Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Verba Volant, Scripta Manent

From "Renaissance Ideas and the American Catholic Mind" (Thought 29.4 (1954): 327-356):

In the ancient world, language had been bound less to writing and thus less to space, but rather to time, for language had there been felt primarily as something uttered, not as something recorded. Verba volant, scripta manent. Spoken words, like time itself, fly. Only when speech is no longer an utterance but the series of marks on a spatial field which we call writing can it endure for more than the moment in which it passes over the lips. The ancient world had, indeed, known writing, but as a subordinate art, committed to scribes rather than to the real rhetorician, and oriented toward oral speech in a way writing is not today. Fro even when one was reading to oneself, one habitually read aloud--a habit which persisted through the Middle Ages. The literary tradition of the ancient world was the rhetorical tradition, and its greatest figures are orators, Isocrates, Demosthenes, Cicero, Quintilian, or at the very least playwrites such as Sophocles and Aeschylus who composed for oral delivery. The historians are relatively minor figures--and, even so, their histories are not what history is today, but a pastiche of speeches attributed to the characters they write about. Poets, as we know, wrote not be read, but to be recited.

Unlike the ancients for whom language flowed with time, the humanists, in binding language to the written record, on the contrary bound language to space. On the one hand, this proves that the humanists were post medieval men, sharing the bias of the scientific mind, its passion for the fixed and permanent, even to the neglect of the living, its preference for sight rather than sound. On the other hand, the approach to language through space was inevitable among those who turned, as humanists did, to the past. For again, verba volant, script manent. The past is never vocal. The present alone has a voice. The past had only a written record. (340-41)


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