Through language we are able to create realities. We do it every day. Persuading, encouraging, fear-mongering, story-telling, teaching, selling, insulting, begging—these are just a small sampling of the ways we create and/or rearrange inward realities in other people.
The Puritan John Flavel (quoted in Marilynne Robinson’s What Are We Doing Here) had this to say on the subject:
Other creatures have apt and elegant organs: birds can modulate the air, and form it into sweet, delicious notes and charming sounds; but no creature, except man, whose soul is of an heavenly nature and extraction, can articulate the sound, and form it into words, by which the notions and sentiments of the soul are in a noble, apt, and expeditious manner conveyed to the understanding of another soul.
It truly is a remarkable thing that by moving air through your larynx and simultaneously moving your mouth and tongue around, or by making marks on a page, you can manipulate the movements of a human soul. It’s not a thing to be taken lightly.
What’s more, to change inward realities is also to change outward realities. Persuasion elects leaders, creates laws, preserves peace, starts wars. Persuasion builds interstates, bridges, prisons, parks. Persuasion builds whole societies and cultures.
While it is true that we can create realities through language, we can’t create reality. Reality is given, not made with human hands or human voices or human consensus. And reality always has the last word with the sub-realities we make for ourselves. As I have said before in this space, reality is that which continues to exist whether you believe in it or not. Believe in gravity or don’t believe in it. Either way, if you jump out a window, you’ll fall to the ground.
Reason, according to Thomas Aquinas, is a “regard for and openness to reality,” an “acceptance” of reality. This idea is very closely related to the ancient idea of prudence, the first of the four cardinal virtues. There are ways, of course, to bend or twist reality for our own purposes—at least until reality snaps back on us. And it always does. That snap-back is sometimes referred to as karma. You can use that word if you want to, but I’m going to call it the coming of the Kingdom of God. Every time reality asserts itself against the status quo, it gives us a preview of the day when reality is all there is. Lord, haste the day.
But I digress. If prudence or reason is a willingness to align oneself with reality, cunning is the attempt to align reality with oneself. Josef Pieper defines cunning as “the insidious and unobjective temperament of the intriguer who has regard only for ‘tactics,’ who can neither face things squarely nor act straightforwardly.” In our public discourse I see a lot of cunning people who show no regard for reality, who seem to believe that no falsehood is too egregious if it serves their purposes. The ends justify the means, as the old saying goes. But I feel compelled to point out that if justification is what you’re after, political ends aren’t going to do it for you.
My fellow Americans, as the 2020 election approaches, let us throw off cunning. Most of us aren’t very good at it anyway, and trying to be cunning only leaves us at the mercy of those who actually are. And while we are at it, let’s also throw off cynicism. I will admit that cynicism has its pleasures, but they are pleasures more appropriate to sophomores than to mature adults like us. Cynicism, like conspiracy theory, is just oversimplification posing as sophistication.
In place of cunning and cynicism, let us embrace prudence. In the coming weeks, you will have many opportunities to use your voice to create new realities—to argue, to express your opinion, perhaps even to persuade. Will you use your creative powers to help others (and yourself) come into closer alignment with reality? We won’t all agree on the nature of reality. Reality is exceedingly complex, and self-interest inclines me to ignore the parts of it that don’t jive with my notions of how the world would work best for me. Even so, an openness to a reality that exceeds and supersedes self-interest is an excellent place to start.
Every day you wake up in a world that you didn’t make. Rejoice and be glad.