The progress of complexity

“Proper shame is now termed sheer stupidity; shamelessness, on the other hand, is called manliness; voluptuousness passes for good tone; haughtiness for good education; lawlessness for freedom; honourable dealing is dubbed hypocrisy, and dishonesty, good fortune.”

The speaker is Thucydides, and he is giving an account of the Greeks during the Peloponnesian War. It came to me this morning with Owen Barfield’s rejuvenating breakfast reading, his History in English Words. He was in the course of explaining how, in modern times, silly lost its old meaning of “blessed”; demure changed from “grave” or “sober” to “affectedly modest”; and the kindly officious came to imply “bustling interference.”

Conversely, he flatters the Roman character, for their word “simple” did not come to be used as a term of contempt, as it did in all other civilized languages. This, I speculate, is one of the mystical reasons that Latin became the (Catholic) liturgical language; it has the power of not changing. It is what it is, such that when the meanings of words are changed, they cease to be Latin.

Whereas, our words slip and slide. A moral degeneration will occur — within Greek, say, or within English — yet the language carries on glibly as before. Thucydides, the hero of political realism, lived in the fifth century before Christ, but his account of the way his contemporaries “slipped” does not appear dated. For moral decline is, in some sense, the same in all ages.