Thursday, February 19, 2009

On the Subversive Use of Language - Part I

Machiavelli has given his name to a certain style of cut-throat politics characterized by intrigue, backstabbing and the unbridled pursuit of power, though he was neither its first advocate nor its most adept practitioner.1 More unique to Machiavelli’s thought is the use of language as a weapon: instead of employing language in the head-to-head combat of traditional arguments, he deploys his words on deep flanking strikes that take his opponents in the rear. “He gradually alters [words’] meaning by changing their context,” playing with double meanings or creating new meanings altogether.2 The Prince “presents evil as if it were neither evil nor good but merely useful or counterproductive. By the end unwary readers find themselves agreeing that both good and evil have their worthy places in a new ethical framework structured by the concepts of necessity and usefulness.”3 It is a linguistic coup d’etat accomplished not by force of argument but by slight of hand.

Machiavelli’s Christian contemporaries were appalled by his work, “not as virgins shocked by political horrors they did not know existed” – for medieval Christendom had its share of assassinations, intrigues and the like – but because his work is at odds with the Christian world-view. Whereas Machiavelli contended that this present world alone matters, and framed political actions accordingly, Christian political philosophy acknowledges that there are norms which transcend this world and ought to order it. Thus, Augustine and others articulated the concept that the City of God, though present in this world, will only be fully realized in the life to come. The greatest political actions undertaken by medieval Christendom, the crusades, amply illustrate this Christian world-view in action. Jonathan Riley-Smith points out that “the most characteristic feature of crusading was that it was penitential. Crusaders had engaged themselves to fight as an act of penance in which they repaid God what was due to him on account of their sins.”4 The crusaders were not any more or less calculating than Machiavelli; the difference is that their calculations included a final judgment before the Almighty and the possibility of eternal life at His side. “The last thing most sensible crusaders would have expected was material gain,” but they had much bigger matters in mind.5

For the Christian, this desire to make life conform to the highest truths extends to the use of language.
For Dante [an exemplar of the Christian position], the function of language is to describe the nature of things. To the extent that men understand the place of everything in a divinely ordered natural hierarchy, they may attune themselves to reality. Words express men’s best understanding of how every piece of reality fits with every other. Therefore, although words are not quite the means of grace, they have much to do with steering men toward saving truth or damning error…. [Machiavelli’s] thesis is that languages are essentially particular articulations of the universal struggle for primacy.6
Machiavelli’s Christian critics see that he undermines the connection between human behavior and transcendent truth and they fear for the salvation of souls. While their concern may be well-founded, these concerns need not result in a rejection of his methods out of hand.

Part II coming soon...


1. See Angelo M. Codevilla, introduction, The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), x.
2. Codevilla, “Words and Power,” The Prince, xx.
3. Ibid, xxv.
4. Jonathan Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades?, 3rd ed (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002) 3.
5. Ibid, 72.
6. Codevilla, “Words and Power,” xxiii.

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