Saturday, July 24, 2004

The Emptiness of Words

For all of Montaigne's essays, he is a man that does not trust words. Actions speak louder than words could almost be his motto. He begins "On the Vanity of Words" with a little story.

In former times there was a rhetorician who said his job was to make trivial things seem big and to be accepted as such. He is a cobbler who can make big shoes fit little feet. In Sparta they would have him flogged for practicing the art of lying and deception.
Rhetoric, Montaigne believes, "is a means invented for manipulating and stirring up the mob and a community fallen into lawlessness; it is a means which, like medicine, is used only when states are sick." This essay was an interesting one to read, very apropos, considering the Democratic National Convention starts Monday and the Republican one will follow in a couple of weeks. But it is also interesting in light of the 9/11 Commission report, the Army's report on Abu Graib prison, Sandy Berger's "accidental theft" of some papers from the National Archive and I could go on and on. It seems that every time a politician's mouth opens the only thing that comes out of it is rhetoric. But there is nothing new under the sun since "Rhetoric flourished in Rome when their affairs were in their worst state and when they were shattered by the storms of civil war, just as a field left untamed bears the most flourishing weeds." And so we hear from our government about how great things are in Iraq and that in Baghdad the electricity is on. And we good citizens think wow, that's great! Until, if we are fortunate, we hear from someone living in Baghdad that the power is on for about an hour or two a day. When the rhetoric flows it is all smoke and mirrors; it is the Wizard of Oz found out behind his curtain booming loudly over his great sound system, "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" But it's not just the politicians who spew the rhetoric. We've got corporations talking about who moved the cheese and all of us worker bees buying into it and trying to think outside the box, making our work places so efficient that we are not needed anymore because two jobs can now be done by one person and the company saves so much money the CEO's bonus skyrockets but there isn't enough money to give you a raise. Then we've got the lawyers and the doctors and the scientists who also spew. But this is nothing new either, "I cannot tell if others feel as I do, but when I hear our architects inflating their importance with big words such as pilasters, architraves, cornices, Corinthian style and Doric style, I cannot stop my thoughts from suddenly dwelling on the mighty palaces of Apollidon: yet their deeds concern the wretched parts of my kitchen-door!" And don't forget those who are in the employ of words, how they do go on, "When you hear grammatical terms such as metonymy, metaphor and allegory do they not seem to refer to some rare, exotic tongue? Yet they are categories which apply to the chatter of your chambermaid" (assuming you have a chambermaid). I am of the belief that while cliches are cliche, they are cliches for a reason--there is always a nugget of truth in them. In this instance, the more things change, the more they remain the same. I think humanity is in danger of becoming one giant and boring cliche. Five hundred years since Montaigne and we haven't changed at all. If there are space aliens out there keeping an eye on us, they've probably fallen asleep with boredom. In fact, they are probably taking a very long snack break and look in on us only once in awhile to make sure we haven't knocked ourselves off yet--"What are those earthlings up to now?" Same old, same old. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Conscience"