The Empty Word

One night, almost a year ago, Mike and I launched yet another of our notorious and so rewarding colloquia after too long an absence. Unfortunately, though we still have so much to say to each other, as usual, time was a precious commodity but we were determined to make the most of it. Topics on the agenda ran riot, but kept returning to one of our common loves: language.

It's funny. Perhaps our first conversation ever centered on language a goodly (Hey! Look at that, an -ly adjective for a change) forty years ago, and here we were in 2015 continuing that discussion.

Language is ever the seductress, isn't she? And just one of many reasons I am so fortunate to have such a friend who is equally easily seduced. Not to mention Mike's predilection for Monty Python flatus jokes, an affinity for Ed Wood extravaganzas and a loathing of the superstition filling pulpits throughout America.

So anyway, as has always been our wont, we threaded from one idea to the next, free-form, tying in philosophy to linguistics to "the meaning of life," punctuated frequently by diaphragm-taxing guffaws. And lubricated per usual, calling to mind Thomas de Quincey's exquisite Confessions of an English Opium Eater:
The late Duke of Norfolk used to say, "Next Friday, by the blessing of Heaven, I purpose to be drunk:" and in like manner I used to fix beforehand how often, within a given time, and when, I would commit a debauch of opium. 
That's one of Mike's most endearing traits: the day of the week isn't particularly important to him. It's rare indeed to have a colleague with whom you can share a hobby that runs up the water bill.

As we tossed ideas back and forth that night, all of a sudden something he said gave me pause. I went silent for a moment and sorted it out. And then it struck.


To keep you in suspense briefly, let me interject that Antony Flew's parable of
The Invisible Gardener has been a treasured touchstone for some four decades now. I've always been fascinated by the notion of a seemingly innocuous English sentence having no semantic content whatsoever. And how often those sentences arise in everyday speech. Especially from those who have nothing to say anyway. I blame society for the great bulk of vacuous sentences; they rarely come from individuals who pay no heed to such arbitrary strictures. Say what you will about the Marquis de Sade, every word of his had meaning one way or another.

Any thesaurus that equates "sentence" with "statement" is only fit for lavatory paper.


As I was saying, while pursuing some philosophical argument that night, my eyes went skyward for a moment of concentration, always the sign Mike and I give each other that silence is needed to sort things out.


And then it hit me full force. Something that had been right in front of me for ages.


Blasphemy is a meaningless word.


Let me explain. Supposing for the moment you accept that truth is more important than belief. (I think I just lost half of the current Supreme Court justices, most of the voting public and all congregants obsequiously plopped down in pews for a bit of sudsing of the soul). 


Then the entire notion of using language to express something which supposedly shouldn't be expressed makes no sense whatsoever.

In other words, if arriving at truth is the ultimate good (as so I think), then any statement which arises in the course of investigation is worthy of consideration. That statement may turn out to be false, but at least it merited analysis. It's all rather similar to Oscar Wilde's.
There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.
In much the same way, there is no such thing as a blasphemous or a non-blasphemous statement. A statement is either true, or it is false. That is all.

To turn this end-to-end, the whole notion of blasphemy invariably implies that the conclusion came first, and to hell with the premises which might or might not have led up to it.

Putting it all together, then, in Aristotelian terms, and fleshing out the enthymeme:
Knowing the truth is the most important thing of all.
The truth might possibly reside in any statement.
Therefore, all statements are worthy of consideration.
And from this argument comes the corollary which struck me while in conversation with Mike: there is no such thing as a blasphemous statement. It logically can't exist.

More: as I pondered all this that night, I kept wondering: did the word blasphemy come first, or the so-called thought it conveys? While not a particularly handsome example of how humans behave, it should be obvious that here again we see language preceding thought. Some nincompoop early on believed it was more important that others follow him, regardless of the truth or falsity of his claims, and so coined a word. And from that came a new concept: accept my conclusion or I'll kill you. Or my god will kill you. Or I'll get someone to kill you. It's funny how religion is so tied up with killing, though the roots of that word imply anything but.

Ergo, the word blasphemy has always been meaningless in my vernacular. At least for non-comical uses. It's noteworthy that the word was one of my brother Bill's favorites when launching a burst of scurrilous language (say, after spilling something on the carpet): "Goddamn it to the devil worshiping blasphemers." So, while it has no place in philosophical discourse, it certainly is great for giggles elsewhere. And that's actually a point Flew made: while a vacuous word may not convey any truth value, it could come in handy elsewhere for other purposes (singing, poetry, exclamations, cursing, etc.)


Then Mike and I pulled out
Skeats and Websters Collegiate for a bit of drunken etymology. 4:00 a.m., if I recall aright, just the right time for scholarly research.

As I opened up my gray press-paper covered
Skeats and started to flip pages, licking my fingers for grip, he opined casually, "Isn't it strange that the word blaspheme has the same suffix as morpheme, phoneme and other constituents of spoken language?"

Still turning pages, half concentrating on his comment while riffling, I fell into another brown study. He had hit upon something I'd never noticed. Mike was dead on right, and it was certainly no accident. Just another example of Sherlock Holmes',

There's nothing so deceptive as the obvious fact.
After a bit of page-turning, I finally arrived at the roots.

Greek, yes, but that seemed pretty obvious without referring to books. The root originally dealt with injury or hurt, the suffix meaning "I speak." Putting it all together then, you get "to speak injuriously." Another fucking adverb.


Note particularly that the seminal Greek meaning centered around an entirely active principle, much like Will or Thelema.
Prescriptive, not descriptive. The person speaking is doing so deliberately to bring about a change in consciousness, not simply to report it.

To blaspheme does not imply that an idea is "off limits" and hallowed, but rather that said idea fails to meet the standards of logical discourse and should therefore be actively discarded.  Sort of the Athenian version of the Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. Among other things, the Hellenic Greeks were never timid; all tools were fair game when chasing after the truth. I'm certain Plato would have been disgusted to see what the word became: a cheap amulet for Augustine, degraded even further by Pope Urban VIII, eventually winding up a despoiler of innocents and all lovers of truth ever since.

That's what I find so incredible about religion: it puts arrested development on the highest pedestal.


It demands, and usually receives, that we aspire to spectacular mediocrity (my favorite oxymoron). Nothing like going through life working diligently to contribute one's little part to devolution of the species.

So, yes, an uncouth word unfit for mixed company. And then, who should pick it up and find blasphemy praiseworthy? Why Anton LaVey, of course. Indicating, yet again, that Christianity and Satanism are
both a cruel trick, a Whoopee Cushion played on humanity by yet another heartless deity with all the sensibilities of Eddie Haskell. Identical, apart from the window dressing. It makes me think of Oscar's Lord Henry yet again:
Conscience and cowardice are really the same things, Basil. Conscience is the trade-name of the firm. That is all.
And this concludes the report of the Belgrade Linguistics Colloquium, Spring Semester, 2015.

Update: Shortly after publishing this learned screed, I took in a wonderful lecture on YouTube from the ever cogent Richard Dawkins. In it, he quoted a bumper sticker he'd seen out in California. It read:

Blasphemy is a victimless crime.

Damn! Pipped at the post yet again! 

Next installment: A Birthday Word

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