Ad Verbum Purgandum or Literally Purgation

Cem Zeytinoglu, East Stroudsburg University

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.”

—Horace (Odes iii 2.13)


This paper discusses an alternative way to look at the epigram from Burke’s Grammar of Motives and proposes to interpret it under the light of his own theorization of Dramatism and cathartic use of symbolic action. The paper draws a linguistic connection between the terms “war and “beauty” treating them as interchangeable double metaphors. Burke’s awareness of this was adumbrated in his own writings and in the manuscript of the Symbolic.


KENNETH BURKE'S FAMOUS GRAMMAR OF MOTIVES STARTS WITH THIS EPIGRAM: Ad bellum purificandum. “Beauty” of this motto not only stems from the fact that Burke gives us a way to deal with war but also because it synecdochally represents his literary/rhetorical theory of catharsis through language (Permanence 266). In this humble essay, by using Burke’s own method, I will argue that the epigram for GM is not an ordinary one but a synecdoche, which stands for Burke’s system that treats language as symbolic action through the course of catharsis.

First, I will discuss the visible meaning of this phrase, then I will try to “unveil” the other layers of meaning in the same maxim that inherently exist because of the way the Latin language was used. By using Burke’s ideas on transformation of meaning, I will demonstrate that the interpretation of the epigram otherwise requires a new configuration of a terministic screen and an agency ratio of the dramatistic pentad –since it was Burke’s common practice to use and discover double metaphors, wordplays and verbal expressions of perspective by incongruity. I aim to reveal that it is possible, in the operations of Burkean language, to understand Ad bellum purificandum as an indication of a synecdoche which, I will argue, would actually read as: Ad verbum purgandum.

It is important to state that my modest effort here is not to equate war with beauty but demonstrate that there is a connection between them in terms of symbolic action –at least by the way how Burke would define it. My aim is not to glorify war but try to present a Burkean explanation for how human beings can glorify war by transforming and transcending it though symbolic action. We need to remember that the actual project in the Grammar implied by the epigram is to propose a methodology and an attitude which, through a corrective terminology and use of symbolic action, war is not necessarily eliminated but transformed into a much benign from. The source of such transformation is the word. Language as symbolic action may coach our fiercest survival motives and resolve the tensions that rise from them through actual cathartic relaxation and purgation.

What Does Ad Bellum Purificandum Mean?

At the first glance, Ad bellum purificandum has an obvious meaning. Burke himself refers to this motto several times in GM with the apparent translation of the phrase. In his discussion of “Agency and Purpose,” Burke mentions that human beings need to perfect and simplify the ways of admonition, so that they can cease to persecute one another because of the urges rising from the misconceptions and distortions of purpose in different levels. He continues,

[S]o human thought can be directed towards ‘the purification of war’, not perhaps in the hope that war can be eliminated from any organism that, like man, has the motives of combat in his very essence, but in the sense that war can be refined to the point where it would be more peaceful than the conditions we would now call peace. (GM 305)

Thus in this section Burke mainly explains the phrase in its face value. This quote might justifiably be interpreted as that Burke argues for getting rid of the destructive, disruptive and perverted characteristics of activities which we call as war and transform this act into something much more peaceful than what we refer now as “peace” through operations of language. Lately, this aspect of the epigram’s interpretation was explained very well in Weiser’s “Burke and War.”

Burke also refers to a similar idea of resolution in his discussion of dialectical use of language. In that section, he mentions that the purpose of dialectician is the “discovery of truth by the give and take of converse and redefinition.” He defines this as a process of interaction between the verbal realm and the non-verbal realm that becomes simultaneously the completion of cooperation and the cooperation of competition, which, I believe, would demonstrate Burke’s view for war in its simplest form (GM 403).

Interestingly, in GM there is also another notable section where Burke makes a similar comment. In his argument for constructive linguistic action, Burke states that we must construct from the fundamental humanity of dramatist or dialectic wisdom:

This work (which would have as its motto Ad Bellum Purificandum, or Towards the Purification of War) is constructed on the belief that, whereas an attitude of humanistic contemplation is in itself more important by far than any method, only by method could it be given the body necessary for its existence even as an attitude. (GM 319, italics in original)

Here Burke not only gives us the literal translation of the motto but also explains his reasoning for understanding human language and communication as a constructive and perfected mode of cooperation (“Communication” 144). He thus points toward a linguistic situation in the means of dialectical thinking regarding the attitude as temporally and the method as logically prior (GM 339).

So, in this sense, an attitude for humanistic contemplation should have temporal priority to a method for linguistic contemplation, however even to have such attitude is only meaningful when there is a method. Thus method has logical priority in companion to the attitude. But logically prior can be expressed in the terms of temporally prior in dialectic operation (GM 430). The “purification of war” requires an attitude of understanding human symbolic action in its dialectical and cooperative terms, whereas it also requires a method to implement this dialectical and cooperative understanding in literary and rhetorical contexts by which humans “literally” purge themselves of pity and shame. Therefore, instead of cleansing our tensions in the body politic by destructive acts, it is possible to “purify” them by cooperative acts such as “communication” (i.e., symbolic actions through language, which “exist in human germ-plasm”) (Counter-Statement 48).

Meditations on Ad bellum purificandum

In Latin Ad bellum means “towards war” and purificandum is the gerundive form of verb purifico which means “to make clean, to cleanse, purify” according to Charlton T. Lewis & Charles Short’s Latin Dictionary.1 The word purifico is coming from the Latin roots purus (pure) and facio (to make). On the other hand, although bellum can be understood conventionally as war in accusative form in this phrase, that is not the only possible meaning of the word.

Bellum can also be the accusative form of bellus, which means “pretty, handsome, neat, pleasant, fine, agreeable” and it can also be neuter in gender as similar to the word for war.2 It is not surprising that also Burke realized that and, in his unpublished Symbolic, he mentioned the relationship between the words “beauty” and “war” in the section called “Preparatory Etymology” (33). Since Burke understands the connection and the etymological relationship between the ideas of beauty and war, maybe we can argue that in this context we may replace them. So if we understand the word bellum as beautiful rather than war, the phrase changes into something like this: “towards the purification of the beautiful (thing).”

This creates a very interesting connotation because if we think to remain loyal to the original meaning (that is “war”), we can also reach the same meaning from another route. We can assume that the word for war also symbolizes Mars who was the god of war in Roman mythology. Mars corresponds to the Greek god Ares who was also considered as the god of war.

In a sense, it is very interesting that even Greek and Roman cultures looked at the god of war very differently, both Ares and Mars share significant qualities. Firstly, they were both characterized as very handsome, and imagined in the form of warrior-like masculinity (Vir and ἀνδρει̂ος) which was considered as “beautiful” in both cultures. Also, interestingly enough, he had a stormy love affair with the goddess of beauty (Aphrodite – Venus). This strange association of war with beauty was very dominant especially in the Roman psyche. Even Burke himself points to this relationship when he was analyzing Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (Rhetoric of Motives 218).

Therefore, Ad bellum purificandum can again mean “towards the purification of the beautiful”, directly referring the Mars himself (masculine accusative here), or by association to Venus. The other important point is the purification activities related to Mars. Through the fiery processes of war and strife, brought to the individual through the influence of Mars, the god of war, a needed purification takes place.

One of the mentioned festivities is called suovetaurilia. The purpose of the suovetaurilia was lustratio (purification, from the verb luere “to loosen”). It was performed at certain state ceremonies, including agricultural festivals, the conclusion of a census, and to atone for any accidental ritual errors. If a temple was destroyed, the site had to be purified by the three-animal sacrifice before a new temple could be built. The suovetaurilia was also performed by the army as a lustration sacrifice to the Mars before a military operation.3 These instances also relate the act of purification to Mars, the beautiful god of war.

Once I traced down the etymological connection between “war” bellum with “beauty” bellum, I was curious to see if Burke himself ever alluded to this potential association given the fact that such reference would make the epigram ad bellum purificandum much more interesting. When I discovered that in his manuscript for the Symbolic he actually had a section on the etymologic relationship between the two distinct uses of the word bellum (Symbolic 32), I reasoned that he also probably thought about it, even it was in the faintest sense, when he was constructing the epigram. His analysis not only explains the relationship between “beauty” and “war” but also the both terms’ relation to “good.”

Towards the end the Grammar Burke talk about the idea of collective “sacrifice” especially within the context of war. He argues that the motive for war, fighting for a cause, has complex symbolic foundations (395). On the basest ground, the driving metaphor seems to be “service,” especially serving for one’s own society or country or group. Here the idea of service is intermingled with “defense.” It is possible to see even potential additional connections to later “Seven Offices” here (ATH 360). Defense has both constructive functions within a society and destructive functions in the actual act of war making. Citizens collectively defend the values and the livelihood of the very lifestyle perpetuated in their own societies in significantly cooperative manners by high forms of cooperation. As a result of the symbolic ethicizing of the means of support and the mode of being (hodos), anything that threatens it will receive an aggressive collective response (PC 197-213). Once such motive is canalized through a cathartic act especially in the accepted means of military service, we organize ourselves in armed forces contemplating “sacrifice” for the greater “good,” even pontificating “martyrdom.” Thus military organizations are designed and maintain for performing competition with the conflicting interests of other societies (i.e., enemy). Obviously, the dialectic opposite of the ethicizing motive will direct the depictions of the opponent’s means of support, mode(s) of being and values as “evil.” No doubt that fighting evil had been described as a “beautiful” thing to do in the past, and certainly it would be portrayed as so in future too.

In Dramatistic terms, an individual’s military service would demonstrate a (romantic) motive to perceive and aestheticize the action as sacrifice and argue for its “beauty” on two grounds. Within the act-scene ratio, fighting as sacrifice is beautiful because it proves that the individual has loyalty and fidelity to guiding values (ethicized means of support and modes of being). Secondly, since there is someone who is willing to kill and die for those values, that confirms and authenticates them as values. Thus they are worthy (good) enough to sacrifice oneself for. Hence sacrifice becomes an agency through which the beauty (of one’s own societal values) is adorned.

Moreover, war can be fully aestheticized purely in terms of forms. Shapes and styles in which we make war can be perceived as beautiful. We can observe this in two ways as well. On one side the literary depictions of war present a “poetic” experience, and on the other, the very aesthetic side of making war where “poetic” can be understood in terms of its original sense of “poesies” that refers to the art of war. This relationship between the literary construction and the real life experiences was one of the predominant motifs in Burke’s criticism. In the appendix of Grammar where he analyzes Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” Burke presents an equation of “beauty” with “act.” He argues that the reasoning is as follows: “beauty” equals “poetry” equals “act.” Nevertheless “beauty” is cannot only defined as a decorative thing, “but as assertion, an affirmative, a creation, hence in the fullest sense an act” (460).

Then again, in Symbolic (at least the copy that I have) Burke also relates poetic to aesthetic in etymologic aspects where as one refers to “making” the other points toward “revelation,” the original meaning of the word suggests “sense perception, sensation, organ or seat of sensation, sense of pain, knowledge, impression, appearance, display of feeling” (31). Thus the perception or the experience of war can be depicted in aesthetic terms in a physical context.

Lastly, beauty can be defined also as “the act of an agent” where it becomes a part of the personification mechanism in a romantic ideal. Such personifying points toward the idea of attitude as an incipient act (GM 460). Attitude serves as a pretext or a prerequisite for act. Therefore a warlike attitude may constitute an appealing and attractive “beauty” which ancients recognized and cherished in an overt expression within their mythological, social and artistic representations of value – Greek arête from Ares and Roman virtus from Vir (man, brave, hero, soldier, actualizing power).

Literary and Literal Examples

There are many literary examples that have potential expressions for relating beauty with war. A sort of terrible beauty can be a part of war even when straightforward accounts have to list a “butcher’s bill” of dead and wounded men. Richard Tregaskis, the war correspondent who was in Guadalcanal, writes, “I was surprised that enemy aircraft, flying overhead with the obvious intention of dropping high explosives upon us, could be so beautiful” (87).

In War is Beautiful, the story of an American idealist unfolds in a form of James Neugass’ own memoirs where he poetically describes the horrors of war in a very eloquent manner. However, there is nothing in the book that glorifies war. Rebeca Schiller, in her review of the book, states “the manuscript was found in the year 2000 at a Vermont bookshop among the papers of Max Eastman, editor of The Masses. The manuscript was accompanied by editorial queries and comments, including an observation on the title: ‘The title, ‘War is Beautiful’, is a Fascist slogan. If this is a naïve and misdirected irony, it is very dangerous.’” Even though the title refers to an ironic use of the phrase, it serves as an example of perspective by incongruity where war and beauty again associated.

Byron’s romanticism and artistic imagination constitutes an influential case for ethicizing war where prepares poetic arguments for a just war. Especially his involvement with the Greek Independence War and writings set up an attitude in Europe at the timeto support Greek efforts for establishing a nation state. Two of his very well known poems are Giaour and the Isles of Greece. In both poems Byron refers to the ancient valiant days of Greece when she produced the Homeric heroes and later defeated the Persian invaders appealing to the virtues associated with the institutions and the inheritance of ancient Greek culture, which clearly was held dearly as the foundations of the European civilization:

Clime of the unforgotten brave!
Whose land from plain to mountain-cave
Was Freedom’s home or Glory’s grave!
Shrine of the mighty! can it be,
That this is all remains of thee?
Approach, thou craven crouching slave:
Say, is not this Thermopylæ?
(“The Giaour”)4

The mountains look on Marathon---
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might yet be free
For, standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
(“The Isles of Greece”)5

Also a look at the British Great War poetry would justifies the connections of poetic, aesthetic and artistic representations of beauty within war. Such examples not necessarily glorify the war but praise the attitude where (warrior) poets try to find courage (as arête or virtus) in their own souls to die like a soldier. I cannot help but feel sympathy for these young men. Especially, I want to remember two poets here:

W.N. Hodgson (1893-1916)
“Before Action”6

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison,
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills where day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a solider, Lord.
By all of man’s hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavor that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say goodbye to all of this;--
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

Herbert Read (1893-1968)

“The Happy Warrior”7

His wild heart beats with painful sobs,
His strin’d hands clench an ice-cold rifle,
His aching jaws grip a hot parch’d tongue,
His wide eyes search unconsciously.

He cannot shriek.

Bloody saliva
Dribbles down his shapeless jacket.

I saw him stab
And stab again
A well-killed Boche.

This is the happy warrior,
This is he...

If we look at the cinematographic examples, we can remember Apocalypse Now, Platoon and more recently Thin Red Line. I believe that everyone can remember the helicopter attack to a Vietcong village accompanied with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and the scene where the Robert Duvall’s character Kilgore exults “I love the smell of napalm in the like victory.” Towards the end of Platoon, when one of the commanding officers shouts into the microphone of the wireless, he exalts in an ironic manner “It’s a lovely fucking war” as he orders for a use of friendly fire to stop an enemy breakthrough. All through the Thin Red Line, just like Tregaskis’ observation, director Terrence Malick, places the war scenes on the background of beautiful scenery of nature where killing, dying and explosions indistinguishably mesh each other.

I already mentioned the possibility of perceiving art of making war in aesthetic means. Especially considering the management of the highly cooperative operations of war in terms of strategy and the actual tactics of fighting one may argue that such skill can be depicted as an artistic manipulation of material, weapons and men. In addition to that we need to notice that military organizations are not only structured in aesthetic forms, they also portray them in sheer appearance. From shiny, decorated and ornate ceremonial uniforms to highly functional combat suits, camouflage, emblems, design of combat vehicles and weapons, it is possible to recognize the aesthetic appeal. Even the fact that medals and other signs of military honors are called decoration is subtly peculiar. Thus one may argue that beauty as a part of the aestheticizing attitude can fuse with the artistic motive within the act of war making. As the exemplifying categories one can mention the following topics which individually deserve an extensive study on their own: Beautiful strategy or tactics, beautiful order, discipline and uniforms, beautiful weapons, beautiful scenes of war making (explosions etc.), beautiful acts of war making (experience) – purgation through using a weapon, adrenalin rush etc.

I remember one of my students who served as a marine in Iraq, touched upon a mental image, a remembrance from war, in one of his papers where he stated that one operation night he perceived a powerful AC-130 gunship fire in the dark sky like a fourth of July fireworks even though he knew the destruction that it caused at the point of effect.8 There are also many other accounts, where soldiers define the weapons, explosions, uniforms and other battle material or their own sensory experiences as beautiful.

For Ad bellum purificandum, on the notion of purification, we have another optional word to use. Since purification is stemming from the root of purus we can, instead of purifico, also use the word purgo (to make clean or pure, to clean, cleanse, purify)9 , which comes from the same root. Purgo is a more classical word in usage then purifico and is made by two words purum and ago (to put in motion, move, lead, drive, tend, conduct)10 . And the gerundive neuter accusative form of the word is purgandum. Therefore, our phrase becomes as something like ad bellum purgandum (towards purgation of the beautiful).

What Is Beautiful?

If we look closely to the notion “towards purgation of the beautiful,” it is subtle to notice what may become the subject of beauty. In “Poetic Process,” Burke argues that the relationship between beauty and art is like the relationship between logic and philosophy (CS 55). A philosopher uses logic to make philosophy and convince other but he does this because he also loves logic. In the same way, a rhetorician uses the persuasiveness of oratory as his channel of expression, not only because he is skilled in it but also because he loves it. Thus, a poet creates poetry, and it is his way of expression. He loves the poetry; he loves to use words and meanings in a particular way.

For philosophy, rhetoric and poetry then the subject and source of beauty is the word itself. Poet loves to play with the words, to transform the meaning in language to express certain feelings and ideas. Using language in that particular way is much more important and existentially significant to poet than what actually poet wants to say. Burke argues that:

The distinction between the psychology of information and the psychology of form involves a definition of aesthetic truth. It is here precisely, to combat the deflection... that we must examine the essential breach between scientific and artistic truth. Truth in art is not the discovery of facts, not an addition to human knowledge in the scientific sense…it is, rather, the exercise of human propriety, the formulation of symbols, which rigidify our sense of poise and rhythm. (CS 42)

However, in his discussion of “Thinking of the Body,” Burke also argues that “the incongruous relationship between the thinking of body and the reduction of poetic propriety” to mere social ones brings a locus of absurdity, because the aesthetic can by design “vow its practitioner” to stay fuzzy, and the relation to the body becomes blurred (Language as Symbolic Action 325).

In Burke’s understanding of language as symbolic action, the word becomes essential for transformation and expression of a meaning. The word itself is the channel and it is an organic part of human being. Thus, just the sheer act of using words in actual speech becomes a pleasant deed. Burke says, “That is, the psychology here is ... seen from another angle, form is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite “ (CS 31).

This pleasant act is for many aspects also a cathartic activity. Humans are naturally affected by the certain forms. These forms arouse a variety of appetites in humans. According to Burke, these appetites also create a psychosomatic tension, which humans feel a strong urge to release. Therefore, these pleasant forms are “pleasant” in two ways. On the first level they are “beautiful” when they are arousing an appetite (i.e., a bodily tension). On the second and the last level they are “beautiful” when humans release this bodily tension “pleasantly” (“Poetic” 56-57). Burke explains:

If there is a certain tension in human relations, the artist may exploit it dramatically by analyzing it into parts, “breaking it down” in to a set of interrelated roles. Such dramatistic analysis permits the tension to be “processed”; for whereas human relations the tension just is, the breaking it into parts permits these parts to act upon one another, in a series of operations that, when followed in exactly the order they have in their particular whole, lead to a “catharsis,” or “resolution,” at least within the conditions of the drama. Roles chosen by such a test are likely to be “entelechial” imitations, since they will imitate not particular individuals but basic human situations and strategies, translated into equivalent terms of personality. (“Dramatistic” 239)

Burke calls his system as dramatistic not only because he sees the symbolic human action as a “play” on a stage. He understands drama, as discussed in Aristotle’s Poetics, in its original form in which humans are purged out of pity and shame mimetically by the vehicle of linguistic action (PC 285). Drama is a derivation of the Greek word δρα̂́ω, which means, “I do, I do good” in general and has certain connotations as “offer sacrifice or perform mystical rites.”11 This word also has connections to a similar word: δραίνω (which means “I am ready to do”).12 In ancient Greek context, this “readiness” symbolizes a strong need to actualize the certain deed in question in active terms. Also, it is linguistically and semantically related to the word δραστικός (drastic) that has a very similar meaning we have now in the English language.

Therefore, the pleasant act or the things (verbal and non-verbal) is connected in dramatistic sense. By mimetic action through human language, there is a possibility of cleansing and releasing tension in human body politic (“On Catharsis” 355-56). The “beautiful” thing, which arouses and satisfies us, is the poetical and symbolical form that is orally actualized as the “word” in human language (Thames 16).

Burke referring to the pun of “urine” and “urn” says that this type of usages sometimes “reduces the process of catharsis, or ritual purging with its elaborate rites of purification go through the offering of victim hierarchically infused” (RM 310). Burke calls this process of transformations for heuristic purpose “joycing” (referring to James Joyce).

Then, if we go back the epigram, ad bellum purgandum (towards purgation of the beautiful), we can propose to transform bellum (beautiful) to verbum (word), also in neuter accusative case. Thus, what we have now is, ad verbum purgandum (towards purgation of the word).

Literally Purgation

Burke claims that dramatism, understanding symbolism as constitutive of human nature and action, should not only be considered as a metaphor; he argues that dramatism is literally true (“On Catharsis” 342). For Burke, as explained above, catharsis involves both the verbal and the nonverbal. Burke argues, “If man is the symbol-using animal, some aspects of poetic embodiment must relate more directly to his specific nature as a symbol-user, others to his generic nature as an animal.” Burke understands Aristotle’s use of the term κάθαρσις rather literally. Catharsis becomes a purge [to cause evacuation from (as the bowels)] so that human beings fulfill their needs for a certain type of cleansing orally (“On Catharsis” 354).

This oral purgation is intrinsically related to spoken word (“Prologue” in PC, lviii-lix). Thus, when we think about our motto’s last shape as ad verbum purgandum, its meaning might become to “towards purgation of the word” but the amusing part has not ceased. There is a double meaning veiled here. Because, even the mot-a-mot translation tells us that ad verbum is “to a word” in its conventional usage, the phrase ad verbum also may mean “literally.”13 In this sense, Burke’s epigram in GM ad bellum purificandum (towards the purification of war) becomes as ad verbum purgandum (literally or word by word purgation). Thus, purification of war is possible through an attitude and method that enable us to think language as symbolic action, which cathartically purges and pleases us in the course of actualization (PC 195). So word becomes a deed. This way we understand speech as action.

I found Burke’s epigram so interesting and tried to push it as far as it goes in the operations of language. I believe that ad bellum purificandum in these dialectical and dramatistic operations of language synecdochally represent Burke’s system of linguistic catharsis, ad verbum purgandum, and in the following section, I will try to demonstrate it.

Purgation Through Language: Beauty, Form, and Praise

Beauty is the basis of the aesthetic praise. The essence of beauty is its ability to give us pleasure (Burke, Literary Form 60-66). Even though this ability can be considered separately both in physical (body) and intellectual (mind) realms, the emphasis here should not be only on the intellectual side just because pleasure is generally considered materialistically as a part of the virtue of purpose.14 Contrary, pleasure ought to be approached as a whole in integration, or cooperation, of both physiological and psychological aspects (Burke, LSA 308-11).

The etymological foundation of aesthetics suggests that it is related to the human perception of things.15 A beautiful thing comes in contact with our senses, and through our sense perception, we recognize that it has beauty (or an aesthetic form). Then, in the course of our perception of the beautiful thing (bellus), through our feelings, we experience pleasure. Therefore, it is significant that which (combination) of our senses are involved in the process.

From the notion of perception, one reaches the idea of form as the center of aesthetics. However, the idea of form is not only limited to the physical realm; we also call things beautiful which please us intellectually (Burke, CS 31). There are beautiful ideas, metaphors, and thoughts. We talk of beautiful stories, poetry and speeches. Since these examples also have physically defined formal attributes, on the other hand, there is an inescapable ambiguity here. Therefore, it would be most fitting to mention that the idea of form has simultaneously two dimensions: there is a physical form, which we perceive through sensation, and secondly, there is an intellectual form, which we perceive through our mind.

For example if one is to speak of a beautiful speech, then he needs to focus on the two aspects of its form. The physical aspect of its form consists of sounds and it is related to performance of a physical deed as in the act of speaking. The actual utterances, gestures and mimics used in the speech together with its appearance (doxa) through the performance of a human actor (agent), compose the physical aspect of that speech (Barthes, Responsibility 269). This could be an everyday chatter, a poetical or a musical form; it could be a theatrical or a dramatic performance. The important point here is that we physically perceive it. We hear it; we see it.16 This gives us pleasure (or not) depending on the meaning we assign it.

On the other hand, its intellectual form rings in our mind with its logical composition, clarity, and fluency with the coherent definitions and arguments. And the act of following this process gives us pleasure too. A perfect example of this should be Cicero’s treatment of the parts of speech in De Inventione, namely invention, arrangement, expression, memory and delivery.17 (I.vii). It seems that invention and memory mainly emphasize the realm of the intellectual form, whereas expression and delivery do so the realm of the physical form, however arrangement can fit in the both realms. But as a whole, Cicero’s parts of speech, signifies the togetherness (cooperation) of the physical and intellectual forms. For him how one said something was as important as what that person said in a speech.

Forms, be physical or intellectual, are beautiful because they are pleasant. We praise beauty because it gives us pleasure. Again remembering Cicero, as he argues in Best Kind of Orator that the supreme orator is the one, whose speech instructs, delights, and moves the minds of his audience. Cicero continues to say; “giving pleasure is a free gift to audience” (delectare honorarium) in comparison to that “it is his duty to instruct” (docere debitum) (I.iii-iv). This probably sums up Cicero’s whole approach to rhetoric, since he was always an ardent defender of eloquence, and, especially in his Brutus and Orator, argued against the claims that most intellectual and philosophical ideas should be expressed in a plain language.

The aesthetic form, or beauty, both in physical and intellectual kinds, carries meaning (Burke, Literary Form 36-38). Because humans are animals with logos, and the performers of symbolic action, every form, and even formlessness, can have a meaning in any context. Human mind can associate, dissociate, construct and deconstruct any aesthetic form as it can do so to any linguistic structure and system of meaning. In addition to this, aesthetic perceptions can be trained, refined and educated. As any human faculty, habituation of certain aesthetic approaches may lead to a particular character (ἠ̂θος) of perceiving things in a specific way (hodos – ὁδός). Lately many try to explain this with cultural and social particularity of aesthetic beauty. What is perceived as beautiful in one culture, can be not beautiful for another, even it can be unintelligible. The reason behind that is not that one lacks the essence of aesthetic beauty but because each culture or society develops its own maps of perception depending on the symbolic and physical resources available to that culture.18

There is another aspect of aesthetic form related to the idea of pleasure, which is its ability to relieve stress, anxiety and strain in human beings. Following Aristotle’s treatment of the ancient understanding towards poetics and drama, Burkean system approaches human symbolic action as a linguistic way of cooperation by means of identification that is expressed in forms of mimesis. Through identification within symbolic action, human beings not only cooperate but also sooth their physiological and psychological tensions in terms of catharsis (Burke, LSA 308). The idea of catharsis is not only a mental configuration but also a real human phenomenon. The sheer effect of the use of human forms of speech is calming because of the fact that the “pure” act of speaking is a real human function; it precedes any symbolic action, and execution of this act is by itself pleasurable (Burke, CS 48).

It is a primary human motive to speak (or communicate in linguistic and symbolic forms) in any context, especially in which a human strive or need in life is frustrated for some reason by limitations in physical and mental environments or resources. Principally many political, economical and artistic imaginations find their foundations in these limitations when human beings respond to them by means of symbolic mimesis to cope with the changes around them (Burke, Attitudes 340). This mimesis is not a basic imitation that is separated or severed from the life itself, contrary it is a part of the “being” in the human being. However, that does not mean that humans only communicate when there are means of restriction in our abode (ἔθος). We also need to cooperate in order to fulfill our human virtue of purpose (têlos) (Burke, GM 30-31).

As Aristotle stated more than two millennia ago, it is hard to call any man without a community a human being. Also, expressing his Roman Stoicism, Cicero many times repeats the fact that human beings become civilized, when they founded communities by speech, by communicating each other, in search of wisdom. It is an imperative of our humanness to cooperate (and identify) with each other and with our environment (Cicero, De Inventione I.ii.2-3). Therefore one can mention about a dual human motive of cooperation and coping with others and the nature. It should be emphasized here that the source of cooperation is communicating. And the tools that help humans to communicate are the genuine forms of symbolic action and mimesis (Burke, RM 21).

In this human endeavor of cooperation, [identification] and coping, tools of mimesis, and the forms of physical and intellectual expressions should expectedly be pleasant to us. Even the corrupted kinds of these –competition (war), alienation (loathing) and crumbling (destruction of the earth’s habitat)– contradict with the original human motive towards cooperation; in their limited scopes they also surprisingly may give us joy!19 If it is so, then one can only stop in awe and think how enjoyable the realization of the authentic motives should be. The enjoyment that comes with this accomplishment ought to be the one that signifies the idea of happiness, which has been adorned and yearned by mankind for ages.

The forms of human expression are the criteria for the virtue of aesthetics (Burke, Literary Form 150). And for its indisputable bond to the idea of happiness, the praise of this virtue has always been part of the philosophical trends that articulate the metaphors of beauty, pleasure and happiness. What virtue of aesthetics emphasizes is the beauty and joy of a very human motive to communicate through the symbols of cooperation and identification towards the fulfillment of the purpose (τέλος) of the human physiological and intellectual being.

To sum it up, the virtue of aesthetics is based on the human perceptions. We perceive things in terms of forms. The perception of these forms, both in the physical and intellectual realms, depends on the different expressions of human symbolic performance and the human faculty of assigning them meaning as beautiful (of course the alien and unfamiliar forms initially labeled as ugly even though this may change in time). Through this symbolic action, aesthetic forms become pleasant because of the sheer experience of perceiving the forms (physical or intellectual) and the pure calming effect of performing the symbolic act itself are simultaneously enjoyable. When one praises beauty, one also praises the ways in which he or she perceives that beautiful thing (bellum).


  1. Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary,
  2. Ibid.
  3. Patrick Faas. Around the Table of the Romans: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome. Palgrave Macmillan. 2003. p. 247-48.
  4. “The Giaour” by Lord Byron (1788-1824).
  5. “The Isles of Greece” by Lord Byron (1788-1824).
  6. Modern History Sourcebook: World War I Poetry:
  7. Ibid.
  8. If the reader wants to see more illustrations of this point, he or she can just refer to the thousand of video images that are posted by soldiers on the Internet, where it is possible to observe some peculiar cheerful reactions of young serviceman towards explosions and firepower etc. as examples true shock and awe (referring to the second meaning; wonder).
  9. Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary,
  10. Ibid.
  11. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon.
  12. Ibid.
  13. See Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary. [look under the entry for the word verbum].
  14. Let us remember that metaphorically many things or acts can be called as “beautiful” because they simply accomplish their own functions close to the expected ideal or “perfection.” As a part of the virtue of function we can talk about a musical instrument as beautiful because regardless of human element, it produces sounds perfectly (which it is built to do) as separately from its appearance (that is its form). From this example, we can conceive different scenarios in which it plays well but looks ugly or it plays terribly but looks great. But ideally we would like to see an instrument, which can produce perfect sounds and looks appealing in its appearance.
  15. The ancient Greek word for perception…
  16. …or if it is a written speech, we read it being exposed to the shape of the signs and letters; we see the design of the page and the paragraphs, the color and texture of the book etc. Even the smell of it?
  17. Invention, arrangement, expression, memory and delivery constitute an approach of analysis so perfectly that it can be applied to any artistic activity.
  18. One example of this would be a comparison of musical forms interculturally. For instance, the traditions of European Classical music and Classical music in the Far East (Japan, China, and Korea) demonstrate a critical difference. The structure and notation of sounds, foundations of rhythm, harmony and melody are almost contradictorily different. Mathematical formulae behind notes, configurations of tunes and materials of instruments are so dissimilar that the musical forms are almost alien to each other. In order to enjoy Japanese Classical music we need to train our senses to it. However, there is something universal in all forms of music -that is the kind of instruments. Most cultures have simultaneously have instruments of breath, strings and percussion which tells us that there is a common human experience behind the creation of instruments.
  19. War is one of the highest kinds of human cooperation. Especially Richard Thames, citing Burke, emphasizes this in every opportunity. Unfortunately what divides us unites some of us against the others so powerfully that we feel as if the others are the whole reason behind our sufferings and they constitute a threat to all human existence. Therefore we need to kill them. Both sides usually use a classical human scapegoating to clear themselves. We team up with our cause and demonize the others in loathing. This gives a strong impetus to a very high level identification. I am not going to deny that it can be argued that there is a just war; sometimes it can become necessary but I will insist that considering something as casus belli should not be a child’s game since it is not so difficult to see that we can easily can turn into the demons that we loath in our enemies. In what extent fire-bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo did not make Allies as brutal as Nazis and Japanese? In what extent did the atrocities of Nazis compensate their national suffering after WWI? In what extent did the imperialistic policies of European States worth to the destruction lived in the Great War? The list can endlessly go back like this.

Works Cited

Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. DVD. Paramount Pictures, 2001.

Barthes, Roland. The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985.

Burke, Kenneth. Grammar of Motives. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1969.

---. Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1969.

---. Symbolic of Motives. Unpublished manuscript (Thames copy).

---. Attitudes Toward History. rev. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon, 1961.

---. Permanence and Change. 3rd Ed. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1984.

---. Counter-Statement. 3rd Ed. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1968.

---. Language as Symbolic Action. 2nd Ed. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1968.

---. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 2nd ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1967.

---. “Communication and the Human Condition.” Communication 1 (1974): 135-52.

---. “On Catharsis, or Resolution, with a Postscript.” The Kenyon Review 21 (1959): 337-75.

---. “Poetic Motive.” The Hudson Review 40 (1958): 54-63.

---. “A ‘Dramatistic’ View of Imitation.” Accent 12 (1952): 229-41.

Cicero. The Best Kind of Orator. Trans. H. M. Hubbell. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1949.

---. De Inventione. Trans. H. M. Hubbell. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1949.

---. Orator. rev. ed. Trans. H. M. Hubbell. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962.

---. Brutus. Trans. H. M. Hubbell. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962.

Lewis, Charlton T., and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary.

Neugass, James. War is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War. New York: New P, 2008.

Platoon. Dir. Oliver Stone. VHS. Orion Pictures, 1986.

Schiller, Rebeca. “...When they’re not shooting at you.” Review. The Internet Review of Books. Feb. 2009. 14 Apr. 2009 <>.

Thames, Richard. “The Alpha and Omega of Catharsis.” Unpublished Work in Progress, 2004.

Thin Red Line. Dir. Terrence Malick. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 1998.

Tregaskis, Richard. Guadalcanal Diary. NYC: Random House, NY 1953.

Weiser, Elizabeth M. “Burke and War: Rhetoricizing the Theory of Dramatism.” Rhetoric Review 26 (2007): 286-302.

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