Only a fool would fail to notice that the world has been turned upside down. Anything goes. Men can be women. Women can be men. A man who was a woman yesterday can become a man again tomorrow if she feels like a man instead of a woman when she (or he?) wakes up in the morning from a bout of confused dreams. A boy can join the girls’ track team and break state records in high jump and the javelin toss. A man who feels like a woman can legally marry another man and then claim the marriage is between a man and a woman. This is madness.
The players may be different but this game is not new. It is an age-old war between beauty and deceit. To put our current battle into perspective, it will be helpful to compare two types of writers: poets and copywriters.
Poets tend to scoff at copywriters who sell their services to the highest bidder. They see it as a form of prostitution. Heidegger, the influential German philosopher, went so far as to claim that poets, not philosophers, are best equipped to plumb the depths of a mysterious something he called Being. Why, then, would one so exalted as the poet dirty their pens in the filth of the marketplace? Jesus chased moneychangers out of the temple. Poets, in Heidegger’s scheme, are the only ones fit to replace them. Copywriters, slaves of the free market, be damned.
On the other hand, Plato, the most influential philosopher in Western civilization, was suspicious of poets such as Homer, who appealed to the baser natures of his audience. And isn’t this what copywriter’s do, appeal to baser instincts to sell products or ideas? Might copywriters fulfill the role of the poet in Plato’s world? If so, wouldn’t copywriters be able to reduce Heidegger’s mysterious Being—that which St. Thomas called God—to an item to be sold in the marketplace?
The role of the copywriter in mad, mad world
The average person thinks of copywriters, when they think of them at all, as a particular kind of salesperson. Others might consider them persuasive writers. A few may see them as artists. Even fewer would think of copywriters as vendors of truth.
Most copywriters fall into the first two categories: sales and persuasion. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, a good salesperson can be an asset to anyone in the business of selling things. It makes good sense that good salespeople are also good at persuasion; if they weren’t, few if any would be persuaded to purchase the products or ideas the salesperson happened to be peddling.
It could also be argued that successful salespeople are necessarily artistic in that they are masters of rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. It follows that a winning salesperson would be enthusiastic about the things he is selling. A Honda salesman who drives a Honda Accord and loves it, for example, would be more authentic than a Honda saleswoman who is a die-hard Chevy fan. If a copywriter wishes to unfold his full potential, he must care about the products or ideas he is selling. Authenticity is required in the art of persuasion because artists care about the subjects they depict.
A professional copywriter, then, should be able to check the boxes of three categories: 1) sales; 2) persuasion; and 3) art. But what about the fourth category, the copywriter as vendor of truth, or, as Heidegger might have put it, the voice of Being?
Any copywriter who feigns enthusiasm for the product or idea they are selling is a sophist. The term “sophist” can be traced back to ancient Greece. These Greek sophists, such as Gorgias, charged money for teaching the art of rhetoric. Plato reviled sophists. Why? Not because they did not excel at their craft, as sophists were known to make the weaker argument the stronger and the stronger argument the weaker. Plato despised sophists because they employed clever arguments in order to deceive.
Many copywriters practice sophistry. Some are highly effective and have most likely paid good money to learn the trade. They learned it from credentialed sophists who have taken refuge in colleges and business schools. Others have invested hard-earned dollars into books and/or short courses produced by successful copywriters who are cashing in on tried-and-true methods of manipulation. Who can blame an aspiring copywriter for wanting to succeed? Sophistry sells. Isn’t that the name of the game?
Sophistry, though, precludes a copywriter from being a vendor of truth. Deceit conceals rather than reveals. Josef Pieper, in his book Abuse of Language—Abuse of Power, explains:
the possibility that something could well be superbly crafted—that is could be perfectly worded; brilliantly formulated; strikingly written, performed, staged, or put on screen—and at the same time, in its entire thrust and essence, be false; and not only false, but outright bad, inferior, contemptible, shameful, destructive, wretched—and still marvelously put together.
Pieper’s possibility is the pulse at the heart of the art of deceit. This “art” is a model for success. It’s no surprise that the tools in the copywriter’s toolbox are commonly borrowed by journalists, novelists, and screenwriters. Copywriters have stolen some of their tools from poets, but possession, as they say, is nine-tenths of the law. These same tools are used by politicians, college professors, and songwriters. The consummate copywriter, however, is wordsmith par excellence, the master of the marvelously put together deceit.
The copywriter as poet
Taken from another angle, one might go so far as to dub the copywriter as poet of the free market. Both writers attempt to boil down subject matter to essence. But while most poets make next to nothing from the writing of poetry, the average copywriter can earn a good living by practicing his trade. In a culture (such as ours) where the market in large part determines artistic value, the copywriter has a much greater influence than the poet. Ancient Greece had the Iliad and the Odyssey. We have “copy,” whether it is found in advertising, journalism, television, or film.
One could argue that Homer, with his Olympian gods and their earthly lusts, practiced sophistry by appealing to what Plato claimed was the baser nature of his audience. But this would be like saying T.S. Eliot, who penned the masterpiece “Ash Wednesday,” didn’t believe in God or that the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russel did. Sophistry is the art of deception. Poetry that reaches the level of art is altogether something else; at the very least, it is an homage to truth, an attempt to uncover that which is concealed.
In other words, this isn’t ancient Greece where poets like Homer set the tone of the times. Not even close. Where the market determines culture through the omnipresence of a ubiquitous multimedia (think Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon), truth is most often concealed. Where sophistry triumphs, deceit reigns. It doesn’t have to be this way.
If the copywriter has usurped the poet in world turned upside down, artistic vision has become a necessary component of their trade. If they neglect this artistic aspect, they run the danger of sinking to the level of a hack. Flannery O’Connor insists that artistic vision is the place where, “The writer’s moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense.” Strong persuasion has a dramatic component. It must also have a moral sense. Anything less is sophistry.
Another Catholic writer, Jacques Maritain, noted that “…in order for the artist to conform and conceive his work within himself in an infallible creative judgement, it is necessary that his subject dynamism, his will and appetite, straightly tend to beauty.” This may sound overblown for the lowly copywriter. It is not.
We live in a culture in which, we are told, there are currently at least sixty-four recognized genders, a culture that sees no difference between the marriage of one man and one woman to that of two men or two women. We live in a culture where the life of an unborn child is often seen not as a precious gift but as a disposable inconvenience to be tossed to the garbage heap. Our language is undergoing a psychotic break with reality. This is the madness where reason drowns. We must reconnect language to reality if we hope to recover sanity. Writers of all kinds—poets, journalists, novelists, screenwriters—can help to do just that, even the lowly copywriter.
Artistic vision requires a conscious effort in distinguishing truth from wishful thinking. A true artist, such as Plato, abhors deceit. Truth is often more than the sum of its facts. Artistic vision goes beyond brute fact by seeking essence, looks past the object of its care to a place where moral sense coincides with the reality in which it exists. This is where arts tends to beauty.
Nihilism and sophistry
To recap: in an age inundated with multimedia, most of which involves some form of writing, writers have a vast amount of cultural influence. A moral writer has an obligation to strive for truth. But what is truth?
Let’s turn once more to Josef Pieper’s recounting of Plato’s aversion to the sophist Gorgias:
To be true means, indeed, to be determined in speech and thought by what is real. And I do not think it to be simply a suggestive literary touch—though Plato would not be above that—when in his dialogues he depicts the man who claims as his business the dealing with words, the formal cultivation of how best to employ words, as a nihilist: Gorgias! He is, of course, a historical figure. We know some of the opening sentences from his writings, and the very first sentence states that “nothing is.”
Gorgias is not trying to deny of the existence of countless facts by claiming that nothing is. It is much more insidious than that. Nothing is means there is no truth, no meaning, no Logos, no God. This is the essence of nihilism: belief in nothing. In Heidegger’s world, this would mean there is no “Big B” Being. In this light, Heidegger might have agreed that a godless poet is a contradiction, dead and alive at once. If nothing is, words mean nothing. The sole function of language becomes the will to manipulate, the desire to deceive, a will to power.
It was Heidegger who contended, “Language is the house of Being.” For Christians, Jesus is what Heidegger meant with his murky depiction of Being. Jesus, the Word made flesh, is truth and, as such, the very essence of beauty. There is nothing murky here. If there is no God, no Logos, all is gibberish. That which is cannot be nothing. Gibberish is ugly. The spirit of Gorgias, though not so polished as in the days of old, lives among us; he is Legion.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty” wrote Keats. The world seems far-removed from such lofty poetical claims. The surest way back to the summit is to start from where we are: rock bottom. Not only poets, but teachers, politicians, doctors—anyone who speaks—has a share in the championing of the beauty that is truth. To do so, it will be necessary to correct those who have been taught that humans create reality. Humans do not create reality; they live within it and can either nourish it with morality or starve it with nonsense.
The words we use should cultivate our God-given reality, not undermine it. This may seem obvious but pause for a moment and you will bear witness to a world slipping further into folly. As language continues to devolve into gibberish, we cannot stand watching paralyzed with confusion. Confusion conceals truth. Shake it off. Live with the discernment of the poet of old, always employ language in service of truth wherever and whoever you may be, even if you happen to be just a copywriter.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!