I am reading a fascinating book about Plato and the Sophists by the great Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. Lest that sounds pretentious, I hasten to point out that it’s a small book and it isn’t a very regular occurrence these days. A PG Wodehouse on the train is more my usual line.

What makes Pieper’s book Abuse of Language – Abuse of Power of contemporary interest is the way he inveighs against the use of language for rhetorical purposes by people who use lots of words when making speeches but are incapable of conversation or dialogue. Thousands of years ago the same problem applied, which is that people were rightly suspicious of “experts”, if by experts one means people whose income or position depend on making particular arguments, or those who, by virtue of their position or expertise, feel that they need only debate the content of what they say with other experts.

We have had egregious examples of it in the Church. The papal adviser who spoke about how 2+2 can equal 5 when it comes to theology, for example, is according to Plato “corrupting the word”. How so? Words and language are the medium which sustains the common existence of the human spirit, one of the most important characteristics that sets us apart from animals. The implication of the 2+2 =5 rhetoric is that somehow the language theologians use is a specialised kind, different in essence, not just different because the words relate to a specific context and field, but actually used in a different way that need not equate to any reality known to mere non-theologians.

“Any discourse detached from the norms of reality is mere monologue,” says Pieper, and “to be detached from the norms of reality is to be indifferent to the truth.”

The difference between rhetoric and sophistry is analogous to the difference between perfection and perfectionism. The former is taken to mean completion or wholeness and relates to an object; the latter has negative or dangerous connotations because it relates to the desire to control or manipulate something for the subject’s own ends. One may use rhetoric to persuade or convince, but to claim that if your hearers are not convinced by your words they are, by definition, too ignorant or unsophisticated to understand your rhetoric, reveals an underlying corruption of thought. To attribute the unwillingness to agree with your argument to others’ failure to understand, and then to claim this as further proof of how sophisticated your argument is, is to cease to engage in dialogue.

We should use words and language, says Pieper, for two reasons. First, words convey reality; words are denominators, used to name and identify something which is real, and to identify it for someone else. This, then, points to the interpersonal nature of human speech. For we use language to identify reality, but such an exercise already implies the existence of another to whom we wish to describe or verify something, so that communication is always an exercise in speaking about what is real.

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