The idea for this blog flowed from the writing of the book “Leaders & Misleaders – the art of leading like you mean it”.

The tension between leadership and misleadership in the workplace, politics, and our communities affects us all, and misleaders currently seem to have the upper hand. This blog hopes to reverse the trend by boosting awareness and understanding through the sharing of personal experience of leadership and misleadership in the workplace and beyond.

Each fortnight a new issue will be introduced by an article or a brief insight into the leadership challenge. You are invited to share your comments, experiences, and opinions.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What can Plato teach us today?

By Andre van Heerden

How the corruption of language hurts us

Josef Pieper (1904 - 1997) was a leading German philosopher, whose views strongly reflected the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas and Plato. After studying philosophy, law, and sociology at the universities of Berlin and M√ľnster, Pieper worked as a sociologist and freelance writer, and later held the position of ordinary professor of philosophical anthropology at the University of Munster from 1950 to 1976. Thereafter, he continued to lecture at the university as professor emeritus until 1996. Pieper’s thought has earned great respect throughout the academic world among people of widely differing philosophical standpoints. This article looks at how he links ancient wisdom with a serious on-going modern controversy.

In seeking answers to the breakdown of civilisation in the twentieth century, the German Thomist philosopher, Josef Pieper turned to the greatest thinker in history. He was deeply impressed by the prescience of Plato in seeing the smooth talk of the Sophists as the seductive illusion of the political process, enabling a fraudulent arrogation of power from the legitmate authority. Pieper found that when public discourse is vitiated by the undermining of truth, it becomes a valuable tool in the hands of the power-seekers and totalitarians.

In its exercise by unscrupulous politicians, the abuse of language is more commonly known as propaganda. This now all-too-familiar practice is especially dangerous when democracy is under siege, as it is in our day.

However, Pieper made it clear that the use of propaganda is by no means confined to totalitarian regimes. It is in evidence wherever an ideological faction, a special interest, a lobby group, or any powerful organisation or corporation employs the word as its weapon of choice. He noted that the word could be used to intimidate in many ways other than the threat of political persecution. Defamation, public ridicule, political correctness, and reducing someone to the status of non-person, are all instances of how the word can be deployed to destroy lives.

Pieper saw the common element as the degrading of language into an instrument of rape. That it does violence surreptitiously was demonstrated by Plato drawing on his personal experience with the Sophists of his day. Plato’s lesson says that the abuse of political power is intimately related to the corruption of the word, which actually provides the fertile ground in which it can grow. The surest way to discern the hidden potential for a totalitarian takeover is by being aware of the public misuse of language.

The humiliation of man by man through the acts of physical violence, like forced labour, torture, beatings, and murder, has its origin, where things appear more benign, in that almost indiscernible instant when the word loses its dignity. And the dignity of the word amounts to nothing more than the fact that it can do what nothing else can, that is, it can convey meaning based on reality, the way things actually are. When in the place of authentic reality a bogus reality is set up, then it becomes well nigh impossible to discern the truth.

Pieper explained how Plato sweated over his philosophical labours for more than fifty years, always returning to the same question: what is it that makes the Sophists so dangerous? He finally wrote one last dialogue, “Sophist”, in which he expounded on the fact that the Sophists set out to manufacture a fictitious reality. Pieper was not alone when he expressed his concerns that the Platonic nightmare has a terrifying relevance in the modern world.

Public opinion has been impoverished because people no longer know where to find the truth. And most are not even inclined to look for it, deceived and manipulated as they are into going along with the fictitious reality created by the power-mongers of our day through the corruption of language.

Pieper summed up Plato’s position in three statements: first, a meaningful human life requires, as far as possible, to be able to understand all things as they actually are, and to live and act in accordance with this reality, this truth; secondly, the potential of all people can only be brought to fruition by access and receptivity to truth, and society can only be sustained by a commitment to truth; thirdly, the truth lives and grows naturally in human relationships where there is free and open communication. Truth has to be promoted in dialogue, in discussion, in conversation, because its dwelling place is language, or the word.

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