F.D. Maurice: Books, Words, Friends, God

So I mentioned I’ve been travelling recently. You know what that’s like – you’re away from home, you’ve got Bonaventure in your suitcase, and then you get distracted and end up reading about 19th century Anglican socialists. John Frederick Denison Maurice, better known as F.D. Maurice, was an English priest in the 1800s. He’s regarded as one of the founders of Christian socialism, and, among other things, taught English literature and history at King’s College in London. Today we’re dealing with a couple of his lectures: one titled ‘The Friendship of Books’, first delivered in 1856 in Ellesmere (I assume at St Mary’s Church, which was restored in 1849), and another titled simply ‘On Words’, delivered in 1838 at Guy’s Hospital during Maurice’s tenure as chaplain.

  • The text: The Friendship of Books: and other lectures
  • The author: F.D. Maurice
  • Notes: This text compiles a collection of lectures delivered throughout Maurice’s career. I’m dealing with the first two.
  • Read it yourself: Pulled this one from the Internet Archive, all hail.

In the first lecture, ‘The Friendship of Books’, Maurice argues that you only really know a book when you feel a sense of empathy and friendship with the author:

“I want to speak to you about a few books which exhibit very transparently, I think, what sort of a person he was who wrote them, which show him to us. I think we shall find that there is the charm of the book, the worth of the book. He may be writing about a great many things; but there is a man who writes; and when you get acquainted with that man, you get acquainted with the book. It is no more a collection of letters and leaves; it is a friend.”

We can understand some of what Maurice is talking about here. When we become familiar with an author’s style, it can be comforting, welcoming. We can recognise their voice, we recognise hallmarks of their style. The work starts to speak of the person behind the pen, such that we feel like we have some sort of relationship with the writer. They might not be exactly like us, but they’re human, and they have thoughts and feelings, and we feel some sense of kinship with that. It’s part of how we connect to our past, too. F.D. Maurice was a real guy, and if you want, you can read a speech that he gave a hundred and sixty-four years ago.

Maurice also argues that we can still connect with the underlying humanity of these past people regardless of how we feel about their principles or values. He quotes a German historian of classical Rome, Barthold Georg Niebuhr, on Cicero: “Niebuhr said of Cicero that he knew his faults as well as anybody, but that he felt as much grieved when people spoke of them as if he were his brother.” That’s an attitude that moves throughout Maurice’s text. Different writers may be objectionable for different reasons, but they are also human beings, and therefore our relationship with them is not necessarily without value. Maurice suggests that to these problematic writers, “We can say: ‘Thank you heartily for what you have said to me; but there were clouds about you when you were here; you did not always walk with straight feet, and with your eyes turned to the light. Now you know better, and I will make use of what you tell me, as well as all that I can learn about your doings, as warnings to keep me from wandering to the right or to the left.'” Regardless of their actions, they’re still human beings, and we can relate to them and maybe even still learn from them.

Anyway, let’s move on to the second essay, ‘On Words’. This one’s fun – here, Maurice kicks off about some linguistic theory regarding the meaning of words. It’s actually – it’s a really fascinating lecture, because he rejects the correct answer very explicitly right at the start, and then spends about thirty pages going off in the wrong direction. It’s very interesting to read. Maurice opens by rejecting the claim that “words are arbitrary signs of ideas”. That’s – I mean, that’s pretty much the correct answer, unfortunately. Today, it’s very basic linguistic theory. Words are what we call signifiers, or signs. They signify things. The word ‘cat’ is a sign that refers to cats. And it’s arbitrary in the sense that there is no inherent connection between a word and the thing that it signifies. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule – mainly onomatopoeic words like ‘bang’ or ‘meow’ – but aside from that, yeah, it’s arbitrary.

And Maurice doesn’t like that argument. He summarises the position – “a certain number of men have agreed together to describe certain things or certain acts by certain names, and … we are now under a tacit convention not to depart from this rule” – and then bags it. “Where was the assembly held in which Englishmen determined to speak English, and Frenchmen French?” He argues that it’s ridiculous to imagine that whole languages were created in some national conference or something – and he is of course correct, if only in the very limited way where he made up a nonsense scenario and mocked it for being ridiculous. In reality, languages evolve through shared collective usage over time. It’s maybe not very clean or precise, but it’s how it happens. Think about how new words come into the language – remember when ‘lol’ first arrived? Remember explaining text speak to your nana? Remember all the think pieces about how it represents the end of literacy, and then how we all waited ten years and now it’s totally normal to say lol in real world conversations? That’s how language happens.

But Maurice doesn’t like that idea, so he goes off on his own search for meaning. He tries to show that meaning comes about in a way that isn’t arbitrary – and what’s interesting to us here is his final argument, where he lays out the history of the word ‘word’ itself.

“In the first verse of St. John’s Gospel you meet with the highest application which it is possible to make of human language. You hear Who it is from Whom all words have proceeded, and of Whose voice all words should be the echo. You find there that which is at once the ground and the pinnacle of all discourse, that which transfigures even ordinary converse into a mystery, and enables us to hear in the lispings of infancy the first notes of that harmony which is perfected in the songs of the Seraphim.”

If you’re not familiar with the start of John’s Gospel, it reads “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word here is obviously Jesus – so when Maurice argues that words stem from the Word, he’s arguing that our ability to use language is a product of the nature and being of Christ. Words come from the Word. Linguistic meaning is rooted in a transcendent God, and therefore cannot be arbitrary or random. We refer to cats as cats because God wants us to – because words draw their meaning from the Word, and so Jesus must have wanted us to refer to cats as cats. Language isn’t just some random labels that we made up and all collectively agreed on – it’s given to us from above. In Maurice’s view, Jesus is at the same time the pinnacle of language and its foundation, the ground that linguistic meaning is anchored in. Christ gives meaning to language, being himself the first Word that all subsequent words are based on. Language is therefore spiritual, as any speech act is rooted in the nature and identity of God. Oh – and just while we’re here, Maurice also ends the lecture on books with the exact same manoeuvre:

“I have detained you far too long in endeavouring to show you how every true book exhibits to us some man, from whose mind its thoughts have issued, and with whom it brings us acquainted. May I add this one word in conclusion? – that I believe all books may do that for us because there is one Book which, besides bringing into clearness and distinctness a number of men from different ages from the creation downwards, brings before us one Friend, the chief and centre of all, who is called there The Son of Man.”

We can be friends with authors by reading their books, and that’s because the great Book allows us to make friends with the Author of creation. Books function in the style of the great Book just as words find their ground in the first Word. It’s not an unfamiliar claim, speaking broadly – we talked the other week about how in the field of theological aesthetics, people argue that our creative impulses operate in the manner of the divine creative act. There’s Creation, and we sub-create in turn. It’s the same basic idea – the divine exists at the centre of all things, and all things in turn draw their nature and form from it. Words stem from the Word. Books function like the Bible, drawing us to their author. And our creative acts, our sub-creation, follows the form of Creation.

In a way this type of repeated argument works to the favour of Maurice’s first lecture – his writing definitely does reveal something of what he was like as a person. He saw Christ at the centre of all things, and believed that all things drew their nature and identity from core components of the Christian faith. I guess part of me wonders how far that attitude can take us. As believers, we face a tension between the absolute sovereignty of God and the relationship between theology and other fields of knowledge. The impulse is to say that God is sovereign and so therefore theology, which is knowledge about God, must also be sovereign over every other discipline. That’s when you get theology being deployed as a type of proof in different arguments – whether it’s heliocentrism or Maurice’s theory of language. I’m not saying theology should never be used as a proof – I’m just wondering about the appropriate relationship between this discipline and all the others. That’s why I started reading Maurice in the first place – because he was a Christian socialist. I wondered if political theology, theology that deals with the relationships between people in the public square, might give us a vision of a better relationship between these different types of knowledge – between the secular and sacred, so to speak. It hasn’t so far, but it’s early days. Let’s see what happens next.

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