The fallacy of what was fallacious

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”:

[…] the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

[…]

When we consider either the history of opinion, or the ordinary conduct of human life, to what is it to be ascribed that the one and the other are no worse than they are? Not certainly to the inherent force of the human understanding; for, on any matter not self-evident, there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it, for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative; for the majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify. Why is it, then, that there is on the whole a preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct? If there really is this preponderance—which there must be, unless human affairs are, and have always been, in an almost desperate state—it is owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man, either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter—he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.

As a model of discourse, compare William James on the “pretension” of possessing truth wholly; the portrayal of wisdom in Proverbs 8, here in the King James version:

1 Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice?

She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths.

She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors.

Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man.

O ye simple, understand wisdom: and, ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart.

Hear; for I will speak of excellent things; and the opening of my lips shall be right things.

For my mouth shall speak truth; and wickedness is an abomination to my lips.

All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing froward or perverse in them.

They are all plain to him that understandeth, and right to them that find knowledge.

10 Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold.

11 For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.

12 I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions.

Mencken on “The Truth-Seeker,” in A Mencken Chrestomathy:

The man who boasts that he habitually tells the truth is simply a man who has no respect for it. It is not a thing to be thrown about loosely, like small change; it is something to be cherished and hoarded and disbursed only when absolutely necessary. The smallest atom of truth represents some man’s bitter toil and agony; for every ponderable chunk of it there is a brave truth-seeker’s grave upon some lonely ash-dump and a soul roasting in Hell.

Wittgenstein on suffering on behalf of truth; and Bertrand Russell’s famous remark in “The Triumph of Stupidity“:

The fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

Freely and sportively bombinating

A month ago I finished Charlotte Brontë’s vastly underrated first novel The Professor, which she completed at 31 but could never get published; her husband Arthur Bell Nichols finally got it out two years after her death, in 1857.

This week I happened to pick up Aldous Huxley’s first, Crome Yellow (1921), which he published at 27. It is just as forgotten and just as brilliant, and the critics have been just as wrong about both.

Each is dense with learning, psychological insight, and piercing characterization. (Each taught me several new words—indurated comes to mind in Brontë, pullulation in Huxley. At least 5% of The Professor is in French.) Both fell out of favor in part due to the facile charge of plotlessness—as if all the talking and thinking and feeling at work in them were not forms of action. Both feature intelligent men in their twenties who take a special interest in language and, of course, fall in love. And both partake of the satirical, but not relentlessly so; the authors clearly see something of themselves in their protagonists, though even they are not spared. I winced in self-recognition at several moments in each.

Brontë’s prose is purpler, more earnest and romantic: it frequently climbs to high and impassioned registers, but never loses contact with its undertone of intelligence. Writing on the other side of the Great War, Huxley, of course, would blush at such rapturous profusion, though I’d like to think he would admire its freshness. He is instead tersely witty, more straightforwardly and charmingly comic, at times virtually slapstick. (Chapter 1 ends, “He would take them by surprise.” Chapter 2 begins, “He took nobody by surprise; there was nobody to take.” [I’m not sure there’s a six-word sentence anywhere in Brontë.] In probably the funniest scene in the novel, our hero waxes romantic and at length about the beauty of the word carminative, only to have his ego—quite aptly—deflated, when he finally learns what it means. It is the most alembicated fart joke that has ever been told.) His monikers evoke Saki and Wodehouse: there is a Priscilla Whimbush, a Mr. Barbecue-Smith. But most of his humor operates quietly, by the irony of rhythm and understatement—as tight-lipped and corseted as the aristocrats he spoofs. The joke is all the richer because we are proud to have noticed it.


An unsigned review in the Times Literary Supplement, November 10, 1921, reprinted in Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Watt:

“I am tired of seeing the human mind bogged in a social plenum; I prefer to paint it in a vacuum, freely and sportively bombinating.” The plan was ascribed to a fabulous author in Crome Yellow, by Mr. Aldous Huxley. A vacuum is suggested by the rarefied seclusion of his fantastic coutnry house, where a small group of human beings reveal their amusingly simplified traits. But the void is, judiciously, not quite complete. The tone of Mr. Huxley’s story matches the title and the covers; it is a rich, full yellow, which suggests the exhilarating glow of summer and the answering temperature of mind. In this atmosphere the characters bombinate, so far as the heat allows. On the high towers of Crome by starlight (Mr. Huxley will explain in whimsical fashion why they were so absurdly tall), in the cool shadows of the granary, along the deep yew alleys by the swimming pool, the transitory action passes; while the things that are not done (so often more important than those that are) bubble in the mind, betray themselves in spontaneous gestures, or float down the stream of talk.

Mr. Huxley’s personages are drawn with an extreme verve of crispness; in fact the merit of his comedy is that it becomes always more amusing as it grows. Little Mary Bracegirdle, with the earnest blue eyes and bell of short hold hair, would be very tiresome if she talked much of her “repressions”; so she is confined, for the most part, to simple and fatal acts. Mr. Scogan, on the other hand, whose forte is a dry, racy monologue which drones at intervals beneath the bombination, is enlivening for just so long as he would naturally be; only near the end is he revealed in the full colours of a bore. The way in which Mr. Huxley manoeuvres his party, displaying them by adroitly contrasted little scenes, has a good deal of Anatole France’s touch; and it is quite in the manner of that master to stay the narrative which a choice extract from the family records or a fuliginous sermon on the Second Advent by the vicar. Mr. Huxley suggests the same tone, too, by his rich converse with books, and by the “direct action” of the younger members of the party, which puts ideas to rout. But then the master himself, though he is steeped in knowledge and plays with contemporary follies, never leaves us with a notion that he limited by fashions or by culture. Of Mr. Huxley we do not feel quite so sure; like his Henry Wimbush, who remarks at a village dance that “if all these people were dead this festivity would be extremely agreeable”—for then one could simply romantically read about them—he almost invites us to believe that the proper study of mankind is books. Almost; but not quite; for in Denis, the hero of this little story, through whose eyes we see most of it, the tragi-comedy of adolescence becomes really poignant at the end. The stroke which ruined Denis’s hopes and chances was something that went deeper than his love-affair; it was the discovery, in a humiliating form, that there was a real world of remorseless and self-centered persons which impinged on his own crystal world of illusions and ideas. This shock gives the point to Mr. Huxley’s fantasy, which is so engaging that we hardly wish it other than it is; all we miss is a certain feeling of assurance that he is using his imagination freely for himself.

From Watt’s introduction to The Critical Heritage:

For Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) life and music shared a common quality: they could each be described as a simultaneity of co-existing incompatibles. The same description may be applied to the critical reception of Huxley’s work. He was hailed as an emancipator of the modern mind and condemned as an irresponsible free-thinker; celebrated as a leading intelligence of his age and denounced as an erudite show-off; admired as the wittiest man of his generation and dismissed as a clever misanthrope. A few pages of his writing or half a career served equally to evoke the incompatible opinions. Opening the cover of Point Counter Point, Wyndham Lewis objected to a “tone of vulgar complicity with the dreariest of suburban library-readers,” while André Maurois discovered in the same opening pages scenes “worth of the great Russians.” In 1933 C. P. Snow claimed that Huxley “ought to seem the most significant English novelist of his day”, while G. K. Chesterton quipped: “[He] is ideally witty; but he is at his wit’s end.”

Huxley’s writing, both the fiction and the nonfiction, provoked controversy at almost every stage. Those very features of his work which drew most praise—the scientific contexts, the detached irony, the panoply of startling ideas—provided as often as not evidence which his critics felt could be used against him. The Huxley critical heritage is a history of vigorous contention spurred by not always equal shares of insight and misunderstanding.

At the center of that history was Huxley’s own peculiar approach to fiction, what George Catlin called “that strange mutt of literature,” the “novel of ideas.” The term provided at most a sketchy description of Huxley’s books, but his critics were at a loss to suggest anything better. His attitude toward fiction seemed to casual and iconoclastic. “There aren’t any divinely laid down canons of the novel,” he asserted. “All you need is to be interesting.” Huxley’s novels flaunted those conventions of logical realism followed faithfully by older writers, such as John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett. Accordingly, his younger audience in the 1920s found him refreshing: “By comparison, most other contemporary writers seemed stuffy, unenlightened, old-fashioned.” But at the same time his writing appeared to defy the new authoritative view of fiction as an organic art form which had evolved through the influence of Flaubert and Henry James. Developing standards of criticism in the earlier twentieth century were deeply affected by Jamesian aesthetics, by Bloomsbury’s belief in the autonomy of art, and by a severely formalist approach to literature. Huxley’s practice of the novel ran counter to these trends: “From a Jamesian perspective that insisted on rigidly delimiting a fictional world through a filtering consciousness with which the reader was asked to identify but could never wholly rely on, Huxley the novelist was inevitably unsatisfactory” (Firchow). To many observers the failure of Huxley’s fiction either to adopt a traditional posture or to adhere to a formalist criterion meant that he was stuck in an untenable sort of writing which hovered indecisively between the novel and the essay.

Huxley’s critics were slow to realize that he held a different concept of fiction. Like Quarles in Point Counter Point, he readily admitted the problems he had in creating conventional plots: “I don’t think of myself as a congenital novelist—no. For example, I have great difficulty in inventing plots. Some people are born with an amazing gift for storytelling; it’s a gift which I’ve never had at all” (Paris Review interview). But the telling of stories, for Huxley, was only a small part of what fiction could accomplish. He wrote to Eugene Saxton on 24 May 1933: “I probably have an entirely erroneous view about fiction. For I feel about fiction as Nurse Cavell felt about patriotism: that it is not enough.” The popular style of fiction written by Dumas, Scott, or Stevenson could not satisfy Huxley. Also, as much as he appreciated Arnold Bennett’s friendship and advice, he recoiled from the elaborate realism of books like Riceyman Steps. Throughout his life Huxley sought to write another kind of fiction. “My own aim,” he told an early interviewer, “is to arrive, technically, at a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay, a novel in which one can put all one’s ideas, a novel like a hold-all” (Maraini). The drive to synthesize multifarious attitudes towards life moved Huxley to develop an integrative approach to fiction which in its breadth, he hoped, would transcend the limits of purist art. In this radically charged sense Huxley believed that fiction, along with biography and history, “are the forms”:

My goodness, Dostoevski is six times as profound as Kierkegaard, because he writes fiction. In Kierkegaard you have this Abstract Man going on and on—like Coleridge—why, it’s nothing compared with the really profound Fictional Man, who has always to keep these tremendous ideas alive in a concrete form. In fiction you have the reconciliation of the absolute and the relative, so to speak, the expression of the general in the particular. And this, it seems to me, is the exciting thing—both in life and in art.

A dozen things at once

H. L. Mencken on Brahms, from A Mencken Chrestomathy:

More than any other art, perhaps, music demands brains. It is full of technical complexities. It calls for a capacity to do a dozen things at once. But most of all it is revelatory of what is called character. When a trashy man writes it, it is trashy music. Here is where the immense superiority of such a man as Brahms becomes manifest. There is less trashiness in his music than there is in the music of any other man ever heard of, which the sole exception, perhaps, of Johann Sebastian Bach. It was simply impossible for him, at least after he had learned his trade, to be obvious or banal. He could not write even the baldest tune without getting into it something of his own high dignity and profound seriousness; he could not play with that tune, however light his mood, without putting an austere and noble stateliness into it. Hearing Brahms, one never gets any sense of being entertained by a clever mountebank. One is facing a superior man, and the fact is evident from the first note. I give you his “Deutches Requiem” as an example. There is no hint of what is commonly regarded as religious feeling in it. Brahms, so far as I know, was not a religious man. Nor is there the slightest sign of the cheap fustian of conventional patriotism. Nevertheless, a superb emotion is there—nay, an overwhelming emotion. The thing is irresistibly moving. It is moving because a man of the highest intellectual dignity, a man of exalted feelings, a man of brains, put into it his love for and pride in his country.

But in music emotion is only half the story. Mendelssohn had it, and yet he belongs to the second table. Nor is it a matter of mere beauty—that is, of mere sensuous loveliness. If it were, then Dvorak would be greater than Beethoven, whose tunes are seldom inspired, and who not infrequently does without them altogether. What makes great music is simply the thing I have mentioned: brains. The greatest musician is a man whose thoughts and feelings are above the common level, and whose language matches them. What he has to say comes out of a wisdom that is not ordinary. Platitude is impossible to him. Above all, he is master of his craft, as opposed to his art. He gets his effects in new, difficult and ingenious ways—and they convince one instantly that they are inevitable. One can easily imagine improvements in the human eye, and in the Alps, and in the art of love, and even in the Constitution, but one cannot imagine improvement in the first movement of the Eroica.

On music’s “technical complexities,” compare C. P. E. Bach’s foreword to the Part One of Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen:

Keyboard instruments have many merits, but are beset by just as many difficulties. Were it necessary, their excellence would be easy to prove, for in them are combined all the individual features of many other instruments. Full harmony, which requires three, four, or more other instruments, can be expressed by the keyboard alone. And there are many similar advantages. At the same time, who is not aware of the many demands that are made upon it; how it is considered insufficient for the keyboardist merely to discharge the normal task of every executant, namely, to play in accordance with the rules of good performance compositions written for his instrument? How, beyond this, he must be able to improvise fantasias in all styles, to work out extemporaneously any requested setting after the strictest rules of harmony and melody; how we must be at home in all keys and transpose instantly and faultlessly; and play everything at sight whether designed for his instrument or not; how he must have at his command a comprehensive knowledge of thorough bass which he must play with discrimination, often departing from the notation, sometimes in many voices, again in few, strictly as well as in the galant manner, from both excessive and insufficient symbols, or unfigured and incorrectly figured bases; how he must often extract this thorough bass from large scores with unfigured or even pausing basses (when other voices serve as harmonic fundament) and with it reinforce the ensemble; and who knows how many other things? All this must be done competently, often on an unfamiliar instrument which has not been tested to determine whether it is good or bad, whether it is playable or not, in which latter case extenuation is but rarely granted. On the contrary, it can be expected that, normally, improvisations will be solicited without anyone’s being concerned whether the performer is in the proper mood, and if he is not, without any effort being made to create or maintain the proper disposition by providing a good instrument.

Notwithstanding these demands, the keyboard has always found its admirers, as well it might. Its difficulties are not enough to discourage the study of an instrument whose superior charms are ample compensation for attendant time and trouble. Moreover, not all amateurs feel obliged to fulfill all of the requirements. They satisfy as many of them as they care to or as their innate talents permit.

And on the relation between art and character (and the characteristically judgmental flair of Mencken’s prose), compare Auden’s remarks in “De Droite et de Gauche,” translated by Richard Howard:

Judging a work of art is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first, a real love of works of art, an inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required; second, a vast experience of all artistic activities; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted, of one’s own prejudices. Some critics fail because they are pedants whose ideal of perfection is always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective, are more excusable than those who, aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.

The best literary critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to read and reread the works he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the work attacked is important enough to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a book, cancel any desire you might have to read it.

Others are annoyed by it

The final lines of Book 2 of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated into Latin at the direction of Aquinas by the 13th-century scholar Guilelmus of Moerbeke, preserved in this 15th-century German manuscript, Codex 763 at the University of Pennsylvania.

The third and final chapter of the anomalous Book 2 (Little Alpha, Alpha Minor, or Alpha Ellaton) of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, 995a, translated by Hugh Tredennick:

The effect of a lecture depends upon the habits of the listener; because we expect the language to which we are accustomed, and anything beyond this seems not to be on the same level, but somewhat strange and unintelligible on account of its unfamiliarity; for it is the familiar that is intelligible. The powerful effect of familiarity is clearly shown by the laws, in which the fanciful and puerile survivals prevail [i.e., “in which fanciful and childish elements prevail”—ML], through force of habit, against our recognition of them. Thus some people will not accept the statements of a speaker unless he gives a mathematical proof; others will not unless he makes use of illustrations; others expect to have a poet adduced as witness. Again, some require exactness in everything, while others are annoyed by it, either because they cannot follow the reasoning or because of its pettiness; for there is something about exactness which seems to some people to be mean, no less in an argument than in a business transaction.

Hence one must have been already trained how to take each kind of argument, because it is absurd to seek simultaneously for knowledge and for the method of obtaining it; and neither is easy to acquire. Mathematical accuracy is not to be demanded in everything, but only in things which do not contain matter. Hence this method is not that of natural science, because presumably all nature is concerned with matter. Hence we should first inquire what nature is; for in this way it will become clear what the objects of natural science are [and whether it belongs to one science or more than one to study the causes and principles of things].

Compare the translation by W. D. Ross:

The effect which lectures produce on a hearer depends on his habits; for we demand the language we are accustomed to, and that which is different from this seems not in keeping but somewhat unintelligible and foreign because of its unwontedness. For the customary is more intelligible. The force of habit is shown by the laws, in whose case, with regard to the legendary and childish elements in them, habit has more influence than our knowledge about them. Some people do not listen to a speaker unless he speaks mathematically, others unless he gives instances, while others expect him to cite a poet as witness. And some want to have everything done accurately, while others are annoyed by accuracy, either because they cannot follow the connexion of thought or because they regard it as pettifoggery. For accuracy has something of this character, so that as in trade so in argument some people think it mean. Therefore one must be already trained to know how to take each sort of argument, since it is absurd to seek at the same time knowledge and the way of attaining knowledge; and neither is easy to get.

The minute accuracy of mathematics is not to be demanded in all cases, but only in the case of things which have no matter. Therefore its method is not that of natural science; for presumably all nature has matter. Hence we must inquire first what nature is: for thus we shall also see what natural sciences treats of [and whether it belongs to one science or to more to investigate the causes and the principles of things].

The Greek for “exactness” here is ἀκριβολογία, akribologia, a combination of λόγος and the adjective κριβής (exact, precise, scrupulous, methodical).

In extant ancient Greek literature the word often carries a negative valence: excessive precision, pedantry. It appears perhaps most famously in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic at 340e, where Thrasymachus accuses Socrates of too much akribologia: “ὥστε κατὰ τὸν ἀκριβῆ λόγον, ἐπειδὴ καὶ σὺ ἀκριβολογῇ, …” consequently, according to precise speech, since you too demand precision... (In Paul Shorey’s translation, “so that, speaking precisely, since you are such a stickler for precision.” Shorey’s footnote: “For the invidious associations of ἀκριβολογία (1) in money dealings, (2) in argument, cf. Aristotle Met. 995 a 11, Cratylus 415 A, Lysias vii. 12, Antiphon B 3, Demosthenes. xxiii. 148, Timon in Diogenes Laertius ii. 19.”)

Erasmus makes reference to this line of Thrasymachus in the first, slimmer edition of his adages, Collectanea Adagiorum, published in Paris in 1500. In the translation by John Grant, based on the slightly revised and updated 1506 edition, the discussion appears at 335:

335. Ad vivum. Summo iure / To the quick. By the letter of the law

The meaning is “right to the skin.” We use the expression to refer to actions that are conducted with utmost precision, as when we pursue something with excessive keenness. In Plato Thrasymachus calls Socrates a false accuser, meaning a pettifogger, because he applies a very narrow interpretation to what has been said, distorting the sense of the words whose meaning is clear rather than showing how somewhat carelessly expressed words can be given a better sense. He adds, “Therefore, according to your precise mode of interpretation (since you cut right to the quick), no craftsman can make a mistake.” Similar to this is what Cicero says when defending Caecina: “All the others turn to that way of speaking when they think they have a fair and good defense to make in a case. If, however, there is a wrangling about words and phrases, and, as the saying goes, the letter of the law is applied, they are in the habit of using such fine words as “fair” and “good” to counter such wickedness.” To fight Summo iure “By the letter of the law” means to cut back the laws to the quick and to apply a very narrow interpretation. From this we get “Extreme right is extreme wrong.”

Sachiko Kusukawa traces this lineage in her essayAd Vivum Images and Knowledge of Nature in Early Modern Europe.” As she points out, Cicero uses the phrase ad vivum in his dialogue De Amicitia, On Friendship, translated here by W. A. Falconer:

This, however, I do feel first of all—that friendship cannot exist except among good men; nor do I go into that too deeply [neque in ad vivum reseco], as is done by those who, in discussing this point with more than usual accuracy [subtilius], and it may be correctly, but with too little view to practical results, say that no one is good unless he is wise. We may grant that; but they understand wisdom to be a thing such as no mortal man has yet attained. I, however, am bound to look at things as they are in the experience of everyday life and not as they are in fancy or in hope.

Erasmus makes reference to Cicero’s usage of ad vivum resecare in the longer edition of his adages, at II.4.13:

M. Tullius lib. De amicitia Ad vivum resecare dixit pro eo, quod est rem exactius, quam sat est, ac morosius excutere: Sed hoc, inquit, primum sentio, nisi in bonis amicitiam esse non posse. Neque id ad vivum reseco, ut illi, qui haec subtilius disserunt. Mutuo sumpta metaphora a tonsoribus capillos aut ungues resecantibus, nam ii saepenumero molesti sunt, dum nimium diligentes esse student. Idem in libris De finibus dixit pressius agere pro exactius et accuratius. Plautus in Bacchidibus sub persona Chrysali: Tondebo auro usque ad vivam cutem. Et hoc ipsum tondere pro deludere Graecis in proverbio est.

Kusukawa gives the translation of “mutuo sumpta…”: “the image is borrowed from hairdressers as they cut short one’s hair or finger-nails; for they are often tiresome with their efforts to be needlessly precise.” As she notes, Plato’s use of akribologei

had been translated by the Florentine scholar Marisilio Ficino (1433–1499) into “ad vivum resecas (you speak needlessly precisely).” This is probably the reason why Erasmus connected the two classical passages of Cicero and Plato, but ad vivum was by no means a fixed Latin counterpart to akribologia, a word that was also found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. [She quotes what I quote above.] In the medieval translation by William of Moerbeke (ca. 1220–1235–ca. 1286), the Greek phrase akribologia had been left untranslated, but the Byzantine humanist John Argyropoulos (1415–1487) rendered this mathematical akribologia as “exacta discussio mathematicorum (mathematicians’ exacting examination).” Another point made in the passage above [that is, Aristotle] is that overattention to detail in discussion or transaction was deemed “mean” (illiberales in Argyropoulos’s translation). The mean-spiritedness of excessive precision was carried over to the phrase “exigere ad vivum,” which Erasmus identified as a characteristic harshness (rigor). Ad vivum thus meant something like “to the bare bones” in English, with the negative sense of verbatim, an overattention to the strict sense of a word or to the letter of the law which reflected some meanness in spirit. Erasmus, whose ambition was to educate his audience to speak and write with the rhetorical flair of the classical authors, had little positive to say about this sense of ad vivum.

The figure of the akribologos, the nit-picker or hair-splitter, is also explored in Richard Bett, “Humor as Philosophical Subversion,” while Alessandro Vatri considers akribologia as a feature of prose style in Orality and Performance in Classical Attic Prose: A Linguistic Approach, and Richard Pasnau reflects on it as a feature of reasoning in After Certainty: A History of Our Epistemic Ideals and Illusions. See also Aristophanes’s portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds, and Lowell Edmunds, “What Was Socrates Called?

On the anomalous quality of Book 2 of the Metaphysics, see Werner Jaeger, Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development, p. 169:

Aristotle’s literary executors were philosophers. They would have given much to be able to construct, out of the precious papers that they found, as true a picture as possible of the whole intellectual system of ‘first philosophy’ as Aristotle had intended it to be; but their desire was thwarted by the incomplete and disparate character of the material. For one thing is certain; the editors themselves did not believe that with the order which they established they were giving posterity the complete course of lectures on metaphysics. They realized that they were offering an unsatisfactory makeshift, which was all that the condition of their materials allowed. The postscript to the introductory book, the so-called little α, comes after big Α simply because they did not know where else to put it. It is a remnant of notes taken at a lecture by Pasicles, a nephew of Aristotle’s disciple Eudemus of Rhodes. [With footnote: “Asclepius, in his commentary on the Metaphysics (p. 4 l. 20, in Hayduck), refers this information, which reached him as a tradition handed down m the Peripatetic school, to Α; but this is a confusion. His account must come from notes taken at a lecture by Ammonius, and obviously he misheard. The true account is given by the scholiast on little α in the codex Parisinus (cf. Ent. Met. Arist., p. 114).”]

Escaping abstraction

Jacques Barzun, “History as Counter-Method and Anti-Abstraction,” quoted in Arthur Krystal’s 2007 profile in The New Yorker:

History, like a vast river, propels logs, vegetation, rafts, and debris; it is full of live and dead things, some destined for resurrection; it mingles many waters and holds in solution invisible substances stolen from distant soils. Anything may become part of it; that is why it can be an image of the continuity of mankind. And it is also why some of its freight turns up again in the social sciences: they were constructed out of the contents of history in the same way as houses in medieval Rome were made out of stones taken from the Coliseum. But the special sciences based on sorted facts cannot be mistaken for rivers flowing in time and full of persons and events. They are systems fashioned with concepts, numbers, and abstract relations. For history, the reward of eluding method is to escape abstraction.

More pith, more substance, more reality

Charlotte Brontë on her first novel, The Professor—brought into print by her husband only after her death, in 1857—in a letter to William Smith Williams (joint owner of her publisher, Smith, Elder, & Co.), December 14, 1847:

Dear sir,—

I have just received your kind and welcome letter of the 11th. I shall proceed at once to discuss the principal subject of it.

Of course a second work has occupied my thoughts much. I think it would be premature in me to undertake a serial now—I am not yet qualified for the task: I have neither gained a sufficiently firm footing with the public, nor do I possess sufficient confidence in myself, nor can I boast those unflagging animal spirits, that even command of the faculty of composition, which as you say, and, I am persuaded, most justly, is an indispensable requisite to success in serial literature. I decidedly feel that ere I change my ground I had better make another venture in the three-volume novel form.

Respecting the plan of such a work, I have pondered it, but as yet with very unsatisfactory results. Three commencements I have essayed, but all three displease me. A few days since I looked over The Professor. I found the beginning very feeble, the whole narrative deficient in incident and in general attractiveness. Yet the middle and latter portion of the work, all that relates to Brussels, the Belgian school, etc., is as good as I can write: it contains more pith, more substance, more reality, in my judgment, than much of Jane Eyre. It gives, I think, a new view of a grade, an occupation, and a class of characters—all very commonplace, very insignificant in themselves, but not more so than the materials composing that portion of Jane Eyre which seems to please most generally.

Later, in a letter to the other joint owner of the publishing house, George Smith, February 5, 1851:

The Professor has now had the honour of being rejected nine times by the “Tr–de” (three rejections go to your own share); you may affirm that you accepted it this last time, but that cannot be admitted; if it were only for the sake of symmetry and effect I must regard this martyrised MS. as repulsed, or at any rate withdrawn for the ninth time! Few, I flatter myself, have earned an equal distinction, and of course my feelings towards it can only be paralleled by those of doting parent towards an idiot child. Its merits, I plainly perceive, will never be owned by anybody but Mr. Williams and me; very particular and unique must be our penetration, and I think highly of us both accordingly. You may allege that that merit is not visible to the naked eye. Granted; but the smaller the commodity the more inestimable its value.

The worst hundred books

Oscar Wilde’s letter to the Pall Mall Gazette on the subject of “The Best Hundred Books,” February 8, 1886, from Thomas Wright, Oscar’s Books: A Journey around the Library of Oscar Wilde (2008):

Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:—

1. Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.

2. Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.

3. Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St. Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the Essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.

The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for, the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.

Indeed, it is one that is eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much, that it has no time to admire, and writes so much, that it has no time to think. Whoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula ‘The Worst Hundred Books,’ and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.

After expressing these views I suppose I should not offer any suggestions at all with regard to ‘The Best Hundred Books,’ but I hope you will allow me the pleasure of being inconsistent, as I am anxious to put in a claim for a book that has been strangely omitted by most of the excellent judges who have contributed to your columns. I mean the Greek Anthology. The beautiful poems contained in this collection seem to me to hold the same position with regard to Greek dramatic literature as do the delicate little figurines of Tanagra to the Phidian marbles, and to be quite as necessary for the complete understanding of the Greek spirit.

I am also amazed to find that Edgar Allan Poe has been passed over. Surely this marvellous lord of rhythmic expression deserves a place? If, in order to make room for him, it be necessary to elbow out some one else, I should elbow out Southey, and I think that Baudelaire might be most advantageously substituted for Keble. No doubt, both in The Curse of Kehama and in The Christian Year there are poetic qualities of a certain kind, but absolute catholicity of taste is not without its dangers. It is only an auctioneer who should admire all schools of art.

Though he thriveth ordinarily well, yet he laboreth much

from Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America, v. 1:

Puritans were incorrigible doers, seeking out the preached word, reading the Scriptures, perfecting their morality, and proposing radical schemes for improving society and disciplining the unruly and indolent. To satirize Puritanism, the seventeenth-century dramatist Ben Jonson aptly named a Puritan character Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. Their prodigious energy expressed their conviction that godly doing manifested itself in those God had elected for salvation. One Puritan subtly explained, “We teach that only Doers shall be saved, and by their doing though not for their doing.” Because diligence and discipline honored God, Puritans labored even harder to perfect their morality and worship—and to extend both to others.

The Puritan movement especially appealed to residents of the most commercialized area in England: the southeast, particularly London, East Anglia, and Sussex. Puritans came from all ranks of English society, including a few aristocrats, but most belonged to the “middling sort” of small property holders: farmers, shopkeepers, and skilled artisans. The Puritan tended to be the self-employed head of a household, of whom Robert Reyce said that “though hee thriveth ordinarily well, yett he laboreth much.” Their own modest property put them a leg up on the impoverished and underemployed half of the English population.

A covering of flesh as well

A fifteenth-century French manuscript of the Institutio Oratoria

From the first book of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, translated by Harold Edgeworth Butler:

For almost all others who have written on the art of oratory have started with the assumption that their readers were perfect in all other branches of education and that their own task was merely to put the finishing touches to their rhetorical training; this is due to the fact that they either despised the preliminary stages of education or thought that they were not their concern, since the duties of the different branches of education are distinct one from another, or else, and this is nearer the truth, because they had no hope of making a remunerative display of their talent in dealing with subjects, which, although necessary, are far from being showy: just as in architecture it is the superstructure and not the foundations which attracts the eye. I on the other hand hold that the art of oratory includes all that is essential for the training of an orator, and that it is impossible to reach the summit in any subject unless we have first passed through all the elementary stages. I shall not therefore refuse to stoop to the consideration of those minor details, neglect of which may result in there being no opportunity for more important things, and propose to mould the studies of my orator from infancy, on the assumption that his whole education has been entrusted to my charge.

[…]

These two branches of knowledge were, as Cicero has clearly shown,1 so closely united, not merely in theory but in practice, that the same men were regarded as uniting the qualifications of orator and philosopher. Subsequently this single branch of study split up into its component parts, and thanks to the indolence of its professors was regarded as consisting of several distinct subjects. As soon as speaking became a means of livelihood and the practice of making an evil use of the blessings of eloquence came into vogue, those who had a reputation for eloquence ceased to study moral philosophy, and ethics, thus abandoned by the orators, became the prey of weaker intellects. As a consequence certain persons, disdaining the toil of learning to speak well, returned to the task of forming character and establishing rules of life and kept to themselves what is, if we must make a division, the better part of philosophy, but presumptuously laid claim to the sole possession of the title of philosopher, a distinction which neither the greatest generals nor the most famous statesmen and administrators have ever dared to claim for themselves. For they preferred the performance to the promise of great deeds. I am ready to admit that many of the old philosophers inculcated the most excellent principles and practised what they preached. But in our own day the name of philosopher has too often been the mask for the worst vices. For their attempt has not been to win the name of philosopher by virtue and the earnest search for wisdom; instead they have sought to disguise the depravity of their characters by the assumption of a stern and austere mien accompanied by the wearing of a garb differing from that of their fellow men. Now as a matter of fact we all of us frequently handle those themes which philosophy claims for its own. Who, short of being an utter villain, does not speak of justice, equity and virtue? Who (and even common country-folk are no exception) does not make some inquiry into the causes of natural phenomena? As for the special uses and distinctions of words, they should be a subject of study common to all who give any thought to the meaning of language. Let our ideal orator then be such as to have a genuine title to the name of philosopher: it is not sufficient that he should be blameless in point of character (for I cannot agree with those who hold this opinion): he must also be a thorough master of the science and the art of speaking, to an extent that perhaps no orator has yet attained.

[…]

Perfect eloquence is assuredly a reality, which is not beyond the reach of human intellect. Even if we fail to reach it, those whose aspirations are highest, will attain to greater heights than those who abandon themselves to premature despair of ever reaching the goal and halt at the very foot of the ascent.

[…]

In the course of these discussions I shall deal in its proper place with the method of teaching by which students will acquire not merely a knowledge of those things to which the name of art is restricted by certain theorists, and will not only come to understand the laws of rhetoric, but will acquire that which will increase their powers of speech and nourish their eloquence. For as a rule the result of the dry textbooks on the art of rhetoric is that by straining after excessive subtlety they impair and cripple all the nobler elements of style, exhaust the lifeblood of the imagination and leave but the bare bones, which, while it is right and necessary that they should exist and be bound each to each by their respective ligaments, require a covering of flesh as well.

There are so many words!

Tim Parks on Ann Goldstein’s new translation of Elsa Morante’s L’isola di Arturo, in the London Review of Books (August 15, 2019):

In the interview with Publishers Weekly Goldstein explains that she came to translate Arturo’s Island because her publisher had so enjoyed collaborating with her on the complete works of Primo Levi that he wanted to work with her again. ‘He looked into the Morante situation and this was the one that was available.’ Coming after ‘“Ferrante fever”, it seemed like this was a good time for translating Italian women writers.’ Perhaps she wasn’t aware of Morante’s complaint that ‘the generic concept of women writers as a separate category harks back to the society of the harem.’ In short, translator and writer were not matched by elective affinity. Goldstein found the novel ‘astonishing and difficult’. ‘Morante’s sentences are very complicated and full of words – there are so many words!’ Indeed. Putting her version down, one’s feeling is that many of them eluded her, and that this fine novel is yet to be captured in English.