Politics & Policy

Saint Socrates, Pray for Us

On the dangers of the slogan “Nothing in mere words”

A recent issue (January 22) of the Parisian daily Le Figaro contains no fewer than six articles about the French Left’s program to reform France by reforming its language, including Yves de Kerdrel’s witty “Les mots pour le dire et les maux pour le faire” (“Words to say it and evils to do it”) and a glossary of proposed changes under the title Parlez-vous la novlangue socialiste?” (“Do you speak the Socialist newspeak?” with an allusion to Orwell’s English Socialist Newspeak in 1984). François Hollande and his Socialist government have driven France into a deep economic pit, building on the legacy of the previous Socialist government of Lionel Jospin, who in 2002 introduced the wonderful idea of that prudent Socialist statesman Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the 35-hour work week. Thus we have Hollande’s strategy of appeasing the Socialists’ left wing socially and culturally as he inevitably tacks right economically to try to stanch the continuing economic hemorrhaging. (We will not speak of the derisory, decadent private lives of these libertine Socialist statesmen Hollande and Strauss-Kahn, whom one American tabloid crudely but aptly called “a horny frog.” Instead of “marriage for all” [mariage pour tous] perhaps it should be “libertinage for us” [libertinage pour nous]? At least it rhymes.)

The Socialist “novlangue” is illuminated by Le Figaro in a list of 14 verbal changes to be found in new legislation, in speeches of prominent Socialists, or in the 2013 Socialist action plan “Refonder la politique d’intégration” (“Rebuild a program of integration”). Euphemism and verbal inflation are attractive to politicians and salesmen in all languages, but the verbally fastidious French have been rightly proud of their long history of satirical deflation of linguistic pretense, often from the Left (Voltaire, Renan, Anatole France). Thus the Figaro journalists Stéphane Kovacs and Etienne de Montety work in a noble tradition, as William Cobbett and George Orwell did in England (see the latter’s “Politics and the English Language,” 1946) and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan did in the U.S. (“Defining Deviancy Down,” 1993).

Kovacs and Montety give us a list of paired Socialist linguistic changes and commands: “Ne plus dire” (“Don’t say any more”) and “Dire” (“Say now”). Don’t talk any longer about the French pre-schools, probably the best in the world, as “mother schools” (“écoles maternelles”), but call them “premières écoles” (“first schools”). Why? “To neutralize the affective motherly charge of the word ‘maternal’” (Socialist Deputy Sandrine Mazetier, February 1, 2013). Heaven forbid! Don’t speak any longer of “working for the country,” but instead say “making France” (“faire France”). Don’t mention “building a harmonious society,” but instead talk about “making the ‘in-common’” (“comment construire un ‘en commun’”). Do not refer to homosexual couples as being unable to procreate, but say they are “couples confronted by social infertility” (“l’infertilité sociale”). Don’t talk about “building up French society,” but instead refer to creating “the inclusive and communal Us” (“Le Nous inclusif et solidaire”).

The proposed linguistic changes oscillate on a spectrum between silly and sinister, seemingly innocent of knowledge of those great satires on linguistic redefinition, Swift’s 1726 Gulliver’s Travels (book 3), Zamyatin’s We (1924), Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and Orwell’s 1984 (1949), not to speak of Molière. As one of our finest living literary critics, Sir Christopher Ricks of Boston University, has written: “Every user of language, whatever his or her politics, is engaged not only in conversation but in conservation.” “A language is not a mere device,” the great Franco-American historian Jacques Barzun wrote, “it is a fund of embodied ideas. . . . Hence changes brought about by new forms and sounds in the web of its inner relations are as debatable as a piece of foreign policy or a bronze nude in a public square.” Himself one of our best modern prose stylists, Barzun argued that “it is possible to reason out matters of language [and it] is also important, because words point to ideas and suggest feelings, which together constitute ‘style’ in the sense of moral and intellectual fitness” (A Word or Two Before You Go . . . , 1988).

Commenting on Senator Moynihan’s classic essay “Defining Deviancy Down,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in 1993: “Mr. Moynihan’s sophisticated treatment of the normalization of deviancy is nothing less than a cry from the heart.” But where does “the normalization of deviancy” come from? Moynihan was talking about illegitimacy rates in the United States, which exploded in the 1960s, but he documented how social-science jargon, euphemism, and sheer avoidance kept social-policy specialists and most politicians from really, prudently addressing the issues raised by those increasing rates. They constitute the greatest malady of the American republic today. (Buckley himself waged a noble campaign against the creeping and creepy soft-pornography advertising of the American clothing industry.)

One root of the problem has been the ascendant academic view that might be called “descriptivism”: No group of native speakers can be criticized against any inherited linguistic or logical norm; the only constant in language is change (sic). Of course, this view is in direct conflict with the whole civilized tradition of teaching reading and writing, grammar, spelling, correct usage, and rhetoric or “composition,” which public schools attempt to recommence doing every autumn. The prescriptive assumption of K–12 public schooling (at which attendance is mandatory and which is tax-supported) is so obvious and deep that it can escape notice; it is the way that whatever civilization a given linguistic community has acquired can be saved from oblivion and conveyed into the future. Learn to read early and well, so that you can read to learn for the rest of your life. Literacy is the prescriptive gift of responsible adults to every new generation. As a Roman writer put it, only the stupid learn only from their own experience.

Confronting jury duty as a citizen of Boston, the late Roger Shattuck (1923–2005) meditated on the distance and disjunction between the reigning, growing intellectual skepticism and relativism about knowledge, truth, and objectivity in the academy, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the governing assumptions and needs of a decent res publica to inculcate in its citizens ideas of respect for law, fairness, and objectivity, the disinterested search for facts and truths. Shattuck’s short but powerful 1992 essay “Radical Skepticism and How We Got Here” (reprinted in his Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts, 1999) is an excellent resource. “Insofar as principles of establishing evidence and fact in our courts are categorically opposed by theories of knowledge and truth advanced in our undergraduate curricula, we approach a serious parting of the ways, a form of social schizophrenia.”

​Shattuck’s argument would have benefited from further, explicit deliberation on a view that he implicitly assumes, what has been called “retorsion” or “thematic-performative self-contradiction” (throughout Western history indicated by the Latin retort “Tu quoque?” or “What about you?”). No statement (theme) can be valid that contradicts the condition and character of its own speaker (performance). The great A. N. Whitehead employed this critique of self-contradiction in his witty, justly famous assertion that “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving themselves purposeless make an interesting subject for study” (e.g., B. F. Skinner, Jacques Monod, and our newly resurgent Darwinian atheists). Writers who deny the possibility of disinterested inquiry and argument should logically not be trusted in their own assertion of it, which if true undercuts or explodes their own credibility and warrant for being read. Himself a very distinguished scholar of French literature (National Book Award, 1975), Shattuck patiently and brilliantly deconstructs (“relativizing the relativizer”) the enormously influential French deconstructionist Michel Foucault, in another essay in Candor and Perversion, “Second Thoughts on a Wooden Horse: Michel Foucault.” Particularly with Shattuck’s judicious study Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (1994) in mind, quite rightly did Harold Bloom claim that Shattuck “surpassed Camus” as a moralist.

At the deepest level, the linguistic and conceptual battles illuminate the erosion of belief in objectivity in the West (ergo, eventually, in the world). Ever since Socrates it has been apparent to reflective persons that “objectivity” not only can denote “having the character of an object,” but also can mean “disposed to know the true and the good.” The juror Shattuck is told in the Trial Jurors’ Handbook that the jury tries to “find the truth. The most important qualifications of a juror are fairness and impartiality,” and that as a juror he must strive to “render justice.” These are the terms that led Ricks to say that “Every user of language” is “engaged” in “conservation,” and led Barzun to call language “a fund of embodied ideas.”

It is that ambivalent genius Noam Chomsky who has done more than anyone else over the last 50 years to restore an understanding of the true uniqueness of human language, its irreducibility to animal expressive and communicative systems. It is not unimportant that he draws on the great French 17th-century, pre-“Enlightenment” Port Royal grammarians. The distinguished contemporary poet Geoffrey Hill has asserted: “Language contains everything . . . history, sociology, economics; it is a kind of drama of human destiny. . . . Language reveals life.” And it is precisely Chomsky’s point that it reveals the uniqueness (for good and ill) of human life, as opposed to all forms of materialism, naturalism, determinism, or reductionism. Part of that uniqueness — and of human dignity — is the capacity for objectivity, whether as a teacher, a juror, a politician, a police officer, or a parent.

Some of the erosions of language are merely changes and matters of taste, and individuals and generations can differ about them without much harm. Some are subtle cases — for instance, our confusing use of “oversight” as an adjective in “oversight committee,” while we retain the noun “oversight” to mean a mistake of omission; “supervisory committee” would surely be better, suggesting the authoritative role of judgment in supervision and evading both the passivity and the ambiguity of “oversight.”

But other changes are worth fighting against, even through mockery, as the Figaro journalists do. Two words are surely worth fighting for and conveying to the young as part of what civilization itself is and means. One is “disinterested,” meaning not self-interested, not unfairly partial, not merely subjective. In the great phrase “disinterested benevolence” it describes the very heart of true law and civilization, from Socrates through St. Thomas Aquinas to Blackstone and the American founding documents and institutions. The belief in fairness and a disposition to the good constitutes whatever health there is in the contemporary American republic and other civilized states.

The second word worth fighting for is “objectivity.” “Skepticism can be thought but not lived,” Roger Shattuck quotes Hume as saying. But it cannot even be coherently thought without self-contradiction. In the great literary traditions of France and England (and the United States) deriving from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other great Greek, Roman, and Judaeo-Christian figures, there is a recurrent recognition of an indispensable rational minimum that fulfills and effectuates a person’s humanity. Jonathan Swift wittily discussed this component in a 1725 letter to Alexander Pope, suggesting that Aristotle’s definition of man as “the rational animal” would be more accurately rendered by “animal rationis capax” — the animal capable of reason. With a profound intuitive intelligence — what Blaise Pascal called “l’esprit de finesse” — Swift saw early, dreaded, and mocked certain scientific, philosophical, and commercial tendencies of his day that he recognized were pregnant with folly and evil. One was the philosophically materialist tendency of the English scientific organization the Royal Society, which took as its motto the Latin tag “Nullius in verba” (“Nothing in words”), probably meaning “Nothing in mere words.” Number and quantity became the ideal standards of the Royal Society, a view mocked in book 3 of Gulliver’s Travels, where the natural philosophers/scientists want to replace words with things and thus carry on their backs sacks of objects (a hilarious form of the burden of “objectivity”).

The dangerous tendency of the Royal Society (founded in 1660) and of all subsequent forms of scientific materialism, from Darwin down to Dawkins and Dennett, is to deny the classic ideal of rationality and the residual momentum of human common sense that is its long-term, democratic-republican by-product. To say there is “Nothing in words” is of course a thematic-performative self-contradiction: It is asserted in words. But the aim is clear: to reduce a kind of wise traditional dualism — matter/mind, body/spirit, perception/conceptualization, sense experience/language — to a monistic materialism. The great historian and philosopher of science Stanley L. Jaki (1924–2009) made the point brilliantly. Where Hume self-contradictorily but influentially advised his readers to “commit to flames all books that contained no quantities and matters of fact” (which would have included most of his own writings), Jaki noted that this radical empiricism (only sense experience and mathematical depictions of it are real) was “the beginning of the ultimate elimination of the common sense of all people . . . through the discarding of many a word in favor of sensuous objects or . . . mere sensations, a program akin to that advocated in [Swift’s] Academy of Projectors of Lagado.” Allan Bloom called “Swift’s perspicacity . . . astonishing.”

The outrage of Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker, and their tenured and journalistic allies, at the recent publication of the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s courageous anti-reductionist book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012) is thus another battle sign in the ongoing culture war, what Geoffrey Hill, and Reinhold Niebuhr before him, called “the drama of human destiny.” Eighty years ago, the distinguished American philosopher E. A. Burtt wrote about language: “The only way to avoid metaphysics is to say nothing.” Language itself is metaphysical, a fact that Socrates first systematically conveyed to the world.

Saint Socrates, pray for us.

— M. D. Aeschliman (Ph.D., Columbia) is professor emeritus of education at Boston University and professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland. His new edition of Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities was recently published by Ignatius Press. In 2006 several of his essays on issues of science, philosophy, and religion were reprinted by the Science and Religion Forum (Oxford). In 2012 two of his essays on C. S. Lewis were reprinted in The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society (Discovery Institute)

M. D. Aeschliman (Ph.D., Columbia) has written for National Review since 1984 and has taught at universities in the United States, Switzerland, and Italy. His father, Adrien R. Aeschliman, saw frontline combat against the Japanese in 1944–45 in New Guinea and the Philippines in the 32nd Infantry Division, one of the most battle-hardened divisions of the U.S. Army in any theater of operations in World War II.


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