The Power of Words

The power of words is bound up with the images they evoke, and is quite independent of their real significance. Words whose sense is the most ill-defined are sometimes those that possess the most influence. Such, for example, are the terms democracy, equality, liberty, &c., whose meaning is so vague that bulky volumes do not suffice to precisely fix it. Yet it is certain that a truly magical power is attached to those short syllables, as if they contained the solution of all problems. They synthesise the most diverse unconscious aspirations and the hope of their realisation.

Reason and arguments are incapable of combatting certain words and formulas. They are uttered with solemnity in the presence of crowds, and as soon as they have been pronounced an expression of respect is visible on every countenance, and all heads are bowed. By many they are considered as natural forces, as supernatural powers. They evoke grandiose and vague images in men’s minds, but this very vagueness that wraps them in obscurity augments their mysterious power. They are the mysterious divinities hidden behind the tabernacle, which the devout only approach in fear and trembling.

It was by invoking liberty and fraternity — words very popular at the time — that the Jacobins were able to install a despotism worthy of Dahomey, a tribunal similar to that of the Inquisition, and to accomplish human hecatombs akin to those of ancient Mexico.

One of the most essential functions of statesmen consists, then, in baptizing with popular or, at any rate, indifferent words things the crowd cannot endure under their old names. The power of words is so great that it suffices to designate in well-chosen terms the most odious things to make them acceptable to crowds.

Gustave Le Bon – The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind

The Problem of Meaning

The difficulties associated with “the arguments for the truth” of Christianity have given me sleepless nights; most of our core beliefs must be taken on faith. Significant intellectual difficulties, faced by a believer or an alleged believer, are not posed by the problem of proof, but by the problem of meaning. Statements specifically religious seem to me without any meaning.

A. N. Prior


Christianity says, I believe, that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life.

L. Wittgenstein

Fear: Laws, Gods

SextusThere was a time when the life of men was without order and like that of the beasts, subject to the rule of strength, an there was no reward for the good or any punishment for evil men. And then, I think, men set up laws for punishment, so the justice would rule and violence would be her slave. And if someone were to do wrong they would be punished. Then, since the laws prevented them from doing violent deeds openly, they continued to do them in secret.

I think that then some sound and clever-minded man invented fear of the gods for mortals, so that evil people would have some fear, even if they were acting or saying or thinking something in secret. Thereupon he introduced the divine being, saying: “There is a divinity, endowed with eternal life, who with his mind hears and sees and understands and attends to these things, bearing a divine nature, who will hear everything that is said amongst mortals, and be able to see everything that is done. If ever you plan some evil in silence, you will not escape the notice of the gods. For they are able to keep that in mind.”

Speaking these words, he introduced the most pleasant of lessons, concealing the truth with false speaking. He then claimed that the gods lived where he would terrify people the most. He knew the origins of mortals’ fears as well as benefits for their wretched life: from the revolving sky above, where they knew there was lightning and there were terrible rumblings of thunder. Around mortals he set up such fears, through which this man, by his words, nobly established the divinity in an auspicious spot, and he extinguished lawlessness with laws. Thus, I think, someone first persuaded mortals to believe that there is a race of gods.

Critias, Sextus Empiricus

The false alternative

You have heard no concepts of morality but the mystical or the social. You have been taught that morality is a code of behavior imposed on you by whim, the whim of a supernatural power or the whim of society, to serve God’s purpose or your neighbor’s welfare, to please an authority beyond the grave or else next door—but not to serve your life or pleasure.

For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors—between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.

A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death. Such a being is a metaphysical monstrosity, struggling to oppose, negate and contradict the fact of his own existence, running blindly amuck on a trail of destruction, capable of nothing but pain.

Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged

The Tower

In Luke 14:26, as everybody knows, there is a striking doctrine taught about the absolute duty toward God:

If any man cometh unto me and hateth not his own father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

This is a hard saying, who can bear to hear it? For this reason it is heard very seldom. This silence, however, is only an evasion which is of no avail. In the verse immediately following there is a story about a man who desired to build a tower but first sat down to calculate whether he was capable of doing it, lest people might laugh at him afterwards. The close connection of this story with the verse here cited seems precisely to indicate that the words are to be taken in as terrible a sense as possible, to the end that everyone may examine himself as to whether he is able to erect the tower.

The words are terrible, yet I fully believe that one can understand them without implying that he who understands them has courage to do them. But we must be honest, and not interpret this lack of courage as humility, since it is really pride. One can easily perceive that if there is to be any sense in this passage, it must be understood literally. God it is who requires absolute love.

But how hate them? If I regard the problem as a paradox, then I understand it, that is, I understand it in such a way as one can understand a paradox. This is shown by Abraham. The instant he is ready to sacrifice Isaac the ethical expression for what he does is this: he hates Isaac. But if he really hates Isaac, he can be sure that God does not require this, for Cain and Abraham are not identical. Isaac he must love with his whole soul; when God requires Isaac he must love him if possible even more dearly, and only on this condition can he sacrifice him; for in fact it is this love for Isaac which, by its paradoxical opposition to his love for God, makes his act a sacrifice.

People commonly refrain from quoting such a text as this in Luke. They are afraid of giving men a free rein, are afraid that the worst will happen as soon as the individual takes it into his head to comport himself as the individual. Moreover, they think that to exist as the individual is the easiest thing of all, and that therefore people have to be compelled to become the universal. I cannot share either this fear or this opinion, and both for the same reason. He who has learned that to exist as the individual is the most terrible thing of all will not be fearful of saying that it is great. He knows that it is terrible to be born outside the universal, to walk without meeting a single traveller. Humanly speaking, he is crazy and cannot make himself intelligible to anyone.

Sören Kierkegaard – Fear and Trembling. Is there such a thing as an absolute duty toward God?

Child’s Solipsism

In psychology of human development, it is considered that children in infancy, and sometimes even up to the period of late childhood, remain solipsists. They perceive the material world as a whole, consistent with their own person. Only after realizing (internalization) that other people are also experiencing the phenomena, and that probably this is done in a manner similar to their own perception – children reject solipsism. This event is a prerequisite for the further process of socialization.

Owen Flanagan – The science of the mind