Ancients & moderns

Any attempt to encapsulate the crucial difference between us moderns and them ancients has dangers we should have seen earlier -- not the higher-than-average probability of turning out wrong, but the certainty of being too thankfully received.


Everyone wants praise, but not if everyone gets it.

Locke, 1664: "Certainly he finds himself in a tight corner and rules under an unfair law who is not allowed to use his free judgement in matters of reward and punishment, who is distracted by discordant cries on either side, for pardon on one hand and the rod on the other. Though perhaps ancient tradition might call for the latter, it certainly does not befit my right hand nor your behaviour. For you have devoted yourselves so well to the study of the best things that to most of you I have not been so much a Censor and taskmaster as a witness and applauder of your hard work. Faults, if faults there were, you have so atoned for that they only offered an opportunity to us both -- for you to earn and for me to praise; and, as is the way sometimes with small obstacles, they have quickened our step as we trod the turf.

I remember no one who was obstinate and insolent, for I am glad to forget the very few such among so many who deserved well. Such is the diligence, the worthiness, the learning, and the ability of by far the most of you that it can easily make good the laziness of the rest, and cause the spots, which are not absent even in the sun, to be hidden in so much splendour.

And so I pronounce you all well-bred, diligent, obedient. But let no one, should he have a guilty feeling, imagine that I have said this as a formality and that, as those who bid farewell are wont to do, I praise those things which have not really met with my approval: but let him rather learn to love and cherish that virtue whose merit is so great that it overflows upon those around and profits even him who has it not. But as I look round in this hour of departure, it seems that I could wish nothing more propitious for this House or better for you than that most of you should remain like yourselves and the rest should vie with them."

R. Frankenberg: "Judges are requested to take impossible decisions within a very short time. Therefore the law has recourse to juries whose very qualification is their lack of qualification but who represent the overriding system of the people. Their reasons for their decisions are not merely completely ignored but there are positive injunctions against exploring them. Their existence as groups is totally ephemeral, and when thay have carried out their impossible and irrational task they disappear back into the people from which they came, impervious to criticism and too evanescent for revenge."

Elizabeth Wright: "On our papers he [Joseph Wright] wrote in large letters `Not enough', or he would strike out whole answers; and -- sorest blow of all -- he sometimes added in the margin the awful word `Horrid!' I never attained to his highest mark of approval, which was `Thank you'."

Evidently Wright had a still higher mark of approval, which she did attain.


Wittgenstein: "When we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole."

A. D. Ritchie: "Neither intuitions, truths nor propositions are to be treated as atomic. Whatever can be true, false, right or wrong must be complex and constitute a systematic whole... Truth is not a simple quality pertaining to simple entities as such, but a relation holding between or found among entities which form a system of a certain minimum complexity."

Helpful though they are, both these authors share the term `system', which may concede too much: if `complex' and systematic' are to live together, one or both must give up something of its strongest sense. The case for complexity seems stronger, though less palatable, than that for systematicness.

Note in passing that it's not just the objects of Belief which are subject to the atomicity criticism. What bears on propositions as constituents of Creed or Curriculum or Platform bears also on notions like Perplexity, Explanation, Teaching/Learning, whose relations with Belief are inextricable, and each of which has analogous unit-defining problems. To camouflage these problems about unicity we give each of these nouns a capital initial -- a ploy which has a success out of all proportion to its merits. Better to see capitalization, or Capitalization, as itself a sign of anxiety.

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