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Hard Headed Philosophy

Misuse of Language as Dangerous to the Soul

Dr. Christopher Anadale

(Sept, 2010) Science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin, accepting a literary award in 2006, quoted Socrates: "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." This is an intriguing statement, one worth examining.

Everyone who took intro to philosophy probably remembers that Socrates was executed by his fellow Athenians in 399 BC, sentenced to drink hemlock for the crime of corrupting the youth. Plato, in his dialogue Phaedo, describes his master’s death in moving detail: his noble spirit, discussing the nature of the soul right up until the fatal cup is brought, his calmness as he drinks the poison. Socrates rebukes his friends for their weeping, reassures them that death is nothing to fear, and exhorts them to live lives of virtue.

LeGuin’s quotation comes from this death scene, where Socrates explains why he believes his soul will survive his bodily death. Recently, a friend and I discussed different ways translators have rendered this line from the Greek. LeGuin’s quotation captures part of Plato’s meaning: ?"The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." But consider two other versions. A famous nineteenth century scholar gives: "For false words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil." And a more recent translation reads: "To express oneself badly is not only faulty as far as the language goes, but does some harm to the soul."

These two versions convey an idea missing from LeGuin’s quote. Plato seems to say that misusing language is bad in two ways: it is bad in itself, or linguistically, and it is bad for the character of the speaker; it makes him a worse person.

My friend suggested a more literal translation: "Not to speak well (correctly) is not only discordant regarding the thing itself, but introduces some evil into the soul." Plato very deliberately contrasts goodness in speech with evil in the soul. More importantly, the first problem with speaking badly is that it is "discordant"—jarring, dissonant, out of harmony—with the thing itself.

What exactly does bad speech clash with? Not the rules of language, but reality itself. Plato is not just warning us against misusing language in the sense of bad grammar or syntax. Speaking badly also includes saying untruths, telling lies, creating a conflict between speech and reality, between what is said and what is. To speak badly in this sense is to sound a false note in the music of creation. It is to put yourself out of tune with the way things are.

This idea of discord, disharmony, striking a wrong note, is a very important part of Plato’s worldview. Good speech, like good ethical behavior, participates in the harmony of a larger objective order. Our decisions place us in sync with reality, or at odds with it.

In his excellent short book Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, the German philosopher Josef Pieper observes that we use language for two purposes: to describe reality and to communicate with other people. Each function implies the other. When we describe how things are, we describe them to or for somebody else. And when we communicate with others, we try to tell them something about reality: what else could we talk about?

The liar, misusing language, violates both purposes speech. He fails to describe reality as it is, and at the same time he corrupts his relationship with his listener. To lie is to withhold some part of reality from the other person, to prevent him from participating in something by knowing it. And talk that fails to communicate becomes monologue, or worse, manipulation.

The background for these observations about language and reality is Plato’s critique of his rivals, the sophists. Sophists were teachers who travelled around ancient Greece, getting rich by claiming to sell wisdom. Of course, what they sold was not wisdom at all, but only skill with words. The sophists sold success: for the right price, they said, you can learn how to use words to gain power and money in the political assembly. You can convince the courts to give you a share of your neighbor’s property, whether you deserve it or not. Socrates and Plato fought to define philosophy against this brazen quest for success at all costs.

The Greek sophists were the first nihilists, teaching that there is no such thing as truth. Or better: teaching that we can and should speak without regard to truth. The sophist is interested in reality only as a topic for impressive speeches. What you say does not matter; the only important thing is how you say it.

This concern for verbal skill is never neutral, though it might claim to be. By severing speech from reality, the sophist makes truth an optional add-in. "I will teach you how to speak well," he might say, "and you can decide whether to speak truths or lies." The difficulty here is that attempting to speak as though reality has no claim on me corrupts my relationships with the world and with other people. It degrades my humanity and damages my soul, as Plato would say.

Sophistical speech always has an ulterior motive: when it does not aim at communicating the truth of something to another person, speech must be directed to some other goal, a goal of the speaker’s choosing. When it abandons communication, speech becomes manipulation, and the relationship of solidarity between speaker and audience, as co-seekers of truth, is fundamentally compromised. Pieper ends his essay by invoking one of the ideals of our civilization: "free interpersonal communication anchored in the truth of reality—the reality of the world around us, the reality of ourselves, and the reality of God as well."

This brings us back to LeGuin’s point in her award speech. "Evil government relies on deliberate misuse of language. Because literary skill is the rigorous use of language in the pursuit of truth, the habit of literature, of serious reading, is the best defense against believing the half-truths of ideologues and the lies of demagogues." The abusers of language are our modern sophists: unscrupulous marketers, lawyers, politicians, those who push content-free slogans in place of genuine communication about the world. Now, as ever, the misuse of language is wrong in itself, and also does some harm to the soul.