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Nothing New Under the Sun: Orwell, Ecclesiastes and the Vanity of Politics

Why is it that after the two major political conventions have ended, I find myself going back to read George Orwell’s marvelous essay, ”Politics and the English Language”? By describing four examples of the sloppy and imprecise language that he claims is endemic to his world (and, I think, a few decades later), Orwell pushes forward the idea that much communication is unclear at the best and deceptive at the worst.

As I read these paragraphs, I did not recall the use that Orwell makes of the Bible:

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Although his point was not to illustrate the literary brilliance of the Bible, this paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 clearly demonstrates just that. The text employs some time-worn metaphors and phrases, but these constructions were not time-worn in Hebrew when first written or in English when first translated. And despite a familiarity that might risk contempt, this sentence speaks to both heart and mind in a way that many texts, written centuries later and yet held up as literary exemplars, fail to do.

In that essay, Orwell suggests six rules for saving the English language from decay.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

While I find these rules intriguing and largely useful–probably as useful as Orwell himself would have expected, despite his use of absolute language–we can shed a bit of light on both the rules and the Biblical text with a quick application of one to the other.

Obviously the Biblical writers, penning their works centuries before Gutenberg, did not borrow figures of speech from print, but they certainly could have used figures from common usage. The most powerful biblical language tends to be the most immediate and the most direct. Jesus calls the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs.” In a society that dealt more directly with dead bodies than ours does, those words hit hard. Similarly, the pastoral and agricultural metaphors throughout the Bible spoke clearly to the original audience.

The Bible, employing a rich and varied vocabulary, mostly avoids pretentious words. The best translations, those following the Wycliffe-Tyndale tradition, pound the page with powerful yet familiar verbiage. My biggest gripe with the Douay-Rheims translation is its excessive use of Latin-derived words. Having said this, however, I looked to the Douay-Rheims translation of the Ecclesiastes passage and found it solid.

The Bible is a triumph of concision, especially in the narratives of Genesis, where huge stories are presented in powerful yet succinct fashion. The passive voice rule does not apply particularly well when considering Hebrew and Greek, but the translated Bible seems to speak best when it speaks in active voice.

Jargon, foreign words, and the like, while appearing throughout the Bible, do not mar its pages nearly as often as such words litter books of theology or, for that matter, other scholarly works. In almost all cases, the Bible’s authors used their own language unapologetically. Some of them crafted better Greek than others, but all of them used that spare and familiar idiom to produce powerful text.

Come to think of it, a healthy dose of Ecclesiastes might be precisely the tonic to take after listening to the rhetorical excesses offered by both political parties over these past weeks.

Posted in Commentary, English Literature.

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