Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of
HM 775 Leadership through Writing
Richard Abel, PhD
Wisdom is first of the gifts of good fortune…
But words without measure, the
Fruit of vain-glory, in woes without number their
Have lesson’d the aged in wisdom.
Sophocles’ Antigone: 1309ff
(taken from the Donaldson interpretation)
Introduction by way of exegesis
Sophocles concludes his tragedy Antigone with a reference to “words without measure,” or, in the Greek ά̀̀ó(henceforth transliterated as “megaloi de logoi”). What, exactly, is meant by such a phrase?
The preface “mega” is well known within recent English. We commonly encounter mega-malls, mega-sales, and especially mega-sized meals. In such cases, “mega” is a modifier which indicates “greater” or “larger” than ordinary. The root “loi” reflects a masculine plural noun. It is a substantive and derives its meaning, that of “words,” from a verb within the cited passage. Given these meanings, “mega” + “loi” is often translated as “words that are larger than ordinary” or “proud words,” e.g. the Kitto translation. The problem with such a treatment is that the reader or listener may miss the heightened level of pretention and arrogance latent within the phrase. While literally correct, the word choice is figuratively lacking.
Note that the phrase “megaloi de logoi” is reflexive. It points towards the utterer of the words as the proper referent – not to the words themselves or towards a third party. We speakers of recent English may miss the reflexive nature of the phrase as we do often assert arrogance of the thing spoken when any wide-ranging assertation or assertation claiming unique insight, i.e. a “proud” assertation, is made. While we tend to view reason as the key to our post-enlightenment sense of salvation and wellness (you might say the post-Enlightenment transplanted understanding of eudemonia), we tend to place strict qualifications on how any other may license reason. On the one hand, we demand an individual exploration of meaning and purpose through the application of reason, i.e. plurality, yet, on the other hand, we expect others to either agree with us (as we have obviously “got it right”) or to simply be quiet, or most likely, to stay out of our way, i.e. the modern American expression of uniformity. Yet the writer and redactors who penned “megaloi de logoi” most likely intended a meaning and referent quite disparate from the aforementioned.
In order to complete the exegesis, the prepositional phrase completing the phrase, “de logoi” or “without measure” must be considered. The object of the phrase, “logos,” is familiar. We are trained at an early age to understand the suffix “-ology” as “the study of ‘X’ or as an attempt to use reason in order to “know” ‘X’. Such a treatment assumes the commonly encountered translation of “logos” as “reason” (cf. logic). While the Ancient Greek view does assert that a subject can be known through a set body of facts, or episteme, “knowing” expertly the episteme at hand requires much more than just abstract speculation or the application of reason. Knowing and doing are joined within the ancient Greek view (although the priority of one over the other is certainly a point of contention). Thus, “de logoi” rightly refers to much more than an irrational claim or perhaps a claim that offers partial insight; it refers to that assertion which is separate or pulled away from the very core, or logos, of the thing in question. Our word for “pulled away from” is taken from the Latin, ab tracere, and is rendered as “abstraction.” Knowledge of this species, and spoken utterances reflecting such knowledge, is arrogant precisely because it is distant from the very topic in which it professes mastery or profound insight. The arrogance, therefore, is not due to the scope of the assertation, but flows from a personal arrogance that would facilitate a speaker articulating grand propositions while not really “knowing” in a meaningful sense, the subject about which the speaker has spoken.
An “Idiotic” Example
For the ancient Greeks, the noun ʹ̀ό (transliterated as “idiot”) did not mean a person of questionable cognitive ability. As with our notion of idiosyncrasy, the proper noun refers to a person so entrenched in one particular view or perception that that same person is trapped in a singular understanding. The blinders, made of an unquestioned loyalty to reason and allegiance to an antecedent position, allow for a lowering of the thing as it is in reality and a raising of the ubiquitous human need for clarity and “absolute” normative truth.
Stone, a political scientist from Dartmouth, offers a prime example of such idiocy through her framing of “Antigone’s choice.” Within her text, The Samaritan’s Dilemma, the character of Antigone represents the voice of the individualist fighting against the heartless totalitarian state as represented by the character of Creon. While she cites the Kitto translation throughout her text, she did not read apparently the preface, in which Hall writes, “In modern times the political element has inspired numerous adaptations and productions, often anachronistically portraying Antigone as a liberal individualist shaking her little fist against a totalitarian state…” (Sophocles, 2009, xvi). Of course, treating a subject anachronistically is not the worst offense a thinker can commit. In fact, to be fair, sometimes novel re-makings can yield marvelously new results. It should be noted, however, that the facile interpretation of “Antigone is the individual and Creon is the state” would most likely be foreign to the original audience. Anachronism is an example of idiocy in that the translator interprets according to her needs while disregarding the context and reality of thing interpreted.
Stone deepens the anachronistic divide and the depths of her idiocy when she rests her literary device of “Antigone’s choice” on the following plot summary: “Antigone can be read as a grand cultural story about what happens when rules and laws interfere with the moral duty to help other. People rebel. The current American political scene can be read as a reincarnation of King Creon’s Thebes” (Stone, 2008, 142). The Athenian audience observing the performance would not necessarily understand altruism as a tenet of their faith; additionally, the observance of ritual and rites, e.g. a burial rite, may be far removed from an ethically or politically normative stance. Stone has blended unfairly the observance of religious norms and rituals with the moral duty to help others. She also likens the current American scene to King Creon’s Thebes and intends to be dually derisive by means of her comparison. Facile and anachronistic interpretations aside, an actual reading of the play demonstrates the dedication and passion of Creon to his city-state and his people. We should be so fortunate as to have politicians and leaders who are as fully invested in the wellness of the state as Creon was of Thebes.
The anachronistic divide, born of Stone’s milling of the play, approaches the distance between Scylla and Charybdis when Stone repeatedly employs the phrase “Antigone’s choice” throughout chapter five of her work. The phrase first appears on page 143 and alludes to the “noble individual versus the evil state” interpretation discussed above. Her position, flimsily built upon a litany of arguments by example, invokes a sort of teleological suspension of ethics for the marginalized due simply to their oppression. Like the character of Antigone, the oppressed are forced into unthinkable dilemmas and are exculpated as it is the heavy hand of the state which has forced the issue and is therefore at blame. Stone is guilty of idiocy (in the nuanced sense) not only because of her vicious insensitivity to the culture from which she borrowed her concepts; but also because she twists and bends the Sophoclean drama to fit her agenda. Differences in experience are bulldozed for the sake of Stone’s antecedent loyalties and her interpretation concerning the current American body politic. While her cause is noble (she is advocating personal and political altruism), her approach, to borrow again from the Greeks, is barbaric.
Such idiocy as present within “Antigone’s choice” and, in general, Stone’s treatment of Antigone, is a prime example of “words without measure” or as the Romans would say, flatus voci, i.e. “gas of the mouth.” Stone’s treatment is a wreck that should be allowed to sink quietly into the murky depths of meaninglessness. But Stone’s position – her call for a healing of the body politic through an increase in altruism, despite the loss of the wreck, may be salvageable.
What is the proper metric, amidst which, Stone’s position should be set in order to be judged fairly? She offers a clue when she writes, “Nevertheless, I hope my story will strike you as authentic, because I did try to take measure of people by finding out what’s in their hearts. I measured with words instead of numbers, and counted with an empathic ear” (Stone, 2008, 5). Stone is attempting to leave the “tried and true” traditional political science approach built within the cold walls of abstraction and quantification. Within that particular agora, Stone’s words will always be seen as measureless. Within such a market, the value of a position must be purchased through the commodity of reason. The pull of the heart, the reality of suffering, the injustice of marginalization, and all other “wild beasts” do not lend themselves to such measure. Her sole cognitive mode of argumentation, argument by example, is considered insufficient within a purely cognitive approach as the cogency of the example endures only until a counter-example can be formally introduced (or is assumed by the reader/interlocutor).
But Stone is not seeking a reasonable metric. She is seeking a metric in which human reality is central. She is seeking a metric in which connection (not abstraction) and experience is central, e.g. “Daily experience flies in the face of this [self-interest] picture. Taking care of each other is the way we live.” (Stone, 2008, 30). She is seeking a metric in which the division between ruled and ruler, subject and object, mine and yours, are reconstructed as unity, e.g. “Altruism blurs the distinctions between many categories we ordinarily consider separate. In moments of helping, altruists don’t experience sharp differences between self and other, motive and reward, giving and receiving…” (Stone, 2008, 183). In short, she is seeking an American metric (built upon experience) in order to touch and heal that which is dividing America.
When Stone writes “There is another logic…the logic of love, help, kindness and care” (Stone, 2008, 177) and “Altruism moves us in every facet of daily life” (Stone, 2008, 177), she is speaking of the same sort of turn as described in James’ work Pragmatism:
A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, and towards power. (James, 1975, 31)
By moving Stone’s call for altruism into an experiential-based model, the call for altruism becomes founded. Her litany of examples, instead of being a dull-witted attempt at presenting a reasonable argument, becomes moving and may therefore seed action. The sterility of reason has been replaced with the possibility of experience. On the downside, experience is not predictable and pristine beauty of theoretical clarity is lost. But as James notes, it would be foolish to expect objectivity and certitude in our lives, i.e., “Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?” (James, 1979, 22). On the upside, experience is built upon such stuff as typically shunned by reasonable approaches, e.g. affection, moods, and human longing and suffering. Abstraction can only breed abstraction and stare impotently at humanity and our condition; experience, born of action, may potentially breed change and sew hope. Why, then, would we seek to exclude such core human elements?
An additional recompense for such a move is that we can embrace and join the various strengths from the plurality in which we live. John F. Kennedy took a step in this direction with his Profiles in Courage. Kennedy established a joining ground for the eight profiles offered in his text through specific doings or examples of courage. The men he cites are not lauded for speculation; each has a specific action (experience) that transcends mere political party barriers – barriers built upon abstract principles and logical rules. Even Kennedy’s normative stance, that of political egoism, which is in direct logical opposition to Stone’s altruism, can be joined within the experiential model. Experience is not ruled by the Law of Non-Contradiction or the Principle of the Excluded Middle. Unlike mathematicians, we are not forced, in reality, to choose the one or the other. Kennedy’s assertation that elected officials “determine what were their own best interests, as part of the nation’s interests” reflects a practical need for leaders to have the ability to be decisive and take a stand. (Kennedy, 2006, 15) While logic may dictate that a position of altruism or egoism must be chosen or implemented, experience hints that a mixing of both is typically what happens and is, most likely, optimal.
Most dichotomies seem to suffer a similar fate, i.e. they are evaded, when an experiential measure is employed. Even the thought of two radically different thinkers, such as Goldwater and Krugman, is joined within the melting pot of experience. Krugman, a self described American Liberal, characterizes his position as “I believe in a relatively equal society, supported by institutions that limit extremes of wealth and poverty. I believe in democracy, civil liberties, and the rules of law.” (Krugman, 2009, 267) Goldwater, a prime example of American conservatism, writes, “…the Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order” (Goldwater, 2007, 7). These citations, when considered away from the melee of logomachy, seem curiously compatible. In reality (experience), we desire both the opportunity to excel (freedom as defined by Goldwater) and to live in a nation that provides access to primary goods to all that have a legitimate claim to such goods (freedom as defined by Krugman). It is the false lens of abstraction that views two sides of the same coin as different coins.
What sense can now be made of “megaloi de logoi?” From a non-cognitive or experiential based approach, experience, not abstract reason, is the core. “Words without measure” reflects assertations removed from reality due to abstraction and antecedent loyalties. The arrogant, within this new framework, are those who rely on reason alone and articulate grand propositions, based on abstraction, while not really “knowing” in a meaningful sense.
Goldwater, B.M. (2007). The Conscience of a conservative. Breinigsville, PA: BN Publishing.
James, W.H. (1975). Pragmatism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
James, W.H. (1979). The Will to believe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kennedy, J.F., Kennedy, R.F., & Kennedy, C. (2006). Profiles in courage. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Krugman, P. (2009). The Conscience of a liberal. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Sophocles. (1898). The Antigone of Sophocles (J.W. Donaldson, Trans.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Sophocles. (2009). Antigone, Oedipus the king, Electra. (H.D. Kitto, Trans.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Stone, D. (2008). The Samaritan’s Dilemma: should government help your neighbor. New York, NY: Nation Books.