Listening to others talk is enough to make you drop an eave. But what marvels they are, the urgent, the playful, the wistful, the countless purposes with which we visit what Hamlet called the porches of another’s ear.
The great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges says that words are symbols for shared memories, nicely capturing the inner and outer of language, the public and private aspects of it. Philosophers have spent more time thinking of the relation of words to things, perhaps, than pondering the communal character of speech. Man is a rational animal, that is, the animal that talks. He is alternately speaker and listener, sharing a mother tongue. We speak our minds and hearts—and, of course, we often lie.
It is an abuse and not the purpose of language to deceive, but there are times when its abuse seems at least as prominent as its use. Such dark thoughts are reinforced by the way in which a presidential election was turned into an endless assertion of half-truths and outright lies. The participants in “talk” shows on radio and on television shout at one another, using language as a weapon not to convince the addressee in the studio but to bamboozle any auditor or viewer. The nadir was reached, of course, when he who shall be nameless was impeached. Platoons of prevaricators fanned out to every available microphone to persuade us that up is down, black is white, and everybody lies, so what’s the problem?
The problem is a logical one, that of the Isle of Liars. The ultimate perversion of language reduces talk to the level of a salesman’s pitch. The pitting of passionate adversaries on television mimics the law court, as we have had endless occasion to note of late. Forensic discourse, as practiced, seems dubiously at the service of truth or justice. It is a word game played to dupe a judge or jury or both. But perhaps this is its abuse.
There is no more arresting fact than that human beings, equally endowed with reason, assess and appraise deeds and arguments in radically different ways. It is the dream of reason that a well-formed argument is irresistible, that hearing it suffices for its acceptance. But the most cogent arguments are resisted, refused, and rejected. Every human being enters into conversation as who he is, with a background, outlook, beliefs, and expectations. It was the genius of John Henry Cardinal Newman to have analyzed this inescapable phenomenon at length in The Grammar of Assent.
A philosopher who devotes himself to proving that God exists becomes aware that on this great matter the antecedent attitudes of interlocutors are all but decisive for any discussion. The proof may be impeccable on what Cardinal Newman called the Notional Level. The great cardinal was far more concerned with what he called the Real Level, the point where the argument meets the particular, peculiar, singular self. Subjective dispositions are inescapable. They dispose or indispose us to the truth. Reactions, pro and con proofs of God’s existence, often reveal such antecedent dispositions.
I have written a book called The Defamation of Pius XII. Wearying of the lies and libels told of this holy prelate, I came to think it would be culpable of me not to respond. It was, of course, an easy matter to dispose of the calumnies against Pius XII. All one had to do was tell the story of what he had actually done—saved 860,000 Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis, in Pinchas Lapide’s calculation. No one else, emphatically including Jews, came anywhere close to his achievement. So why do the lies continue to be told?
Pius XII stands for the truth of Christianity and the absoluteness of natural morality. He is a sign of contradiction to those who refuse the faith or who seek to redefine morality. Pius is a target of opportunity—the foe is Christianity and natural morality. This is palpable in the case of those pathetic soi-disant Catholics who have lent their popguns to the attack on Pius. These are aggrieved and dissident Catholics who seem to think that Vatican II was the repudiation of Catholic tradition and doctrine enabling, even encouraging, us to clamber aboard the Titanic of sexual liberation. Hence the bitter venom with which they write.
In the end, in Cardinal Newman’s motto, heart speaks to heart. Only when the heart is in the right place can we speak and grasp the truth. The mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart.