The Power of Words
In 1933, French Jewish thinker Simone Weil wrote an essay called, “The Power of Words.” While she wrote of many things during those years, and took action in several ways, in this essay she wrote of what she saw happening to language and public debate in Europe during that fateful time. She wrote of a loss of measure, the loss of a sense of gray in a battle of absolutes, of judgment in wars of rectitude, of diminishing ability in public to qualify passions. It all made reasoning through problems feel less and less possible. It distorted politics. Messed with religion. Left the life most folks lived so very different from how they were being told life was. And contributed to frustration, injustice, and violence.
Language matters. It has power and is a precious gift to be cared for, not exploited. Don’t you agree?
Here’s one part of her essay. The language is a bit complicated, but I think the meaning feels clear:
In every sphere, we seem to have lost the very elements of intelligence: the ideas of limit, measure, degree, proportion, relation, comparison, contingency, interdependence, interrelation of means and ends. . . . Our lives are lived, in actual fact, among changing, varying realities, subject to the casual play of external necessities, and modifying themselves according to specific conditions within specific limits; and yet we act and strive and sacrifice ourselves and others by reference to fixed and isolated abstractions which cannot possibly be related either to one another or to any concrete facts. In this so-called age of technicians, the only battles we know how to fight are battles against windmills.[i]
You know the windmills reference, don’t you? Comes from the early 17th century English novel by Cervantes, Don Quixote (Remember the musical Man of La Mancha?). The term is actually “tilting” at windmills, with the world “tilt” a term for jousting. It’s about battling imaginary giants, which are actually just windmills that serve a useful purpose, thinking that one is both righteous by doing so and will profit from victory. Here’s from Chapter VIII of Don Quixote:
At this point they came in sight of thirty forty windmills that there are on plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, "Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God's good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth."
"What giants?" said Sancho Panza.
"Those thou seest there," answered his master, "with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long."
"Look, your worship," said Sancho; "what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go."
"It is easy to see," replied Don Quixote, "that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat."
So saying, he gave the spur to his steed Rocinante, heedless of the cries his squire Sancho sent after him, warning him that most certainly they were windmills and not giants he was going to attack. He, however, was so positive they were giants that he neither heard the cries of Sancho, nor perceived, near as he was, what they were, but made at them shouting, "Fly not, cowards and vile beings, for a single knight attacks you."
It’s been a truth we’ve known for a long time. I leave it to you, dear friends in faith, to consider what it means. But I will say that it’s our hope to create a space where we can talk with care and love about it all—as people of faith, as citizens.
[i] “The Power of Words,” in Simone Weil, An Anthology, ed. Sian Miles (New York: Weidenfeild and Nicolson, 1986): 222, 223