The gnomic philosopher and father of the “Logos” tradition, Heraclitus of Ephesus, says in what scholarship usually arranges to be the first of his surviving fragments that the man of wisdom has a dual duty to discern the essence of every significant thing and to name it properly. A necessary element of any intellectual doctrine incorporating an idea of truth as something linked to an actually existing external world, this venerable fifth-century BC philosophical notion also supplies scientific investigation with one of its primary goals. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates, who speaks admiringly of Heraclitus and often quotes him, shows a penchant, when in conversation with his sophistic partners, to wheedle them about proper definitions of terms. Skeptical readers of Plato’s text and the non-metaphysically inclined find in this trait no little annoyance. But even skeptics and the non-metaphysical need, on occasion, to define who they are. In one of the ironic features of the Platonic text, Socrates not infrequently fails to arrive at the proper or convincing definition of a term. The most notorious such failure comes with the case of “the Good,” a topic in most of the dialogues. But the principle is here the important thing, not its fulfillment in every instance. It might well be that defining terms can pose difficulties, especially in the case of the most important, most unavoidable concepts, such as “the Good.”
Naming belongs to language, a capacity for which differentiates human beings from other animals. Canines and primates can perhaps respond to language, but only Homo sapiens has originated language. As Heraclitus himself proposed in philosophical terms, and as Genesis proposes in mythic terms, language functions to impose order on the otherwise bewildering flux of existence thereby enabling human beings to predict events and to address themselves and the world in consistent ways. Language and thinking go together, as many a myth recognizes. God teaches Adam the names of things in Genesis, whereupon and henceforth Adam must bear the onus of his intelligence. In a version of the Prometheus story in Plato’s Protagoras, the Titan-demiurge, on drawing humanity from the clay, teaches men tongues, techniques, and customs. Now in an imperfect world anything that can be used can also be abused. So it is with language, by means of which one can either tell the truth or prevaricate. The very Muses tell this to Hesiod, when, in the prologue to his Theogony, he describes how they inspired him with knowledge of things divine. “We can tell the truth or we can lie,” say the Muses. There is a morality, not just an epistemology, of discerning the essences of things and endowing on them a proper label. One of Aesop’s Fables, “The Story of the Boy who Cried Wolf,” gives an illuminating minimal example of the abuse of naming. I owe a debt of gratitude to my teacher and dissertation adviser of the 1980s, Eric Gans, for pointing out the interest of this story.
Everyone knows what a wolf is. In the fable, everyone knows that the proper use of the word wolf resides in designating an actual wolf in the toothy menace of its full presence. Words name things present to us in the world. Such “ostensiveness” is a primary function of language even though words may also as discourse refer to generics and abstractions, and to objects that are exclusively intelligible rather than perceptible. The boy in the story has the duty to stand watch over the sheep to guard them from predatory forays by local lupines and to shout warning should wolfishness occur. Shepherd being a lonely station, the boy naturally feels isolated from the village. Everyone else gets to socialize and he has only the inarticulate sheep. He devises a ruse to alleviate his solitude. He shouts Wolf! even though no wolf is present. The villagers come running, but finding no wolf they leave. The boy shouts Wolf! again and once more the villagers come running, uselessly. When the boy shouts Wolf! a third time, the villagers have already drawn a reasonable conclusion. The boy is a liar-prankster; there is no wolf. Alas, the animal this time really has come loping to the pasture. He devours the boy with feral gusto.
The boy’s lie, for which the tale invokes condign punishment, takes a peculiar form. He uses the sign of presence when in fact there is only absence. He names nothing by the positive sign reserved for a specific something. In so doing the boy stands liable to a charge of irresponsibility that implicates the community existentially. Not at all a game without consequence, wrongly naming things figures in Aesop’s tale as a prime transgression of the moral order. The boy has not only prevaricated about a matter of life and death; he has also manipulated the villagers for a selfish purpose. When, in the sublime metaphors of his Phaedrus, Plato distinguishes the bad rhetoric from the good, he describes the modus operandi of the bad as involving the misnaming of phenomena and the conjuration of vain images that settle an impression of quiditas or character on some entirely empty location, some non-object, the selfsame misconduct charged by Aesop against the boy.
No period is so richly guilty of abusing the primary ostensive function of language – of shouting Wolf! – as modernity. I recall Gans saying once in a throwaway remark during a lecture that modernity specializes in creating specious differences while simultaneously denying the positive reality of actual differences. We can observe such specious differentiation most especially in current social and political rhetoric.
Take the vocabulary of equality, one of the obsessions of the self-denominating democratic societies. Modernity uses – or rather abuses – the term equality in two incompatible and self-canceling ways and in a verbal sleight of exasperating slipperiness. First, modernity posits equality as a moral absolute and as an eschatological project of the saints. Never mind that otherwise modernity hotly denies the existence of moral absolutes or that elsewhere it despises sanctity. Next, modernity claims that any and every instance of inequality signifies a moral offense and an intolerable injustice. The advocates of equality (their dubious name for which is “social justice”) invariably take the opportunity of their allegations to indict putative authors of inequality, whom they promise to chastise for causing the wickedness. Notice that the scheme of leveling all differences requires the difference that the plaintiff always be morally superior to the defendant. It was on this basis of this morally superior attitude, to which he was keenly sensitive, that Eric Voegelin declared modernity to be essentially “Gnostic.”
What agenda stems from the penchant of the levelers? If the inequality or difference in question consisted, for example, in the empirical fact that certain children at the end of twelve years in school spell well while certain others spell badly or cannot spell at all – were that so, the modern subject in his outrage would urgently equivocate between spelling well and spelling badly and he would urgently seek to nominate as generative of the difference any cause that shifts attention from direct linear explanations thereof (some students had better teachers than others or some students simply paid closer attention to their lessons than others) to extrinsic, “third party” explanations that permit the laying of blame against supposed malefactors. (Never, of course, the teachers or the school or the curriculum.) One might encounter the exculpatory claim that makes of spelling an arbitrary standard imposed by a ruling elite to stabilize the existing unjust establishment.
But – for we are not finished with our analysis – modernity, which rages against the hierarchical principle and can never celebrate equality enough, also creates moral hierarchies that celebrate manifestations of pronounced, but positively valorized inequality. These hierarchies always consist of reversals of long-standing judgments, so that misspelled graffiti on a freeway barrier become not just the proposed poetic equivalents of Shakespeare’s iambics, but superior in their splotchy disfigurations to Bardic pentameter, hence also liberating, in their fiercely ascribed authenticity. Should anyone defend Shakespeare, the modern subject will accuse him of “oppression.” Such ardent advocacy always occurs in the names of “democracy” and “democratic values.” This is especially so in the prevailing political rhetoric of the contemporary United States, in whose Constitution the word democracy never once appears. I leave it to my readers to multiply this example according to the parallels of their choice. The possibilities are inexhaustible.
Modernity is the great age of crying Wolf! So many advocates of so many causes have cried Wolf! so often that they have put language itself and the difference between the real and the false into confusion. One day – not so far off, perhaps – a real wolf will appear. He will begin devouring people with feral gusto.
(Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY Oswego.)