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Word of the Day: DISCIPLE

Word of the Day: DISCIPLE

More on the terrain of translation — the corrugated landscape of what we can say, and what we wish we could say and almost succeed at suggesting, and what we cannot say, but must beg the reader or hearer to try to find on his own.

Our word DISCIPLE is used most prominently to describe the followers of Jesus in the New Testament, and as an extension of its significance, to describe someone who follows, in something of a personal way, the teaching of an elder or predecessor. So we say that Saint Theresa Benedicta of the Cross — the formidable Edith Stein — was a DISCIPLE of Edmund Husserl, as were Max Scheler, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and many others. They worked together, they sometimes broke bread together, and they shared work and thought regarding the most profound questions that men can ask. We then say, somewhat metaphorically, that Robert Browning was a DISCIPLE of John Keats, because he loved his poetry and was deeply influenced by it, though early on he went in his own and markedly individual direction. Keats had died long before Browning ever wrote a word.

The word DISCIPLE then seems to describe a relationship, and not simply that of the pupil to the teacher. I’ve had thousands of students, but how many DISCIPLES? I can think of some . . . and the odd thing about it is that I’ve gone on to learn FROM these young people too; a reciprocity that characterized Husserl’s relationship with Edith Stein. It most certainly did not describe Jesus’ relationships with Peter, James, John, and the rest. Saint Paul was a DISCIPLE of Gamaliel, and I’ve got a dramatic monologue in mind, epistolary actually, in which Gamaliel is urged to become, if not a DISCIPLE of his old DISCIPLE, at least a good and wise teacher willing to be instructed by his student.

We aren’t entirely sure which Latin root gives us DISCIPULUS, but Jerome chose that word, which regardless of the root he must have felt as a diminutive, to render the Greek MATHETES, a LEARNER. In the Meno, Plato has Socrates demonstrate a geometrical proof to an ordinary boy, by way of suggesting that we have an innate knowledge from which we “recollect” things; Aristotle will pick up the cue and, while denying Platonic recollection, will say that MATHEMATICS is the proper object of study for boys and young men, while POLITICS ought to be reserved for when they have gotten a greater fund of human experience — when they are well into the prime of adulthood. We have reversed their wisdom, with the result that we get young people who can’t say what 24 is 12 percent of, but who are sure, absolutely sure, that we ought to be mandating — X, Y, whatever — of the whole nation, with A, B, C laws, whatever.

In Modern English we use borrowed or adapted terms to render the great Latin / Greek terms of Scripture, but that wasn’t always so. The Anglo Saxon translators were rather more adventurous in this regard. One winsome translation: LEORNUNGCNIHT, a LEARNING-KNIGHT, not a KNIGHT in armor, but a BOY, a LAD, a SERVANT, so — LEARNING-LAD. That fits well with the German translation by Luther; the DISCIPLES are Jesus’ JUENGER: YOUTHS, a word that suggests hierarchy, energy, and affection. The DISCIPLES are also called, in Anglo Saxon, THEGNAS, THANES, and that too shouldn’t call to mind Macbeth and kilted men smeared with blood. It meant SERVANT, but also BOY — and in fact it is cognate with Greek TEKNON, CHILD; cf. the title of Mary, THEOTOKOS, the GOD-BEARER.

One way to stay young: remain a LEARNING-LAD of the Master.