Pieper on Language and Power

In his 1974 essay Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (reprinted by Ignatius Press), the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper reminds us of Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” In that work, Orwell notes that modern “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” This is what happens when language becomes prostituted to ideology, and genuine discussion is drowned out by verbal manipulation and denunciation.

This perversion of communication is at least as old as the Athenian sophists of the 5th century BC. These were the men that Plato continually criticized in his Socratic dialogues, saying that they “fabricate a fictitious reality.” For both Plato and Pieper, words should convey truth about the world around us. Language as such is not a specialized field, though the sophist treats it as such and charges a hefty fee from his customers.

The sophist puts style over content. Language is reduced to the art of persuasion and flattery. By flattery, Pieper means not merely that people are told things they like to hear; it also implies an ulterior motive. In this way language becomes an “instrument of power” in which the speaker “no longer respects the other.” This is evident in the propaganda of totalitarian movements. They indulge in flattery insofar as they realize the importance of cajoling people into doing what they want, albeit backed by the implicit threat of violence.

The dignity of the word… consists in this: through the word is accomplished what no other means can accomplish, namely, communication based on reality. Once again it becomes evident that… the relationship based on mere power, and thus the most miserable decay of human interaction, stands in direct proportion to the most devastating breakdown in orientation to reality.

There is another lesson here, aside from criticism of certain political philosophies. Bad social behavior starts with corrupt communication in private life, and public flattery would not work if people did not crave it in the first place. We should take Pieper’s analysis to heart and consider how we prevaricate, insult and distort to get our way with others or to cover up our own shortcomings.

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