history and law: from rhetoric to reason

—for Carlo Ginzburg


In his comparison of poetry to history, Aristotle points out that their difference is not one between verse and prose. After all, the writings of Herodotus would be a species of history with meter no less than without it. The real difference that distinguishes them is between telling what might be and what has been. Notoriously, the Stagirite takes this distinction for the reason why poetry is more scientific [philosophôteron] and more serious [spoudaioteron] than history. For poetry tells of general truths, which is the sort of thing that a certain type of man will do or say either probably or necessarily [to eikos ê to anankaion]. By contrast, history tells of particular facts such as what Alcibiades did or suffered [epraxen ê ti epathen].[i]

Yet as Aristotle inaugurates philosophy with his account of general truths pertaining to the words and deeds of a certain type of man, his teacher Plato by these lights counts for no less of a poet without meter, than he might have appeared with it. Let us bear in mind Aristotle’s contrast in the following exploration of two poetic archetypes, Socrates and Gorgias, in their dramatic debate about the virtues of rhetoric. Their wrangle recorded in Plato’s Gorgias, and the techniques of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, will ground this inquiry into the relation of rhetoric to reason.


Myles Burnyeat summarized his account of Aristotle on the rationality of rhetoric in the form of question and answer: “We would like to know under what conditions it is appropriate for a speaker to advance, and for the audience to accept, a sign argument that is deductively invalid? The only answer we get from the Rhetoric is: when it is convincing.”[ii] For Socrates, this answer will not do. Nothing short of certainty will satisfy him. He engages in arguments by alternating between the roles of the speaker and his audience. He aims to reveal hitherto unrecognized errors to his interlocutors, by guiding them to infer contradictions from their theses or to deduce their antitheses. He has no use for conviction unwarranted by indisputable demonstration. In Socratic dialectic, only valid arguments are worth being advanced and accepted, and their advancement and acceptance are warranted only in the pursuit of just ends. Socrates conveys his dialectic reasoning through a technique of maieutics, his service to his interlocutors’ ideas being a counterpart to a midwife assisting childbirth. He coaxes conscious understanding from latent ideas in the course of a dialogue conducted as a series of pointed questions and brief answers. The progress of this dialogue depends on achieving unshakeable consensus on each successive point. This elenctic protocol allows discovery through reconciling or choosing between competing viewpoints. By following it, Socrates aims to achieve mutual understanding through stepwise accrual of agreement. In the ideal case, a mathematical proof ensures absolute certainty.[iii]

In his historical conduct, Gorgias the sophist neither restricted his means of persuasion to demonstrative, geometric reasoning, nor imposed moral constraints on its aims.[iv] Although in his Apology, Plato has Socrates name Gorgias of Leontini alongside Prodicus of Ceos and Hippias of Eos as sophists, or commercial purveyors of wisdom, the eponymous character in Gorgias modestly identifies himself as a rhetorician, in setting out to praise the role of rhetoric in society.[v] Associating his trade with liberty and power in a democracy, he defines rhetoric as an art of speeches [logoi] that aim to produce persuasion regarding the just and unjust.[vi] Rhetorical speeches are about the greatest and the best human affairs, which is the cause of freedom for men and the basis of rule over others in their city. They are equally fit to persuade judges in a law court, senators in the Council chamber, assemblymen in the Assembly, and the multitude in common political gatherings.[vii]

In fact, rhetorical ability counted for a great deal in the functioning of Athenian democracy. Most men active in politics sought training, and vied for recognition, as orators. In the best public venues, rhetoric was recognized as the discipline most suited for directing human affairs.[viii] But high demand inspired suspicion. By stressing the nature of rhetoric as an instrument of persuasion, Gorgias lays himself open to the charge that rhetoric aims at belief without knowledge. His examples of Themistocles and Pericles aggravate this weakness. The Long Walls were built to link Athens securely to its harbors at Piraeus and Phalerum. The passage they secured ensured that the city could not be encircled by an invading army and besieged by land alone. After the Persian Wars reduced them to rubble, Sparta pressed Athens to stop rebuilding her walls, lest they create a base for another Persian invasion. But advocacy by Themistocles and Pericles eventually caused their reconstruction.[ix] These politicians employed their rhetorical powers to advise Athenians on building their walls; yet they were neither architects nor stonemasons.[x] Thus Socrates turns Gorgias’ example against its maker, who had disclaimed orators’ need to know how things really stand with things themselves, requiring them only to discover some trick of persuasion, so as to appear to the unknowing to know more than those who know.[xi] Rebutting this claim, Socrates suggests that in employing their rhetorical powers, these politicians aimed only at accommodating people’s appetites [epithumiai]. He neglects to point out that in promoting public works, Themistocles had to argue against distributing their budget among the people. Nonetheless, he succeeds in establishing that in the long term Pericles was impelled by agenda to ratify and satisfy the desires of his constituents rather than guide them towards moral improvement.[xii]

In regard of this moral concern, Gorgias volunteers a critical concession, that rhetoric should not be used indiscriminately against any target, any more so than the fighting arts should be used against friend and foe alike.[xiii] Nevertheless, he goes on to claim that his universal art allows him to surpass experts in their disciplines, that he can persuade the average man to take a stand in any area of knowledge, and that he can do all that without having to learn anything of particular substance.[xiv] Arguing against this thesis, Socrates compels the rhetorician to concede that he both knows the nature of the good and bad, the fine and the shameful, the just and unjust, and places himself in the right regarding each moral distinciton.[xv] At this point Gorgias has committed himself to a fatal contradiction. His admissions imply that the rhetorician must know and respect all moral qualities, while falling short of the capacity to teach them to his students. He shares the philosopher’s knowledge, but not his ability to communicate it. The historical Gorgias was credited with proving three remarkable propositions: that nothing exists; that even if it does exist, it is incomprehensible to man; and that, even if it is comprehensible to anyone, it is not communicable to anyone else.[xvi] A sophist of this caliber would not have been embarrassed by having to profess non-communicable knowledge. But the dignified rhetorician respectfully portrayed within Plato’s dialogue concedes the game for want of sophistical shamelessness, entitling Socrates to conclude that the rhetorician is a manufacturer of groundless belief, and condemn oratory as no art [technê], but a mere knack, a species of flattery altogether lacking in dignity.[xvii]


Unlike the characters of Plato’s dialogue, Aristotle identifies the technical nature of his subject matter in the Rhetoric as the counterpart of dialectic. The Aristotelian speaker advances his argument through a process of proof. He presents considerations regarding his subject, drawing upon all available premisses to reach the desired conclusion, whilst anticipating the objections of his audience. He strives to compel his audience into accepting a convincing argument to bear on its future decisions. Although rhetoric and dialectic both deal with matters that concern all human understanding, they differ in their means of demonstration. A rhetorical argument proceeds from received opinions [endoxa], leaving plenty of wiggle room for filling the gaps in their demonstration. In contrast to rhetoricians, dialecticians’ reasoning proceeds from premisses accepted by their respondents via arguments that their respondents recognize as logically valid. Socratic arguments require reasoned discussion with no room for objection. But whereas the dialectic technique of maieutics only allows a proceeding after a consensus is made, each rhetorical debate remains open to challenge at every step, ruling out conclusive arguments in perpetuity.

Aristotle blames his predecessors for saying nothing about enthymemes that belong to the body of proof, but chiefly devoting their attention to matters outside the subject; for the arousing of prejudice, compassion, anger, and similar emotions having no connexion with the matter in hand, but directed only to the dicast charged with deciding their case. Thus in his account of rhetoric Aristotle avoids both the Gorgian praise and the Socratic condemnation. Though his technique aims to convince through the motion of affects, proofs comprise its only aspect that comes within the province of art, everything else being merely an accessory. Enthymemes are the body of proof.[xviii] Accordingly, in order to understand the nature of proof, we must pin down the nature of enthymemes.

An enthymeme is a sort of argument [sullogismos tis] used in a rhetorical speech.[xix] Its material is derived from four sources, likelihood [eikos], example [paradeigma], necessary sign [tekmêrion], and sign [sêmeion]. Only enthymemes based on necessary signs [tekmêria], can lead to conclusions that are beyond refutation.[xx] But in the general case, these is no need to preempt the possibility of refutation. The rhetorician aims instead to establish his case to the best of his ability, proving it to the satisfaction of an audience [pistis].[xxi] Thus, besides enthymemes, amplifications and examples are admissible techniques for proof:

Speaking generally, of the topics common to all rhetorical arguments, amplification is most suitable for epideictic speakers, whose subject is actions which are not disputed, so that all that remains to be done is to attribute beauty and importance to them. Examples are most suitable for deliberative speakers, for it is by examination of the past that we divine and judge the future. Enthymemes are most suitable for forensic speakers, because the past, by reason of its obscurity, above all lends itself to investigation of causes and to demonstrative proof.[xxii]

It is clear that the aim of Aristotelian rhetoric far exceeds the exiguous means of geometrical demonstration. Thus hyperbole has a place in declamations that take bare facts as undisputed. Likewise, examples that support the contested proposition inductively can be taken as the basis for sustaining it as a probable generalization from particular instances. In practice, such proof succeeds whenever it can sway the audience into making its decisions on the most probable ground. But probability will vary depending on the circumstances. And in cases that fall short of certainty, the rhetorician can only hope and pray that his audience includes no rational detectors of error capable of deriving a contradiction from his thesis or formulating the proof of its antithesis.

By Aristotle’s lights, Socrates’ reasoning in his debate with Gorgias may be faulted for a gratuitous dichotomy, an unwarranted division of a whole into two mutually exclusive parts. Socrates presents to Gorgias with two mutually exclusive choices, implicitly ruling out any unstated alternatives. On the one side stand philosophers and physicians, teachers and artisans. On the other side congregate flatterers and suckers, demagogical politicians and ignorant multitudes. As Socrates claims his place among the former honest and forthright folk, he classifies Gorgias among the latter ilk, purveyors and consumers of baseless belief and unsound fodder. However, must every politician only aim towards gratifying his constituents? Surely Themistocles and Pericles did not have to instruct Athenians in the art of masonry in order to convince them of the importance of building the wall. Their proposals legitimately relied on division of labor that ensured full participation of builders in public debates. Freed thereby from technical concerns, the politicians were right to focus on ensuring security for their constituents. Likewise, as an expert in persuasion, Gorgias should have been able to team up with experts in any discipline related to its subject matter in any particular instance. But even in his modest purview of Plato’s dialogue, the rhetorician is not modest enough to disclaim self-sufficiency. This failure needlessly foredooms his confrontation with the philosopher.


Within the historical perspective, Aristotelian criticism on Socrates and Gorgias finds a basis in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Paul Shorey aptly characterized Thucydides as “a hard-headed […] rationalist who was contemptuous of all teleological and providential interpretations of history and explained everything by natural causes and unchanging human nature—the psychology, motives, and the conflicting interests of men.”[xxiii] Tradition contrasts this portrayal of Thucydides with the received image of Herodotus via a backhanded compliment. Herodotus, simultaneously anointed as the father of history and disparaged as the father of lies, lays himself open to criticism as a casual entertainer, if not outright denunciation as an irresponsible fantasist.[xxiv] Whereas the paternity of scientific history allotted to Thycydides in recognition of his analytical rigor, contains in its technical qualification the gloomy image of a mechanistic skeleton propelled by spasms of cynicism through a morass of tedium. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to withhold credit for Thucydides anticipating the Aristotelian treatment of proof, albeit in a way that conflated probable proof [sêmeion] with necessary proof [tekmêrion].[xxv] This conflation addressed his concern and indicated the way he sought to resolve:

For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately precede the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a great scale, either in war or in other matters.[xxvi]

Even when the historical facts are obscured by the passage of time, available evidence is the key to inferring their contours. However, in composing his account, Thucydides structures all particular evidence in accordance with the dictates of general principle. Thus the rhetorical arguments in the speeches that Thucydides incorporated in his account of the Peloponnesian war anticipate Aristotle’s idea of rhetorical proof, in being based on the most reputable signs and connecting with the concerns of its audience. Although the composition of each speech is grounded in specific evidence from each individual event, its first allegiance is to the intrinsic logic of their makers’ circumstances:

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.[xxvii]

Thucydides amassed and dispensed historical knowledge not for its own sake, but as a conduit to understanding. Far from resting content in accounts of particular facts such as what men did or what was done to them, he aimed to uncover and convey general truths about human action. Beyond establishing the patterns of masses in turmoil and plots of demagogues clinging to power, his history aimed at dissecting the nature of social upheavals and unmasking demagoguery, indeed at penetrating political power itself. In accounting for moral and political issues, his main device was the speech. The purpose of the ensuing historical writing is to guide its readers toward an understanding of actions and events as determined by the energies that impel human agents and forces that constrain them. Its allegiance to conclusions borne out by factual evidence checked this speculative urge. Thus Thucydides would punctuate factually grounded interpretation, rendered more plausible by his impersonal tone, with spells of invention that attributed discourses to his characters.[xxviii]

The Mytilene debate in Book III is an example of proof presented through the twin means of impersonal narrative and revealing speeches, which are equally embedded into their context.[xxix] The debate takes place on the day following the order for total extermination of the Mytilene men and enslavement of their women and children, agreed upon by the Athenian assembly and dispatched to Mytilene. Thucydides introduces it by noting repentance and reflection on the cruelty of a decree that condemned a whole city to the fate merited only by the guilty, which caused a second assembly to be summoned.[xxx] Both of the following speeches present their makers’ arguments with proofs that illustrate possible consequences and anticipate the audience’ thoughts so as to guide it towards a decision. Cleon argues for executing the original order. He intends this extreme course of action to seal the Athenian victory and forestall future conflicts by deterring other cities from revolt. Mytilene should not have had a chance to build up their arrogance for attack. The right response to their revolt must deter all remaining allies from breaking faith with Athens. Athenians should not let themselves be swayed by clever speeches or large bribes. The penalty for rebellion is death[xxxi] In his response, Diodotus argues from the opposite position, advocating execution only for the leaders of the rebels. He disclaims any motive in regard to the Mytilenians, besides the reasons of state: “Though I prove them ever so guilty, I shall not, therefore, advise their death, unless it be expedient; nor though they should have claims to indulgence, shall I recommend it, unless it be clearly for the good of the country.”[xxxii] He stresses that the discussion should concern the present rather than the future. Athenians should think how Mytilene could be most useful to their polis. Their death would not deter others from breaking laws. On the contrary, it would inspire any future rebels to rule out surrender and fight to the death. A harsh penalty would increase future losses. In dealing with free people, Athens should favor timely prevention over belated punishment, taking tremendous care of them to forestall the mere idea of their revolt.[xxxiii]

Both discourses urge their audience to resist emotions that might sway their rational judgment. Cleon speaks of Mytilenians who had forfeited their right to be pitied by the Athenians in virtue of having rebelled against them. Men should extend their sympathy to friends, not to enemies. He warns the audience against falling prey to their own pleasure in considering the opposite view. Diodotus opens his response by identifying “the two things most opposed to good counsel [as] haste and passion; haste usually goes hand in hand with folly, passion with coarseness and narrowness of mind.”[xxxiv] Thus he responds to the bias towards anger at the Mytilenes’ revolt that would incline his audience to agree with the policy of total extermination and enslavement. Diodotus directs his audience toward their interests in the situation. In this regard, Thucydides’ construction of proof anticipates the rhetoric of Aristotle. His speakers appear to forgo emotional appeals to their audience, concentrating instead on their interests. In the terms of Aristotle’s contrast in the Poetics, they argue as poets, not as historians. But surely this title belongs to the author, in his capacity of the puppetmaster of his characters.


Thus historical arguments depend on uncertainty of actions and events, involving probability as a necessary quality in proof and leaving room for doubt in all future discussions. But there remains a Socratic tradition that seeks geometrical certainty in all matters. Between 1274 and 1305, Ramón Llull envisioned his Ars Magna as a system of mechanical means capable of drawing upon the totality of concepts so as to exhaust all combinatorial alternatives of their logical aggregation. Three and a half centuries later, in the first part of his 1655 treatise De Corpore, entitled “Computatio sive Logica” and intended as an introduction to his entire philosophical system, Thomas Hobbes speculated that the first truths “were arbitrarily made by those that first of all imposed Names upon Things, or received them from the imposition of others.” By this conventionalist approach to the necessary truths of mathematics, Hobbes distinguished Euclid’s axioms from the laws of physics, which are not made by arbitrary definitions. But even as he placed himself outside of its Platonist purview, Hobbes continued the project of Llull by treating human thought as reducible to the manipulation of signs, as a species of calculation.

In 1666, inspired by the analysis of Hobbes, 19-year old Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote his Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, envisioning the characteristica universalis, a method for precise resolution of all human disagreements. He speculated elsewhere that if we had it, we should be able to reason in metaphysics and morals in much the same way as in Geometry and Analysis, because the Symbols would clarify our thoughts that are too vague and too flighty in these matters, where imagination does not help us, if it would not do so through symbols:

Quo facto, quando orientur controversiae, non magis disputatione opus erit inter duos philosophos, quam inter duos Computistas. Sufficiet enim calamos in manus sumere sedereque ad abacos, et sibi mutuo (accito si placet amico) dicere: calculemus.
If controversies were to arise, there would be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than between two accountants. For it would suffice to take their pencils in their hands, and say to each other (with a friend as witness, if they liked): Let us calculate.

Leibniz had no illusions about philosophical reasoning attaining the cogency of mathematical demonstration. There are no Euclidists and Archimedians in mathematics, as there are Aristotelians and Platonists in philosophy. Philosophers lack recourse to mathematical means of discovering possible mistakes. To that end, they require symbols and rules to formalize their thought and make it fit subject for calculation. The outcome of this procedure would endure in perpetuity, just as a mathematical truth, once understood, is never rejected.

Nonetheless, Leibniz acknowledged the limitations of his characteristica universalis. Its means could never suffice for deducing an individual statement like “Caesar was murdered on the ides of March”, because any such statement involves an infinity of causes and each of its constituent individual notions like Caesar comprises an infinity of elements. Nearly twenty years after inaugurating his program, Leibniz became even more skeptical about its prospects, observing that there are people who even reject indisputable arguments.[xxxv]

Leibniz’s empiricist foil John Locke approached the relationship between geometric demonstration and forensic persuasion from the opposite perspective:

As Demonstration is the shewing the Agreement, or Disagreement of two Ideas, by the intervention of one or more Proofs, which have a constant, immutable, and visible connexion one with another: so Probability is nothing but the appearance of such an Agreement, or Disagreement, by the intervention of Proofs, whose connexion is not constant and immutable, or at least is not perceived to be so, but is, or appears for the most part to be so, and is enough to induce the Mind to judge the Proposition to be true, or false, rather than the contrary. For example: In the demonstration of it, a Man perceives the certain, immutable connexion there is of Equality, between the three Angles of a Triangle, and those intermediate ones, which are made use of to shew their Equality to two right ones: and so, by an intuitive Knowledge of the Agreement, or Disagreement of the intermediate Ideas in each step of the progress, the whole Series is continued with an evidence, which clearly shews the Agreement, or Disagreement, of those three Angles, in equality to two right ones: And thus he has certain Knowledge that it is so. But another Man, who never took the pains to observe the Demonstration, hearing a Mathematician, a Man of credit, affirm the three Angles of a Triangle to be equal to two right ones, assents to it; i.e. receives it for true. In which case, the foundation of his Assent is the Probability of the thing, the Proof being such, as for the most part carries Truth with it: The Man, on whose Testimony he receives it, not being wont to affirm any thing contrary to, or besides his Knowledge, especially in matters of this kind. So that that which causes his Assent to this Proposition, that the three Angles of a triangle are equal to two right ones, that which makes him take these Ideas to agree, without knowing them to do so, is the wonted Veracity of the Speaker in other cases, or his supposed Veracity in this.[xxxvi]

Locke’s distinction suggests that appeal to probability differs from demonstrative reasoning in the fit to its audience. The speaker’s discretion is not only in following the injunction laid down near the beginning of Nicomachean Ethics, to achieve that amount of precision, which belongs to its subject matter,[xxxvii] but also in establishing the degree of certainty in proof that his audience requires and appreciates. Some of the most vital political matters that confront the American electorate today admit neither the utmost amount of precision nor the greatest degree of certainty. Mark Bowden articulates a case in point by recommending that torture should be banned but also quietly practiced:

In other words, when the ban is lifted, there is no restraining lazy, incompetent, or sadistic interrogators. As long as it remains illegal to torture, the interrogator who employs coercion must accept the risk. He must be prepared to stand up in court, if necessary, and defend his actions. Interrogators will still use coercion because in some cases they will deem it worth the consequences. This does not mean they will necessarily be punished. In any nation the decision to prosecute a crime is an executive one. A prosecutor, a grand jury, or a judge must decide to press charges, and the chances that an interrogator in a genuine ticking-bomb case would be prosecuted, much less convicted, is very small.[xxxviii]

The availability of the affirmative defense of necessity under common law defines the boundaries of precision and certainty in Anglo-American administration of criminal justice.[xxxix] It suggests that in the extreme circumstances, the best proof we can hope for in forensic arguments is the finding of reasonable doubt by a jury of our peers. Likewise our history has to content itself with provisional verdicts beyond reasonable doubt. As long as this state of affairs endures, the rationalist historian cannot hope to limit his demonstrations to valid arguments proceeding from true premisses.




As Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel admitted in concluding the preface to his Philosophy of Right, philosophy always comes on the scene too late to give instruction as to what the world ought to be: “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” But the historian that follows Thucydides in poiesis, takes his cue from a different bird.

The cock of Apollo crows at dawn.[xli]

—Michael Zeleny, 14 December 2007—5 June 2013

[i] Aristotle, Poetics 1451a36-b11. I cite Aristotle by Bekker’s and Plato by Stephanus’ pagination. Whenever possible, I follow the Loeb editions and translations of classical texts, as available online at the Perseus Project. I thank Chien-Ling Liu for indispensable assistance with historical research and analysis.

[ii] See M.F. Burnyeat, “Enthymeme: Aristotle on the Rationality of Rhetoric”, Essays on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996, p.109.

[iii] See Socrates’ dialogue with the slave boy in Meno at 82b-85c.

[iv] See the historical background recounted in W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Volume 3, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969, pp. 192-200, 269-274; Jonathan Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers, London: Routledge, 1982, pp. 171-175, 182-3, 470-471, 524-530; Renato Barilli, Rhetoric, translated by Juliana Menozzi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, pp. 5-6, 8-9; Brian Vickers, In Defense of Rhetoric, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 6-7; contrast the disavowal by E.L. Harrison in “Was Gorgias a Sophist?”, Phoenix, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Autumn, 1964), pp. 183-192.

[v] See Apology 19e; compare the more attenuated characterization of Gorgias submitting himself to questioning by all comers on all subjects, including virtue, while disclaiming an ability to teach it, reported in Meno 70b, 71c-d, 73c, 76b-c, 79e, 95c, and 96d.

[vi] See Gorgias, 456a-457b, 449d, 454b.

[vii] See Gorgias 451d, 452d, 452e.

[viii] See W.K.C. Guthrie, op. cit., pp. 50-54, 125, 178-181; Renato Barilli, op. cit, pp. 11-12, 35-36, 45-46, 71.

[ix] See Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, I.89-93; Plutarch, Life of Pericles 33; David M. Lewis, John Boardman, J. K. Davies, and M. Ostwald, editors, The Cambridge Ancient History, Second Edition, Volume 5: The Fifth Century B.C., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 63, 97.

[x] See Gorgias 454e, 455e.

[xi] See Gorgias 458e, 459c.

[xii] See History of the Peloponnesian War I, 90; compare the claims in History of the Peloponnesian War II, 65. I am indebted for this point to the commentary in Plato, Gorgias, translated with notes by Terence Irwin, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 237.

[xiii] See Gorgias 456c-d.

[xiv] See Gorgias 459c.

[xv] See Gorgias 460c.

[xvi] See Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos, VII, 65-87; W.K.C. Guthrie, op. cit., 193-194; Jonathan Barnes, op. cit., pp. 173-174.

[xvii] See Gorgias 465c-466a, 502a-c.

[xviii] See Rhetoric 1354a1-3.

[xix] See Rhetoric 1355a4-7, 1400b37. I am equally indebted to the previously cited account of M.F. Burnyeat and its incisive criticism by Carlo Ginzburg in “Aristotle and History, Once More”, in History, Rhetoric, and Proof, Brandeis University Press, 1999, pp. 38-53. My understanding of enthymeme agrees with the traditional definition of an abbreviated syllogism, repudiated by Burnyeat and reinstated by Ginzburg.

[xx] See Rhetoric 1402b8-1403a14; compare Carlo Ginzburg, op. cit., p. 40.

[xxi] See M.F. Burnyeat, op. cit., p. 93.

[xxii] See Rhetoric 1368a27-34.

[xxiii] See Charles Norris Cochrane, Thucydides and the Science of History, Oxford University Press 1929, and its review by Paul Shorey in Classical Philology, Vol. 25, No. 3 (July, 1930), pp. 290-292.

[xxiv] See Cicero, De Legibus I.5, where Herodotus, acknowledged as the father of history, “pater historiae” is said to purvey find fables scarcely less numerous than those, which appear in the works of the poets; cf. the English translation by Francis Barham. Also see the discussion of the Herodotean and the Thucydidean traditions by Arnaldo Momigliano in The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, pp. 29-53, especially pp. 36-39 and 42-44.

[xxv] See e.g. his inference from persisting local customs to hypothetical past usage spread everywhere, in History of the Peloponnesian War I.6, and other examples cited by Carlo Ginzburg in op. cit., pp. 44-45.

[xxvi] See History of the Peloponnesian War I, 1.

[xxvii] See History of the Peloponnesian War I, 22.

[xxviii] I follow Moses Finley’s comments in the introduction to Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner, NY: Penguin Classics, 1954, pp. 24-25.

[xxix] See the discussion by A. Andrewes, “The Mytilene Debate: Thucydides 3.36-49”, Phoenix, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer, 1962), pp. 64-85

[xxx] See History of the Peloponnesian War III, 36.

[xxxi] See History of the Peloponnesian War III, 37-40.

[xxxii] See History of the Peloponnesian War III, 44.

[xxxiii] See History of the Peloponnesian War III, 41-48.

[xxxiv] See History of the Peloponnesian War III, 42.

[xxxv] “Car si nous l’avions telle que je la conçois, nous pourrions raisonner en metaphysique et en morale à peu près comme en Geometrie et en Analyse, parce que les Caracteres fixeroient nos pensées trop vagues et trop volatiles en ces matieres, où l’imagination ne nous aide point, si ce ne seroit par le moyen de caracteres.” In Die philosophischen Schriften von Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, edited by C.I. Gerhardt, Volume VII, Berlin: Weidmann, 1890, pp. 21, 200. For the background see W. Kneale and M. Kneale, The Development of Logic, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962. pp. 241, 311, and 325-328; Bertrand Russell, A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900, pp. 169-170; George MacDonald Ross, “Leibniz’s Debt to Hobbes”, Leibniz and the English-Speaking World, Liverpool, 3–6 September 2003; Herbert Breger, “God and Mathematics in Leibniz’s Thought”, in T. Koetsier, L. Bergmans, editors, Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study, Elsevier, 2004, pp 485-498, at pp. 487-488. Regrettably, I am unable to do justice in this paper to the erudite and profound account of Roger Berkowitz in The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition, Harvard University Press, 2005.

[xxxvi] See John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding IV.xv.1, edited by Peter H. Nidditch, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, p.654; David Owen, “Locke on Judgment”, in Lex Newman, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 406-435.

[xxxvii] See Nicomachean Ethics 1094b12-14.

[xxxviii] See Mark Bowden, “The Dark Art of Interrogation”, Atlantic Monthly, October 2003.

[xxxix] See A.W.B. Simpson, Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to Which It Gave Rise, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. The text of the judgment in the criminal case Regina v. Dudley and Stephens ([1884] 14 QBD 273 DC), establishing the precedent for the defense of necessity against criminal charges. Also see the hypothetical case described by Lon L. Fuller in “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers”, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 62, No. 4, February 1949.


[xli] See Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, 1821, Vorrede: “die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug.” The cock, Alektôr, an apotropaic Averter of Evil, is a sun bird traditionally represented as sitting on Apollo’s arm, shoulder, or head. See Plutarch, De Pythiae oraculis 400C; Grace H. Macurdy, “The Derivation and Significance of the Greek Word for ‘Cock’”, Classical Philology, Vol. 13, No. 3. (Jul., 1918), pp. 310-311; Miroslav Marcovich, “Pythagoras as Cock”, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 97, No. 4. (Winter, 1976), pp. 331-335.

best pistol ever?

Dick Metcalf waxes lyrical about the Colt Government Model 1911. I agree that the Colt 1911 is to autoloaders what the Colt Single Action Army is to revolvers: an obsolete design sustained by sentimental attachment of nostalgic fanboys. Here is why:

  1. Far from the “Best Pistol Ever”, the 1911 design is demonstrably inferior to its descendants. Locating the barrel with a bushing at the muzzle and a swinging link at the breech makes it easy to tune for accuracy or reliability but hard to standardize for drop-in spare part replacement and tricky to take apart and put back together. A 1911 built tight for accuracy will not shoot reliably until it has been broken in with thousands of hardball rounds, at which point it will have loosened up to become less accurate. The exterior of the 1911 bristles with hard edges and delicate notches. Its ergonomics are so poor that only collector editions are made without beavertail tangs, memory groove grip safeties, extended thumb safeties, and cut or arched mainspring housings. Its construction standards are so lax that three generations of gunsmiths have put their kids through college by charging fees for hand-fitting for accuracy and reliability tune-ups. Its lore is akin to that of Harley-Davidson Big Twin, the flagship product of the oldest surviving motorcycle manufacturer in the world, which putters around in grand style as long as the rider abstains from going too fast or turning too abruptly.
  2. “Its straightforward, user-friendly design cannot be outclassed for reliability, accuracy, endurance, and effectiveness.” Oh, really? In the late 1960s, the US Navy ran a test using an accurized softball competition 1911A1 pistol shooting Remington 185-grain .45 ACP jacketed wadcutter match ammo. At the outset the gun printed 20-shot 2.5″ groups at 50 yards out of a machine rest. About every 5000 rounds, it was put back into the machine rest and retested. In each of these tests through 25,000 rounds, it still shot the same size groups. At 30,000 rounds, the groups had opened up to about 3.5″; at 35,000 rounds, the groups were about 4.5″. For comparison purposes, numerous Swiss shooters report no degradation of factory-grade accuracy in a SIG P210 after firing 250,000 rounds. These milspec guns were tested on behalf of the Swiss Army to put 10 rounds into a 50mm circle at 50 meters, and did so consistently over five times the lifespan of a 1911. As Ken Hackathorn and Larry Vickers pointed out while explaining the supersession of the 1911 by the HK45, “at 50,000 rounds, a 1911 needs a severe overhaul. It’s going to need to be rebuilt and it’s going to have a lot of parts that are worn out.” Back in its heyday, that was a reasonable expectation of of a military sidearm’s lifespan. Thus Julian Hatcher described in the 1953 Gun Digest a 5,000 round endurance test administered by the U.S. Army around the end of WWII to a number of service autopistols. Only the Colt M1911A1 passed. The German P38 came in second with 10 malfunctions, one broken extractor, and 2 other parts replaced. Among the blowback pistols, including the Walther PP and PPK and the Mauser HSc, each had at least 36 malfunctions, with the PPK coming in the worst at 83. All of the blowback frames cracked before completing 5,000 rounds. The PP outlasted the rest, firing 4,142 rounds before cracking the frame. This was par for the course for pistols that could be expected not to fire more than 50 rounds in annual qualification, but totally inadequate for entrants in the modern offensive handgun weapon system, as evaluated by Hackathorn and Vickers. Put simply, Colt’s beloved relic fails to live up to the standards of accuracy, reliability, and ruggedness, maintained by modern service auto pistols.
  3. “How well can a Government Model 1911 pistol shoot? Generally, a top-of-the-line Colt-manufacture .45 Gold Cup new from the box can be reliably expected to deliver 2.5-inch, five-shot average groups at 25 meters from a rest. Give it to a top-grade pistol-smith for refinement and you’ll get a gun that will put match-grade loads into a 1-inch circle at that distance.” This is no tribute, but a reproof. The factory-accurized Colt Government Model National Match Gold Cup is far too tight to merit the accolades for reliability earned by its predecessors in military trials; all the more so once it has been “refined” by a top-grade pistol-smith. Four decades ago Colt tacitly acknowledged these shortcomings in their stillborn SSP design, which dispensed with the separate barrel bushing and barrel link of the 1911, taking its design cues from Charles Petter’s French M1935A and its successor, the Swiss P210. The one-piece slide differentially-bored to support the tilting barrel cuts in half the clearances required by the replaceable barrel bushing; the barrel cam that superseded Browning’s swinging link in the Radom ViS-35 and the FN GP35, as derived from the his own 1927 patent for the Grande Rendement prototype of the latter, enables drop-in barrel fit for a unit construction slide; the integral hammer action that can be removed and replaced without tools, as introduced in the Tokarev TT30, simplifies maintenance and allows for drop-in unit-level armorer repair of ignition malfunctions; and the Luger-patterned frame with its rails enveloping the slide makes for their far more consistent alignment. These design changes amount to genuine corrections of John Moses Browning’s venerable masterpiece. To maintain its ongoing supremacy over its successors is an insult to the intelligence of modern handgunners.

Crossposted to [info]larvatus and [info]guns.

nanny statists, sore losers?

Charles Simic asseverates, without adducing a shred of evidence or articulating a scintilla of argument, that the chief mission of NRA and other gun lobbies is “to drum up business for the 1,200 gun makers in this country”. Let’s see how his claim holds up.

In 2012, according to an analysis by business research firm Hoovers, the gun and ammunition industry in the U.S. generated an estimated $6 billion in revenue. In comparison, Exxon Mobil alone generated $482 billion, with WalMart coming in at $469 billion. Outside of the oil and gas and retail industries, we find Apple at $156 billion, closely followed by General Motors, General Electric, and Berkshire Hathaway at $150, $147, and $144 billion. In the general scheme of things, the aggregate revenue of the U.S. gun industry would place it around relative pipsqueaks on the order of Hershey and Kodak.

If the strength of the gun lobby is owed to the industrial base of its suppliers, why don’t we hear about the politics of chocolate bars or film stock unfairly dominating American lunch counters and movie theaters? Could it be that NRA, in deriving nearly half of its revenues from individual membership dues, functions as a legitimate conduit of public interest, no less so than the Supreme Court of the United States, in affirming the individual right to keep and bear small arms that are commonly used for self-defense and appropriate for service in the militia, including Simic’s bugaboos, “not only hunting rifles but also military-style murder weapons and even hollow-point rounds that are banned in warfare”? Is it possible that Simic bemoans this publicly disclosed and thoroughly litigated state of affairs for want of journalistic integrity that begins with accounting for the financial data and studying the legal rulings of our court of last resort?

As witness Dan Baum interpreting the politics of guns in terms of “the power of the individual in relation to the collective, and the extent to which each of us needs to live by the permission of the rest”, an American liberal need not be a nanny statist. Likewise Seventh Circuit Judge Richard A. Posner, self-identified as a “pragmatic classical liberal”, who invalidated under the Second Amendment an Illinois law, the last in the land to forbid most people, though not politicians, from carrying a loaded gun in public. Simic’s demagogical legerdemain is far more plausibly attributable to intellectual dishonesty than political convictions.

Crossposted to [info]larvatus and [info]guns.

the revolvers of willi korth

Willi Korth was born in Stargard / Pommern on 11 July 1913. He learned machining and toolmaking at the Deutsche Reichsbahn between 1930 and 1934. Ten years later, in the summer of 1944, he briefly worked at Mauser-Werke under contract as an independent designer of military small arms. In August of 1950 Korth moved to Ratzeburg. Next year he found a job as a manager at the Hubertus Metallwerke in Mölln. In 1952 Korth resigned to pursue his own designs. His first effort was a blank firing gas revolver. The few gas revolvers, designed and manufactured by Korth in the winter of 1954/55, are now sought after as collector’s items.
    On 1 October 1955, following the expiration of the postwar ban on German manufacture of firearms, Korth founded a company in Ratzeburg under the name of Willi Korth, Waffenfabrikation. In September of 1955 Korth exercised his first manufacturing license for firearms. In 1962 he designed and manufactured his first revolver, initially chambered in .32 S&W Long, the highest caliber allowed by the terms of his license. Instead of a traditional cylinder release on the left hand side of the frame, the cylinders of these revolvers were unlatched from the frame by pulling forward the head of the ejector rod. The crane lock was released by the leftward push of a button located on the right hand side of the frame under the cylinder, whereupon the entire crane assembly complete with the cylinder would slide forward for removal from the frame.
    The first series production of Korth revolvers began in 1964 with the police revolver chambered in .38 Special, serial numbered 20xxx. In 1965, Korth introduced 4″ and 6″ barreled six-shot revolvers in .22LR and .22 Magnum, and five-shot models in .357 Magnum, serial numbered in the 21xxx series. The subsequent 22xxx/23xxx series appeared in 1967, comprising a small run of 6″ revolvers in .357 Magnum and .38 Special, as well as .22LR, plus a few 4″ .357 Magnums. Its new feature was a torsion trigger spring mounted on a stud accessible on the left-hand side of the frame, and fixed with a set screw on its right hand side. This arrangement allowed an easy adjustment of the trigger pull weight between 1kg (35.274 ozs) and 2.5kg (88.185 ozs) without disassembling the revolver.
    The 24xxx series, introduced in 1969, featured another innovation in the trigger action, patented in Germany as DE 1904675 A1, designed for a precise and tunable stacking transition in double action, achieved through the use of variously sized rollers on the trigger impinging upon the double action sear on the hammer. Thenceforth every revolver was shipped with five numbered metal wheels of different diameters that ranged from No.1 (0.283″) for the hardest stacking transition to No.5 (0.293″), for no stacking at all. Korth also added the second cylinder lock, achieved by latching the head of the axially fixed ejector rod inside a lug located under the barrel. Because the head of the ejector rod was no longer accessible for manipulation with the cylinder latched, Korth added a pivoting lever at the right side of the hammer to cause the cylinder release. The floating firing pin with its spring was retained in the frame by a transverse pin. Finally, the exposed coil mainspring gave way to the definitive sleeved telescopic design inspired by the MP38 recoil spring.
    The production of the second, Combat revolver variant started in 1973, with the first 15 specimens numbered in the 27xxx and continuing in the 28xxx series. They upped the centerfire cylinder capacity from five to six rounds and featured a rounded grip frame, a ramp front sight combined with a low mounted rear sight. Most significantly, they initiated the transition from the one-piece barrel topped with a ventilated rib and fitted with a short locking underlug, reminiscent of Dean W. King’s patented 1936 custom conversions of S&W revolvers, to a two-piece assembly comprising a tensioned barrel surrounded by a shroud topped with a ventilated rib and fitted with a full-length underlug, in an arrangement that referenced Colt’s 1955 Python externally, while replicating Karl R. Lewis’patented 1967 design originally realized by Dan Wesson. Throughout their production, Combat barrels varied in length between 77mm and 82mm, nominally designated as 3″. Meanwhile, the Sport revolvers retained their one-piece barrel fitting, with both five- and six-shot cylinders available through the 28xxx series.
    In the series 29xxx begun in 1974, Korth co-branded his revolvers with Dynamit Nobel serving as a distribution partner. All revolvers in this series were fitted with six-shot cylinders. The 30xxx series completed the transition to the two-piece barrel construction and introduced the optional 102mm or 4″ Combat barrel configuration. Finally, the 32xxx series introduced the definitive, semi-slabsided profile of the barrel shroud. All these features remained unchanged in the 1980 33xxx series, which for the first time added the 6″ Combat configuration. Meanwhile, beginning in 1978, Willi Korth had refocused his design work on a new autopistol, considering the action of his revolvers fully perfected. From the first five prototypes with features patented in Germany as DE 3111037 A1 and DE 3203991 A1, and produced in 1982, the manufacture of the first series did not start until 1989. The pistol never succeeded commercially, owing to lack of development and the initial price of $6,750.00.

Korth revolver parts:

1. Frame
2. Barrel assembly
2.1 Barrel
2.2 Barrel shroud
2.3 Front sight •
2.4 Front sight retaining pin
2.5 Front sight Target Model •
2.6 Front sight retaining screw
2.7 Barrel shroud screw
3. Sideplate
4. Cylinder
5. Extractor
5.1 Extractor spring for rimless cartridges
6. Crane
7. Extractor axle
8. Cylinder retaining pin
9. Spring guide rod
10. Return spring for extractor
11. Extractor axle head
12. Spacer bushing
13. Cocking spring
14. Extractor axle guide bushing
15. Circlip for cylinder mount
16. Plunger for cylinder stop
17. Compression spring for cylinder stop
18. Retaining screw for #16 and #17
19. Crane locking piece
20. Compression spring for #19
21. Retaining nut for #9
22. Locking screw for trigger spring stud
23. Trigger spring stud
24. Trigger spring pawl
25. Trigger torsion spring
26. Trigger
27. Cylinder stop bolt
28. Pin for cylinder stop
29. Cylinder hand
30. Double action roller •
31. Guide pin for the hand and double action roller
32. V spring for the hand
33. Hammer cocking cam
34. Retaining pin for #33
35. Hammer complete with axle
36. Double action sear
37. Compression spring for #36
38. Retaining pin for #36
39. Pin for #40
40. Hammer strut
41. Bushing for hammer spring
42. Mainspring •
43. Mainspring guide housing
44. Cylinder release lever
45. Cylinder release lever plunger
46. Spring for #45
47. Firing pin
48. Firing pin return spring
49. Firing pin retainer pin
50. Rear sight tang for Model Sport
51. Rear sight blade for Model Sport
51.1 Rear sight blade for Model Combat
51.2 Adjustable sight blade for Model Combat
51.3 Retainer for elevation for Model Combat
51.4 Rear sight with blade for Model Target
51.5 Rear sight blades for Model Target •
51.6 Locking screw for sight blades
52. Elevation screw for Model Sport
52.1 Elevation screw for Model Combat
52.2 Elevation screw for Model Target
53. Compression spring for elevation
54. Steel ball for elevation
55. Snap ring for elevation screw
56. Windage adjusting screw for Model Sport
56.1 Windage adjusting screw for Model Combat
56.2 Windage adjusting screw for Model Target
57. Windage screw retaining pin for Model Sport
57.1 Windage screw retaining pin for Model Target
58. Leaf spring for rear sight
59. Cylinder locking plunger with retaining spring pin
60. Compression spring for cylinder locking bolt
61. Locking bolt for cylinder lock
62. Retaining pin with compression spring for #61
63. Trigger pivot screw
64. Sideplate screw
64.1 Fitted pin for side-plate
65. Lower retaining pin for grips
65.1 Single retaining pin for Match grip
65.2 Upper retaining pin for grips
66. Trigger stop screw
67. Grips
68. Grip screws (pair)
69. Grip screw bushings (pair)
70. Stop pin for hand lever spring

• Variable dimensions.

    Willi Korth’s revolvers were benchmade by five gunsmiths at the rate averaging about 120 pieces a year. In contrast to the mass production standards, Korth revolver parts were neither cast nor milled. They were ground in the course of hard fitting from steel forgings that boasted a tensile strength of 1,700 psi. Each revolver required 70 man-hours that comprised 600 distinct operations. Their major components were surface hardened up to 60 HRC on the Rockwell hardness scale. The original production of Korth revolvers ended in 1981 with the serial number series 33xxx, adding up to a total of 7141 revolvers in calibers .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .22LR, and .22 Magnum, with barrel lengths ranging from 3″ to 6″, fitted with 6-shot rimfire and both 5- and 6-shot centerfire cylinders. The three main variants were the Combat, the Sport, and the Target models, some of which were finished as engraved luxury pieces.

    Korth turned over his business with all inventory, tools, and drawings to count Nikolas von Bernstorff on 30 June 1981. The company continued as Korth GmbH & Co. KG, its payroll peaking at 30 employees during the following decade. Its initial production comprised the 1982 transitional series 34xxx and 35xxx, still made under their inventor’s personal supervision. Following Korth’s resignation due to failing health in 1983, his successors produced the 36xxx, 37xxx, and 38xxx carbon steel series, mostly from the legacy parts fabricated and blanks forged by Willi Korth. They also introduced the Fxxx matte-finished Profi series priced 25% below its luxurious siblings and added the optional 5¼” barrel configuration and .32 S&W Long chambering. Additionally, in 1985 there appeared the short-lived Sxxx matte stainless steel series, highly sought after by collectors today. Starting with the 36xxx series in 1986, the top strap of the Korth frame was made about 0.5mm thicker, adding around 9 grams to its weight. Additionally, the crane was modified with a new cylinder bushing, which eliminated the gas check relief cut of the original centerfire revolver design. These modifications strengthened the revolver and improved its cylinder support, at the cost of accelerating the erosion of the forcing cone.

1985 Korth 4″ Profi Sport

    Willi Korth died on 10 October 1992, leaving the development of his autopistol unfinished, with its production by his successors falling short of the inventor’s design goals in accuracy and reliability alike. In mid-1999 Korth GmbH underwent bankruptcy following a long production slump. Its assets were taken over in April 2000 by the Armurerie Freylinger of Luxembourg. Over the following years, five gunmakers employed by Freylinger produced the 39xxx and 40xxx series, briefly expanding into the American market by establishing a subsidiary in the United States in 2001 in a joint venture with Earl Sheehan, an independent importer of Walther firearms. In 2001, they introduced the finish option of plasma TiAlN PVD surface coating in satin and matte styles, which boasted exceptional abrasion resistance. Since 2002, Korth revolver aficionados benefited from their comprehensive historical and technical analysis by Veit Morgenroth, arguably the most detailed investigation of a sporting firearm ever to be published. Regrettably, this treatise neglected the contributions of Korth’s successors, which included the Triple Lock, the externally tensioned mainspring, and switch-barrel configurations developed under the management of von Bernstorff.
    In November 2008 the original Korth factory in Ratzeburg clodsed its doors. But six months later, on 22 April 2009, Andreas Weber and Martin Rothmann revived the Korth trademark in Lollar near Giessen. The new owners of Korth exhibited their 41xxx revolver series and autopistol prototypes in 2012 and 2013, both at IWA in Nürnberg and the SHOT Show in Las Vegas. In the sequel, I shall examine some representative Combat and Sport revolvers manufactured by Willi Korth and his successors.

Crossposted to [info]larvatus and [info]guns.