Abuse of Language—Abuse of Power: An Essay in Review

I’ve recently had the great delight of reading Abuse of Language—Abuse of Power, an essay by Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper, and I want to share a few of my thoughts to entice you to pick it up. You would buy it in book form, but it really is an essay, 54 pages in a pamphlet-sized copy. Even so, there’s a lot of gems and excellent discourse packed into it. Pieper aims at addressing how Plato’s criticisms of the sophists in his day are quite relevant to us with regard to modern-day sophism. He first spends some time defining sophism and Plato’s counter-view, then ventures on to discuss how the sophistic abuse of language is used in surprisingly myriad ways today—from advertising to the paradigm of academia—in order to distort truth and manipulate others’ perceptions of reality. This abuse, argues Pieper, forms the beginning of tyrannies such as the Soviet regime. To make his points, he takes the reader through history from Plato to the present day, examining the course of man’s thought on the ideas of language, truth, reality, science, knowledge, and freedom. It is along this path that I found some of the most intriguing ideas in his essay, such as what it means for something to be true, and what freedom is. Pieper’s thoughts and his conclusions are relevant to most readers, since they address the nature of communication itself, the pursuit of knowledge and why man does pursue it, and what safeguards and threats there are to higher education, to the ‘academy’. These obviously pertain to all readers as individuals and as members of society, and I have long since pondered in my mind and heart the matters unfolded in this essay. 

Now I will say that this was a philosophy book, some of which I did not understand, and likely much of which I thought I understood but really hardly or not at all grasped. Thus I said his thoughts are relevant to ‘most readers’. But I think that, even if it goes quite over your head, you might well benefit from reading it (and it will not take much of your time). One reason to consider it if you think it will go over your head, and a reason that I so enjoyed it, is that Pieper’s writing is discursive: He takes you down trails, explains why he must momentarily leave a topic for another, defines his terms, and—while his writing is academic and the ideas therein are profound—it is written in a somewhat conversational tone, very much to the reader. It is a highly intellectual conversation—but conversational nonetheless. The reader can feel the author addressing him, rather than talking to himself. So Pieper guides the reader to where he wants to take him, and his ideas become unoppressive and his arguments more interesting (because he is not merely trying to present an idea, or convince you of something, but rather to show you something). 

His discursive style also helps formulate his ideas and present them for a wider range of readers, and it makes his line of thought clear and appealing, guiding the essay like a steady yet free-flowing river. I have so refrained from adding quotes or explaining some of his conclusions because I think that Pieper’s manner of building up his conclusions over pages of historical analysis, explanation, and relating one idea to another makes his ideas—which are controversial to say the least—clearer and more appealing to the reader. 

I don’t know that I’ve read something so intellectually intriguing, exertive, and wonderful besides Aquinas. (Chesterton and Lewis make me feel like I’ve having tea with them, so despite their depth they feel less exertive.) If you are reading this review—and therefore are not a hermit or someone who lives detached from technology, probably on a ranch in Montana—then you have interacted and are likely surrounded by advertisements, the news, and modern or postmodern ideas concerning language, truth, political governance, and higher education. Whether or not you read this book because you are interested in linguistics or philosophy, I recommend it for its commentary on the above phenomena and ideas present in many societies, universities, and individuals today. 

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