Language and Meaning #2

In my previous post on meaning I talked about the meaning of the dative of interest and the meaning of what I called parenthetical “well”. In this post I will talk about he meaning of one of the rhetorical figures—tricolon, which is made of three items in more or less parallel structure. Abraham Lincoln used tricolon when he spoke of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. The effect of this tricolon, I think, is to suggest that all possibilities have been covered. There’s government of the people, that’s one, there’s government by the people, that’s two, and government for the people, that’s three, and that’s it, there’s no fourth term. Every tricolon, however, has to be examined and interpreted on its own, in its own context.

Tricolon is very common; one of the writers most known for it is Edward Gibbon, the author of the great history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. There must be hundreds of tricola in Gibbon’s book; here are just three:

“The principal conquests of the Romans were achieved under the republic, and the emperors, for the most part, were satisfied with preserving those dominions which had been acquired by the policy of the senate, the active emulation of the consuls, and the martial enthusiasm of the people.” (3)

“After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.” (6)

“The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.” (34)

One kind of semantic analysis would say that the meaning of a tricolon is just the sum of the meaning of its parts. Thus the third passage simply means three things: the Roman people considered all the modes of worship equally true; the philosophers considered them all equally false; and the magistrates considered them all equally useful. Under this analysis, the meaning of each clause is to be evaluated independently, and there no meaning is added by putting them together in a tricolon; the meaning would be the same if you put the three clauses in a different order; or if you said one clause on Monday, another on Tuesday, and another on Wednesday.

I find that analysis insufficient and in some ways just wrong. The first and second clauses themselves make an antithesis; paraphrasing slightly one could say that the Roman people considered all the modes of worship equally true and that the philosophers considered them all equally false. That antithesis at first seems to exhaust the possibilities—a mode of worship is either true or false; the people considered their modes of worship true, and the philosopher considered them false. But when Gibbon adds the third clause, we see that “true” and “false” are not the only possibilities; there is also “useful”. A magistrate doesn’t care if a mode of worship is true or false; he only wants it to be useful—probably for keeping the people in line. The modes of worship could all be true, or all false, or some true and some false, he doesn’t care, so long as he can use them. The tricolon as a whole thus forces the reader to make a shift in judgment, and that judgment tends towards a kind of cynicism. The effect of this shift in judgment is more than the sum of the parts; it is created by their conjunction and arrangement of the parts. The effect would be lost if the three clauses were taken individually or in a different order. Each of the clauses has to be understood in the context of the whole sentence. There is much more to be said about tricolon, and in future posts I will continue the discussion of this rhetorical figure and others.

These three examples of meaning—the English version of the dative of interest, parenthetical “well”, and tricolon—show some of the kinds of meaning that I find interesting. These meanings are all matters of nuance; they involve a tone of voice, or an attitude, or a kind of emphasis, or a direction of thought, rather than simple reference to the world or evaluation of truth claims. Most often this kind of meaning does not find an easy paraphrase, and often there is room for what we would call subjectivity in interpretation. But all that just makes it more interesting. This kind of interpretation is the business of philology—the interpretation of meaning in context and the interpretation of the language of literature.

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