Gnosis Knows No Babel – Part 1

About the power and powerlessness of language.

Gnosis Knows No Babel – Part 1


The first part of this essay provides insight into the great importance of language and the emergence of diversity in languages. In the Babel story, diversity in languages seems to be a punishment from God, while the Pentecost story suggests enrichment. This is followed by an explanation of the origin of languages and Johann Gottfried Herder’s famous statement: “Language is a continuation of creation.”

In the second part, the language skills: speaking, writing and reading, are approached in a twofold way.

That is: firstly in a spiritual way and secondly following the use of language in daily life. In the eyes of the author listening is a neglected language skill and that’s why he is going deeper into it.

The expression “Words fall short” brings us in part three to the inadequacy (see title) of language. Some examples: “God speaks beyond words,”  as the ancient mystics said. Simone Weil, the French mystic and philosopher: “The world is God’s language to us.” And Hermes’ pupil Tat is most pronounced when he concludes after a long explanation of his teacher: “I understand: what cannot be expressed in words, that is God!”

In part four, the author attempts to recall the sacred, healing language of our origin – at least according to H.P. Blavatsky: the Senzar.


Be impeccable in your words

Language is the most powerful tool available to a human being. In language, we pave the way along which we try to achieve love, knowledge and mutual understanding.
In language we bring into being our feelings, thoughts, imagination, desires, perceptions and views. In language we articulate our inner world.

In language we recognize the deepest in us, which is nearly impossible to put into words. Then it is an art to recognize words and symbols as signals from the ancient treasure we have lost. When we start to recognize and understand the sacred, healing language of our origin inwardly, it is easier for us to free ourselves from learned language- and thought patterns. Language can thus help us to return to our origin, which is also our destiny.

Quintus Ennius, the Roman poet known as the father of poetry, wrote two centuries before our era that he was happy to have three hearts because he could speak three languages: Latin, Greek and Oskisch, a distant precursor to Italian[1]. Ennius would have regarded as strange the well-known Bible story of the Tower of Babel in which human pride encourages people to become like God. They therefore build a tower that reaches to heaven. God punishes this by creating a great ‘confusion’ of languages so that people can no longer understand each other. The Babel myth must have arisen at a time when a single chosen people with its unique sacred language was the religious ideal par excellence.

In Babel, language diversity is a punishment imposed on man – to Ennius however, those three languages are joyful. We can still recognize this in a Macedonian proverb:

So many languages as I speak, so many hearts I have.

The notion that there was once a primal language – also called the language of Adam and Henoch – moved into the background with so much ‘cordiality’.
Opposite to the punishing God in the story of Babel is the Pentecostal event, in which the holy spirit stirs the tongues of the apostles, so that they can suddenly speak in all languages and tell the Good News to everyone – regardless of their mother tongue. In Pentecost, language diversity at first sight is an enrichment rather than a punishment.

In this way, all nations have developed their own languages and cultures and closely related to this their own identity. The Italian poet Dante was one of the first and with his Divina Comedia he not only presented humanity a luminous, inner liberation path, but with that he also made a widely admired design for the Italian language. Over the centuries, one new nation after another emerged. Often there was euphoria that one finally could use one’s own language officially. Many experienced the new language as a powerful miracle that allowed them to give names, words and meaning to anything that could somehow be imagined.

The genius of the language,

exulted the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, and:

Language is a continuation of creation. [2]

In the Netherlands it was no different. At the formation of the new state there was a great language chauvinism among scholars. Simon Stevin saw New Dutch as

the most graceful and perfect language of all languages.

Finally, one could settle the account with foreign languages and especially the predominant Latin in which often petrified ancient wisdom was incarcerated and monopolized by church and science for centuries. With a lot of ingenuity authors such as Coornhert, Spiegel, Hooft, Bredero and Stevin replaced Latin terms by Dutch words. Simon Stevin (1548-1620) in particular distinguished himself in this. Words such as origin, domestic, deed, dawn, sun stand, top point, sundial, criminal, power of attorney, bodyguard, necessary, denial and all mathematical terms come from him. In almost every sentence used by the current Dutchman, there is a word invented by Stevin. [3] For the first time, the Bible could also be translated and read in one’s own language. The Bible was no longer for us, but the Bible was ours; that was the general feeling.

The world still looks like a Babel. It is estimated that there are currently 6,000 languages, one of which disappears every week. The great Babylonian confusion of speech, however, linguistically seems largely over. You only need to master five languages to be able to make yourself intelligible in any place on this planet: English, Spanish, Mandarin or Chinese, Swahili and Hindi-Urdu. [4]

All those languages have the ability to connect and divide. This can also lead to major difficulties, even to acts of war, especially in areas where linguistic minorities exist. The Bible makes us aware of the negative effects and undermining power that our language can have. In the Letters from James the tongue is compared to ‘the small rudder’ that steers the direction of ‘giant ships’.

So the tongue is a small organ, but what a boast ( grandiloquence ) it can produce! Think about how a small flame causes a huge forest fire. Our tongue is just such a flame (…) [5]

A core wisdom of the Toltec formulates it with more perspective: be impeccable in your words. By that they mean: use your linguistic energy correctly; to rein your powers towards truth and love for yourself and to share them with others. Your level of existence in this world, which is like hell, you will rise beyond it and the kingdom of heaven opens up, if you accept this one insight alone and live by it, according to the Toltec. [6]

Hymn to the Magic and Beauty of the Word, by Mikhaïl Naimy

Language is a double-edged sword

with a healing and dividing cut

– sometimes as hyphen and sometimes as separator –

or a mixture made from honey and wormwood.

My words scatter flowers on the way of the lovers

or sow hatred like a digesting fire.

With words I sing and in words I lament my suffering.

With words, I pray and with words, I struggle.

With words, oh Lord, I pour out my heart for you

and with words I remove myself from you.

With words, I testify of you and in words, I deny you.

If I really could shut up, that I would rather do than speak!

Or did you want it that way, my God,

that I have to live in conflict,

the one time attracted by language that doesn’t quench my thirst

and then again by silence, which is impossible to me?


(To be continued in parts 2 3 and 4)


[1] Ahmet Altan e.a., Overeind in Babel. Talen in Europa ( Upright in Babel. Languages in Europe), Ons Erfdeel Rekkem (2007) passim

[2] Johann Gottfried Herder, Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache (Treatise on the origin of language), Reclam 2007

[3] Jan Peter Burger, Coornhert Licht in Europa – Hoe een Amsterdams filosoof de grondslagen legde voor de moderne wereld ( Coornhert Light in Europe How an Amsterdam philosopher laid the foundations for the modern world ), Rozekruis Pers, Haarlem 2019

[4] Gaston Dorren, Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, Atlantic Monthly Press 2018

[5] Bible, James 3:3-9

[6] Don Miguel Ruiz, Four Agreements, A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Amber-Allen Publishing 2011

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Date: January 22, 2021
Author: Dick van Niekerk (Netherlands)
Photo: Ruth Alice Kosnick CCO

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