ABUSE OF LANGUAGE, ABUSE OF POWER
by Josef Pieper
Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1992
Paperback: 54 pages
Comments by Peter Kelleher
George Orwell is the name that immediately comes to mind when we talk about language and how it has been press-ganged into the ranks of both revolution and reaction.
But another, and, in my opinion, saner voice has made an important contribution to the debate, though that debate has stalled just as the worst fears and uncanny predictions of this second voice have come to pass.
Josef Pieper (1904–97) was a German philosopher in the Thomist tradition – although, as was eminently true of St Thomas Aquinas, all traditions provided grist to his mill – who gave considerable thought to the corruption of language and its consequences. To all his work he brought a breadth of culture and depth of penetration to his considerations that continue to be an enticement to reflection part to this day.
Almost as if in apology for the prolixity and unfocused obscurity of his countrymen’s philosophical propensities (Kant, Hegel, anyone?), Pieper made his own the condensed critical paper in which a single topic was approached from every possible direction – including the pre-philosophic and the theological – until the object under scrutiny came into living focus.
Indeed, his profusion of little books (most of fewer than 100 pages) demonstrates beautifully that philosophy is something that is done rather than merely written about or read about. Each of Pieper’s little books takes the reader on an excursion the engineering equivalent of which would be a bus trip to Paris whereupon at your return you would be capable of building a mini Eiffel Tower in your backyard.
The brief tract in which Pieper deals with the corruption of language is called, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. In it, Pieper’s first move is to go to history in order to emphasise a point of “perennial” relevance. So, he begins with Plato in Classical Antiquity and reminds us that throughout a 50-year career, this first of philosophers fought a battle with the “sophists” that never seemed to be finally won. These were those travelling teachers of weighty wisdom at five drachmas a portion.
The sophists in Plato’s dialogues are objects of contempt for two principle reasons. The first and lesser reason is their charging for their knowledge as if it could be bought in much the same way as sugar or goat’s meat. The second and greater reason is that what they sell are phony answers.
A third reason, and the one that Pieper takes us back to Plato to point up, is that the sophist challenge is always with us; that it is a constant ever-present temptation and danger to take shortcuts to wisdom by way of verbal trickery; to have all the answers! The danger being, of course, that there are no shortcuts to wisdom.
Pieper presents three statements towards the end of Abuse of Language that can stand as a sort of barometer of our own appreciation of the state of the language as it is used or abused in Australia’s public discourse.
Pieper’s three statements are:
One. To perceive, as much as possible, all things as they really are and to live and act according to this truth (truth, indeed, not as something abstract and “floating in thin air” but as the unveiling of reality) – in this consists the good of man; in this consists a meaningful human existence.
Two. All men are nurtured, first and foremost, by the truth, not only those who search for knowledge – the scientists and the philosophers. Everybody who yearns to live as a true human being depends on this nourishment. Even society as such is sustained by the truth publicly proclaimed and upheld.
Three. The natural habitat of truth is found in interpersonal communication. Truth lives in dialogue, in discussion, in conversation – it resides, therefore, in language, in the word. Consequently, the well ordered human existence, including especially its social dimension, is essentially based on the well-ordered language employed. … A language is well ordered when its words express reality with as little distortion and as little omission as possible.
Of course, the astute reader will have twigged that the measure the barometer uses to indicate balmy weather, a healthful clime, is truth. Any declension therefrom could be described as more or less barmy.
I recommend meditating a while on these three statements and discussing them with a like or unlike-minded fellow.
A question that I have put to myself on consideration of the statements and likewise put to you is, does truth even arise as an element to be accorded dignity and deference in our public discourse today? And, if it does – and it does, in fact, if you know where to look – does it not thereby give delight; as well as throw into starker contrast the constant downpour of disinformation (thank you, George Orwell), doublespeak (thanks again, George) and outright lies that makes up an ever growing proportion of public commentary in Australia?