Book Reviews2 Truth or Consequences

Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power,

by Josef Pieper, (Munich, 1974)

trans. by Lothar Krauth (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1992)


When I was a small boy, my grandfather told me that, just as God’s Word is God Himself, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, so – because God made man in his own image and likeness – a man’s word is somehow the man himself. And if a man makes his word false – if he lies – the man makes himself false, false in his heart, false in his very core. Spoken softly in my grandfather’s deep, Sicilian accents, the warning sounded serious to my young ears. Ever since, I have taken words seriously.


The German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper (1904-1997), took words seriously, too. A Thomistic scholar and a student of the famed theologian, Romano Guardini, Pieper wrote many notable and popular books, such as Guide to Thomas Aquinas, The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas, On Hope, The Four Cardinal Virtues, and, perhaps his most famous, Leisure, The Basis of Culture. Pieper’s popular writings commonly display the uncommon virtues of clarity and brevity. In fact, one of his briefest works, the essay, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, shows Pieper at his most insightful and sobering.


Pieper’s essay begins with a seemingly esoteric question: What did Plato have against the sophists? What did the father of Western philosophy have against those cultivated, sophisticated, successful and handsome men who astounded the people of ancient Athens by arguing both sides of every question, by proving first one thing and then its opposite through their sheer mastery of language?


Pieper sums up Plato’s distaste for these slick characters with an accusation: “[Y]ou are corrupting the language!” The sophists’ “threat” was “their way of pushing and perfecting the employment of verbal constructions to crafty limits, thereby ... corrupting the meaning and the dignity of … words.” [pp.14-15] Then, echoing my grandfather, Pieper makes a connection between man’s words and his life:


[W]ord and language form the medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit .... The reality of the word in eminent ways makes existential interaction happen. And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted. [p. 15]


Pieper proposes that language has a “two-fold purpose”: first, to describe reality and, second, to describe it to someone. This second, “inter-personal character of human speech,” is inextricably rooted in the first, speech’s necessary link to reality, to truth. [p. 15] If the first becomes corrupted – if a man fails to speak the truth and lies – then the second purpose becomes corrupted as well and language loses its “inter-personal character.” Pieper goes so far as to claim that a lie cannot be considered communication.


A lie is the opposite of communication. It means specifically to withhold the other’s share and portion of reality, to prevent his participation in reality. [p. 16]

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In other words, those who “give fine speeches” but are “indifferent” to truth “are unable to converse.” They “simply cannot join in a conversation;” they “are incapable of dialogue.” [p. 17] But worse, their use of “such sophisticated language, disconnected from the roots of truth, in fact pursues some ulterior motives [and] invariably turns into an instrument of power ….” [p. 20]


The very moment ... that someone in full awareness employs words yet explicitly disregards reality, he in fact ceases to communicate anything to the other. *** [He] no longer considers the other as partner, as equal. In fact, he no longer respects the other as a human person. From that moment on …, all conversation ceases; all dialogue and all communication come to an end.


[H]aving an ulterior motive. I address the other not simply to please him or to tell him something that is true. Rather, what I say to him is designed to get something from him! [pp. 21-22]


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Pieper’s contentions about language and power are especially sobering in our age of “politically correct” speech, which has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with ulterior motives and manipulation. Ultimately, only a commitment to speak the truth, no matter how hard or uncomfortable, shows respect for the humanity of those to whom we speak.


© Joseph E. Rendini 2005

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