from one Greek man who is often called the first philosopher, Heraclitus (530-470 BC), and another man whom we might call the first Christian theologian, St. John of the Fourth Gospel.
Heraclitus had used the word Logos when he said: “We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet, although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of his own.” We will never know for sure whether Heraclitus meant “speech” or “reason” when he wrote those words about Logos, but they seem to make more sense if he meant “speech,” something that links us with one another, overcoming our tendency to live privately.
The Gospel of St. John opens with the imperishable words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” In the original text, St. John used Logos for Word. Here it is more certain that he meant “speech,” since it is hard to imagine “reason” becoming flesh in Christ. It was “the living word” that came to dwell in the flesh. (I am capitalizing Logos throughout this book since I am presenting it both as the religious Word of God and as the living word spoken by all humankind.)
In view of what St. John and Heraclitus said of speech, what Rosenstock and Rosenzweig were “discovering” in 1916 could hardly be older. They were rediscovering something that had become obscured by more than two millennia of timeless Platonic philosophizing and Aristotelian metaphysics.
That is why Rosenzweig was justified in his extravagant claim about replacing the methods of all earlier philosophies. The two millennia of obscuring also explain the slowness in the recognition of what these two men were discovering. Our minds have been supersaturated with the abstract, objectifying thought of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes.
Sin as the Abuse of Speech
It is easy to suggest fault in Rosenstock-Huessy’s “Everybody who speaks believes in God because he speaks.” For example, how does one reconcile that with Adolf Hitler, a man whose powers of speech intoxicated most of Germany?
The answer is that Hitler was not really speaking in his tirades to the German public. Instead, he was ranting; he was abusing speech. Rosenstock-Huessy said that speech exists primarily to establish relations with others, to make peace, and to tell the truth. But speech can also be abused if it is used to destroy relations, to make war, and to lie. Everybody who abuses speech, like Hitler, shows our capacity for sin and evil, the power of the devil in us, if you don’t mind an old-fashioned reference.
The Cross of Reality and the Cross of Christ
Is it appropriate or effective to describe the Cross of Reality as a secular image? I have been describing it as an image of how the spirit, even the Holy Spirit, is at work in us. But should we go further and think of it as an image of the Cross of Christ?
Since Rosenstock-Huessy’s work has been bedeviled by confusion on this question, it bears looking at. It is certainly true that, in The Christian Future, he described the Cross of Reality as a secular translation of the Cross of Christ. That is, we are all crucified, we all have to bear a cross, no matter what our religion—or even if we profess no religion.
But the Cross of Reality is not something to which one makes a commitment, as one does to the Cross of Christ. Before one starts to talk about any topic, be it religion, the person, or history, one can turn to the Cross of Reality as a basic model of the human condition. It shows us what faces the animal that speaks. It shows us that this animal acquired language and grammar, that it now understands how to sing and pray and draw pictures. It tells us that we became the human animal when we learned to speak, to hear imperatives, to think subjectively, to tell history narratively, and to build homes in the outer world.
Thus, one can use the Cross of Reality to investigate and clarify any matter of human concern, as Rosenstock-Huessy did when he compared Christianity with the other great religions. He said that Christianity was primarily concerned with the future front, while Judaism was more related to our roots in the past. By contrast, we have two spatial religions in Buddhism and Taoism. Buddha wanted to save us from strife on the outer front, while Lao Tzu told us how to be content with self-effacement on the inner.
In sum, the Cross of Reality is not a uniquely Christian image, nor is it the Cross of Christ. It is simply an image of the human condition, one that is crucial at its core. As we study the orientations on it, and especially the tensions among those orientations, we perceive that this model can be turned into a method able to address any subject of human concern.
A Complex Grammar
We have said that poetry can be high speech. After Rosenstock-Huessy died in 1973, Auden wrote the poem, “Aubade,” as a tribute to him. Published in The Atlantic, its last stanza reads:
But Time, the Domain of Deeds,
calls for a complex Grammar
with many Moods and Tenses,
and prime the Imperative.
We are free to choose our paths,
but choose We must, no matter
where they lead, and the tales
we tell of the Past must be true.
Human Time is a City
where each inhabitant has
a political duty
nobody else can perform,
made cogent by her Motto:
LISTEN, MORTALS, LEST YE DIE!