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Education in the liberal arts is an ancient tradition that has slowly been eroded through our increasing attachment to approaching the world scientifically and pragmatically…

academia language

The language of man reveals something significant about his nature and his relationship with the world. Language is so close to man’s nature that if it suffers a drastic change, then man himself experiences serious consequences as to how he understands himself. This is the fundamental thesis of Josef Pieper’s short but sobering work, Abuse of Language—Abuse of Power. In this work, Pieper offers some remarks on man, language, and academia that are relevant to our times. After showing how man’s language has fallen into mere sophistry and even propaganda, reminiscent of the sophists from Plato’s Dialogues, Pieper explains that this abuse of language must remain out of the academic sphere. Nevertheless, it is all too obvious that anything but this happens in our own day. Thus, we must answer this urgent question: How do we restore the language of man, especially in academia? In Pieper’s book, we will find the answer in the pursuit of the artes liberales, which are the ancient academic arts pursued for their own sake.

First, it is important to understand Pieper’s twofold distinction concerning language. Language both conveys reality and acts as communication. Language (through words) conveys reality because we do not speak to name or identify something that is fake or false—it is impossible to do that, according to Pieper. Rather, when we utter words, they are connected to something real, even if it is an idea, which is not physically real. Even when we describe a unicorn, which is a product of the imagination, we are using words that describe other real things: a horn, a mane, hooves. The fact that words describe reality helps us understand St. Thomas Aquinas’s definition of truth: “The true is in the intellect insofar as it is conformed to the object understood.”[1] We know something to be true because the understanding of it in our intellect corresponds to reality. Secondly, language is communication: when we use our words, we are speaking to someone—this reveals the interpersonal character of language. As Pieper explains, “In the very attempt to know reality, there already is present the aim of communication.”[2] The only reason we utter words about reality is to convey that message to another human: would we have any other reason to speak? Thus, language concerns not only each individual man, but also man’s relationship with others. These two elements of language—reality and communication—are inseparable, and both are necessary if we wish to understand language properly.

pieperBut, someone might object, we can still communicate through lying. We can state something false to someone else, and thereby not convey reality to him or her. Yet Pieper argues that a lie is not communication: “A lie is the opposite of communication.”[3] In fact, much like evil is considered the privation of the good intended by God, so too is lying a corruption and a privation of the reality present in words. As Pieper explains, “Corruption of the relationship to reality, and corruption of communication—these evidently are the two possible forms in which the corruption of the word manifests itself.”[4] This explains why Socrates of Plato’s Dialogues opposes the sophists, for they use high-styled rhetoric to convince others of something that is not true. For the sophist, “what is decisive is not what you say but how you say it—its composition, its expression, its form.”[5] Pieper uses Plato’s Gorgias as an example, for he attempts to seduce Socrates through artful vocabulary and language—but Socrates is not convinced. Gorgias is ultimately forced through Socrates’s own rhetoric to admit that an individual who uses flowery language disconnected from the truth has ulterior motives;[6] he is not trying to communicate reality to another, but rather, he is trying to deceive him for his own particular purposes.

Pieper goes on to explain that sophistry with an ulterior motive is ultimately flattery. Flattery, according to Pieper, becomes “a catalyst, a drug, as it were, and is such administered.”[7] Pieper describes how commonplace flattery has become; we particularly find it in advertisements and entertainment. Now more than ever, we are flooded with both types of media every single day. Think about it: we cannot open one page on the Internet, ride the bus, stand in line at the grocery store, or drive our car without seeing some kind of advertisement, luring our eyes and our appetites to desire the particular product. Pieper considers this to be a very grave abuse of communication; it is, indeed, the opposite of the high and noble use of words to proclaim the truth. As he explains, “It can hardly be denied that our language through all this indeed progressively loses its character as communication, as it more and more tries to influence while less and less saying anything.”[8] Such communication divorces truth from reality and leads to an overall degeneration of man’s language.

Such a corruption leads to domination, according to Pieper.[9] While this may seem to be a radical jump to us, it becomes clear when we consider the omnipresence of commercial language. As we have already said, we cannot escape the abuse of language in the form of flattery, for we encounter it in everything that we do. Pieper argues that we have seen public discourse become neutralized to a standard of truth; we no longer view truth as necessary when communicating with others, as evidenced by the advertising industry.[10] Within the political realm (and thus the public realm), this is known as propaganda. Propaganda distorts the truth by using flattering and sophisticated language in order to convince individuals about a particular reality, usually determined by ulterior motives. Pieper unabashedly writes that propaganda is the “degeneration of language into an instrument of rape.”[11] From the abuse of political power stems the abuse of the word in propaganda; it is merely the attempt to bring people to believe as true something that is not. It is the public abuse of words, and perhaps one of the greatest abuses. Indeed, propaganda promotes the exact opposite of what is good for man’s nature. It is in accord with man’s nature to seek and perceive the truth, but through propaganda, man is removed—publically, we might add—from reality and from the truth. In our own day, we are not only daily exposed to advertisements, but also to propaganda, which has become more widespread through social media: the push for liberal agendas and fake news are only the beginning of the kinds of propaganda that we see in our own day.

Pieper identifies three statements that summarize Plato’s own argument. First, as we have already explained, man desires to perceive things as they really are and live in accord with that truth. Indeed, living in the truth is the good for man, for it leads to a fulfilled, human existence. The second point is related: to live a true human life, man must be nurtured by the truth. If flattery and propaganda is the absence of truth in language, then man will not be fulfilled by hearing it and participating in it. Third and finally, the nature of language lends itself to communication; thus, the right and proper place for language is within discussion and conversation among individuals. Propaganda, through its short, catchy phrases, limited discussion points, and ulterior motives, is incapable of providing interpersonal dialogue. In short, it prevents any interpersonal discussion, for it is not rooted in the truth.

These three “statements,” Pieper explains, were at the heart of Plato’s Akademos. While he admits that our contemporary universities have changed since the time of Plato, the notion of academic remains the same, which he defines in the following words:

In the midst of society, there is expressly reserved 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.[12]

In other words, the academic realm should be completely free of propaganda. Academia should be free and open to discuss the truth about all things, and most certainly, academia should be open to the metaphysical, to the discussion of what being is in itself. Truth, then, is the only constraint on academics, but truth does not “bind” one in his or her freedom to discover the world. Rather, truth is the means by which one enters the reality that makes one a full and complete human. Even in the midst of the propaganda that we experience every single day in the commercialized and frenzied “workaday world,” the academic world should be like a peaceful and enclosed garden—students and professors should be tucked away in order to seek the truth without political constraints or limitations.

But today’s world of academics hardly fits this description.

Instead, universities have been infiltrated by the political jargon and propaganda of the liberal media. Even some Catholic universities have rejected their Catholic identity by falling prey to the latest mainstream trends. From promoting and supporting abortion and contraception (grave evils in themselves), universities have moved to accepting transgender bathrooms and publically supporting same-sex attraction, safe spaces, and diversity, among many other things, as if all of these issues were commonplace and prevalent with everyone. In one grand sweep, our universities have accepted the emotivism described by Alasdair MacIntyre; indeed, the feelings and emotions of students comes first before anything else, and we cannot offend anyone in any way. Universities are no longer places that promote the search for and discovery of truth; rather, universities have become “safe places” for the promotion of the mainstream trends, desires, and feelings. They would have us believe that every student has one of these “needs” to be met, and that we need to be inclusive of everything. The idea of the university has fallen very far from the model proposed by John Henry Newman; we are now faced with universities that have accepted the trends of the culture and promote them as if they were the ultimate determination of students’ lives and dreams. Moreover, anyone who is not in support of this “inclusion” is often publicly mocked and reprimanded—quite the opposite of their slogan for tolerance and diversity.

What are the results (or perhaps products) of these universities that have succumbed to propaganda? Generally, one can see that, as a whole, students are driven primarily by emotivism—everything they do is about fulfilling their feelings. They are incapable of handling the difficult situations that arise in their personal lives and professional work. While social media has also contributed to these problems, universities that promote mainstream culture through propaganda have only expedited the downward spiral. But perhaps the greatest problem arising from this acceptance of propaganda in academics is that students no longer know how to think or reason for themselves. Many students are incapable of cohesive thought, both in written and oral forms. Students should attend university in order to learn and be formed in their written and oral rhetoric skills, but a university that promotes propaganda above real academic pursuits only stunts this growth and prevents it from occurring at all.

What, then, is the answer? How can we see any change in our culture if we do not change something about our universities? In the second half of his work, entitled “Knowledge and Freedom,” Pieper discusses the pursuit of metaphysical knowledge, as described by Aristotle. This knowledge is “driven by the questions as to the essence and being of all that exists.”[13] This kind of knowledge is the only truly “free” knowledge, for it does not serve a purpose outside itself. This knowledge simply exists, that it might be known for its own sake.[14] And while no human can fully grasp this kind of knowledge (only God has the full and perfect vision of the cosmos), we are most fulfilled when we pursue this kind of knowledge. This kind of knowledge is promoted by the artes liberales—the liberal arts, a tradition begun with St. Thomas Aquinas and continued by John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University. The liberal arts are truly freeing, for they are pursued for their own sake; as Pieper explains, they regard “the essence of man and the meaning of human existence.”[15] Such an education truly promotes the good of man, for he is nourished most by “the purely theoretical cognition of reality.”[16] Furthermore, man himself is free by pursuing the knowledge that frees, which means that he is most truly human.[17]

Indeed, education in the liberal arts is an ancient tradition that has slowly been eroded through our increasing attachment to approaching the world scientifically and pragmatically. At the heart of the liberal arts tradition, however, is the proper use of language as described by Pieper. Education in the liberal arts connects students to reality, through everything from geometry to astronomy to logic (which truly is about the use of words). In this way, students trained in the liberal arts are ultimately pursuing the truth, which is a far cry from the agenda of propaganda at universities. The liberal arts free students to pursue the truth fully, with the knowledge that everyone is searching for the truth. And that connects with the second important aspect regarding language, which is communication: the liberal arts promote true communication among the students. In order to penetrate more deeply the truths in the liberal arts, the students must discuss a kaleidoscope of ideas and thoughts with one another, and this assists in discovering the truth about life and the cosmos. Therefore, a study of the liberal arts truly promotes the twofold purpose of language as described by Pieper. If we want to abandon the abuse of language so prevalent in our culture, in order to return to a more human culture, we must first see conversion in academia and the universities, places that Pieper explains must be the places that are free from political jargon or agendas. As it is, most of our universities are not free from propaganda—and those that do cultivate the liberal arts are very courageous in the midst of our modern culture and deserve all the support we can give. If we can return to the liberal arts in our universities, then we shall surely see the restoration of language in our culture.

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[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, ST I, q. 16, a. 1, corpus.

[2] Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language—Abuse of Power, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 16.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Ibid., 20.

[7] Ibid., 23.

[8] Ibid., 24.

[9] Ibid., 30.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 32

[12] Ibid., 37.

[13] Ibid., 44.

[14] Ibid., 45.

[15] Ibid., 47.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 48.

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3 replies to this post
  1. GEORGE ORWELL: “We have sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” And women, done well here by Veronica Arntz

  2. Thank you Veronica.

    Re : “we must answer this urgent question: How do we restore the language of man, especially in academia? In Pieper’s book, we will find the answer in the pursuit of the artes liberales, which are the ancient academic arts pursued for their own sake.”

    IMHO, the artes liberales couched in patristic philosophy was a height not repeated.

    A great work on this is McLuhan’s The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time read together with Christianity and Classsical Cutlure by Charles Norris Cochrane; reading 5 or 6 chapters and going in between the works is a lot of fun.

    Both of the University of Toronto in the mid 20th century, two the likes of that are not to be repeated in Canada for quite some time, if ever by the looks of things. I hope I’m wrong but no one in Canada seems interested in McLuhan at a time of his most relevance.

  3. The artes liberals is the formula that Alcuin promises to Charlemagne, will teach wisdom, starting a movement of thinkers and the liberal teaching universities of when liberal meant something else. Too bad the scholasticism went as far as into Calvin’s camp.
    Western civilziation hasn’t recovered from that intellectual schism.

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