Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Language helped by Action
By William Warburton (1698–1779)
From The Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated

LANGUAGE, as appears from the nature of the thing, from the records of history, and from the remains of the most ancient languages yet remaining, was at first extremely rude, narrow, and equivocal: so that men would be perpetually at a loss, on any new conception, or uncommon accident, to explain themselves intelligibly to one another; the art of enlarging language by a scientific analogy being a late invention, this would necessarily set them upon supplying the deficiencies of speech by apt and significant signs. Accordingly, in the first ages of the world, mutual converse was upheld by a mixed discourse of words and actions; hence came the Eastern phrase of the voice of the sign; and use and custom, as in most other affairs of life, improving what had arisen out of necessity, into ornament, this practice subsisted long after the necessity was over; especially amongst eastern people, whose natural temperament inclined them to a mode of conversation, which so well exercised their vivacity by motion, and so much gratified it, by a perpetual representation of material images. Of this we have innumerable instances in Holy Scripture: as where the false prophet pushed with horns of iron, to denote the entire overthrow of the Syrians; where Jeremiah, by God’s direction, hides the linen girdle in a hole of the rock near Euphrates; where he breaks a potter’s vessel in sight of the people, puts on bonds and yokes, and casts a book into Euphrates; where Ezekiel, by the same appointment, delineates the siege of Jerusalem on a tile; weighs the hair of his beard in balances; carries out his household stuff; and joins together the two sticks for Judah and Israel. By these actions the prophets instructed the people in the will of God, and conversed with them in signs; but where God teaches the prophet, and in compliance to the custom of that time, condescends to the same mode of instruction, then the significative action is generally changed into a vision, either natural or extraordinary: as where the prophet Jeremiah is bid to regard the rod of the almond-tree and the seething pot; the work on the potter’s wheel and the baskets of good and bad figs; and the prophet Ezekiel, the ideal scene of the resurrection of the dry bones. The significative action, I say, was in this case generally changed into a vision; but not always. For as, sometimes, where the instruction was for the people, the significative action was, perhaps, in vision: so, sometimes again, though the information was only for the prophet, God would set him upon a real expressive action, whose obvious meaning conveyed the intelligence proposed or sought. Of this, we shall give, at the expense of infidelity, a very illustrious instance. The excellent Maimonides, not attending to this primitive mode of information, is much scandalized at several of these actions, unbecoming, as he supposed, the dignity of the prophetic office; and is therefore for resolving them in general into supernatural visions, impressed on the imagination of the prophet; and this, because some few of them may, perhaps, admit of such an interpretation. In which he is followed by Christian writers, much to the discredit, as I conceive, of Revelation and to the triumph of libertinism and infidelity; the actions of the prophets being delivered as realities; and these writers representing them as mean, absurd, and fanatical, and exposing the prophet to contempt. But what is it they gain by this expedient? The charge of absurdity and fanaticism will follow the prophet in his visions, when they have removed it from his waking actions; for if these actions were absurd and fanatical in the real representation, they must needs be so in the imaginary; the same turn of mind operating both asleep and awake. The judicious reader therefore cannot but observe that the reasonable and true defence of the prophetic writings is what is here offered: where we show, that information by action was, at this time, and place, a very familiar mode of conversation. This once seen, all charge of absurdity, and suspicion of fanaticism, vanish of themselves: the absurdity of an action consists in its being extravagant and insignificative; but use and a fixed application made these in question both sober and pertinent: the fanaticism of an action consists in a fondness for unusual actions and foreign modes of speech; but those in question were idiomatic and familiar. To illustrate this last observation by a domestic example: when the sacred writers talk of being born after the spirit, of being fed with the sincere milk of the word, of putting their tears into a bottle, of bearing testimony against lying vanities, of taking the veil from men’s hearts, and of building up one another; they speak the common, yet proper and pertinent phraseology of their country; and not the least imputation of fanaticism can stick upon these original expressions. But when we see our own countrymen reprobate their native idiom, and affect to employ only scripture phrases in their whole conversation, as if some inherent sanctity resided in the Eastern modes of expression, we cannot choose but suspect such men far gone in the delusions of a heated imagination. The same may be said of significative actions.

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