« AnteriorContinuar »
into English. A verbal rendering of an ancient author must be often false, ambiguous, or unintelligible, and when not exposed to graver charges, will commonly fail in preserving the full significancy, the spirit and character, of the original.
'Those which have been mentioned are some of the principal causes of the ambiguity of language; or, as we may say in other terms, they are some of the principal modes in which this ambiguity manifests itself. But a full analysis of the subject, accompanied by proper examples, would fill many pages. From what has been already said, the truth of the propositions maintained will, I think, appear, at least sufficiently for our present purpose.
'It is, then, to the intrinsic ambiguity of language, that the art of interpretation owes its origin. If words and sentences were capable of expressing but a single meaning, no art would be required in their interpretation. It would be, as a late writer,1* thoroughly ignorant of the subject, supposes, a work to be performed merely with the assistance of a lexicon and grammar. The object of the art of interpretation is to enable us to solve the difficulties presented by the intrinsic ambiguity of language.' pp. 94-98.
To what, then, shall we resort for assistance, after the lexicon and grammar have exhausted their means? It is evident, from what has been observed, that they can lead us but a little way; and what considerations must we then keep in view, to direct us through the uncertainty in which the subject is left? Mr. Norton answers,
'Some of these considerations are, the character of the writer, his habits of thinking and feeling, his common style of expression, and that of his age or nation, his settled opinions and belief, the extent of his knowledge, the general state of things during the time in which he lived, the particular loca! and temporary circumstances present to his mind while writing, the character and condition of those for whom he wrote, the opinions of others to which he had reference, the connexion of the sentence, or the train of thought by which it is preceded and followed, and, finally, the manner in which he was understood by those for whom he wrote, — a consideration, the importance of which varies with circumstances. The considerations to be attended to by an interpreter are here reduced to their elements. I cannot dwell long enough upon-the subject, to point out all
n Dr. Thomas Chalmers. See the conclusion of the article, Christianity, in the Edinburgh Encyclopedia.
the different forms and combinations in which they may appear. But where the words which compose a sentence are such, that the sentence may be used to express more than one meaning, its true meaning is to be determined solely by a reference to extrinsic considerations, such as have been stated.' pp. 99, 100.
These considerations might be, indeed, more fully developed, with advantage ; but their propriety is so manifest, that the bare statement is sufficient to commend them to our immediate approval. In what follows, Mr. Norton has exemplified the importance of their use, in reading both the profane and the sacred writers:
'I will,' says he,' illustrate this account of the principles of interpretation by an example of their application.
'Of Milton, Dr. Johnson says, that
'"He had considered creation in its whole extent, and his descriptions are therefore learned."
"But he could not be always in other worlds, he must sometimes return to earth, and talk of'things visible and known."
'Addison tells us, that "he knew all the arts of affecting the mind."
'Bently, in the preface to his edition of the Paradise Lost, speaks of him thus:
'" He could expatiate at large through the compass of the whole universe, and through all heaven beyond it; could survey all periods of time from before the creation to the consummation of all things."
'" Milton's strong pinion now not heaven can bound," are the words of Pope.
'" He passed," says Gray, "the flaming bounds of space and time, and saw the living throne of God."
'In the age subsequent to his own, " he continued," says Aikin, "to stand alone, an insulated form of unrivalled greatness."
'Why do we not understand all this language strictly and to the letter? Why, without a moment's hesitation, do we put upon the expressions of ail these different authors, a sense so very remote from that which their words are adapted to convey, when viewed independently of any extrinsic consideration by which they may be explained 1 The answer is, because we are satisfied (no matter how) that all these writers believed Milton to be a man, and one not endued with supernatural powers. This consideration determines us at once to regard their language as figurative, or as requiring very great limitation of its verbal meaning.
'Let us attend to another example of the application of those principles which have been laid down. Our Saviour says, " He who lives through his faith in me shall never die " ;la and similar declarations, as every one must remember, were often repeated by him. I recollect to have met with a passage in an infidel writer, in which it was maintained that these declarations were to be understood literally; and that Christ meant to assure his disciples that they should not suffer the common lot of man. Why do we not understand them literally 1 Because we are satisfied that our Saviour's character was such, that he would not predict a falsehood. An infidel, likewise, might easily satisfy himself, that his character was such, that he would not predict what the next day's experience might prove to be a falsehood.
'I will give one more example: "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, ye have no life in you." 14 He who will turn to the context of the passage, may see that this declaration is repeated and insisted upon by our Saviour, in a variety of phrases and in different relations. The Roman Catholics understand this passage, when viewed in connexion with the words used in instituting our Lord's supper, as a decisive argument for the doctrine of transubstantiation. If either doctrine were capable of proof, I should certainly think that there was no passage in Scripture, which went so far to prove the doctrine of the Trinity, as this does to prove the doctrine of transubstantiation. Why then do we not understand the words in the sense of the Roman Catholics? Why do we suppose a figure so bold, and to our ears so harsh, as we are compelled to suppose, if we do not understand them literally'? Solely because we have such notions of the character and doctrines of our Saviour, that we are satisfied that he would not teach anything irrational or absurd; and that the declaration in question would be very irrational, if understood literally without reference to the doctrine of transubstantiation; and altogether absurd, if supposed to imply the truth of this doctrine. It is upon the same principle, that we interpret a very large proportion of all the figurative language which we meet with. We at once reject the literal meaning of the words, and understand them as figurative, because if we did not do this, they would convey some meaning which contradicts common sense; and it would be inconsistent with our notions of the writer, to suppose him to intend such a meaning. But this principle, which is adopted unconsciously in the interpretation of all other writings, has been grossly disregarded in the interpretation of Scripture.
u John x\. 2& '« John vi. 53.
If one should interpret any other writings (except those in the exact sciences) in the same manner in which the Scriptures have been explained, he might find as many absurdities in the former, as there are pretended mysteries in the latter.
'Upon the principle just stated, we may reject the literal meaning of a passage, when we cannot pronounce with confidence, what is its true meaning. The words of our Saviour just quoted, are an example in point. One may be fully justified in rejecting their literal meaning, who is wholly unable to determine their true meaning. To do this is certainly no easy matter. Similar difficulties, that is, passages about the true meaning of which we can feel no confidence, though we may confidently reject some particular meaning which the words will bear, are to be found in all other ancient writings as well as the Scriptures.
'If the facts and principles respecting interpretation which have been stated are correct, any one who will examine what has been written concerning this subject, may perceive how little it has been understood by a large proportion of those who have undertaken to lay down rules of exposition, and how much it has been involved in obscurity and error. There are many writers, who appear neither to have had any distinct conception of the truth, that sentences are continually occurring, which may severally express very different senses, when we attend only to the words of which they are composed: nor of consequence, any just notions of the manner in which the actual meaning of such sentences is to be determined. Yet it is to such sentences that the art of interpretation is to be applied; and its purpose is, to teach us in what manner their ambiguity may be resolved.'— pp. 100-104.
In another place, some additional examples are given, to illustrate the foregoing positions:
'But I will produce a few more passages from which it may appear to those not familiar with the subject, liow absurd or false the literal meaning of language often is, and how instantly and unconsciously it is rejected upon the principle I have stated. I give them without comment, for none is required. My purpose is merely to call attention to a fact respecting the use of language, which though frequently overlooked, must be acknowledged as soon as it is pointed out.
'Speaking of the conciliatory measures toward the American colonies, adopted by the Rockingham administration just before its dissolution, Mr. Burke says: "The question of the repeal [of the Stamp Act] was brought on by ministry in the committee of this house, in the very instant when it was known, that more than one court negotiation was carrying on with the heads of the opposition. Everything on every side was full of traps and mines. Earth below shook; heaven above menaced."
'Speaking of the rapid increase of numbers, in these colonies, he says: "Such is the strength with which population shoots in that part of the world, that state the number as high as we will, whilst the dispute continues, the exaggeration ends. Whilst we are discussing any given magnitude, they are grown to it."
'" A strong and habitually indulged imagination," says Foster, "has incantations to dissolve the rigid laws of time and distance, and to place a man in something so like the presence of his object, that he seems half to possess it; and it is hard while occupying the verge of paradise, to be flung far back in order to find or make a path to it, with the slow and toilsome steps of reality."
'Remarking upon the responsibility of writers of fictitious narratives, in regard to the characters they delineate, the same author has the following passage; "They create a new person; and in sending him into society, they can choose whether his example shall tend to improve or pervert the minds that will be compelled to admire him."
'I will quote a few more sentences, from Young.
"The deathbed of the just
Is it his deathbed? No; it is his shrine:
• * • » #
"Shall we this moment gaze on God in man;
# * * * »
"A Christian dwells, like Uriel, in the sun."
'Speaking of the beauty of the material world as relative to our perceptions, and existing only so far as it is perceived by the eye of man:
"But for the magic organ's powerful charm,
Earth were a rude, uncolored chaos still
Ours is the cloth, the pencil, and the paint,
Which Nature's admirable picture draws
Like Milton's Eve while gazing on the lake,
Say then, shall man, his thoughts all sent abroad,
His admiration waste on objects round,
When Heaven makes him the soul of all he sees?"
'Any person in his common reading may find numberless similar passages, of which we reject without hesitation the verbal meaning, simply because it is absurd, or evidently false. But this principle has not been regarded in the interpretation of