Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Imaginative Reconstruction

George Santayana, "Moral Symbols in the Bible," in The Idler and his Works, and Other Essays, ed. Daniel Cory (1957; rpt. Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), pp. 152-178 (at 153-154):
If you open any ancient book, even the oldest in existence, you are at once confronted by a finished language, a multitude of assumed persons and things, a full-fledged pantheon, and a current morality. Thus history begins by plunging, like the approved epic, in medias res. We have no means of going further back; and in order to understand the background of the earliest records our one resource is to read on. Gradually the uses of words will reveal their acceptation: the persons named, by their attributions and conduct, will disclose their character; and we shall come to know the world we read of as we have in a measure unraveled the world in which we live, by gradual acquaintance and shrewd hypothesis. Every feature in an ancient document and in the life it describes is a symbol which we must endeavor to interpret. It is an expression the significance of which we have to reconstruct, a result the causes and meaning of which we have to discover.

In the Bible we find many such symbols standing for things easily recognized and familiar to every age: words for sun, moon, horse, bread, water. Yet even here much imaginative reconstruction is needed if we wish to render back to those names the full resonance they had in antiquity. Who but a poet could ever say what the moon was to the shepherds of Asia, or the horse or the well to men who lived in the desert?

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