Tuesday, February 05, 2013


As I travel overseas training preachers, there is a Maori word that so often slips from my lips. Before I know it, out it comes - and then I have to explain what I mean. That is when things get complicated. I stumble away and invariably the conversation shifts to another topic, as I am left to live with my inarticulate stumblings.

It is the word mana. I use words like 'respect', or 'gravitas', or 'charisma' ... but they just do not do the job adequately. I was interested to see David Fischer, in Fairness and Freedom, having the same struggle. How do you explain mana in a sentence, or two, to people who are not immersed in Maori culture? He notes that 'the English language has no exact equivalent for mana' (136-137) and then quotes Frederick Maning:
Virtus, prestige, authority, good fortune, influence, sanctity, luck, are all words which under certain conditions, give something near the meaning of mana, though not one of them gives it exactly ... (it is) the accompaniment of power, but not the power itself. Mana is a spiritual and moral idea. A man [sic] must be in the right to have great mana. (quoted on page 137)
Hmmm ... 'a spiritual and moral idea'? That got me thinking. While wary of complicating things by crossing too many centuries and cultures - I do wonder if Aristotle might be helpful for me in my stumblings. What about mana being something akin to the confluence of logos, pathos and ethos? Aristotle develops these words in the context of what makes communication, or rhetoric, persuasive. I just happened to be reading Robert Smith Jr's Doctrine that Dances, a book on preaching, as I was thinking about mana and he explains Aristotle so well...
[ethos] is the integrity, credibility, or character of the preacher ... [it is] the perceived character of a good man speaking well (113).
[pathos] is the emotive and passionate sector of the preacher ... 'His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones' (Jeremiah 20.9). (113-114).
 [logos] is the gathering of content and material of the sermon (114).

These three in concert (character, passion, word) are what persuades, what influences ... and therefore what is powerful. And when I think of people with mana (and I do realise that for Maori it is not just people who have mana) - this seems to fit.

Just a thought on this Waitangi Day - and probably an unhelpfully complicating one at that!

nice chatting (the Maori word next often on my lips as I travel and train is taonga ...)



Tim Bulkeley said...

Mana also seems to me to be close to "honour" as used in talking about many traditional societies (like those of the Bible). Such "honour" may be partly inherited, may partly come from positions occupied or roles fulfilled, but mainly comes from who someone is and therefore how they act (especially showing hesed)...

Paul Windsor said...

Yes, Tim - that 'honour' word should have made it in there somewhere, shouldn't it? Starts making my mind drift across to honour:shame cultures - maybe they have an innate feel for mana which other cultures do not have quite so much?

Paul said...

A friend sent this quotation to me:

"Mana in its double aspect of authority and power may be defined as 'lawful permission delegated by the gods to their human agents and accompanied by the endowment of spiritual power to act on their behalf and in accordance with their revealed will. This delegation of authority is shown in dynamic signs or works of power"
(Rev. Māori Marsden 'God, Man and Universe: a Māori View)