30 March 2023

Yet the King Speaks: The Silent Descent of Language and Politics

A philologist takes a look at King Charles I's 'scaffold speech' delivered before he was killed by the traitorous republicans on 30 January 1649.

From The European Conservative

By Ábris Béndek

Consumer society and digital technology have demolished our linguistic spaces, shattering our foundational skillset for living virtuously and politically.

When King Charles I faced the London crowds from the scaffold, he made a speech to them. The first few sentences of the famous “Scaffold Speech” herald a true masterpiece of English oratory, but more importantly, they establish why at all the king rose to speak.

They are as follows:

I could hold my peace very well, if I did not think that holding my peace would make some men think that I did submit to the guilt as well as to the punishment. But I think it is my duty to God first and to my country for to clear myself both as an honest man and a good King, and a good Christian.

The king fears that, if he were silent, in the eyes of many it would look as though he were “submitting to the guilt as well as to the punishment”—in other words, that he denies his own innocence. However, speech allows him to meet death on his own terms: as an “honest man, a good King, and a good Christian.”

On his own terms. Indeed, what makes Charles’s famous Scaffold Speech especially important is that it teaches something vital about language. It reveals, specifically, the hidden powers of this natural gift that we all possess but do not always appreciate.

In everyday life we assume that language is ordained for this or that social purpose: sharing knowledge, asking for the neighbour’s assistance, or bargaining in the marketplace. And we are halfway correct: social coordination is indeed one possible function of language. But speaking from the scaffold, Charles did not use language to achieve coordination. It would have made no sense for a convict facing certain death, who above all has accepted his “punishment.”

Yet the king speaks. For in those cathartic moments of life and death when the hero finally falls, it is language that allows him to pronounce himself against the raw will of society—becoming something of value in himself. Seemingly ordained merely to interact with others, language does far more. It makes man independent as well as social.

The great beauty of language is its ambiguity. While it makes us social in the foundational, communicative sense, it also enables us, as it enabled the king, to declare ourselves against that society; to establish oneself, if need be, as a virtuous human subject against the will of the many. In other words, language is relation and self-relation: it makes a person a subject with an unalienable claim for truth, not reducible to the verdict of society that he is otherwise part of.

Drama shows this dual functionality of language. For most of a given play, we see social beings in social roles, embedded in a social web of conflict, love, and intrigue. However, when a monologue is performed or the last words are said, when the character uses speech to establish himself and not to interact with others, we cease to examine him through our own thoughts. Instead, we start to interpret and reinterpret his deeds through his own inner subjectivity. Only then is the true hero born: lonely in his endeavor against the will of society but mighty in the idea that he represents. Only then does an Achilleus, an Antigone, a Hamlet emerge.

What can we in our modern societies learn from this linguistic birth of the hero? In a world of constant liking, sharing, and consuming, it is perhaps more important than ever to remember that among all our tools of social interaction, it is only language that can make us virtuous as well as social. In other words, it is only language that can make us political—interacting with others but doing so, as Aristotle writes, along conceptions of “good and evil, just and unjust, and the like.”

The genius of the ancient Greek culture that invented politics was precisely that it was a profoundly linguistic culture. As opposed to the—truly dazzling—cultures of the Fertile Crescent organised along the lines of irrigation and empire, Greece, especially Athens, represented something new since the dawn of civilisation: the love of the word and of reason. The idea of the logos (word, reason, order), in turn, nurtured (and was nurtured by) the great achievements of Greek culture, particularly philosophy, drama and politics. Indeed, whether truth is pursued on the stage of the amphitheatre or on that of the agora is of secondary importance. What matters instead is a culturally established respect, passion, and love towards the formulated word and for linguistically created coherence.

The noble tradition of politics-by-speech runs through the veins of western civilisation. From the Greek agora to the Roman forum, from Cicero and the art of rhetoric to Simon de Montfort and the dawn of parliamentarism, from the salons of the Enlightenment to the coffee houses of the nineteenth century, filled with print news, this scenery confirms once again that political spaces are linguistic spaces and that politics works only with the tongue.

From the twentieth century on, however, the legacy of Cicero and de Monfort has been slowly evaporating. With the advance of mass technology, propaganda, and totalitarianism, language was increasingly used to dominate and not to discuss, to manipulate and not to convince. The total state officialised certain linguistic sequences to directly determine how people see and relate to the world (which is the true meaning of propaganda). Once a signal of human virtue and independence, a poetic claim for truth, language became exclusively a technique of domination and demagogy. The virtuous human subject was eradicated from it.

As language succumbed into silent degeneration, so did the idea of the hero. In his introduction to the Language of the Third Reich, the philologist Victor Klemperer describes how the classical hero was twisted and corrupted into its totalitarian self. The heroic struggle, known from the pages of Homer, Sophocles, and Shakespeare, was no longer about cultivating and defending virtue against the unjust use of power. Instead, it came to be about the exact opposite: leading the masses towards the deranged fantasies of the state and the immoral void of tyranny.  

With the defeat of totalitarianism, a political culture returned to Europe, with shrinking prospects. Even though language was momentarily revitalised in its moral and political function, its descent continued. Today, political society is in a silent danger as an ever greater part of our lives is escaping from the set of linguistic acts that previously defined them. The consumer does not bargain as the buyer once did, and he decides on the basis of impulse, not of argument. Friends do not exchange letters; they post, like and share. They no longer talk for hours, instead exchanging ‘messages’ full of emojis, GIFs, and abbreviations. As we look around our lives, we cannot but wonder where language has gone.

The truth is that consumer society and digital technology have demolished our linguistic spaces, shattering our foundational skillset for living virtuously and politically. They represent interaction, but not true independence, for they certainly link people together yet do not come about through language—our historically evolved system of uniqueness, subjectivity and knowledge.

However, it is not only that our individual lives have lost the verbal paths to become citizens. For politics in the meantime has surrendered its own linguistic, constitutive domain to marketisation, consumerism, and digitalisation. As political marketing experts target our brains and insert signs and slogans where language—real language, in all its cultural intimacy and richness—once existed, they hurt our political culture the most. Aided by them, politicians no longer speak to us as participants in a collective learning process, but as consumers who are supposed to choose between two products rather than between rival conceptions of good and just. Furthermore, as the lion’s share of political language has resettled into the world of digital technology, it is technology and no longer language that defines human interaction in the public space. Consider tweets: Far from promoting discourse, tweets only deal to it further blows through hashtags, hyperlinks, and AI-compelled artificial curtness. If anything, tweets represent the breakdown of semantic richness and continuity. What remains of language is, more or less, a digital wasteland. 

What are the consequences for politics? It is increasingly our impression that due to the marketing- and technology-driven destruction of language in public life, politics has lost its authenticity, its intimacy, its own inner truth. What often remains in the havoc is soul-ripping fights of made-up and manipulated identities, immune to any idea of solidarity or shared citizenship.

In light of this, we do not have to wonder much why millions of citizens exit the democratic process every decade. Indeed, as the polis has moved behind a wall of glass, it has left behind a crisis of the republic, of political trust. Twenty-first century conservatism must renew its self-understanding against this crisis of the republic and protect, while it can, our linguistic spaces.

Language is our deepest source of subjectivity, virtue, and truth. It is sensitivity, drama, a heroic act in itself. While it is hardly possible, or desirable, to resist the constitutive processes of modernity, such as technological advancement or capitalism, it is the citizen’s duty to protect the sphere where we can at all choose how to relate to a world run amok—how to find a way in, and not be swept away by, the tempest.

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