How do words work? It depends on who you ask. Socrates felt words were not worth studying, that only things themselves are. Words, he thought, are much like an artist’s imitation—they are a likeness but not the true thing. His explanation seems to imply some sort of lack or falsity.
In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine equates Socrates’ artistic representation with the word “signs.” For Augustine, however, signs could be both nonverbal and verbal and include sounds like music. These signs, many of which happen to be words, are paramount to understanding literature and scripture—“Of conventional signs, words are the most numerous and important . . . For among men, words have obtained far and away the chief place as a means of indicating the thoughts of the mind.” Augustine’s perspective then conveys one theory of the importance of words in human language and thought.
As man has recorded his thoughts, these signs or words also suggest a permanence: “Because words pass away as soon as they strike upon the air, and last no longer than their sound, men have by means of letters formed signs of words . . . sounds of the voice are made visible to the eye . . . by means of certain signs.” The written word can be a means both for recording and for remembrance.
For me, words are not just a means to document, but also a way to remember. Like many young girls, I kept a journal chronicling my thoughts and reactions. I look back on that now and see it as a therapy, a safe way to express emotions. I have to admit that those very “signs” also reveal my youthful immaturity and egoism, something I’m not proud of. In remembering, I can see how I’ve developed, and I can relate even more easily with my children and my teenage students. But to remember in the first place, I needed my signs. Augustine, too, sees this interaction stemming from words.
According to Augustine, seeing a sign causes you to think of something else, so it calls for interpretation, whether instinctual or experiential. It’s the same process we instinctively use as we read a personal letter or a work of fiction. Through a letter, our minds can imagine a friend speaking to us or can recall a memory of time with them. We can reflect upon their words and learn from them.
I remember poignant times with my best friend, though our lives are now far apart, by mulling over her encouraging words. Through fiction, we embrace the imaginative world, depicting scenes and characters upon the screen of our minds. Often this becomes an experiential moment, because we interpret the “signs” based on our lives and our personal knowledge. As students and readers, we are all witness to the unique and often insightful experience interpretation can bring.
For Augustine and for us, words serve us by their benefit and by furthering the “mutual intercourse of men.” Bearing layered meanings and shared experiences, words are ripe “representations and likenesses,” nothing false or shallow about them.
Longinus said it best, for the most effective signs “bear a repeated examination . . . the memory of which is hard to efface,” and so they must leave in our minds “food for reflection.”