David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: rhetoric (page 1 of 2)

The Authority of Obscurity: Fludd, Hamann, Heidegger, Kripke

The democratization and accessibility of knowledge has always been opposed by those who wish to keep power for themselves. These opponents may wish to be seen as wise authorities, or they may be fearful of the changes that will occur if people get too curious and too smart. Their weapon in disguising or confusing real knowledge is obscurity.

Obscurity can take several forms. Just a couple:

  1. Proclamations of secret inner knowledge and access to fundamental essences known only to a few.
  2. Accusations to others of ignoring the real truth at the heart of things.
  3. Deliberate obfuscation, hiding and/or complicating what is said in order to intimidate.
  4. Appeals to instinct and conventional wisdom to justify shaky reasoning.

All of these have been mixed in with quasi-religious rhetoric in order to reify the power-base of those who wish to be exempt from the strictures of rational inquiry and science.

(For those tempted to see this as religion-bashing, this actually has very little to do with religion per se. It is about rhetoric and power and authority.)

Not that science is exempt. Such techniques are sometimes used within science (string theorists have been guilty of this recently), but they have been used outside of it with far more vigor. The sheer consistency of this is shown by three examples each a century apart: Robert Fludd, J.G. Hamann, and Martin Heidegger. There is a fourth case too, a more recent one, who doesn’t quite fit the mold but merits inclusion: Saul Kripke.

It may seem unsporting or even perverse to point out this tendency when its advocates are so clearly on the losing side–at least among the cognoscenti. But unlike Scientology or Objectivism, the quasi-mystical obscure position needs criticism because so much real intelligence has fallen under its sway, possibly because its current underdog status masks the underlying hegemonic attitude of its proponents.

Also significant is that the underlying position hasn’t really changed that much: in each, a certain high-minded rhetoric is deployed with the signifiers of authority to do an end-run around the hard toil of more rigorous thinkers.

Four examples, then, from four eras: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism, and today.


1. Robert Fludd (1574-1637)

Robert Fludd was an occultist and an exponent of the Hermetic traditions in the High Renaissance, just as Bacon, Galileo and Kepler were dismissing all sorts of superstition and trying to get a semi-coherent and semi-unified science off the ground. Unlike the far more brilliant Giordano Bruno, Fludd was simply not terribly bright, and in combination with colossal arrogance, he comes off as quite unpleasant.

Fludd’s half-baked thinking, which led him to propose perpetual motion machines are best seen in his famous engraving The Divine Monochord, used on the cover of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, among other places.

Robert Fludd, The Divine Monochord

The engraving overlays the notes of the scale with Ptolemy’s circular orbits of the spheres. Even if you give him the geocentric universe, to which Fludd held half a century after the death of Copernicus, Fludd messed up the notes: the F should be an F sharp. Fludd was not one to worry about such things, and while the results may have artistic value, Fludd’s attempts to link them to physical phenomena are laughable. But this he did.

For Fludd, the mere stipulation of symbolism is enough to make something true:

Further, all kinds of natural things, and those which are supernatural, are bound together by particular formal numbers. The mystery of these occult numbers is best known to those who are most versed in this science, who attribute the Monad or unity to God the artificer, the Dyad or duality to Aqueous Matter, and then the Triad to the Form or light and soul of the universe, which they call virgin.

That is, numbers have special powers given to them by their “formal” nature, that is, their nature beyond mathematics. The analogies for numbers proposed by occultists lend the numbers real power, in Fludd’s view.  Well, as Hans Blumenberg said, analogies are not transformations.

Fludd was an Oxford graduate and finally entered the College of Physicians after six failed attempts. Connections to the royal physician may have helped. Fludd became famous for his debates with Kepler, who was easily the most mystical of the scientists and astronomers.

Though Kepler had made his name by predicting a notoriously cold winter in 1595, Kepler distrusted astrology and generally held the more superstitious arts like alchemy and divination in total contempt. Nonetheless, he sought a cosmological union of mathematics, physics, and music that would explain the complete and utter perfection of God’s world. In the process, he correctly theorized that the orbits of the planets were ellipses rather than circles, a discovery of gobstopping genius contrary to pretty much what everyone everywhere had ever thought, and even more amazing given the lack of any theory of gravity to explain why the orbits were ellipses. He also discovered two other laws of planetary motion of similar import.

Fludd, in words that sound eerily contemporary (and not for the better), attacked Kepler as vulgar and scientistic, in a prolix pamphlet that needs to be heavily summarized:

In the arrogant pose of the esoteric and mystagogue Fludd lectured to Kepler, reproaching him for crass ignorance and ambition. Kepler’s science, in Fludd’s opinion, refers only to the outside of things. A distinction must be made between vulgar and formal mathematics. Only the chosen sages, skilled in formal mathematics, perceive nature truly; to the representatives of vulgar mathematics, among whom he also counts Kepler, and whom he calls bastards and stunted people, it remains invisible and hidden. These measure only the shadows instead or the reality or things. Fludd compares Kepler’s astronomy to a “mystical astronomy.” While Kepler stopped short with the outer movements of nature, he himself contemplates the inner and fundamental acts, which flow forth from nature. So it goes on, on fifty-four thickly printed folio sheets.

These samples from Fludd’s pamphlet are characteristic of the intellectual temper of that epoch. One who looks about in that departed era of writing and printing is astonished at the flood of astrological, alchemical, magical, cabbalistic, theosophic, mock mystic, and pseudoprophetic writings which held the intellects in a spell. The vaguer their content and the richer the promises they ventured in predictions, in communication of secret knowledge and abilities, the more readers they found. What was always being proclaimed under the name of Hermes Trismegistos passed for revelation, whereas imitation of the ideas of Paracelsus passed as the highest wisdom.

When Fludd, in the delusion of possessing deeper perception, held forth that he himself had the head in his hands, Kepler only the tail, then the latter replied humorously: “I hold the tail but with the hand; you clasp the head, if only it does not happen just in a dream.” The widdy disseminated writings, aiming to found and extend the order of the Rosicrucians, were naturally also known to Kepler. Yet he wanted to have nothing to do with a secret organization which feared the light. He urged the Brothers of the new order not to turn only to the ”children of the truth,” but also to go and to talk in the meetings of people, on the mountains and in public places, so that people would get to know their true doctrine.

In the face of all such pseudoscientific efforts, Kepler most strikingly characterized his manner of thought and the goal, which he also pursued in the Harmonia, when he says about his connection with Fludd: “One sees that Fludd takes his chief pleasure in incomprehensible picture puzzles of the reality, whereas I go forth from there, precisely to move into the bright light of knowledge the facts of nature which are veiled in darkness. The former is the subject of the chemist, followers of Hermes and Paracelsus, the latter, on the contrary, the task of the mathematician.” Fludd answered Kepler’s apology once more. The latter, however, did not want, as he says, to press this issue any longer and was silent. “I have moved mountains; it is astonishing how much smoke they expel.”

Max Caspar, Kepler: A Biography

Kepler only sees the outside of things, while Fludd penetrates to their innards. We’ll hear that line again.

Kepler eloquently described how Fludd “inner workings” terminally confused the causal workings of things with symbology:

I too play with symbols and have planned a little work, Geometric Cabala, which is about the Ideas of natural things in geometry; but I play in such a way that I do not forget that I am playing. For nothing is proved by symbols; things already known are merely fitted [to them]; unless by sure reasons it can be demonstrated that they are not merely symbolic but are descriptions of the ways in which the two things are connected and of the causes of these connections.

Brian Vickers draws the contrast quite vividly, emphasizing the replacement of Fludd’s visual constructions with Mersenne and Kepler’s primarily mathematical ones:

Mersenne rejects much of the conceptual structure of occult science, the whole analogical-correlative method, its symbolism, its confusion of mental and physical worlds….Kepler, by contrast, believed that the principles defining the structure of reality are picturable only in a certain sense. What is entirely lacking from the Fludd mentality is any interest in measurement or in testing an analogy against data derived from experience, and in this respect Kepler’s assumptions and methods are wholly different. The crucial issue is the relationship between pictures, words, and things. Fludd starts with ideas and pictures, finds words to describe them, and then links this composite to reality. Kepler, who deals with reality in terms of geometry, rejects Fludd’s analogies as visual or rhetorical, never capable of demonstration and often arbitrary.

Brian Vickers, Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance

The particular method I’ve highlighted in bold is one that will recur as well.

Fludd was not well-liked. Even the alchemist Johannes Baptista van Helmont disparaged him as  ‘a poor physician and a still poorer alchemist, talkative, loud, thinly learned, inconsistent . . . a fluctuating Fludd.’ And when you’ve lost the alchemists….

Frances Yates, generally rather sympathetic to the Hermetic tradition and its influence on the development of science, says this about him and Kepler:

Nevertheless, Kepler had an absolutely clear perception of the basic difference between genuine mathematics, based on quantitative measurement, and the “Pythagorean” or “Hermetic” mystical approach to number. He saw with the utmost distinctness that the root of the difference between himself and Fludd lay in their differing attitude to number, his own being mathematical and quantative whilst that of Fludd was Pythagorean and Hermetic. Kepler’s masterly analyses of this difference in his replies to Fludd brought this matter out into the clear light of day for the first time and performed a great service in finally releasing genuine mathematics from the agelong accretions of numerology.

Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

Accretions can still accumulate, however.


2. J. G. Hamann (1730-1788)

J. G. Hamann was a lesser-known philosopher of the Enlightenment who had connections with Herder and Kant. Isaiah Berlin calls Hamann the first anti-rationalist opponent of the Enlightenment, though most of his substantive criticisms had been made already by people within the Enlightenment, so his influence is debatable. Hamann heavily protested against the anti-religious, scientific trends of his age, without articulating a particularly clear alternative beyond God.

What is not debatable is Hamann’s pioneering efforts into obscure, allusive writing. Unlike Kant, who writes densely but does not seem to be covering his tracks, Hamann takes pains to avoid saying much of anything directly. Sarcasm and ridicule are more his style than sincerity or cogency.

He engages in mystical investigations reminiscent of Fludd, such as his New Apology of the letter h. It is uncannily proto-Derridean in its punning half-fatuousness, as Hamann attacks a proposed spelling reform to standardize German by removing some silent letters. The proposal is not just wrongheaded, Hamann says, but blasphemous:

The canon of writing no letter which is not pronounced is the most impossible and exaggerated postulate in the exercise. Why is the author himself unfaithful to his own propositions, not only in regard to all the other letters, but even to h? Why does he not write in instead of ihn, and inn instead of in, or ir instead of ihr, and tun instead of thun, in order to comply at least with the appearance of an analogy? What reason can indeed be envisaged for his biased exception of all the remaining letters and his unjustified severity toward a breath, which is not even an articulated sound?

If the pronunciation of letters is to be elevated to a universal judgment throne over correct spelling such as the one so-called human reason arrogates to itself (under cover of liberty) over religion, then it is easy to foresee the destiny of our maternal language. What divisions! what Babylonian confusion! what mongering of letters! All the great diversity of dialects and speech and their shibboleths would pour into the books of each province, and what dam could withstand this orthographic deluge? The h, turned out from the raw midnight of Germany, would prolifherate [sic] itself in the writings of the greater and milder nations of the Holy Roman Empire with such opulence that would not be comparable to the wise generosity of a famous translator  of sacred parchment rolls in very isolated cases. – In short, the whole social bond of literature among the German nations would be destroyed in a few years, to the great disadvantage of the true, universal, practical religion, its dissemination, and the peace promised by it – –

J. G. Hamann, “New Apology for the Letter h” (1773, tr. Kenneth Haynes)

I suppose this is good fun, but I find it rather tiring and trivial for a supposed major work, though Haynes is to be commended for assembling a reasonably compact and accessible collection. His sneering at “so-called human reason” and the elevation of his stipulated “true, universal, practical religion” grate. I’m more inclined to agree with Michael Forster’s view of the impoverishment of Hamann’s philosophy:

Besides being unsystematic, Hamann’s writings are typically short; occasional in nature; adorned with mysterious visual symbols (e.g. the figure of Pan), and enigmatic titles, subtitles, and mottos; authored with an adoption of strange identities; extremely obscure in content; lacking in developed argument; full of quotations from ancient and modern works left in their various original languages, as well as citations and allusions, many of whose significance is left unclear; prone to the use of German archaisms, especially the vocabulary and constructions of Luther’s German Bible; bombastic and dramatic; crude, sometimes to the point of obscenity; humorous and satirical, often in cruel ways; and rich in metaphors. As Goethe already observed, the cumulative effect of such features (especially for a modern reader deprived of the help that was supplied by the contemporary context) is to preclude satisfactory understanding.

Hamann did not have to write in this way; his early Biblical Reflections, a long work, is written clearly and even elegantly, and his letters throughout his life often show similar virtues. Why, then, did he choose to write in this way? Part of the explanation lies in his principled contempt for reason, and therefore for the conventional ways of writing that rely upon it. Another part of the explanation lies in a deep disaffection with his age and its ‘‘public’’—rooted in his unpopular religious position, but also exacerbated by more mundane grievances, including, for example, his lowly employment and inadequate salary—which leaves him uninterested in being understood by most of his contemporaries, and indeed keen to mystify them. Yet another part of the explanation lies in a motive that is in tension with the preceding one: a wish to cultivate a strikingly distinctive authorial individuality. Yet another part of the explanation lies in a fear that his ideas were not original or cogent (in his letters he voices a fear that he got all his main ideas from the poet Edward Young, and laments the weakness of his own intellect, e.g. in comparison with Kant’s), and in a resulting desire to mask his intellectual nakedness. It is difficult to have much sympathy with these motives.

Michael Forster, After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition

Contra Socrates, Hamann thinks self-knowledge is “a descent into hell,” merely painful preparation for the real truth of salvation. So Hamann is really opposing not just the intellectual trends of the time but the use of reason as a means to anything but faith. The obscuritanism and the attacks on reason go hand in hand with Hamann’s appeal to religion (Christianity, of course), and so it is not so surprising that today he is being used by postmodern theologians to help expand the gaps in which they wish God to exist. That is to say, postmodernism not in the service of skepticism or pluralism, but in service of ignorance and superstition.

John Betz enthusiastically endorses Hamann’s attack on Kant and the claim that Kant’s system is really just another religion like any other, Kant a “magician” and “alchemist” playing tricks on us:

Indeed, following Hamann, the very structure of Kant’s Critique could be said to mirror the mystagogy of the temple cult, proceeding by way of an ever more inward progression from the forms of intuition, which concern the “outer court” of sensibility, to the “sanctuary” of the transcendental categories of the understanding, to the sanctum sanctorum of the regulative ideas of reason itself.

In any case, as Hamann reads it, the Critique is a kind of “magical mystery” tour de force. Kant’s philosophy is “alchemical” because its transcendental method involves a similar process of purification; the only difference here is that the “dross,” which must be separated in order to attain the “philosopher’s stone” is phenomenal experience.

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

Teach the controversy! Kant’s philosophy, whatever its many problems, is not alchemical and not a temple cult. I repeat again: analogies are not transformations. Betz seems to think that Hamann has some sort of knock-down arguments, and that these knock-down arguments, having God in them, are somehow superior to all other criticisms against Kant and deserving of more attention.

Betz sides with Hamann in his attack on Herder’s pioneering naturalist account of the origin of language. I will not get into why Hamann’s criticisms of Herder are weak and specious (Forster’s book addresses this issue convincingly), since the rhetoric is my focus here. Note how Betz goes right along with Hamann’s invective precisely when it is most free of content:

In a masterful stroke of irony Hamann then adds that Herder’s “natural” theory must have been the product of divine inspiration, due to a divine “Genesis”; indeed, it must be even more supernatural and poetic than the oldest account of the creation of heaven and earth. For, surely, only inspiration would cause this learned author to set himself up “so confidently and so recklessly for such public, earth-shaking, hyperbolic-pleonastic, retaliatory criticism, and to misuse polemical weapons only to incur wounds and lumps at his own expense, accomplishing thereby precisely the opposite of what his readers are promised and flatteringly led to expect.”

What a lashing!

With consummate irony, Hamann then caps his parody with the following coup de grace: “With this divine organon of understanding the entire Koran of the seven [liberal] arts and the entire Talmud of the four faculties was invented, and upon this rock stands the fortress of the philosophical faith of our century, before which all the gates of oriental poetry must submit.” That is to say, how can this understanding of the origin of language, which rests upon a plain contradiction, possibly serve as a suitable foundation for philosophy, for the sciences, for philology?

What a damning appraisal!

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

I find it vaguely frightening that such rhetoric as Hamann’s should appear so convincing to a theologian that it could be cited with such cheerleading enthusiasm. Betz’s choice of the phrases “lashing” and “damning appraisal” are rather intriguing on their own, but that’s left as an exercise for the reader.

It should not, then, come as too much of a surprise that Betz then links Hamann to Heidegger and Derrida and enlists all three in his religious project, finding fault with the latter two in that they are not sufficiently religious (i.e., Christian), making Hamann the clear choice:

Thus it comes about that for Heidegger, the anti-Augustine, paradoxically “Nothing” really “Is”; and that this “Nothing” becomes the source of ethics, revelation, and poetic inspiration. Such is the odd, uncompelling, and, in view of the horrors of the twentieth century, ethically chilling result of Heidegger’s attempt to purify philosophy of theology, whereby he essentially repeats in the realm of ontology the same fundamental error Hamann identified at the heart of Kant’s epistemology, thereby bringing the history of philosophy (divorced from theology) to its explicitly nihilistic conclusion.

After the Enlightenment, the problem of reason, following Hamann and now Derrida, has come down to the problem of language. In short, it comes down to a choice between inspired and uninspired language: either language inspired by the Holy Spirit in response to the Logos, or language inspired by Nothing at all.

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

Here it is more difficult to argue with Betz, for he is opposing thinkers who have dispatched the only terms of argument that could help them against Hamann, and given the choice between Nothing and God, people will tend to plump for the latter. All of the relativism eventually gives way to the “true, universal, practical religion” of which Hamann, and presumably Betz, are certain.


3. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Much of the discussion of Heidegger can be found in the entry on Herman Philipse’s Heidegger book, where Philipse diagnosed Heidegger’s rhetoric as authoritarian and theological. (More on Heidegger’s sloppy scholarship.) Heidegger’s irritating statement “Only a god can save us” is ultimately representative of the tactics of his later work. I quote the relevant bits from the previous entry:

Sometimes Heidegger claims that he has a specific epistemic gift for discerning what Being sends us, and he compares those who do not have this gift to people who are color-blind. Unfortunately, this analogy with color-blindness does not withstand critical scrutiny. Color-blindness can be explained by specific defects in our visual apparatus, whereas I suppose that the inability to grasp what Heidegger claims to be discerning cannot be so explained. Heidegger relies on a epistemic model derived from theology, and assumes that he is the recipient of some kind of revelation…

What Heidegger counts on, then, is that we will simply believe what he says. He uses a number of authoritarian rhetorical stratagems in order to obtain this perlocutionary effect, and he is remarkably successful in securing it.

“History” in the habitual sense of the word designates both the sum of human actions, artifacts, and forms of life in the past, and the discipline that studies these actions and forms of life. Because Heidegger in section 7 of Sein und Zeit calls empirical phenomena “vulgar” phenomena, we might label empirical history “vulgar” history. To vulgar history, Heidegger opposes real or authentic history (eigentliche Geschichte), which is the sequence of fundamental stances underlying vulgar history. Real history is “necessarily hidden to the normal eye.” It is the history of the “revealedness of being” (Offenbarkeit des Seins). Heidegger’s later “historical mode of questioning” (geschichtliches Fragen) aims at making explicit fundamental stances of Dasein amidst the totality of beings. Since these stances allegedly can be studied independently of empirical history as an intellectual discipline, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history implies that the philosopher is the real historian, and that by reconstructing the sequence of metaphysical structures, he does a more fundamental job than the historian in the usual sense is able to do. Heidegger often intimates that his historical questioning is also more fundamental than historical research done by historians of philosophy, and that it may brush aside the methodological canon of historical philology and interpretation. As Joseph Margolis observes, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history “manages to ignore the concrete history of actual existence and actual inquiry.”

Heidegger belonged to the elect, to those favored by Being, who were destined to hear Being’s voice. In Beitrage zur Philosophie, the theme of the elect occurs again and again.

Herman Philipse, Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being

I trust that the linkages here are evident. Like Fludd and Hamann, Heidegger appeals to some sort of revelation to which he has privileged access, one that both trumps other accounts and is not accessible to them. The presupposition of having penetrated to the inner core of things is stated as a first principle, not a conclusion.

This passage from The Question Concerning Technology is representative:

In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence. Man stands so decisively in subservience to the challenging-forth of enframing that he does not grasp enframing as a claim, that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists, in terms of his essence, in a realm where he is addressed, so that he can never encounter only himself.

Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”

But Heidegger sees, Heidegger encounters. Heidegger knows the fundamental inners of things, like Fludd. His claims would be easily dismissed if technology and science didn’t present so many genuine questions that Heidegger is forcing out of people’s minds with his mystification. Such obfuscation neuters the rational force of any critique it is used to make and replaces it with pure authority. If you have the authority that Heidegger had, you can win the argument; if you don’t, you will lose.


4. Saul Kripke (1940- )

It may seem unfair and even perverse to include Kripke on this list, for unlike the others he has an indisputably great contribution to formal logic. Yet it is his metaphysics and his rhetoric with which I am concerned here, and I can’t deny the overlap. In fact, it’s significant that both an “analytic” and a “continental” philosopher can fall into this list.

Kripke does not use obscurity per se; what he does do is utilize a closed system that is then pushed onto reality. In this he resembles Fludd, who in Vickers’ words “starts with ideas and pictures, finds words to describe them, and then links this composite to reality.” The composite here is far more rigorous and “scientific” than anything Fludd ever managed, yet the outcome is not so different. Those who favor Kripke will certainly disagree, but the burden of proof remains with them. Central to Kripke’s approach is an appeal to ungrounded intuition that mimics the tactics of the above thinkers. Intuition becomes another obscuring tactic.

Kripke acolyte Scott Soames gives a non-technical summary of Kripke’s impact:

[Kripke’s theories] brought back the idea that things in the world have discoverable essences, which are properties not just physically required but metaphysically necessary for their existence. Some of these properties are discoverable by science. But these may not exhaust the essential properties of human beings. The impact of Kripke’s book was its message that, despite the progress philosophers have made in understanding meaning and language, philosophical knowledge is not limited to that, which means that philosophy must reconnect to the non-linguistic world.

Scott Soames in The Browser

Essential properties: the insides of things, just as Fludd claimed access to. The armchair discovery of essential properties beyond those discoverable by science is quite an achievement, one capable of generating a lot more business for philosophers itching to escape the punishing strictures of mid-century anti-essentialism. How did Kripke do it? Richard Rorty provides a good overview in the LRB, but I will briefly summarize the technical points:

Kripke postulated a formal modal logic for talking about possible worlds, creating a formalization of “necessary” and “contingent” propositions that has caught on like wildfire, wiping away the austerity of W.V.O. Quine and a number of other mid-century analytic philosophers in favor of bold new metaphysical conjectures. Some of these conjectures are indeed dangerously close to postulating the inner essence of things, as anyone who reads Kripke’s Naming and Necessity will realize. Key to this is Kripke’s idea of the “rigid designator,” a name that picks out the same thing in all possible worlds. Rigid designators include all proper names, various technical physical science terms. Somewhat famously, he says:

I thus agree with Quine, that “Hesperus is Phosphorus” is (or can be) an empirical discovery; with Marcus, that it is necessary.

So it is not possible that Hesperus could not have been Phosphorus, and this modal, metaphysical claim is based solely on the nature of the linguistic terms involved and the counterfactual possible world setup he has going. In response to those who complain about possible worlds, he says:

Those who have argued that to make sense of the notion of rigid designator, we must antecedently make sense of ‘criteria of transworld identity’ have precisely reversed the cart and the horse; it is because we can refer (rigidly) to Nixon, and stipulate that we are speaking of what might have happened to him (under certain circumstances), that ‘transworld identifications’ are unproblematic in such cases.

Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity

The shorter version of this, again, is: saying makes it so. The way in which we use language somehow makes it possible to generate claims about metaphysical necessity. Can we rigidly refer to Nixon? That seems to be the shaky ground on which cart and horse must ride.

For someone like myself who thinks that simply naming something isn’t even sufficient to be certain it exists, Kripke is far off the mark, but again, that is beside the point here. My consideration here is with the rhetorical tactics involved and how they echo past thinkers who presume a familiarity with the inner nature of reality and use a certain sort of authoritative language to proclaim it.

Other Kripkean feats include proving the necessity of “Water = H2O” and “Cicero = the organism descended from sperm s and egg e,” as well as the non-necessity of “Mental events are identical with brain events.” The passage related to this last one is worthy of quoting. Here, “C-fibers” are the part of the brain that happen to be associated with pain in humans.

What about the case of the stimulation of C-fibers? To create this phenomenon, it would seem that God need only create beings with C-fibers capable of the appropriate type of physical stimulation; whether the beings are conscious or not is irrelevant here. It would seem, though, that to make the C-fiber stimulation correspond to pain, or be felt as pain, God must do something in addition to the mere creation of the C-fiber stimulation; He must let the creatures feel the C-fiber stimulation as pain, and not as a tickle, or as warmth, or as nothing, as apparently would also have been within His powers . . . The same cannot be said for pain; if the phenomenon exists at all, no further work should be required to make it into pain.

From here it is a short hop to Kripke’s personal views:

Kripke is Jewish, and he takes this seriously. He is not a nominal Jew and he is careful keeping the Sabbath, for instance he doesn’t use public transportation on Saturdays. He thinks religion can help him in philosophy:

“I don’t have the prejudices many have today, I don’t believe in a naturalist world view. I don’t base my thinking on prejudices or a world view and do not believe in materialism.”

He claims that many people think that they have a scientific world view and believe in materialism, but that this is an ideology.

GoInside interview with Saul Kripke, 2001

Such remarks sound a bit condescending, and so I ask: does Kripke have his own prejudices? It seems that he does not. He is well above the rest of us, having evidently transcended the need for a worldview. And perhaps language as well:

“People used to talk about concepts more, and now they talk about words more,” he says, capsulizing the profession. “Sometimes I think it’s better to talk about concepts.”

Saul Kripke profile in the New York Times (1977)

Yet the reason for why analytic philosophers migrated to words was that no one could agree on what a concept was. Nor how to grasp one. The Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Concepts encompasses nearly every discipline of philosophy, while offering little that is uncontested save for the gnomic first sentence: “Concepts are the constituents of thoughts.” So the way I read Kripke’s statement is that people should talk about concepts his way.

Yet in justifying the correctness of his versions of things, Kripke often appeals to intuition. The word “intuition” appears frequently in Kripke’s writings, often as something he wishes to “capture” formally. The Preface to Naming and Necessity appeals to intuition on nearly every page in justifying rigid designators. The papers in Philosophical Troubles use intuition, if anything, more frequently, particular when speaking about truth and knowledge. Some form of the word “intuition” is used 246 times in the book’s 380 pages. For comparison, Quine uses it 9 times, and not always favorably, in the 130 pages of From a Logical Point of View, while Davidson uses it 23 times in the 285 pages of Inquiries into Truth and Intepretation. Wittgenstein uses it only four times in all of Philosophical Investigations, while Sellars makes only a single derogatory use of it in the entirety of Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind.

Now perhaps Kripke’s experience is different, but I live in a world in which the vast majority of intuitions that I or anyone else has are wrong. Today’s intuitions are tomorrow’s mockeries. Either way, I don’t see how you combat Kripke if you have an opposing intuition. I doubt he expects one to do so. Appeals to intuition in philosophy are not so different from appeals to feeling, consensus, or religion: they rely on you accepting an unsubstantiated claim from a supposed expert or authority. It is hard to see intuition as much more than an authoritative cudgel designed to shut down questions and let things remain cloudy. At the end of the day, I think this is what Kripke’s metaphysics will remain: ungrounded appeals to intuition.

In some ways Kripke has embraced obscurity, publishing next to nothing in the years since Naming and Necessity and cultivating an oracular persona. He is very much a counter-Wittgenstein, another religious philosopher who published almost nothing, yet where Wittgenstein leaves us with questions, Kripke is always in a hurry to give answers. I do believe that Kripke’s metaphysical system has more value than Fludd’s pretty but false pictures of the world, but I do wonder how much more value.

I’ll let Quine have the last word on intuition’s use as a core tool of mystic authorities:

Twice I have been startled to find my use of ‘intuitive’ misconstrued as alluding to some special and mysterious avenue of knowledge. By an intuitive account I mean one in which terms are used in habitual ways, without reflecting on how they might be defined or what presuppositions they might conceal.

W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object

And this dual nature of ‘intuition’ is why intuitions are obscure, and why they form the fundament of Fludd, Hamann, Heidegger, and Kripke’s work.

George Kennedy on Comparative Rhetoric

George Kennedy is a brilliant scholar of Greek and Latin rhetoric, but he also wrote a slim book, Comparative Rhetoric, that makes a better go than most studies at being a genuinely comparative analysis of rhetoric across pre-modern cultures. Beginning with a discussion of animal behavior and encompassing Aboriginal Australian, Native American, and Chinese sources among others, Kennedy attempts to identify areas of commonality and variation across the cultures. Much (all?) of the book is clearly debatable, even if I’m not in a position to contest most of his claims, but the debates are productive ones.

The obvious problem is that as of today, the imbalance of evidence and analysis in favor of Greek and Latin makes a disinterested assessment very difficult if not impossible. but I think Kennedy makes a good-faith effort to adopt as neutral a stance as he can, and evaluate “rhetoric” as the purposes of linguistic expression in society, rather than as any particularly Western discipline. It is vastly less Western in its focus than many studies that purport to deprivilege western culture while only reifying its centrality. Even when I think he is showing his biases, I appreciate at least the effort to be fair. As a preliminary study, which is what Kennedy declares it to be, I rate it highly.

The book is compact and worth reading in whole. I have grouped some key passages under several headings.

Definition of Rhetoric

Rhetoric is not, I think, just a convenient concept existing only in the mind of speakers, audiences, writers, critics, and teachers. It has an essence or reality that has not been appreciated. I shall argue in this book that rhetoric, in essence, is a form of mental and emotional energy.

Rhetoric, in the most general sense, may thus be identified with the energy inherent in an utterance (or an artistic representation): the mental or emotional energy that impels the speaker to expression, the energy level coded in the message, and the energy received by the recipient who then uses mental energy in decoding and perhaps acting on the message. Rhetorical labor takes place.

Persuasion can be achieved in several ways, but nature has favored the use of signs because it is less expensive of energy than is the use of force. Rhetoric may be regarded as a form of mental energy, sparked by an emotional reaction to a situation in which an individual feels threatened or perceives the opportunity to gain some advantage.

Epideictic [Non-Judicial, Non-Deliberative] Rhetoric in Birds

Ritualization accompanied by epideictic utterance is a feature of animal rhetoric as it is of human life. Although the display and singing of birds in the mating season can be regarded as deliberative rhetoric, bird song outside the mating season is often epideictic in that it reaffirms existing relationships with other birds.

Once facility begins to be acquired, a fledgling bird begins experiments by amplifying topics. Amplification involves repetition, variation, combination, and substitution of themes. Erasmus’s famous treatise On Copia is the fullest description of how this was traditionally done in the West, using tropes and figures. Bird song exemplifies many figures of speech that are based on sound patterns: anaphora, homoeoteleuton, paronomasia, and the like. It does not employ figures of thought such as rhetorical question, apostrophe, or irony. It uses tropes only in the most literal sense that acoustic patterns or syllables seem sometimes to be substituted for others. Since these units do not appear to have cognitive value, there is no metaphor or metonymy, but the ability to make substitutions is fundamental to any development of troping. I noted earlier that synecdoche (genus for species or species for genus) is present in the communication of vervet monkeys and that some other animals understand metonymy. The ability of birds to combine their themes into different songs is significant because it illustrates in nature the potential to combine sounds into words that is the basis of human speech.

Rhetoric’s Conservative Function in Traditional Cultures

Physically, a tjurunga is a flat stone with some painted markings on it. These were the most sacred objects in Australian religion and almost the only articles of private property. A tjurunga is identical with the totem but all tjurungas are more or less alike. Their neutral appearance makes them capable of taking on any meaning. They are the ultimate synecdoche.

The traditional cultures of the world are exceedingly conservative; they resist change. Fear of change is an important source of rhetorical energy. Just as the basic impulse for rhetoric in the individual derives from the instinct for self-preservation, so the most common function of rhetoric in traditional societies is preservation of their accustomed beliefs and way of life. Among the ways this is done is by attributing the institution of customs to divine or semi-divine authority figures, by stressing the antiquity, continuity, and consistency of the customs, and by seeking to authenticate them by the use of archaic language. Social control is secured by those in the contemporary society who have been initiated into the language and the mysteries of the tradition and can both present it in its allegedly authentic form. and interpret it to the public. Opportunity for manipulation for personal gain exists, but probably only becomes a factor when special situations or crises arise. Deliberation of a sort always occurs on the problems of the group, but even in a traditional society with a more developed polity than that of the Australians, decisions are usually taken by consensus. As Malinowski (1922:62) wrote of the Trobrianders, “there is hardly ever much room for doubt or deliberation, as natives communally, as well as individually, never act except on traditional and conventional lines.”

At the linguistic level, archaic aboriginal rhetoric seems to illustrate a stage of what might be called “proto-metaphor. ” By juxtaposing words, a series of overlapping images, perceptions, or emotions can be projected without differentiating their fields of reference. The absence of explicit simile is evidence of the lack of such differentiation. Most modern theories of metaphor seem to me too intellectual and cognitive to describe this process. Its source lies largely if not entirely in animistic personification: the literal belief in the identification of species of animals with human beings and the animate reality of natural objects, including mountains, lakes, and rocks

Catachresis, synecdoche, and metonymy played leading roles in the early development of language. That is to say, when need occurred for a specific term for something, the initial impulse was not to invent a new term, but to find something in the existing vocabulary to “abuse”-the literal meaning of catachresis–in its place. The chief options then became either the use of genus for species or species for genus (synecdoche), if either existed in the language, or the use of some term that is physically contiguous and might be taken as characteristic of the idea needing expression (metonymy).

The Primacy of Rhetorical Form and Context Over Logic

Logical argument is often only a minor factor in the persuasive effect of a traditional formal speech. The evidence the speaker provides to support his position is its consistency with the traditional wisdom of the society, transmitted through proverbs and mythical or historical examples from the past. Although a Merina or Balinese speaker seemingly undermines his personal authority by his ethos of humility, he also implies authority by his ability to use the appropriate code. Such a speech is difficult to answer in any polite and acceptable terms: It has social power. Often, a speech is followed by silence, which effectively means agreement. In its most extreme form, by avoiding use of rational argument formal speech can forestall any potential logical objections, allegations of inconsistency on the part of the speaker, or attempts at rebuttal ( Bloch 1975:21). There is nothing to rebut. Sometimes, however, another elder will speak in the same style with a somewhat different proposal, but aiming at compromise and consensus, which is likely to be accepted. On rare occasions someone will not allow the silence of consent to follow a speech and will even ridicule it. Bloch notes ( 1975:10) that the Merina take great pains to avoid being addressed in formal language, which is used on other occasions as well as in councils, if they are not willing to accept the results.

Formal Speech as a Hegemonic Mechanism

Judith Irvine ( 1979) has identified four aspects of “formality” that apply cross-culturally.

First, in contrast to informal speech–story telling, conversation, gossiping, and the like–formal speech increases code structuring by imposing special rules of style and delivery on the speaker.

Second, the conventions of the appropriate code are consistently maintained.

Third, formal speech involves a positional rather than a personal identity. The speaker speaks in a certain political or social role, performing a public function rather than advancing personal interest.

Fourth, a central situational focus emerges in formal speech: That is, it deals with important activities and the central actors within them, leaving aside trivial matters.

Traditional deliberative speech is usually polite, considerate of the feelings of others, and relatively unemotional. When attacks are made, veiled or indirect language is often used, which allows the victim to save face and protects the speaker from immediate reprisal. The authority of a speaker is increased in some contexts by an ability to use a special, formal language, which carries the collective values of the community and makes use of grammatical parallelism, alliteration, assonance, indirect allusions, and metaphor. The most common metaphors are personifications of forces of nature, animals, or physical objects. Members of a traditional society find a speech in formal language difficult to answer, since any response seems to reject communal values. Another speaker may, however, express a somewhat different point of view, usually in a respectful way, and seek compromise. When this process breaks down, as sometimes happens, it is apt to break down completely, with a quick resort to ridicule, insult, and even violence. Someone who is dissatisfied with an imposed consensus may resort to sorcery to counter its effects.

Formal oratory was a conservative force, preserving the moral and political values of the past and reinforcing class distinctions.

“Formal language,” required in ceremonial or official contexts, often has poetic features and often seems archaic. Archaism certifies the authenticity of the message by suggesting its conformity with beliefs of the past. Use of formal language has to be learned and is not available to everyone; it thus exercises social power of a conservative sort.

The human inclination to develop formal languages is one of many indications of the basically conservative function of rhetoric in human history. Formal languages are often archaic or revivals of what is regarded as the pure form of the language used in the past. They thus contribute to the preservation of other past values. The requirement to use them for serious discourse helps ensure preservation of the status quo on the behalf of those in power and limits the ability of marginal groups, untutored in elitist language, from effecting change.

Aztec and Greek Rhetoric

As León-Patilla (1985:40) observes, “In many of the huehuetlatolli we find attempts to inculcate in the people that it is the destiny of the nobles to keep and transmit the ancient wisdom, to carry the people on their shoulders, and to feed the gods with the blood of captives seized in the sacred war. Such ideas confirm not only that these discourses were the speeches of nobles but also that among their aims was the reinforcement of the status of the ruling group.” The tone of Aztec epideictic differs greatly from that of Greek, reflecting differences between the two cultures: Aztec speeches are often very critical of the addressee, whereas Greek epideictic is more often given to flattery; Aztec oratory is harsh, austere, and fatalistic, whereas Greek is frequently playful and humane.

Mesopotamian Written Rhetoric

The Mesopotamian cultures seem consistently to privilege writing over speech; doubtless oral traditions lie behind their myths and legends, but writing incorporated and erased them. While other cultures, even after attaining literacy, have honored oral skills, eloquence, and the figure of the orator, Mesopotamian literature, so far as I have found, never did so. The scribes triumphed over the speakers. Even the gods wrote letters ( Grayson 1984), something unknown in other cultures.

Failure of Traditional Rhetoric in the Egyptain “The Complaints of Khakheperre Sonb”

[O that I had] unknown phrases, sayings that are strange,
novel, untried words, free of repetition;
not transmitted sayings, spoken by the ancestors!
I wring out my body of what it holds in releasing all my words;
for what was said is repetition, when what was said is said.
Ancestor’s words are nothing to boast of,
they are found by those who come after.
Not one speaks who spoke, there speaks one who will speak,
may another find what he will speak!
Not a teller of tales after they happen, this has been done before;
nor a teller of what might be said, this is vain endeavor, it is lies,
and none will recall his name to others.
I say this in accord with what I have seen:
from the first generation to those who come after, they imitate what is past.
Would that I knew what others ignore, such as has not been repeated,
to say it and have my heart answer me, to inform it of my distress,
shift to it the load on my back, the matters that afflict me,
relate to it of what I suffer, and sigh “Ah” with relief!

Hebrew Biblical Rhetoric

Lamentations and prophecies are found in Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and other cultures, as noted earlier, but the texts of the Hebrew prophets exhibit a far more complex rhetorical invention than is found elsewhere. This results primarily from two factors, the nature of Jewish religion and the editing and publication of written texts. The religion of the Jews as it developed into monotheism, with all power assigned to a god who claimed to bestow special favor on his chosen people, created an unprecedented theological and rhetorical problem when that favor seemed to be withheld.

Chinese Rhetoric

Like traditional rhetoric in other parts of the world, Chinese rhetoric as we see it in the earliest texts was conservative, even reactionary, aimed at consensus, and sought to reaffirm social and political hierarchies, modeled on family relationships in which great emphasis was put on the authority of a father over his sons and the respect of a son for a father.

Chinese thinkers, however, often emphasized a need for frankness and sincerity in political contexts to a degree not found elsewhere, and during the long history of China rhetorical teaching was given considerably greater depth and detail than is found in the Near East. This is primarily because of the rich philosophical traditions, especially Confucianism, that came to dominate Chinese thought. Neither Confucius nor most other Chinese thinkers held a very high opinion of the intelligence of the general public; what they have to say about speech, persuasion, and other aspects of rhetoric is addressed to rulers or to their own philosophical students and does not consider techniques of addressing a mass audience. It is equally true that most ancient Chinese speeches are addressed to a single individual, a ruler or one of his ministers, or to a small group of political advisers ( Garrett 1993b:22-23).

Although metaphor is constantly present, imagery is not rationalized as simile: “Early Chinese songs do not as a rule introduce a comparison with an ‘as if’ or ‘like,’ but state it on the same footing as the facts they narrate” ( Waley 1960:13). This is consistent with the treatment of metaphor in traditional oral cultures as I have described it in earlier chapters.

Chinese rhetoric as seen in the Shu generally avoids pathos except in military exhortations and in some of the more severe announcements or instructions. It is strong in ethos–the authority and character of the speaker, the tradition of the ancestors who continue to watch the living, the moral rightness of the message—but it is also not lacking in logical argument; as the Viscount of Ke said in an instruction to King Chou, “the virtue of speech is accordance with reason” ( Legge III:326). Argument is chiefly inductive, based on examples, precedents, quotation of authorities, and analogies. Deductive argument in the form of enthymemes seems undeveloped. Speeches are often clearly divided into parts that perform the functions of proemium, narration, proof, and epilogue.

Some important concepts in Confucian thought are the Tao (the “Way”), the proper course of human conduct based on the model of antiquity; te, often translated “virtue,” a person’s potentiality to act in accordance with the Way; li, ceremony or good manners; yi, the conduct fitting one’s role or status; and jen, used as a noun to mean “noble” and as a verb to mean “be civilized” in conduct ( Graham 1989:11-19). The mind/body dichotomy of Western thought was, happily, unknown to the Chinese; jen is not an inner state. Fingarette ( 1972:55) claims it was conceived as “a directed force operating in actions in public space and time, and having a person as initial point-source and a person as the terminal point on which the force impinges.” It thus closely resembles “rhetoric” as a form of energy, a definition I suggested earlier in this book.

Chinese and Greek Sophistry

Sophistry in Greece arose in the fifth century BCE, a time of conflicting philosophical doctrines claiming knowledge of truth. The sophists were skeptical of these claims, which they undermined by verbal subtleties of argument and the use of paradox; they sought to teach practical ways of success in the world based primarily on techniques of public speaking. They were much interested in language; indeed, the sophists began the study of grammar and philology. Although Athens became the center of the sophist movement, most of the leading sophists were not Athenians but itinerant teacher-orators who supported themselves by traveling about the Greek world, giving demonstrations of their skills and offering political advice to Greek states. Something analogous to Greek sophistry had appeared in India a century or two earlier; in China it may have begun as early as the sixth century but flourished especially in the fourth and third centuries, thus overlapping the period of sophistry in classical Greece.

Sophistry in some form seems to be a regular development in “sophisticated” literate societies when political, social, and moral conditions are undergoing change, conflicting philosophical schools arise, each claiming access to truth in a different way, and individual teachers appear who are independent of state bureaucracies and offer advice to rulers. All these conditions existed in China in the fourth century. What Graham ( 1978:15-18) has called “the metaphysical crisis of the 4th century” seems especially to have contributed to a sophistic turn in Chinese thought. This was precipated by the teachings of Yang Chu, who argued for making judgments on the basis of the interests of the individual and introduced the concept of hsing into Chinese philosophy. Hsing is human nature, “the spontaneous tendency of the living organism throughout its life span … we obey Heaven, not as Confucians and Mohists suppose by behaving morally, but by nurturing and harmonising the vital tendencies and spontaneous inclinations which Heaven instilled in us when we were born” ( Graham 1978:16-17). This might be said to include rhetorical energy.

Abstraction in Indian Rhetoric

As the discussion here will reveal, Indians put a very high value on speech, higher perhaps than that found in any other ancient culture, and in marked contrast to Mesopotamians. Even long texts were memorized and transmitted orally, and knowledge of sacred texts was guarded by priests; some may have been written down in the sixth or fifth centuries, many probably did not exist in written form until the fourth or third century, and our texts may reflect conditions of that time or have been significantly affected by the thought processes involved in writing (Goody 1987:110-22).

Despite the resistance to writing, abstract thought developed in India at an early time to a greater extent than in any other culture I have so far discussed. Why this should be so is difficult to say. It may have been facilitated by the ability of Indo-European languages to coin abstractions, which is also evident in the development of Greek philosophy. An important factor was the existence of a social class–the Brahmin priests–with the leisure for contemplation. An inclination to abstraction probably reflects some basic feature of Indian religious feeling. Certainly it is evident first in religious texts of the classical period, which are filled with definitions and subdivisions of abstract concepts. It is also evident in early Indian scholarship on law, grammar, literature, and science.

Rhetorically, as well as geographically, India lay between China and Greece. In both India and China discussions of speech in the archaic and classical periods are found in a context of political and ethical thinking, not set off as a separate discipline, as happened in Greece. In all three countries logical argument was developed as a subtle tool, leading to a form of sophistry. There is more inclination to classification of abstract concepts and more explicit celebration of the power of speech in India, seen for example in the Hymn to Vak or Yajnavalkya’s tribute to Brahma as speech, than in China. Both Indian and Chinese thinkers conceptualized some aspects of rhetoric and created a terminology for criticism, the Indians in greater detail than the Chinese.

Simile vs. Metaphor

At the linguistic level, archaic aboriginal rhetoric seems to illustrate a stage of what might be called “proto-metaphor. ” By juxtaposing words, a series of overlapping images, perceptions, or emotions can be projected without differentiating their fields of reference. The absence of explicit simile is evidence of the lack of such differentiation. Most modern theories of metaphor seem to me too intellectual and cognitive to describe this process. Its source lies largely if not entirely in animistic personification: the literal belief in the identification of species of animals with human beings and the animate reality of natural objects, including mountains, lakes, and rocks.

Unlike synecdoche and metonymy, metaphor carries, or can carry, felt emotion. Simile would seem to be a rationalization of metaphor: that is, use of an explicit comparison when the speaker realizes a metaphor would not be literally true or would seem far-fetched. Proverbs function like metaphors; that is, they are substitutions or transferences of a traditional saying that takes the place of a more specific description of the immediate situation. Appeal to proverbs is often a feature of the code of politeness cultivated in traditional societies and thus a rhetorical strategy.

The hymns of the Rigveda contain references to the existence of councils and assemblies among the Aryans and a few use a simple dialogue form. Like other religious texts, they are frequently metaphorical in expression, but unlike other early or traditional poetry we have met they also often specify that something is “like” something else rather than seeming to identify two concepts. Since this is also a feature of early Greek poetry, it is tempting to think that there was something about the experience of Indo-European tribes that caused them to distinguish what was in some way “like” something else from what could be identified with something else in an undifferentiated way. Could it be that in their wanderings over vastly different landscapes, encountering different people with different ways of life and different beliefs, an experience in scale unlike that of other people I have discussed, they observed phenomena with which they could not entirely identify but which had some likeness to something they knew and found a linguistic way to express this intermediate stage of the same and the other? A contributing factor may have been the ambiguity of the Indo-European verb “to be” in all its forms. Only in Indo-European languages (and in ancient Sumerian where simile also appears) does a single verb function both as copula, which predicates some property or attribute (e.g., “This object is red”), and also means “to exist” ( Dewart 1989:259-300). Thus an English phrase such as “The god is a red-burning fire” can mean that the god exists and really is a red fire and that the god has some attribute of a red fire.

Atypical Aspects of Greek Rhetoric

By the fifth century, however, as seen in the works of Aeschylus, Pindar, and their successors, Greek poetry abounds in metaphor. Unlike other literary traditions, Greek thus seems to reverse the usual development: instead of movement from an early inclination for metaphorical expression to an increased literalism, we find a movement from clear, relatively literal expression toward increased exploitation of metaphorical imagery.

The most distinctive feature of Greek public address in contrast to that of many other cultures is its eristic qualities. In the traditional oral and early literate societies I have described earlier, the goal of deliberative rhetoric is usually consensus and concord in accordance with conservative values, and sharp altercation is avoided if possible. Differences are usually politely or indirectly stated. In Egypt, Palestine, India, and China there are injunctions to turn away wrath with a soft answer, or even to be silent; this was not the attitude of the Greeks.

Strife among human beings in Greece might be thought to receive some validation from strife among the gods. What is unusual in Greece is the acceptance, even the celebration, of contention and rivalry in civic society. With the canonization of the Homeric poems as the cultural textbooks of the Greeks, the immorality of the gods in epic became a problem for ethical philosophers.

The history of classical Greece is the history of the rivalries, plots, and wars of proud, independent city-states. Although Greeks ordinarily valued family ties and friendship, their contentiousness at times, in strong contrast to Chinese culture, even countenanced revolt of children against parents or other family members. Orestes killed his mother; in the story of the Seven against Thebes brother killed brother. Aristophanes’s comedy, Clouds, portrays a son out-arguing and even beating his father.

The Western world is indebted to the Greeks for the earliest models of democracy, but Greek democracies were almost always at crisis stage, riven by faction, and easily degenerated into mob rule and sometimes civil war under the influence of demagogues.

The acceptance of majority decision, even a majority of one, has significant effect on rhetorical practice. If a speaker does not need to secure consensus, he need not try to conciliate the more extreme opponents, can largely ignore some of their concerns, and can concentrate on solidifying support with those already inclined to agree and winning over the doubtful. Vigorous, even personal, attack on opponents and their motives contributes to this end.

The Greeks delighted in contentious argument; they often put a relatively low priority on telling the truth if a lie would be more effective; slanderous invective was not out of order in a court of law. Perhaps because of this, they seem to have become more tolerant of blatant flattery than most egalitarian cultures. Autocratic societies are, of course, another matter, and the existence of wealthy individuals can encourage flattery, as in the case of Hausa “roko” mentioned in chapter 4. When Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias (463a9) is pressed to offer his own definition of rhetoric he calls it a form of flattery. What he has in mind are primarily the efforts of democratic politicians (the rhetores) to gain influence by praising an audience and telling them what they want to hear rather than what is wise and just. Even the morally austere Aristotle suggests topoi for flattery in public address.

It would doubtless be an exaggeration to say that speakers in other cultures do not understand logical contradiction, but it is perhaps true that Western contentiousness tends to identify and sharpen contradictions. In other cultures, and now in poststructural thought in the West, there is a greater inclination to entertain the possibility that two seemingly contradictory statements may both be true in some sense; for example, if a term is used metaphorically in one of the statements. Yang and yin in Chinese thought are complementaries, not opposites; Mencius’s doctrine of multiple definitions is a Chinese example of a different form of reasoning. Western thinking, beginning with the Greeks, has tended to polarize truth and fiction, good and bad, body and soul, conservative and liberal, and other such concepts, for the sake of clarity but often unnecessarily.

The Contentious Bit

First in biological evolution, then in human cultural evolution the communicative instinct has been generalized to a desire to secure not only the necessities of life, but also what is perceived as the qualities of a good life. The basic function of rhetorical communication is defensive and conservative; but to secure or preserve the quality of life for one individual or one group may seem to require offensive actions and efforts at change. Traditional human societies have been strongly resistant to change, which is usually perceived as change for the worse. The major function of rhetoric throughout most of human history in most of the world has been to preserve things as they are or to try to recover an idealized happier past. In times of-stress, the latter sometimes takes the form of millenialism, prophecy of the return of a Golden Age or the coming of a messiah. Occasionally, influential individuals have undertaken rhetorical programs for change; examples cited in earlier chapters include Akhenaton in fourteenth-century BCE Egypt, Moses as described in the Old Testament, Solon in sixth-century Greece, Ashoka in India, and the Legalists in China. Popular belief in the possibility of progress and thus openness to change for the better is largely limited to classical Greek and modern Western societies and even there often resisted.

The function of deliberation in traditional societies is the achievement of consensus: not the acceptance of the view of a majority but explicit or tacit unanimity. The pressure for consensus is so great that if the process breaks down, as it sometimes does, open fighting may occur, dissenters may move away, or may be forcibly silenced. Lack of unanimity is a threat not only to leaders but to the maintenance of society. Non-Western societies that have accepted Western democracy often continue to try to impose uniformity of public opinion in a way disquieting to Westerners; Singapore is a good example. The appearance of uniformity remains an important value in China and many Third World countries. Comparative study of rhetoric helps understanding of why this inclination is natural.

The other ancient society in which open contention is common is that described in the ancient Indian epic, Mahabharata. Since the ancient Greeks and the Aryan invaders of India derived their language and some of their cultural institutions from the same ultimate source, the Indo-Europeans, this may be a heritage from contentious tribesmen who once roamed the steppes of Russia.

It is that final section that will raise eyebrows, and I do think that Kennedy has drawn too sharp a distinction between western and non-western societies. I believe he overemphasizes contention as a causal factor. I suspect he is right that the western rhetoric as derived from Greek and Roman sources is atypically contentious, with both positive and negative implications: more opportunities for disagreement, but more opportunities for pointless conflict. But contention and argument are amorphous things, and I am not at all certain that open disagreement necessarily entails a lack of consensus at the deepest level. The case of India, where Kennedy unconvincingly appeals to a common Indo-European origin to explain the amount of contention, also makes me think that he has overstepped the evidence there.

But I feel in greater agreement with Kennedy’s assessment of uniformities. The overall message is rather grim and Foucauldian: language has developed as a force primarily for enforcing hierarchical social roles and preserving an existing power structure, creating a vicious circle in which power reinforces the rhetoric which reinforces that same power. This is seen  most clearly in the establishment of formal speech, restricted to an elite and set out as a clear demarcation of status.

Rhetoric does, however, open up possibilities for rebellion, subversion, creativity, and genuine debate, as beautifully shown in “The Complaints of Khakheperre Sonb.” Rhetoric is a conservative force that, in its flexibility and creativity, allows for innovation and dissent, only to lash back at that innovation as a result of its conservatism. Literacy only amplifies the possibilities for instability.


Lucan’s Civil War: Rhetoric and Power, Murder and Suicide

The Civil War is an epic steeped in rhetoric, or more precisely, birthed from the font of rhetoric. Rhetoric and rhetorical training was crucially important to writers of Lucan’s era in particular, but the entire classical world had an art and science of rhetoric that often gets short-changed because Plato, who opposed and distrusted the art of rhetorical persuasion (all the while using it), has won the battle of posterity in recent centuries.

But while speeches play a significant persuasive role in much Greek and Roman literature, Lucan’s epic takes a vastly more ironic stance toward the role of rhetoric. So often in Lucan, words are merely a form of force, their meaning purely relative to the situation in which they are employed, bereft of further significance. The first analogue that comes to mind is the proto-Machiavelli Chinese Legalist Han Fei (280-233 BC), who offers the following advice:

The important thing in persuasion is to learn how to play up the aspects that the person you are talking to is proud of, and play down the aspects he is ashamed of. Thus, if the person has some urgent personal desire, you should show him that it is his public duty to carry it out and urge him not to delay. If he has some mean objective in mind and yet cannot restrain himself, you should do your best to point out to him whatever admirable aspects it may have and to minimize the reprehensible ones…. This is the way to gain the confidence and intimacy of the person you are addressing and to make sure that you are able to say all you have to say without incurring his suspicion.

Han Fei (tr. Burton Watson), quoted in George Kennedy, Comparative Rhetoric

It’s hard to say if Lucan is quite so cynical about the use of language, because Lucan is so fevered that his commitment to any principle, even that of ironic relativism of meaning, is difficult to assess. Nonetheless, there are many speeches in Civil War where it is clear that the import of their words is tailored to the situation and not meant to hold any greater meaning beyond it. Yet for those situations, when rhetoric serves as a spur to action, rhetoric is more powerful than any other instrument.

There is a very clever scene in Book III when Caesar tries to inspire his men to further bloody battle, but the weary and nervous troops are still hesitant to invade their homeland.

So [Caesar] spoke, but the doubtful crowd grumbled
hushed and unsure murmurs. However fierce their minds
and spirits swelling for slaughter, their fathers’
household gods, and piety, break them. But grim
love of steel and fear of their leader recall them.

Civil War III.382-7

In what seems to be a parodic reversal of the Iliad’s infamous scene with Thersites, where a low-ranking soldier speaks out against the Trojan War and gets humiliated and beaten by the aristocratic officer corps, Lucan has a high-ranking officer, Laelius, speak up and say exactly what Caesar wants to hear.

“If I may, O greatest governor of the Roman name,
and if it is right to confess true words—that you
have held in check your strength with long endurance
is our complaint. Have you lost your trust in us?
As long as warm blood moves our breathing bodies
and strength of arm remains to spin these long spears,
will you suffer the toga’s disgrace and the Senate to reign?
And is it really so dreadful to win a civil war?….

“Whatever walls you wish to throw down, level flat,
these arms will drive the ram to strew their stones.
You just name the city and I will utterly raze it,
even if it is Rome.” All at once the cohorts
gave their assent and made known with high hands
their pledge to take part in any war he charged them.

This is Laelius’ only appearance in the entire poem. Taking Han Fei’s advice to the hilt, Laelius reverses Caesar’s speech, telling Caesar that it is not they who have lost trust in Caesar but Caesar who has lost trust in them: of course they are loyal to him and will follow him in anything! But this bit of brown-nosing is not aimed at Caesar but at the rank and file. The issue becomes one of pride: surely Caesar’s worries about his men’s loss of faith can’t be true, can they?

Caesar’s rhetoric later becomes an explicit means to drive the men out of their right minds, to keep them in the fighting spirit. When they rebel, he demeans them while putting himself above the gods and embracing the Great Man theory of history:

“You really think
your efforts for me have ever carried weight?
The gods don’t care, they’d never stoop so low,
the Fates don’t give a damn about your life or death.
Everything follows the whims of men of action.
Humankind lives for the few.”…

They trembled at his savage threatening voice,
a helpless mob afraid of a single man whom they,
so many strong young men, could have turned
back to private life—as if his orders
could wield against their will the very iron
of their swords. And Caesar himself was worried
that they might refuse their weapons for this crime.
But they submit to cruelty easier than he hoped:
not only a sword but throats came forward, too.
Nothing inures minds to crime like killing
and dying. So a grim pact was struck, restoring order;
the troops scattered, appeased by punishments.

Civil War V.356-391

He orders other soldiers to execute the deserters, and they do. The executions reinforce their support of Caesar—or else why would they have assented? Caesar once more grows closer to his army, and his crimes are identified with their crimes. Rhetoric binds them together and drives them into an irrational, almost dissociated state of mind, the sort the Greeks termed ἄτη (Atë).

A great deal of the rhetoric revolves around freedom and liberty, and while Lucan sometimes extols the cause of liberty, he and his characters often question the use of the term in the cause of war. When the tribune Metellus begins to take up arms to stop Caesar from raiding Rome’s treasury, a citizen named Cotta convinces him otherwise with some exceedingly twisty logic:

“The people’s liberty, when tyranny constrains it,
perishes through liberty. But you preserve her shadow
if you willingly do what you’re ordered. Being conquered,
we’ve submitted to so much unfairness. Our only excuse
for disgrace and baseborn fear is that we could not resist.
Just let him pilfer quickly the evil seeds of dreadful war.
Such losses affect peoples who still maintain their rights.
Poverty falls heaviest not on slaves but on their masters.”

Civil War III.153-160

The arguments are highly debatable, especially given the outcome of the war,  but the speech works. Metellus doesn’t even respond.

One climax of rhetorical power comes at the end of Book IV, where a number of Caesar’s men are surrounded and attempt to escape by sea on rafts. One raft is surrounded by Pompey’s forces, and the commander of the doomed raft, Vulteius, urges his men to mass suicide with a lengthy, hyperbolic speech:

“I do not know what example you’re planning, Fortune,
by our great and memorable fates. But in all of history,
whatever annals record as monuments to loyalty
in service to the sword, of military duty,
our company would surpass them. For we know, Caesar,
falling on our swords for you is not enough.
But nothing greater remains, hard-pressed as we are,
than for us to offer great pledges of devotion.
Envious Fortune has cut off much of our glory,
since we are not captives with our sons and fathers….

“I have deserted life, my comrades, and wholly live
by my impulse for coming death! It is a frenzy!
Only those who are touched by the nearness of death
are permitted to realize what a blessing it is—
the gods hide this from survivors, to keep them alive.”

Civil War IV.521-548

Note that Vulteius invokes Fortune as “jealous,” a trait normally applied to the old Greek/Roman gods (the Greek word is φθόνος phthonos). This is a sign that Vulteius does not know what he is talking about, since Fortune is implacable and capricious, obeying no predictable laws. And the actual death reads as black comedy:

First the ship’s captain,
Vulteius, bares his neck and begs to meet fate:
“Is there any at all whose right hand is worthy
to spill my blood? Who will attest his faith,
seal his vow to die by stabbing me?”
He can say no more, for right then many a sword
drives his vitals through. Praising them all, he bestows
his grateful dying blow on the one who stabbed him first.
They fall on one and all, a single faction
committing every unspeakable act of war….

So the young men fall, sworn to share one fate,
and amid such manly deaths, to die takes little valor….

Now the half-dead drag their sprawling guts across
the deck and flood the sea with bloody gore;
ecstatic with the sight of the light they’ve spurned,
they behold their victors with proud faces
as death comes down.

Perhaps something has been lost or gained in translation, but this hardly reads as a dignified treatment of the mass suicide. It’s more of a burlesque, with the men in some kind of ritualistic trance from the violence.

Yet Lucan uses rhetoric as much as he depicts its power. The endless apostrophes and rhetorical questions in Civil War give it a far more demonstrative feel than the Aeneid, and according to Mark P.O. Morford in his short but very helpful The Poet Lucan: Studies in Rhetorical Epic, there are entire passages that follow classical rhetorical rules of organization.

Keeping that in mind, Lucan’s sincerity comes into question when, at the end of the suicide scene, Lucan appears to be praising Vulteius and his men:

But cowardly nations will still not understand
these men’s example: how a simple feat of bravery
frees you from slavery. Instead, kings use iron
to terrify, liberty is branded by savage armies,
to keep us ignorant that swords are for setting free!
Death, why not force cowards to stay in life,
and come to only those with valor?

This seems to argue that cowards should remain alive as punishment for cowardice, and a love of death is a better guarantor of freedom than anything else. If this is sincere, it has little to do with the particular cause. There is enough in Vulteius’ speech to mark him as a deluded warrior following an undeserving leader (Caesar), but perhaps Lucan is also emphasizing that death is preferable in any event to capture and enslavement?

If so, it’s a nihilistic message, since it implies that death is a boon regardless of the wrongness of cause or the comical grotesqueness of method. But there is enough elsewhere in the poem to make one wonder if this message is sincere even at all. So it’s on that note of uncertainty that I leave off on the first four books.

Rod Humble and the Marriage: Not Labels, Not Pointers, but Live Fragments

A few years ago, Rod Humble wrote a short, abstract game called The Marriage. The action consists of trying to get two squares not to shrink or fade out while circles drift around them. You control the blue circle. The pink circle is not under your direct control.

But the game interests me less than the rhetoric of Humble’s explanation for the game. I really am not picking on Humble here, who seems like a reasonable person. It’s just worth observing how utterly foreign his analogical mindset is from that of the best writers.

He wrote the game in an attempt to get away from concrete, visual representation of ideas and concepts, yet what resulted was something conceptually very concrete.

Here is his interpretation that guided the game’s construction:

The game is my expression of how a marriage feels. The blue and pink squares represent the masculine and feminine of a marriage. They have differing rules which must be balanced to keep the marriage going.

The circles represent outside elements entering the marriage. This can be anything. Work, family, ideas, each marriage is unique and the players response should be individual.

The size of each square represents the amount of space that person is taking up within the marriage. So for example we often say that one person’s ego is dominating a marriage or perhaps a large personality. In the game this would be one square being so large that the other one simply is trapped within the space of it unable to get to circles and more importantly unable to “kiss” edge to edge.

The transparency of the squares represents how engaged that person is in the marriage. When one person fades out of the marriage and becomes emotionally distant then the marriage is over.

Your controls reveal the agency of the game. You are only capable of making the squares move towards each other at the same time or removing a circle by sacrificing the size of the pink square. You are playing the agency of Love trying to make the system of the marriage work. Not only does this mean that the mechanics of attraction and sacrifice communicate love but also the physical way the game is controlled, I wanted a gentle almost stroking like feel to playing the game, that’s why clicking or rapid motion was not appropriate.

The backdrop’s colour has meaning. It starts off blue representing the world of the masculine. The club scene perhaps or adventures and exuberant experimentation. It then over time transitions to purple a mix of blue and pink representing the beginnings of a more permanent relationship. Then to pink as we enter fully the world of the feminine such as a home made together or emotionally the relationship becoming more kind. Next onto green colour of life and renewal, this represents a giving back to the world by the marriage, perhaps creatively, perhaps by having children or caring for others. Finally it becomes black symbolizing that at the end of the marriage when life is done there is nothing but each other. The only break in the blackness is at the bottom, where the strip of light representing memories of the marriage has been built up.

The game mechanics are designed such that the game is fragile. Its easy to break. This is deliberate as marriages are fragile and they feel fragile, I wanted to get this across.

The final part of the game comes if the marriage ends while the backdrop is black. At every point the two squares have kissed during the game a pair of tiny squares is created and drift off the screen, as the last one leaves the game ends.

Now, without getting into heavy analysis, some points should already be clear.

  1. The incredible literalness of the mapping from game elements to concepts.
  2. The stripped-down simplicity of the conceptual vocabulary in order to allow for such a literal mapping.
  3. The received nature of the concepts, taking stereotypical notions like the blue masculine and the pink feminine in order to obtain an easily-grasped mapping.

(In 1910 pink was considered a very masculine color, so the symbols are culturally relative, but some relatively common symbol set within a community must always exist, and is probably always trite by its very nature.)

None of these are inherently bad tendencies. In many ways, they are necessary ones for making playable games. But the risks and problems of applying such an ambiguous conceptual vocabulary onto a literal representation should be apparent as well. It encourages a fallback onto the most common of common knowledge in order to make such a mapping comprehensible. Subjective metonymy within a simple framework (the “stroking feel” being linked to love, the various meanings of all the colors) is the key dynamic at work.

But it’s not even the particular symbols used (pink feminine, blue masculine), so much as the need for such a simple framework itself. Let’s say we need two things in a game to represent the male and the female. Is there anything satisfactory that isn’t either reductive or opaque?

  • The Mars and Venus gender symbols
  • Sword and pillow
  • Square and circle
  • Drum and cymbal
  • Hot dog and donut

The use of pink and blue didn’t produce a more sophisticated set of symbols, just a less blatant set. The metonymy was at the same concrete level as any of the duos above. And it applies to metonyms like the transparency equating to engagement.

It is the mindset of a Gene Wolfe, then, where every element, no matter how obscure, has a single definite meaning, rather than the mindset of a James Joyce, where the embrace of ambiguity and contradiction on lexical, semantic, and structural levels yields greater riches than a single postulated meaning.

My contention is that this sort of Platonic, atomistic thinking goes hat in hand with the sort of thinking used in constructing and utilizing scientific models of the world, as opposed to the messier business of human language and human relationships where a far greater degree of ambiguity is both acceptable and accommodated. This ambiguity inevitably leads to misunderstanding, sometimes destructively (say, in a marriage). The question is whether sufficient clarity can be achieved without adopting such a reductive, game-like model. Otherwise, you’ve adopted a view of the world (or of love, or of a marriage) that could easily fail you.

Ironically, this is the sort of analysis often performed in literary criticism. Thomas Karshan’s recent article on Nabokov in the TLS quoted this scabrous response from Nabokov in response to W. W. Rowe’s finding sexual innuendos in Pale Fire such as “wick” in “wickedly folding moth”:

The various words that Mr. Rowe mistakes for the “symbols” of academic jargon, supposedly planted by an idiotically sly novelist to keep schoolmen busy, are not labels, not pointers, and certainly not the garbage cans of a Viennese tenement, but live fragments of specific description, rudiments of metaphor, and echoes of creative emotion. The fatal flaw in Mr. Rowe’s treatment of recurrent words, such as “garden” or “water”, is his regarding them as abstractions, and not realizing that the sound of a bath being filled, say, in the world of Laughter in the Dark, is as different from the limes rustling in the rain of Speak, Memory as the Garden of Delights in Ada is from the lawns in Lolita.

Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov appeals to a hermeneutic holism that defeats such easy metonymic models. It’s not that the richer worlds of which he speaks cannot be quantified as such, just that the vocabulary required is so dauntingly extensive as to require lived human experience. No such sophisticated symbolic model for this experience yet exists, and I don’t see one coming any time soon. A model cannot capture the live fragments of which Nabokov speaks. When rendering such fragments in a game, the abandonment of complexity disguises itself by using a sufficiently obscure model, so that the model does not seem banal.

Nabokov hated Freud and psychoanalysis (hence the veiled reference to Vienna), and indeed, this sort of atomistic symbolism makes me think of something Ernest Gellner said about psychoanalysis in The Cunning of Unreason: the psychoanalytic model had to walk the line between scientific precision and mythical ambiguity so as not to seem banal or spurious.

A purely hermeneutic psychoanalysis would not sound like science, confer no power, and few men would turn to it in distress; a purely physicalist or biological psychoanalysis would have been too much like a science, and no fun. But the plausible-sounding fusion of both is very different, and most attractive.

Ernest Gellner, The Cunning of Unreason

And weaker writers rely on exactly this careful navigation between the Scylla of simplistic allegory and the Charybdis of pointless ambiguity, so that they may seem profound when they really are not. I am thinking her of Alberto Moravia’s endless rationalism, where there is a neatly placed psychological explanation for every character trait and every movement proceeds from the careful arrangement of forces logically arrayed. (See The Conformist.) Moravia does it so well that the ultimate weakness of construction is a shame. (Removing the explanations, as was done in the wonderful movie of L’Ennui, can produce amazing results.)

L'Ennui: "I could tell you what I'm thinking but it would make the movie less interesting."

I know: The Marriage is just a game. Humble did not mean to make any sweeping statement about marriage in general, and the game is clearly so personal to him that I feel a little bad using it to exemplify a certain type of thinking. But speaking just personally, if my partner wrote this game and explained the game to me in that way, I would be frightened out of my wits.

Update: Rod Humble has responded kindly in the comments, and I appreciate his openness to discussion and critique. I also wanted to point out Derek Badman’s essay on Lewis Trondheim’s Bleu, since comics rely on the sort of abstracted narrative visual representation that games do as well. Bleu “tells” of the interaction of a green blob with two stars and two dots. To the best of my knowledge, there is no “key” to the abstraction. Yet the similarity is striking!

a page from Lewis Trondheim's Bleu

Shakespeare’s Sick, Twisted Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is a sick and disturbing play. Every change Shakespeare made to the source material, including the shift from tragedy to comedy, made it even more twisted. It’s never a good idea to speculate on Shakespeare’s motives, but this sickly comedy leaves religion, politics, and theater all looking terrible.

The quick summary of the relevant plot points: the Duke thinks he has been too lenient in governing Vienna (nice choice of setting!), so he turns his power over to the hypocritical puritan Angelo, who promptly sentences Claudio to death for getting his fiancee pregnant. Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella, a nun, pleads for clemency, and Angelo says he’ll spare Claudio, but only if she sleeps with him. So she does, but Angelo executes Claudio anyway, because he’s worried that Claudio will kill him if he ever finds out.

But no! The Duke has been in disguise as a friar the whole time and arranged it so that Angelo’s ex-fiancee, whom he dumped when her dowry sank at sea, pretended to be Isabella in bed. The Duke also manages to prevent Claudio’s execution by conveniently substituting a prisoner who just died of illness the same day. The Duke reveals himself and lets everyone off, including pardoning an amoral murderer who’s been sitting on the fringes of the action (and whom the Duke was initially going to substitute for Claudio before the other prisoner happened to drop dead). Then the Duke proposes to Isabella and the play ends before she can answer.

To the basic tale, Shakespeare added the bits after “But no!”, borrowing from a few other plots, in order to turn the grim morality play into a comedy. You can go on for ages looking at the various mirrored situations and the oozing moral and physical viscera all over the place, but I want to focus on the biggest problem of all, the Duke, and particularly his rhetoric.

Any interpretation of Measure for Measure that does not turn on an indictment of the Duke renders the play morally indefensible. He carelessly then carefully manipulates and tortures the characters as much as a Coen Brothers villain, and were the tone different, it would play as A Serious Man or a Kleist tale.

This has been a longstanding view. Coleridge was nauseated by the whole play, and I’m genuinely scared by those who see the Duke as some sort of moral paragon. E.K. Chambers (1906) gives a standard indictment:

The duke can be nothing but a travesty of a Haroun-al-raschid. Why does he conceal from Isabella, in her grief, the knowledge that her brother yet lives? To what purpose is the further prolongation of her agony, after his return, by the pretended disbelief of her story and the suspicion cast upon the friar, in whose person he has counselled her?

These are the antics of a cat with a mouse, rather than the dispositions of a wise and beneficent ruler; and it is difficult to see anything in the grave elaboration of them, except a satirical intention of Shakespeare towards theories about the moral government of the universe which, for the time being at least, he does not share. As yet, indeed, his nascent pessimism has only advanced to the point of finding ineffectiveness and not deliberate ill-will in the ordering of things. The thorough-going denunciations of King Lear are still to come.

E.K. Chambers

Now, there is room for some complication here. The Duke himself has some bizarre quirks, as well as the evident split personality.First he abdicates power, then he abdicates knowledge, as though the combination of the two is too great a burden for him to bear. And obviously it is.

But I want to pay attention to his rhetoric. No one else in the play speaks like him. Every time he opens his mouth, the play goes into another register, whether he’s in verse or prose. His speech is just as labyrinthine as his theatrical machinations. He speaks in some of the twistiest rhetoric of anyone this side of Love’s Labours Lost. Even his moralizing is knotted up:

That we were all, as some would seem to be,
From our faults, as faults from seeming, free!


Did you get that? “If only both (a) we were as little subject to our faults, and (b) faults were as free of being in disguise–as much as some people seem to be free from faults.” It’s a bizarre and unbalanced construction that uses the two similes in unorthodox fashion, especially since at its heart is an incoherence: Faults should be as free of disguise as much as faults are in disguise.

This is par for the course for the Duke. His opening discourse on governing is little better, to the extent that scholars from Samuel Johnson on have wondered if miscopying had marred the meaning.

Of government the properties to unfold
Would seem in me t’affect speech and discourse,
Since I am put to know that your own science
Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
My strength can give you. Then no more remains
But that, to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
And let them work.


I could believe in the textual corruption if the obfuscatory rhetoric didn’t fit so nicely with the Duke’s personality. Throughout the whole play, the Duke’s rhetoric tends to fall on empty ears anyway. He can be as cryptic as he wants, because (a) he is pulling the strings, and (b) no one really cares what he says. People want things from him; they have no relationship with him.

When the Duke visits the condemned Claudio in prison, his “comfort” to Claudio is like Hamlet’s soliloquy as delivered by Polonius, encouraging Claudio to accept death as a release from the pain of life, even as he plots to free Claudio from the freedom from life of death.

Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep….
If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner.


The Duke’s “comfort” works on Claudio…for about a minute. As soon as Isabella shows up to tell her of Angelo’s bargain, Claudio jumps at the chance for life and tosses the Duke’s stoicism into the rubbish bin:

CLAUDIO: To die and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible and warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; . . . ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death. . . .


The Duke’s high-falutin’ rhetoric is not only pointlessly obfuscatory, but no one is listening. Whether the former caused the latter or vice versa is a question for later.

For right now I’ll just maintain that the Duke’s bloviation is intimately tied up with his peculiar sense of morality. Indeed, he frequently sounds like a cross between Polonius and King Lear‘s Edgar. The Edgar connection, which must have been made before but which I haven’t seen, is most blatant in his deception of Isabella. He tells the audience:

But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
When it is least expected.


These lines could come straight from Edgar at Dover Cliff in King Learjust as he tricks Gloucester into thinking he’s been saved by God from his attempted suicide. But there Edgar attributes the miracle to God’s presence. Here the heavenly comforts are those of the Duke himself.

And so it’s at least understandable that some would try to allegorize the troublesome plot. One of the more popular ways to justify the Duke has been to turn the whole thing into a Christian allegory. This was G. Wilson Knight‘s approach, and it’s ironic that after pointing out Hamlet’s moral perfidiousness, Knight would then go on to construct an elaborate mechanism to excuse equally bad actions performed by a character in with much greater power and far less excuse. G. Wilson Knight: right on Hamlet, wrong on the Duke.

But these arguments are great precisely because they mirror Christian theodicy. The play is not an allegory, but it is a nasty analogue of the sort of behavior you see in God in the Old Testament.

William Empson does condemn the Duke, as you’d expect, but even though he loathed Christianity with uncommon passion, Empson doesn’t press the point that the game-playing Duke does rather resemble the Judeo-Christian God at his wackiest, with Job, with Isaac and Abraham, with Jephthah and his daughter, etc.

While the seemingly endless cycle of Judges mirrors the “No one has learned anything” ending of Measure for Measure, the Book of Job seems most present. The cruel deceptions, the implicit, staged “bet” with the devil Angelo, blithely pardoning an amoral murderer (who uncannily anticipates Moosbrugger in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities) while berating someone who had the audacity to insult you, the staged, last-minute interventions: the Duke’s mood swings and arbitrariness are quite Yahwehish. It’s not exact and it’s not an allegory, but the similarity is unmistakable.

The opaque rhetoric, then, is there to underscore the Duke’s sheer unaddressability and his disconnection from the rest of us mortals. His rhetorical skills have turned cancerous, weaving his words into thick knots that no one can fully decipher, certainly not the other characters. His rhetoric can hypnotize, but only momentarily; excluded from human discourse, it’s only his exercise of power that affects the other characters. Turning this sort of divine relationship into a secular comedy makes it into a cruel joke.

By the end of final scene, the other characters seem more tired than anything else, as the Duke rolls out his mercy. He’s God, and we’re just grateful we’re still alive by his arbitrary grace. The sophistry piles up as he justifies his actions, and certainly no one will call him on anything. (They promptly fall all over him with praise and gratitude.) The Duke claims Claudio no longer fears death and can enjoy life even more now:

And you may marvel why I obscured myself,
Labouring to save his life, and would not rather
Make rash remonstrance of my hidden power
Than let him so be lost. O most kind maid,
It was the swift celerity of his death,
Which I did think with slower foot came on,
That brain’d my purpose. But, peace be with him!
That life is better life, past fearing death,
Than that which lives to fear: make it your comfort,
So happy is your brother.


Angelo, who expresses great remorse and says he just wants to die, also gets off free and marries his ex-fiancee. (Assuming that his death wish is sincere, sparing Angelo does make for a bit of an “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” situation, cf. the Harlan Ellison story where all-powerful God/computer AM keeps five humans around to torture and play with after killing everyone else.)

The Duke doesn’t propose marriage to super-chaste Isabella at the end so much as dictate it (she doesn’t get to respond). Why not? He’s the Duke! He knows the value of everything and the price of nothing, which is just as bad as the reverse. Sure a murderer went free and everyone is scarred for life, but didn’t we have a good time? The Duke did!

By making the comedic resolution utterly unacceptable, Shakespeare does penance for the laughter thrown at the oh-so-funny manipulations of previous comedies. Yes, this is what happens when misunderstandings and manipulations pile up: queasy horror.

There’s a lot more that could be said and countless further complications. But the Duke is the heart of it all.

« Older posts

© 2024 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑