Why We Can’t Communicate

To explain why we can’t communicate requires some skill in communication.

I’m going to try to paraphrase an essay by Eric Voegelin.  But every time I enthusiastically share Eric Voegelin quotes with a friend, I lose that friend.  There seems to be something intimidating in the way Voegelin writes that makes people’s eyes gloss over.  So here, in essence, is what Voegelin says in his essay “Necessary Moral Bases for Communication in a Democracy”, with as few direct Voegelin quotes as possible.

Voegelin says that there are three types of Communication – Substantive, Pragmatic and Intoxicant.


  • Intoxicant communication is communication used as a drug.  Bad TV shows, most pop music, pornography – any kind of communication that people use not only as diversions, but as pain killers to plug the holes of their misery.
  • Pragmatic communication is any kind of communication that tries to get another person to do something.  Propaganda is the most obvious example of this type of communication, including advertising, but so is basic instruction in skills and techniques.  Unlike intoxicating communication, which is “toxic”, Pragmatic Communication is neutral, as it could encourage someone to do something good or something bad.
  • Substantive communication is “concerned with the right order of the human psyche.”  And the human psyche is only rightly ordered by the Love of God, or the orientation of our intellectual and moral capacity toward the Good, the True and the Beautiful, toward the transcendent reality in which we seek full participation.

Thus, Substantive Communication is good and it is most truly called “education”, but Pragmatic Communication is neutral and is merely indoctrination, while Intoxicant Communication is poisonous and is something worse than a pastime.

And yet, says Voegelin, Substantive Communication has vanished from our society, and all that is left is the Pragmatic and the Intoxicant.
Voegelin illustrates this by giving an overview of modern history.  People hold mere “opinions” these days and argue irrationally (eristically) to defend their “opinions” (see Facebook and any comment box on the internet) because our society is fragmented and we aren’t really trying to communicate, we are fighting an ongoing war.
The war started about five hundred years ago and had three major phases, which look like this …
  • Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Wars, Peace Settlements
  • French Revolution, Reaction, Wars, Peace Settlements
  • Totalitarianism, Liberalism, Wars, Peace Settlements
Voegelin says this is really not three wars, but one long campaign, marked by the removal of “the transcendental order in the community”.  Removing “the transcendental order in the community” means replacing the objective and recognized Good that is Beyond with a subjective and asserted good that is arbitrary and man-made.
Hobbes, Voegelin says, did this explicitly in the 17th century with Leviathan, replacing the community’s strive toward the highest good (summum bonum) with the human desire to avoid the greatest evil (summum malum).  Reason, from Hobbes on, is put at the service at the avoidance of suffering and death, and not at the service of life and higher purpose.
And with a remarkable insight, Voegelin says that the “substance of order” – the reality that once oriented society and was the subject of “Substantive Communication” – has degraded.  It has moved down the scale of Being.  The summum bonum has degenerating from
  • God, to
  • Reason enthroned in the Enlightenment, to
  • The pragmatic intellect (technology), to
  • Utilitarianism (mere usefulness), to
  • Economic equity (Marxism), to
  • The Master Race (Nazism), to
  • Biological Drives (Desire – our Gods are our bellies, as St. Paul describes it in Phil. 3:19)
And if you argue with a Fad Atheist of today, he’ll tell you that the Greatest Good is determined by “evolution” or biochemistry, which is a fancy way of saying “gonads”.
Once Communication is no longer an attempt to build a communion oriented toward Truth, then you have Unreality, or a Secondary Reality, or (as Voegelin calls it in this essay) a Substitute Substance.  It is not the real Substance that we seek to know and to join with, but the artificial one that we have put in its place.
Voegelin calls this the “ontological reduction” and says

A man who is confused about the essentials of his existence is incapable of rational action; and if he is incapable of rational action, he is incapable of moral action. If “opinion” is characterized by the conceptions of the nature of man and the order of society that have arisen in the course of the ontological reduction, the knowledge of the essentials of existence is badly disturbed.

In other words, if the highest good is what comes from our lowest organs … then what is there to communicate?  Substantive Communication is ruled out, and all that remains in Intoxication and Pragmatism – the latter being the forced molding of man into a new and inhuman thing, as expressed in Brave New World, 1984 and The Abolition of Man.

Moreover, the type of pragmatic communication that we have distinguished acquires a new and sinister meaning in this situation, insofar as communication becomes essentially pragmatic when it moves on the level of substitute substance. It cannot function as persuasion in the Platonic sense at all, but only induce conformist states of mind and conforming behavior.

In other words, not so much Communication as Bullying.
Kevin O'Brien
Kevin O'Brien is the founder and artistic director of the Theater of the Word Incorporated, which tours the world evangelizing through drama. He and his actors appear on several EWTN television programs, with video clips featured on O'Brien's website, www.stgenesius.net. Kevin teaches many online classes for Homeschool Connections and writes a regular column for the St. Austin Review. His autobiography, A Bad Actor's Guide to the Meaning of Life, will be published soon by ACS Press.

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