Saturday, February 21, 2009

On the Subversive Use of Language - Part II

Continued from Part I

Machiavelli’s ability to take “control of the language of the discussion” and change “the terms in which people think,” was viewed as highly subversive and dangerous in a civilization where Christianity was the established intellectual and cultural framework.1 But Christianity did not always enjoy such a position and was itself once viewed as subversive.2 Indeed, many Christian thinkers took up the language and symbols of their pagan counterparts, but substantially changed their meaning in the process.3 In this regard, these thinkers’ work could be characterized as Machiavellian, not because they advocated amoral power politics (which they did not), but because they won their intellectual battles by subverting pagan terminology and concepts. They anticipated Machiavelli’s means, but applied them to other ends.

Today, in a world where Christians and others who believe in a transcendent cosmic order find themselves on the intellectual outside, Machiavelli’s lessons regarding the use of language as a weapon can be very instructive. Linguistic battles need not be fought in costly set piece engagements, but can instead be waged deep in enemy territory, if the practitioner is attentive to context, connotations and the subtle forces of language. Those using Machiavelli’s own tools against him, reestablishing a harmony between human actions and the transcendent order by altering the very terms of the debate, can take courage knowing that if their cause is true, they are not doing violence to language by ripping it from its moorings, but instead returning it to them.


1. Codevilla, “Words and Power,” xxxi, xxii.
2. Idem, introduction, xiii-xiv.
3. See, for example, Thomas Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotle’s Prime Mover, Boniface’ reinvention of the Germanic sacred tree as a Christmas tree, the appropriation of the Roman holiday of Sol Invictus for the date of Christmas, or the very use of the cross – a Roman symbol of terror – as the symbol of Christ.
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