Mar 1, 2023
“Eat or be eaten, kill or be killed. It’s a terrible way to live! But we’re living it…(but) it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t…have to be this way.”
According to Benjamin Whorf, language is a record of how we see the world, and conversely, language conditions us to see the world in a particular way: a paradigmatic, if somewhat diabolical, example of non-linear, auto-reinforcing process.
Take English, for example. When we speak, most of our verbs are either active or passive. We call that the “voice” of the verb. In an active/passive voiced language, we are always doing something to someone (or something) or someone (or something) is doing something to us: eat or be eaten, kill or be killed. It’s a terrible way to live! But we’re living it.
The Lex Talionis (‘eye for an eye’), literally the law of retaliation, is the paradigmatic expression of such an active/passive world view.
Scotty broke the vase: active voice. Scotty is called the ‘subject’ and my poor Ming is called the ‘object’ of his action. This construction first separates Scotty from what he’s done. In fact, Scotty’s action itself assumes the status of an object; it is something Scotty possesses: “his action”.
Scotty acted, and the vase ‘reacted’ (by shattering). The flow is in one direction: it’s a vector. Alternatively, the vase was broken by Scotty: passive voice. It’s the same event but this time seen from the point of view of the victim, my precious artifact.
The vase is now the subject, but the action is still unidirectional, still a vector. In one sense, the active and passive voices are opposites; but in another sense, they are really the same thing. (How often that is true in our world!)
They both describe the same event, in the same way, but just from opposite viewpoints. So we can say that English is an ‘active/passive voiced language’. Syntax speaks volumes about how we understand events, and, therefore, how we understand the world. An action, according to our grammar, is a vectored relationship between two unequal participants, a terribly minor, in not null, subset of all that goes on in our world.
The world consists solely of events. If our preferred way of defining an event is in terms of a unidirectional relationship between unequal participants, then for us the world will consist primarily of such actions. This will be the logos we impose upon the world, and our language will reflect that logos.
Of course, it works both ways. To a large extent, we learn about the world through language. Our language teaches us to see our world in terms of unequal, unidirectional relationships. Our language creates our logos, thereby defining our world for us. Putting it another way, we create our world in the image and likeness of our language.
Does this language serve our purposes? You bet it does! It’s hard to imagine a Golden Gate Bridge without it. Our language essentially reduces Being to a schematic. But does such a language actually meet our needs? Not so much!
In the real world, action is rarely, maybe never, entirely one directional. “I hit the nail” is actually an abstract simplification of a much more complex process. When my hammer connects with the nail head, the nail moves (hopefully) and the hammer recoils (predictably) sending vibrations down my arm…and that’s assuming I didn’t also hit my thumb in the process.
Syntax unravels the unity of being and displays it like a collection of butterflies pinned to the wall of a natural history museum. The fact is that every real action acts on the so-called subject as well as on the so-called object.
In the example of Scotty and the vase, that reality is somewhat trivial and can probably be safely ignored…that is, unless I accept Scotty’s explanation that the vase jumped off the shelf and attacked him, possibly the act of a neighborhood genie. And why not, the very same thing happened at Billy’s house just last week.
It’s a pattern you see. Better call Ghostbusters! But did you notice the real ‘ghost’ in this story? It’s Scotty’s language. He translated what might have been an accident into the intentional action of a genie.
But what if we’re trying to model a chemical reaction, or worse, a quantum mechanical process, or even worse, some sort of ecological phenomenon? How do we describe these events using just active and passive verbs?
We can’t. At best, we can approximate clumsily in simple situations. “Two hydrogen atoms each lend an electron to one oxygen atom; or an oxygen atom borrows an electron from each of two hydrogen atoms.” (Hint: it’s water!)
When we get into more complex interactions, language breaks down completely, and we have to resort to diagrams (e.g. Feynman diagrams) or equations or shoulder shrugs. Now imagine the difficulty of modeling complex human interactions using just active and passive voice verbs! No wonder we’re always at war with one another.
And our politics? Of course, we see the world in terms of “us” and “them”; of course, we see social change in terms of class warfare. It’s the Golden Rule after all: she who has the gold, rules.
Nonetheless, most of us are resigned to this state of affairs. It’s just the way things are. How could it be otherwise? Easily! And the fact is, it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t necessarily always have to be this way.
Many ancient languages had another voice which linguists call the Middle Voice. The middle voice is ideally suited to model situations where relationships are between equals and where action is reciprocal. Linguists disagree about the place of the middle voice in the evolution of language, but it is at least possible that the middle voice preceded both the active and passive voices.
Modern linguists struggle to understand the middle voice. Conditioned by their own active/passive logoi, they want to understand this verb form as somewhere in between the active and passive poles. Hence, the term “middle voice”.
In fact, the middle voice has nothing to do with its active/passive cousins. It is a completely different way of viewing the world. The middle voice verb form describes an action that impacts both subject and object simultaneously; or it describes a reciprocal relationship between two co-subjects who are also co-objects. That’s what process is; that’s what an event is. Anything else is just an abstraction.
Analogy: If the active voice is the voice of the future and the passive voice the voice of the past, then the middle voice is the voice of the Present.
Imagine what our world would look like if we viewed it in terms of reciprocal relations and omnidirectional events! Would that change the way the world is? Or would it just enable us to see it as it really is? Both. We’d see the world through a different filter, and in turn, we’d most likely act quite differently in such a world.
How do we talk about love using active and passive verbs? The best we can come up with is something lame like, “Mary and Paul are in love with one another.” This turns love into a static state rather than a raging fire. The middle voice, on the other hand, is ready-made to describe the relationship between Mary and Paul in a way that does it justice.
The active and passive voices describe the same event in the same way; they merely reverse the point of view. The middle voice defines that same event in an entirely different way. The active/passive voice sees the world from the outside; the middle voice sees the world from the inside: objectivity vs. subjectivity.
Thus, we have two opposing world views: an active/passive view and a middle voice view. One sees the world in terms of will, struggle, domination, and power; the other sees the world in terms of mutuality. One is the syntax of war, the other of peace. One is the syntax of cause and effect, the other of evolution. One is the syntax of past and future, the other of the present.
Unfortunately, however, most Western languages have lost the middle voice. Where the middle voice has been retained (e.g. Icelandic), it has been forced to co-exist with its active/passive cousins, and it no longer conveys the strong sense of reciprocity it once did.
The poverty of an active/passive voiced language and the lack of a strong middle voice alternative is not just a linguistic problem; it’s a philosophical problem and ultimately a theological problem. One way to understand ‘the Christian project’ is as an attempt to reintroduce middle-voice consciousness to the world.
Of course, I am not suggesting that the New Testament authors, much less Jesus himself, were budding linguists. Yet, they understood that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way folks viewed the world and, with incredible insight, they sought to change that view.
When you view events and the actions that constitute them in terms of unequal, unidirectional power relations, it becomes easy to abuse or exploit your neighbor...and impossible to love her as yourself. Even today, certain sub-cultures will brand you a sucker or a wimp or a ‘goodie two shoes’ if you do not take advantage of the weaker folks in your orbit. “It’s just business!”
Active/passive-voiced languages conflict with values like justice and kindness. It is difficult to inculcate an ethic of justice, reciprocity and love in folks who view the world according to the active/passive paradigm. In this sense, ‘bad language’ could be seen as humanity’s ‘original sin’: the second commandment is just an extension of the first.
Christianity, especially in its early stages, sought to replace the active/passive world view with the world view that we are calling ‘middle voice consciousness’. In the Lord’s Prayer, for example, we read, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” 12 centuries later, Francis of Assisi built on this insight: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
Whatever we do, we do to ourselves to the same degree and in the same way and at the same time as we do it to others. That goes for positive actions like forgiveness and negative actions like violence.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Why? Because in middle voice consciousness, your neighbor is yourself! Beginning with Leo XIII (1878 – 1903), modern Popes have railed against economic injustice, but they have done so from the middle voice perspective of universal love (agape) rather than class consciousness.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.