Words changed meaning. A people who fights for its legitimate sovereign is a rebellious people. A traitor is a loyal subject. France was an Empire of lies: journals, pamphlets, discourses, prose, and verse all disguised the truth. If it rained, we were assured it was sunny. If the tyrant walked among the silent people, it was said that he advanced among the acclamations of the crowd. The prince was all that mattered: morality consisted of devoting oneself to his caprice; duty was to praise him. Above all it was necessary to praise the administration when it made a mistake or committed a crime.

~ Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, On Buonaparte and the Bourbons


Chateaubriand’s discussion of Buonaparte (the Italian spelling used by him to emphasise the alien origin of the tyrant) is one of the most excellent descriptions of the connection between the perversion of language and despotism that I have encountered so far. It brings to mind some of my earlier discussions about American Loyalists, a subject to which I will return in the future.

The parallels between Chateaubriand’s description and our recent experiences with state and media propaganda with respect to Iraq are almost so obvious that it seems redundant to mention the connection. There should be no difficulty in guessing who plays the part of Buonaparte in our version. A war of aggression was billed as self-defence (one gets the frightening impression that some of the advocates genuinely believe this!); the president’s arbitrary decision to start a war was made into the constitutional, deliberated decision forced upon “us” by recalcitrant enemies; the superpower was made to be the threatened victim; opponents of the war despised the country and loved dictatorship; the president’s obvious wrongdoing and deceit are to be lauded as responsible, brave and wise deeds. The list could go on.

Language is the structure of symbols and meaning with which we organise and define our thoughts and through which we reason, and the correct expression of language is closely connected to the rule of the intellect over the passions. Passions introduce distortions into meaning because they impair our perceptions, twist our wills and pervert our consciences, so that we do not discern the relationship between word and reality properly. The abuse of language invites moral turpitude and abuses of power.

Craven fear, lack of principle and desire for advancement all play a part in why so many collaborate with the introduction of meaningless language and the double tyranny of nonsense and despotic political power. On that subject, Etienne de la Boetie’s treatise on tyranny and voluntary subjection to tyranny has recently come to my attention, and I may return to it in a little while with a few comments. Chief among the magic words used in the nonsensical incantations of recent years have been “liberty” and “democracy,” both of which have been totally deprived of all serious meaning and context to be made into handy slogans for the tyrant’s proclamations.

One of my personal favourites in the total subversion of meaning is the label “anti-Iraqi forces” now being used by the military and the administration to designate the predominantly Iraqi insurgents. It is not bad enough that America must be hollowed out and turned into a political abstraction that they must do the same to Iraq (a state that already had enough trouble establishing itself as something other than a politically convenient fiction).

Whether or not one accepts the existence of innate ideas or Forms or some other antidote to this nominalist subversion, much less the extreme Chinese proposition that a “horse” and a “white horse” are distinct realities, we should all bear in mind the grave consequences of ignoring the correct relationships between words and realities. These are not matters primarily of academic dispute or the interest of students of hermeneutics, but the very essence of what it is to possess a genuinely liberal mind in the traditional sense.

Incidentally, the relationship between words and realities is, if we must worry about this, culturally contingent and constructed, as are all human expressions and creations, but something that is constructed exists and even something that was initially contingent on a specific time and place can have enduring meaning and truth.