Monday, September 17, 2007

Column 21

"Omit Needless Words! Omit Needless Words! Omit Needless Words!"

From E.B. White's recollection this was an episode provided in class by professor William Strunk, the author of 'The Elements of Style', which White latter expanded and republished. I always found the episode amusing for the simple irony of requesting to 'omit needless words' three times. Surely only stating the maxim once would be sufficient to prove it's own point.

Speaking of maxims, a book recommendation: The Maxims by La Rochefoucauld. There is a nice edition out there by Oxford press. The author, of the court of Louis the Something Ornate, says the following about his work: 'The reader's best policy is to assume that none of these maxims is directed at him, and that he is the sole exception...After that, I guarantee that he will be the first to subscribe to them.' The subtitle/warning/theme at the beginning is 'Our virtues are, most often, only vices in disguise.'

Yet the work reads true, which is unnerving. And so the man is correct in stating that what are somehow enlightened by reading the work and assuming that the maxims do not apply to us. Of course this is not what he intended, since he makes a point of pointing out that all humanity is at fault here; it would be easy to say that the work is pessimistic. Which is again troubling, since it is not. The work is not one of doom and cautionary or forewarning heedance. It's not Thomas Hobbes' view that humanity is destined to a life that is nasty, brutish, and short. Instead it is an attempt to accurately display humanity's traits as the products of selfishness.

It's also only 40 pages. And once you've read it you can prescribe it to others in a glow of enlightened self-righteousness, as I've done.

Prescription is an unusual thing, and can have some funny attributes. The philosophy of Nietszche is a pleasant middle-finger that pretty much commands: Don't follow my philosophy. But in not following his philosophy we are roped into obeying his command. Are there any winners? A way out? Sure: Don't read Nietszche. If I did believe in God it would be because of Nietszche. The man was a chauvinist philosopher who thought women were inferior and who died from syphilis-induced insanity. The karmic irony is too sweet. But I suppose karma is of the Indian tradition, so there goes God.

Thomas Hobbes, already mentioned, gave us the problem that everything we do is selfish. But if this is the case you can never argue against it, for it may always be the case that looming somewhere in the back of your mind is a selfish desire. And of course it may also be true that somewhere lurking on Mars are little blue men, whose technology has so far surpassed us that we cannot detect them. Can't prove it, but then again, you can't not prove it.

Ditto God. For things which I can neither prove nor disprove I chose to pass over in silence. A friend of mine states that he is an Igtheist. Igtheism is the idea that we cannot have a meaningful discussion about God until we define God. Of course for Christians this will always prove an impossibility, and so the Igtheists, I should imagine, never need fear having to take up the discussion. The problem is again another catch-22. By choosing not to confirm a belief in God you are casting a ballot declaring that you have no belief in God. You cannot chose to not chose. Either you are or you aren't, and by saying you don't want to participate you automatically get lumped with the aren'ts.

And that's why I like Strunk and White. Prescriptive, but easy to follow and non-contradictory. And a boon to high school teachers everywhere.

But his own Maxims state that 'The refusal of praise is actually the wish to be praised twice.' So by praising him I'm avoiding this vice. Right? Right?

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