— Michel Houellebecq
As every schoolchild knows, Aristotle’s Rhetoric is a compendium of examples illustrating general principles. In the Rhetoric 2.24, at 1401a22, within his discussion of homonymy or equivocation, Aristotle says that to be without a dog is most dishonorable:
|ἓν δὲ τὸ παρὰ τὴν ὁμωνυμίαν, τὸ φάναι σπουδαῖον εἶναι μῦν, ἀφ’ οὗ γ’ ἐστὶν ἡ τιμιωτάτη πασῶν τελετή: τὰ γὰρ μυστήρια πασῶν τιμιωτάτη τελετή. ἢ εἴ τις κύνα ἐγκωμιάζων τὸν ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ συμπαραλαμβάνοι, ἢ τὸν Πᾶνα, ὅτι Πίνδαρος ἔφησεν
ἢ ὅτι τὸ μηδένα εἶναι κύν’ ἀτιμότατόν ἐστιν, ὥστε τὸ κύνα δῆλον ὅτι τίμιον.
|The second kind of fallacy of diction is homonymy. For instance, if one were to say that the mouse is an important animal, since from it is derived the most honored of all religious festivals, namely, the mysteries; or if, in praising the dog, one were to include the dog in heaven (Sirius), or Pan, because Pindar said,
or were to say that the dog is an honorable animal, since to be without a dog is most dishonorable.
|ἔτι καὶ αἱ παροιμίαι, ὥσπερ εἴρηται, μαρτύριά εἰσιν, οἷον εἴ τις συμβουλεύει μὴ ποιεῖσθαι φίλον γέροντα, τούτῳ μαρτυρεῖ ἡ παροιμία, μήποτ’ εὖ ἔρδειν γέροντα.||Further, proverbs, as stated, are evidence; for instance, if one man advises another not to make a friend of an old man, he can appeal to the proverb, Never do good to an old man.
― translated by J. H. Freese
What have we here? Is Aristotle decrying circumcision or a more substantial lack? Edward Cope suggests:
ἢ ὅτι τὸ μηδένα κ.τ.λ.] The meaning of this is obscure. Victorius, merely observing that this is another fallacious inference as to the value of a dog, candidly admits that he cannot explain it. Schrader under [p. 306] stands it thus: “ne canem quidem in domo ali sordidum est. Ergo canem esse honorificum est.” He goes on to say that the equivocation lies in the double meaning of κύων, dog and Cynic. “Cynici enim philosophi Canes appellabantur, qui hac fallacia cognomen istud suum ornare poterant.” The argument is, ‘To have no dog at all is the highest disgrace’ (would this be accepted as probable?); ‘therefore to be a dog (in another sense, a Cynic,) is plainly a mark of distinction.’
The likely allusion to the Cynics leaves open the problem of the exact meaning of the premiss, which seems to say, “To have no dog at all is dishonourable”. As Lew Mammel pointed out, the problem hinges on the phrase “μηδένα εἶναι”, meaning “nothing at all” or “not any”. He suggested that this might refer to “dishonorable” rather than “dog” – “nothing at all dishonourable in having a dog”, but this founders in his mind on the superlative form, “ἀτιμότατόν”. A more convoluted thought Lew proffered was that Aristotle might be referring to some colloquialism involving “μηδένα εἶναι κύν’” – “not even a dog”, which has the meaning, “most dishonorable”, “ἀτιμότατόν ἐστιν”, so the sense is that if not being a dog is the most dishonorable thing, then being a dog, or a Cynic, is honorable. The possible allusion to Diogenes of Sinope as Socrates gone mad, Σωκράτης μαινόμενος (Diogenes Laertius, Vitae Philosophorum, 6.54) is suggested in the way whereby Rhetoric 3.10, at 1411a24 cites him as ὁ Κύων. But it does not apear to explain anything, unlike the tempting possibility so casually suggested by Ruelle.
In the final analysis, the implication seems straightforward: εἶναι κύν’ ἀτιμότατόν ἐστιν, ὥστε τὸ κύνα δῆλον ὅτι τίμιον. In another shaggy dog tale retailed in the Euthydemus at 298d–299a, Dionysodorus argues that a dog owned by Ctesippus must be his father, since the dog is a father, and Ctesippus has admitted that the dog is his. No such equivocation is in evidence in the fallacy cited by Aristotle.
What does the frenum praeputii have to do with man’s other best friend, anyway? The ideological treatment of circumcision makes no mention of canidae whatsoever.
Crossposted to larvatus, linguaphiles, philosophy, ancient_philo, and classicalgreek.