Buried Treasures of Christendom

Book Reviews

Abuse of Language -- Abuse of Power
By: Josef Pieper
Review by: Claire Thomas
May 4, 2017

In “Abuse of Language -- Abuse of Power” Josef Pieper  addresses the problem of propaganda and all forms of manipulation through words. Pieper, who was born on May 4, 1904, and lived well into his 90s, saw firsthand the horrors of totalitarian regimes. As a German adult during World War II he witnessed the violence and degradation that occurs when the powerful maintain control through lies. When he wrote this essay in 1974, the world was steeped in the corruption of language ranging from the propaganda of tyrannical states to the manipulation of consumers by advertisers. In the 1970s it was common to see billboards with seductive slogans; Pieper refers to several cigarette advertisements like “Smooth character” and “Come to where the flavor is.” In a lecture that I heard in 1975, in which Pieper presented the ideas of his essay, he specifically mentioned the Marlboro man as a symbol of modern sophistry. He was astute to focus on Marlboro and the cowboy image since it was the number one brand of cigarettes in the early 1970s.

He does not mention abortion and the euphemistic language used to obfuscate the reality of killing an unborn child, but it is noteworthy that the 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion was passed shortly before Pieper wrote this essay.

The central theme is that words only have integrity if they are used to convey truth to another person. When language is not rooted in reality, the language is corrupted and the person who is addressed is abused. If the motive for speech is to get something from another person, not to convey truth through dialogue, there is no longer communication but abusive manipulation. As a philosopher formed in Classical thought, Pieper approaches this timeless  problem through the lens of Plato and his encounter with the Sophists who were in the business of “merchandising wisdom.” Pieper quotes Nietzsche’s posthumous line, “The era of the Sophists? Our time!” and says that is the motto of his reflections.
The problem is so pervasive that modern man is satisfied with the pseudoreality created by those who set out to gain control and can no longer even search for truth. In this fictitious reality we are vulnerable to the element of menace which motivates the sophists: “those for whom the menace is intended must nevertheless be led and eased into believing (and that is the true art!)  that by acquiescing to the intimidation, they really do the reasonable thing, perhaps what they would have wanted to do anyway.” He concludes with an ominous observation: “The danger of this corruption is evident…but the threat itself is not so readily recognized, for it is part of its nature to be concealed and disguised.”

The primary value of this essay is the connection that Josef Pieper makes between language and power and the abuse that is inevitable as soon as the speaker is no longer motivated to convey truth to the listener. He makes it clear that both the language and the person are degraded. He also makes the important observation that the manipulation is covert. Although Pieper is effective in presenting the problem, he does not attempt to offer practical solutions which are so urgently needed.

In 2017, the abuse of language and of power has become so pervasive that it is more concealed and elusive than it was under the Nazis, the Soviets, or the Maoists. The problem is not just on the political or commercial level; it is interpersonal.  George K. Simon, a psychologist who specializes in character disorders, asserts that character disorders and the manipulative tactics that accompany these pathologies are more common than ever before. In his book,  Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, Simon describes covert aggression and outlines the tactics of manipulation that covert aggressive people use to dominate their victims. Pieper’s essay presents the philosophic and historic perspective on the problem of abusing language and power; Simon’s book offers practical ways to confront the problem.

About Josef Pieper:

Josef Pieper (1904-1997) was professor of philosophical anthropology at the University of Münster/Germany; he was a member of several academies and received numerous awards and distinctions, among them the International Balzan Prize for outstanding achievements in the field of humanities.

Pieper is among the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century. The main focus of his thought is the overcoming of cultural forms of secular totalitarianism and of its philosophical foundations through a rehabilitation of the Christian concept of man that is related to experience and action. Plato and Thomas Aquinas, in particular, were the inspiring sources of a constructive criticism of contemporary culture.

May 4th memorializes Pieper's birthday.  We honor his memory and his work.

Josef Pieper (far left) with Claire (Blume) Thomas
and her father, Dr. Robert Blume.
Picture taken in mid 1980s.