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Clipping the Angel's Wings

" . . . Words strain, Crack and sometimes break. . . . "
—T.S. Eliot

The ancients, wiser than modem theorists, recognized language as a gift and (at Babel) a curse from the heavens. Even pagans recognized a Word behind words and a Muse beyond music. The Creator of the world was everywhere acknowledged as the bestower of words, giving tremendous powers and social prestige to those initiated into the underlying grammar of both. (Glamour originated as a variant of grammar.) In every literate land in antiquity, the priests praised the gods for revealing the mysteries of writing, and the earliest poets were universally reverenced (as Plato explains in the Ion) for the "power divine" that worked through them. (The widespread belief that Plato banned all poets from his Republic is a calumny; Plato welcomed all poets who honored the "forms of theology" so that "God is always . . . represented as he truly is.") It is no wonder that when the Apostle Paul proclaimed the Christian gospel on Mars's Hill, he could cite the verse of the Greek philosopher-poet Cleanthes.

Even when modern rationalists began their baleful work, language enjoyed at least a temporary exemption from their reductionist ambitions. Rene Descartes, "the father of modern philosophy," arrogantly hoped to explain not only the stars and...

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