Archives for category: Language and Meaning

Three Tales of Two Cities

In the last page of A Tale of Two Cities (quoted below), Sydney Carton, a London lawyer, lays down his life to be executed in Paris during the Terror in place of his friend Charles Darnay (d’Aulnais), a French émigré who looks exactly like him. For most of his life, Sydney was not a very good man, but his love for Darnay’s wife, Lucie, daughter of the good Doctor Manette, has changed him and he serenely walks to the scaffold. To protect his family, Darnay will then on pretend he is Carton, and his children will bear the name of the hero who saved him.

At the end of the movie The Dark Knight Rises, Commissioner Gordon reads a few sentences from Dickens’ text as a funeral eulogy for Bruce Wayne. Christopher Nolan said that A Tale of Two Cities was an inspiration for his script. An idea to be noted in both works is that the oppressed  – real or self-imagined – become the oppressors in the hands of evil manipulators.

The title Dickens chose, and indeed the whole novel, is a metaphor about two material cities, London and Paris, and the political positions they represented at the time, compared with the City of God and City of Man from Saint Augustine. London and Paris both actually figure the City of the fallen, corrupted Man, of any political persuasion, whether self-righteous or conscious of his evil ways. The good and just who selflessly help others and save lives, and foster hope and love in other souls, sacrificing their own life if they must, figure the City of God.

Civitas, Polis

It is no coincidence that the word “Cities”, in the title of Dickens’ novel, in French translations nowadays reads more often “villes” (towns), which has no particular philosophical meaning, than “cités” (cities), the more direct equivalent of Latin. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on “Christendom”, the word “city” itself is too narrow, except in a very metaphorical sense, to adequately translate civitas”. It seems, however, that we have no other choice than this term, and that the French translators and editors of A Tale of Two Cities showed a serious lack of classical literary and philosophical knowledge. Another such example would be the American editors who chose to transform the Philosopher’s Stone into a meaningless Sorcerer’s Stone in the title of the first Harry Potter book.

The Greek poliscivitas in Latin – is the very object of political philosophy: a community larger than a household and a village, and the workings of this community. A city can be as small as a little town or as large as a city-state, country or empire. The main purpose of the community is to give the citizens the means to live a good life in areas where isolated men or small groups cannot achieve it, hence the principle of subsidiarity: the larger community must not usurp the responsibilities of the smaller ones, notably the family.

Like personal moral life, public moral life needs the transmission of a moral code. In the public, political life, this is done through the enactment of laws. Law enforcement is known as the policing of the City, to prevent it being destroyed by anarchy and crime. Aristotle’s Politics is then a treaty of ethics, in fact the second part of his moral philosophy that began with Nicomachean Ethics.

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What is God?

This was THE question for Thomas Aquinas at a very early age. He devoted all his life to answer it properly and systematically. Of course, he responded also to the second question “Who is God?” but this one needs Divine Revelation to be answered.

Without Revelation, a well-formed and open human intelligence can deduce the basics of the nature of God: eternal, immaterial, immutable, almighty, pure actuality, first cause, creator, even loving. At least, one great pagan philosopher did. Aristotle wrote, for example, that God as final cause moves the world as an object of love (Met. 12.7). Beautiful, is it not?
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The Meaning of Words

My first university studies were in translation. I never worked in the field because I am not perfectly bilingual, having never lived in English. I read and write often in English, but I speak it only occasionally and I still make mistakes that my readers are welcome to point out to me.

Translators have an unflattering Italian proverb: Traduttore, traditore – “Translator, traitor”. In any translation, no matter how literal, there are things lost, added, interpreted. It is the essential part of the trade to choose the words, phrases or style conveying a meaning as close as possible to the original, but even a very good translation will have a different ring, as both the language and the translator have a different voice and style. A fair translation is usually not quite as good as an original text of high quality, but in some rare cases an original of relatively lesser quality might appear in translation as the work of a genius, like Belloc said about Kipling and Chesterton :
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