Are Labels Inherently Wrong? Or Part of Life?
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
He was the ultimate list maker. Indeed, if there was a competition for list-making, surely Aristotle would have won.
He wrote out lists of virtues and vices, he wrote out lists of animals and plants (over 500 species were categorized in extreme detail), he wrote out lists of plays, poetry, and of works of philosophical importance. He wrote out lists of buildings and places and most likely lists of other lists.
Sadly, we have only a mere fraction of his lists, which, if had been preserved, would have been essential documents, references of the ancient world. Indeed, of his treatises which covered an impressive variety of topics, approximately 200 in number, only 31 have survived.
While these documents - the various papyri themselves - have been lost, the tradition of listing and labeling has continued. One only has to think of other famous methodical minds, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, or Benjamin Franklin.
But now, labels seem to have a life of their own. From illegal alien and CIS gender, Alt-right and non-binary... our current society seems to both relish and rebel against labels.
But are they inherently helpful or harmful? Do they help us make sense and define our world? Or do they box people unfairly into categories? Is this a moment to embrace the tradition Aristotle began so long ago, or break away from it?
Are Labels Good, Bad or Neutral?
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In fact, last week we discussed how we can save rational discourse (as well as Helen and Thumos). As usual, your fellow Classical Wisdom Readers responses were extremely varied and thought-provoking. You can read a selection below.
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On Helen of Sparta:
Just wondering if in your publications on Helen of Troy you will mention the following trivia (which I came across in researching for my novel Journey into Antiquity). People attribute the coining of "the thousand ships" to Christopher Marlowe in his play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in 1604 when his diabolical Doctor asks: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?"
But Lucian of Samosata, a 2nd century CE Syrian satirist who wrote in Greek, has this exchange in his Dialogues of the Dead:
Hermes: This skull is Helen
Menippus: And for this a thousand ships carried warriors from every part of Greece?
Was Marlowe's similar phrase a coincidence? I think not. Apparently there is a unit for measuring beauty called the "millihelen" (one thousandth of a "Helen"). It could be used to launch one ship!
Perhaps Paris should have used this unit of measure in his "judgment" to choose the fairest! He might have been more objective... and saved the Greeks "many ships"!
[Anya’s Note: Thank you so much Denis for letting us know about this very exciting piece of trivia. Always interesting to think what Marlowe (and Shakespeare) would have studied... versus what books we have available to us now.]
On “How Can We Save Rational Discourse?”
Can discourse ever be irrational? I think when it becomes non-rational it would not be called discourse but rather bad conversation or argument.
Many of us have grown up in a family in which at the dinner table there was chat on everything from excessively repeating how good the food was, or what the family plans on doing in the future, or talking of world events that were really not that rational. Often, in teenage years, one would be embarrassed of having any outsider witness such chat; however, for the better, it prompted us to talk with each other, setting the road for better discourse with education in the future. So how can we save Rational Discourse: bring back the ritual of dinner or meals eaten together sans TV, Phones, Computers, or other distractions in preparation for communication via the spoken/written word.
The dinner table is the basis of civilization; when we lose that, we lose discourse.
Herman. H, San Francisco
There are at least two ways to answer this question. One response implies that the participants in a conversation attack the argument presented, not its author (ad hominem as happens in Aristophanes’ play The Clouds with his attacks on Socrates and the Thinkery). Along with this is the notion that the argument’s claims are devoid of sophistries—so too the rebuttal (such as the Strawman sophistry wherein Sophist Thrasymachus purposely weakens his opponent’s argument by omitting an important premise).
The second meaning of “rational” follows from Aristotle’s three laws of logic. The first, the Principle of Identity, means that A is equivalent to A (or rather don’t change the meaning of an argument’s key term after establishing its meaning unless you inform your auditor).
Second, the Principle of the Excluded Middle, which in the simplest terms implies that a claim is either true or false, there is no other option.
Finally, the Principle of non-Contradiction. A self-contradiction is always false. This, of course, was Socrates oft used ploy against his adversaries--through Socratic dialectic drive your opponent into a self-contradiction.
All rational discourse must fashion itself around these two considerations.
Prof. Dr. (emeritus)
Anya, I have a rather simplistic view on how we can salvage rational discourse. It is not instant, nor fool proof. We need to concentrate on teaching children HOW to think and not WHAT to think. Of course there is much more to it, but I see a real trend, for decades, in inculcating rather than incubating.
Regarding anger, lack of objectivity, and the polarization, I then turn to the media, but, with so many of these altering and difficult to solve factors, that go back forever, I really have no answer in changing the trajectory.
I do however think that your objective, intelligent discourse and debate, and other sites with the same goal, do help and serve a great purpose. There is always hope.
Continued success, and I salute you, stay healthy.
In my opinion, you can only engage rational discourse with those who share the same fundamental values such as no stealing, killing, or destroying.
If a cannibal moves to your neighborhood and decides to hunt around for dinner, there is no rational discourse that could persuade a cannibal to not be a cannibal. You could ask him/her to maybe hunt a neighborhood further away, but a cannibal is a cannibal is a cannibal.
Rational discourse also can best be achieved when touching on light topics of opinion. For example, which ice cream flavor is better --chocolate or vanilla? The mere difference of opinions between ice cream flavors does not affect the livelihood of either debater. Whether they agree, disagree, or agree to disagree, at the end of the debate, they both go home with the ability to house, clothe, feed and protect themselves and their families.
When you try to tackle real issues rational discourse is near impossible.A dog cannot meow and a cat cannot bark. There is good and evil, as there are good people and bad people.
Most do not change. There are always anomalies, but there are so few.
So when considering a debate or some rational discourse, one must always consider what culture is being addressed. How valuable is your time? Is it worth it to try and change the unchangeable?
Thanks for the wonderful and thought provoking ideas.
I don’t believe it is an assumed positive to save rational discourse. Weimar Germany tried with the Nazis and Hitler followed. Kerensky tried with Lenin and Stalin resulted.
When a dog is rabid, shoot it. You cannot have a rational discourse with a dog gone mad and much less so with a human that has exited humanity. Pol Pot ring bell? North Korea today? Uighurs in Red China? Tibetans? Seen a Montagnard alive recently?
You do not try for a rational discourse. Bonhoeffer realized that the opposition to Hitler’s thugs could not rest with rational discourse. It had to be defeated by force and a terrible resolve to use it. Chamberlain tried rational discourse with Hitler and WW2 resulted. When the Nazis marched into the Ruhr this was not met with force but rational discourse.
When Japan invaded Manchuria rational discourse was applied and the Rape of Nanking soon followed. It took Hiroshima and Nagasaki to compel Japan’s surrender and endless napalm bombings that killed far more. Rational discourse with their military? There was rational discourse happening in Hull’s office as the bombs fell on Pearl and Clark Field. How about rational discourse between Greece and Persia? Rome and Parthia?
Jehu to Jezebel? How about the American colonists against the UK fascist empire? It took force and surviving ten years of English genocide and a second war later to secure sovereignty.
Rational discourse in a world gone mad and globally given over to degeneracy and desensitized to human value? What is rational and what is discourse? Does lightness have anything in common with darkness? Or is rational discourse simply cowardice and compromise by alternative methods?
Although thumos meant different things to the ancient Greeks (soul, life, heart, etc.), in its meaning of courage, spirit, will(power), unflinching purpose, even heart - in the sense of "having heart" - I would suggest a modern translation (and concept): "true grit" (I know, there's the movie, but there you go!)
It is not rage (menin) or glory-seeking (kleos), which both applied to Achilles!
Anya, The Ukrainian people certainly demonstrate the spirit of Thumos in defending their country.
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Aristotle’s characteristics of sound money... a timely reminder of ancient wisdom given the mayhem in US banking right now. Got gold?
Labels are usually bad if one looks at PATRIARCHY in a general sense...
Racist/Fascist/RELIGIOUS labels concerning SUBHUMANS (like SINNERS, INFIDEL, UNBELIEVERS, K_F_RS, COCKROACHES -- like in the Rwandan Genocides and the like) have caused a lot of death and broken lives.
The opposite are also true -- to a certain extent. However, patriarchy isn't good for humanity as a whole...
It damages everyone. The indoctrination (manipulation) processes, which are forming the basis of patriarchy, are harmful to everyone, especially in a mental sense...
Labels can be extremely harmful, especially concerning children. If they must hear from their parents how useless they are, only once, than it scar them permanently -- and some are suffering such abuse every day for years...
Or they, the labels, can be very useful to build up someone.
If one has small children than one will -- most probably -- achieve unimaginable heights with one's own children by doing the opposite than what is being perpetrated in such households...
I have seen this happen...
Pieter J de Kooker (PJ)