Josef Pieper on the Sophist Phenomenon and Its Recurring Temptations

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                2 August 2020

Our Lady of the Angels

Saint Alphonsus Liguori (d. 1787)

Saint Peter Julian Eymard (d. 1868)

Epigraphs

“What indeed did Plato have against the sophists? His objection could tentatively be summed up in these brief terms: corruption of the word—you are corrupting the language! Still the core of the matter is not yet identified with this. The specific threat, for Plato, comes from the sophists’ way of cultivating the word with exceptional awareness of linguistic nuances and utmost formal intelligence, from their way of pushing and perfecting the employment of verbal constructions to crafty limits, thereby—and precisely in this—corrupting the meaning and the dignity of the very same words.” (Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, pages 14-15.)

***

“This timeless character of the sophistic phenomenon, transcending any particular age, prompted certain important, indeed disturbing, comments by Hegel….He called the sophists of Socrates’ time ‘extremely refined and learned people’; but such praise…sounds somewhat ambiguous. It is precisely such learned refinement and unmoored questioning that plucks apart any object and dialectically discredits everything; it is such ‘refined reasoning’…—an expression repeatedly used by Hegel [“gebildetes Raisonnement”]–that poses the true danger. It almost inevitably leads us, says Hegel, to the conviction that everything can be justified if we look hard enough for reasons. To quote Hegel: ‘You need not have advanced very far in your learning in order to find good reasons even for the most evil of things. All the evil deeds in this world since Adam and Eve have been justified with good reasons.’ Hegel, therefore, sees here a danger clearly intrinsic to the human mind, being part of its nature, a danger that can perhaps be overcome but never entirely avoided.” (Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, pages 8-9—my bold emphasis added)

***

“It is one of my favorite questions in tests…: Can a lie be taken as communication? I tend to deny it. A lie is the opposite of communication. It means specifically to withhold the others’ share and portion of reality, to prevent his participation in reality. And so: corruption of the relationship to reality, and corruption of communication—these evidently are the two possible forms in which the corruption of the word manifests itself.” (Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, page 16—my emphasis added)

***

Josef Pieper published a short book in English in 1992 that is subtly entitled Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power.1 Because of its timelines, as well as its timelessness, I propose to consider the first section of that profoundly insightful book, which was first published in German in 1974 and which will now be found on pages seven to thirty-nine of the 1992 English translation, almost twenty years later.

The first page of Dr. Pieper’s 32-page enquiry clearly discloses his thesis and its motivation:

The topic of this essay can also be stated as “the abuse of language in its relation to the abuse of power.” I intend to approach this subject from two different directions: though they are two distinct considerations, I shall nonetheless try to show their intrinsic connection.

One of these considerations is a phenomenon of classical antiquity [Socrates, Plato, Gorgias, Protagoas, Aristotle and such]….To be sure, historicity…is not my concern in this. It is rather Plato’s position—and this indeed is the other [second] consideration—which shall be taken as a paradigm showing, I believe, something directly relevant for us and our own situation today [also in 2020 A.D.]. The case can be made that Plato recognized, identified, and battled in the sophistry of his time a danger and a threat besetting the pursuits of the human mind and the life of society in any era….

Anything that may at first sound like a mere critique of the present, aimed at our own situation, should also be taken as pointing to a timeless temptation that since the beginning of history has always required mankind’s resistance and will require it forever. This [is the] timeless character of the sophistic phenomenon, transcending any particular age…. (7-8—my emphasis added)

In their own respective meditations, both Plato and Josef Pieper are persistently attentive to “the art of twisting words” (7) and “the sophistry of [our own] day” (7) and the concealed disguises of some “such learned refinement” (8) and “such a deceptive illusion” (19) as is characteristically hidden as part of “the sophist mentality” (10).

Pieper’s meditation of thirty-two pages deserves to be slowly and carefully read so as to savor his multiple interrelations and enduring substance. For example: “the incommensurability” (11) of money and spirit (or of money and mind); “the sophists’ way of cultivating the word” (14); “to know reality with the aim of communication” (16); “the sophists’ rhetoric, that artistry with words” (16-17); “verbal artistry and linguistic form” (18) which are “nevertheless sham and foul” (19)—that is to say, “unless the linguistic artist [is also] a speaker of truth” (19). Pieper raises good questions such as the recurrent “by what standard?” (12) and comes even to ask: “To what purpose are you in this world?” (48—my emphasis added). Therefore, in this context: “What is it that makes the sophists so dangerous?” (34—my emphasis added).

And we wonder: “what is a well-ordered language?” (36) Dare we say in response that: “a language is well ordered when its words express reality with as little distortion and as little omission as possible”? (36—my emphasis added)

Continuing his fresh perceptions and keen discernments, Pieper says such additionally challenging things as: he who “explicitly disregards reality ceases to have communication” (20-21) and thus one must fittingly be “explicitly committed to the truth” (20-21); by way of contrast,“flattery intends not to communicate, but to manipulate” (22-23) while often “having an ulterior motive” (23) such as “domination” and especially by deftly flattering our pride. Moreover, as Pieper then properly counter-argues and contends: “Academic must mean anti-sophistic” (38) and we must be found “taking an anti-sophistic stance” (35). Moreover, as others also say: “The lingo of the revolution is a form of modern sophistry.” (32—my emphasis added) And Pieper even later refers to “the jargon of the revolution” (39) as a form of “bondage,” as well. That is to say, the jargon-lingo of the revolution itself appears to be the cramped and stifling product of self-deluded, fevered opinions and “mind-forged manacles.”

After such a selective summary of Josef Pieper’s variety and compactness—and of his multiple challenges to us—it is fitting that we now return to an examination of some of Dr. Pieper’s longer passages. For example:

Word and language, in essence, do not constitute a specific or specialized area; they are not a particular discipline or field. No, word and language form a medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such….And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted.

What, however, does “corrupting the word” mean?….Human words and language accomplish a twofold purpose….Since this accomplishment is twofold, we may already here suspect that the word’s degeneration and corruption can also be twofold. First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it [something] for someone, of course—and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech. (15—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

After some further observations about Socrates and Gorgias the Sophist, Dr. Pieper says:

And with this we have identified the other [the second] aspect of the corruption of the word: the destruction of its nature as communication….The very moment, as I have stated, that someone in full awareness employs words yet explicitly disregards reality, he in fact ceases to communicate anything to the other. This the reader may more or less have accepted. But an instrument of power? Is this not too strong and too overbearing an expression? It really implies that from one moment to the next the human relationship between the speaker and the listener changes….From that moment on, to be precise, all conversation ceases; all dialogue and all communication comes to an end. But what, then, is taking place? The very question is answered by Socrates with an old-fashioned term: flattery….

What, then, is flattery?….The decisive element is this: having an ulterior motive [not the truth]….What I say to him is designed to get something from him!….He [the seeming conversational partner] has become for me an object to be manipulated, possibly to be dominated, to be handled and controlled….I concentrate on his weaknesses and on those areas that may appeal to him—all in order to manipulate him, to use him for my purposes….The word is perverted and debased [i.e., such “sophisticated language, disconnected from the roots of truth” (20)] to become a catalyst, a drug, as it were, and is as such administered. Instrument of power may still seem a somewhat strong term; still, it does not seem so farfetched any longer. (20-23—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

Moving forth some seven illuminating pages, Pieper resumes some of his earlier thoughts:

Be that as it may—this much remains true: wherever the main purpose of speech is flattery, there the word becomes corrupted, and necessarily so. And instead of genuine communication, there will exist something for which domination is too benign a term; more appropriately we should speak of tyranny, of despotism. On the one side there will be sham authority, unsupported by any intellectual superiority, and on the other a state of dependency, which again is too benign a term. Bondage would be more correct….[That is,] a pseudoauthority [in combination with]…a state of mental bondage.

Plato evidently knew what he was talking about when he declared the sophists’ accomplished art of flattery to be the deceptive mirage of the political process, that is, the counterfeit usurpation of power. (29-30—italics; my bold emphasis added)

Moreover, a few pages later, Pieper chooses to make a clarifying interim summary once again;

The common element in all of this is the degeneration of language into an instrument of rape. It does contain violence, albeit in latent form….This lesson, in a nutshell, says: the abuse of political power is fundamentally connected with the sophistic abuse of the word, indeed, finds in it the fertile soil in which to hide and grow and get ready, so much so that the latent potential of the totalitarian poison can be ascertained, as it were, by observing the symptom of the public abuse of language….The relationship based on mere power, and thus the most miserable decay of human interaction, stands in direct proportion to the most devastating breakdown in orientation toward reality.

I spoke [earlier] of public discourse becoming “detached from the notions of truth and reality.” This brief characterization may still be too mild; it does not yet express the full measure of devastation breeding within the sophistic corruption of the word. (32-33—my bold emphasis added)

With a glance to contemporary societies in the twentieth century, Josef Pieper adds a note or so:

It is entirely possible that the true and authentic reality is being drowned out by the countless superficial information bits noisily and breathlessly presented in propaganda fashion. Consequently, one may be entirely knowledgeable about a thousand details and nevertheless, because of ignorance regarding the core of the matter, remain without basic insight. This is a phenomenon in itself already quite astonishing and disturbing….“a fundamental ignorance [said Arnold Gehlen], created by technology and nourished by information.” But, I wanted to say, something more discouraging is readily conceivable as well: the place of authentic reality is taken over by a fictitious reality;…a pseudoreality, deceptively appearing as being real, so much so that it becomes almost impossible any more to discern the truth.

Plato’s literary activity extended over fifty years, and time and again he asked himself anew: What is it that makes the sophists so dangerous? Toward the end he wrote one more dialogue, the Sophist, in which he added a new element to his answer: “The sophists,” he says, “fabricate a fictitious reality.”….This Platonic nightmare, I hold, possesses an alarming contemporary relevance. For the general public is being reduced to a state where people not only are unable to find out about the truth but also become unable even to search for the truth because they are satisfied with deception and trickery that have determined their convictions, satisfied with the fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language. This, says Plato, is the worst that the sophists are capable of wreaking upon mankind by their corruption of the word.

There is now the ancient saying, corruptio optimi pessima, “the best, corrupted, becomes the worst”….Plato is not simply taking an anti-sophist stance….his unwavering strong opposition…[is] in view of this own position regarding the overriding importance of the good that is endangered and threatened by the sophists. With this, indeed, we touch on those most basic convictions relative to the value and meaning of human existence as such. (33-34—italics; my bold emphasis added)

With his characteristic politeness, Josef Pieper inserts his further good words near the end of his essay: “the well-ordered human existence…is essentially based on the well-ordered language….when its words express reality with as little distortion and as little omission as possible.” (36—my emphasis added)

–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abusive of Power (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992). The German text was first published in 1974, and then again in 1988; and the original German title was: Mißbrauch der Sprache, Mißbrauch der Macht. The second portion of Josef Pieper’s longer 47-page book in its entirety is entitled “Knowledge and Freedom” and is to be found on pages 41-54, although it will not be discussed in this essay. With one exception (48), all future references will be to the pages 7-39, and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this brief essay.

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