Sacred Texts  Miscellaneous  Index  Previous  Next 

The New Word, by Allen Upward, [1910], at

p. 101



The Counter-Spell.—1. A Work of a Materialist Tendency.—2. Athanasian Language.—3. Inventory of the Universe.—4. An Idealistic Word.

I WENT on asking every one I met his meaning for the word Idealist, till in the end I came to a wise man who answered,—"I don't know. I should have thought that ideal was the opposite to material."

Every one else had tried to explain idealism by itself. This was the first attempt to explain it by something else. The Babu terms, of course, are Absolute and Relative, meaning, as far as I can make out, Untied and Beside.

As soon as I had this answer I felt sure it was a clew that would lead me out of the labyrinth. The word Beside I had long since found to be an amulet of strange power against the sorcerers, including those diviners who now write themselves divines. When I was rather young—indeed, before I had learned to translate these Mediterranean words—I was once taken by a Mediterranean-minded friend to be enchanted by a learned and affable diviner of the Society of Jesus. The magician began, using the wisdom of the serpent, by drawing from me that

p. 102

[paragraph continues] I had been brought up in the communion called the Plymouth Brethren, whose peculiar tenets he seemed disposed to handle in a spirit of urbane mockery. On my avowing that I had not come to defend those tenets, nor any others, but rather to learn from him, we insensibly changed ground, and, passing from depth to depth, we rested on the discovery that for my courteous entertainer truth was Absolute, while for me it was Relative. There being no oubliette available, I was then suffered to depart unhurt.

It was like that story in the Thousand Nights and a Night, the most wonderful story of the world, in which a princess skilled in the magical art enters into mortal combat with a djinn. The djinn changes by turns into a wolf, a fish and a pomegranate seed; and the princess pursues him as a dog, a serpent and a cock; till at the last the djinn is driven to assume his fiery shape, and the two antagonists appear fighting in the air with flames.

The wise man's answer was the one towards which I had been groping my way all along, the answer towards which all the other answers pointed more or less distinctly. The great word of Andronicus Rhodius itself might be translated Anti-Material. A work of an idealist tendency, I could doubt no longer, must be one that looked Materialism in the face.

What then was Materialism?

p. 103


It was with a curious feeling of relief that I exchanged the old question for the new. I felt that I should now be on firm ground. I was about to pass out of the enchanted wood of words into the open field of things. I had been vexed for some time by a gathering suspicion that Materialism must be common sense and Idealism must be nonsense; that one must be true, and the other false. I even began to fear that the well-meaning folk who call themselves Idealists were at heart Materialists, making-believe to believe in Idealism, because they wished it were true. The Materialists I envied as men who walked by sight and not by faith, and had no need of make-belief.

But, now, where was this common sense teaching to be found? Where was it set out in sensible words, and not in Andronican ciphers?

I sought out a cunning bookseller, and put the question.

"I want a little book of a Materialist tendency."

The bookseller looked ever so slightly startled.

"Do you mean a book attacking religion?" he asked me.

I was rather taken aback.

"No, no; I don't want a controversial book. I want a book that will give me in a short and simple fashion the Materialist view of life. The sort of

p. 104

book that could be put into the hands of a schoolboy."

"1 am afraid I don't know of any such book," said the bookseller.

"What," I said, "is there no book which tells a child something about the world in which he finds himself? When I was a child I read a book that told me—'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.' Now I am told that is only poetry; and I want to know the facts."

The bookseller thought for a moment, and then brightened up.

"I think I have the very book you require,—The Story of Creation."

This was a good hearing. The name of the book assured me that it had been written to meet the need I felt. I asked for a copy.

"I ought to tell you that we consider it a little advanced," the bookseller observed cautiously, as he handed me the book.

"By 'advanced,' you mean—?"

"A little outspoken."

"Outspoken! But that is just what I am looking for,—struggling for. My trouble is that I cannot find any book that is outspoken enough. You speak as if that were some fault in a book!"

"Well, of course, we have to deal with all classes; and we find that some people object to a book if it speaks too plainly. They are a little afraid of Materialism, we find."

p. 105

"By afraid, do you mean they are afraid that it is true, or afraid that it is false?"

The bookseller hesitated.

"Well, I suppose—of course, I can't say—but I should think they were afraid that it might unsettle their views."

"True views, do you mean; or false views?" The bookseller shook his head.

"I don't ask them that. Our business is to sell people what books we think they will like, without inquiring about their views."

"But how can you tell what books they will like, unless you know their views?"

The bookseller smiled.

"In our business we can generally tell pretty soon what sort of books people will like."

I saw that I was talking with an able man. I could not refrain from asking him the riddle.

"What sort of book, should you say, was a work of an idealist tendency?"

My bookseller frowned thoughtfully. Then he slowly shook his head.

"I could hardly tell you that, sir. We don't stock many books of that kind. There is no demand for them. People don't much care about idealism in these days. They like something of a practical tendency."

And so I had got yet another meaning for the Testator's word.

p. 106


Rightly to tell the parable of science, to put the story of the creation into better words than those which have satisfied a hundred generations, were surely as great a task as man could set himself. This were indeed a work of an idealist tendency. In what high mood, after what prayers and strivings, with what fear and joy, dare any man sit down to write the first chapter of the new Book of Life?

It was with thoughts like these, and with, I hope, an open mind, that I began to read the Story of Creation.

The learned and distinguished author writes as a priest of what he calls the Theory of Evolution. His motive is wholly praiseworthy, for he says in his preface that—"complete expositions of the theory are only to be found in bulky volumes with which few readers have the time and courage to grapple." No state of things could be graver and more regrettable. For in so far as the theory is a true interpretation of life it must behove every living man to do his best to master it.

This, then, is a book for the beginner; and if I am rightly informed it has been, and is still being, widely read as such. To the beginner the author declares his purpose is to give "a clear idea of the mechanism of the universe."—It disappointed me to find already that Materialism could not get on

p. 107

without the word idea, with which few beginners have the time and courage to grapple. Nor was it less discouraging to learn that, even for the Materialist, there are several "abiding mysteries in the universe," such as the nebula, the crystal, and the cell. Much more disconcerting was it to be told that of the beginnings, and even "of the things themselves"—(those objects of the external world!)—"nothing can be known." I might have been reading the Athanasian Creed.

There were further disappointments of the same kind in store for me. Almost in his next sentence I found the writer calling the things themselves "material phenomena." Of thought and emotion, he added, no material qualities could be predicated. And lastly my teacher with a single sentence laid the whole material world round me in ruin:—"We cannot make the passage from chemistry to consciousness."

When I had read thus far I seriously feared that I had been imposed upon, and that the Story of Creation was a satire on Materialism, written by one who was secretly a disciple of Andrónikos of Rhodes.

I had despaired of Materialism too soon, however. All this was but the introductory chapter, a feature dispensed with in the work which this one is designed to supersede. On the next page the Story of Creation began in earnest, with the impressive heading,—

p. 108


There seems to be some contradiction between the author's word Universe, and his other word Evolution. Universe is the Babu way of writing One-ward, whereas there is authority for saying that Evolution is the transformation of an indefinite homogeneity into a definite heterogeneity, or, as it may be put in English, one turning into many, rather than many into one. It is dangerous to use that other learned name Kosmos, which is to say, Order, because whether the world is orderly is still an open question. One eminent divine found it so orderly that it showed itself to be the handiwork of God; another found it so disorderly that it showed itself to be in a state of alienation from God. The latter opinion seems to be the orthodox one among the Materialists of all denominations. On this head the words of Huxley are as the words of Newman. There is a consensus of opinion that the universe is ill-behaved. They only differ as to what the well-behaved man had better do in the circumstances. The cardinal advises him to go to sleep and dream of a universe more to his liking. The professor advises him to stand no nonsense from the universe, but to correct it. "Pull me down these riotous woodlands," he seems to say, and build me a rectangular boulevard patrolled by the police; destroy me this shameless dell with all its moss and wild-flowers, and give me in its place a square garden adorned with iron rails and carpet bedding,

p. 109

and a notice forbidding children to run over the grass."

World is the old English name, but it is the name for an old universe, when our earth stood fast in the middle, and all the stars went round it. I shall feel safer if I write All-Thing or Everything.


"The Universe is made up of Matter and Power."

This sentence assured me that the Story of Creation was the work of a genuine Materialist. There is a habit of mind common to all Materialists, by whatever name they may describe themselves. They may choose to be called Positivists or Agnostics, Scientists or Believers, Catholics or Secularists, but however much they may differ in details, their minds all work along certain lines or rules of thought like these:

1. It is easier for there to be shape without strength, than strength without shape.

2. It is easier for things not to be, than for them to be.

3. It is easier for things to keep still than for them to move.

4. It is easier to be dead than living. It is in obedience to this instinct that the author

p. 110

of the Story of Creation has made Matter the first item in his inventory of the All-Thing, and Power the second. An older story has it—"In the beginning God."

Matter, the author deems to be a word needing explanation; and he explains it as a term for "substances that occupy space and affect the senses."

It is hard that a Materialist writer should be no more able than Doctor Latham to free himself from the meshes of Mediterranean speech. Substance, I have reason to believe, is a high and mysterious word which plays a great part in the Andronican science. I confess I understand it less well than Matter; and in so far as I do understand it its meaning is opposed somehow to that of the author's other Babu word, phenomena. Nay, is it not written in a treatise on Logic by no less a person than Doctor Latham himself,—"It is, perhaps, unnecessary to say that substance, as used by logicians, has by no means the sense which so often attaches to it in ordinary conversation, viz., that of Matter or Body."

My present business with the Story of Creation is not to find fault with its bad language, but, if I can, to pierce through the words to what the writer is really trying to say. But in a work on Materialism the word Matter is surely the one on which every-things turns, and if so it is worth while to ask what it stands for.

p. 111


We know by this time what answer to expect from lexicography. The words—"What is the matter?" are almost the first words an English child hears from its nurse. Doctor Latham sleepily murmurs that she is talking French or Latin; she is trying to say matière, or materia. (Imagine a French nurse asking "Qu’est-ce que c’est que la matière?") A mat is one of the commonest objects in every English cottage, as it was in every cave-dweller's cave. Doctor Latham turns on his side, and mutters,—"Roman—Matta." The latest and best guesser hazards—"Carthaginian-Mappa." That a word spelt with two ts should come from a word spelt with one, and a word spelt with one t from a word spelt with two; that four syllables should shrink to two, and two to one, makes no matter to exact philology. Still less does it matter that a French noun should have changed into an English verb; that a provincial Englishman in Dickens’ pages should spell that verb moither or moidher, and use it in the nurse's sense of to worry, or to get into a knot that has to be untied; still less that every Irishman should say matther, or that the Welsh name for plaited work should be mat, and for a spread of rushes on the floor mathr. But it so happens that my own nurse was a provincial Englishwoman, with the Welsh name of Griffiths,

p. 112

and was less skilled in French and Latin and in Punic than Doctor Latham and Professor Skeat suppose; and she was my first authority on the English language, and one much more to be feared than they.

Now, that the learned author of the Story of Creation meant to write dog-latin, and hoped that he was writing dog-latin, is very likely indeed. But he has been inspired against his will to use an English word, and I shall pin it to the English meaning. For the difference between materia and matter is almost the difference between materialism and idealism.

The old mother-tongue of the White race, into which the first bishop of the Goths, labouring beside the Danube, translated the mightiest of Mediterranean books, has left two precious relics of itself. One is a manuscript written in silver letters, and guarded in the university of Upsal; the other is a living dialect not yet uprooted from two villages in the isle of Gothland. And deeming it part of this inquiry to learn somewhat of the speech of my forefathers, I made my way, not to the university of Upsal, but to the isle of Gothland. There I was fortunate, land Sweden and the white race are fortunate, enough to find a teacher in Doctor Klintberg, who has given his life to gather, as no dialect has ever yet been gathered, these precious wild flowers of speech before the schoolmaster has had time to root them up. And among the treasures in his collection, which English philologists will one day prize

p. 113

above many monkish manuscripts, I came upon this rhyme sung by the children in one of their plays:—

"Abburn laikar sat noti gar sundar;
 Där n far hul, sa kraupa n under."

Or as it might be sung in many English villages:—

Perch plays so ’at net goes asunder;
 There un finds hole, so creeps un under.

The word noti gives us the clew to mat and matter. On the one hand it merges into knot, either through a form like ge-not, or by the likeness between a knot and a knob—the kn or cn is common to the Gothic and Celtic languages; on the other hand it merges into the French natte, and so into net and mat. For a mat, as it seems needful to point out to philologists, is a net in which the holes are smaller, and the knots closer together.

Now netting or matting or knotting is one of the earliest handicrafts of man; the Congo dwarfs mat the undergrowth of the forest to entrap the elephant. It is much older than man; the spider weaves its net, and the bird its nest. It is still older than they are; when we speak of matted hair and matted weeds, we are thinking of a rough natural entanglement, of the network of nature rather than of man. We are not thinking of the Carthaginians, nor even of the Romans, nor of the Normans; and though the Norman lady may have trimmed the Saxon

p. 114

nurse's tongue, she has not trimmed the Saxon sense, No one but a schoolmaster writing a scholastic treatise in technical terms would dream of using the word matter in the sense of substance. For everybody else, and for the schoolmaster himself in his waking hours, it means very much what mat means, a knot or knotwork, a tangle or a net. And so, when the nurse asks,—"What is the matter?" she is not talking dog-latin, and she does not mean, what is the material substance; but she is talking English, and she means, what is the trouble; what has gone wrong?

Perhaps it is because the first use of a net is to stop the elephant, or the perch, from going further, perhaps it is because of its likeness with mud, that the word, or a word like it, has come to mean, in Latin if not in English, that which "occupies space and affects the senses." And yet, remarkably enough, one of the most eminent workers in physical science, Lord Kelvin, has suggested that what we call Matter began with tangled waves in the ether; so that science is learning to give the nurse's meaning to the nurse's word.

The word substance, of course, has nothing whatever to do with matter. It means inside, and the folk word for it, the word which this writer himself uses elsewhere, is stuff, or stuffing. That is the word stop in its materialistic form,—the dentist stops a tooth, and the French write estouper, as well as étouffer. But matter is an ontologist's word;

p. 115

the knot is verily a mystery; here is a word of an idealist tendency;—no wonder that the Story of Creation tried to explain it away.

Yet all this time the writer is deceiving himself and us. The word really inside his mind is neither knot nor stop, but Shape.—In my Dutch word-book I have found this curious entry: "Scheppingsgescheidenis, history of the creation."

Next: 8. Physics: The Knot