The Polyphemus Fallacy
WE often hear from people who want us to tell them how to write "better." We suspect, and sometimes truly know, that by "better" they mean "more profitably." They want to "get into communications," or "turn out copy that sells," neither of which we know how to do in any case. And bad cess to them all.
The goodness of good writing is not a question of such things as the difference between less and fewer, or the placement of punctuation with respect to quotation marks, or even of the discovery of zippy adjectives. All such things, even the zippy adjectives, are effects, not causes. Good writing comes of attentive thoughtfulness in the service of truth. If certain failures of technique preclude good writing, it is because they first preclude thoughtfulness. For such failures, there is quick and easy remedy in some book or other. Those who need may read.
But there is no easy remedy for the greatest impediment to good writing, the failure not of technique but of thoughtfulness itself, a failure that can often be traced either to the writer's motive, or to sloth, out of which the writer is disinclined to weigh either his motive or his words.
Thus it is that the worst writing is usually committed in what the writer takes to be a good cause, so good a cause, in fact, that it seems not to need any thoughtful examination. How can his motive, and thus his writing, be other than pure and correct, who writes in a worthy cause? Thus it is that the worst writing in America is found not in the drivel of the educationists, but on the editorial pages of the best newspapers.
Here come a few excerpts from an editorial essay in The Christian Science Monitor, a very good sheet. The editorial, however, was a very badly written self-congratulation for a series of good pieces called "Exiles among us: poor and black in America."
* The presence in America of a black underclass, apparently so cut off from hope, is morally unacceptable.
* The black poor, like all other human beings, need to be valued and to value themselves.
* The notion of some sort of race-based "ghetto pathology" needs to be extirpated from people's thinking.
* The concerns of black men--particularly their need for jobs--demand attention.
What a dilemma. The issue is likely, and rightly so, to arouse emotional responses, and the writer so plainly on the "good" side, that we are ready to approve his words without analysis. Indeed, analysis itself seems a bit suspect in such a context. Why, except to refute what ought not to be refuted, would anyone want to analyse such noble sentiments?
And therein lies the frightening power of such mindless writing. The emotional strength of its informing cause is so great that the minds of both writer and reader are blinded, and we imagine that we must either agree or disagree. The choice is not hard. But, in fact, refutation is not at issue here, any more than verification, for neither is possible. The question is simply: What can these statements mean?
Perhaps we can, in fact, give some advice as to how to write better. Be always mindful of what our founder used to call the Polyphemus Fallacy. It appears when, by an unconsidered choice of words, exclusively human powers or attributes are implied where none can exist. The name comes, of course, from the sad story of Polyphemus, blinded, as he thought, by No-Man. When he called upon the other Cyclopes to avenge his hurt, what else could they do but remind him that he who is injured by no one can hardly expect redress.
Consider all of your words. Many of them name deeds or states that are possible only to human beings. When you use them, attach them to persons. Give names and addresses wherever possible. When you assert that there should be more love in the world, or more peace, all you do is praise yourself as virtuous, in favor of good and against evil. Be specific. To whom, exactly, is your admonition directed? If you require yourself to say that Henry should love Martha, or that Oscar, who is white, should live in peace and fellowship with Hal, who is black, then you will find yourself obliged to make some sense, for someone who does not think those propositions self-evident will want to ask some questions. He may also require you to provide some pretty sharp definitions, since Henry and Martha happen to be married one to Floss and the other to Bob. He may want to know exactly what "love" you have in mind for Oscar and Hal, who have never met, and never will.
What can a man possibly mean, who says, of the very fact that impels him to speak, that it is "morally unacceptable"? Only a person can accept morally, whatever that might mean, or not accept morally. If the writer means that no person is able to bear the existence of the fact he names, then he is talking bunk. Many can bear it. Some even approve it. And if some great social remedy depends on the truth of his strange assertion, it will be slow to come. If he means that he, perhaps out of greater moral sensibility than some others, can not bear the existence of some fact, then let him say that. And let him then describe the effects upon the world of his inability to bear, and meditate for a space on the provocative fact that the unbearable stubbornly persists just as though he could bear it, and, for another space, on a new editorial in which he can tell us exactly who it is that has brought this unbearable (but nevertheless borne) pain on our fellow man, so that we may seek him out and bring him to justice, as the friends of Polyphemus would surely have avenged his injury--if there were any way to do that. Is the culprit, by any chance, that same fellow from whose thinking something "needs to be extirpated"?
What sort of deed is a man doing when he is valuing the black poor, or the white rich, for that matter? When he answers a concern's demand for attention, does he straightway give some black man a job, or does he sit down to "face the issue" at his typewriter? What do you suppose he has in mind for that extirpation? If we chose to go and do what he advises, could he give us a list of the people from whose thinking a notion is to be extirpated, and tell us further exactly how to extirpate it, now that he has done the hard part of the work by showing us his virtue?
Who talks about everybody talks about nobody, and remarkably much to his own convenience. Who has humanity in mind has not a single living human being in mind, and his talk is cheap. Still, we pay a lot for it.
The Living End in View
...For all the desires that we have to make undergraduate education viable, creative, and civic, we have nevertheless allowed the undergraduate experience to become the cash cow for whatever it is that...meets the short-term revenue goals of the institution... The absence of a sense of definition, the substitution of the desire to manage, as opposed to lead--these have become the sources of, homes for, attitudes that (colleges) had, historically, been founded to combat...The constant assertion of a goal--civic or commercial, marital or social--as the purpose of the undergraduate education flies in the face of the very ideas that the (college) wishes to promote, which is the liberal notion that there is no end in view.
UNTIL you come to think about it, the building of the Egyptian pyramids seems a tremendous and difficult enterprise. But it wasn't. The men who really built the pyramids didn't do any heavy lifting at all. Slaves did that. The big men, the real movers and shakers, probably didn't even come around until it was time to cut the ribbon.
And if you think building pyramids was a big deal, just think for a minute of the tremendous enterprises that we have taken on, one half of which may be put under the heading of Maintaining Our Power as Leader of the Free World, and the other under Competing with the Japanese. Not easy, and a lesser nation would have no chance at all, but the Land of the Free might just bring it all off, if only we can get up the moral courage to take a lesson from the Egyptians.
It was the passage quoted above that got us thinking about slavery. We found it in the New York Times, in one of those Gatherings of Informed Opinion. Big expert "educators" held forth on the current trend toward commercialism in the colleges and universities. The author of the comment above was Bartlett Giamatti, who happens just now to be big in baseball, but who had to serve a long apprenticeship in Academe. He even had to put in a few years as president of some school in New England.
What we liked best about his remarks was his old-fashioned, and right, use of the word "liberal." The capital L Liberals seem to construe the word otherwise, but Giamatti seems a real liberal, who uses the word as though it were related to "liberty." And we take "end," as we think he intended, in both ways. There is no graduation day upon which a liberal education is completed, and there is no other goal than itself to which it is dedicated. It is a condition which is a good, not a means to the achievement of something else, not the power to do something that one could not do without it, but the power to be something that one would not be without it.
In short, it is liberty.
It is thus best understood by contrast with whatever condition will appear in its lack, a condition that must be called slavery. We do have the notion, to be sure, that slavery went out long ago, but in fact it is still not only common among us, but even far more common than it used to be when it was legal. Our failure to see it is brought upon us by the belief, which is instilled by our version of education, that society is more important than the individual, and that the meaning of things is properly to be defined out there in the "real" world rather than in persons, who are apparently somewhat less real than the world. If slavery is just a provision of the laws, then we don't have it. But if it is a condition in persons, then we don't see it.
What would we do if slavery were to come back as a provision of the laws? Right here, at the Underground Grammarian Megacomplex, of course, where there is always work to be done, we would shop around and buy a couple of slaves. Young ones. Not only would they be cheaper than grown ones, but they would also be more amenable to training in exactly those useful skills that suit our purpose. Slaves, after all, are an investment in the future, and if we are to compete successfully with the Reader's Digest, we need some basic minimum competences. So when the time comes to send our slaves off to school, we are going to be very careful. We do want them to be able to balance a checkbook, which is exactly one of the things that we can't seem to get right. We would like them, someday, to learn how to read proof, and even to explain all those funny little markings to the rest of us, so that we might at last turn out an issue without a single typo. And we would definitely want them to learn, and as soon as possible, to relate well to self and others, with emphasis on others, and to understand their immense obligation to serve the common good and keep America great by competing with Reader's Digest.
You can be damn sure that we would feed them well, and see to it that they brush three times a day, and make sure they have all their shots, and keep them warm and dry. After all, they would be getting more valuable every day, and all the more expensive to replace, but we would like the school people to take over the job of scaring the hell out of them about drugs and AIDS, either one of which would wipe out our investment. We would like those school people also to keep reminding them that the purpose of "education" is to equip them to do some kind of work. And we surely don't want them to get any ideas that might disturb that notion.
So we would, of course, send them to the nearest government school.
When it comes time to send them to college--this work does require a diploma, you know--we would have to be a little more careful. We would try to find a place where they have a strong business program, or maybe a multimedia concentration in the art of Communicology, a coming field. A few courses in advertising wouldn't hurt, and a smattering of accountancy would be a necessity, as would some grasp of the arcane art of marketing, and the knack of skillful product perception enhancement for the maximization of profit potential.
We wouldn't begrudge a nickel of the tuition. It would be, in any case, a deductible business expense. But we wouldn't want to invest a nickel in anything that will not make them better workers. Foreign languages they do not need, especially since we will surely, from time to time, want to say, in their presence, things that we don't want them to understand, but also because such studies will leave them less time for useful courses. Of Plato or Jefferson, they need know nothing but what can easily be found in our biographical dictionary. Where geography is concerned, we would like them to know zip codes, and of sciences, all they need is elementary computer science, which pretty much means the ability to type in data on a keyboard. That's very important! And of such things as music and painting, they need know nothing, nothing at all. They have work to do, and they are not going to be traipsing around to museums and concerts on our time.
As to reading, we are going to have to take a little risk. We do want them to read well enough to spot typos, and even misplaced modifiers, but we don't want them to read well enough to spot non sequiturs or circular arguments. The one skill can indeed, if carried to extremes, lead on to the other, and the end result of that sort of reading could easily bring a slave to understand that he is a slave. That would be a financial calamity for us. In this matter, however, we are ready to put our faith in the standard American college faculty, by whose careful contrivance the first, safe kind of reading hardly ever does bring on the dangerous, anti-social second.
Where slaves are concerned, we don't need any advice from Giamatti. The end is in view. And it is the real living end--a life, a whole life, that is not for itself, but for the service and sake not even of some other person, but of some thing, some notion.
Only the free can afford a liberal education, but then again, only the free would want it in the first place.
The Great Booklets Society
OUR confederates in the Underground Tractarian Society report what we have long known: our subscribers are a rare breed. Every day brings a nice little batch of orders for Leaflets for the Masses. That in itself is not strange, but consider this:
A remarkable proportion of those who order send more money than they have to. Sometimes they say nothing, but often they give reasons. They are sure that the prices are too low. They want to help get the enterprise going. They want to subsidize our half-price subscriptions for those who need them. They want (no kidding) to buy drinks all around for the entire staff. They want to pay us back for the stamps that we stick on the return envelopes that go out with renewal notices. They are proof to us that MBA programs are all lies, and that the only decent way of doing business is to pay no mind to business, of which we are, in any case, incapable.
We conclude that they are people in whom a natural human desire has not been eradicated. It is nothing less than the longing for Justice, which is not the same as "knowing your rights" and insisting upon them. Whether what they do is Justice, is not for us to say, for no one knows another's heart, but that it is so intended, we know. They would hardly behave thus out of the appetites and passions that are said to run the marketplace, or merely to solicit the approbation of others.
From that we can conclude many things, but one of them is of particular interest just now. Our readers must have read books and thought about them, for therein lies the best possible defense against the common belief of the world that there is no natural longing for Justice. And, taken all together, they have read lots of books, far more than any one of us will be able to read in a lifetime. They are just the people we need in our latest enterprise, an experiment in the search for true education, for ourselves and any others who want it.
The other day, a junior member of our staff was neglecting business and reading Thucydides. He came to an illuminating and provoking passage that made him stop reading Thucydides. Long ago we said, in some now forgotten context, that reading, true reading, takes place not when we look at the page, but when we are impelled to look up from the page. It is true. The receiving of the letters is necessary but not sufficient. Reading happens later, in rumination and brooding.
The passage that arrested the idle fellow comes just before the end of Chapter X, where Thucydides describes the demoralization and the decay of character brought upon all of Greece by the Peloponnesian War, when rogues were accounted clever and honest men despised as simpletons. The passage is full of vexing, and remarkably timely observations, and our man, who had imagined that he had "read" that book before, now found it both wonderful and utterly unfamiliar.
Winston Churchill once suggested that a person who had no education--he meant the real kind--might get one by reading a good book of quotations. We think that was neither a stupid idea nor a frivolous gibe, but we do think that by "read," Churchill meant what we mean by that word.
Augustine, for instance, wrote in some place or other, that we all want to be happy, while living in such a way as to make happiness impossible. It is exactly the sort of thing that might appear in a book of quotations. To read it with the reading of the schools takes a moment, but to read it truly--how long? To hear from the poet that the worst are filled with passion while the best lack all conviction is, without true reading, merely to overhear idle chatter, but who will truly read such talk, measuring by it himself and the world, will see some truth. If you have nothing else, a book of quotations will indeed do.
But not all writers, and not all books, and most certainly not all paths of thinking, are suitable for a book of quotations. While many elegant lines might be taken one by one from that passage of Thucydides, to do so would not provide any reader, however astute, with the weight and depth of his understanding. And likewise, the treasure in books is not always exactly the same as the book. It is fine indeed to read Moby Dick, but to read its first paragraph is better that not reading its first paragraph, and, for some reader, on some day, a wonderful sufficiency.
We have decided, should the venture prosper as it promises, to add to Leaflets for the Masses a series of what might be called Great Booklets, small collections of big quotations. Thucydides will have four or five pages in the first, Joseph Conrad two or three. Macaulay and Thoreau are in the running, and we will certainly include, out of our gratitude, the passage in which Ben Jonson gave us our motto about the mind in tune and the reason in frame.
Since you are already sending us ugly examples of mindlessness, and since you have read countless books, by whose power you know mindlessness when you see it, we want you to start sending us splendid examples of thoughtfulness. We will have to choose among them, of course, but we will do our best to choose without regard to party or faction. It is striking thoughtfulness alone that we want, whatever its conclusions, and especially that strange quality which makes you lift your eyes from the page, and think.
The makers of such passages are the true teachers. The best the rest of us can do is to pass their words around to all of our friends.
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Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;