Preaching to the Wordless

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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. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.