Thursday, August 10, 2017

Put out the light

I'd like to briefly discuss a potential confusion in debates over the real presence. Opponents of the real presence sometimes say that "This [bread] is my body" means "This [bread] represents my body". 

In a sense I think that's an unobjectionable interpretation. However, it can be misunderstood. The argument is not that "This is my body" is symbolic because the copulative verb means "represent" in that statement. At least, that's not what the argument ought to be. Rather, to interpret "This is my body" to mean "this represents my body" is simply a way of characterizing the entire statement as figurative. It's not the meaning of the verb that makes the statement figurative. We're not translating "is" into "represents". Instead, that's just a way of saying the statement as a whole is metaphorical.

A metaphor is an implied comparison, where one thing stands for another. Take this statement from Othello's soliloquy:

Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.

"Put out the light" occurs twice in first sentence. The same phrase is repeated, but it doesn't have the same sense. In the first occurrence, it denotes literal candlelight, but in the second sentence, candlelight is an emblem of human life. 

The same verb ("put out") is used in each occurrence. What makes the statement figurative in the second occurrence is not that the verb has a different meaning, but the sentence has a different referent. In the second occurrence, the sentence refers to Desdemona. But she's not a literal candle. She's not composed of beeswax. She doesn't have a burning wick. Yet the candle represents Desdemona. 

The audience is expected to discern an analogy between Desdemona and a burning candle. In fact, in everyday speech, "extinguish" or "snuff out" are synonyms for killing. Dead metaphors. 


  1. So, what I very from this is: Clintonian discussion about the meaning of the word 'is' is a bit of red herring; a vehicle without enough fuel to get us where we need to go.

    Better to have the argument about what is a human body and what is its nature.

    Have I missed it?

  2. What is the metaphor?

    "Put out the light" is a metaphor for "death."

    Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it, passed it around and said "this is my body." This is a metaphor for... what?

    Note: I'm not Roman Catholic, so I do not think the bread is a *human* body. It is bread. The bread is Jesus' body.