Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power
One of the great Catholic philosophers of our day reflects on the way language has been abused so that, instead of being a means of communicating the truth and entering more deeply into it, and of the acquisition of wisdom, it is being used to control people and manipulate them to achieve practical ends.
Reality becomes intelligible through words. Man speaks so that through naming things, what is real may become intelligible. This mediating character of language, however, is being increasingly corrupted. Tyranny, propaganda, mass-media destroy and distort words. They offer us apparent realities whose fictive character threatens to become opaque. Josef Pieper shows with energetic zeal, but also with ascetical restraint, the path out of this dangerous situation. We are constrained to see things again as they are and from the truth thus grasped, to live and to work.
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In "Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power" Joseph Pieper begins building his case against sophistry by showing what Plato most deplored about the sophists of his day: their wealth (no surprise) and physical beauty and how the former is gained through the corruption of the latter as well as the manipulation of language. Pieper includes quotes from Hegel and Nietzsche -- both separated from the Father of Philosophy by more than a millennium -- which assure us of the pervasive continuity of sophistry from then until now, as if we needed any.
'Human words and language accomplish a two-fold purpose... First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course--and this brings us to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech.'
We are then led to look at lies, the crafting of well-reasoned arguments and whether the author is seeking to convey the truth or deceive his audience. When such is the case, 'from that moment on (the author/artist) no longer considers the other as partner, as equal. In fact, he no longer respects the other as a human person.' Plato, through Socrates, calls this "flattery". Pieper says this 'becomes a speech without a partner, since there is no true other; such speech, in contradiction to the nature of language, intends not to communicate but to manipulate.'
The rest of the essay goes on to examine the loss of character in our language through slogans, advertising, propaganda, and mass media--just different forms of deceptive trickery and mental bondage.
Plato's three statements about the necessity of truth to the health of human society are summarized and as true today as ever: 1.) the good of man and meaningful human existence consists in perceiving, as much as possible, things as they really are; 2.) all men are nurtured by the truth; 3.) the natural habitat of the truth is found in interpersonal communication.
Pieper calls for 'an area of truth, a sheltered space for the autonomous study of reality, where it is possible, without restrictions, to examine, investigate, discuss, and express what is true about anything--a space, then explicitly protected against all potential special interests and invading influences, where hidden agendas have no place, be they collective or private, political, economic, or ideological.' His mentor, Plato, would no doubt agree with this necessity, recognize the description of his own Academie and be proud. Who indeed would disagree? And yet, where can such a place be found?
Profound essay! Never more relevant than it is today.