The Meaning of Words: A Platonic Understanding
We live in a world today where, unfortunately, we have forgotten that words have meaning. Even worse is the curious fact that there is a war on “meaning” itself with such maxims as “It Is All Relative.” This “meaning” is important to understand for a Platonic Philosopher on the spiritual path to the Good for it is the Logos that points, not only to the highest states of mind that are represented and experienced as a human being, but in fact signifies throughout the whole order of things generated and ungenerated, everything in its proper place. But what does this mean?
To begin consider the physical realm and pick an example: an apple. Now, did the thing itself, namely the apple, come before the word or not? Surely the thing came before the word. If you consider the development of human beings and civilization, it is clear that language came after our experiences with the world. Much like when we are born, we have contact with many physical things before we are able to use words to signify those things around us.
Now keep in mind here that we are talking from the perspective of the soul in body and of the human experience. It would be much different to talk about the word in the Mind of God as existing eternally before any particular thing was generated.
Obviously there are many so called different words in many languages to signify and point to that thing called an apple. And although the words may be different, they all signify the same thing in the world. It is that thing that we are talking about when we use that particular word.
Some have argued that the words are simply agreed upon terms for convenience. However, if you take all language away right now, you would still have experience of things in the physical world and would begin all over again to put labels on those things to signify them.
Beyond the realm of the physical, the apple for example, is the realm of the Mind, or the Idea of the Apple. Now here, if we understand our ancients well, and they have prescribed correctly that “As Above So Below” then we can follow the same path of reasoning.
For example, the highest experience in Platonic Metaphysics is the experience of the Most Brilliant Light of Being which is described as the perfection of Beauty Itself. Now we ask the same question, “Did that experience come before the language?” Maybe you read a description before of that experience of the most brilliant light of Being and you claim that you saw, learned, or read the words before the experience. However, the words would not be signify something real since it is something you have not experienced. It is like the words of a belief or image thinking. They somehow signify something but you lack the knowledge of what.
And so then after you have that highest experience available to man, and you recognize in it that there is no higher, then you can begin to find the corresponding words that will fit that experience or someway to talk about it. And for whatever words are chosen or not chosen, it is what is signified that must be conveyed, for that is the primary goal of language.
Proclus says the Gods “reveal themselves at the lowest, as well as at the middle and highest levels of understanding, and these levels are symbolically represented by the writing, the discourse, and the thoughts.” (Proclus Commentary Plato’s Parmenides p.68) Theologically speaking, the highest thought and level of understanding is the Mind of God and it is exactly this that is experienced as the perfection of Beauty itself. This then is the highest, thought, which came before speaking and writing, just as the apple came before calling it an apple or writing it down.
So it is the meaning of words that point to the most significant of Ideas to be experienced and they do not fall short of any arbitrary meaning. However, they must be let go of and released at the point of pure thought for in the highest level of understand, one will be prior to the Logos.