We all know the nursery rhyme: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall/ Humpty Dumpty had a great fall/ all the king’s horses and all the king’s men/ couldn’t put Humpty together again. It’s a kindergarten classic. And the character behind the rhyme has an interesting history. Humpty actually began his career 300 years ago as the name on a cannon in the English Civil War. His work as a talking egg in the fairytale industry came much later. His importance for us today is his co-starring role, with Alice, in Lewis Carroll’s very strange children’s story, Through the Looking Glass, published in 1871.
Humpty has an exchange with Alice in that book that’s worth noting, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v Wade. He says, in a rather nasty tone, that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Put simply: Humpty, and Humpty alone, decides whatever his words mean. I’d like to argue that this kind of Promethean self-assertion marks Humpty Dumpty as one of the most prophetic political thinkers of the modern era. Here’s why.
Words are the basis of thought, belief, and action. A rich vocabulary expands the subtlety and precision not just in our verbal expression, but also in our thought. Thus – when properly used – language builds up the dignity of our species. Think the plays of Shakespeare; the novels of Dickens; the poetry of Wordsworth and Hopkins; the works of Augustine and Aquinas.
To the degree that a word accurately reflects reality – words like unborn child, man and woman, male and female – it tells the truth. And as Jesus himself once said, Jesus who is the aboriginal Word or logos, “the truth will make you free.” Not always comfortable. Not always happy. But truly liberated, and always free.
Dishonest, misleading words do the opposite. They confuse and demean us. And in the mouths of bad people, they do massive damage. Josef Pieper, the great German Catholic philosopher, wrote a short, simple text half a century ago – Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power – that’s worth reading. In it, Pieper argues that much of today’s advertising, public relations, and political lobbying is designed to bend the truth; to manipulate its target audience toward morally ambiguous ends. The outcome is predictable. In Pieper’s words, “Public discourse itself, separated from the standard of truth, creates [an epidemic of] vulnerability to the reign of the tyrant.” Or as Hilaire Belloc put it more crudely, “half-truths are like half bricks, you can throw them twice as far.”
Pieper and Belloc were not alone in their worry about language. In his great 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote that, “in our age, there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.”
We have a government of law, checks, and balances, designed to be of the people, by the people, for the people. In order for that to work, it needs literate citizens with a high degree of self-mastery, community loyalty, and moral sense. It needs mature adults willing to listen and not merely rant; willing to subordinate their private appetites and egos to the common good. This is why the moral content of American public education is so important. And here, I’m speaking of the traditional liberal arts. Education shapes – or should shape – responsible citizens. The root of that word “responsible” literally means “answering to,” or obedient to, some higher purpose or authority.
Thus, the absence of God in the vocabulary of our public discourse is a statement about God. It’s an implied affirmation of his non-existence, or at least his irrelevance to human affairs. And that has practical consequences, because a concept like “the common good” is inescapably moral. It involves what each of us should and should not do to sustain our shared community life. Education of the young always involves more than simply sharing facts; it’s more than merely an information delivery system. It’s also about forming the mind with a framework of meaning; teaching the difference between virtue and vice, truth and lies. At its best, education is part of the glue that holds the country together as a unified people. So when the education system becomes ideologically corrupt, the nation begins to suffer. People conclude that they’ve lost their share of ownership in their own country.
And that’s exactly what many of us feel today.
The ferocity of verbal abuse, physical violence, and irrational hatred unleashed by otherwise “progressive” people with the downfall of Roe is instructive. Roe v Wade was always a judicial coup; a badly reasoned decision that invented a “right” to abortion out of whole cloth, unrelated to the Constitution or democratic process. But we now live in an environment where there’s your truth, and Ann’s truth, and Bill’s truth, and my truth. Which really means that there’s no truth at all; just the naked will to power. And the powerful make the rules to serve their own purposes, not the common good.
The American founding was shaped by a keen sense of both the dignity of human beings, and their fallenness. The founders had both a confidence in man’s ingenuity, and a realism about his weakness. They understood that the human person is utterly unique and unlike any other creature; that freedom is not license; that there is no freedom without commensurate responsibilities; that a God who created nature and humanity does exist; that there are such things as natural law and objective truths that ground the world in reality; and that a real community is more than a collection of people joined together by the same antagonisms, illusions, and sins.
We’re losing nearly all of these little wisdoms. And that’s dangerous, because in a technological age, in a nation with our wealth and global influence, our capacity for damage to human life and dignity is immense.
This is planting season here in Nebraska, and words are a bit like plants. They’re living organisms. We can kill them with abuse, but otherwise they develop naturally, from their seeds, over time. Take the word “liberty,” for example. Its Latin root is libertatem, meaning the condition of a free man as opposed to a slave. The word “blessing” has a similar history. In Hebrew, its root is brk or barak, which means to kneel or to praise. Barak developed into the word baruch, as in Baruch hashem Adonai, which means “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Professor John Senior, my mentor in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, and my godfather as an adult convert, was fascinated with such words and their etymologies. And here’s the simple reason why. Our civilization’s idea of the “blessings of liberty” has always – whether we admit it or not — been rooted in the virtue of obedience; our willing and mutually shared submission to higher, godly realities worthy of human worship. Real freedom is not self-assertion. It’s self-gift and self-sacrifice grounded in a humble self-knowledge. We become free first by mastering ourselves for the sake of others, and then receiving the same gift from them. We’re not little planets revolving around the star of our own self-importance. We’re complementary social creatures, and our souls starve if we feed only our own egos and appetites.
Here’s the point.
Words matter. An unborn child is a developing human person; not simply a “fetus,” not a piece of personal property disposable at will, and vastly more than an intrusive bundle of alien tissue. In striking down Roe, the Supreme Court has at least broken the spell of one of the dominant lies of our age. It remains to us – if the word “democracy” stills means anything – to ensure that the humanity of the unborn child is reflected truthfully in our laws.
(Note: This essay is adapted and expanded from remarks made to a Portsmouth Abbey “Blessings of Liberty” conference.)
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