Imaginary vices

If my goal were to corrupt lots of people, I would start with the moral vocabulary.  First, pick a virtue, then make up a new word for that virtue, and say that the new word denotes a vice.  For example, I want to discourage modesty.  So I invent a new word, “prudery”, that is just another word for modesty, but has a negative connotation.  Nothing but evil will come of this.  Many souls have maintained righteousness by asking questions like “am I being cowardly?” or “am I being dishonest?”, but I’m pretty sure that no one has ever become a better person for worrying about being a prude.

Next, I’d distort the meanings of virtue words, making sure that the virtues I really wanted to get rid of would have no well-known word at all.  Being in league with the Devil, I’d be especially eager to snuff out charity–the supernatural love of God that Saint Thomas called the form of all other virtues.  I’d take that word and reassign it to mean something boring, like giving money to poverty relief, and leave no word for the theological virtue.  Or I’d take piety, a word that once referred primarily to the honor we owe our parents, and convince people that being “pious” just means going to church a lot.  Then if someone wanted to refer to the original, down-to-earth virtue, he’d have to say “filial piety”, but not too many people will know Latin-ish words like “filial”.  Why is this so important?  Because virtues we don’t have words for are off our mental radar.

Last, I’d start using words for vices as if they were virtues, e.g. referring to a book or a movie as “irreverent” as if this were a good thing.  This would probably be going to far, though.  I don’t think anybody would be willing to go along with this.

Fortunately, I’m not trying to corrupt people.

7 Responses

  1. Don’t forget to subtly change the meaning of virtue-words so as to masquerade a vice as admirable. So turn, for example, “liberty” or “free-minded” from meaning something like “the ability to will what is right for its own sake” or “released from sin and pettiness so as to contemplate eternal truth” to something more like “lack of moderation and authority” or “licence.”

    Plus, don’t forget to introduce new pseudo-virtues, like “authenticity” and “self-esteem.”

  2. It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your own head.
    -Sally Kempton

  3. […] Bonald has recently objected to the disfiguration of language with propaganda terms. […]

  4. “Because virtues we don’t have words for are off our mental radar.”

    As your original said, Bonald, in his Legislation Primitive:

    “Man thinks his word before he says his thought.”


    “The word is the natural expression of thought; necessary not only to speak truth to others, but also to speak truth inwardly. . . . [Words are necessary to make us conscious of our own thoughts.] So also, the image that the mirror offers to me is indispensable to let me know the color of my eyes and features of my face; so also light is necessary to let me see my own body.”

    (An extremely rather free translation, as most of mine are.)

  5. It’s a real shame that so little of Bonald’s works have been translated into English. His monolinguistic foreign admirers like myself have to make do with “On Divorce” and a few essays.

  6. Words have no inherent meaning only the arbitrary meaning that we give them. It does matter what collection of syllables or letters you use to describe something what matters is the meaning attached to it.

    The definition of words change naturally over time as the language evolves. I doubt anyone consciously changed the definition of “prude” or “pious”, it just happened.(If you happen to have any evidence of such manipulation that would be great)

    Not to mention the massive amount of effort that would need to be expended for a private person to cause such a change in vocabulary.

  7. Sounds are arbitrary. Concepts and classifications are not.

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