Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Whisper from the East - implications

The last posting dealt with Plato's ideas (interpreted by Josef Pieper) that language is designed for men to communicate truth to one another, and that anything less is what Plato would call "flattery" - worthless words designed only to sway men's will, not communicate truth. I observed that much discourse these days is just this type of communication. Reader SarahD made the point that the sophists may not have won. They may be enjoying a Golden Age, but that some still value true and proper speech. I certainly concede that point. As long as men interact with one another, forming families, friendships, and associations, truth will be spoken. However, I would claim that much of the public discourse in our culture is what Plato would call flattery. Regardless of the arena - politics (of course), media, entertainment, commerce, whatever - success is often measured by how persuasive you are, not how truthful.

To revisit the topic, I'd suggest that men surrounded by a culture so strongly influenced by sophistry will be effected in several ways. It seems to me that there are at least three:

Men will have a distorted view of the truth
This is the most obvious point: if speech is not used to communicate truth, how will men know it? But I think it goes even deeper: men will not only not know the truth, they will have a distorted picture of what the truth is. I heard a classic example on a radio interview recently. The host was interviewing a man who was espousing the current conspiracy theory that the federal government actually blew up some of the levees in New Orleans to flood out the poor blacks remaining in the city. The host was pressing the man for factual support for this outrageous canard, but none was provided - only louder and ruder speeches about how racist the administration was, etc., etc. It was clear that facts were not of interest to this man. His purpose was to rant long and loud enough that enough people would come to believe what he was saying, if only through brute repetition. It was clear that he thought if enough people believed this story, that would somehow make it true - so much so that he even offered that as support ("A lot of people believe this, you know!")

That is one example of having a distorted view of the truth.
It may be true that in a republic like ours, having enough people believe even a falsehood can translate into political power, but neither quantity of believers nor political power can make a lie true. But this sort of confusion is to be expected in a world dominated by sophistry.

Men will have a distorted view of the purpose of speech
This is a more subtle point, but critical. I remember reading about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, wherein each candidate spoke for hours on end about the issues of the day while their audience listened patiently in the hot sun. (Ever read those debates? I doubt many college graduates could follow them, yet these rustics ate the stuff up. Real hayseeds, those Illinois farmers.) At any rate, once Steven Douglas made some cogent point, and in appreciation the audience gave him a round of applause. He actually stopped his speech to gently reproach his listeners, saying that he was far more interested in convincing their minds then tickling their fancies, and that he'd far rather they considered his ideas than give him a round of applause.

Can you imagine!?

Whether or not you agree with Douglas' positions, his response illustrates a crystalline understanding of the purpose of speech. Yet if that were to happen in today's world, the politician would not only bask in the applause, he'd pull his speechwriter and campaign manager aside afterwards to dissect what button he'd hit, to make sure he'd hit it three times in the next speech. Do you see? The purpose of speech itself has been reworked. "Good speech" is what gets the applause. How that speech relates to truth is secondary (if that.)

This matters greatly to anyone concerned with communicating truth, be it an infantry sergeant, a safety instructor on an oil rig, or an evangelist. If people come to see words as just a tool of persuasion, they will stop considering the question of the truth behind the words and see them only as levers being used to work the hearer around to a certain position. At worst, the listener can fall into a cynical attitude about any sort of persuasive speaking. ("This guy's trying to talk me into something. Why would he do that? What good will it do him if I allow myself to be persuaded?") The cruel irony is that is just these kind of people who are most open to being swayed by sophistry.

Men will have a distorted view of themselves
That clunky Pieper quote in the last post contained a critical line: [the sophist] no longer considers the other as partner, as equal. In fact, he no longer respects the other as a human person. This is obviously true from the speaker's perspective. Someone who is seeking only to sway the masses has little respect for the masses. He sees them only as sheep who may be useful for his ends, but has no respect for them. But men are not fools, and at a gut level they know when they are being treated like sheep. But what if they're always treated like sheep? How will they come to see themselves? Probably not as noble and responsible citizens of an honorable society. Certainly not as image-bearers of God. Yet those identities are still there, constantly struggling to emerge. No matter how depraved and cynical a man gets, part of him wants to honor nobility and goodness. Nothing on earth can erase the imprint of God's image. Yet if much of the communication a man hears tells him that he is a sheep to be herded, what kind of inner conflict will that engender?

Those are my observations. I see a fair amount of attention being paid to the first point, but on pondering Pieper's work, I began to see how important the second and third were, too. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Whisper from the East

The first comment on my initial entry was not a comment at all, but an automated response from a machine. I understand now that it was “comment spam”, a new scourge of the Internet that my blog environment has tools to deal with (and which I have now activated).

Annoyance aside, the event got me thinking. In today's world, we tolerate such things, or if they get too annoying, we implement tools to deflect them. The thought that someone would speak to us in some form (verbal, written, whatever) without really intending to engage in a dialog is part of our culture. We're bombarded with words that have no meaning, and we think nothing of it.

I have been reading an interesting book written by brilliant German philosopher Josef Pieper. It's called Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, and in it he distills the thinking of Plato on the topic of dialog. It's a short enough book already, but at the risk of ruining something by double-distilling it, here's a summary of what Pieper says about Plato's thoughts:

  1. Words convey reality.

  2. The purpose of communication is for men to communicate true things about reality one to another

  3. Whenever words are used for something less than communicating true things about reality, then not only are the words debased, the act of communication itself is made into something less than it is intended to be, and the parties involved are no longer treating each other as true men, with all the dignity that goes with that.

This last point is worth noting, and even worth quoting Pieper:

Whoever speaks to another person – not simply, we presume, in spontaneous conversation but using well-considered words – and whoever in doing so is not explicitly committed to the truth – whoever, in other words, is in this guided by something other than the truth – such a person, from that moment on, no longer considers the other as partner, as equal. In fact, he no longer respects the other as a human person.

(Can you tell this was translated from German?)

This rises out of Plato's writings wherein Socrates debates against the sophists – people whose “skill” lay in their persuasive ability. Persuasive about what? Well, it didn't matter to the sophists – they could be persuasive about anything at all, and usually for a fee. They prided themselves on their verbal gymnastics, and thought nothing of the fact that their words were divorced not only from any objective external truth, but from any foundation of truth within themselves. The sophists didn't even worry that their words didn't reflect what they themselves believed – the only thing that mattered was the elegance and persuasiveness of their speech (Plato's play Gorgias is an example of a dialog between Socrates and the sophist Gorgias.) Plato's term for such disconnected dialog was flattery - a term we use today for speech intended to “butter up” someone, but probably Plato's intent was much broader. Plato would probably appreciate the phrase used by the author of Ecclesiastes: “vain words”.

Pieper's book got me thinking, and the bit of comment spam got me thinking even more, about a simple fact: our culture is drenched in this type of speech constantly - “24/7”, to use the modern idiom. Heck, there are several entire industries devoted to churning out such language, and people highly trained in and well paid for the skill of coming up with such language. The advertising industry alone is almost entirely devoted to it, and nearly every media outlet (radio, television, magazines, even web pages) is devoted to language used for something other than what Pieper identifies as the purpose of language: to communicate true things about reality.

In other words, we're a culture in which our primary tool for comprehending and communicating truth – language itself – has become divorced from that truth and used for something else.

In other words, the sophists have won.

Or have they?

Think about that. Get the book, if you can, and read what Pieper has to say. Think about the significance of such a state of affairs. In my next post I'll discuss some of my thoughts on the implications of this situation.

Monday, September 12, 2005


The last thing the world needs:another weblog

Especially from someone who doesn't identify himself, even in the slightly-obscured form used by some bloggers (pseudonyms, cryptic place names, etc.) After all, isn't the intent of a web log to have a voice in the world, to make your voice heard “out there”, to establish your importance alongside that of – well, that's a question, isn't it? And how can your importance be established if you are not known?

Perhaps that is what posting on the Internet means to some. For me, it means something different – I hope. I hope that this becomes a place for me to “think out loud”, and share something of my life and thoughts, and perhaps interact with others. If this is one outcome of the Internet logging phenomenon, it will be a positive thing. For too long only a very, very few got to publish their thoughts in any way outside of their immediate circle, and few of those ever heard back from those impacted by whatever was published. I remember I once wrote an author whose work had helped me greatly. I didn't expect to hear back; after all, I reasoned, he is a famous author who probably gets dozens of these letters and hasn't time to respond to them all. To my surprise, he did reply, and he assured me that one of the most satisfying parts of being an author is hearing from those who have been impacted by your work. I wonder what he would have thought of the web log idea. Of course, he would have been swift to observe that most postings on most blogs range from inane to obscene, and the comments are worthy of the postings, but I think he would have appreciated the ability of the author and readers to interact.

So that is what I envision this project becoming – a place to think in the open, and to talk with those who deem such musings worth reading. Perhaps it will be more; possibly much less (in which case I might just close it). But even with that modest goal, why the anonymity? Why not even glimpses of my personal life?

We'll see about that in time, but for now, let's just say it's because I don't really matter. No, really – this isn't damaged self-esteem, or Heep-style 'umility talking here, but the soberest self-appraisal I can make. From a human perspective, I live a simple, quiet life. I am not yet, and will probably never be, a Great One as far as human history is concerned. If I do well, my name may be known to a small circle of people, in whose lives I hope to have been a positive influence. And if I manage even that good, it will only be because I pass along good which I received from elsewhere, not good that I manufactured myself. My greatest aspiration is to be a mirror, a finely polished surface that reflects the Charity and Wisdom of the ages to those around me. And what mirror is noticed? Only the flawed and cracked ones. A fine, flawless mirror is not noticed at all – those who gaze into it see only that which it reflects. When I say “I don't matter”, it is in that sense.

Which brings us to the name. A Prince of the West? What kind of pen name is that? Let's start with the last part - “the West”. To anyone who knows me, this would seem strange – especially since I live on the east coast. But by this I do not mean the modern American sense, i.e. “the Coast” - associated in the popular mind with unrestricted self-indulgence and the casting off of moral restraint. No, by this I mean West as in Western Civilization, and all the best of that. Founded in truth, from the dialogue of Socrates to the revelation to the Jews. The West of mythology as well, from the fireside tales of the Celts to the Arthurian legends to the modern tales of Tolkien, all of which identify the West with beauty, completeness, and perfection. The modern mind, of course, scoffs at all such things. Historical revisionists work diligently to erase all memory of the nobility and goodness found in Western tradition. Shallow and worldly men scoff at the notion of any transcendent good or purity - “The West, indeed! There is no such place, except in nursery rhymes! Learn to live in The Real World!” (meaning, of course, the world I have created and through which I seek to control you.)

No. There is a West, and I have touched it (or, to be more precise, been touched by it.) It is both the West of the hopeful mythology and the West of classical learning: the true, the right, the good. I am Of that West, far more than I am of our shallow and vapid modern culture. To those who would scoff at this, calling it a subjective reality, I give Puddleglum's response: if so, we have created an imaginary world that licks their “real” world all hollow. Others have helped me by turning my face to the West – if I can help others by doing the same, I will.

But the name? “A Prince”? Hubris, surely? Perhaps – but my intention is honesty. I am, by adoption, the son of a King, which makes me a prince. Far from the only one, to be sure, and not The Prince (only One will ever hold that title), but rather one of many who hopes to walk the trail blazed by the One who has gone before.

So that is my name: part of who I am, and who I have become. Perhaps I will have a chance to document part of my journey here. If it helps you – so much the better.