The Catholic Thing
Preaching to the Wordless Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 22 May 2013
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Last week, President Obama, delivering a commencement speech, advised the graduates not to listen to those voices that say that “government” is the source of all our problems. That would mean, he said, “that our great experiment in self-government had failed,” a conclusion to be avoided at all costs. Better to lay out sixteen trillion dollars in unpaid bills, than reach that terrible conclusion.   

I once played the comic villain Parolles for a college production of All’s Well that Ends Well, and one line rings in my memory still. When Parolles, a worthless, vain, swaggering coward, is asked what service he performs for the callow Lord Bertram, his young master, he replies, “I am his corrupter of words.” 

It isn’t that Parolles teaches Bertram how to lie. The plain liar depends upon the integrity of words; when he says, “I did not know of any attempt to cover up the break-in at the Watergate Hotel,” he expects you to understand something clear and definite. The words mean what they mean. 

But to corrupt words is, literally, to rot them from within. Think of the worthlessness of a hunk of rotten maple wood. You can crumble it in your fists. Words that are corrupted are thus worse than lies. It is not only that they do not mean what they purport to mean.  They have lost the capacity to mean anything.  

Most of the words we now use in what passes for political discourse are like that termite-riddled dust. They have the outward appearance of a limb or a plank, but there’s nothing there.  You do not cure a rotten beam by painting it white, either. There is no curing it. It has to be removed, discarded, and replaced with a solid beam. 

Take “self-government,” for example. What can it possibly mean? Solzhenitsyn said that the battle line between good and evil passed through every human heart. So too does the line between self-government and anarchy, that enemy in red, fighting alongside its ally tyranny, also in red. If self-government means anything, it must mean that people govern themselves, adhering to the moral law in their personal lives, and uniting with others nearest to them to secure the common good. 

Home rule and rule in the home imply one another. Imagine a small public school in Vermont, the last holdout against state-mandated consolidation. The school has been successful for more than a hundred years. It is overseen by the people nearby who finance it, whose children attend it, and who have a deep personal stake in it. They are fond of their school, as piety demands they should be. 

Now, suppose the state education commissars were to harass that school, demanding that it be closed and the district folded into a greater entity. Suppose that the politicians demanding it were to cry out, “How dare you refuse our assistance and wisdom! Don’t you believe in self-government?” How can one begin to answer such a questioner?  It would be like trying to argue reason with a madman. The words have ceased to signify.

Confusion of Tongues by  Gustave Doré, 1865 

Modern politics, perhaps, is the art of corrupting words so as to appeal to that new thing in the world, the masses, who by the sheer weight of numbers drag discourse down to the level of advertising campaigns. But after a certain point, the madmen forget that they have been corrupting words, and cease to be able to use words sensibly themselves.

The advertisers are the most terrible victims of their advertising. I have no doubt that politicians of the ambidextrous “right” and the ambidextrous “left” actually believe they mean something when they use terms like “defense” and “equality” and “rights” and “education” and “welfare.” They are both better and worse than liars. They do not consciously mislead, but only because they can hardly be accused of intending anything consciously at all.  

What do we do, then, if we wish to bring the Good News to people whose language is crawling with termites? Blamed if I know. I’m aware of the advice attributed to Saint Francis, advice which I thought was splendid when I first heard it, though now I am sick of it, that we should preach always, and use words when necessary. 

Yes, we must preach always, through acts of faith, hope, and charity. We must be kind to others in a world conspicuous for its hardheartedness. We must befriend others, in a world of spiritual isolation. We must above all pray for others, when they do not know how to pray.  

But man is supposedly a rational animal, and eventually, after ten minutes or so, we are going to have to bring them the Word by means of words. Faith comes by hearing, says Saint Paul. The trick is to bring the Word to people who have become aphasic. 

If we begin by saying, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that all those who believe in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life,” which of the words in that sentence will they understand? Which do we understand? 

Perhaps we have to begin with a resigned humility.  When Saint Boniface journeyed into the forests to evangelize the Germans, there was a solid culture there for him to work with.  There was a foundation upon which to build.  When Saint Augustine of Canterbury asked Pope Gregory the Great what he should do with the pagan shrines, Gregory wrote back and told him not to tear them down, but to cleanse them and dedicate them to Christ. There was more than a foundation to build upon; there was a building to renew. 

I don’t believe we have the luxury of addressing a solid pagan culture or of cleansing a solid pagan shrine. We must begin at the beginning, patiently. Words mean things. Truth is real. Good and evil are real. 

If someone has a better idea, I’m eager to hear it.

Anthony Esolen
is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are
Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Grump, May 22, 2013
This exchange from "Alice in Wonderland" is explanative:

'When I use a word... it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master—that's all.'
written by spudnik, May 22, 2013
Recent events have actually given me hope for the culture. Most people had been rendered senseless by the white noise of postmodernism. But I've noticed that people are only relativistic when they don't perceive the possibility of harm to themselves in the event that they are wrong. Where it had been accepted that mealy-mouthed equivocation was a staple of politics, people now understand that meaningless talk is being used to cover up abuses of power and attacks on the Bill of Rights that are all too real and hit too close to home. I've never seen such alarm across the political spectrum. If we've so corrupted the language that people have a hard time expressing the nature and basis of that alarm, it is still real.

So maybe, just maybe, recent events will cause people to see the folly of using words to conceal what we know deep down are objective realities and we will return to a place where we know what the definition of "is" is. God grant that those who have asked, "What is truth?" and have witnessed the death of truth might now see its resurrection. Or as someone put it more recently, reality is that which refuses to go away when we stop believing it it.
written by Maggie-Louise, May 22, 2013
From Waugh: Brideshead Revisited:

"I presume he meant what he said. He meant that . . . "

"That's simply a quibble."

"Why do people always think that one is quibbling when one tries to be precise?"
Thank you, Dr. Esolen, for an excellent essay. You have spoken profoundly on one of my favorite topics, to which I might add the unreliability of dictionaries published in, at least, the past half century.
written by Stanley Anderson, May 22, 2013
I quoted C.S. Lewis in my reply to your previous column, and I shall have to again. He apparently felt as you do and lamented the fact. So many connections…

Anyway. One of my pet theories is that the final Narnian book, “The Last Battle” is what I like to call “a version of ‘That Hideous Strength’ for kids,” since there are so many fascinating parallels between the two. One of them is the fact that the bad guys in both try to subvert language and are finally stripped of their ability to speak or speak sensibly. In “That Hideous Strength” when the heads of the N.I.C.E are gathered together in the chapter “Banquet at Belbury,” the disguised Merlin casts a spell onto the gathering, “Qui Verbum Dei contempserunt, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis” (“They that have despised the word of God, from them shall the word of man also be taken away”), and everyone in the room commences speaking gibberish (one of the phrases heard often in our house for the sheer fun of saying it is, “Bundlemen, Bundlemen,” said by the Director Wither in his attempt to regain control of the room). I find it a fascinating contrast that earlier in the story the heads of the NICE question a tramp they think is the new-found Merlin and try to make intellectual sense of his apparent gibberish, and then later at the banquet try to make sensible utterances themselves and cannot.

And in the Narnian story, “The Last Battle,” where animals talk, the cat Ginger has so maligned language in a “1984” Newspeak manner that it loses its ability to speak. “…Aslan at the beginning of the world had turned the beasts of Narnia into Talking Beasts and warned them that if they weren’t good they might one day be turned back again and be like the poor witless animals one meets in other countries.” After Ginger has committed his atrocity in the use of language and has been frightened, literally out of his wits, we read this:

“Aii – Aii – Aaow – Awah,” screamed the Cat.

“Art though not called a Talking Beast?” said the Captain. “Then hold thy devilish noise and talk.”

What followed was rather horrible. Tirian felt quite certain (and so did the others) that the Cat was trying to say something: but nothing came out of its mouth except the ordinary, ugly cat-noises you might hear from an angry or frightened old Tom in a backyard of England. And the longer he caterwauled the less like a Talking Beast he looked.

I found the recent readings on Pentecost Sunday fascinating. The one language at the plain of Shinar was broken up into many parts that resulted in the confusion of Babel. But the Holy Spirit did not “directly” reverse that action at Pentecost by uniting them back into one language. Rather, all the individual languages remained distinct, and yet the listeners were all able to understand the message in their own languages. In a paper elsewhere on a different, but, I think, related topic, I have used the image of separate, individual water molecules forming into solid form, not as a heavy cumbersome block of ice, but in complex integrated wholeness, almost as a dance (“The Great Dance,” as a phrase Lewis uses in his book “Perelandra”) in the form of a beautiful snowflake.

Whatever it is that we need in today’s climate, we will certainly require the Holy Spirit to bring it about.
written by Stacy Miller, May 23, 2013
I think this article is a god pro. Donations is always helpful, even if it is small or big amount its always a big help for everyone who need it. Thanks a lot for a beautiful article.
written by Jeannie, May 25, 2013
He meant what he said
And he said what he meant.
An elephant's faithful
One hundred percent

Dr Seuss - Horton the Elephant

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