Thursday, November 17, 2011

Argument by quotation


If you read my blog frequently, you know one of my favorite Latin maxims is Ab abusu ad usum non valet consequentia, which translates (more or less) as, “An inference from an abuse to the proper use is not valid.” It can also be expressed in a shorter form: Abusus non usum tollit, or “The abuse does not destroy the proper use”.

My second favorite is Qui tacet consentire videtur [ubi loqui debuit ac potuit], “Who gives silence [when he ought to have spoken and was able] is taken to give consent.” If you’ve read/seen A Man for All Seasons or seen the trial scene in The Tudors, you know this was an essential feature of St. Thomas More’s defense against his treason charge … so much so that, to force his hand, Sir Richard Rich (with or without the collusion of Sir Thomas Cromwell) committed perjury.[*]

These are maxims, or precepts: succinct statements of rules of conduct or moral principles. It won’t do to call them “clichés”, as these rules are almost hardly remembered and often violated in public discourse. But more to the point, they’re aids to thought and argument, not substitutes. For that, we can drag in any number of famous quotations by famous (or not-so-famous) wits.


Quotation is a tricky business. For one thing, you really need to look at a quote in its original context to understand its meaning. For another, a quotation may be humorous or pithy, but it doesn’t follow that whatever truth it contains is general or unqualified. For a third, many quotations abound that are pseudo-maxims; they’re stated as postulates when even as propositions their truth-value is dubious, even subjective.

Consider this line from Alexander Pope: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” This is only the first line of a poem (an extract of which I posted on The Impractical Catholic); if you only encountered the line abstracted from the rest of the poem, you’d think — as many people have erroneously done — that Pope was damning too much education when in fact the stanza condemns too little education. Context may not be everything, but it counts for a lot.

But why should anyone just quote the first line?

Pat Archbold has a pretty humorous piece in his and his brother’s blog in the National Catholic Register which explains Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” with quotations from The Godfather such as “Leave the gun and take the cannoli”. Just as Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani? would have been instantly recognizable to the first-century Jews as the first line to Psalm 22, so “A little learning is a dangerous thing” was once recognized as a reference to Pope’s poem.

Now, in Pat’s post, the line “My God” was the basis for a non-believer’s argument that Jesus didn’t believe himself to be the Son of God; indeed, he considered it an argument-stopper or a wrecking ball. If nothing else, it had the merit of going to the primary source.

We go further afield when we consider Karl Marx’s dictum, “[Religion] is the opiate of the people.” This a pseudo-maxim; it depends for its truth on the rest of Marx’s social analysis, which is beset by a number of methodological flaws and dubious premisses. Even in the limited context of his introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, his statement is true only to those who (falsely) consider religion something artificial imposed by a social élite rather than organically growing from the beliefs of the people.

In my last post, I used the scandals in the Catholic Church and Penn State to demonstrate the truth of the statement attributed to Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Properly understood, the quote isn’t meant to justify State intrusion into citizens’ affairs but rather to affirm our individual personal responsibility to act in the presence of evil. And its truth is backed up by numerous studies and historical examples of people who failed to counter manifest intrinsic evil by even ineffective action.

By contrast I can give you a list of atheist “witticisms” that circulate around the web as pseudo-maxims: snarky observations that substitute cynicism for analysis and dubious allegations for indisputable facts. But, you may ask, isn’t the Bible the same thing: a book full of propositions true only to those who believe?

In one sense, that’s incorrect. Many thoughtful atheists will confirm most of the morality contained in the Bible and will appreciate its insights into human behavior even while denying the existence of the God it speaks of. As for its historicity, we must admit that Christians are occasionally apt to cherry-pick as are atheists; nevertheless, where its historicity can be verified, the thoughtful, well-educated atheist will accept it.

In another sense, not only is the question completely correct, St. Augustine of Hippo used the argument against the Manicheans sixteen centuries ago:

Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichaeus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichaeus, how can I but consent?[1]

Argument by quotation isn’t a good tactic for either the Christian or the non-Christian. For the non-Christian, even the most indisputable of Christ’s teachings have no greater weight than the wisest sayings of teachers like Buddha or Confucius; for the Christian, any truths found in other religions are distant reflections of God’s truth.


[*] In A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt gives the maxim as Quin taces consentire, “that to agree you keep silent”.