We need the help of logicians: Even the swift runner Achilles once called out for help from a guardian class—though in his case, the guardian class whose aid he sought was the Olympian gods.
As documented in Book XXI of The Iliad, Achilles had wandered far from the walls of Troy, slaying various Trojans. But he was discarding their bodies in the river Scamander, and the river god boiled with rage.
We offer the 1898 Samuel Butler prose translation, largely because it's available on line. Butler used the Roman forms of the gods' names, in which Zeus, to cite one example, appears as Jupiter/Jove:
HOMER (Book XXI): [N]ow that he had killed Asteropaeus, he let him lie where he was on the sand, with the dark water flowing over him and the eels and fishes busy nibbling and gnawing the fat that was about his kidneys. Then he went in chase of the Paeonians, who were flying along the bank of the river in panic when they saw their leader slain by the hands of the son of Peleus. Therein he slew Thersilochus, Mydon, Astypylus, Mnesus, Thrasius, Oeneus, and Ophelestes, and he would have slain yet others, had not the river in anger taken human form, and spoken to him from out the deep waters saying, "Achilles, if you excel all in strength, so do you also in wickedness, for the gods are ever with you to protect you: if, then, the son of Saturn has vouchsafed it to you to destroy all the Trojans, at any rate drive them out of my stream, and do your grim work on land. My fair waters are now filled with corpses, nor can I find any channel by which I may pour myself into the sea for I am choked with dead, and yet you go on mercilessly slaying. I am in despair, therefore, O captain of your host, trouble me no further."As documented by Homer, Scamander had taken human form. He commanded Achilles to stop.
Achilles disregarded the river god's command. When he did, the river descended upon him in the manner reported below. Swift-running Achilles was forced to seek help from a mightier guardian class:
HOMER: Achilles sprang from the bank into mid-stream, whereon the river raised a high wave and attacked him. He swelled his stream into a torrent, and swept away the many dead whom Achilles had slain and left within his waters. These he cast out on to the land, bellowing like a bull the while, but the living he saved alive, hiding them in his mighty eddies. The great and terrible wave gathered about Achilles, falling upon him and beating on his shield, so that he could not keep his feet; he caught hold of a great elm-tree, but it came up by the roots, and tore away the bank, damming the stream with its thick branches and bridging it all across; whereby Achilles struggled out of the stream, and fled full speed over the plain, for he was afraid.Achilles begged for help from the ultimate guardian class, and his call for help was rewarded.
But the mighty god ceased not in his pursuit, and sprang upon him with a dark-crested wave, to stay his hands and save the Trojans from destruction. The son of Peleus darted away a spear's throw from him; swift as the swoop of a black hunter-eagle which is the strongest and fleetest of all birds, even so did he spring forward, and the armour rang loudly about his breast. He fled on in front, but the river with a loud roar came tearing after. As one who would water his garden leads a stream from some fountain over his plants, and all his ground-spade in hand he clears away the dams to free the channels, and the little stones run rolling round and round with the water as it goes merrily down the bank faster than the man can follow—even so did the river keep catching up with Achilles albeit he was a fleet runner, for the gods are stronger than men. As often as he would strive to stand his ground, and see whether or no all the gods in heaven were in league against him, so often would the mighty wave come beating down upon his shoulders, and be would have to keep flying on and on in great dismay; for the angry flood was tiring him out as it flowed past him and ate the ground from under his feet.
Then the son of Peleus lifted up his voice to heaven saying, "Father Jove, is there none of the gods who will take pity upon me, and save me from the river? I do not care what may happen to me afterwards. I blame none of the other dwellers on Olympus so severely as I do my dear mother, who has beguiled and tricked me. She told me I was to fall under the walls of Troy by the flying arrows of Apollo; would that Hector, the best man among the Trojans, might there slay me; then should I fall a hero by the hand of a hero; whereas now it seems that I shall come to a most pitiable end, trapped in this river as though I were some swineherd's boy, who gets carried down a torrent while trying to cross it during a storm."
"It is not your fate to perish in this river," Poseidon (Neptune) instantly told him, having taken the form of a human himself. "He will abate presently as you will see."
When Scamander threatened to destroy him, even swift-running Achilles was forced to seek help from a guardian class. Within our own failing culture and society, we ourselves are badly in need of help from some guardians too.
As effects of climate change advance, we could certainly use some help from the gods of nature. But as our society continues to fashion a clownish, broken national discourse, we also badly need the help of a human guardian class.
We need the help of our logicians, and perhaps of our ethicists too. It wouldn't hurt if our political scientists came down from their lecterns now and then to stand on their hind legs too.
It isn't that professors of the types we've named don't exist, in profusion. The problem lies in their alienation from the daily events of this earth.
When Achilles cried out to the gods, Poseidon was quick to respond. But as our embarrassing national clown show has rushed upon us in recent decades, our mighty logicians have distinguished themselves by their endless silence.
It would make a great Bergman film. (Max von Sydow calls out for help, but the logicians are silent!) But it also makes for a dying culture, of the type we see around ourselves every day of the week.
Let's be candid! No one imagines that our "logicians" will ever intercede in our great societal mess. It isn't clear that our greatest logicians have any skills in what might be called the logic of everyday discourse.
As we've noted in recent weeks, our logicians have busied themselves, even over the past hundred years, in the logic of 2 + 2 equaling 4. Or in the logic of 1 + 1, as a favorite writer reminded us roughly one week back.
Regarding that favorite writer of ours, we will make this point:
This favorite writer often seems to assume that we say the things we sometimes say through a great measure of ignorance. On this occasion, he assured us that Godel's theorems really do turn on the logic of the (pseudo) statement, "This very statement is false."
He also assured us that Lord Russell and Alfred North Whitehead really did spend a hundred pages proving that 1 + 1 = 2. He seemed to assume that we didn't know such things—that our assessment of giants like Godel would change if we did.
In fact, we do understand that our "greatest logicians" have tended to spend their time on such pursuits. But from our perspective, such facts indicate that our greatest logicians have spent the past hundred years (or more) involved in utterly pointless pseudo-disputes.
In our experience, we trace this notion to the (highly inarticulate) work of the later Wittgenstein. We'll be exploring this idea in the weeks and months ahead.
Were our "greatest logicians"—great figures like Godel—successful logicians at all? In large part, it seems to us they were not.
Beyond that, it seems to us that, as they have wasted their time on disputes about "the perfect. timeless existence" of such "abstract objects" as numbers and circles, they have utterly failed their citizen's duty to this failing republic. They've left us shlubs, us average Joes, very much in the lurch.
As anyone with a TV set knows, our daily public discourse is largely scripted by clowns. But when we humans cry out for help from a guardian class, our great logicians fail to respond. Our ethicists seem to be on sabbatical in the south of France.
As a nation, we're thrown back on the manifest horrors of endless discussion-by-clown.
In part, this is a comical story, but it also points the way to possible death and destruction. Beyond that, every step of the way, it points to the question we'll continue to ask:
Was sacred Aristotle more nearly right with his widely-bruited alleged claim that "man [sic] is the rational animal?"
Or is Professor Harari more right in his recent claim that our triumphant species, Homo sapiens, is more accurately seen as a type of great ape which developed the ability to "gossip" along with the ability to invent and promulgate stirring group "fictions?"
In the weeks and months ahead, we'll keep asking that anthropological question. Eventually, we'll also return to Professor Horwich's street-fighting claim—his claim that our professors stopped teaching the later Wittgenstein so that they could continue to teach the earlier bullroar they like.
We'd joked about that possibility for years. Then Horwich came out and said it—in the New York Times, no less!
We'll get to Wittgenstein soon enough. Tomorrow, we'll briefly pause for an embarrassing trip through the rational animal file.
"Man [sic] is the rational animal," Aristotle is said to have said. In fairness, Aristotle didn't have cable TV or access to comment threads.
He'd never heard the things The Others say. Beyond that, he'd never heard Us!
Tomorrow: From the rational animal file, C-Span's first dozen callers