Without truth language would be a general fog of words above the silence; without truth it would collapse into an indistinct murmuring. It is truth that makes language clear and firm. The line separating the true from the false is the support that holds language back from falling. Truth is the scaffolding that gives language an independent foothold over against silence.
Language becomes a world of its own, as we have said already; and language now has not only a world behind it—the world of silence, but a world near at hand—the world of truth.
The word of truth must keep in rapport with silence, however, for without it truth would be too harsh and too hard. It would then seem as though there were only one single truth, since the austerity of the individual truth would suggest a denial of the inter-relatedness of all truth. The essential point about truth is that it all hangs together in an all-embracing context.
Max Picard, The World of Silence
Reflection – I’ve had this quote staring at me on my computer for quite awhile now. Of course, this used to be my normal way of blogging – provide a quote, discuss the quote, and I still like to do that on occasion.
This section of Picard’s book, which I have excerpted from time to time on the blog, is very much in his typical style—not so much a tight logical argument as a sort of meditative series of assertions around a subject—language, truth, and silence—to draw the reader into contemplation of these things. It is an unusual way of writing, but very effective.
A week or so ago I wrote a post wondering what the meaning of the word ‘gender’ was, in light of the breakdown of normative, anatomy-based male-female gender polarity. I don’t especially care to revisit that subject—one of the simple facts of my life is that, while I barely have time to maintain this blog, I really don’t have time to engage in long debates on-line around controversial and complex matters.
But this question of language and its relationship to truth is the deeper question yet, it seems to me, in this and in many other tough questions of our day. And this is why we cannot skip those hard philosophical matters in service of some apparent good done to others.
When language is no longer flowing from truth, when there is no longer a concern for the rigorous application of reason to the words we use to make sure that we are talking sense, then language not only ‘collapses’ as Picard says, but in the wreckage of its collapse the remaining shards of language only serve one purpose, and that is the acquisition and maintaining of power.
George Orwell had it all figured out: 'we have always been at war with Oceania'. So did Plato, in his controversies with the sophists. When words are no longer at the service of attaining truth, then they are only good for attaining power. It really is one thing or the other. Moral relativists who are uncomfortable with claims of absolute truth and our capacity to know the same have to confront that a world in which we cannot know the truth is a world where whoever has the loudest voice (and perhaps the money and guns to back it up) imposes their ‘truth’, or at least their agenda on the rest of us.
Power and its misuse as tyranny has always been with us. The mythical caveman with his club was not so much winning a debate with his inarticulate grunts, but rather taking a more direct approach with things.
I would argue that the whole project of civilization is the counterbalancing of power politics and dominance by the disciplined and ordered pursuit of truth. The speaking of ‘truth to power’ is not something invented in 1968, but is the key act which prevents our world from descending to the brutality of tyranny.
And that is why assaults on free speech on the one hand, and assaults on assaults on reason and disciplined debate on the other (the various schools of critical theory and deconstructionism that explicitly assert language to be naught but a tool of power and privilege) are a return to barbarism, and must be vigorously resisted.
That is what Pope Benedict meant when he talked about the ‘dictatorship of relativism’, and his words have become no less relevant in the ten years since he introduced that phrase.
I will get back to the second part of Picard’s quote tomorrow (sorry, Monday Psalter fans!), about silence as the counterbalance of truth-language. But for now, the main point I am making is that words matter, and it matters that our words make sense, and if we abandon the serious duties of truth and coherence we are opening a Pandora’s box of jackbooted nonsense—truth coming from the barrel of a gun and two plus two equals five because I say so and I have the power now, sucker. That kind of thing is what we have to fight against, and it is indeed more and more the way of our post-modern discourse.