Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address: Faith, Reason and the University

Benedict XVI at Paul VI Audience Hall, Vatican, 2012

Benedict XVI

It is a moving experience for me to be back again in the university and to be able once again to give a lecture at this podium. I think back to those years when, after a pleasant period at the Freisinger Hochschule, I began teaching at the University of Bonn. That was in 1959, in the days of the old university made up of ordinary professors. The various chairs had neither assistants nor secretaries, but in recompense there was much direct contact with students and in particular among the professors themselves. We would meet before and after lessons in the rooms of the teaching staff. There was a lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties. Once a semester there was a dies academicus, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas – something that you too, Magnificent Rector, just mentioned – the experience, in other words, of the fact that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason – this reality became a lived experience. The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the “whole” of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole. This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God. That even in the face of such radical scepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on – perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara – by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.[1] It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor.[2] The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur’an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between – as they were called – three “Laws” or “rules of life”: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point – itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole – which, in the context of the issue of “faith and reason”, I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation (διάλεξις – controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to some of the experts, this is probably one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”[3] The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”.[4]

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.[5] The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.[6] Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry.[7]

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the λόγος”. This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logosLogos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts 16:6-10) – this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

In point of fact, this rapprochement had been going on for some time. The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush, a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and simply asserts being, “I am”, already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates’ attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy.[8]Within the Old Testament, the process which started at the burning bush came to new maturity at the time of the Exile, when the God of Israel, an Israel now deprived of its land and worship, was proclaimed as the God of heaven and earth and described in a simple formula which echoes the words uttered at the burning bush: “I am”. This new understanding of God is accompanied by a kind of enlightenment, which finds stark expression in the mockery of gods who are merely the work of human hands (cf. Ps 115). Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature. Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria – the Septuagint – is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity.[9] A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act “with logos” is contrary to God’s nature.

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which – as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated – unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, “transcends” knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul – “λογικη λατρεία”, worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).[10]

This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity – a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the programme of dehellenization: although interconnected, they are clearly distinct from one another in their motivations and objectives.[11]

Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this programme forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.

The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. When I was a student, and in the early years of my teaching, this programme was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal’s distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In my inaugural lecture at Bonn in 1959, I tried to address the issue,[12]and I do not intend to repeat here what I said on that occasion, but I would like to describe at least briefly what was new about this second stage of dehellenization. Harnack’s central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message. Fundamentally, Harnack’s goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ’s divinity and the triune God. In this sense, historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament, as he saw it, restored to theology its place within the university: theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific. What it is able to say critically about Jesus is, so to speak, an expression of practical reason and consequently it can take its rightful place within the university. Behind this thinking lies the modern self-limitation of reason, classically expressed in Kant’s “Critiques”, but in the meantime further radicalized by the impact of the natural sciences. This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield decisive certainty. The weight between the two poles can, depending on the circumstances, shift from one side to the other. As strongly positivistic a thinker as J. Monod has declared himself a convinced Platonist/Cartesian.

This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.

I will return to this problem later. In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology’s claim to be “scientific” would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self. But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science”, so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

Before I draw the conclusions to which all this has been leading, I must briefly refer to the third stage of dehellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was an initial inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not simply false, but it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.

And so I come to my conclusion. This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific ethos, moreover, is – as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector – the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit. The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding. Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: “It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being – but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss”.[13] The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.

12 September 2006

[1] Of the total number of 26 conversations (διάλεξις – Khoury translates this as “controversy”) in the dialogue (“Entretien”), T. Khoury published the 7th “controversy” with footnotes and an extensive introduction on the origin of the text, on the manuscript tradition and on the structure of the dialogue, together with brief summaries of the “controversies” not included in the edition;  the Greek text is accompanied by a French translation:  “Manuel II Paléologue, Entretiens avec un Musulman.  7e Controverse”,  Sources Chrétiennes n. 115, Paris 1966.  In the meantime, Karl Förstel published in Corpus Islamico-Christianum (Series Graeca  ed. A. T. Khoury and R. Glei) an edition of the text in Greek and German with commentary:  “Manuel II. Palaiologus, Dialoge mit einem Muslim”, 3 vols., Würzburg-Altenberge 1993-1996.  As early as 1966, E. Trapp had published the Greek text with an introduction as vol. II of Wiener byzantinische Studien.  I shall be quoting from Khoury’s edition.

[2] On the origin and redaction of the dialogue, cf. Khoury, pp. 22-29;  extensive comments in this regard can also be found in the editions of Förstel and Trapp.

[3] Controversy VII, 2 c:  Khoury, pp. 142-143;  Förstel, vol. I, VII. Dialog 1.5, pp. 240-241.  In the Muslim world, this quotation has unfortunately been taken as an expression of my personal position, thus arousing understandable indignation.  I hope that the reader of my text can see immediately that this sentence does not express my personal view of the Qur’an, for which I have the respect due to the holy book of a great religion.  In quoting the text of the Emperor Manuel II, I intended solely to draw out the essential relationship between faith and reason.  On this point I am in agreement with Manuel II, but without endorsing his polemic.

[4] Controversy VII, 3 b–c:  Khoury, pp. 144-145;  Förstel vol. I, VII. Dialog 1.6, pp. 240-243.

[5] It was purely for the sake of this statement that I quoted the dialogue between Manuel and his Persian interlocutor.  In this statement the theme of my subsequent reflections emerges.

[6] Cf. Khoury, p. 144, n. 1.

[7] R. Arnaldez, Grammaire et théologie chez Ibn Hazm de Cordoue, Paris 1956, p. 13;  cf. Khoury, p. 144.  The fact that comparable positions exist in the theology of the late Middle Ages will appear later in my discourse.

[8] Regarding the widely discussed interpretation of the episode of the burning bush, I refer to my book Introduction to Christianity,London 1969, pp. 77-93  (originally published in German as Einführung in das Christentum, Munich 1968;  N.B. the pages quoted refer to the entire chapter entitled “The Biblical Belief in God”).  I think that my statements in that book, despite later developments in the discussion, remain valid today.

[9] Cf. A. Schenker, “L’Écriture sainte subsiste en plusieurs formes canoniques simultanées”, in L’Interpretazione della Bibbia nella Chiesa.  Atti del Simposio promosso dalla Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede, Vatican City 2001, pp. 178-186.

[10] On this matter I expressed myself in greater detail in my book The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco 2000, pp. 44-50.

[11] Of the vast literature on the theme of dehellenization, I would like to mention above all:  A. Grillmeier, “Hellenisierung-Judaisierung des Christentums als Deuteprinzipien der Geschichte des kirchlichen Dogmas”, in idem, Mit ihm und in ihm.  Christologische Forschungen und Perspektiven,  Freiburg 1975, pp. 423-488.

[12] Newly published with commentary by Heino Sonnemans (ed.):  Joseph Ratzinger-Benedikt XVI, Der Gott des Glaubens und der Gott der Philosophen.  Ein Beitrag zum Problem der theologia naturalis, Johannes-Verlag Leutesdorf, 2nd revised edition, 2005.

[13] Cf. 90 c-d.  For this text, cf. also R. Guardini, Der Tod des Sokrates, 5th edition, Mainz-Paderborn 1987, pp. 218-221.


Pope Benedict XVI: The Listening Heart – Reflections on the Foundations of Law

Benedict XVI, Bressanone, Italy July 31, 2008

Mr President of the Federal Republic,
Mr President of the Bundestag,
Madam Chancellor,
Madam President of the Bundesrat,
Ladies and Gentlemen Members of the House,

It is an honour and a joy for me to speak before this distinguished house, before the Parliament of my native Germany, that meets here as a democratically elected representation of the people, in order to work for the good of the Federal Republic of Germany. I should like to thank the President of the Bundestag both for his invitation to deliver this address and for the kind words of greeting and appreciation with which he has welcomed me. At this moment I turn to you, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, not least as your fellow-countryman who for all his life has been conscious of close links to his origins, and has followed the affairs of his native Germany with keen interest. But the invitation to give this address was extended to me as Pope, as the Bishop of Rome, who bears the highest responsibility for Catholic Christianity. In issuing this invitation you are acknowledging the role that the Holy See plays as a partner within the community of peoples and states. Setting out from this international responsibility that I hold, I should like to propose to you some thoughts on the foundations of a free state of law.

Allow me to begin my reflections on the foundations of law [Recht] with a brief story from sacred Scripture. In the First Book of the Kings, it is recounted that God invited the young King Solomon, on his accession to the throne, to make a request. What will the young ruler ask for at this important moment? Success – wealth – long life – destruction of his enemies? He chooses none of these things. Instead, he asks for a listening heart so that he may govern God’s people, and discern between good and evil (cf. 1 Kg 3:9). Through this story, the Bible wants to tell us what should ultimately matter for a politician. His fundamental criterion and the motivation for his work as a politician must not be success, and certainly not material gain. Politics must be a striving for justice, and hence it has to establish the fundamental preconditions for peace. Naturally a politician will seek success, without which he would have no opportunity for effective political action at all. Yet success is subordinated to the criterion of justice, to the will to do what is right, and to the understanding of what is right. Success can also be seductive and thus can open up the path towards the falsification of what is right, towards the destruction of justice. “Without justice – what else is the State but a great band of robbers?”, as Saint Augustine once said. We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty spectre. We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the State became an instrument for destroying right – a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss. To serve right and to fight against the dominion of wrong is and remains the fundamental task of the politician. At a moment in history when man has acquired previously inconceivable power, this task takes on a particular urgency. Man can destroy the world. He can manipulate himself. He can, so to speak, make human beings and he can deny them their humanity. How do we recognize what is right? How can we discern between good and evil, between what is truly right and what may appear right? Even now, Solomon’s request remains the decisive issue facing politicians and politics today.

For most of the matters that need to be regulated by law, the support of the majority can serve as a sufficient criterion. Yet it is evident that for the fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake, the majority principle is not enough: everyone in a position of responsibility must personally seek out the criteria to be followed when framing laws. In the third century, the great theologian Origen provided the following explanation for the resistance of Christians to certain legal systems: “Suppose that a man were living among the Scythians, whose laws are contrary to the divine law, and was compelled to live among them … such a man for the sake of the true law, though illegal among the Scythians, would rightly form associations with like-minded people contrary to the laws of the Scythians.”[1]

This conviction was what motivated resistance movements to act against the Nazi regime and other totalitarian regimes, thereby doing a great service to justice and to humanity as a whole. For these people, it was indisputably evident that the law in force was actually unlawful. Yet when it comes to the decisions of a democratic politician, the question of what now corresponds to the law of truth, what is actually right and may be enacted as law, is less obvious. In terms of the underlying anthropological issues, what is right and may be given the force of law is in no way simply self-evident today. The question of how to recognize what is truly right and thus to serve justice when framing laws has never been simple, and today in view of the vast extent of our knowledge and our capacity, it has become still harder.

How do we recognize what is right? In history, systems of law have almost always been based on religion: decisions regarding what was to be lawful among men were taken with reference to the divinity. Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead, it has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law – and to the harmony of objective and subjective reason, which naturally presupposes that both spheres are rooted in the creative reason of God. Christian theologians thereby aligned themselves with a philosophical and juridical movement that began to take shape in the second century B.C. In the first half of that century, the social natural law developed by the Stoic philosophers came into contact with leading teachers of Roman Law.[2] Through this encounter, the juridical culture of the West was born, which was and is of key significance for the juridical culture of mankind. This pre-Christian marriage between law and philosophy opened up the path that led via the Christian Middle Ages and the juridical developments of the Age of Enlightenment all the way to the Declaration of Human Rights and to our German Basic Law of 1949, with which our nation committed itself to “inviolable and inalienable human rights as the foundation of every human community, and of peace and justice in the world”.

For the development of law and for the development of humanity, it was highly significant that Christian theologians aligned themselves against the religious law associated with polytheism and on the side of philosophy, and that they acknowledged reason and nature in their interrelation as the universally valid source of law. This step had already been taken by Saint Paul in the Letter to the Romans, when he said: “When Gentiles who have not the Law [the Torah of Israel] do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves … they show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness …” (Rom 2:14f.). Here we see the two fundamental concepts of nature and conscience, where conscience is nothing other than Solomon’s listening heart, reason that is open to the language of being. If this seemed to offer a clear explanation of the foundations of legislation up to the time of the Enlightenment, up to the time of the Declaration on Human Rights after the Second World War and the framing of our Basic Law, there has been a dramatic shift in the situation in the last half-century. The idea of natural law is today viewed as a specifically Catholic doctrine, not worth bringing into the discussion in a non-Catholic environment, so that one feels almost ashamed even to mention the term. Let me outline briefly how this situation arose. Fundamentally it is because of the idea that an unbridgeable gulf exists between “is” and “ought”. An “ought” can never follow from an “is”, because the two are situated on completely different planes. The reason for this is that in the meantime, the positivist understanding of nature has come to be almost universally accepted. If nature – in the words of Hans Kelsen – is viewed as “an aggregate of objective data linked together in terms of cause and effect”, then indeed no ethical indication of any kind can be derived from it.[3] A positivist conception of nature as purely functional, as the natural sciences consider it to be, is incapable of producing any bridge to ethics and law, but once again yields only functional answers. The same also applies to reason, according to the positivist understanding that is widely held to be the only genuinely scientific one. Anything that is not verifiable or falsifiable, according to this understanding, does not belong to the realm of reason strictly understood. Hence ethics and religion must be assigned to the subjective field, and they remain extraneous to the realm of reason in the strict sense of the word. Where positivist reason dominates the field to the exclusion of all else – and that is broadly the case in our public mindset – then the classical sources of knowledge for ethics and law are excluded. This is a dramatic situation which affects everyone, and on which a public debate is necessary. Indeed, an essential goal of this address is to issue an urgent invitation to launch one.

The positivist approach to nature and reason, the positivist worldview in general, is a most important dimension of human knowledge and capacity that we may in no way dispense with. But in and of itself it is not a sufficient culture corresponding to the full breadth of the human condition. Where positivist reason considers itself the only sufficient culture and banishes all other cultural realities to the status of subcultures, it diminishes man, indeed it threatens his humanity. I say this with Europe specifically in mind, where there are concerted efforts to recognize only positivism as a common culture and a common basis for law-making, reducing all the other insights and values of our culture to the level of subculture, with the result that Europe vis-à-vis other world cultures is left in a state of culturelessness and at the same time extremist and radical movements emerge to fill the vacuum. In its self-proclaimed exclusivity, the positivist reason which recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world. And yet we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that even in this artificial world, we are still covertly drawing upon God’s raw materials, which we refashion into our own products. The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.

But how are we to do this? How do we find our way out into the wide world, into the big picture? How can reason rediscover its true greatness, without being sidetracked into irrationality? How can nature reassert itself in its true depth, with all its demands, with all its directives? I would like to recall one of the developments in recent political history, hoping that I will neither be misunderstood, nor provoke too many one-sided polemics. I would say that the emergence of the ecological movement in German politics since the 1970s, while it has not exactly flung open the windows, nevertheless was and continues to be a cry for fresh air which must not be ignored or pushed aside, just because too much of it is seen to be irrational. Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives. In saying this, I am clearly not promoting any particular political party – nothing could be further from my mind. If something is wrong in our relationship with reality, then we must all reflect seriously on the whole situation and we are all prompted to question the very foundations of our culture. Allow me to dwell a little longer on this point. The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.

Let us come back to the fundamental concepts of nature and reason, from which we set out. The great proponent of legal positivism, Kelsen, at the age of 84 – in 1965 – abandoned the dualism of “is” and “ought”. (I find it comforting that rational thought is evidently still possible at the age of 84!) Previously he had said that norms can only come from the will. Nature therefore could only contain norms, he adds, if a will had put them there. But this, he says, would presuppose a Creator God, whose will had entered into nature. “Any attempt to discuss the truth of this belief is utterly futile”, he observed.[4] Is it really? – I find myself asking. Is it really pointless to wonder whether the objective reason that manifests itself in nature does not presuppose a creative reason, a Creator Spiritus?

At this point Europe’s cultural heritage ought to come to our assistance. The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions. Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights. To ignore it or dismiss it as a thing of the past would be to dismember our culture totally and to rob it of its completeness. The culture of Europe arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe. In the awareness of man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law: it is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history.

As he assumed the mantle of office, the young King Solomon was invited to make a request. How would it be if we, the law-makers of today, were invited to make a request? What would we ask for? I think that, even today, there is ultimately nothing else we could wish for but a listening heart – the capacity to discern between good and evil, and thus to establish true law, to serve justice and peace. I thank you for your attention!

Reichstag Building, Berlin
Thursday, 22 September 2011

[1] Contra Celsum, Book 1, Chapter 1. Cf. A. Fürst, “Monotheismus und Monarchie. Zum Zusammenhang von Heil und Herrschaft in der Antike”, Theol.Phil. 81 (2006), pp. 321-338, quoted on p. 336; cf. also J. Ratzinger, Die Einheit der Nationen. Eine Vision der Kirchenväter (Salzburg and Munich, 1971), p. 60.

[2] Cf. W. Waldstein, Ins Herz geschrieben. Das Naturrecht als Fundament einer menschlichen Gesellschaft (Augsburg, 2010), pp. 11ff., 31-61.

[3] Cf. Waldstein, op. cit., pp. 15-21.

[4] Cf. Waldstein, op. cit., p. 19.

On rigor in science by Jorge Luis Borges


Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges


. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied an entire City, and the map of the Empire, an entire Province. In time, these Immeasurable Maps did not satisfy and the College of Cartographers built a Map of the Empire, that was of the Size of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. the Following Generations who were Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, understood that that dilated Map was Useless and not without Pitilessness they delivered it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and the Winters. In the Deserts of the West endure tattered Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole country there is no other relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suárez Miranda: Travels of Prudent Men, Book Four, Ch. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

Stories and Totalitarianism by Václav Havel

Václav Havel

A friend of mine who is heavily asthmatic was sentenced, for political reasons, to several years in prison, where he suffered a great deal because his cellmates smoked and he could scarcely breathe. All his requests to be moved to a cell with nonsmokers were ignored. His health, and perhaps even his life, were threatened. An American woman who learned of this and wanted to help telephoned an acquaintance, an editor on an important American daily. Could he write something about it, she asked. “Call me when the man dies,” was the editor’s reply.

It’s a shocking incident but in some ways understandable. Newspapers need a story. Asthma is not a story. Death could make it one.

In Prague there is only one Western news agency with longterm accreditation. In Lebanon, a country far smaller than Czechoslovakia, there are reporters by the hundreds. Perhaps this is understandable, for, as they say, “Nothing is happening here.” Lebanon, on the other hand, is full of stories. It is also a land of murder, war, death. But as long as humans can remember, death has been the point at which all the lines of every real story converge.

Our condition is like that of my friend: we are unworthy of attention because we have no stories, and no death. We have only asthma. And why should anyone be interested in listening to our cough?

One can’t go on writing forever about how hard it is to breathe.

It doesn’t bother me that terrorists are not on the loose here, or that there are no big scandals over corruption in high places, and no violent demonstrations or strikes.

What bothers me is something else: that this remarkable absence of newsworthy stories is not an expression of social harmony, but the outward consequence of a dangerous and profound process: the destruction of “the story” altogether. Almost every day I am struck by the ambiguity of this social quiescence, which is the visible expression of an invisible war between the totalitarian system and life itself.

It is not true that Czechoslovakia is free of warfare and murder. The war and the killing assume a different form: they have been shifted from the daylight of observable public events, to the twilight of unobservable inner destruction. It would seem that the absolute, “classical” death of which one reads in stories (and which for all the terrors it holds is still mysteriously able to impart meaning to human life) has been replaced here by another kind of death: the slow, secretive, bloodless, never quite-absolute, yet horrifyingly ever-present death of non-action, non-story, non-life, and non-time; the collectively deadening, or more precisely, anesthetizing, process of social and historical nihilization. This nihilization annuls death as such, and thus annuls life as such: the life of an individual becomes the dull and uniform functioning of a component in a large machine, and his death is merely something chat puts him out of commission.

All the evidence suggests that this state of things is the intrinsic expression of an advanced and stabilized totalitarian system, growing directly out of its essence.

Visitors from the West are often shocked to find that for Czechs, Chernobyl and AIDS are not a source of horror, but rather a subject forjokes.

I must admit this doesn’t surprise me. Because totalitarian nihilization is utterly immaterial, it is less visible, more present, and more dangerous than the AIDS virus or radioactivity from Chernobyl. On the other hand, it touches each of us more intimately and more urgently and even, in a sense, more physically, than either AIDS or radiation, since we all know it from everyday, personal experience and not just from news~ papers and television. Is it any wonder, then, that the less menacing, less insidious, and less intimate threats are relegated to the background and made light of?

There is another reason for the triumph of invisibility. The destruction of the story means the destruction of a basic instrument of human knowledge and self-knowledge. Totalitarian nihilization denies people the possibility of observing and understanding its processes “from outside.” There are only two alternatives: either you experience it directly, or you know nothing about it. This menace permits no public reference to itself.

The foreign tourist can form the legitimate impression that Czechoslovakia is a poorer and duller Switzerland, and that press agencies have a legitimate reason for closing their bureaus here: how can they be expected to report that there is nothing to report?

I will attempt to make a few observations on the origin and nature of our asthma.

I will attempt to show that the disappearance of the story from this corner of the world is a story in itself.

In the fifties there were enormous concentration camps in Czechoslovakia filled with tens of thousands of innocent people. At the same time, building sites were swarming with tens of thousands of young enthusiasts of the new faith singing songs of socialist construction. There were tortures and executions, dramatic flights across borders, conspiracies, and at the same time, panegyrics were being written to the chief dictator. The President of the Republic signed the death war rants for his closest friends, but you could still sometimes meet him on the street.

The songs of idealists and fanatics, political criminals on the rampage, the suffering of heroes-these have always been part of history. The fifties were a bad time in Czechoslovakia, but there have been many such times in human history. It still shared something, or at least bore comparison with those other periods; it still resembled history. No one could have said that nothing was happening, or that the age did not have its stories.

The blueprint for political power in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968 was a document called “Lessons from the Years of Crisis.” It was an appropriate title; the powers that be really did learn a lesson from the Prague Spring. They discovered how far things can go when the door to a plurality of opinions and interests is opened: the totalitarian system itself is jeopardized. Having learned this lesson, political power set itself a single aim: self-preservation. In a process with its own, mindless dynamic, all the mechanisms of direct and indirect manipulation of life began to expand and assume unprecedented forms. Henceforth nothing could be left to chance.

The past twenty years in Czechoslovakia can almost serve as a textbook illustration of how an advanced or late totalitarian system works. Revolutionary ethos and terror have been replaced by dull inertia, pretexaridden caution, bureaucratic anonymity, and mindless, stereotypical behavior, all of which aim exclusively at becoming more and more what they already are.

The songs of zealots and the cries of the tortured are no longer heard; lawlessness has put on kid gloves and moved from the torture chambers into the upholstered offices of faceless bureaucrats. If the President of the Republic is seen in the street at all, he is behind the bulletproof glass of his limousine as it roars off to the airport, surrounded by a police escort, to meet Colonel Qaddafi.

The advanced totalitarian system depends on manipulatory devices so refined, complex, and powerful that it no longer needs murderers and victims. Even less does it need fiery Utopia builders spreading discontent with dreams of a better future. The epithet “Real Socialism,” which this era has coined to describe itself, points a finger at those for whom it has no room: the dreamers.

Every story begins with an event. This event-understood as the incursion of one logic into the world of another logicinitiates what every story grows out of and draws nourishment from: situations, relationships, conflict. The story has a logic of its own as well, but it is the logic of a dialogue, an encounter, the interaction of different truths, attitudes, ideas, traditions, passions, people, higher powers, social movements, and so on, that is, of many autonomous, separate forces, which had done nothing beforehand to define each other. Every story presupposes a plurality of truths, of logics, of agents of decisions, and of manners of behavior. The logic of a story resembles the logic of games, a logic of tension between what is known and not known, between rules and chance, between the inevitable and the unforeseeable. We never really know what will emerge from the confrontation, what elements may yet enter into it, and how it will end; it is never clear what potential qualities it will arouse in a protagonist and what action he will be led to perform by the action of his antagonist. For this reason alone, mystery is a dimension of every story. What speaks to us through a story is not a particular agent of truth; instead, the story manifests the human world to us as an exhilarating arena where many such agents come into contact with each other.

The fundamental pillar of the present totalitarian system is the existence of one central agent of all truth and all power, an institutionalized “rationale of history,” which becomes, quite naturally, the sole agent of all social activity. Public life ceases to be an arena where different, more or less autonomous agents square off, and becomes no more than the manifestation and fulfillment of the truth and the will of this single agent. In a world governed by this principle, there is no room for mystery; ownership of complete truth means that everything is known ahead of time. Where everything is known ahead of time, the story has nothing to grow out of.

Obviously, the totalitarian system is in essence (and in principle) directed against the story.

When the story is destroyed, the feeling of historicity disappears as well. I remember the early seventies in Czechoslovakia as a time when something like a “cessation of history” took place; public life seemed to lose its structure, its impulse, its direction, its tension, its rhythm, its mystery. I can’t remember what happened when, or what made one year different from another, and I don’t think it matters much, for when the unforeseeable disappears, the sensation of meaning disappears with it.

History was replaced by pseudo-history, by a calendar of rhythmically recurring anniversaries, congresses, celebrations, and mass gymnastic events; by the kind of artificial activity that is not an open-ended play of agents confronting one another but a one-dimensional, transparent, predictable self-manifestation (and self-celebration) of a single, central agent of truth and power.

And since human time can only be experienced through story and history, the experience of time itself began to disappear: time seemed to stand still or go in circles, to disintegrate into interchangeable fragments. The march of events out of nowhere and to nowhere lost its storylike character and thus lost any deeper meaning as well. When the horizon of historicity was lost, life became nonsense.

Totalitarian power brought bureaucratic order into the living disorder of history and thus effectively anesthetized it. In a sense, the government nationalized time. Thanks to that, time encountered the same sad fate as many other nationalized entities: it began to wither away.

As I’ve said, the revolutionary ethos in Czechoslovakia has long since vanished. We are no longer governed by fanatics, revolutionaries, or ideological zealots. The country is administered by faceless bureaucrats who profess adherence to a revolutionary ideology, but look out only for themselves, and no longer believe in anything. The original ideology has become a formalized ritual that gives them legitimacy in space and time, and provides them with a language for internal communication.

Oddly enough, it is only recently that this ideology has begun to bear its most important fruit, to manifest its deepest consequences.

How are we to explain this?

Simply: by the age and the deeply conservative (in the sense of preserving) nature of the system. The further it gets from its original revolutionary fervor, the more slavishly it clings to all its constitutive principles, which it sees as the only certainty in an uncertain world. Inevitably, through its own mindless, automatic motion, it gradually transforms those principles into a monstrous reality. The ceaseless strengthening and perfecting of totalitarian structures has long since come to serve only the naked self-preservation of power, but this is the best guarantee that what was genetically encoded in the original ideology will flourish undisturbed. The fanatic whose unpredictable zeal for the “higher cause” might threaten this automatic process has been replaced by the bureaucratic pedant whose reliable lack of ideas makes him an ideal guardian of late totalitarianism’s vacuous continuity.

The phenomenon of totalitarian nihilization is one of the late fruits of an ideology that has already gone to seed.

The totalitarian system did not fall from the sky fully developed. Nor is it the work of a pervert who has got his hands on a scalpel designed to remove malignant growths and begun killing healthy people with it.

We need only penetrate the tissue of various dialectical sprouts to discover that the germ of this nihilization lies dormant in the heart of the ideology the system is based upon: in its belief that it has fully understood the world and revealed the truth about it. And if the main territory of that belief is history, is it any wonder that its nihilizing intention radiates most strongly from its approach to history?

It began with an interpretation of history from a single aspect, then made that aspect absolute, and finally reduced all of history to that one aspect. The exciting variety of history was discarded in favor of an orderly, easily understood interplay of “historical laws,” “social groups,” and “relations of production,” so pleasing to the eye of the scientist. But this gradually expelled from history the very thing that gives human life, time, and thus history itself a structure: the story. And the story took with it into the kingdom of unmeaning its two essential ingredients: uniqueness and ambiguity. Since the mystery in a story is the articulated mystery of man, history began to lose its human content. The uniqueness of the human creature became a mere embellishment on the laws of history, and the tension and thrill in real events were dismissed as accidental and therefore unworthy of the attention of scholarship. History became boredom.

The nihilization of the past nihilizes the future as well: when the “laws of history” were projected into the future, what would be and what had to be suddenly became obvious. The bright glare of this certainty burned away the essence of the future: its openness. Plans to make an earthly paradise the final end of history, to rid the world of social conflict, of negative human qualities, and even of misery, climaxed the work of destruction. Society was petrified into a fiction of everlasting harmony, and man into a stone monument representing the permanent proprietor of happiness-these were the silent consummations of the intellectual assassination of history.

Yet by presenting itself as an instrument for history’s ultimate return to itself, ideology unwittingly admits to its own destructiveness. The claim is that through ideology, history has finally understood itself, understood where it is going and how it must proceed: that is, under ideology’s guidance. Ideology revealed the historical necessity of what ought to happen, and in doing so, confirmed the historical necessity of itself, whose mission it is to fulfill that necessity- In other words, history has at last discovered its final meaning. The question is, however, does history that has discovered its own meaning still have any meaning? And is it history anymore?

Ideology, claiming to base its authority on history, becomes history’s greatest enemy.

But the hostility is double-edged: if ideology destroys history by explaining it completely, then history destroys ideology by unfolding in an unpredictable way.

Ideology, of course, can destroy history only ideologically, but the power based on that ideology can suppress history in real ways. In fact, it has no choice: if history, by unfolding unpredictably, were allowed to demonstrate that ideology is wrong, it would deprive power of its legitimacy.

By negating history, power is defending not just its ideological legitimacy, but its identity as totalitarian power. This identity too has a firm ideological anchorage: the principle that there is a single central agent of truth and power could scarcely have come into existence, let alone develop and grow strong, had it not initially drawn strength from an ideology that so smugly disdained any viewpoint but its own, and so proudly declared its historical mission, and all the prerogatives this mission endowed it with. After all, totalitarian power has been fed and weaned and to this day is imbued with the intolerant spirit of this ideology, which sees plurality only as a necessary evil, or as a formality. And its central principle is nothing more than the consistent working-through of the original ideology and the perfect incarnation of its vanity; as its legitimate product, it draws on ideology’ nihilizing energy, so that it can put the theories of ideology successfully into practice.

The asthma our society is now suffering from is a natural continuation of the war that intellectual arrogance once declared on the story, on history, and thus on life itself.

Boredom has jumped out of the history textbooks and into real life.

Any fledgling totalitarian power tries first to limit and ultimately to eliminate other sources of power. The C~rst to go is political plurality. But along with it, or shortly afterwards, intellectual and economic plurality disappear as well, since any power that respects these pluralities would not be total.

First, then, the story is driven out of public life.

By virtue of its own specific gravity-its totalitarian gravity-this power deepens its totality and extends its range. Once the claims of central power have been placed above law and morality, once the exercise of that power is divested of public control, and once the institutional guarantees of political plurality and civil rights have been made a mockery of, or simply abolished, there is no reason to respect any other limitations. The expansion of central power does not stop at the frontier between the public and the private, but instead, arbitrarily pushes back that border until it is shamelessly intervening in areas that once were private. For example, a club of pigeon fanciers that had enjoyed a kind of autonomy now suddenly find themselves scrutinized by the central power. Today, that power walks through my bugged bedroom and distinguishes my breathing, which is my own private matter, from what I say, which the state cannot be indifferent to.

When opposition parties are banned and censorship has been introduced, the attack on the story and thus on life itself is not over; it is just beginning.

Because they are better hidden, indirect interventions are in some ways more dangerous. Public life is not as sharply distinguished from private life as it used to be. Countless phenomena in modern civilization bind the two spheres together, and so they have become two faces, two poles, or two dimensions of a single and indivisible life. Though it sometimes happens in complex and hidden ways, everything that takes place in the public sphere eventually influences and shapes the private sphere. When public life is nihilized, private life is distorted and ultimately nihilized too. Every measure taken to establish more complete control over the former has a pernicious effect on the latter.

The attack on plurality and on the story and on public territory is therefore not an attack on a single side of life; it is an attack on all of life.

The web of direct and indirect manipulation is a straitjacket that binds life and necessarily limits the ways it can appear to itself and structure itself. And so it languishes, declines, wastes away. It is cheapened and leveled. It becomes pseudo-life.

While I was in prison, I realized again and again how much more present, compared with life outside, the story was. Almost every prisoner had a life story that was unique and shocking, or moving. As I listened to those different stories, I suddenly found myself in something like a pre-totalitarian world, or in the world of literature. Whatever else I may have thought of my fellow prisoners’ colorful narratives, they were not documents of totalitarian nihilization. On the contrary, they testified to the rebelliousness with which human uniqueness resists its own nihilization, and the stubbornness with which it holds to its own and is willing to ignore this negating pressure. Regardless of whether crime or misfortune was predominant in any given story, the faces in that world were specific and personal. When I got back from prison, I wrote somewhere that in a cell of twenty-four people you can probably encounter more real stories than in a high-rise development housing several thousand. People truly afflicted with asthma-those colorless, servile, obedient, homogenized, herdlike citizens of the totalitarian state-are not found in large numbers in prison. Instead, prison tends to be a gathering place for people who stand out in one way or another, the unclassifiable misfits, real individuals with all sorts of obsessions, people who are unable to conform.

There has probably always been a greater concentration of people in prison who stand out in some way. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that what I observed when I was there myself bears directly on conditions under totalitarianism. The nature of many of the stories confirmed this.

On the whole, it’s logical: the wider the scope of the instruments by which the system manipulates, de-individualizes, and circumscribes life, the more powerful its embrace, the more thoroughly everything unique is pushed to the periphery of “normal” life and ultimately beyond it, into prison. The repressive apparatus that sends people to jail is an organic part and, indeed, the culmination of the general pressure totalitarianism exerts against life: without this extreme threat, many other threats would lose their credibility- It is certainly no accident that, proportionally, Czechoslovakia has many times more prisoners than the United States. Criminality I mean real criminality-cannot be that much greater in Czechoslovakia.

What is greater is the demand for uniformity and its consequence: the criminalization of difference and variety.

If the agents entering into a story can fully manifest their individuality only as the story unfolds, in other words if individuality requires a story to become what it is, then by the same token a story assumes and requires individuality. Without unique-mutually distinguishable-individuals, the story could never get off the ground. Individuality and story are therefore like Siamese twins that cannot be separated.

They also have a common abode: plurality. Individuality, like the story, cannot exist without plurality, since individuality is only possible alongside another individuality with which it can be compared and contrasted; where there are not many individualities, there are none at all.

An attack on plurality is therefore an attack both on the story and on individuality. Indeed, the world of advanced totalitarianism is outstanding for the remarkable decline of individuality; a veil of vague, expressionless indistinguishability clings to everything, coloring it all gray. Paradoxically, this veil clings to its source as well: in banishing all other comparable individual agents from its own world, the central agent divests itself of its own individuality too. Hence the strange facelessness, transparency, and elusiveness of power, hence the blandness of its language, the anonymity of its decisions. Hence too its irresponsibility, for how can an agent be genuinely responsible when its identity is so blurred and when, moreover-because it is so isolated-there is no one left for it to be responsible to?

This antipathy to individuality is not something planned by the individuals who rule, but an intrinsic expression of late totalitarianism. Its centralism cannot co-exist with individuality. If we mix all the colors together, we get a dirty brown. The intention of totalitarianism is to make everything totally the same. Its fruit is uniformity, Gleichschaltung, and the herd mentality.

Standardized life creates standardized citizens with no wills of their own. It begets undifferentiated people with undifferentiated stories. It is a mass-producer of banality.

Anyone who resists too much, or despairs too much, or insists too much on having something of his own that exceeds the norm, or who tries to escape the standardized nothingness-either internally or by going abroad-in other words, anyone who sets himself apart is already on his way to a place where he will no longer disrupt the prescribed forms of social life: to jail.

Once a place where crimes were punished, prison is now a “correctional institute”: a wastebasket for peculiar humans and their bizarre stories.

Whenever I found myself in a new cell, I was asked where I was from, and when I replied, “Prague,” the question always came back: “Whereabouts in Prague?”

It would never have occurred to me to say I was from Dejvice, so at first the question surprised me. But very quickly I understood it: in this old-fashioned world of individual stories a thing as old-fashioned as a city quarter still plays a role. Obviously there are still people for whom Dejvice, Holešovice, or Liben are not just addresses but a real home. People who have not capitulated to the standardizing and nihilizing pressure of the modern housing estate (where you can no longer tell what city you’re in) and who still cling to their streets, the pubs on their corners, the former grocery store across the road-and to the mysterious and secret meaning of the stories connected to these localities.

The most natural of questions-where is your home?-I have heard asked most often in prison.

The history of the system I live in has demonstrated persuasively that without a plurality of economic initiatives, and of people who participate in them, without competition, without a marketplace and its institutional guarantees, an economy will stagnate and decline.

Why then does this system so stubbornly resist all attempts to restore these proven instruments of economic life? Why is it that all such efforts have so far either been half baked or else repressed?

The deepest reason is not the leaders’ fear that it will conflict with the ideology, nor their personal conservatism, nor even the fear that if the center gives up its economic power, it will give up its political power as well.

The real reason, in my opinion, lies-again-in the totalitarian essence of the system itself, in its overwhelming inertia. It cannot relinquish its control of such an enormous and vital part of life as the economy. If it were to recognize the institutional guarantees of economic plurality and undertake to respect them, it would be acknowledging the legitimacy of something beyond its own claims to total power. This would deny its own totalitarian nature and it would cease to be itself. So far, overwhelming inertia has always prevented the system from carrying out this ontological self-destruction. (A stronger power may someday arise to oppose this inertia and compel the system genuinely to relinquish its essence, but this has never yet happened, anywhere.)

When he can no longer participate with relative autonomy in economic life, man loses some of his social and human individuality, and part of his hope of creating his own human story.

I mention this now because although the standardizing and therefore nihilizing impact of political and intellectual centralization is clear, the analogous impact of economic centralization-as one of the indirect methods of manipulating life in general-is far from being so obvious. And that is what makes it more dangerous.

Where there is no natural plurality of economic initiatives, the interplay of competing producers and their entrepreneurial ideas disappears, along with the interplay of supply and demand, the labor and commodity markets, and voluntary employer-employee relations. Gone too are the stimuli to creativity and its attendant risks, the drama of economic success and failure. Man as a producer ceases to be a participant or a creator in the economic story, and becomes an instrument. Everyone is an employee of the state, which is the one proprietor of economic truth and power. Everyone is buried in the anonymity of the collective economic “non-story.”

When economic plurality disappears, the motives for competition in the marketplace of consumer goods disappear with it. The central power may talk all it wants about “satisfying differentiated needs” but the pressures of a nonpluralistic economy compel it to do exactly the opposite: to integrate production, standardize goods, and narrow the range of choice. In this artificial economic world, diversity is merely a complication.

Not only do consumers have to depend (as all who live in modern industrial societies do) almost exclusively on commodities they have not produced themselves; they do not have a choice of different commodities, and cannot express their individuality even in this limited way. All they have is what has been allocated by the monopoly producer: the same things that have been allocated to everyone.

A centralized furniture designer may not be the most typical representative of the totalitarian system, but as one who unconsciously realizes its nihilizing intentions, he may have more impact than five government ministers together. Millions of people have no choice but to spend their lives surrounded by his furniture.

Let me exaggerate deliberately. It would be to the greatest advantage of a centrally directed system of production if only one type of a prefabricated panel were produced, from which one type of apartment building would be constructed; these buildings in turn would be fitted with a single kind of door, door handle, window, toilet, washbasin, and so on, and together this would create a single type of housing development constructed according to one standardized urban development plan, with minor adjustments for landscape, given the regrettable irregularity of the earth’s surface. (In each apartment, of course, there would be the same kind of television set showing the same program-)

Imperceptibly but irresistibly, not deliberately but inevitably, everything begins to resemble everything else: buildings, clothing, workplaces, public decorations, public transport, the forms of entertainment, the behavior of people in public and in their own homes.

This standardization of public and private spaces has a standardizing effect on life and its rhythms, narrowing the sphere of desires and aversions, of sensual experience and taste. It flattens the world and the people in it.

In such an environment, stories become interchangeable. Is it any wonder that an ambitious reporter would rather risk his life in Lebanon?

If a citizen of our country wishes to travel abroad, get a new job, exchange his apartment or his stove, organize an amateur event, he is usually compelled to undertake a long and exhausting march through various offices for the necessary permits, certificates, recommendations, and he must frequently demean himself or bite his tongue. It is tiring, boring, and debilitating. Many people, out of disgust, or for fear it will drag them down, quickly give up on their most personal plans.

In doing so, they renounce something of their own potential story. It may be something of little importance. But the process of surrendering oneself begins with small matters.

Obviously, then, the bureaucratic regulation of the everyday details of people’s lives is another indirect instrument of nihilization. It is here that public matters infiltrate private life in a way that is very “ordinary,” but extremely persistent. The sheer number of small pressures that we are subjected to every day is more important than it may seem at first, because it encloses the space in which we are condemned to breathe.

There is very little air in that space. But not so little that we might suffocate, and thus create a story.

These examples do not exhaust the ways in which the totalitarian system, directly and indirectly, negates life.

The elimination of political plurality deprives society of a means to structure itself, because it prevents a variety of interests and opinions and traditions from proclaiming their presence. The drastic curtailment of intellectual plurality makes it hard for a person to choose a way co relate to Being, to the world, and to himself. Culture and information controlled from the center narrow the horizon against which people mature. The demand for unquestioning loyalty forces people to become bit players in empty rituals. People cease to be autonomous and self-confident participants in the life of the community and become instruments with which the central agent fulfills itself The ever present danger of being punished for any original expression compels one to move cautiously across the quicksand of one’s potential, a pointlessly exhausting process. The network of bureaucratic limitations affects everything from one’s choice of study or profession to the possibility of travel, the limits of admissible creative initiative, right down to the extent and kind of personal ownership, and all of this shrinks the space one has to act in. The total claim of the central power-respecting only those limits it imposes upon itself for practical reasons at a given moment-creates a state of general nervousness: no one is ever sure of the ground he stands on, or what he may venture to do, and what he may not, or what may happen to him if he does. The sway of this power over the executive authority of the legislature and the judiciary, coupled with the actual omnipotence of the police makes people insecure. The imperious vanity of the administrative apparatus, its anonymity, the extinction of individual responsibility in the faceless pseudo-responsibility of the system (anyone may offer excuses for anything, or be accused of anything, since the will of centralized power recognizes no arbitrator in any dispute with an individual) creates a sensation of helplessness and cripples the will to live one’s own life.

All of that together-and much that is more subtle-lies behind our asthma.

On the surface of things, everything goes on just as it does anywhere else: people work, have fun, make love, die. Beneath this surface a destructive disease is gnawing away.

“Call me when the man dies.”

In this case the patient will not die. Nevertheless, to keep his disease a secret amounts to encouraging its spread.

In recent years, several very good film comedies have been made in Czechoslovakia that were successful at home and abroad. A couple of them were even nominated for Oscars.

However much I may enjoy such films, I can’t shake the feeling there’s something not right about them. American audiences, who do not have to suffer daily the asthma that prevails here, see nothing wrong with them.

What do these films have in common?

One important thing, I think: the stories they tell lack historical background. No matter how many superficial and ornamental techniques these films employ to suggest a specific locality and moment in time, they seem to exist outside space and time. The stories they tell could have happened anywhere.

There are two ways in which totalitarian pressure removes their historicity: directly, through censorship and self-censorship, both of which have evolved a sophisticated sensitivity to anything that might capture the historical dimension of life; and indirectly, by the destruction of historicity in life itself It is, of course, extremely difficult to grasp the historic quality of a moment when a global attack on the very notion of history is taking place, because it means trying to tell the story of the loss of story, the story of asthma.

This double pressure forces a creative person to turn his attention to private life. And yet-as I’ve said-private and public life today (particularly under totalitarianism) are inseparable; they are like two linked vessels, and one cannot be represented truthfully if the other is ignored. Private life without an historical dimension is a facade and a lie.

Indeed, the picture of life that has been artificially reduced to its purely private dimension (or provided with superficial reminders of the public dimension, while skirting around everything essential in that dimension) inevitably becomes a strange anecdote, a genre picture, a familiar cliché, a fairy tale, a fiction concocted from thousands of living individualities. In such a presentation, even the most private life is oddly distorted, sometimes to the point where it becomes implausibly bizarre, the paradoxical outcome of a paralyzing desire for verisimilitude. It is obvious what has made this desire so intense: the subconscious need to compensate for the absence of the opposite pole-truth. It is as though life in this case were stripped of its inner tension, its true tragedy and greatness, its questions. The more charmingly all of its superficial features are caricatured, the more seriously the work misses the point. Imitating life, it falsifies it. Calligraphy replaces drawing.

In the films I’m talking about, what I miss is not this or that concrete bit of political detail. Some details from political reality are always there, sometimes more than is good for the work. I miss something else: a free vision of life as a whole. This is not a matter of theme: I can well imagine a film about nothing more than love and jealousy, yet where this freedom would not be lacking.

During the Nazi occupation, several popular film comedies were made in Czechoslovakia. They were remarkable for a similar a historicity and the untruths that flowed from it. Here again it wasn’t the theme that was at fault: it wasn’t images from concentration camps that I found lacking. I missed an inner freedom, and felt that their humor was only a slick way of making a virtue from necessity.

You can always tell in the end.

The domestic success of today’s Czech film comedies has a problematic side to it. People find in them an odd consolation: their illusions are confirmed, that the asthma does not really exist and that, to the extent that it does exist, they can live with it; that it’s not really important; that their lives have not been as ravaged as they sometimes seem in bad moments. It is pacifying.

These films tell unique stories. But they do not show the nihilizing pressure against which these stories were brought to life. People are thrilled to find that stories still exist. They are elated, and end up kidding themselves: they forget that the story is on(y on the screen. That it is not their story.

I don’t know if there is anywhere to hide from the AIDS virus.

It seems to me, however, that there is no hiding place, no reservation, where one is safe from the virus of nihilization.

There is one sphere where the symptoms of our asthma can be observed better by a foreigner than by someone suffering from it. That sphere is the visible face of the daily life of society. We have long since got used to this face. But more than one observant visitor has been shocked by it.

Ride the escalators in the Prague subway and watch the faces of people going in the opposite direction. This journey is a pause in the daily rat race, a sudden stoppage of life, a frozen moment that may reveal more about us than we know. Perhaps it is one of those “moments of truth” when a person suddenly stands outside all relationships; he is in public, but alone with himself. The faces moving past are empty, strained, almost lifeless, without hope, without longing, without desire. The eyes are dull.

Or observe how people behave toward each other in stores, in offices, and on the streetcars: they tend to be surly, selfish, impolite, and disobliging; for the counter staff, customers are often an imposition: they serve while talking among themselves. When asked a question, they reply with distaste (if they know an answer at all). Drivers yell at each other, people in lineups elbow ahead and snap at each other. Bureaucrats don’t care how many people are waiting to see them, or how long they wait. They often make appointments and fail to keep them. They get no pleasure from helping people and have no regrets when they can’t. They are capable of slamming the door in a supplicant’s face, cutting him off in midsentence. It would not be so depressing if these officials were not so often the final court of appeal.

Or look at people walking the streets: most of them are rushed, their faces full of worry, inattentive to things around them. The sense of ease, cheerfulness, and spontaneity has vanished from the streets. In the evening or at night the streets are empty, and if you do happen to see a group of relaxed, happy people, they are usually foreigners.

Warmth, openness, kindness, and unassuming friendliness are vanishing from everyday public contacts. Everyone seems to have one thing on his mind: where to find what he is looking for. Indifference and bad manners are spreading; even in restaurants, people seem buttoned up. Mindful of their own behavior, they speak in low voices, checking to make sure no one else is listening. Class-four restaurants are the last oases of natural companionship, and they tend to be in the suburbs rather than in the city; these are the places one remembers in prison. But even in such places, more and more people come there just to get drunk.

At the bottom of all this lies a vague stress: people are either nervous, anxious, irritated, or else they are apathetic. They look as if they expect to be hit from an unexpected quarter. Calm and certainty have been replaced by aggression.

It is the stress of people living under a constant threat. It is the stress of people compelled, every day, to deal with absurdity and nothingness.

It is the stress of a people living in a city under siege.

The stress of a society that is not permitted to live in history. The stress of people exposed to the radiation of totalitarianism.

Life, of course, goes on. It resists manipulation in many ways, adapting to it or finding ways to cope. It has not been destroyed, nor is it ever likely to be. Cracks can always be found for it to penetrate, levels where it can go on developing, ways in which, even in this suffocating milieu, it can arrange itself into stories. Somehow we will always manage to write our stories by the way we act.

I am not describing anything like the end of humanity. I am instead trying to draw attention to the inconspicuous and unspectacular war that life wages every day against nothingness.

I am attempting to say that the struggle of the story and of history to resist nihilization is in itself a story, and belongs to history.

It is our special metastory.

We do not yet know how to talk about it because the traditional forms of storytelling fail us here. We do not yet know the laws that govern our metastory. We do not even know yet exactly who or what is the main villain of the story (it is definitely not a few individuals in the power center: they too are victims of something larger, just as we are).

It is clear: we must tell the story of our asthma, not despite the fact that people are dying from it, but because they are not.

One small detail remains: we have to learn how to do it.

“Stories and Totalitarianism” (April 1987) was written for the underground cultural journal Jednou nohu (Revolver Review), and dedicated to Ladislav Hejdánek on his sixtieth birthday. In English, it appeared in Index on Censorship, no. 3 (March 1988) and, in a slightly different version, in The Idler, Toronto, no. 18 (July-August 1988). Translation by Paul Wilson. 

Edmund Burke: Speech on the Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

Mr. Speaker,–We have now discovered, at the close of the eighteenth century, that the Constitution of England, which for a series of ages had been the proud distinction of this country, always the admiration, and sometimes the envy, of the wise and learned in every other nation–we have discovered that this boasted Constitution, in the most boasted part of it, is a gross imposition upon the understanding of mankind, an insult to their feelings, and acting by contrivances destructive to the best and most valuable interests of the people. Our political architects have taken a survey of the fabric of the British Constitution. It is singular that they report nothing against the Crown, nothing against the Lords; but in the House of Commons everything is unsound; it is ruinous in every part. It is infested by the dry rot, and ready to tumble about our ears without their immediate help. You know by the faults they find what are their ideas of the alteration. As all government stands upon opinion, they know that the way utterly to destroy it is to remove that opinion, to take away all reverence, all confidence from it; and then, at the first blast of public discontent and popular tumult, it tumbles to the ground.

In considering this question, they who oppose it, oppose it on different grounds; one is in the nature of a previous question–that some alterations may be expedient, but that this is not the time for making them. The other is, that no essential alterations are at all wanting, and that neither now, nor at any time, is it prudent or safe to be meddling with the fundamental principles and ancient tried usages of our Constitution–that our representation is as nearly perfect as the necessary imperfection of human affairs and of human creatures will suffer it to be; and that it is a subject of prudent and honest use and thankful enjoyment, and not of captious criticism and rash experiment.

On the other side, there are two parties, who proceed on two grounds–in my opinion, as they state them, utterly irreconcilable. The one is juridical, the other political. The one is in the nature of a claim of right, on the supposed rights of man as man; this party desire the decision of a suit. The other ground, as far as I can divine what it directly means, is, that the representation is not so politically framed as to answer the theory of its institution. As to the claim of right, the meanest petitioner, the most gross and ignorant, is as good as the best; in some respects his claim is more favourable on account of his ignorance; his weakness, his poverty and distress only add to his titles; he sues in forma pauperis: he ought to be a favourite of the Court. But when the other ground is taken, when the question is political, when a new Constitution is to be made on a sound theory of government, then the presumptuous pride of didactic ignorance is to be excluded from the council in this high and arduous matter, which often bids defiance to the experience of the wisest. The first claims a personal representation; the latter rejects it with scorn and fervour. The language of the first party is plain and intelligible; they who plead an absolute right, cannot be satisfied with anything short of personal representation, because all natural rights must be the rights of individuals: as by nature there is no such thing as politic or corporate personality; all these ideas are mere fictions of law, they are creatures of voluntary institution; men as men are individuals, and nothing else. They, therefore, who reject the principle of natural and personal representation, are essentially and eternally at variance with those who claim it. As to the first sort of reformers, it is ridiculous to talk to them of the British Constitution upon any or all of its bases; for they lay it down, that every man ought to govern himself, and that where he cannot go himself he must send his representative; that all other government is usurpation, and is so far from having a claim to our obedience, that it is not only our right, but our duty, to resist it. Nine-tenths of the reformers argue thus–that is, on the natural right. It is impossible not to make some reflection on the nature of this claim, or avoid a comparison between the extent of the principle and the present object of the demand. If this claim be founded, it is clear to what it goes. The House of Commons, in that light, undoubtedly is no representative of the people as a collection of individuals. Nobody pretends it, nobody can justify such an assertion. When you come to examine into this claim of right, founded on the right of self-government in each individual, you find the thing demanded infinitely short of the principle of the demand. What! one-third only of the legislature, of the government no share at all? What sort of treaty of partition is this for those who have no inherent right to the whole? Give them all they ask, and your grant is still a cheat; for how comes only a third to be their younger children’s fortune in this settlement? How came they neither to have the choice of kings, or lords, or judges, or generals, or admirals, or bishops, or priests, or ministers, or justices of peace? Why, what have you to answer in favour of the prior rights of the Crown and peerage but this–our Constitution is a proscriptive Constitution; it is a Constitution whose sole authority is, that it has existed time out of mind. It is settled in these two portions against one, legislatively; and in the whole of the judicature, the whole of the federal capacity, of the executive, the prudential and the financial administration, in one alone. Nor were your House of Lords and the prerogatives of the Crown settled on any adjudication in favour of natural rights, for they could never be so portioned. Your king, your lords, your judges, your juries, grand and little, all are prescriptive; and what proves it is the disputes not yet concluded, and never near becoming so, when any of them first originated. Prescription is the most solid of all titles, not only to property, but, which is to secure that property, to government. They harmonise with each other, and give mutual aid to one another. It is accompanied with another ground of authority in the constitution of the human mind–presumption. It is a presumption in favour of any settled scheme of government against any untried project, that a nation has long existed and flourished under it. It is a better presumption even of the choice of a nation, far better than any sudden and temporary arrangement by actual election. Because a nation is not an idea only of local extent, and individual momentary aggregation, but it is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space. And this is a choice not of one day, or one set of people, not a tumultuary and giddy choice; it is a deliberate election of ages and of generations; it is a Constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice–it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time. It is a vestment, which accommodates itself to the body. Nor is prescription of government formed upon blind, unmeaning prejudices–for man is a most unwise, and a most wise being. The individual is foolish. The multitude, for the moment, are foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it almost always acts right.

The reason for the Crown as it is, for the Lords as they are, is my reason for the Commons as they are, the electors as they are. Now, if the Crown and the Lords, and the judicatures, are all prescriptive, so is the House of Commons of the very same origin, and of no other. We and our electors have powers and privileges both made and circumscribed by prescription, as much to the full as the other parts; and as such we have always claimed them, and on no other title. The House of Commons is a legislative body corporate by prescription, not made upon any given theory, but existing prescriptively–just like the rest. This prescription has made it essentially what it is–an aggregate collection of three parts–knights, citizens, burgesses. The question is, whether this has been always so, since the House of Commons has taken its present shape and circumstances, and has been an essential operative part of the Constitution; which, I take it, it has been for at least five hundred years.

This I resolve to myself in the affirmative: and then another question arises; whether this House stands firm upon its ancient foundations, and is not, by time and accidents, so declined from its perpendicular as to want the hand of the wise and experienced architects of the day to set it upright again, and to prop and buttress it up for duration;–whether it continues true to the principles upon which it has hitherto stood;–whether this be de facto the Constitution of the House of Commons as it has been since the time that the House of Commons has, without dispute, become a necessary and an efficient part of the British Constitution? To ask whether a thing, which has always been the same, stands to its usual principle, seems to me to be perfectly absurd; for how do you know the principles but from the construction? and if that remains the same, the principles remain the same. It is true, that to say your Constitution is what it has been, is no sufficient defence for those who say it is a bad Constitution. It is an answer to those who say that it is a degenerate Constitution. To those who say it is a bad one, I answer, Look to its effects. In all moral machinery the moral results are its test.

On what grounds do we go to restore our Constitution to what it has been at some given period, or to reform and reconstruct it upon principles more conformable to a sound theory of government? A prescriptive government, such as ours, never was the work of any legislator, never was made upon any foregone theory. It seems to me a preposterous way of reasoning, and a perfect confusion of ideas, to take the theories, which learned and speculative men have made from that government, and then, supposing it made on these theories, which were made from it, to accuse the government as not corresponding with them. I do not vilify theory and speculation–no, because that would be to vilify reason itself. “Neque decipitur ratio, neque decipit unquam.” No; whenever I speak against theory, I mean always a weak, erroneous, fallacious, unfounded, or imperfect theory; and one of the ways of discovering that it is a false theory is by comparing it with practice. This is the true touchstone of all theories which regard man and the affairs of men: Does it suit his nature in general?–does it suit his nature as modified by his habits?

The more frequently this affair is discussed, the stronger the case appears to the sense and the feelings of mankind. I have no more doubt than I entertain of my existence, that this very thing, which is stated as a horrible thing, is the means of the preservation of our Constitution whilst it lasts: of curing it of many of the disorders which, attending every species of institution, would attend the principle of an exact local representation, or a representation on the principle of numbers. If you reject personal representation, you are pushed upon expedience; and then what they wish us to do is, to prefer their speculations on that subject to the happy experience of this country of a growing liberty and a growing prosperity for five hundred years. Whatever respect I have for their talents, this, for one, I will not do. Then what is the standard of expedience? Expedience is that which is good for the community, and good for every individual in it. Now this expedience is the desideratum to be sought, either without the experience of means, or with that experience. If without, as in the case of the fabrication of a new commonwealth, I will hear the learned arguing what promises to be expedient; but if we are to judge of a commonwealth actually existing, the first thing I inquire is, What has been found expedient or inexpedient? And I will not take their promise rather than the performance of the Constitution.

But no; this was not the cause of the discontents. I went through most of the northern parts–the Yorkshire election was then raging; the year before, through most of the western counties–Bath, Bristol, Gloucester–not one word, either in the towns or country, on the subject of representation; much on the receipt tax, something on Mr. Fox’s ambition; much greater apprehension of danger from thence than from want of representation. One would think that the ballast of the ship was shifted with us, and that our Constitution had the gunnel under water. But can you fairly and distinctly point out what one evil or grievance has happened, which you can refer to the representative not following the opinion of his constituents? What one symptom do we find of this inequality? But it is not an arithmetical inequality with which we ought to trouble ourselves. If there be a moral, a political equality, this is the desideratum in our Constitution, and in every Constitution in the world. Moral inequality is as between places and between classes. Now, I ask, what advantage do you find, that the places which abound in representation possess over others in which it is more scanty, in security for freedom, in security for justice, or in any one of those means of procuring temporal prosperity and eternal happiness, the ends for which society was formed? Are the local interests of Cornwall and Wiltshire, for instance–their roads, canals, their prisons, their police–better than Yorkshire, Warwickshire, or Staffordshire? Warwick has members; is Warwick or Stafford more opulent, happy, or free, than Newcastle or than Birmingham? Is Wiltshire the pampered favourite, whilst Yorkshire, like the child of the bondwoman, is turned out to the desert? This is like the unhappy persons who live, if they can be said to live, in the statical chair; who are ever feeling their pulse, and who do not judge of health by the aptitude of the body to perform its functions, but by their ideas of what ought to be the true balance between the several secretions. Is a committee of Cornwall, &c., thronged, and the others deserted? No. You have an equal representation, because you have men equally interested in the prosperity of the whole, who are involved in the general interest and the general sympathy; and perhaps these places, furnishing a superfluity of public agents and administrators (whether, in strictness, they are representatives or not, I do not mean to inquire, but they are agents and administrators), will stand clearer of local interests, passions, prejudices, and cabals than the others, and therefore preserve the balance of the parts, and with a more general view and a more steady hand than the rest.

In every political proposal we must not leave out of the question the political views and object of the proposer; and these we discover, not by what he says, but by the principles he lays down. “I mean,” says he, “a moderate and temperate reform;” that is, “I mean to do as little good as possible. If the Constitution be what you represent it, and there be no danger in the change, you do wrong not to make the reform commensurate to the abuse.” Fine reformer, indeed! generous donor! What is the cause of this parsimony of the liberty which you dole out to the people? Why all this limitation in giving blessings and benefits to mankind? You admit that there is an extreme in liberty, which may be infinitely noxious to those who are to receive it, and which in the end will leave them no liberty at all. I think so too; they know it, and they feel it. The question is, then, What is the standard of that extreme? What that gentleman, and the associations, or some parts of their phalanxes, think proper. Then our liberties are in their pleasure; it depends on their arbitrary will how far I shall be free. I will have none of that freedom. If, therefore, the standard of moderation be sought for, I will seek for it. Where? Not in their fancies, nor in my own: I will seek for it where I know it is to be found–in the Constitution I actually enjoy. Here it says to an encroaching prerogative–“Your sceptre has its length; you cannot add a hair to your head, or a gem to your crown, but what an eternal law has given to it.” Here it says to an overweening peerage–“Your pride finds banks that it cannot overflow;” here to a tumultuous and giddy people–“There is a bound to the raging of the sea.” Our Constitution is like our island, which uses and restrains its subject sea; in vain the waves roar. In that Constitution I know, and exultingly I feel, both that I am free and that I am not free dangerously to myself or to others. I know that no power on earth, acting as I ought to do, can touch my life, my liberty, or my property. I have that inward and dignified consciousness of my own security and independence, which constitutes, and is the only thing which does constitute, the proud and comfortable sentiment of freedom in the human breast. I know, too, and I bless God for my safe mediocrity; I know that if I possessed all the talents of the gentlemen on the side of the House I sit, and on the other, I cannot, by royal favour, or by popular delusion, or by oligarchical cabal, elevate myself above a certain very limited point, so as to endanger my own fall or the ruin of my country. I know there is an order that keeps things fast in their place; it is made to us, and we are made to it. Why not ask another wife, other children, another body, another mind?

The great object of most of these reformers is to prepare the destruction of the Constitution, by disgracing and discrediting the House of Commons. For they think–prudently, in my opinion–that if they can persuade the nation that the House of Commons is so constituted as not to secure the public liberty; not to have a proper connection with the public interests; so constituted as not, either actually or virtually, to be the representative of the people, it will be easy to prove that a government composed of a monarchy, an oligarchy chosen by the Crown, and such a House of Commons, whatever good can be in such a system, can by no means be a system of free government.

The Constitution of England is never to have a quietus; it is to be continually vilified, attacked, reproached, resisted; instead of being the hope and sure anchor in all storms, instead of being the means of redress to all grievances, itself is the grand grievance of the nation, our shame instead of our glory. If the only specific plan proposed–individual, personal representation–is directly rejected by the person who is looked on as the great support of this business, then the only way of considering it is as a question of convenience. An honourable gentleman prefers the individual to the present. He therefore himself sees no middle term whatsoever, and therefore prefers of what he sees the individual; this is the only thing distinct and sensible that has been advocated. He has then a scheme, which is the individual representation; he is not at a loss, not inconsistent–which scheme the other right honourable gentleman reprobates. Now, what does this go to, but to lead directly to anarchy? For to discredit the only government which he either possesses or can project, what is this but to destroy all government; and this is anarchy. My right honourable friend, in supporting this motion, disgraces his friends and justifies his enemies, in order to blacken the Constitution of his country, even of that House of Commons which supported him. There is a difference between a moral or political exposure of a public evil, relative to the administration of government, whether in men or systems, and a declaration of defects, real or supposed, in the fundamental Constitution of your country. The first may be cured in the individual by the motives of religion, virtue, honour, fear, shame, or interest. Men may be made to abandon, also, false systems by exposing their absurdity or mischievous tendency to their own better thoughts, or to the contempt or indignation of the public; and after all, if they should exist, and exist uncorrected, they only disgrace individuals as fugitive opinions. But it is quite otherwise with the frame and Constitution of the State; if that is disgraced, patriotism is destroyed in its very source. No man has ever willingly obeyed, much less was desirous of defending with his blood, a mischievous and absurd scheme of government. Our first, our dearest, most comprehensive relation, our country, is gone.

It suggests melancholy reflections, in consequence of the strange course we have long held, that we are now no longer quarrelling about the character, or about the conduct of men, or the tenor of measures; but we are grown out of humour with the English Constitution itself; this is become the object of the animosity of Englishmen. This Constitution in former days used to be the admiration and the envy of the world; it was the pattern for politicians; the theme of the eloquent; the meditation of the philosopher in every part of the world. As to Englishmen, it was their pride, their consolation. By it they lived, for it they were ready to die. Its defects, if it had any, were partly covered by partiality, and partly borne by prudence. Now all its excellencies are forgotten, its faults are now forcibly dragged into day, exaggerated by every artifice of representation. It is despised and rejected of men; and every device and invention of ingenuity, or idleness, set up in opposition or in preference to it. It is to this humour, and it is to the measures growing out of it, that I set myself (I hope not alone) in the most determined opposition. Never before did we at any time in this country meet upon the theory of our frame of government, to sit in judgment on the Constitution of our country, to call it as a delinquent before us, and to accuse it of every defect and every vice; to see whether it, an object of our veneration, even our adoration, did or did not accord with a preconceived scheme in the minds of certain gentlemen. Cast your eyes on the journals of Parliament. It is for fear of losing the inestimable treasure we have, that I do not venture to game it out of my hands for the vain hope of improving it. I look with filial reverence on the Constitution of my country, and never will cut it in pieces, and put it into the kettle of any magician, in order to boil it, with the puddle of their compounds, into youth and vigour. On the contrary, I will drive away such pretenders; I will nurse its venerable age, and with lenient arts extend a parent’s breath.

May 7, 1782

George Orwell: The Principles of Newspeak


George Orwell

Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. In the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication, either in speech or writing. The leading articles in the Times were written in it, but this was a tour de force which could only be carried out by a specialist. It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050. Meanwhile it gained ground steadily, all Party members tending to use Newspeak words and grammatical constructions more and more in their everyday speech. The version in use in 1984, and embodied in the Ninth and Tenth Editions of the Newspeak Dictionary, was a provisional one, and contained many superfluous words and archaic formations which were due to be suppressed later. It is with the final, perfected version, as embodied in the Eleventh Edition of the Dictionary, that we are concerned here.


The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

Newspeak was founded on the English language as we now know it, though many Newspeak sentences, even when not containing newly-created words, would be barely intelligible to an English-speaker of our own day. Newspeak words were divided into three distinct classes, known as the A vocabulary, the B vocabulary (also called compound words), and the C vocabulary. It will be simpler to discuss each class separately, but the grammatical peculiarities of the language can be dealt with in the section devoted to the A vocabulary, since the same rules held good for all three categories.

The A vocabulary. The A vocabulary consisted of the words needed for the business of everyday life — for such things as eating, drinking, working, putting on one’s clothes, going up and down stairs, riding in vehicles, gardening, cooking, and the like. It was composed almost entirely of words that we already possess words like hitrundogtreesugarhousefield — but in comparison with the present-day English vocabulary their number was extremely small, while their meanings were far more rigidly defined. All ambiguities and shades of meaning had been purged out of them. So far as it could be achieved, a Newspeak word of this class was simply a staccato sound expressing one clearly understood concept. It would have been quite impossible to use the A vocabulary for literary purposes or for political or philosophical discussion. It was intended only to express simple, purposive thoughts, usually involving concrete objects or physical actions.

The grammar of Newspeak had two outstanding peculiarities. The first of these was an almost complete interchangeability between different parts of speech. Any word in the language (in principle this applied even to very abstract words such as if or when) could be used either as verb, noun, adjective, or adverb. Between the verb and the noun form, when they were of the same root, there was never any variation, this rule of itself involving the destruction of many archaic forms. The word thought, for example, did not exist in Newspeak. Its place was taken by think, which did duty for both noun and verb. No etymological principle was followed here: in some cases it was the original noun that was chosen for retention, in other cases the verb. Even where a noun and verb of kindred meaning were not etymologically connected, one or other of them was frequently suppressed. There was, for example, no such word as cut, its meaning being sufficiently covered by the noun-verb knife. Adjectives were formed by adding the suffix –ful to the noun-verb, and adverbs by adding –wise. Thus for example, speedful meant ‘rapid’ and speedwise meant ‘quickly’. Certain of our present-day adjectives, such as goodstrongbigblacksoft, were retained, but their total number was very small. There was little need for them, since almost any adjectival meaning could be arrived at by adding –ful to a noun-verb. None of the now-existing adverbs was retained, except for a very few already ending in –wise: the –wise termination was invariable. The word well, for example, was replaced by goodwise.

In addition, any word — this again applied in principle to every word in the language — could be negatived by adding the affix un-, or could be strengthened by the affix plus-, or, for still greater emphasis, doubleplus-. Thus, for example, uncold meant ‘warm’, while pluscold and doublepluscold meant, respectively, ‘very cold’ and ‘superlatively cold’. It was also possible, as in present-day English, to modify the meaning of almost any word by prepositional affixes such as ante-, post-, up-, down-, etc. By such methods it was found possible to bring about an enormous diminution of vocabulary. Given, for instance, the word good, there was no need for such a word as bad, since the required meaning was equally well — indeed, better — expressed by ungood. All that was necessary, in any case where two words formed a natural pair of opposites, was to decide which of them to suppress. Dark, for example, could be replaced by unlight, or light by undark, according to preference.

The second distinguishing mark of Newspeak grammar was its regularity. Subject to a few exceptions which are mentioned below all inflexions followed the same rules. Thus, in all verbs the preterite and the past participle were the same and ended in –ed. The preterite of steal was stealed, the preterite of think was thinked, and so on throughout the language, all such forms as swamgavebroughtspoketaken, etc., being abolished. All plurals were made by adding –s or –es as the case might be. The plurals of manoxlife, were mansoxeslifes. Comparison of adjectives was invariably made by adding –er, –est (goodgoodergoodest), irregular forms and the moremostformation being suppressed.

The only classes of words that were still allowed to inflect irregularly were the pronouns, the relatives, the demonstrative adjectives, and the auxiliary verbs. All of these followed their ancient usage, except that whom had been scrapped as unnecessary, and the shallshould tenses had been dropped, all their uses being covered by willand would. There were also certain irregularities in word-formation arising out of the need for rapid and easy speech. A word which was difficult to utter, or was liable to be incorrectly heard, was held to be ipso facto a bad word: occasionally therefore, for the sake of euphony, extra letters were inserted into a word or an archaic formation was retained. But this need made itself felt chiefly in connexion with the B vocabulary. Why so great an importance was attached to ease of pronunciation will be made clear later in this essay.

The B vocabulary. The B vocabulary consisted of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them. Without a full understanding of the principles of Ingsoc it was difficult to use these words correctly. In some cases they could be translated into Oldspeak, or even into words taken from the A vocabulary, but this usually demanded a long paraphrase and always involved the loss of certain overtones. The B words were a sort of verbal shorthand, often packing whole ranges of ideas into a few syllables, and at the same time more accurate and forcible than ordinary language.

The B words were in all cases compound words. [Compound words such as speakwrite, were of course to be found in the A vocabulary, but these were merely convenient abbreviations and had no special ideologcal colour.] They consisted of two or more words, or portions of words, welded together in an easily pronounceable form. The resulting amalgam was always a noun-verb, and inflected according to the ordinary rules. To take a single example: the word goodthink, meaning, very roughly, ‘orthodoxy’, or, if one chose to regard it as a verb, ‘to think in an orthodox manner’. This inflected as follows: noun-verb, goodthink; past tense and past participle, goodthinked; present participle, goodthinking; adjective, goodthinkful; adverb, goodthinkwise; verbal noun, goodthinker.

The B words were not constructed on any etymological plan. The words of which they were made up could be any parts of speech, and could be placed in any order and mutilated in any way which made them easy to pronounce while indicating their derivation. In the word crimethink (thoughtcrime), for instance, the think came second, whereas in thinkpol (Thought Police) it came first, and in the latter word police had lost its second syllable. Because of the great difficulty in securing euphony, irregular formations were commoner in the B vocabulary than in the A vocabulary. For example, the adjective forms of MinitrueMinipax, and Miniluv were, respectively, MinitruthfulMinipeaceful, and Minilovely, simply because –trueful, –paxful, and –loveful were sliightly awkward to pronounce. In principle, however, all B words could inflect, and all inflected in exactly the same way.

Some of the B words had highly subtilized meanings, barely intelligible to anyone who had not mastered the language as a whole. Consider, for example, such a typical sentence from a Times leading article as Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc. The shortest rendering that one could make of this in Oldspeak would be: ‘Those whose ideas were formed before the Revolution cannot have a full emotional understanding of the principles of English Socialism.’ But this is not an adequate translation. To begin with, in order to grasp the full meaning of the Newspeak sentence quoted above, one would have to have a clear idea of what is meant by Ingsoc. And in addition, only a person thoroughly grounded in Ingsoc could appreciate the full force of the word bellyfeel, which implied a blind, enthusiastic acceptance difficult to imagine today; or of the word oldthink, which was inextricably mixed up with the idea of wickedness and decadence. But the special function of certain Newspeak words, of which oldthinkwas one, was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them. These words, necessarily few in number, had had their meanings extended until they contained within themselves whole batteries of words which, as they were sufficiently covered by a single comprehensive term, could now be scrapped and forgotten. The greatest difficulty facing the compilers of the Newspeak Dictionary was not to invent new words, but, having invented them, to make sure what they meant: to make sure, that is to say, what ranges of words they cancelled by their existence.

As we have already seen in the case of the word free, words which had once borne a heretical meaning were sometimes retained for the sake of convenience, but only with the undesirable meanings purged out of them. Countless other words such as honourjusticemoralityinternationalismdemocracyscience, and religion had simply ceased to exist. A few blanket words covered them, and, in covering them, abolished them. All words grouping themselves round the concepts of liberty and equality, for instance, were contained in the single word crimethink, while all words grouping themselves round the concepts of objectivity and rationalism were contained in the single word oldthink. Greater precision would have been dangerous. What was required in a Party member was an outlook similar to that of the ancient Hebrew who knew, without knowing much else, that all nations other than his own worshipped ‘false gods’. He did not need to know that these gods were called Baal, Osiris, Moloch, Ashtaroth, and the like: probably the less he knew about them the better for his orthodoxy. He knew Jehovah and the commandments of Jehovah: he knew, therefore, that all gods with other names or other attributes were false gods. In somewhat the same way, the party member knew what constituted right conduct, and in exceedingly vague, generalized terms he knew what kinds of departure from it were possible. His sexual life, for example, was entirely regulated by the two Newspeak words sexcrime (sexual immorality) and goodsex (chastity). Sexcrimecovered all sexual misdeeds whatever. It covered fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and other perversions, and, in addition, normal intercourse practised for its own sake. There was no need to enumerate them separately, since they were all equally culpable, and, in principle, all punishable by death. In the C vocabulary, which consisted of scientific and technical words, it might be necessary to give specialized names to certain sexual aberrations, but the ordinary citizen had no need of them. He knew what was meant by goodsex — that is to say, normal intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children, and without physical pleasure on the part of the woman: all else was sexcrime. In Newspeak it was seldom possible to follow a heretical thought further than the perception that it was heretical: beyond that point the necessary words were nonexistent.

No word in the B vocabulary was ideologically neutral. A great many were euphemisms. Such words, for instance, as joycamp (forced-labour camp) or Minipax (Ministry of Peace, i.e. Ministry of War) meant almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean. Some words, on the other hand, displayed a frank and contemptuous understanding of the real nature of Oceanic society. An example was prolefeed, meaning the rubbishy entertainment and spurious news which the Party handed out to the masses. Other words, again, were ambivalent, having the connotation ‘good’ when applied to the Party and ‘bad’ when applied to its enemies. But in addition there were great numbers of words which at first sight appeared to be mere abbreviations and which derived their ideological colour not from their meaning, but from their structure.

So far as it could be contrived, everything that had or might have political significance of any kind was fitted into the B vocabulary. The name of every organization, or body of people, or doctrine, or country, or institution, or public building, was invariably cut down into the familiar shape; that is, a single easily pronounced word with the smallest number of syllables that would preserve the original derivation. In the Ministry of Truth, for example, the Records Department, in which Winston Smith worked, was called Recdep, the Fiction Department was called Ficdep, the Teleprogrammes Department was called Teledep, and so on. This was not done solely with the object of saving time. Even in the early decades of the twentieth century, telescoped words and phrases had been one of the characteristic features of political language; and it had been noticed that the tendency to use abbreviations of this kind was most marked in totalitarian countries and totalitarian organizations. Examples were such words as NaziGestapoCominternInprecorrAgitprop. In the beginning the practice had been adopted as it were instinctively, but in Newspeak it was used with a conscious purpose. It was perceived that in thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it. The words Communist International, for instance, call up a composite picture of universal human brotherhood, red flags, barricades, Karl Marx, and the Paris Commune. The word Comintern, on the other hand, suggests merely a tightly-knit organization and a well-defined body of doctrine. It refers to something almost as easily recognized, and as limited in purpose, as a chair or a table. Comintern is a word that can be uttered almost without taking thought, whereas Communist International is a phrase over which one is obliged to linger at least momentarily. In the same way, the associations called up by a word like Minitrue are fewer and more controllable than those called up by Ministry of Truth. This accounted not only for the habit of abbreviating whenever possible, but also for the almost exaggerated care that was taken to make every word easily pronounceable.

In Newspeak, euphony outweighed every consideration other than exactitude of meaning. Regularity of grammar was always sacrificed to it when it seemed necessary. And rightly so, since what was required, above all for political purposes, was short clipped words of unmistakable meaning which could be uttered rapidly and which roused the minimum of echoes in the speaker’s mind. The words of the B vocabulary even gained in force from the fact that nearly all of them were very much alike. Almost invariably these words — goodthinkMinipaxprolefeedsexcrimejoycampIngsocbellyfeelthinkpol, and countless others — were words of two or three syllables, with the stress distributed equally between the first syllable and the last. The use of them encouraged a gabbling style of speech, at once staccato and monotonous. And this was exactly what was aimed at. The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness. For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgement should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets. His training fitted him to do this, the language gave him an almost foolproof instrument, and the texture of the words, with their harsh sound and a certain wilful ugliness which was in accord with the spirit of Ingsoc, assisted the process still further.

So did the fact of having very few words to choose from. Relative to our own, the Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised. Newspeak, indeed, differed from most all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year. Each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought. Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning ‘to quack like a duck’. Like various other words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when the Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.

The C vocabulary. The C vocabulary was supplementary to the others and consisted entirely of scientific and technical terms. These resembled the scientific terms in use today, and were constructed from the same roots, but the usual care was taken to define them rigidly and strip them of undesirable meanings. They followed the same grammatical rules as the words in the other two vocabularies. Very few of the C words had any currency either in everyday speech or in political speech. Any scientific worker or technician could find all the words he needed in the list devoted to his own speciality, but he seldom had more than a smattering of the words occurring in the other lists. Only a very few words were common to all lists, and there was no vocabulary expressing the function of Science as a habit of mind, or a method of thought, irrespective of its particular branches. There was, indeed, no word for ‘Science’, any meaning that it could possibly bear being already sufficiently covered by the word Ingsoc.

From the foregoing account it will be seen that in Newspeak the expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible. It was of course possible to utter heresies of a very crude kind, a species of blasphemy. It would have been possible, for example, to say Big Brother is ungood. But this statement, which to an orthodox ear merely conveyed a self-evident absurdity, could not have been sustained by reasoned argument, because the necessary words were not available. Ideas inimical to Ingsoc could only be entertained in a vague wordless form, and could only be named in very broad terms which lumped together and condemned whole groups of heresies without defining them in doing so. One could, in fact, only use Newspeak for unorthodox purposes by illegitimately translating some of the words back into Oldspeak. For example, All mans are equal was a possible Newspeak sentence, but only in the same sense in which All men are redhaired is a possible Oldspeak sentence. It did not contain a grammatical error, but it expressed a palpable untruth — i.e. that all men are of equal size, weight, or strength. The concept of political equality no longer existed, and this secondary meaning had accordingly been purged out of the word equal. In 1984, when Oldspeak was still the normal means of communication, the danger theoretically existed that in using Newspeak words one might remember their original meanings. In practice it was not difficult for any person well grounded in doublethink to avoid doing this, but within a couple of generations even the possibility of such a lapse would have vaished. A person growing up with Newspeak as his sole language would no more know that equal had once had the secondary meaning of ‘politically equal’, or that free had once meant ‘intellectually free’, than for instance, a person who had never heard of chess would be aware of the secondary meanings attaching to queen and rook. There would be many crimes and errors which it would be beyond his power to commit, simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable. And it was to be foreseen that with the passage of time the distinguishing characteristics of Newspeak would become more and more pronounced — its words growing fewer and fewer, their meanings more and more rigid, and the chance of putting them to improper uses always diminishing.

When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed. History had already been rewritten, but fragments of the literature of the past survived here and there, imperfectly censored, and so long as one retained one’s knowledge of Oldspeak it was possible to read them. In the future such fragments, even if they chanced to survive, would be unintelligible and untranslatable. It was impossible to translate any passage of Oldspeak into Newspeak unless it either referred to some technical process or some very simple everyday action, or was already orthodox (goodthinkful would be the Newspeak expression) in tendency. In practice this meant that no book written before approximately 1960 could be translated as a whole. Pre-revolutionary literature could only be subjected to ideological translation — that is, alteration in sense as well as language. Take for example the well-known passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government…

It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink. A full translation could only be an ideological translation, whereby Jefferson’s words would be changed into a panegyric on absolute government.

A good deal of the literature of the past was, indeed, already being transformed in this way. Considerations of prestige made it desirable to preserve the memory of certain historical figures, while at the same time bringing their achievements into line with the philosophy of Ingsoc. Various writers, such as Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Byron, Dickens, and some others were therefore in process of translation: when the task had been completed, their original writings, with all else that survived of the literature of the past, would be destroyed. These translations were a slow and difficult business, and it was not expected that they would be finished before the first or second decade of the twenty-first century. There were also large quantities of merely utilitarian literature — indispensable technical manuals, and the like — that had to be treated in the same way. It was chiefly in order to allow time for the preliminary work of translation that the final adoption of Newspeak had been fixed for so late a date as 2050.


Fair versus Free by Milton Friedman


Milton Friedman


In presenting his energy program, President Carter stressed “fairness” as an essential ingredient of an acceptable program. The Federal Communications Commission seeks to enforce a “fairness doctrine” on radio and TV stations. We suffered numerous “fair trade” laws, until they were declared unenforceable. One businessman vies with another in proclaiming his faith in competition—provided that it is “fair.”

Yet, scrutinize word for word the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and you will not find the word “fair.” The First Amendment does not protect the “fair” exercise of religion, but the “free” exercise thereof; it does not restrain Congress from abridging the “fairness” of speech or of the press, but the “freedom” of speech, or of the press.

The modern tendency to substitute “fair” for “free” reveals how far we have moved from the initial conception of the Founding Fathers. They viewed government as policeman and umpire. They sought to establish a framework within which individuals could pursue their own objectives in their own way, separately or through voluntary cooperation, provided only that they did not interfere with the freedom of others to do likewise.

The modern conception is very different. Government has become Big Brother. Its function has become to protect the citizen, not merely from his fellows, but from himself, whether he wants to be protected or not. Government is not simply an umpire but an active participant, entering into every nook and cranny of social and economic activity. All this, in order to promote the high- minded goals of “fairness,” “justice,” “equality.”

Does this not constitute progress? A move toward a more humane society? Quite the contrary. When “fairness” replaces “freedom,” all our liberties are in danger. In “Walden,” Thoreau says: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” That is the way I feel when I hear my “servants” in Washington assuring me of the “fairness” of their edicts.

There is no objective standard of “fairness.” “Fairness” is strictly in the eye of the beholder. If speech must be fair, then it cannot also be free; someone must decide what is fair. A radio station is not free to transmit unfair speech—as judged by the bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission. If the printed press were subject to a comparable “fairness doctrine,” it too would have to be controlled by a government bureau and our vaunted free press would soon become a historical curiosity.

What is true for speech—where the conflict is perhaps clearest—is equally true for every other area. To a producer or seller, a “fair” price is a high price. To the buyer or consumer, a “fair” price is a low price. How is the conflict to be adjudicated? By competition in a free market? Or by government bureaucrats in a “fair” market?

Businessmen who sing the glories of free enterprise and then demand “fair” competition are enemies, not friends, of free markets. To them, “fair” competition is a euphemism for a price- fixing agreement. They are exemplifying Adam Smith’s remark that “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” For consumers, the more “unfair” the competition the better. That assures lowest prices and highest quality.

Is then the search for “fairness” all a mistake? Not at all. There is a real role for fairness, but that role is in constructing general rules and adjudicating disputes about the rules, not in determining the outcome of our separate activities. That is the sense in which we speak of a “fair” game and a “fair” umpire. If we applied the present doctrine of “fairness” to a football game, the referee would be required after each play to move the ball backward or forward enough to make sure that the game ended in a draw!

Our Founding Fathers designed a fair Constitution to protect human freedom. In Thomas Jefferson’s ringing phrases from the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men” “to secure” “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Originally delivered as a commencement address at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 28 May 1977.
Reprinted in:
1. Newsweek, 4 July 1977, p. 70
2. Milton Friedman, Bright Promises, Dismal Performance, pp. 91-93. Edited by William R. Allen. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.
3. Kurt R. Leube, editor, The Essence of Friedman, pp. 146-147. Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 1987.

В камере Звиаду явилась Богородица и сказала: “Политика не твоя стезя. Переведи Евангелие”


Сергей Адамович Ковалев


Все-таки непрерывно возбудимые среды – замечательная вещь. Один из моих коллег по лаборатории, Вано Квавелашвили, был родом из Тбилиси. Последствия очевидны: именно со мной, первым среди москвичей, “вышли на контакт” грузинские диссиденты: Звиад Гамсахурдиа и Мераб Костава. Было это, наверное, в конце 1972-го или в начале 1973-го.

Я не хотел бы много говорить о своих личных впечатлениях от общения со Звиадом. Во-первых, он погиб при трагических и до сих пор загадочных обстоятельствах. Во-вторых, не хочу, чтобы меня обвинили в том, что я подстраиваю свои воспоминания под позднейшие политические симпатии или антипатии; а они у меня есть, разумеется: и по отношению к его поведению на следствии и суде в 1977-1978 гг., и по отношению к его недолгому президентству в 1991 г. Пусть грузины сами оценивают то, что принес Грузии Гамсахурдиа – и как диссидент, и как Президент. А вот для России Звиад сделал одну поистине великую вещь: он организовал подпольное типографское издание “Архипелага ГУЛаг”, и если эта книга вошла в русское историческое сознание задолго до официальной публикации на родине, то в этом, прежде всего, заслуга Звиада Гамсахурдиа.

Что до Мераба Костава, которого принято упоминать в паре с Гамсахурдиа, то это был совершенно иной человек. Амплуа Звиада – эпический герой, защитник Отечества, вечный борец с врагами Грузии, которые, в отместку, постоянно строят против него и его семьи козни и заговоры. Эту роль Звиад играл постоянно, очень напористо и с пафосом, но, на мой взгляд, довольно фальшиво; ему недоставало чувства меры и художественного вкуса. Думаю, что Мераб был нужен ему прежде всего для завершенности собственного образа: у каждого Тариэла должен быть свой Автандил, друг и соратник, верный помошник во всех деяниях героя. Мераб же вовсе не разыгрывал никакой театральной роли; это был очень искренний, очень наивный и действительно преданный Звиаду человек.

Хорошо помню свою первую встречу с ним (это было, наверное, уже в 1974 г.). Мне сообщили через Вано, что один из друзей Звиада хотел бы увидеться и поговорить со мной, что он будет ждать меня в такой-то час у выхода из метро “Арбатская” и что выглядит он так-то и так-то. Но когда я в назначенное время подошел к метро, оказалось, что никаких примет можно было не сообщать: у дверей метро, как статуя Командора, высилась богатырская фигура красавца-грузина, который внимательно и сосредоточенно оглядывал лица прохожих, всем своим видом говоря: “Я пришел на конспиративную встречу”. Это просто было написано у него на лице.

Мы немного поговорили, он передал мне несколько сообщений для “Хроники”, а потом сказал, что хочет посоветоваться со мной по весьма важному и совершенно конфиденциальному поводу относительно некоторой идеи, о которой пока не знает никто – даже Звиад. Мы беседовали, наверное, полночи – я пришел домой только под утро, в совершенном смятении.

В чем же состояла идея Мераба Костава? Он задумал разоблачить раз и навсегда методы психиатрической расправы с инакомыслящими и сделать невозможным применение этих методов в будущем. Для этого он просил меня познакомить его с хорошими и достаточно известными психиатрами, к которым он официально обратится с просьбой о медицинском освидетельствовании. Получив справку о своем психическом здоровье, он передает ее мне, а я прячу ее в надежном месте. Затем Мераб обращается к властям с требованием поместить его в психиатрическую лечебницу, поскольку он – такой же диссидент, как Григоренко, Горбаневская или Яхимович, и хочет быть там же, где и они. Это требование сопровождается рядом резких публичных акций с его стороны, которое не оставляет властям иного выхода, кроме как поместить его в психиатрическую больницу (почему-то вариант лагеря Мераб не рассматривал).
Вот тут-то и всплывает заранее подготовленная справка. Устыдившиеся власти выпускают Мераба, а заодно и всех остальных, на свободу и никогда больше не прибегают к подобным способам борьбы с инакомыслием.

Я осторожно усомнился в практичности этого плана и, в частности, в том, что в лицах, власть предержащих, так легко пробудить чувство неловкости и раскаяния за содеянное. “Вы неправы, Сергей”, – возразил мне Костава. “Сейчас я расскажу Вам один эпизод из истории Грузии, и Вы убедитесь в том, что Вы неправы”.
И рассказал мне следующую поэтическую легенду. В некие времена, когда порабощенной Грузией правил наместник персидского, что ли, шаха, было схвачено несколько грузинских дворян, участвовавших в восстании против иноземного ига. Этот наместник, или визирь, приказал предать бунтовщиков страшной восточной казни: в жаркий летний день их выставили под охраной, связанных, на солнцепек – голых по пояс и обмазанных медом. Их немедленно облепили осы и прочие насекомые; смерть, медленная и мучительная, казалась неизбежной. И вдруг на площади появился человек, тоже голый по пояс и обмазанный медом, и сел рядом с казнимыми. Стража пыталась прогнать его, но безуспешно: неизвестный не уходил. Заинтригованный визирь приказал привести его во дворец и спросил о причине его поступка; тот ответил, что он – один из вождей восстания, сумевший избежать ареста. И вот теперь он хочет разделить участь своих товарищей. Наместник, потрясенный, сказал: “Стремление этого народа к свободе силой побороть невозможно” – и повелел отпустить всех мятежников на свободу.

Понятно, с такой аргументацией трудно спорить. Я все же сказал Мерабу, что сомневаюсь в том, что мировоззрение и основополагающие идеи, господствующие в ЦК КПСС, так уж близки к мировоззрению и идеям этого средневекового сатрапа. А если вдруг и найдется в ЦК такой совестливый визирь, то товарищи его, несомненно, поправят.


Это была не последняя моя встреча с Мерабом Костава: мы еще несколько раз виделись в Москве, когда они со Звиадом привозили чемоданы с отпечатанным тиражом “Архипелага ГУЛаг”, информацию о событиях в Грузии для “Хроники”, а также статьи и эссе Звиада и некоторых его друзей. Большинство работ относилось к историко-культурной и религиозно-философской тематике; я не очень силен в этих материях, но мне казалось, что в их апологетике “духа Иберии” слишком уж настойчиво звучит этакая национально-романтическая нота грузинской исключительности. Мои коллеги по “Хронике” говорили мне, что чем дальше, тем сильнее ощущался в сообщениях и статьях Гамсахурдиа и других (но не Мераба!) привкус шовинизма и даже расизма. Но это было уже после моего ареста.


При последних двух моих встречах с Мерабом он оставался рыцарски верен своему другу Звиаду.
Первая из них была в лагере, на 35-й зоне, куда меня привезли отбывать 6 месяцев наказания в ПКТ – внутрилагерной тюрьме. Однажды, когда я вернулся с работы, мне сообщили, что в соседнюю камеру поместили новенького, который говорит, что знаком со мной. Я, естественно, попытался через стенку выяснить, кто же это. Сосед сначала долго проверял, действительно ли я Ковалев, и убедившись в том, что я тот, за кого себя выдаю, радостно заорал: “Сережа-джан, это я, Мераб”.
Его только что привели к нам с этапа.

Я знал – частично из газет, частично из информации с воли – о судебном процессе в Тбилиси, о стойкости Костава и публичном покаянии Гамсахурдиа. В “Литературной газете” говорилось, в частности, что Гамсахурдиа не только покаялся сам, но и уличил в клевете на Советскую власть двух иностранных корреспондентов, которые имели неосторожность взять у него интервью.

Костава, не дожидаясь моих вопросов, принялся защищать передо мной своего друга. “Он не мог поступить иначе”, – горячился Мераб, – “он же знал о своей популярности в Грузии, о горячности нашей молодежи. Если бы он занял иную позицию, он получил бы суровый приговор (Гамсахурдиа был приговорен к 2 годам ссылки в Дагестане – С.К.), и тогда грузинская молодежь вышла бы на улицы. Пролилась бы кровь. Любой ценой нужно было не допустить кровопролития; поэтому Звиад каялся не ради себя, а ради будущего Грузии”.

Костава намекал еще на некоторые особые обстоятельства, заставившие Гамсахурдиа повести себя так, как он повел; однако о них он рассказал лишь много лет спустя, когда я видел его в последний раз.

Это было в декабре 1987 г., на гуманитарном семинаре, организованном Львом Тимофеевым (об этом семинаре я расскажу подробнее в следующей главе). Оба – Гамсахурдиа и Костава – приехали на семинар, и Звиад даже выступил с докладом. Это была, по-моему, напыщенная чепуха о том, как преследуют в школах детей диссидентов (он ссылался на собственных детей), и как необходимо создать комитет в их защиту. Было тягостное ощущение, что он построил свою речь так, чтобы звучала она достаточно радикально и в то же время не принесла бы ему никаких неприятностей – этакий Остап Бендер на заседании “Союза меча и орала”. Мы – Лара Богораз, Саня Даниэль и я – вышли в другую комнату. Костава вышел вслед за нами.

Вам не нравится мой друг Звиад, – с горечью сказал он, – и я знаю почему он вам не нравится. Это все из-за того судебного процесса в 1978 г. Но вы не знаете некоторых дополнительных обстоятельств. Дело в том, что когда Звиад сидел под следствием, ему было видение. В камере ему явилась Богородица и сказала: “Звиад, оставь политику. Это не твоя стезя. Твой долг – в том, чтобы создать новый, совершенный, перевод Евангелия на грузинский язык!”. Вот в чем главная причина поведения Гамсахурдиа на суде.
Я наивно спросил, откуда он про это знает. Мераб с гордостью ответил, что эту тайну доверил ему сам Звиад.
И тут неожиданно вмешалась Лара. “А что же Евангелие?” – с интересом спросила она. – “Перевел его Гамсахурдиа или нет?”.

Мераб опешил. Он, по-видимому, рассказывал эту историю уже много раз, но столь простого вопроса ему никогда не задавали. И ему самому как-то не приходило в голову задуматься над подобной прозой. Он ничего тогда не ответил Ларе.


В июне 1991 г. первые лица союзных республик съезжались в Москву на инаугурацию только что избранного Президента России Б.Н.Ельцина. Согласно протоколу, их должны были встречать высшие должностные лица Российской Федерации. Борис Николаевич попросил меня встретить Президента Грузии.

Думаю, логика Ельцина была проста: во-первых, член Президиума Верховного Совета РФ по рангу достаточно высокая должность для Президента союзной республики; во-вторых, к бывшему диссиденту уместно и прилично отправить навстречу другого бывшего диссидента (так сказать, соратника по борьбе).

По дороге из Внукова Звиад Константинович несколько раз пытался заговорить со мной о нашем общем прошлом. Я же старался отделывался общими фразами и переводил разговор на протокольные темы. Мне не хотелось ни поддакивать ему, ни, тем более, пускаться в обличения. Полагаю, что Звиад понял это, ибо, оставаясь в Москве еще несколько дней, не пытался встретиться со мной еще раз.

Я же, вспоминая о нем сегодня, не могу не согласиться с мнением Божьей Матери (в передаче Мераба Костава) относительно Гамсахурдиа. Как жаль, что Звиад не последовал доброму совету: говорят, он и в самом деле был неплохой переводчик.
Впрочем, может быть я действительно несправедлив и предвзят к Звиаду Гамсахурдиа. В конце концов, как бы он ни прожил свою жизнь – погиб он как мужчина, с оружием в руках отстаивая то дело, которое считал правым.

Полет Белой Вороны – Из Сибири в Чечню. Воспоминаний Сергея Ковалева, Глава Вторая

Umberto Eco: Rules for Writing Well

Umberto Eco

I found a series of instructions on how to write well on the Internet.
I make them mine, with some variation, because I think they can be useful to many, especially those who attend writing schools

  1. Avoid alliterations, even if they’re manna for morons.
  2. Don’t contribute to the killing of the subjunctive mode, I suggest that the writer use it when necessary [Subjunctive in English]
  3. Avoid clichés: they’re like death warmed over [Dictionary of English clichés]
  4. Thou shall express thyself in the simplest of fashions.
  5. Don’t use acronyms & abbreviations etc.
  6. (Always) remember that parentheses (even when they seem indispensable) interrupt the flow of (your) speech.
  7. Beware of indigestion… of ellipses.
  8. Limit the use of inverted commas. Quotes aren’t “elegant.”
  9. Never generalize.
  10. Foreign words aren’t bon ton.
  11. Hold those quotes. Emerson aptly said, “I hate quotes. Tell me only what you know.” [Guilty! It’s because of Twitter]
  12. Similes are like catch phrases.
  13. Don’t be repetitious; don’t repeat the same thing twice; repeating is superfluous (redundancy means the useless explanation of something the reader has already understood).
  14. Only twats use swear words.
  15. Always be somehow specific.
  16. Hyperbole is the most extraordinary of expressive techniques.
  17. Don’t write one-word sentences. Ever.
  18. Beware too-daring metaphors: they are feathers on a serpent’s scales.
  19. Put, commas, in the appropriate places.
  20. Recognize the difference between the semicolon and the colon: even if it’s hard.
  21. If you can’t find the appropriate expression, refrain from using colloquial/dialectal expressions. In Venice, they say “The patch is worse than the hole”.
  22. Do not use incongruent metaphors even if they seem to “sing”: they are like a swan who derails.
  23. Do you really need rhetorical questions?
  24. Be concise; try expressing your thoughts with the least possible number of words, avoiding long sentences — or sentences interrupted by incidental phrases that always confuse the casual reader — in order to avoid contributing to the general pollution of information, which is surely (particularly when it is uselessly ripe with unnecessary explanations, or at least non indispensable specifications) one of the tragedies of our media-dominated time.
  25. Accents should not be neither incorrect nor useless, those who do make mistakes.
  26. Don’t apostrophe an indefinite article before a masculine noun.
  27. Not even the worst fans of barbarism pluralize foreign terms.
  28. Don’t be emphatic! Be careful with exclamation marks!
  29. Spell foreign names correctly, like Beaudelaire, Roosewelt, Niezsche and so on.
  30. Name the authors and characters you refer to, without using periphrases. So did the greatest Lombard author of the nineteenth century, the author of “The 5th of May.”
  31. Begin your text with a captatio benevolentiae, to ingratiate yourself with your reader (but perhaps you’re so stupid you don’t even know what I’m talking about).
  32. Be fastidios with you’re speling.
  33. No need to tell you how cloying preteritions are [telling by saying you are not going to tell].
  34. Do not change paragraph when unneeded.
    Not too often.
  35. No plurale majestatis, please. We believe it pompous.
  36. Do not take the cause for the effect: you would be wrong and thus you would make a mistake.
  37. Do not write sentences in which the conclusion doesn’t follow the premises in a logical way: if everyone did this, premises would stem from conclusions.
  38. Do not indulge in archaic forms, apax legomena and other unused lexemes, nor in deep rizomatic structures which, however appealing to you as epiphanies of the grammatological differance (sic), inviting to a deconstructive tangent – but, even worse it would be if they appeared to be debatable under the scrutiny of anyone who would read them with ecdotic acridity – would go beyond the recipient’s cognitive competencies. [Ecdotica]
  39. You should never be wordy. On the other hand, you should not say less than.
  40. A complete sentence should comprise.


From La bustina di Minerva

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language



George Orwell


Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad — I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen — but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:

1. I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.

Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression)

2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.

Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossia)

3. On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity?

Essay on psychology in Politics (New York)

4. All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

Communist pamphlet

5. If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may be sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion’s roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream— as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as ‘standard English’. When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o’clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma’amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens!

Letter in Tribune

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged.

DYING METAPHORS. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a ‘rift’, for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.

OPERATORS OR VERBAL FALSE LIMBS. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.

PRETENTIOUS DICTION. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic colour, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i. e., e. g. and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers [1]. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

MEANINGLESS WORDS. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning [2]. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, ‘The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality’, while another writes, ‘The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness’, the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3) above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations — race, battle, bread — dissolve into the vague phrases ‘success or failure in competitive activities’. This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing — no one capable of using phrases like ‘objective considerations of contemporary phenomena’ — would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (‘time and chance’) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Professor Laski (1) uses five negatives in fifty three words. One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip — alien for akin — making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general vagueness. Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the everyday phrase put up with, is unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means; (3), if one takes an uncharitable attitude towards it, is simply meaningless: probably one could work out its intended meaning by reading the whole of the article in which it occurs. In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink. In (5), words and meaning have almost parted company. People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning — they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another — but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. The will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. 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. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning’s post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he ‘felt impelled’ to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: ‘[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany’s social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe.’ You see, he ‘feels impelled’ to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence [3], to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The defence of the English language implies more than this, and perhaps it is best to start by saying what it does not imply.

To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style’. On the other hand, it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.



[1] An interesting illustration of this is the way in which the English flower names which were in use till very recently are being ousted by Greek ones, snapdragon becoming antirrhinumforget-me-not becoming myosotis, etc. It is hard to see any practical reason for this change of fashion: it is probably due to an instinctive turning-awayfrom the more homely word and a vague feeling that the Greek word is scientific.

[2] Example: ‘Comfort’s catholicity of perception and image, strangely Whitmanesque in range, almost the exact opposite in aesthetic compulsion, continues to evoke that trembling atmospheric accumulative hinting at a cruel, an inexorably serene timelessness… Wrey Gardiner scores by aiming at simple bull’s-eyes with precision. Only they are not so simple, and through this contented sadness runs more than the surface bitter-sweet of resignation’. (Poetry Quarterly.

[3] One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.