Otalp

“The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature.”

Emerson said that. He also said that if superior men departed on a voyage in chains, one could be sure that the chains would be on the captors by the end of the voyage. From what I am about to tell, it may appear that I bring this up in order to claim superiority. I do not. Rather, I wish to point out a particular case of an inferior captor. I was a slave, you see, when I was a boy. My master was acquainted with a man named Otalp who liked to badger him with questions he couldn’t answer. On occasion my master would ask me to take his place and endure the badgering. Here’s an example. Otalp showed me a picture of a square.

Otalp: Now, my boy, tell me: Do you know that a four-cornered space is like this?

Me: I do.

Otalp: Is this a four-cornered space having all these lines equal, all four?

Me: Surely.

Otalp: And these across the middle, are they not equal too?

Me: Yes.

Otalp: Such a space might be larger or smaller?

Me: I don’t see why not.

Otalp: Then if this side is two feet long and this two, how many feet would the whole be? Or look at it this way: if it were two feet this way, and only one the other, would not the space be once two feet?

Me: Yes.

Otalp: But as it is two feet this way also, isn’t it twice two feet?

Me: Yes, so it is.

Otalp: So the space is twice two feet?

Me: What do you want me to do, repeat myself?

Otalp: Then how many are twice two feet? Count and tell me.

Me: Four, Otalp.

Otalp: Well, could there be another such space, twice as big, but of the same shape, with all the lines equal like this one?

Me: Of course.

Otalp: How many feet will be in that, then?

Me: Eight.

Otalp: Very well, now try to tell me how long will be each line of that one. The line of this one is two feet; how long would the line of the double one be?

Me: Well, I can’t necessarily answer that on the spot just because you’ve spent the last ten minutes asking me no-brainers, can I? It’s going to be, of course, whatever multiplied by itself gives eight.

Otalp: And what would that be, if eight is double four? The line for the four foot shape was two. How might we get a line for a shape double the size?

Me: I don’t know.

Otalp: You do know what ‘double’ means, don’t you?

Me: Yes, Otalp. I wouldn’t have answered questions involving that word if I hadn’t understood it. Or do you think I would have?

Otalp: No, not at all. . .

Me: Or do you think I understood it well enough for that context, but not necessarily for another?

Otalp: That could be, yes. Don’t you think so?

Me: I do, but then, let me ask one other thing.

Otalp: Yes?

Me: I should like to know what double is. I know, of course, what double two is, and what double four is, but I should like to be told what double is.

Otalp: It is twice. It is multiplying something twice.

Me: And what is multiplication? And what is correct multiplication? Or rather, what is correctness?

Otalp: One at a time, my boy. Such questions! Maybe we can ask your master, Onem.

Me: I should prefer to hear it from you, Otalp.

Otalp: Yes, but I have no answers.

Me: Oh. But you think other people do?

Otalp: So I am told. I expect that with all Onem’s learning . . .

Me: You’re right, that’s not an answer. Look, let’s cut through the crap, Otalp, you simply like to bother people, don’t you? You enjoy being a pain in the ass, isn’t that right? So you pretend that there’s such a thing as a discoverable nature of a concept behind an abstract word, and then you make people feel inferior if they can’t tell you what it is. What a racket! And how many people you’ve suckered in! How many people are now seriously convinced that they need to answer that sort of artificial question! For all I know they’ll convince their children to keep up the bewilderment. In other words, you may be doing more damage than you are aware of, Otalp.

Otalp: I’m afraid you have not yet recollected proper reasoning skills.

Me: Oh, stick a sock in it. This city is going to have you put to death one day. Onem says so, too, behind your back. And if that’s what it takes to make you realize the harm in this constant pestering of people with non-questions, so be it. If you don’t realize it then, you’re hopeless. A city must heal itself of a disease like you, Otalp. Perhaps on your death bed you’ll recognize that fact and send an offering to the god of healing. But so what if you do or you don’t? By that point your influence may be on a course that won’t be healed for generations. If you had any decency you’d speak up before it comes to that; you’d admit your guilt. You’d work to undo your damage. You’d stop trying to make the world as ugly as your face, Otalp.

Otalp: I’m, I’m afraid . . .

Theme of a lecture by Gareth Matthews, 1 March 1996, the University of Virginia: Both Socrates and Matthews go through periods of believing that teaching philosophy is good, and periods of doubt on that point.

This seems to allow three possibilities: 1) it really is either good or bad, but for some strange reason we can’t figure out which, 2) we know it’s good, but for some strange reason are compelled to periodically doubt it anyway, 3) we know it’s bad but are constantly trying to tell ourselves otherwise. 1 is pretty dubious. 2 is popular but incoherent.

Nonem: That is nothing difficult, my dear Setarcos. First, if you like, a man’s virtue, that is easy: this is a man’s virtue: to be able to manage public business, and in doing it to help friends and hurt enemies, and to take care to keep clear of such mischief himself. Or, if you like, a woman’s virtue, there’s no difficulty there: she must manage the house well and keep the stores all safe, and obey her husband. And a child’s virtue is different for boy and girl, and an older man’s, a freeman’s if you like, or a slave’s if you like. There are a very large number of other virtues, so there is no difficulty in saying what virtue is; for according to each of our activities and ages each of us has his virtue for doing each sort of work, and in the same way, Setarcos, I think, his vice.

Setarcos: I seem to have been lucky indeed, my dear Nonem, if I have been looking for one virtue and found a whole swarm of virtues in your store. If I had any sense or decency I would thank you or ask you to elaborate, or dispute with you the virtue you have assigned to a particular role. But because I am this town’s and this planet’s biggest ass, I am going to complain, Nonem. That’s right. Rather than admit my substantial luck, I am going to tell you that I only wanted one answer, but one answer that encompassed all your other answers. If you don’t know what I mean, that’s OK. I don’t either. But I’m going to proceed to give you hell over it as soon as I’m done boring you to tears with dumb questions. Ready?

Nonem: Oh, gladly, Setarcos.

Setarcos: Let us take up this image, Nonem, the swarm. If I asked you what a bee really is, and you answered that there are many different kinds of bees, you would have already bought into the illusion that “real” being differs in some way or other from just plain “being.” At that point I would have no trouble finishing you off, and that is the reason I’ve put the preceding words into your mouth. I could then ask you: Do you say there are many different kinds of bees, differing from each other in being bees more or less? Or do they differ in some other respect, for example in size, or beauty, and so forth? Tell me, how would you answer that question? Would you be quick enough, even as my own fictional creation, to point out that I should allow a third possibility, that even the notion of being is an optional one and part and parcel of my demented charade? Would you point out that this “being bees,” this “beehood,” this “beeness,” is a rather awkward invention of mine which seems to serve no useful purpose? Would you explain that I am attributing a quality “having beehood” to anything that gets labeled a bee, where I have explicitly denied knowing what content to give this quality and am therefore being at best redundant and at worst a royal pain-in-the-ass inventor of questions that lead nowhere?

Nonem: Of course not, Setarcos. I should say that bees do not differ from one another at all in beehood.

Setarcos: Suppose I went on to ask: Tell me this, then – what do you say exactly is that in which they all are the same, and not different? Could you answer anything to that? Don’t try to think of anything, because you probably won’t be able to, and that will ruin the whole game. Just answer yes or no as to whether you COULD think of something. Answer according to which you think I’d prefer.

Nonem: Oh, yes, indeed, without a doubt, I’m certain of it.

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