The Meaning of the Motivorum’s Motto: "Ad bellum purificandum" to "Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore"

Richard H. Thames, Duquesne University


Why render the Motivorum’s motto in Latin? Because ad bellum purificandum can be translated “toward the purification of war,” but also “toward the purification of the beautiful [thing],” an alternative Burke himself suggests in his unfinished second draft of the Symbolic. In addition, purificandum (associated with transcendence in dialectic) is a neologism Burke probably constructs from purgandum (associated with catharsis in rhetoric and poetics). Working back and forth between interpreting the motto and interpreting the text, the relationship between rhetoric (whose end is War) and dialectic (whose end is Beauty à la Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus) can be established and the nature of poetic (which weaves the two together) discerned.

This essay follows on "The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum" (KB Journal Spring 2007).

In memory of Michael Leff—admirer of Burke, scholar of Classical rhetoric, and close reader extraordinaire.


AD BELLUM PURIFICANDUMsuch was the epigram or motto of Kenneth Burke’s proposed multi-volume “Motivorum” found on the opening page of A Grammar of Motives, published in 1945. As all Burkeians subsequently noted, the epigram was odd. The typical translation, “Toward the purification of war,” seemed to beg the immediate question, “Why not eradication?” And just as quickly the attempt to answer mired all in a myriad of difficulties. The Grammar started innocently enough, then abruptly dove into the deep end, examining the paradox of substance, then the paradox of purity. The “purification of war” would be no simple matter, nor the books dedicated to that proposition.

But perhaps the first question truly begged is the more obvious but never asked “Why render the epigram in Latin?” when it’s perplexing enough in English. Why complicate the matter further? Because, to echo the Lord’s repeated reproach of Satan in “A Prologue in Heaven,” it is indeed “more complicated than that” (RR 277). A close reading of the Latin reveals a richness the standard rendering fails to convey.

I say this with some trepidation. All too often we over-complicate Burke, bifurcating him into early and late; then middle, post-modern, post-structuralist, etc. Actually, Burke is simple in the sense that all great thinkers are—which is not to say easy. Great thinkers thoroughly, relentlessly, and oft times systematically pursue one or two profound ideas for decades or even life.1 Burke sought to understand language as more than a tool, more than a means to innumerable ends; he thought of language in and of itself as motivation. What is required is a representative summation of the system thereafter elaborated, a statement that is simple but not superficial, assuring students and scholars alike that plunging into his work will prove to be not bewildering but bracing and worthwhile.

Such a statement will be offered in conclusion. First, a plunge into paradox.

Burke’s Warrant

The warrant for this reading is Burke’s own discussion from the unpublished second draft of A Symbolic of Motives (left unfinished in 1963)2 in which there is an early section entitled “Preparatory Etymology” with a sub­section on “Beauty and War.” Burke notes the Greek root of the word “artistic” (ar-, the source, he says, of “articulate,” “aristocracy,” and “arithmetic”) is related to the Greek word meaning “to join” and even older Sanskrit forms meaning “to attain” and “to fit.” Thus, he continues, looking in this etymological direction—

We may encounter Socrates’ notion that the dialectician knows how to carve an idea at the joints, and that dialectics itself begins with two kinds of terms, those that generalize and those that specify. The thought suggests that the work of art will be found, on inspection, to have its own peculiar kind of dialectic, an expert interweaving of composition and division. And in accordance with the genius of this route, when analyzing a poem we are admonished to ask how its parts are related to one another and to the whole. (’63 SM ms.32)

Burke further notes that the Greek words for “armament,” “Ares” (the god of war), and “virtue” (arête) share the same root, as do (obviously) the Latin words vir (a man of arms-bearing age) and virtus.3 Contemplating this route, he continues, may suggest reasons for the inclination to consider the tragic cult of the kill as exceptionally “poetic.”4

Turning to “beauty,” Burke observes that

in pre-classical Latin, a word duellum (deriving ultimately from the Indo-European root for “apart” or “two,” and meaning “war between two”) became transformed into bellum, meaning “war.” This was related to a word bonus, meaning “good” (and derived from an older form, duonus, also meaning “good,” and similarly related to the root word for “two”). (SM ms.33)

Etymologically, then, “beauty” is related to both “war” and “good.”

(“Beauty” is from French beauté, that came from an assumed Late Latin word bellitas, built from bellus, itself modulating from benulus to benus to bonus, the word for “good,” and related to bellum, the word for “war.”) By the same token, when on the subject of artistic felicity, we might well recall that the saintly word “beatitude” apparently bridges us back to the same origins. And inasmuch as the whole story apparently leads to the Indo-European root for the notion of things apart, or two (dva-, dvi-; English two, twice, twilight, twig, twist, twin, twine), it might be relevant to recall also that when St. Augustine wrote his no longer extant tracts on beauty and fitness (de pulchro et apto), he apparently constructed his entire theory around a distinction between unity and division . . . (SM ms.33-34)

Obviously Burke knew his Latin (from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh) and was well aware that bellum was ambiguous, that with the epigram“ad bellum purificandum” he was dedicating his magnum opus to the purification of both “war” and “the beautiful [thing]” (bellum being the accusative form of the noun bellus) with suggestions as well of “the good” (the etymologically related bonus).

The word purificandum is likewise suggestive. Unlike with bellum, however, Burke offers no observations concerning its etymology, the term apparently being his own—the post-Augustinian verb purifico having been derived from the earlier, more common purgo and its non-occurring gerun­dive form having been derived by Burke himself, perhaps from purgandum. The choice of the neologism “purifying” over the vernacular “purging” suggests a preference for dialectical processes effecting transcendence over rhetorical processes effecting catharsis through victimage (both real and symbolic); at the same time, the etymology suggests some relation­ship between the two.

Clearly Burke himself warrants closely reading the Latin, though doing so will involve working dialectically back and forth between interpreting the motto and interpreting the text.

Purificandum I

Without doubt one of the most devilishly difficult notions in dramatism is that of “pure persuasion.” One need not be ancient in the ways of Burke to beware his invocation of the adjective “pure,” tempting him at every dialectical twist and turn to ensnarl in paradox whatever it modifies.

But Burke’s discussion represents more than a mere exercise in dialectical deviltry. There is considerable payoff for those with the patience to follow every twist and turn, every image and example. What can be learned concerns the nature of rhetoric and its ultimate possibilities vis-à-vis the human condition.

Burke’s analysis of pure persuasion is supposed to be unique, but Aristotle’s analysis of money in Nicomachaean Ethics (5.5) and Politics (1.8-10) is remark­ably similar and may provide an easier entry. 

According to Aristotle, in barter, one commodity is exchanged directly for another (wine for wheat). In more advanced markets, money mediates exchange; one commodity is sold for money to buy another (wine is sold to buy wheat). But as exchange after exchange extends over time, the exchange of commodities mediated by money becomes instead the exchange of money mediated by commodities (money buys wine or wheat to be sold in turn for even more money). Ultimately the mediating commodity is dropped and money is exchanged directly for more money still (money is lent for interest—or in modern times made by playing exchange rates, though ancient “bankers” were often money-changers). Thus money, intro­duced as a means to facilitate the end of exchange, is transformed into an end in itself.

Commodities have natural ends—wheat to be eaten and wine to be drunk. There are natural limits to consumption, duration, and therefore acquisition—wheat spoils and wine turns sour. Because there are natural limits to the acquisition of any one thing, as well as many things in toto, at some point there will be enough. In other words, wealth is not unlimited; its natural end is in whatever constitutes enough—not the store of money for exchange, but the stock of real things useful for living the good life, achieving happiness, realizing our nature in the polis.

But money as a means has no proper end. There is no natural limit to its accum­u­lation; no such thing as enough. Its pursuit is therefore endless, irrational, and unnatural.

Pure persuasion would likewise involve transforming a means (persuasion) into an end (persuasion for the sake of persuasion alone), thus making pure persuasion the endless pursuit of a means.  

Burke’s point is more than mere word-play, an end being not only a goal or purpose but also a completion or termination. Therefore pure persuasion as a means transformed into an end would paradoxically become both purposeless and perpetualpurposeless in that once persuasion’s purpose is accomplished, it ceases to be persuasion for the sake of persua­sion alone, becoming instead persuasion for the sake of whatever was purposed (RM 269-70); and perpetual in that once persuasion reaches its goal, it ceases, thereupon becoming something else (RM 274). 

The perpetual frustration of purpose requires an element of standoffishness or self-interference, says Burke (RM 269, 271, 274), to prevent persuasion’s ever achieving its end. For example, constructing a rhetoric around the key term identification means confronting the implications of division (RM 22). Identification compensates for division, but pure identification could never completely overcome it; identification for the sake of identification alone would require standoffishness, the perpetuation of some degree of division for identification to forever overcome. Or, insofar as rhetoric involves courtship grounded in biological and/or social estrangement (RM 115, 208 ff.), pure persuasion would require coyness or coquetry (RM 270)—again a degree of standoffishness, but more obviously connoting eros.

According to Burke, rhetoric is rooted in the use of language to induce cooperation as a means to some further end (RM 43). Cooperation is always being sought because there is always competition. Cooperation for the sake of cooperation alone would require some interference, the perpetuation of some degree of competition for cooperation to forever overcome.

Burke’s analysis of pure persuasion reveals a resistance to rhetoric that lies at its very heart. His point is that analysis of an ultimate form (e.g., pure persua­sion) reveals a motivational ingredient present even in the most elemental (RM 269, 274)—i.e., what is ultimately the case is always the case to some degree.5 Therefore any rhetorical act would comprise a complex of motives, minimally consisting of (1) persuasion itself compounded with (2) pure persuasion to some degree (i.e., some degree of standoffishness or interference). Rhetoric as rhetoric then can never transcend itself. Rhetoric as rhetoric can never be salvic, for all rhetoric is somewhat self-defeating.

War constitutes the ultimate instance of pure persuasion—the greatest degree of cooperation perpetuated by the greatest degree of competition, the greatest degree of identification perpetuated by the greatest degree of division.6 Burke regards war as diseased cooperation (RM 332) in that complete cooperation cannot be achieved by means of competition, because there must always be some­thing against which we compete; the communion of complete identification can­not be achieved by means of division, because there must always be an enemy from which we are divided, an enemy in opposition to which we stand united. 

War, says Burke, is a special case of peace—“not as a primary motive in itself, not as essentially real, but purely as a derivative condition, a perversion”(RM 20)—like evil for Augustine. Little wonder then that Burke writes, the Rhetoric

must lead us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and the flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counter­pressure, the Logo­machy, the onus of ownership, the War of Nerves, the War. It too has its peaceful moments: at times its endless competition can add up to the transcending of itself. In ways of its own, it can move from the factional to the universal. But its ideal culminations are more often beset by strife as the condition of their organized expression, or material embodiment.  Their very universality becomes transformed into a partisan weapon. (RM 23)

If war constitutes pure persuasion’s ultimate instance, then we are always somewhat at war. If war constitutes pure persuasion’s ultimate instance,then war would be the essence of rhetoric. And the motto “ad bellum purificandum,” “toward the purification of war,” could be justly translated “toward the purification of rhetoric” as well.

If war perverts cooperation, turning it toward competition, war purified would transform competition, turning it toward cooperation—as in dialectic. In rhetoric, says Burke, voices cooperate in order to compete (i.e., “cooperative competition”); but in dialectic, voices compete in order to cooperate (i.e., “competitive cooperation”) (LSA 188). If rhetoric is in essence war, then dialectic is in essence not peace negatively defined as the absence of war but positively defined as love—as in Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus where Beauty is the ultimate object of love (or eros). 

Burke’s own etymological analysis supports as much, bellum suggesting war on the one hand, beauty and good on the other. The “bellum-bellus” or war-beauty pair suggests the rhetoric-dialectic contrast again, but embodied in victimage on the one hand and eros on the other. The adjective bellus is derived from benus and bonus meaning “good,” once more suggesting Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus and the dialectical climb to the mystic experience of Beauty “by itself with itself” (Symposium 2111b), the Good, the One.


As noted above, the post-Augustinian verb purifico is derived from the earlier, more common purgo, and its non-occurring gerun­d purificandum apparently derived from purgandum by Burke himself. The choice of “purifying” over “purging” suggests his preference for dialectical processes effecting transcendence over rhetorical processes effecting catharsis through victimage (both real and symbolic); at the same time the etymology implies some relation­ship between them. So, what is that relationship?

Burke actually distinguishes between dialectical processes of purification and dramatic (rather than rhetorical) processes of purgation. But drama involves both dialectic in the sense of thoroughly using language for no purpose other than using language and rhetoric in the sense of using language for a particular purpose—e.g. the author’s persuading himself and/or his audience vis-à-vis a particular subject, often problematic. For Burke, drama (indeed all literature) is ceremonial rhetoric addressing the timeless (i.e., speaking to all human beings insofar as they are bodies that have learned language) and the present (the here and now, hic et hunc, of the author’s life and time).

Burke defines human beings as bodies that are genetically endowed with the ability to learn language.7 As such, all humans (though some more than others) take delight in expressing or exercising their being (as in Jerome Kern’s lyric from Showboat, “fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly”), in doing that which distinguishes them from all other animals, in using language for the sake of using language alone (Rueckert, “Language of Poetry” Essays 38). The internally directed use of language for its own sake is dialectical and ontological; the externally directed use of language for the sake of something else is rhetorical and historical,  tied to a particular person and a particular place and time (seeSM ms. 179).  

Both dialectic and drama, says Burke, exemplify competitive cooperation (as opposed to the cooperative competition of rhetoric)—though Burke would appear to be emphasizing the dialectical (rather than rhetorical) aspect of drama insofar as its parts are organically related to the whole. Out of conflicts within a work, “there arises a unitary view transcending the partial views of the participants”—the dialectic of the ideal Platonic dialogue (LSA 188).8

Both transcendence effected by dialectic and catharsis effected by ceremonial rhetoric or drama “involve formal development,” says Burke; therefore both give us “kinds of transformation,” operating in terms of a beyond in dialectic and victimage in rhetoric (or its imitation in drama), though in dialectic there are traces of victimage (i.e., voices left behind), and in drama the cathartic “resolution ‘goes beyond’ the motivational tangle exploited for poetic enjoyment.” Burke even proposes translating Aristotle’s famous formula, “through pity and fear beyonding the catharsis of such emotions,” noting the word normally translated “effecting” or “producing” (perainousa) is etymo­logically from the same root as peran, meaning “opposite shore” (LSA 298-99).9

Transcendence involves building a terministic bridge whereby one realm is transcended by being viewed in terms of a realm beyond (LSA 189, 200),

a kind of “translation” whereby the reader is induced to confront a problem in terms that allow of resolutions not possible to other terms of confrontation. Dialectic, we might say, can even effect a kind of “quashed catharsis,” or “catharsis by fiat,” or “implicit transcendence,” since the terms in which a given problem is presented can so setup the situation that a given problem is “resolved in advance,” if you can speak of a problem as “resolved” when the terms in which it is treated do not even give it a chance to be expressed in all its problematic aspects. (SM ms. 170)

Dialectical purification and dramatic purgation then are both the same and different—the same insofar as the dialectical aspect of drama is emphasized, different insofar as the rhetorical is. And rhetoric and drama are different insofar as the former involves victimage and the latter its imitation (all the difference in the world to the victim), but they are the same insofar as both are ultimately partisan. Economic, political, and social tensions may be purged by sacrifice upon the stage, but the curtains close and the playhouse doors reopen on a world that remains unchanged. “Hence,” says Burke, “tragic purges, twice a year. Such symbolic resolutions must be repeated, since the actual underlying situation is not resolved” (Dramatism and Development 15).

So ultimately we return to the problematic aspects of rhetoric and Burke’s preference for dialectic—though along the way, the idea of dialectic operating in terms of a beyond has emerged. Understanding what Burke means unfortunately involves another plunge.

Purificandum II

The epigram suggests that Burke is prejudiced against rhetorical action, but ultimately Burke is prejudiced against any action other than linguistic action for its own sake. All other action would constitute a means to an external end that would in its purity be transformed into an end in itself, thereby perpetuating itself by never attaining its intended end; all other action would be to some degree undertaken for its own sake, thereby requiring some degree of inter­ference in accom­plishing its external purpose. Thus, all action is problematic, all action somewhat self-defeating, because what is ultimately the case is always the case to some degree.

The only action that is not self-defeating is linguistic action for its own sake, because there is an ultimate end internal to language attained when all that is inherent to language itself has been thoroughly unfolded. Such pure action is dialectic and its inherent end transcendence—the mystic experience of an ultimate, unitary pantheistic ground beyond nonverbal and verbal—NATURE (à la Spinoza).10

Once again, because what is ultimately the case is always the case to some degree, all other action would also involve an ingredient of linguistic action for its own sake. All other action would contain some element of language’s reaching toward its inherent end.  

Normal actions then would comprise a complex of motives consisting of (1) an action undertaken for the sake of its intended external end compound­ed with (2) some degree of that action undertaken for its own sake (i.e, an element of interference in accomplishing its intended external end); (3) linguistic action for the sake of an external end compounded with (4) some degree of lin­guistic action undertaken for its own sake (i.e., an element of language reaching toward its inherent, internal end; an element of dialectic culminating in transcendence) —what Burke refers to as a “fragment” of dialect (RM 175) and its inherent end, transcendence, and therefore a “fragment” of mysticism.11

This complexity of motives can be resolved into a simplicity (banality?) when an act in its purity is transformed from a means into an end in itself. Like pure persuasion, pure actions (other than purely linguistic ones) would be more than fragments of dialectic or mysticism; they would constitute substitutes for mysticism, ersatz­mystiken, as with money, sex, drugs, crime, war—instrumentalities of living transformed into demonic purposes with which one may identify “quite as with mystic communion.” Anyone for whom means are thus transformed has “a god” and, “engrossed, enrapt, entranced,” can become lost in its godhead (RM 331-32).

This perverse internality (eventuating in false mysticism) is counterpart to dialectic’s own internality (eventuating in mysticism proper). Their internality is in turn counterpart to the externality of normal action and linguistic action which con­stitute means to an external end. Pure action and purely linguistic action constitute simple actions that are counterparts to complex normal actions. Normal actions, however, in their confusion of motives are ultimately ineffectual—self-defeating (as somewhat pure) and partial (as fragmentary dialectic), their internal ends (between their poles of purity, false and proper) frustrating attainment of their external ends.

The only action by which true transcendence could be achieved would be by dialectic directed toward the internal end of language, devoid of all rhetoric directed toward an external end and therefore defeated by its purity to some degree. The cooperative competition of voices in rhetoric is transformed into the competitive cooperation of voices in dialectic, says Burke, by the inclusion of one voice that is primus inter pares, the foremost among equals, a role performed in Platonic dialogue by Socrates who functions as the summarizing vessel or synecdochic representative of the end or logic of the development as a whole (GM 526). Such is the role of the mystic fragment of linguistic action for itself alone that points to the mystic experience of a pantheistic ground beyond nonverbal and verbal, body and mind, material and ideal.

Bellus I

Returning to the epigram, bellum suggests Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes, “the war of all against all,” characterizing the rhetorical realm. But as Burke himself suggests, bellum can also be the accusative of the noun bellus, “the beautiful [thing].” The “bellum-bellus” or war-beauty pair suggests Mars/Ares (god of war) and Venus/Aphrodite (goddess of beauty and sexual love or eros) and the rhetoric-dialectic contrast again, but embodied in victimage on the one hand and sexual love on the other. The adjective “bellus” is derived from “benus” and “bonus,” meaning “good,” once more suggesting Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus as well as Castiglione’s Courtier and the dialectical climb to the mystic experience of Beauty, the Good, the One.

So ad bellum purificandum can also be translated “toward purification of the beautiful (or beauty).” Such is the dialectical task Burke sets for himself in the second part of his ‘63 version of the Symbolic at whose conclusion the manuscript breaks off but whose equivalent can be found in the chapter from the ‘58 version on “The Thinking of the Body,” the thorough and thoroughly disgusting “monster” of a chapter that “wrote itself” in 1951 (Williams, Unending Conversations 9 and 24), much to the embarrassment of Burke. That part of that original chapter was published in 1963 and collected with an equally disgusting essay (Somnia Ad Urinandum) in Language as Symbolic Action is testament to a deeply felt need for “expressing or redeeming the fecal motive” that, according to Burke, is required for transcendence to be complete (RM 309). So, in this alternative translation of the motto, we spy the body that learns language—i.e., we uncover the significance of embodiment in Burke.

The mystic, says Burke, “invariably aims to encompass conflicting orders of motivation, not by outlawing any order, however ‘inferior,’ but by finding a place for it in a developmental series.” The mystic, for example, treats the body, not as an antithesis to spirit, but as a way into spirit—“a necessary disciplinary step” for “entry to ultimate communion.” Indeed, says Burke, the mystic in his thoroughness employs body terms for his ultimate experiences (RM 189).

Having made his point, Burke arranges the remainder of the Rhetoric in a pattern climbing through rhetoric, beyond rhetoric in keeping with the pattern in Casti­glione’s “paradigmatic” Book of the Courtier—“a series of formal operations for the dialectical purifying of a rhetorical motive,”climbing through dialogues on the endowments of the perfect courtier, the forms of courtly address, and the code of courtly intercourse between men and women which is Platonically trans­formed in the final dialogue concerning the end of the perfect courtier (i.e., the theme of sexual love dialectically climbing “from woman to beauty in general to transcendent desire for Absolute union” (RM 221)). Burke begins by consider­ing rhetoric as courtship and dialectically climbs to consider­ing mysticism as ultimate identification where rhetoric and the Rhetoric end in a vision of Aristotle’s God (RM 333).

The end of rhetoric would be peace, rest, love—and at the same time the end or cessation of rhetoric, when rhetoric transcends itself in dialectic. Rhetoric in its ideal culminations would be love such as we find in Augustine, whose “God has made us for Himself,” so “our hearts remain restless until they rest in Him”;12 in Spinoza, whose crowning motive was “the intellectual love of God”; in Plato in the Symposium and Phaedrus in the love of Beauty and the Good; and in Aristotle whose God is “the motionless prime mover that moves all else not by being itself moved, but by being loved” (GM 254). And so rhetoric and the Rhetoric end with one of the greatest passages in Burke:

Finally let us observe, all about us, forever goading us, though it be in fragments [emphasis mine], the motive that attains its ultimate identification in the thought, not of the universal holocaust, but in the universal order—as with the rhetorical and dialectic symmetry of the Aristotelian metaphysics, whereby all classes of beings are hierarchically arranged in a chain or ladder or pyramid of mounting worth, each kind striving towards the perfection of its kind, and so towards the kind next above it, while the strivings of the entire series head in God as the beloved [emphasis mine] cynosure and sinecure, the end of all desire. (RM 333)

Purificandum III

Worth noting in the wonder of this concluding passage is the word “mounting,” whose range of meanings Burke has considered only a few pages earlier—the kinesthetic sensation of height, social betterment, ethical ascent, fecal matter such as the dung-pile (which might be associated with pyramids, given that ancient Egyptians held the dung-beetle sacred, and thus for Burke the surmounting of the fecal motive), as well as sexual mounting (RM 301-13).

Burke, in the final pages, claims the mystic state would have its bodily counterpart. Following neurologist Charles Sherrington (oft-quoted by Burke), he explains how movement is made possible by the coordinated flexing and relaxing of opposed muscles. If conflicting impulses expressed themselves simultaneously, if nerves controlling opposed muscles all fired at once, movement would not be possible. Such a neurological condition could be accurately described in terms of total activation (or pure action) and/or total passivity and plausibly would be involved in the pronounced sense of unity to which mystics habitually testify (PC 248; GM 294; RM 330-31), a oneness as thorough as that experienced in the womb (PC 248)—or, dare one suggest, sexual union

Two cautions. First, ideally sexual union would be the consummation, the culmination of courtship; and such would always be the case to some degree. Sexual activity would always involve more for bodies that learn language than it would for other animals. Second, the suggestion is not that sexual union is (always or even sometimes) mystical but that dialectic can lift us to a mystic state which would manifest itself physically in a manner much like sexual union for the body that learns language.

Burke himself hints at sexual union—and such an interpretation would explain the mystic’s recourse to erotic imagery. For Burke continues, if a taste of new “fruit” is knowledge—or, given the sly allusion to “forbidden fruit,” if sexual intercourse is considered (carnal) knowledge—then the experience of a rare and felicitous physical state would be so too. The mystic, reasons Burke, would be convinced his experience was “noetic,” conveying a “truth” beyond the realm of logical contradiction, constituting a report of something from outside the mind, a “communication with an ultimate, unitary ground” (RM 330-31).

Transcendence and catharsis are “rival medicines” (LSA 186-89), says Burke—transcendence being effected in terms of a beyond and catharsis by imitation of victimage. But both are medicines (not metaphor­ically, though perhaps in contrast to “cookery”), similar enough to suggest the embodiment of transcendence is comparable to the more obvious embodiment of catharsis. So, one should not be surprised when Burke observes that despite discord an audience may be brought by means of dramatic devices to a unitary response. He regards “the tearful outbursts of an audience at a tragedy as a surrogate for sexual orgasm” and 18,000 Athenians weeping in unison as a variant of “what was once a primitive promiscuous sexual orgy” such as “the Dionysian rites from which Greek tragedy developed” (Dramatism & Develop­ment 14; LSA 186; GM 229).13

Ideas of pity readily attain natural bodily fulfillment in tears, says Burke; and ideas of mirth lead similarly to laughter as well as tears from riotous laughter. Weeping at tragedy and laughing at comedy are akin to love, but not identical. They operate as substitutes for catharsis through erotic love which has its own kind of bodily release (completion, fulfillment). Surely, says Burke toward the end of the 1958 first version of the Symbolic, the most “cathartic” experience possible would be the ability to love everything, without reservation in such bodily spontaneity as attains its purely verbal counterpart in ejaculations [sic] of thanksgiving and praise (PDC ms. 322).

A final caution—sexual orgasm would be cathartic; sexual union need not be (e.g., the Tantric spiritual practice of sexual yoga and meditation in which orgasm is delayed or withheld). The mystic state would be more like the moment just prior to release—a neurological state, Burke speculates, that could be described in terms of total activation and/or total passivity in which all nervous impulses “attitudinally glowed” at once, “remaining in a halfway stage of incipience” (attitude functioning for Burke as a substitute for action or an incipient action); like, he continues appositively, “the status nascendi” (not the act but the state of being born) of “the pursuit figured on Keats’ Grecian Urn” (RM 330-31)14 (which appropriately for Burke, Keats addresses as “Fair attitude!”—see GM 459).

Bellus II

Burke’s mention of Keats is intriguing but confusing. He mentions Keats earlier to exemplify pure persuasion—“A single need, forever courted, as on Keats’s Grecian Urn, would be made possible by self-interference” (RM 275). Such interference would prevent persuasion’s ever coming to its end. But persuasion—rhetoric—transcends itself in dialectic. Linguistic action for itself alone does come to its end, an end inherent to language itself and a state such as that depicted on the Urn, a state characterized in a manner suggestive of self-interference—with a difference.

Pure persuasion, says Burke, would be “as biologically unfeasible as that moment when the irresistible force meets the immovable body.” It would be psychologically related to “a conflict of opposite impulses” and philosophically suggestive of “Buridan’s extremely rational ass” starving to death between two equally distant, equally succulent bales of hay. It would be “the moment of motionlessness . . . uncomfortably like suspended animation” (RM 294). 

Noting that if, “as neurologists like Sherrington tell us,” the expression of some impulses is contrived by the repression of others, then there is even on the bodily level an “infringement of freedom” within us, a sheerly physiological state of “inner contradiction.” Thus, he continues, “discord would have become the norm.”

However if going beyond [emphasis mine] it, the nervous system could fall [an odd choice of words, but see below] into a state of radical passivity whereby all nervous impulses “attitudinally glowed” at once (remaining in a halfway stage of incipience, the status nascendi of the pursuit figured on Keats’ Grecian Urn) there could be total “activation” without the overt acts that require repressive processes. Hence “contradictory” movements could exist simultaneously. (RM 330-31)

If normal action involves on the bodily level an “infringement of freedom,” the state concerning which Burke speculates, the state to which the purely linguistic act would lift us would be experienced not as “self-interference” but as “freedom.”

And perhaps not as “suspended animation” either, not as time stopped (or interfered with) but as an eternal present (GM 449). In his analysis of Keats’ poem, Burke writes of “suspension in the erotic imagery, defining an eternal prolongation of the state prior to fulfillment—not exactly arrested ecstasy, but rather an arrested pre-ecstasy.” But what he stresses is “the quality of incipience in this imagery.” And he cites G. Wilson Knight’s referring in The Starlit Dome (295) to “that recurring tendency in Keats to image [sic] a poised form, a stillness suggesting motion” (GM 449-50)—as with total passivity caused by total activation. Though Keats addresses the Urn as a “still unravish’d bride of quietness,” Burke points to Keats’ discovering erotic imagery (“maidens loth,” “mad pursuit,” “wild ecstasy,” and more) everywhere in the embroidered scene covering it (i.e., the “brede [breed?] of marble men and maidens overwrought [overly excited?]”), fevered imagery of ravishment frozen on the Urn, imagery sharing the incipience of the Bold Lover who never, never wins the kiss (?) but forever loves.

Burke interprets this incipience as a variant of the identification between sexual love and death typical of 19th century romanticism (e.g., the “musical monument” of Wagner’s Liebestod). “On a purely dialectical basis, to die in love would be to be born to love (the lovers dying as individual identities that they might be transformed into a common identity).” Indeed any imagery of a dying or a falling in common (perhaps why Burke speaks of the nervous system falling into a state of radical passivity—see above) when woven with sexual imagery “signalizes a ‘transcendent’ sexual consummation” (GM 450-51).15

Purificandum IV

But Burke reminds us that “transcendence is not complete until the fecal motive has in some way been expressed and redeemed” (RM 309). Indeed “the entire hierarchic pyramid of dialectical symmetry may be infused with such a spirit” (RM 311). If we would ascend to the vision of Beauty, beauty must be purified—ad bellum purificandum. The mystic—like Keats in the “Ode,” like Burke in the Grammar, Rhetoric, and Symbolic—encompasses conflicting orders of motivation by finding a place for them in a developmental series, treating the body not as an antithesis to but a way into spirit—“a necessary disciplinary step” for “entry to ultimate communion.” In his thoroughness the mystic even employs body terms for his ultimate experiences (RM 189). 

Keats seeks to transcend the body and his own illness16 (“with the peculiar inclinations to erotic imaginings that accompany its fever”), to redeem by a poetic act his bodily suffering (“death, disease, the passions, or bodily ‘corruption’ generally (as with religious horror of the body)” being variants of the fecal), by splitting a distraught state into active and passive aspects, so that the benign (purified spiritual activity) remains, while the malign (tubercular—and sexual—fever) can be abstracted and left behind (RM 317; GM 452-53).

More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoyed.
For ever panting, and for ever young
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

But transcendence is not complete with only a sexual mounting; the urinal and literally fecal must be expressed and left behind as well. Burke claims that sometimes transcendence “may be got by purely tonal transformation” (myriad instances of which can be found in language change and partially codified in Grimm’s Laws). Such transformations “would reduce to a single letter or syllable, the process of catharsis, or ritual purging, that is developed at length in tragedy” (RM 310), enabling us to say something without really saying it—like “shucks” (one word, two expletives). Readers of Burke may remember his Great-Gramma Brodie who forbad his saying “G” or “Heck, Holy Smokes, and Darn it” because she knew what they implied (Collected Poems 242). Nevertheless, he speculates that in the title “urn” may be just such a tonal transformation of “urine” and in the final oracular lines “beauty” a transformation of “body” and “truth” of “turd.” Burke cautions, however, that such “joycing” is heuristic or suggestive “though it may put us in search of corroborative observations” (RM 204, 310; “As I Was Saying” 21, an article in which Burke mounts a full defense of his position 20-24).

Bellus III

According to Burke, the same pattern of transcendence (minus joycing) is evident in Plato’s Phaedrus. Lysias’ reference to a “feast of discourse” on the topic of love functions not merely as a metaphor but a juncture of two levels, the dialogue leading step by step from “feast” on the level of sheerly physical appetite (with an element of sociality introducing a motivation beyond mere hunger) to “discourse” on the level of “purely verbal insemination.” In brief, says Burke, “the dialogue is a ‘way’ from sexual intercourse to the Socratic intercourse of dialectical converse,” an instance of the Socratic erotic—Plato’s cure to rival the playwrights’ which he resisted (GM 424).

Propounded most directly in the Phaedrus and the Symposium (which likewise features discourses concerning love on the occasion of a banquet), the Socratic erotic is defined by Burke as “an ideological technique whereby bodily love would be transformed into love of wisdom, which in turn would be backed by knowledge derived and matured from the coquettish give and take of verbal intercourse” (“Catharsis—Second View” 132; PDC 359); though Burke later observes such coquettish give and take “could be relevantly analyzed as an attenuated variant of the tragic principle (‘learning through suffering’), since the victimage involved one’s methodic ‘suffering’ of one’s opponent, in order that exposure to such counter-action might thus contribute to the mature revising of one’s own position” (Unending Conversations 76; PDC 372); or, characterizing the Socratic erotic more terministically, Burke says “the seeds of merely bodily love are [so] placed in a terministic context” that “doctrinal insemination” becomes the concern (Unending Conversations 71; PDC 362).

Catharsis being associated with drama, Platonic transcendence is in contrast associated with lyric, “the kind of arias-with-dance which drama had necessarily subordinated in the very process of becoming drama,” says Burke, observing that when drama overstresses thought, it dissolves into exposition, homily, or dialectic (“Catharsis—Second View” 121; PDC 342). Burke considers Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” an ideal example of such dialectic adapted to lyric poetry (Unending Conversations 76; PDC 373; “On Catharsis” 362).

The contrast between lyric and drama is not absolute, however. Both comedy and tragedy can be partisan; derisive laughter can be as socially unifying as sacrifice. Both employ victimage to some degree—“the butt of humor at whose expense we jointly laugh” as well as the “scape-goat.” But comedy involves a “comic blotch” (hamartema) rather than a “tragic flaw” (hamartia), a foolish blunder rather than a prideful error of judgment. And Aristophanic comedy would culminate in secularized variants of the “sacred marriage” (the hierogamy) and the “love feast” rather than the “kill” (“On Catharsis” 348, 362).17

Given that Plato’s particular system of cure was based on the Socratic erotic (“Catharsis—Second View” 132; PDC 359), the transformations characteristic of dialectic would be more akin to comedy than tragedy, falling on the side of sex rather than victimage—perhaps the reason for Burke’s approaching Plato roundabout through Nietzsche (which he does) and Aristophanes (which he planned to do) (PDC 359-60, a paragraph added in the PDC to “Catharsis—Second View”).

Purificandun V

Burke’s positions vis-à-vis dialectic and drama are part of a running argument with Nietzsche’s as expressed in the Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche claims that tragedy originates in the struggle between two forces, drives, or principles which he associates with Greek deities—Apollo, embodying the drive toward drawing and respecting boundaries and limits; and Dionysus, the drive toward destroying boundaries and transgressing limits. The purest expression of the Apollonian is Homeric epic poetry and the purest expression of the Dionysian quasi-orgiastic forms is music (especially choral singing and dancing). Applying the one-many alignment, Nietzsche equates the principle of individuation with Apollo and the aristocratic, and “primordial unity” with drunken worshippers of Dionysus and primitive democracy. Tragedy is a merger of aristocratic and popular tendencies (the Chorus “hovering on the edge of riot”), a balance of Apollonian moderation and self-control and Dionysian excess (with the musical, Dionysian element tending to dominate). Tragedy’s decline commences, according to Nietzsche, with the arrival of Socrates, a new force dedicated to creating abstract generalizations and attaining theoretical knowledge (Unending Conversations 74; PDC 369).

Though Burke believes scholarship provides backing for Nietzsche’s view of tragedy as “the marriage of conflicting social motives,” he disputes Nietzsche’s equating the principle of individuation with any one social class, there being democratic as well as aristocratic forms; besides, individuation is not exclusively a social principle. He claims primordial unity is equated with the Dionysian dance when it could be equated with the Apollonian dream as well. And music’s equation with Dionysus (an equation central to Nietzsche’s argument) could be made more justifiably with Apollo— an equation Burke himself implicitly makes, Apollo’s lyre being the instrument accompanying lyric poetry recited or sung at symposia (though flutes were also common). Burke would appear to align his terms differently, associating Dionysus more with drama and Apollo more with non-dramatic lyric and therefore Platonic dialectic. And while Burke believes Plato did offer a cure in direct competition with both the tragic and comic playwrights, he hardly considered his medicine inferior  (Unending Conversations 75-76; PDC 369-72).

But Nietzsche remains more than relevant for Burke’s purposes because, throughout the Birth of Tragedy, there runs “a terascopic [sic] concern” with what Burke calls “the Daedalian motive”—named for the creator of the Labyrinth on Crete in which the Minotaur (part bull, part man) was kept—given Nietzsche’s speaking of trying to find his way through “the labyrinth of the origin of Greek tragedy” (Unending Conversations 75; PDC 371). 

The relation “between articulate form and the inarticulate matter out of which such expression emerges,” says Burke, is “labyrinthine” in two senses—“not only is the inarticulate a tangle (at least, as viewed from the standpoint of the articulate); but also articulation itself is a tangle, since any symbol-system sets up an indeterminate range of ‘implications’ still to be explored.” The Daedalian motive—the desire for articulation—is cathartic in the non-Aristotelian, Crocean sense of expression being cathartic, an experience of relief resulting from converting an “inarticulate muddle into the orderly terms of a symbol-system,” as well as from finding a direction through a maze of implications (from a beginning through a middle to an end) (“On Catharsis” 364). And maintaining his Apollonian alignments, Burke observes, “Regarding dialectical processes in general, any expression or articulation may legitimately be considered as embodying a principle of individuation” (Unending Conversations 75; PDC 370).

Burke identifies three critical points in the process of purgation or purification—the poet being “cleansed” of his “extra-poetic materiality” when he hits upon his theme and starts tracking down its implications; when “he becomes so deeply involved in his symbol-system” that it takes over, and “a new quality or order of motives” emerges; when he reaches his goal and fulfillment is complete (“On Catharsis” 364).18 

Contra-Nietzsche, Burke argues Plato may have formulated his medicine after the great tragic playwrights had concocted theirs, but “dialectical transcendence is logically prior to drama.” Any work translating

the formless tensions of life into an orderly set of systematically inter-related terms (which make possible a treatment of the tension “in principle,” in “entelechial perfection”) by the same token provides a kind of transcendence, through having “translated” us into the formal realm of a symbol-system.  In fact, any orderly terminology “transcends” non-terministic conditions (as a medicology can be said to transcend the diseases it diagnoses and prescribes for, or as any theological, metaphysical, political, historical, etc. theory can be said to transcend the non-symbolic motives to which it imparts form by symbolism).  Man’s first notable step away from the realm of sheer sensation (that is to say, man’s first “transcendence”) is probably best got by the spontaneous symbolizing of sensation in poetic imagery.  (PDC 172-73)

Beyond sheer expression, beyond “turning brute impressions into articulate expressions” (LSA 188), there is the cathartic process of unfolding, of successively actualizing initially vague potentialities (“On Catharsis” 364). The terms in a symbol-system mutually imply one another in a timeless (eternal), cyclical, simultaneity (like notes in a chord), but the terms themselves are future to one another as a thinker proceeds in a temporal, linear sequence from one to the next (like notes in an arpeggio), discovering successively how each in turn is implicit in the others.  The futurity of an implicational cycle of terms still to be made explicit is “a cause of great unrest,” even if the implicational network is built about the cathartic promise of an ultimate rest (“On Catharsis” 364-65).  Insofar as such a cycle of terms is without direction, there would be “cathartic” value in the irreversibility of “narrative or dramatic forms, each with its own unique progression.” Such development “gives the feel of going somewhere, even though, in the last analysis, the same cyclic tangle broods over any self-consistent symbol system” (“On Catharsis” 366).19 

But what Burke contends concerning the articulation of any particular work or network is true of the articulation of language in general, its potentialities still to be made actual causing great unrest, though promising nonetheless ultimate rest at the end of their unfolding. To say the human being is a “symbol-using animal” is by the same token to say the human being is a “transcending animal.” There is in language itself “a motive force” calling us to transcend a world without language (RM 192). And implicit in language as “a means of transcending brute objects” is the idea of God as “the ultimate transcendence”. (RM 276)

Per linguam, praeter linguam

À la Nietzsche, Burke goes on his own hunt for the origins of tragedy. (In fact, the degree to which Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and Birth of Tragedy inform the Symbolic may be greater than at first appears). Like Nietzsche, he turns to Aeschylus, analyzing the Oresteia almost line by line.

But his search for the origins of tragedy leads to a search for the origins of language and a focus on the negative as the essence of language. Burke moved rapidly through the early sections of the first draft of the Symbolic (“Poetics, Dramatistically Considered”) up through the one on Aeschylus’ trilogy. In summer 1952, he published “Form and Persecution in the Oresteia” in the Sewanee Review, then in fall ’52 and winter ’53 a long four-part essay in the Quarterly Journal of Speech on “A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language,” which he identified as part of his Ethics years later (1959) in his initial correspondence with William Rueckert—“the damned trilogy” having split along the way into a tetralogy (Letters 3). For the next decade he worked back and forth between the proposed Symbolic and Ethics, publishing parts of each here and there, though the closest he came to publishing either as a complete volume was Language as Symbolic Action and The Rhetoric of Religion.

The Sewanee Review article (collected in LSA 125-38) sits halfway between the section of the 1958 first draft that it summarizes and the QJS articles. There Burke argues the Oresteia (though not reducible to terms so “biologically absolute”) is concerned “with the unresolved conflicts between the verbal and the nonverbal” out of which the verbal arises and in which it is necessarily grounded (LSA 136). The persecuting Furies and Orestes’ mother, Clytemnaestra, are described as the amphisbaena—what Burke takes to be the mythic representation of “the ultimate dreaming worm” (LSA 135) “ever circling back upon itself in enwrapt self-engrossment, the ‘mystic’ dreaming stage of vegetal metabolism in which the taking in and the giving off merge into one another” (LSA 310), “the caterpillar” residing at “the roots of our being” (“Art–and the First Rough Draft of Living” 157), “the sheerly vegetating digestive tract that underlies all human rationality, and out of which emerge the labyrinths of human reason” (LSA 135). Burke takes the “purely social justice” celebrated in the Eumenides’ pageantry at the mythic founding of the Acropolis to be a “dialectical transcending of the basic biological worm” (LSA 135).

In light of the “sheer physicality” of life, writes Burke, the human animal is but a “digestive tract with trimmings” (White Oxen 282), the human organism “simply one more species of alimentary canal with accessories” (“Art–and the First Rough Draft of Living” 157). Somehow, out of this nonverbal tract there emerge linguistic labyrinths in which we lose immediate contact with the sheer materiality of existence. Though the powers of speech may “guide and protect” us in our “tasks of growth, temporary individual survival, and reproduction” (White Oxen 282), they also “cause us to approach the world through a screen of symbolism.” This screen, forcing us to “approach reality at one remove,” distinguishes us from the dreaming worm and makes us the sort of animal human beings typically are (“Art–and the First Rough Draft of Living” 157). 

Thus the body that learns language suffers a kind of “alienation” from nature and its own body (LSA 52). Language establishes a “distance” between us and the nonverbal ground of our verbalizing, a distance not felt by organisms “whose relations to nature are more direct” (LSA 90). The body that learns language exhibits “an unremitting tendency” to make itself over in the image of his distinctive trait, as if aiming to become like “the pure spirit of sheer words, words so essential that they would not need to be spoken” (PC 184). Such a tendency denies our animality even though the action of symbolicity depends upon the resources of physical and biological motion.

Prior to language, we are submerged in nature. However, even then a certain kind of individuality is implicit in the sheer physical centrality of the nervous system whereby food a particular body consumes or pains a particular body suffers belong exclusively to that particular body—a view that Burke considers the logological equivalent of the Thomist view of matter as the principium individualionis (“Catharsis:  Second View” 107). Then come language and the resulting alienation of nonverbal and verbal. Language “strongly punctuates” physical individuality by making us aware of the centrality of the nervous system” (LSA 90). Though we may all “go through the same general set of physiological and psychological processes,” each of us is still isolated within his own body since “universality of that sort by no means removes the individuality intrinsic” to the central nervous system (“Catharsis:  Second View” 107).  Our alienation is exacerbated further as the material reality of the human body in physical association with other bodies, human and non-human, becomes submerged beneath the ideality of socio-political communities saturated with the genius of language (White Oxen 289-90).

The tension created by the vague and vast implications of language yet to be unfolded is released by speech. Thereafter language points down problematic paths, but out of labyrinthine tangles and turns the ultimate course emerges as the thread of language leads up and out in a long climb to its end—by and through language, beyond language, per linguam, praeter linguam (“Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education,” 263; Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives 266). Such is Plato’s Upward Way, the route of dialectical rather than dramatic cleansing by tears or laughter, purification rather than purgation, transcendence rather than catharsis (Unending Conversations 70; PDC 361)—the way of death and rebirth.

For there is an analogue of dying (and a corresponding rebirth) in the very form of dialectical mounting, the particulars of the senses subjected to progressive transformation whereby their sensuous immediacy and sensory diversity are left further behind with each advance in generalization, the climb complete in the vision of the One—a mortification by means of abstraction, (GM 429; Unending Conversations 74; PDC 367) and death the final slaying of image by idea. “Death then becomes the Neo-Platonists’ One, the completely abstract, which is technically the divine” (“Thanatopsis for Critics" 374). 

In Plato’s analogy of the cave, the imagery is reversed—we leave behind the shadow realm of death; the cave where we have been imprisoned or entombed becomes a womb giving birth to a new world where we are free at last, a new world in which “everything is, as it were, shined on by the same sun, the unitary principle discovered en route, so that entities previously considered disparate can henceforth be seen as partakers of a single substance, through being bathed in a common light” (Unending Conversations 74; PDC 367).

How appropriate then that Keats knew, though there was a lust for life in the brede covering the Grecian Urn, there was an aura of death surrounding it as well.20  An urn after all is a funerary vessel, a chamber pot for life’s remains when life is left behind—although the ashes inside may remain from the conflagration of transcendent sexual union rather than cremation. Sub specie aeternitatis transcendental fever is transformed into transcendental chill, though Burke cautions that as only the fever’s benign aspects remained after consumption’s malign aspects were left behind, so it is on a wholly benign chill that the poem ends (GM 458-59). “Cold Pastoral!” writes Keats, describing an unheard melody with a pastoral theme, or the pastoral last rites rendered by a priest, or the pastoral scene of a transcendental ground (“mortality” left behind for “immortality”) from which the “silent form” issues its epiphany. Then isolation falls away in rapture, and we know . . .

Ordinary knowledge comes via the senses, says Burke, so an extraordinary sensory condition (such as one in which “all nervous impulses ‘attitudinally glowed’ at once” so that we remained “in a halfway stage of incipience, the status nascendi of the pursuit figured on Keat’s Grecian Urn”) would likewise be felt as knowledge. 

The mystic would thus have a strong conviction that his experience was “noetic,” telling him of a “truth” beyond the realm of logical conditions, and accordingly best expressed in terms of the oxymoron.  And indeed, why would it not be “knowledge”?  For if the taste of a new fruit is knowledge, then certainly the experiencing of a rare and felicitous physical condition would be knowledge too, a report of something from outside the mind, communication with an ultimate, unitary ground. (RM 331)

Could not a mystic Plato, Keats, or Burke speak of that which in that moment is revealed

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


Burke observes in the closing pages of the Grammar that Jowlett, who devoted a great portion of his life to the translating and interpreting of Plato, fully recog­nized the Platonic doctrine of transcendence but never analyzed the dialogues themselves as acts of transcendence. “For not only do they plead for transcendence; they are so formed that the end transcends the beginning” (GM 421). The same might be justly said of the Rhetoric and surmised of the Symbolic.

The Rhetoric’s culminating passage concludes a dialectical climb to a transcendent end. I believe the Symbolic’s culminating passage would have concluded a similar climb.  I believe the steps can be found in the final sections of the ‘58 version (itself unfinished), which examines similarities and differences between dramatic catharsis and dialectical transcendence and in Burke’s great essay on Emerson which does the same (“I, Eye, Aye—Concerning Emerson’s Early Essay on ‘Nature,’ and the Machinery of Transcendence” published in 1966 and collected in Language as Symbolic Action, pp. 186-200).

Burkes writes in “Platonic Transcendence” of

an “Upward Way” moving towards some “higher” principle of unity; once this principle is found, a whole ladder of steps is seen to descend from it; thus, reversing his direction, the dialectician can next take a “Downward Way” that brings him back into the realm . . . where he began; but on reentering, he brings with him the unitary principle he has discovered en route and the hierarchal design he saw implicit in that principle; accordingly, applying the new mode of interpretation to his original problem, he now has the problem “placed” in terms of the transcendent . . .  (Unending Conversations 71; PDC 361-62 )

He continues,

Insofar as reality is non-symbolic and thus outside the realm of the symbol-systems by which we would describe it, to that extent reality is being described in terms of what it is not.  At the point where we have gone from sensory images to ideas that transcend the sensory image, we might next go beyond such ideas in turn by introducing a “mythic” image (an image that is interpreted not literally but ironically, since it states the new position by analogy, and analogies must be “discounted”).  Such use of “myth” as a step in a dialectic may carry the development across a motivational gulf by providing a new ground of assertion at some crucial point where a further advance is not attainable through strictly logical argument.  (Unending Conversations 72; PDC 364)

The image of the Urn as an “object” would be sensory, says Burke; the vision of the Urn as “viaticum” would be mythic (Unending Conversations 73; PDC 366).

Burke’s final step in the Emerson essay is his introduction of such a mythic image (toward which perhaps the whole Symbolic moves) by reference to book six of the Aeneid where early in his journey to the Underworld Virgil descries a wailing throng stranded on the shore opposite death, the land of life behind them; unburied and hence as yet unferried to their final abode, those shades are said to have “stretched forth their hands through love of the farther shore”—

Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore.

That is the pattern. Whether there is or is not an ultimate shore towards which we, the unburied, would cross, transcendence involves dialectical processes whereby something HERE is interpreted in terms of something THERE, something beyond itself. (LSA 200)21

Does not Burke’s image suggest we suffer life and long for death; that life is imprisonment and death a release? Expelled from and wandering the realms east of Eden, are we not like those wretched shades ourselves, yearning for the life we knew before the Fall, the Life that would be ours if we should truly Die?

Stretching forth his hands each day—enthralled in tracking down and contemplating the interrelationships prevailing among terms of a system (“Poetic Motive” 60), whether another’s or his own; constantly scrutinizing linguistic operations, how they unfold, what they ultimately hold within themselves; aware that wherever the process can be found, even in traces, of considering things “in terms of a broader scope” than terms those particular things themselves allow, “there are the makings of Transcendence” (LSA 200)—stretching forth his hands from the land of life and language to the silent shore beyond in “benign contemplation of death,” Burke is led  and would lead us likewise to live “a dying life” (GM 222-23).

Representative Summations

“Burke’s conception of the relationship between language, mind, body, and reality is informed by (a) naturalism, the mean between an anti-scientific idealism and a reductive materialism; and (b) organicism (biology), the source for hierarchy (an organism’s organization) and entelechy (its development). Language is the entelechy of the human organism, generating the mind, the highest (meta-biological) level of a body genetically endowed with the ability to learn language. Language itself mirrors biology (a terminology generating a hierarchy on the path to its entelechy) and possesses its own entelechy (an all-inclusive “nature . . . containing the principle of speech,” or NATURE.” 22  The system resulting is basically Aristotelian.

However, though Burke’s system is Aristotelian, his concept of rhetoric is Platonic.  There is no “fall” for Aristotle, but there is for Plato and a corresponding fall for Burke, the consequence of which is a “false” or “fallen” conscious­­ness regarding the relationship between body and mind, nonverbal and verbal, material and ideal, as well as ourselves and others. Being primarily ontological rather than historical, this fallen consciousness can be characterized on the one hand as Platonic; being a fall into the ideal world of language rather than the material world, it can be character­ized on the other as Marxoid; but being naturalistic (i.e., being primarily neither idealistic as with Plato nor materialistic as supposed with Marx, but acknow­ledging both the material and the ideal as natural), it is more Aristotelian than either (unless like Burke one considers Marx a naturalist and an Aristotelian).23

Consistent with Plato, rhetoric leaves us mired in this fallen realm; only dialectic can mystically lift us from it. All rhetoric (i.e., action for the sake of some purpose) is always to some degree self-defeating; every attempt to compen­sate for or overcome the imbalances and conflicts that characterize the human condition leads to but further imbalance and conflict. Only dialectic (i.e., lin­guistic action for itself alone) leads to true, though momentary, transcendence. No linguistic action is ultimately efficacious other than purely linguistic action effecting tran­scen­­dence through dialectic (the preferred route) or catharsis through drama (the less preferred in that drama mixes dialectic and rhetoric). The problem being language, the only solution is more of the same—rhetoric’s giving way to dialectic (i.e., a true and transcendent Rhetoric as with Plato) that overcomes the imbalance or conflict between body and mind, nonverbal and verbal, material and ideal, the conflict between ourselves and others, and for the moment makes us whole.

The cause of this fall can be traced to language which in its thorough (“cathartic”) operation turns distinctions (such as mind and body) into divisions. The remedy is likewise found in language which in its thorough (dialectical and in the Crocean sense “cathartic”) operation overcomes divisions. The cause is too much language, the cure more of the same—a “homeopathic” approach Burke characterizes as Aristotelian.

But the ultimate cause must be traced to the very nature of things (the existence of time and space and thus of distinction and potential division between parts which language in its thorough operation makes actual)—a “proto-fall” for which language provides no remedy. The ultimate remedy lies only in an end to the nature of things—the escaton.  Language provides temporary solace by generating an experience of wholeness through drama and (preferably) dialectic. But the experience of wholeness is shattered by (linguistic) action of any kind. The experience can be maintained only by a constant repetition of drama or dialectic. The eternal repetition which at first provides solace eventually becomes a source of despair from which death is the only escape, a position characteristic of Zen Buddhism in which the Nirvana of nothingness and oblivion is sought. Thus, action is depreciated by Burke, the only action sanctioned being incipient (or more accurately, substitutive): an attitude of Neo-Stoic resignation à la Spinoza.


1. The question of how systematic Burke actually may be is subject to ongoing debate. Burke’s system is not readily apparent because he was an autodidact with a dense and difficult highly personal (not to say jargon-laden) style. Had he stayed at Columbia he might have proven easier to categorize and read, but within the strait-jacket of academe he might never have become the protean thinker beloved by his admirers. From the Grammar on Burke clearly thinks he is being systematic, the question thereafter being whether he abandoned “dramatism” following the Rhetoric with the development of “logology,”  though Burke himself claims dramatism is his ontology and logology his epistemology ("Dramatism and Logology," The [London] Times Literary Supplement, August 12, 1983, p. 859). Burke’s never publishing his proposed Symbolic is also supposed as grounds for arguing he abandoned dramatism. Clearly the author believes otherwise. Burke’s thought is systematic though its expression may be more like that of a poet than a philosopher, more Plato than Aristotle.

2. Correspondence, partial publication, and the manuscript itself indicate the bulk of the unfinished second draft of the Symbolic of Motives (hereafter the SM for “Symbolic,” its running header) can reasonably be dated 1961-63, though the history of the complete manuscript is complex going back to the last sections of the first draft (hereafter the PDC for “Poetics, Dramatistically Considered,” the manuscript’s title). In a sense Burke was already revising the first draft before distributing it in 1958. Not only does Burke indicate the first draft is incomplete (PDC ms. p 374); in addition “The Poetic Motive,” the last section of the first draft (PDC ms. pp 375-391) becomes the first section of the second draft (SM ms. pp. 1-17) with virtually no change. The section is published in Hudson Review 11 (Spring 1958): 54-63. Other parts of the PDC published after 1958 with virtually no change (e.g., “Catharsis (Second View),” Centennial Review of Arts and Science 5 (Spring 1961): 107-32) may have been intended like “The Poetic Motive” for the revised SM.

Burke indicates to Malcolm Cowley in a series of letters from 1961 that he is now working hard on revising the Symbolic (see David Williams, “Toward Rounding Out the Motivorum Trilogy,” Unending Conversations, p. 16).  On the other hand 1963 appears to be the date for Burke’s completion of “Part Two” of the second draft covering SM ms. pp. 223-269 (the point at which the manuscript breaks off). “Part Two” is a major revision of “The Thinking of the Body” section from the first draft covering ms. pp. 76-179. The essay “The Thinking of the Body (Comments on the Imagery of Catharsis in Literature),” published in Psychoanalytic Review 50 (Fall 1963) and collected in Language as Symbolic Action (pp. 308-343), is drawn almost entirely from the PDC except for most of the last two sections (LSA pp. 308-30 and 330-43, respectively). There Burke writes (LSA p. 341) that as he works he is living on a Florida key—in fact Englewood, Florida from the end of December 1962 through the middle of March 1963, where he was working on the Symbolic among other things. Burke specifies in the SM (ms. p. 265) exactly what he has cut out of the section from the PDC and indicates he plans to publish the material in a separate monograph (i.e., the above mentioned essay). Burke has probably completed the SM material too, since he receives news on March 4th that William Carlos Williams has died. Thereafter he appears to be caught up in innumerable projects, especially those involving his budding relationship with the University of California Press, and from 1967 until her death in 1969 his wife’s illness.

3. A similar though less thorough discussion can be found in the PDC—e.g., “Embracing such words as ‘arms’ and ‘articulate,’ the root of the word ‘artistic’ is apparently related to a Greek word meaning ‘to join.’ (Further back, in Sanskrit, there were related roots meaning ‘to attain’ and ‘to fit.’)” Summing up the discussion of previous pages Burke says, “the etymological inklings in the word ‘artistic’ point towards dialectic, or articulation, with appropriate modes of generalization and specification—and this trend would come to a head in principles of classification (as with the order of the terms in a Platonic list of classes arranged like the rungs of a ladder)” (4-5).

4. Burke adds parenthetically, “Later in this text, we shall consider Poe’s proposition that ‘the most poetical topic for the ideal lyric is a beautiful woman dead” (SM 32-33)—suggesting the SM will turn ultimately to the consideration of “beauty” (traditionally the end of poetics and aesthetics) and “death” (which Burke associates with perfection and the end of dialectic as well as “rebirth.”)

5. Burke’s exact phrasing is important given the claim: “though what we mean by pure persuasion in the absolute sense exists nowhere, it can be present as a motivational ingredient in any rhetoric” (RM 269); and “as the ultimate of all persuasion, its form or archetype, there is pure persuasion. . . . The important consideration is that, in any device, the ultimate form (paradigm or idea) of that device is present, and is acting. And this form would be the ‘purity’” (RM 273-74). Emphases mine.

6. See also RM 218 where Burke discusses Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and the “antinomian yet intimate relation between love and war” where he characterizes the marriage between Venus and Mars as “a love match that is itself a kind of war.”

7. Burke phrased his definition in precisely this manner during a dinner conversation with Barbara Biesecker and me among others on November 5, 1987 at the SCA Convention in Boston. Burke’s phrasing echoes his 1985 essay “In Haste” (p. 330): “. . . our bodies being physiologically in the realm of nonsymbolic motion, but genetically endowed with the ability to learn a kind of verbal behavior I call symbolic action.” See also his 1978 essay “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action” (pp. 811-12): “ . . . our anthropoid ancestors underwent a momentous mutation.  In their bodies (as physio­logical organisms in the realm of motion) there developed the ability to learn the kind of tribal idiom that is here meant by symbolic action.” And “. . . the mutation that makes speech possible is itself inherited in our nature as physical bodies.” See also his 1981 essay “Variations on ‘Providence’”: “But unlike all other earthly animals (to our knowledge) the human kind is genetically, physiologically, materially endowed with the ability to learn the kind of language which Logology would call ‘symbolic action’” (On Human Nature 274).

8. Burke goes on to observe both dialectic and drama “treat of persons and their characteristic thoughts”—though the dialectic of Platonic dialogue stresses the thoughts held by persons, while drama stresses the persons holding the thoughts. Still, “in both forms the element of personality figures”—though “dialectic can dispense with formal division into cooperatively competing voices.” The thoughts can still be “vibrant with personality,” but they are considered “various aspects of the same but somewhat inconsistent personality, rather than as distinct characters in various degrees of agreement and disagreement” as in Platonic dialogue (LSA 188).

9. See also LSA 125, fn 1.

10. In a critical passage in the Rhetoric (180—the end of “Part II”), Burke distinguishes between the nonverbal (by which he means the “visceral”), the postverbal (“the unutterable complexities to which the implications of words themselves give rise”) and the superverbal (whatever would be the “jumping-off place” if we went “through the verbal to the outer limits of the verbal”)—i.e., the superverbal not as “nature minus speech, but nature as the ground of speech, hence nature as itself containing the principle of speech,” an all-inclusive nature that would be not less-than but more-than-verbal (or NATURE to make the distinction clear and the phrase concise), Burke’s equivalent to Spinoza’s “God or Nature” (though the elements or attributes are reversed).

Unlike Spinoza, however, Burke does not forget the phenomenal character of his starting point. Spinoza describes the finite in terms of the infinite, his metaphysical propositions assuming the character of assertions about external reality; his one infinite divine substance possesses an infinite number of attributes of which we know but two, thought and extension (“God” and “Nature” being the names we respectively give them), mind and body constituting their finite modifications or modes. Burke describes the infinite in terms of the finite, his metabiological propositions being projections of the human; his infinite “nature [equivalent to extension] . . . containing the principle of speech”[equivalent to thought] is an extension of the finite “body genetically endowed with the ability to learn language” [equivalent to mind] —i.e., our phenomenally limited (anthropocentric) view of ultimate being is of human being writ large.

11. Burke does not seem altogether consistent in his use of the term “fragments” in the Rhetoric. Of course one could always argue (as Burke himself undoubtedly would) that however the notion is named, the idea is still inherent in the system. Still it is instructive to examine Burke’s usage.

Burke says, for example, “Empirically, what theologians discuss as the ultimate Oneness of God is equivalent to the ultimate oneness of the linguistic principle.” And from what has been argued, he would seem to suggest here that that principle operates in part or as a “fragment” in all language use.  But he goes on, “Rhetoric is thus made from fragments of dialectic.” His explanation: Expression “as persuasion, seeks to escape from infancy by breaking down the oneness of an intuition into several terms, or voices. It defines by partisanship, by determination. These terms may bring clarifications that are themselves confusions on another level” (RM 175-76). The discussion calls to mind an earlier discussion: “The notion of the Son as bringer of light seems in its essence to suggest that the division of the part from the whole is enlightening, a principle that might be stated dialectically thus: Partition provides terms; thereby it allows the parts to comment upon another. But this ‘loving’ relation allows for the ‘fall’ into terms antagonistic in their partiality, until dialectically resolved by reduction to ‘higher’ terms” (RM 140). In these passages and others, “fragments” suggests pieces divorced from or apart from the whole.

But elsewhere “fragments” suggests pieces that retain some aspect of the whole, that are somewhat or somehow connected to or a part of the whole—in which two cases (RM 331) the term is bracketed in quotation marks. Burke, for example, contrasts mysticism and its “fragments” with “substitutes” for mysticism that involve “the transforming of means into ends”—false mysticisms of money or crime or drugs or war (RM 331-32). 

Overall, the term seems to retain the ambiguity of the rhetoric-dialectic relationship, of voices cooperating in competition versus voices competing in cooperation, of opposition versus apposition.

The ambiguity of mysticism versus false mysticism (and the ambiguity of “fragments” as well) continues to the end of the Rhetoric: “Mysticism [including false mysticism?] is no rare thing. True, the attaining of it in its pure state is rare.” Does Burke mean a “true” or “real” state as opposed to a false one? or some other kind of state such as “pure” versus “impure,” that is, mixed with the ersatz? He continues:  “And its secular analogues [the “secular” contrasted with the “sacred” or “pure”? the “social” contrasted with the “cosmic”?], in grand or gracious symbolism, are rare. But the need for it, the itch, is everywhere [à la Augustine?—see fn. 12 below]. And by hierarchy it is intensified.”  (RM 332-33)

Mysticism (?), says Burke, can exist “under many guises” in hierarchy. Anagogically the conditions of the “divine,” the goadings of “mystery” reside in hierarchy (RM 333). In his “Definition of Man” Burke says that in his Rhetoric he tried to trace the relationship between social hierarchy and mystery. He concedes that should the fourth clause of his definition, “goaded by the spirit of hierarchy,” sound too weighted, he could settle instead for “moved by a sense of order.” He then points to E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India “for its ingenious ways of showing how social mystery can become interwoven with cosmic mystery”; and Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier for nicely bringing out two kinds of “worship,” kneeling on one knee to the sovereign and on both knees to God; and the ancient Roman application of the term pontifex maximus to the Emperor to specifically recognize his “bridging” relationship as the head of the social hierarchy  and as a god (LSA 15-16).

But given that “the mystery [social and cosmic?] of the hierarchic is forever with us,” writes Burke in the final paragraph of the Rhetoric, let us

scrutinize its range of entrancements, both with dismay and in delight. And finally let us observe, all about us, forever goading us, though it be in fragments [meant in all its ambiguity?], the motive that attains its ultimate identification in the thought, not of the universal holocaust, but of the universal order—as with the rhetorical and dialectical symmetry of the Aristotelian metaphysics, whereby all classes of being are hierarchically arranged in a chain or ladder or pyramid of mounting worth, each kind striving towards the perfection of its kind, and so towards the kind next above it, while the strivings of the entire series head in God as the beloved cynosure and sinecure, the end of all desire. (RM 333)

12. Burke’s own system can be profitably considered in regard to Augustine’s famous aphorism and modern theologian Paul Tillich’s rendering of it—God is the end of all our striving, that with which we are ultimately concerned. For Augustine and Tillich the theistic motive (though it may not be recognized as such) inspirits all aspects of our lives, so no account of human motivation is complete without it. The motive might be misdirected toward other ends (wealth, power, glory—other “gods”) but no substitute could fully satisfy. The theistic motive in Augustine and Tillich is apparently secularized as the hierarchic motive in Burke. The end of all striving is not God but a principle (such as money) that infuses all levels of a particular hierarchy and functions as God. Thus sheerly worldly powers take on the attributes of secular divinity and demand our worship. For Burke, though, the hierarchic motive itself is ultimately linguistic. And the linguistic motive is ultimately natural—meaning the natural world would encompass more than the merely material (see RM 180). The end of all linguistic striving then would be that NATURE which gives birth not simply to our bodies but also to language and our minds. Thus the theism of Augustine and Tillich is transformed into the naturalism of Burke in which it is NATURE that has made us symbol-using animals and our hearts are restless until our symbols bring us to rest in IT. See Thames, “The Gordian Not” 29.

13. Burke’s contention is particularly apt given Mircea Eliade’s analysis of the centrality of sex and victimage in his study of the archaic ontology implicit in myth and ritual (Myth of the Eternal Return; see also Richard H. Thames, Mystical Ontology in Kenneth Burke [dss.])

According to Eliade, myths testify to archaic man’s terror of losing contact with being (the eternal and sacred) by allowing himself to be overwhelmed in the process of becoming (the temporal and profane). When archaic man repeats an archetypal gesture (at essential moments such as a New Year, birthday or anniversary; a rite of passage; a founding) his action not only repeats but also coincides with an archetype initiated by the gods ab origine, at the beginning of time. By repeating such a gesture he escapes from becoming and maintains contact with being; he abolishes and projects himself out of profane into primordial or mythic time: he returns and is witness to Creation. Thus his rituals evince a thirst not only for the ontic but also the static. Such repetition enables him to maintain contact with being in all its plenitude; such repetition enables him to live like the mystic in a continual, atemporal present by generating a cyclical structure for time. 

According to Eliade, “sex” and “victimage” were central to primitive festivals in which time and space were ritually abolished and regenerated. Both constitute repetitions of the cosmogony—the act of Creation. Sexual intercourse ritually repeated the hierogamy, the union of heaven and earth resulting in the cosmos’ birth. In the Babylonian New Year festival the king and a temple slave reproduced the hierogamy, a ritual to which there corresponded a period of collective orgy.  Intercourse and orgy represent chaos and a rebirth of the universe. It was also during New Year festivals that demons, diseases, and sins were expelled in ceremonies of various types, all involving some form of victimage. According to Sir James Frazer (in that part of the Golden Bough entitled the Scapegoat) the “riddance of evil” was accomplished by transferring it to something (a material object, an animal, or a human being) and expelling that thing (now bearing the faults of the entire community) beyond inhabited territory. With the scapegoat’s sacrifice, chaos was slain. Such ritual purification means a combustion, an annulling of the sins and faults of the individual and the community as a whole—not a mere purifying, but a regeneration, a new birth.

Both sex and victimage repeat the cosmogony. Both represent attempts, in the words of Eliade, “to restore—if only momentarily—mythical and primordial time, ‘pure’ time, the time of the ‘instant’ of the Creation” (Myth 54). In illo tempore the gods had displayed their greatest powers, the cosmogony being “the supreme divine manifestation, the paradigmatic act of strength, superabundance, and creativity.” Religious man, says Eliade, thirsts for the real. “By every means at his disposal, he seeks to reside at the very source of primordial reality, when the world was in statu nascendi” (The Sacred and the Profane 80).

Burke argues that Aristophanic comedy culminates in secularized variants of the “sacred marriage” (the hierogamy) and the “love feast” whereas tragedy culminates in ritual sacrifice, victimage, the “kill” (“On Catharsis” 348, 362).

See endnote 14 below.

14. See endnote 13 above. The mystic state would involve annulment of the here and now and absorption into the Absolute which would be formless as opposed to form in time and space and therefore chaotic as the ground of creation, nothing as opposed to all that is, the womb of plenitude out of which the world is born—pure being.

15. Later in his analysis Burke adds in a footnote

In the light of what we have said about the deathiness of immortality, and the relation between the erotic and the thought of a “dying,” perhaps we might be justified in reading the last line of the great “Bright Star!” sonnet as naming states not simply alternative but also synonymous:

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

This use of the love-death equation is as startlingly paralleled in a letter to Fanny Brawne:

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death.  O that I could take possession of them both in the same moment.  (GM 456)

16. See Burke’s own piece, “The ‘Anaesthetic Revelation’ of Herone Liddell” (White Oxen 255-310), cited by Burke himself (“Catharsis—Second View” 119-20; PDC 340), in which the protagonist,

a “word-man” recovering from the ill effects of surgery, becomes engrossed in studying the death of Keats, as revealed through Keats’s letters. Here, by critically re-enacting the death of a “perfect” poet, the word-man in effect uses Keats as cathartic victim. But the cathartic principle is broken into other fragments also, as for instance, in shell-gathering, in speculations on the sea as life-giving charnel house, and in the change of scene, itself designed to be curative.

Burke takes the title from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience from which Burke takes excerpts of excerpts, assembling the “cullings into one consecutive, dithrambic but rambling account, which should give a composite portrait of the experience, [the] mystic state” (RM 328-29).

17. “On Catharsis or Resolution, with a Postscript” (Kenyon Review 21 (Summer 1959): 337-75) is commonly supposed to have been drawn from the PDC section on “Catharsis (First View)” written in 1951 (ms. pp.38-56). Actually parts of the essay are taken verbatim from the first draft, but parts can also be found verbatim in the second! In 1959 Burke indicated in his first exchange with William Rueckert (Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert: 1959-1987, p. 4) that the “Symbolic” was somewhat delayed because unfortunately “some other possibilities turned up—and I couldn’t resist tracing them down.” Still he hoped to complete the Poetics’ “final bits” in the fall of that year—“a section on comic catharsis, for instance, though the general lines [were] already indicated” in his essay “On Catharsis.” He also hoped “to make clearer the relation btw. dramatic catharsis and Platonic (dialectic)/ transcendence” though he thought Rueckert would also agree that he had “already indicated the main lines in that connection,”  again in “On Catharsis” as well as elsewhere (e.g., the final sections of the PDC). Burke appears to have thought the “Symbolic” through to the end and did not anticipate its taking much longer to finish.

Burke adds at the end of “Platonic Transcendence” in the PDC (375):

We may not be able, at this time, to complete our remarks on Comedy. [How ironic that Burke’s remarks are incomplete and Aristotle’s lost, a situation Burke surely found fitting.] But here is, roughly, the sort of things to be treated:

First, by using as [a] model the three comedies of Aristophanes on peace, we shall be able to dwell on the pleasing antics of peace.

We want to consider the relation between wholly cathartic laughter and derision.

We want to ask in particular about the role of “body-thinking” in Aristophanic comedy.

We want to inquire further about laughter, tears, and appetite, as regards the materials of poetic form. (Unending Conversations 77; PDC 374)

Burke’s comment about completing “a section on comic catharsis” coincides with plans from the PDC but his comment about hoping “to make clearer the relation between dramatic catharsis and Platonic (dialectic)/ transcendence” takes things a step further. Clearly then, the essay is of considerable importance, indicating the direction the unfinished second draft may have taken. 

In fact the distribution of the PDC in the Summer of 1958; the publication of  “The Poetic Motive” (the essay  included at the end of the  PDC and moved to the front of the SM) in Spring 1958; the publication of  “On Catharsis” in Summer 1959 and the presence of verbatim sections in the SM; and Burke’s comments in the letter to Rueckert on 8 August 1959 vis-à-vis material in “Beyond Catharsis” and “Platonic Transcendence” as well as comments on what remains to be done on page 375 of the PDC, suggest that pages 362-68 from “On Catharsis” may constitute a sketch for the remainder of “A Symbolic of Motives.” 

Other essays published between 1959 and 1966 may contain additional clues—e.g. “Rhetoric and Poetics” (a talk presented at a Symposium on the History and Significance of Rhetoric under the auspices of the UCLA Classics Department in May 1965 and collected in LSA 295-307) as well as the extensive footnotes in LSA.

18. Burke continues: “Corresponding stages may be ascribed to the reader, or to the work itself, as with the different qualities of beginning, peripety, and end, analyzed without reference to either reader or writer” (“On Catharsis” 364).

19. Such translation of the logical into the temporal is the subject of Burke’s essay on Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” which he promises to discuss later (SM 129). He does discuss Poe’s essay in his own “The Principle of Composition” (Poetry 99, October 961, 46-53) which he tells Rueckert will be used in some form in the Symbolic (Letters 31-32). See also “Poetics in Particular, Language in General” (LSA 25-43).

20. Burke quotes Bernard Blackstone who in The Consecrated Urn (332) observes that in the original draft the line “And silent as a consecrated urn” read “And silent as a corpse upon a pyre” (see “As I Was Saying” 21).

21. The first reference to this image appears on p. 363 of the essay “On Catharsis”; Burke describes it again in “Rhetoric and Poetics” (LSA 298); and he expands on it in the Emerson essay published in 1966 about the time he would have been returning to the Symbolic after finishing LSA and prior to the diagnosis of his wife’s malady sometime between late 1966 and early 1967.

22. See Thames, “The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum. Part One: Seeking the Symbolic.”  KB Journal (Kenneth Burke Society Journal online at, Spring 2007.

23. In his Grammar ( 200-14) Burke argues that, so far as dramatistic terminology is concerned, Marxist philosophy begins by grounding agent in scene but requires a systematic featuring of act given its poignant concern for ethics; in other words, that Marx, an “idealistic materialist,” should be grammatically classified with Aristotle and Spinoza as a “realist” (or “naturalist”)—like Burke! Consequently, Burke offers “a tentative restatement of Marxist doctrine formed about the act of class struggle”—a “somewhat Spinozistic” characterization consistent with Soviet philosophical thought during the 1920s and ‘30s but also with Burke’s own philosophical stance.  (See G. L. Kline, Spinoza in Soviet Philosophy, London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1952.)

Burke accepts the idealistic-materialistic dialectic as descriptive of the dynamic underlying social change but not the Marxist escatology—sub specie aeternitatis all revolutions are essentially the same, ultimately leading to but another revolution, one system of inequality being replaced by another perhaps for some period more adequate to the demands of a particular time and place. (See Thames, “The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum. Part One: Seeking the Symbolic.”)

Not only does Burke assimilate Marx to Spinoza and Aristotle and the naturalist tradition in the Grammar, he assimilates him to Plato and the dialectical development of terms in the Rhetoric (183-97). There Burke distinguishes between three orders of terms: the positive that names visible and tangible things which can be located in time and place; the dialectical (i.e., says Burke, dialectical “as we use the term in this particular connection”) that permeates the positive realm but is itself more concerned with ideas than things, more with action and attitude than perception, more with ethics and form than knowledge and information; and the ultimate (or mystical) that places the dialectical (actually from context, the rhetorical—see above) competition of voices in a hierarchy or sequence or evaluative series, a developmental series ordered by a “guiding idea” or unitary principle, transforming the competing voices into “successive positions or moments in a single process” (RM 183-87). The dialectic development typical of Platonic dialogue is the instance par excellence of the third order (see the discussion above in “Bellus”).

Burke contends the Marxist dialectic gains much of its strength by conforming to an ultimate order. Rather than confronting one another merely as parliamentary voices representing conflicting interests, various classes are instead hierarchically arranged, each with a disposition or “consciousness” matching its peculiar set of circumstances, “while the steps from feudal to bourgeois to proletarian are grounded in the very nature of the universe” (RM 190).

The assimilation of Marx to Spinoza and Plato are both examples of Burke’s tendency to de-historicize—to essentialize the temporal rather than temporize the essential (see Trevor Melia’s “Scientism and Dramatism” in The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, edited by Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, pp. 66-67).

Works Cited

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— (ed). Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert: 1959-1987. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2002.

Rueckert, William H., and Angelo Bonadonna (eds). On Human Nature: A Gathering Where Everything Flows, 1967-1984. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Simons, Herbert W. and Trevor Melia (eds). The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989

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Walker, Jeffrey. Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

An earlier shorter version of this paper was presented at the 2011 Southern States Communication Convention in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Richard Thames is an Associate Professor of Communication & Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University. A founder of the Kenneth Burke Society, he helped organize the original 1984 conference in Philadelphia and the centennial 1996 conference in Pittsburgh. Thames edited the KBS Newsletter for over a decade and now serves on the editorial board of the Journal. His publications include “The Writings of Kenneth Burke, 1968-1985” and “A Selected Bibliography of Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke, 1968-1985” in The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, edited by Herbert Simons  & Trevor Melia; “Nature’s Physician:  The Metabiology of Kenneth Burke “ in Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century, edited by Bernard Broack; and most recently “The Gordian Knot:  Untangling the Motivorum” in the Spring 2007 KB Journal. Thames is currently editing a critical edition of Burke’s unpublished “Symbolic of Motives,” a copy of which was given  to him by Burke during his visiting professorship at the University of Pittsburgh in 1974.

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"The Meaning of the Motivorum's Motto" by Richard H. Thames is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.