Religion and Revolution (1)

This is the first in a series of posts under the same general title.

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What is religion, and what might it have to do with revolution, either positively or negatively?

In the Late Latin used in the old, collapsing Roman Empire, the term religio, from which the English word religion ultimately derives, meant the monastic life, and to be “a religious” was to be a member of a monastic community. Even today, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary ( gives that sense of the word as its very first entry—“1a : the state of a religious,” then gives as an example of such usage of the term the phrase, “a nun in her 20th year of religion.” My own old “Second College Edition” of Webster’s New World Dictionary, from Prentice Hall with a copyright date of 1970 and which I’ve used since early in my professorial career, gives that as its third entry for the same word: “3. the state or way of life of a person in a monastic order or community.” The example my old dictionary gives is the phrase, “to enter religion,” used to mean precisely such entry into an religious order or community.

Long before that, in the fist century before the current era, during the days when Rome was undergoing the transition from a republic into an empire, Cicero—who was the person most responsible for creating, often through neologisms, a Latin vocabulary to translate, and in the process transform, the thought of the ancient Greek philosophers into the language of Rome and its power—gave one of the two derivations of the word religion that have attracted serious attention ever since. Cicero’s is the less commonly accepted of the two derivations among scholars.

According to Cicero, religio came from Latin relegare, itself from re-, which often means “back” or “again” but is also sometimes just used as an intensifying prefix, plus legere, the most common sense of which is “to read.” It is from legere used in that sense that the English lecture derives, a “lecture” originally meaning a public “reading” of a written text, rather than merely the delivery of a more or less lengthy oral discourse.

Originally, however, legere meant “to gather, collect, pick out, choose.” The word derives from the presumed indo-europea root *leg-, meaning “to collect, gather together,” as one harvests grapes to make wine (the German verb lessen, which derives from that same root, means “harvest,” “selection,” or “gathering,” as any drinker of German wines--which I certainly used to be, and which come in such forms as Auslese or “select harvest,” “Spätlese” or “late harvest,” not to mention the desert-sweet Trockenbeerenauslese or “late berry [that is, pretty much raisin] select harvest”—has to be drunk not to know). Since “to read” is indeed to gather together written words or signs in such a way as to discern the sense that they make (or better, as Heidegger suggests in more than one place, to let ourselves be gathered by those words before that sense), the same term that meant “gather together” or “collect” came also, and even more commonly, to mean “read.”

As I have already noted, by Cicero’s account the Latin word that eventually becomes our English religion derives from that same root, meaning “to gather together.” However, all the way back to later Latin authors, including Augustine, a different derivation has been preferred by most scholars. According to that more popular derivation, religion comes from the prefix re-, to be sure, but the root to which the re- is prefixed, according to this more popularly preferred account, is not legere, “to gather together,” but ligare, “to bind fast”—more specifically in the sense of “place an obligation on,” as a slave might be bound fast in an obligation to some master.

Heard along the lines of that second, non-Ciceronian derivation, religion becomes that which binds us in an obligation to the divine, to God, or to the gods. In turn, the idea of such obligation can itself also be understood in two fundamentally different ways. When such obligation is cast as a mater of following dictatorial orders to avoid punishment, religious obligations easily become shackles that enslave us to divinity. Understood as obligations of another sort, however, they can become, instead, bonds of love, awe, or respect.

What the various ways of hearing the word religion might reveal—and what epiphanies so opening our ears to other rich undertones of that word might bring—is something I will explore further in my next post under this same title of “Religion and Revolution.”

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To be continued.