middle-aged degeneracy

The excessive dependence of the Middle Ages upon the past is part of that Golden Age complex which besets most civilizations, though medieval men carried it to an unusual degree. They believed that they were “little men in the twilight of the world” or “dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants” (the ancients). Both the primitive Church and Augustan Rome loomed out of the mist of the past as towers of civilization from which society had fallen, no matter if the Augustan Romans saw themselves as degenerates from the time of Cato, who in turn bewailed the lost Saturnia regna. Had the medieval mind looked only backwards to Eden, medieval thought would have been primitivistic; it would have had no idea of progress. But the fact that the incarnation came after the fall, and the resurrection after the crucifixion, was productive of hope. Nonetheless, exaggerated respect for the past caused several medieval eccentricities, among them the curious practice of reverse plagiarism. A modern plagiarist takes the writings of a famous man and passes them off as his own; with greater modesty, a medieval writer was likely to gain an audience for his own writings by attaching to them the name of a great pope or Father. Their worship of the past checked originality, just as our own worship of everything new promotes superficiality. The use of the word “primitive” is instructive. To us it means crude and barbaric; but through the time of Samuel Johnson its connotation was favorable: the Good Old Days.

a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing

This is London. In a moment, you will hear the Prime Minister, Right Honorable Neville Chamberlain, speaking from Number10 Downing Street. His speech will be heard all over the Empire, throughout the continent of America, and in a large number of foreign countries. Mr Chamberlain:

To-morrow Parliament is going to meet, and I shall be making a full statement of the events which have led up to the present anxious and critical situation.
    An earlier statement would not have been possible when I was flying backwards and forwards across Europe, and the position was changing from hour to hour. But to-day there is a lull for a brief time, and I want to say a few words to you, men and women of Britain and the Empire, and perhaps to others as well.
    First of all I must say something to those who have written to my wife or myself in these last weeks to tell us of their gratitude for my efforts and to assure us of their prayers for my success. Most of these letters have come from women — mothers or sisters of our own countrymen. But there are countless others besides – from France, from Belgium, from Italy, and even from Germany, and it has been heartbreaking to read the growing anxiety they reveal and their intense relief when they thought, too soon, that the danger of war was past.
    If I felt my responsibility heavy before, to read such letters has made it seem almost overwhelming. How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. It seems still more impossible that a quarrel which has already been settled in principle should be the subject of war.
    I can well understand the reasons why the Czech Government have felt unable to accept the terms which have been put before them in the German memorandum. Yet I believe after my talks with Herr Hitler that, if only time were allowed, it ought to be possible for the arrangements for transferring the territory that the Czech Government has agreed to give to Germany to be settled by agreement under conditions which would assure fair treatment to the population concerned.
    You know already that I have done all that one man can do to compose this quarrel. After my visits to Germany I have realised vividly how Herr Hitler feels that he must champion other Germans, and his indignation that grievances have not been met before this. He told me privately, and last night he repeated publicly, that after this Sudeten German question is settled, that is the end of Germany’s territorial claims in Europe.
    After my first visit to Berchtesgaden I did get the assent of the Czech Government to proposals which gave the substance of what Herr Hitler wanted and I was taken completely by surprise when I got back to Germany and found that he insisted that the territory should be handed over to him immediately, and immediately occupied by German troops without previous arrangements for safeguarding the people within the territory who were not Germans, or did not want to join the German Reich.
    I must say that I find this attitude unreasonable. If it arises out of any doubts that Herr Hitler feels about the intentions of the Czech Government to carry out their promises and hand over the territory, I have offered on part of the British Government to guarantee their words, and I am sure the value of our promise will not be underrated anywhere.
    I shall not give up the hope of a peaceful solution, or abandon my efforts for peace, as long as any chance for peace remains. I would not hesitate to pay even a third visit to Germany if I thought it would do any good. But at this moment I see nothing further that I can usefully do in the way of mediation.
    Meanwhile there are certain things we can and shall do at home. Volunteers are still wanted for air raid precautions, for fire brigade and police services, and for the Territorial units. I know that all of you, men and women alike, are ready to play your part in the defence of the country, and I ask you all to offer your services, if you have not already done so, to the local authorities, who will tell you if you are wanted and in what capacity.
    Do not be alarmed if you hear of men being called up to man the anti-aircraft defences or ships. These are only precautionary measures such as a Government must take in times like this. But they do not necessarily mean that we have determined on war or that war is imminent.
    However much we may sympathise with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbour, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account. If we have to fight it must be on larger issues than that. I am myself a man of peace to the depths of my soul. Armed conflict between nations is a nightmare to me; but if I were convinced that any nation had made up its mind to dominate the world by fear of its force, I should feel that it must be resisted. Under such a domination life for people who believe in liberty would not be worth living; but war is a fearful thing, and we must be very clear, before we embark on it, that it is really the great issues that are at stake, and that the call to risk everything in their defence, when all the consequences are weighed, is irresistible.
    For the present I ask you to wait as calmly as you can the events of the next few days. As long as war has not begun, there is always hope that it may be prevented, and you know that I am going to work for peace to the last moment. Good night.

Transcribed from BBC Archive, “Chamberlain Addresses the Nation on His Negotiations for Peace”, 27 September 1938. See Neville Chamberlain, In Search of Peace: Speeches, 1937-1938, London, 1939, pp. 274-6.

waging peace, the centennial edition

And indeed, the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.

Barack Hussein Obama, 28 February 2014

On the same date, June 23, 1915, he wrote to his life-long friend Owen Wister:
    “Your friend, the English pacifist, turned up. He seems an amiable, fuzzy-brained creature; but I could not resist telling him that I thought that in the first place Englishmen were better at home doing their duty just at present, and in the next place, as regards both Englishmen and Americans, that the prime duty now was not to talk about dim and rosy Utopias but, as regards both of them, to make up their minds to prepare against disaster and, as regards our nation, to quit making promises which we do not keep. Taft, second only to Wilson and Bryan, is the most distinguished exponent of what is worst in our political character at the present day as regards international affairs; and a universal peace league meeting which has him as its most prominent leader, is found on the whole to do mischief and not good.
    “I was immensely pleased and amused with your last Atlantic article (‘Quack Novels and Democracy’) and I think it will do good. I wish you had included Wilson when you spoke of Bryan, and Pulitzer when you spoke of Hearst. Pulitzer and his successors have been on the whole an even greater detriment than Hearst, and Wilson is considerably more dangerous to the American people than Bryan. I was very glad to see you treat Thomas Jefferson as you did. Wilson is in his class. Bryan is not attractive to the average college bred man; but The Evening Post, Springfield Republican, and Atlantic Monthly creatures, who claim to represent all that is highest and most cultivated and to give the tone to the best college thought, are all ultra-supporters of Wilson, are all much damaged by him, and join with him to inculcate flabbiness of moral fiber among the very men, and especially the young men, who should stand for what is best in American life. Therefore to the men who read your writings Wilson is more dangerous than Bryan. Nothing is more sickening than the continual praise of Wilson’s English, of Wilson’s style. He is a true logothete, a real sophist; and he firmly believes, and has had no inconsiderable effect in making our people believe, that elocution is an admirable substitute for and improvement on action. I feel particularly bitter toward him at the moment because when Bryan left I supposed that meant that Wilson really had decided to be a man and I prepared myself to stand wholeheartedly by him. But in reality the point at issue between them was merely as to the proper point of dilution of tepid milk and water.”

—Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Theodore Roosevelt and His Time: Shown in His Own Letters, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920, pp. 385-386

The President’s first note to Berlin about the sinking of the Lusitania, the “strict accountability” note, was followed by a second in a tone so different that it drew from Elihu Root the memorable observation:
    “You shouldn’t shake your fist at a man and then shake your finger at him.
    Taft had humorously described Bryan’s statesmanship as: “Chautauquan diplomacy.
    Roosevelt had described the President’s foreign attitude as: “Waging peace.

Owen Wister, Theodore Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1880-1919, Macmillan, 1930, p. 344

toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite

Extrait d’une lettre adressée à M. le chevalier de Rossi en Saint-Pétersbourg, le 15 (27) août 1811.     From a letter addressed to Mr. the chevalier de Rossi in Saint-Petersburg, 15 (27) August 1811.
2o Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite. De longues réflexions, et une longue expérience payée bien cher, m’ont convaincu de cette vérité comme d’une proposition de mathématiques. Tout loi est donc inutile, et même funeste (quelque excellente qu’elle puisse être en elle-même), si la nation n’est pas digne de la loi et faite pour la loi.
    Jadis le czar de Géorgie sortait tous les matins à cheval pour rendre la justice : il parcourait lentement les rues de Tiflis. Les plaideurs arrivaient, et disaient leurs raisons. Le czar donnait et faisait donner des coups de bâton à celui qui avait tort ou trop tort. Un Géorgien disait dernièrement, le plus sérieusement du monde, à mon frère, qui me l’a écrit : Eh bien ! Monsieur, on a remarqué que ces princes se trompaient très-rarement. Ils regrettent donc très-sincèrement cette vieille justice de rue ; et quant à la nouvelle que les Russes leur ont portée, qui procède par forme, par délais, par écriture, ils ne peuvent pas la tolérer, ils en sont malades ; et qui leur rapporterait la bâtonomie leur ferait un plaisir infini. Il y a chez nos vieilles nations d’Europe mille finesses que je crois très-fort au-dessus des Russes, du moins tels que je les connais dans ce moment. Le recours direct au souverain (ou la plainte) est une idée enracinée dans le plus profond de leurs cœurs ; et même, pour l’honneur de la souveraineté, elle est plus ou moins naturelle à tous les hommes. Je ne crois pas que l’opinion publique puisse être violée sur ce point. Il n’était pas malaisé, ce semble, de trouver le moyen qui aurait tout sauvé, en donnant seulement à la plainte, lorsqu’elle aurait été admise, la force de renvoyer la cause au plenum (ou chambres assemblées, suivant notre style).
Every nation has the government that it deserves. Lengthy reflection, and experience acquired at great cost, have convinced me of this truth as if it were a mathematical proposition. All law is useless and even fatal (however excellent it may be in itself), if the nation is not worthy of law and made for law.
    In the days of old the Czar of Georgia went out every morning on horseback to dispense justice; he slowly traversed the streets of Tbilisi. Litigants came and pleaded their cases. Armed with a cudgel, the Czar pummeled, and had pummeled, whoever was out of line or in the wrong. A Georgian recently spoke in all earnestness to my brother, who related his words to me: Well! Sir, they say that these princes very rarely erred. Thus they very sincerely regret this old street justice; and as for the new kind that the Russians have brought to them, which proceeds formally, slowly, and in writing, they cannot tolerate it, they are sick of it, and whoever would restore baculonomy to them, would deliver them an infinite delight. There are thousands of refinements in our ancient European nations, which I consider a great improvement over the Russians, at least as I know them at this moment. Direct appeal to the sovereign (or complaint) is an idea deeply rooted in their hearts, and as a credit to sovereignty, it even is more or less natural to all men. I do not believe that public sentiment could be violated on this point. It was not difficult, it seems, to find a way that would have saved everything, just by giving the complaint, once it was admitted, the force to refer the case to plenum (or elected assemblies, according to our custom).

— Joseph de Maistre, 1753 – 1821

long after heraclitus

Das Ziel des Rechts ist der Friede, das Mittel dazu der Kampf. So lange das Recht sich auf den Angriff von Seiten des Unrechts gefasst halten muss–und dies wird dauern, so lange die Welt steht–wird ihm der Kampf nicht erspart bleiben. Das Leben des Rechts ist Kampf, ein Kampf der Völker–der Staatsgewalt–der Stände–der Individuen.
    Alles Recht in der Welt ist erstritten worden, jeder wichtige Rechtssatz hat erst denen, die sich ihm widersetzten, abgerungen werden müssen, und jedes Recht, sowohl das Recht eines Volkes wie das eines Einzelnen, setzt die stetige Bereitschaft zu seiner Behauptung voraus. Das Recht ist nicht blosser Gedanke, sondern lebendige Kraft. Darum führt die Gerechtigkeit, die in der einen Hand die Wagschale hält, mit der sie das Recht abwägt, in der andern das Schwert, mit dem sie es behauptet. Das Schwert ohne die Wage ist die nackte Gewalt, die Wage ohne das Schwert die Ohnmacht des Rechts. Beide gehören zusammen, und ein vollkommener Rechtszustand herrscht nur da, wo die Kraft, mit der die Gerechtigkeit das Schwert führt, der Geschicklichkeit gleichkommt, mit der sie die Wage handhabt.
    Recht ist unausgesetzte Arbeit und zwar nicht etwa bloss der Staatsgewalt, sondern des ganzen Volkes. Das gesammte Leben des Rechts, mit einem Blicke überschaut, vergegenwärtigt uns dasselbe Schauspiel rastlosen Ringens und Arbeitens einer ganzen Nation, das ihre Thätigkeit auf dem Gebiete der ökonomischen und geistigen Produktion gewährt. Jeder Einzelne, der in die Lage kommt, sein Recht behaupten zu müssen, übernimmt an dieser nationalen Arbeit seinen Antheil, trägt sein Scherflein bei zur Verwirklichung der Rechtsidee auf Erden.
    Freilich nicht an Alle tritt diese Anforderung gleichmässig heran. Unangefochten und ohne Anstoss verläuft das Leben von Tausenden von Individuen in den geregelten Bahnen des Rechts, und würden wir ihnen sagen: Das Recht ist Kampf – sie würden uns nicht verstehen, denn sie kennen dasselbe nur als Zustand des Friedens und der Ordnung. Und vom Standpunkt ihrer eigenen Erfahrung haben sie vollkommen Recht, ganz so wie der reiche Erbe, dem mühelos die Frucht fremder Arbeit in den Schoos gefallen ist, wenn er den Satz: Eigenthum ist Arbeit, in Abrede stellt. Die Täuschung Beider hat ihren Grund darin, dass die zwei Seiten, welche sowohl das Eigenthum wie das Recht in sich schliessen, subjectiv in der Weise auseinanderfallen können, dass dem Einen der Genuss und der Friede, dem Andern die Arbeit und der Kampf zu Theil wird.
    Das Eigenthum wie das Recht ist eben ein Januskopf mit einem Doppelantlitz; Einigen kehrt er bloss die eine Seite, Andern bloss die andere Seite zu, daher die völlige Verschiedenheit des Bildes, das beide von ihm empfangen. In Bezug auf das Recht gilt dies wie von einzelnen Individuen, so auch von ganzen Zeitaltern. Das Leben des einen ist Krieg, das Leben des andern Friede, und die Völker sind durch diese Verschiedenheit der subjectiven Vertheilung beider ganz derselben Täuschung ausgesetzt, wie die Individuen. Eine lange Periode des Friedens – und der Glaube an den ewigen Frieden steht in üppigster Blüthe, bis der erste Kanonenschuss den schönen Traum verscheucht, und an die Stelle eines Geschlechts, das mühelos den Frieden genossen hat, ein anderes tritt, welches sich ihn durch die harte Arbeit des Krieges erst wieder verdienen muss. So vertheilt sich beim Eigenthum wie beim Recht Arbeit und Genuss, aber für den Einen, der geniesst und im Frieden dahinlebt, hat ein Anderer arbeiten und kämpfen müssen. Der Frieden ohne Kampf, der Genuss ohne Arbeit gehören der Zeit des Paradieses an, die Geschichte kennt beide nur als Resultate unablässiger, mühseliger Anstrengung.
    Diesen Gedanken, dass der Kampf die Arbeit des Rechts ist und in Bezug auf seine praktische Nothwendigkeit sowohl wie seine ethische Würdigung auf dieselbe Linie mit der Arbeit beim Eigenthum zu stellen ist, gedenke ich im Folgenden weiter auszuführen. Ich glaube damit kein überflüssiges Werk zu thun, im Gegentheil eine Unterlassungssünde gut zu machen, die sich unsere Theorie (ich meine nicht bloss die Rechtsphilosophie, sondern auch die positive Jurisprudenz) hat zu Schulden kommen lassen. Man merkt es unserer Theorie nur zu deutlich an, dass sie sich mehr mit der Wage als mit dem Schwert der Gerechtigkeit zu beschäftigen hat; die Einseitigkeit des rein wissenschaftlichen Standpunktes, von dem aus sie das Recht betrachtet, und der sich kurz dahin zusammenfassen lässt, dass er ihr das Recht weniger von seiner realistischen Seite als Machtbegriff, als vielmehr von seiner logischen Seite als System abstracter Rechtssätze vor Augen führt, hat meines Erachtens ihre ganze Auffassung vom Recht in einer Weise beeinflusst, wie sie zu der rauhen Wirklichkeit des Rechts gar wenig stimmt – ein Vorwurf, für den der Verlauf meiner Darstellung es an Belegen nicht fehlen lassen wird.
    –Rudolph von Jhering, Der Kampf um’s Recht, 1884
The end of the law is peace. The means to that end is war. So long as the law is compelled to hold itself in readiness to resist the attacks of wrong—and this it will be compelled to do until the end of time—it cannot dispense with war. The life of the law is a struggle,—a struggle of nations, of the state power, of classes, of individuals.
    All the law in the world has been obtained by strife. Every principle of law which obtains had first to be wrung by force from those who denied it; and every legal right—the legal rights of a whole nation as well as those of individuals—supposes a continual readiness to assert it and defend it. The law is not mere theory, but living force. And hence it is that Justice which, in one hand, holds the scales, in which she weighs the right, carries in the other the sword with which she executes it. The sword without the scales is brute force, the scales without the sword is the impotence of law. The scales and the sword belong together, and the state of the law is perfect only where the power with which Justice carries the sword is equalled by the skill with which she holds the scales.
    Law is an uninterrupted labor, and not of the state power only, but of the entire people. The entire life of the law, embraced in one glance, presents us with the same spectacle of restless striving and working of a whole nation, afforded by its activity in the domain of economic and intellectual production. Every individual placed in a position in which he is compelled to defend his legal rights, takes part in this work of the nation, and contributes his mite towards the realization of the idea of law on earth.
    Doubtless, this duty is not incumbent on all to the same extent. Undisturbed by strife and without offense, the life of thousands of individuals passes away, within the limits imposed by the law to human action; and if we were to tell them: The law is a warfare, they would not understand us, for they know it only as a condition of peace and of order. And from the point of view of their own experience they are entirely right, just as is the rich heir into whose lap the fruit of the labor of others has fallen, without any toil to him, when he questions the principle: property is labor. The cause of the illusion of both is that the two sides of the ideas of property and of law may be subjectively separated from each other in such a manner that enjoyment and peace become the part of one, and labor and strife of the other. If we were to address ourselves to the latter, he would give us an entirely opposite answer.
    And, indeed, property, like the law, is a Janus-head with a double face. To some it turns only one side, to others only the other; and hence the difference of the picture of it obtained by the two. This, in relation to the law, applies to whole generations as well as to single individuals. The life of one generation is war, of another peace; and nations, in consequence of this difference of subjective division, are subject to the same illusion precisely as individuals. A long period of peace, and, as a consequence thereof, faith in eternal peace, is richly enjoyed, until the first gun dispels the pleasant dream, and another generation takes the place of the one which had enjoyed peace without having had to toil for it, another generation which is forced to earn it again by the hard work of war. Thus in property and law do we find labor and enjoyment distributed. But the fact that they belong together does not suffer any prejudice in consequence. One person has been obliged to battle and to labor for another who enjoys and lives in peace. Peace without strife, and enjoyment without work, belong to the days of Paradise. History knows both only as the result of painful, uninterrupted effort.
    That, to struggle, is, in the domain of law, what to labor, is, in that of economy, and, that, in what concerns its practical necessity as well as its moral value, that struggle is to be placed on an equal footing with labor in the case of property, is the idea which I propose to develop further below. I think that in so doing I shall be performing no work of supererogation, but, on the contrary, that I shall be making amends for a sin of omission which may rightly be laid at the door of our theory of law; and not simply at the door of our philosophy of law, but of our positive jurisprudence also. Our theory of law, it is only too easy to perceive, is busied much more with the scales than with the sword of Justice. The one-sidedness of the purely scientific standpoint from which it considers the law, looking at it not so much as it really is, as an idea of force, but as it is logically, a system of abstract legal principles, has, in my opinion, impressed on its whole way of viewing the law, a character not in harmony with the bitter reality. This I intend to prove.
    –Rudolph von Jhering, The Struggle for Law, translated by John J. Lalor, 1915

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.

gun control after hitler

Omer Bartov, one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject of genocide, recounts its lessons to Salon:

Just imagine the Jews of Germany exercising the right to bear arms and fighting the SA, SS and the Wehrmacht. The [Russian] Red Army lost 7 million men fighting the Wehrmacht, despite its tanks and planes and artillery. The Jews with pistols and shotguns would have done better?

As a matter of fact, though nowise limited to pistols and shotguns, my Jewish father and his brother did a lot better inflicting disproportionate casualties upon the Wehrmacht on behalf of the Red Army. By contrast, owing to the Soviet policy of victim disarmament, they were unable to resist the emissaries of their triumphant State, dispatched to convey them to the GULag after the closing of international hostilities.

Is Professor Bartov making the point that in so far as my family and my kind are powerless to resist la raison d’État on our own, we might as well put our trust in our democratically elected princes, and learn to relax and enjoy their periodic infringements of our fundamental rights? Or is his reference to having been a combat soldier and officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, and knowing “what these assault rifles can do” meant to suggest to the contrary, that we Jews ought to arm ourselves with the deadliest small arms available, in consideration of two millennia of oppression and genocide visited upon our ancestors?

Arms, kept and borne individually or institutionally, aren’t a panacea. Thus France was heavily armed, but quickly succumbed to the Nazis, whereupon she used her arms to round up French Jews for extermination on their behalf. Would I and my likes be morally, physiologically, or economically better off armed or disarmed on the occasion, or in the anticipation, of the next Vel d’Hiv roundup?

étienne de la boétie on the master-slave dialectic

C’est ainsi que le tyran asservit les sujets les uns par les autres. Il est gardé par ceux desquels il devrait se garder, s’ils n’étaient avilis : mais, comme on l’a fort bien dit pour fendre le bois, il se fait des coins de bois même. Tels sont ses archers, ses gardes, ses hallebardiers. Non que ceux-ci ne souffrent souvent eux-mêmes de son oppression ; mais ces misérables, maudits de Dieu et des hommes, se contentent d’endurer le mal, pour en faire, non à celui qui le leur fait, mais bien à ceux qui, comme eux, l’endurent et n’y peuvent rien. Et toutefois, quand je pense à ces gens-là, qui flattent bassement le tyran pour exploiter en même temps et sa tyrannie et la servitude du peuple, je suis presque aussi surpris de leur stupidité que de leur méchanceté. Car, à vrai dire, s’approcher du tyran, est-ce autre chose que s’éloigner de la liberté et, pour ainsi dire, embrasser et serrer à deux mains la servitude ? Qu’ils mettent un moment à part leur ambition, qu’ils se dégagent un peu de leur sordide avarice, et puis, qu’ils se regardent, qu’ils se considèrent en eux-mêmes : ils verront clairement que ces villageois, ces paysans qu’ils foulent aux pieds et qu’ils traitent comme des forçats ou des esclaves , ils verront, dis-je, que ceux-là, ainsi malmenés, sont plus heureux et en quelque sorte plus libres qu’eux. Le laboureur et l’artisan, pour tant asservis qu’ils soient, en sont quittes en obéissant ; mais le tyran voit ceux qui l’entourent, coquinant et mendiant sa faveur. Il ne faut pas seulement qu’ils fassent ce qu’il ordonne, mais aussi qu’ils pensent ce qu’il veut, et souvent même, pour le satisfaire, qu’ils préviennent aussi ses propres désirs. Ce n’est pas tout de lui obéir, il faut lui complaire, il faut qu’ils se rompent, se tourmentent, se tuent à traiter ses affaires et puisqu’ils ne se plaisent que de son plaisir, qu’ils sacrifient leur goût au sien, forcent leur tempérament et le dépouillement de leur naturel. Il faut qu’ils soient continuellement attentifs à ses paroles, à sa voix, à ses regards, à ses moindres gestes : que leurs yeux, leurs pieds, leurs mains soient continuellement occupés à suivre ou imiter tous ses mouvements, épier et deviner ses volontés et découvrir ses plus secrètes pensées. Est-ce là vivre heureusement ? Est-ce même vivre ? Est-il rien au monde de plus insupportable que cet état, je ne dis pas pour tout homme bien né, mais encore pour celui qui n’a que le gros bon sens, ou même figure d’homme ? Quelle condition est plus misérable que celle de vivre ainsi n’ayant rien à soi et tenant d’un autre son aise, sa liberté, son corps et sa vie !!

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Slave Auction, 1866, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Thus the tyrant enslaves his subjects, ones by means of others. He is protected by those from whom he would have to guard himself, were they not abased: but, as it is well said, to split wood one needs wedges of the selfsame wood. Such are his archers, his guards, his halberdiers. Not that they themselves do not often suffer at his hands, but these wretches, accursed alike by God and man, are content to endure evil in order to commit it, not against him who wrongs them, but against those who, like themselves, suffer him and cannot help it. And yet, when I think of those men who basely flatter the tyrant to profit at once from his tyranny and from the servitude of the people, I am almost as astonished by their folly as by their wickedness; for to get to the point, how can they approach a tyrant, but by withdrawing further from their liberty, and, so to speak, embracing and seizing their servitude with both hands? Let such men briefly lay aside their ambition, or slightly loosen the grip of their sordid avarice, and look at themselves as they really are; then they will realize clearly that the townspeople, the peasants whom they trample under foot and treat like convicts or slaves, they will realize, I say, that these people, mistreated though they be, are happier and in a certain sense freer than themselves. The laborer and the artisan, no matter how enslaved, discharge their obligation through obedience; but the tyrant sees men about him grovel and beg for his favor. They must not only do as he says; they must also think as he wills; and often to satisfy him they must anticipate his wishes. Their work is far from done in merely obeying him; they must also please him; they must wear themselves out, torment themselves, kill themselves with work on his behalf, and since they cannot enjoy themselves but through his pleasure, replace their preferences with his, distorting their character and corrupting their nature. They must continually pay heed to his words, to his intonation, to his glances, and to his smallest gestures: let their eyes, their feet, their hands be continually poised to follow or imitate his every motion, to espy or divine his wishes, or to seek out his innermost thoughts. Is that a happy life? Is that a life properly so called? Is there anything in the world more intolerable than that situation, not just for any man of nobility, but even for any man possessed of a crude common sense, or merely of a human face? What condition is more wretched than to live thus, with nothing to call one’s own, receiving from someone else one’s sustenance, one’s own accord, one’s body, and one’s life!!

—Étienne de La Boétie (1 November 1530 – 18 August 1563), Discours de la servitude volontaire, 1549

let the gun ban games begin

I deny any predictability in politics, but there are many hurdles on the way to enacting any new Federal gun control laws:

  1. Economics: we have enough guns to arm each American citizen, resident alien, and illegal immigrant. Confiscation without compensation is politically impossible, whereas confiscation with compensation would be economically ruinous. Besides, the state of global economy leaves little room for compounding the Congressional constipation that hold captive any possible means of its resuscitation, by yet another polemical bottleneck.
  2. History: though I am far from the absurdity of their right wing anarchism, I admire the panache with which the Tea Party has commandeered the House of Representatives in the wake of the enactment of Obamacare. Moreover, our elected officials are by law old enough to remember the Republican Revolution ushered in by the 1994 AWB, and preponderantly most mindful of remaining in office. Any other motives they might have would be trumped by concerns for reëlection.
  3. Law: the SCOTUS rulings of the last four years imply that keeping and bearing effective small arms in common use is Constitutionally protected, and their regulation cannot be upheld but by passing at least the intermediate scrutiny test, through showing that it furthers an important government interest in a way that is substantially related to that interest. Black rifles and handguns, the most likely targets of gun banners, are especially unlikely to pass this test in virtue of their utility and ubiquity. (Ironically, the former ascended to their status of the most popular long guns in the U.S. as a result of the 1994 AWB.) Update: Moreover, Justice Roberts’ reading of the Commerce Clause in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. ___ (2012), appears to leave as little room for the Congress to debar Americans from owning certain goods, as it does for it to require their purchase of broccoli.
  4. Stupidity: no idea is so sensible that our political debate cannot dumb it down fatally, and will not do so inevitably. Ideas most likely to elicit a consensus, such as criminal liability for unsafe storage of firearms, can and will be reduced to prospective measures repugnant to most gun owners, even as they remain inadequate to most nanny staters.

That said, the Gun Ban Games will be loads of fun to live through.

korean kagemusha wannabe

Gwanghae, The Man Who Became King, distributed internationally as Masquerade, is billed by its distributors as a ”2012 Korean Historical Movie version of [Mark Twain’s] ‘The Prince & Pauper’“. I saw it on 22 September 2012 at CGV Cinemas in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, a reliable local venue for the latest Korean film releases.

Last seen two years ago as a secret agent opposite Choi Min-sik’s superhuman sociopath in Kim Jee-woon’s superb neo-Elizabethan revenge tragedy I Saw the Devil, Lee Byung-hun plays both titular characters: Prince Gwanghae, the ill-fated fifteenth king of the Joseon Dynasty, and Ha-sun, the lowly comedian pressed into service as a stand-in for the monarch who faces the threat of assassination. This speculative fiction draws upon an episode in the eighth year of Gwanghaegun’s reign, when the court chronicles omit all records for the fortnight that followed his statement, ”Do not put on record what is meant to be hidden.“ The central conceit of the plot is that the king’s loyal and able adviser Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-Ryong) forced Ha-sun to impersonate Gwanghaegun while he recovered a coma after an apparent poisoning attempt. While this contemptuous potentate starts out by micromanaging his puppet through his official court functions, he soon develops an appreciation of Ha-sun’s patriotic and humanitarian concerns for the kingdom and its subjects. Meanwhile, the head of an opposing Greater Northerner faction, Park Chung-seo (Kim Myung-gon), the Queen Consort Lady Ryu (Han Hyo-joo), and the king’s bodyguard Captain Do (Kim In Kwon), all become suspicious of the sudden shift in the king’s behavior.

Said to have been filmed in the real historical palaces in Seoul, the movie combines lavish mise en scène with competent direction of fine actors playing strong characters in a familiar story. While not quite Kagemusha caliber, being far more affected than Kurosawa’s masterwork, it makes for a compelling spectacle in its own right, marred slightly by Ha-sun’s tendency to emote by shedding tears on demand. The climactic confrontation between Captain Do and a band of assassins dispatched by the recovered king to retire his stand-in with extreme prejudice, is especially notable as a vivid illustration of the vital difference between slashes and cuts in a sword-fight. I recommend this movie to all fans of international costume drama.