Word of the Week
If you’re in Fort Worth, you can go to the art museum — not the one with modern art, but, er, the real one — and look at Caravaggio’s great painting, The Card Sharpers. There are three men in it. One’s young and fresh-faced and naive, and he’s looking over his hand at cards. He doesn’t see that one of his raffish companions, a much older man with gloves worn out at the fingertips, is looking over his shoulder and flashing a signal at the third man, the opponent in the game. That third man has a dagger in his belt, which we can see, but the boy can’t see. There’s another thing we can see that the boy can’t, and it’s that the opponent looks very much like the boy himself, if you put ten years on him, a lot of bad living, and innocence ruined. It’s a brilliant painting. It’s as if Caravaggio said, “I’ll see you your youth, and I’ll raise you my experience,” because the painter had, not to put too fine a point on it, a sometimes wild and violent life, which never made it to middle age.
We’re meant to see what’s going on, not just because we’re in the right position, but because we’re wiser than the boy. To see, then, is to understand, and, often, to be wise. Sometimes we’ll use one of the other senses to suggest understanding: a Latin dog is sagax, sagacious, because he sniffs things out, and we in English say, “Follow your nose!” Or we say, “I hear you,” when we mean, “I know what you’re saying and why you say it.” Or we “feel” our way toward solving a problem, and if it’s in math, we can’t even touch a bit of the thing! “Taste and see how good the Lord is,” says the Psalmist.
But still, sight is the sense we most associate with the mind, with intellectual vision, and not just logic, but insight, even an immediate intuition of the truth — and the word intuition comes from a Latin verb meaning to peer into something. It’s right that it should be so. Sight is the least material of the senses. The scientists say that photons have no mass: and if that doesn’t approach the purely immaterial, I don’t know what does. It’s as if the material world grows purer and purer the nearer it approaches to light, the first element of creation. Why, much of the time we don’t even have the words for it. “Tell us what you see,” you might ask me, and how should I respond? There are a lot of things I see that I haven’t come to understand by study, the painstaking weighing of evidence, or logical deduction: it’s quicker than a bolt of lightning, and sometimes it persists, like a sun that never sets, and sometimes it passes like that lightning, leaving only the memory and the assurance that I did see it. “Love is an eye,” said Richard of Saint Victor, and those who do not love will not see. And isn’t that true, too? Some people say that you fall in love with someone because you see what is good in the person, but the converse is true, too: you will see the good if you love, and the warmer your love is, the keener your sight will be.
The word sight has close cousins in all the Germanic languages, but outside of those, we’re treading in the twilight. There’s a guess that sight may have come from an ancient Indo-European root meaning to follow: and if so, it would be a distant cousin of Latin sequor, I follow, which gives us such words as sequence and second. If you’re asking why we spell it as sight, it’s because the gh sound used to be there, well into the 1400’s. It was like the ch sound in German ich — a sort of steady forceful h, pronounced with the tongue near the hard palate. The Anglo-Saxon verb was seon, to see: there the h between the two vowels had already vanished, by the time English began to be written down, around the year 700. That’s why we have see, with no gh, but sight, with the gh. As for the t, that was just the suffix that turned verbs or adjectives into nouns naming a quality: th, in depth, strength, width, health, and about 15 others. We should say “highth” and “weighth” and “sighth,” but the th hardened to a t, after the vowels, also sometime after 1400.
“I see!” you say. Well, if you see, how about explaining it to me?
To harken back to a beloved hymn of the week, Be Thou My Vision…
One of my favorite CS Lewis essays is his “meditation in a toolshed,” as he discusses the difference between looking at and looking along. I think this link should work:
And do you remember that old movie, The Enchanted Cottage, about the couple in love who look beautiful to one another, yet ordinary (or worse) to the world?
Thank you as always for this beautiful piece!
Several years ago youth would respond to direction, instruction, admonsihment or praise --not with I hear what you are saying but rather with-- I see what you are saying. Perhaps a deeper level of insight?