Pieper, Language, and the Truth III

by Christian Ohnimus                                                                         Wednesday, October 2

Part 3 of 3: The Purpose of Academy

In part 1 and part 2 we discussed the purpose of language and how divorcing language from objective reality destroys communication. Now we will discuss the idea of academy. In the previous article we mentioned that the academic tradition was meant to provide a refuge for the truth within a society. This tradition arose in opposition to the most notable abusers of language in ancient Greece, the sophists, and is inherently tied to the philosophical thought of Socrates and Plato. In Leisure the Basis of Culture Pieper describes the origin of philosophy: “the words “philosophy” and “philosopher” were coined, according to legend, by Pythagoras. And they were intended to stand in an emphatic contrast with “sophia” and “sophos”: no man is wise and knowing, only God. And so the most that man can do is call someone a loving searcher of the truth, philo-sophos.

Thus sophistry is directly contrary to the intellectual tradition of philosophy and of Socrates and Plato who saw themselves, not as possessing wisdom, but as pursuers of wisdom. Instead, in the philosophical tradition wisdom was not something that could ever be possessed by mortal man, no matter how vigorously the philosopher pursued it. Instead, wisdom is something to be received. The philosopher tries to conform himself to the world but the sophist seeks to conform the world to himself.

How these opposing intellects thought is reflected in their use of language. If the world is something to be conformed to us then language is the tool to conform it. Instead of conveying reality words serve to create our personal fiction, to change the world to our liking. In contrast, the philosophers viewed language as the means to convey an objective, unchangeable truth and communicate it to others. We cannot change this reality with our words, to try is to lie; instead we must change ourselves.

In opposition to sophistry and its fictitious realities the Platonic Academy was established. It served as the foundation for all things “academic” and, while modern academics differ greatly from the Greek Academy, the idea of the “academic” remains. Pieper elaborates, “[academic] means that in the midst of society there is expressly reserved an area of truth, a sheltered space for the autonomous study of reality, where it is possible, without restrictions, to examine, investigate, discuss, and express what is true about anything – a space, then, explicitly protected against all potential special interests and invading influences, where hidden agendas have no place, be they collective or private, political, economic, or ideological.”

Modern academy faces many threats, most notably from within, but its objective should remain the same: to provide a refuge where the truth may be sought and discussed free from all invading influence. Academy, then, must be detached from worldly interest. It, in fact, must possess a transcendent quality: it must be above worldly affairs. In this sense the “academic” must be useless. That is, their purpose must not be merely functional, to serve any economic or political interest, to increase productivity or further a particular agenda. Academy must serve only the truth. In doing so it may give Man many tangible benefits but to the academic these benefits must be secondary. Truth, for its own sake, must always remain the objective, lest we be tempted like the sophists of antiquity to try to change the truth for our own immediate benefit.

So, in our daily lives let us always remember the purpose of language: to convey and communicate reality. Let us be vigilant against its abuses and not be deceived. Finally, let us always in our own personal lives set aside time to take a break from all “useful” activity in order to contemplate the truth. After all, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”


Christian Ohnimus is a registered nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Nursing from Franciscan University. He is a contributor to The Porch and The Catholic Renaissance.


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