The First Rule of Politics: Getting the Names Right
So what should Catholics and all other men and women of good will do?
As Josef Pieper put it in his essay Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, when language is unmoored from truth, from reality, communication is impossible. There can be no dialogue. There can only be monologue, only "fine speeches," something at which our pro-abortion and pro-homosexual-"marriage" President, who has unmoored himself from moral truth for the sake of power, seems to have mastered.
Confucius insisted that language must be grounded in reality, and that the abuse of language for the purpose of advancing an ideology was the bane of life in common and a sign of bad governance. In short, Confucius insisted that the common good required that we should call a spade a spade, and then continue to refer to it as a spade. And (to continue using the gardening tool metaphor) if someone begins to call a spade a shovel, or, even worse, a hoe, then, before one can get back to good gardening, one must begin by rectifying names. The spade must be called a spade, and not a hoe, or gardening goes awry.
In Book 13, Verse 3 of the Analects of Confucius (Lun yu), we find the concept elegantly put during the course of a dialogue between the disciple Tsze-lu and Confucius:
Tsze-lû said, "The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?"
The Master replied, "What is necessary is to rectify names [Zhèng míng]."
"So! indeed!" said Tsze-lû. "You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?"
The Master said, "How uncultivated you are, Yû! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect."
Confucius was insistent that language needed to be used correctly, and that if language was abused by those in power, it spelled disaster in morals, in the arts of governance, and in justice. Ultimately, the failure to use language correctly resulted in intellectual, moral, and political confusion.
This principle is not solely an Eastern concept. It is a human concept.
We find it quite central in Plato's and Aristotle's struggle against the Sophists. The Sophists violated the principle of the Zheng Ming. Protagoras was, of course, one of the chief offenders. It was Protagoras's and his fellow sophists' refusal to abide by the truth, and instead to "make the weaker reason appear stronger," as Aristotle put it in his Rhetoric (1402a223-5), which merited their condemnation.
As an aside, there seems to be a relationship between sophistry and disbelief in God. Protagoras, it might be remembered, believed that man, and not God, was the measure of all things. Those who believe in God, on the other hand, seem to have a greater respect of language and a greater concern for its fixity: after all, they believe in dogma, which is truth expressed in human language, and so language is naturally tied to truth. It seems to bear out that if man is considered to be the measure of all things, then there is no measure of things, since the measurer and the measured are the same. In such instances, language becomes a tool for the powerful, and so is subject to fluctuation at the whim and advantage of the ruler.
The Zheng Ming principle is quite settled in Scripture as well. Words are important to sacred writ; after all, St. John's Gospel famously begins with: "In the beginning was the Word." The Word, which is Truth, is preeminent. "If you abide in my word, you are my disciples indeed." (John 8:31) God's language is always true, and needs no rectification.
But humans are called to conform to the never-changing Word. St. Paul demands from the Galatians and Colossians that they avoid sophistry and shun those who use sophistry. (Gal. 3:1; Col. 2:4). St. Paul admonishes that deacons should not be "double-tongued," which of course all sophists are. (1 Tim. 3:8) The Lord, of course, admonished us that our "Yes" should be "Yes," and our "No" should be "No," therefore avoiding any ambiguity or equivocation in our speech. (Matt. 5:37)
With the loss of its moral moorings and its embrace of ...
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