Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones

By Carlin A. Barton | Go to book overview
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PHILOSOPHICAL CODA
The Sentiment and the Symbol
Symbols and Their Discontents

This world is not this world. Robert Jay Lifton

In dealing with the emotions, being a modern Euro-American, it was necessary for me to abandon the linear and dichotomous tendencies of modern thought and to locate and straddle the vague border between words and sensations, between the vast repository of inarticulate experience and the comparatively small—but still huge—distillate of symbols and symbolic actions.1 Moreover, I was compelled to do this for my own culture simultaneously with that of the ancient Romans—a mental act requiring the elasticity of Plastic Man. On the following pages I struggle to articulate some of the knotty theoretical and philosophical issues raised by my approach to Roman emotional life.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz believes that without symbolization, human action would be meaningless chaos. “Undirected by culture patterns—organized systems of significant symbols—man's behaviour would be virtually ungovernable, a mere chaos of pointless acts and exploding emotions, his experience virtually shapeless. Culture, the accumulated totality of such patterns, is not just an ornament of human existence but…an essential condition for it. 2 “The accumulated fund of significant symbols…are thus not mere expressions, instrumentalities, or correlates of our biological, psychological, and social existence; they are the prerequisites of it. 3 “Men without culture…would be unworkable mon

____________________
1
Paul Ekman analyzes in excellent fashion the broad spectrum of “body language, from the bodily manipulations that the person may be unaware of or unable to control to the “emblem” that deliberately functions as a sign (“Biological and Cultural Contributions to Body and Facial Movements, in The Anthropology of the Body, ed. John Blacking, London, 1977, pp. 39–84).
2
“The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York, 1973, p. 46. Cf. “The Growth of Culture and the Evolution of Mind, ibid., esp. pp. 77, 81; Blacking, “Towards an Anthropology of the Body, p. 15.
3
Geertz, “The Impact of the Concept of Culture, p. 49.

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