Category Archives: Rhetoric

Rules of Argument VI: The Logic of the Affair (part I)

Argument:  My love is not having and has not had an affair.

How can we prove a partner has not at some point carried on an affair with someone else, and never revealed it?

The affirmative case

Logically and traditionally we begin with the affirmative case:  My partner is not having and has not had an affair.  Premises are required to support the conclusion.  My partner loves me, I trust her, her love has been consistent and unwavering.

Some Conclusions, by the way (I’ve left this out up to this point for sake of simplicity) require a set of specific premises to support them.  Another way to put this is to say that some premises do not in themselves do the job of supporting a conclusion: they require Help.  A third way of looking at this is to say that some premises contain assumptions that require explanation before a conclusion can be accepted.

Premise A + Premise B -> Conclusion

Premise A + Supporting Premise for A -> Conclusion

she is a kind person,  and a kind person would not have an affair, so therefore she would not have an affair

This form of argument is a strong form because it contains a definition that ties kindness to a particular kind of action.

Again, though, it can be seen as hinting at what is MISSING in most arguments:  the complete set of premises and supporting premises required to fully support even a simple conclusion is really never made.

Negative case

So we can concoct a list of comforting reasons, premises that support the assertion that ‘my partner has not had an affair.’

But to complete a dialectic argument (for the best chance of finding the truth) we’re forced to look at the opposing case: My partner is having or has had an affair.

With a kind of dread, we can open Pandora’s box and search for premises supporting this unpleasant conclusion.  The problem is that thinking dispassionately some premises will quickly be found.

For example in spatio-temporal terms it must be considered an affair is possible, recently or in the distant past.  Two people do not spend all their time together, and so there have probably been times unaccounted for in terms of a partner’s activity.

At this point it might be tempting to return to the list of premises supporting the affirmative argument that no affair has been had.  But a dispassionate assessment of the situation does not permit the use of a general hypothesis such as ‘She loves me’ to interfere in the search for premises supporting the dreadful case that something has happened, – some current or past romance with someone else..

If there has been an affair, then there have been lies, and my partner does not lie about important things. So there is no affair, and there has been no affair: “she’s faithful and I trust her.”

The temptation is to slip back to the affirmative case – to try to find the reason why there is NO possibility that something has Gone On, some betrayal.

But the premises suggesting that there MAY HAVE been an affair are insidious: they cannot be properly refuted.  There only has to be a glint of possibility that faithfulness is a lie in order that the case remain open.

Rules of Argument 87:
If the central Proposition of an Argument is an Absolute Statement in the Negative, then it need only be shown that a Possible Truth holds in order to refute the proposition.

Having Affairs at Possible Worlds

Another way of thinking about this sort of possibility is to think is ‘is a world where an affair took place possible?’  (Or is there a possible world at which an affair HAS happened).

In order to ascertain whether there is a possible world at which the unthinkable (hyperbole) has occured,  there are two methods:

The first is to look at the list of premises that support the argument that no affair has taken place.  Are any of these absolute truths?  An absolute truth is one that must hold at EVERY world.

Rules of Argument 983:
If any premise supporting an argument is Absolutely True then the conclusion can be said to be true as well.

The second method for considering whether or not an affair may have transpired between one’s partner and some third party is to consider whether the possibility of an affair contradicts any of the Absolute Truths about worlds: any of the things that MUST be true at ALL worlds.  This is a more roundabout approach.

To discover what is absolutely true, or true at all worlds, think about what a world MUST have in order to exist. What things are necessary?

Once it is known what must exist at all worlds the absolutely true premises can be examined.  Do any of these contradict the supporting premises for either side of the argument?  Is there any reason why the possibility of this imagined affair contradicts a necessary truth of the universe?  If so it cannot have taken place.  Is any necessary truth of reality brought into contradiction when the dichotomous opposite is considered – ‘my partner has not had an affair’? If so, it is impossible that no affair has taken place.

The likely conclusion from such speculation  is that one cannot prove one’s partner has not had an affair.  It remains inexorably possible.  A world exists at which an affair is taking or has taken place.  After two digressions.


A sort of cheap trick around acknowledging that the contingency of my partner having had a romantic liaison with another soul, a better lover, a more handsome man, is to say that my love can’t have done that to me, and if she has then she cannot be my love.

This argument has the advantage of being logically consistent, whether it is determined to be true or not.  Whether it is true or not seems to be dependent as much on arguments about naming and defining things as anything actually in the world.

About Truth Being in Language, Not in the World, Exactly

If a digression while mid-digression is permitted,  the problem of identity brings us near to the idea that Truth, in any case, isn’t in the world exactly. It’s in language about the world.  In the world, things exist or do not.  Things hold.  Things are. Truth is in language, and in the relationship between what can be said and what there is: it’s about statements, propositions, conclusions, arguments, premises.

A statement is true if the situation it describes holds.  For example the statement ‘The sky is blue’ is true if and when the sky is blue.  The sky being blue is not true or false, it just IS. It’s always a statement about the sky’s blueness that is true or false.

(Sky and blueness may themselves just be  constructions..)

To return to my digression proper,

familiar problem in possible worlds’ theory of identity.  We might say that infinite other versions of ourselves exist at an infinite number of possible worlds.  Or we might say that infinite other people a bit like us exist at other worlds.  By what virtue do we say that another version of us is us?  Because another person has the same name?  No, because many people might have the same name.  Name and passport number?  Better, but it’s a very arbitrary measure of individuality and identity.  And given infinite worlds there’s a world at which every other possible David Spencer has my passport number.

As it turns out there is really no simple way to resolve this conflict:  it remains to hint at the collision of problems of logic and semantics at a certain point and in a certain way that is near impossible to untangle.  We might decide on a concrete set of criteria that distinguish  particular identities even across vast numbers of worlds:  Possible David Spencers, for example, are those that have the right name, look roughly like me, live in the same house as me, have the same dog.

But for this sort of argument or list of criteria there is always a problematic case, demonstrating that an arbitrary line has been drawn about who is and who isn’t a David Spencer.  Is there a version of me that does not have a dog?  Well, not by the criteria listed above, because not having a dog means by definition it’s not a version of me.  Because it was added arbitrarily to the definition.

This reasoning can be rather absurdly extended to the present case

Premise A:  My partner would never have an affair.

Premise B:  A woman who greatly resembles my partner in all but Premise A has had an affair.

Conclusion:  A woman who is not my partner has had an affair.

The above  reasoning  can be applied even after the fact of an affair has been confirmed and endorsed by all parties involved.  In this case a trick of identity and semantics is employed to lessen the blow.  The partner that had loved, had been in love – had been true to the relationship and to yourself – she has disappeared.  In her stead there is a human being similar in many respects.  But she has a different history, and her love is not of the same quality, so it cannot really be her.

(part II imminent, in which a Platonic justification of the affirmative is considered, after a bit more on evidence)

Rules for Argument V – Types of Premise


“It is the mark of an educated person  to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle



A succinct explanation of the meaning of a term or phrase

Hypothesis, general statement, or theory

The first kind of premise is a general statement or hypothesis.


The second kind of premise is an exemplar – the example that best support a conclusion.


A refutation is an argument against an opposing point of view.

Belief or opinion

 the expression of one’s personal point of view


a reference to a text or person on a subject


A statement concerning the rules or conduct of argument



Theory and Example

Some people have decided that they don’t like ‘theory’.  Theory is not good, they might say. (This is a theory about theory. A meta-theory. ) But everyone develops theories or hypotheses, or general ideas about the world, all the time.

A theory is the natural result of thinking about a number of examples together.  If the sun comes up, to take a mundane example, every morning that we can remember, this series of examples produces a general hypothesis about the world.  The sun comes up every morning. 

This is the kind of hypothesis that can be used as a premise to support an argument. It is also clear that a hypothesis – a generalisation about the way things might be – is a kind of conclusion supported by a number of examples that serve as premises for an argument.

Premise + Premise -> conclusion      example + example – > general statement about patterns of events


Kinds of Exemplar


 Details, records and results of observations of things and events


Data generalising in a mathematical (and often probabilistic) way.


similar events or instances of the past




What then is the cause of these things?  For it was not without reason

and just cause  that the hellenes in old days were so prompt for

freedom, so it is not without reason or cause that they are now so

prompt to be slaves. There was a spirit, men of Athens, a sprit in the

minds of the people in those days, which is absent today – the spirit

which vanquished the wealth of Persia,  which led Hellas in the path of

freedom, and never gave way in face of battle by sea or by land; a spirit

whose extinction today has brought universal ruin and turned Hellas

uppside down.  What was this spirit?  It was nothing subtle or clever

-Demosthenes, urging the Athenians to fight Phillip of Macedon, 331



the telling of a true event


the  telling of one’s personal experience


Narrative examples

Plato appears to have deplored fiction for the most part, while deploying narrative and fabrication as devices of argument with great frequency.  A premise can be ‘dressed’ in a narrative in order to make a point more vividly.  


a reference to something that shares qualities with the subject (reasoning or explaining from parallel cases)


when one meaning or concept stands for, or  symbolises, another.


a fictional story that makes an argument or contains a moral

Rules of Argument IV – Tactics

Tactics for Argument

“The question is which is to be master, that’s all.” – Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.


Shifting the Ground

Consider an argument as a game, in which conclusions and premises are argued and then sit like pieces on a board:  black for true, white for false, or in the case of an argument comparing two alternatives black for ‘a’ and white for ‘b’.

One piece is set on a particular statement – the proposition, argument, or conclusion. This is an arbitrary decision decided at the outset.   Other statements can then be picked out or presented, supporting the conclusion or refuting it.  Statements that support the conclusion are represented in the game with a black tile.  Statements that refute the conclusion are represented in the game with a white tile.

In a debate in which one person defends a proposition, arguing it is true, and another person attacks the proposition, the game for the defender is to ensure that all of the premises on the board remain true.

The debater attacking the proposition has to try to turn over any piece, making it ‘white’ or ‘false’.  Technically, if any piece on the board is white, the conclusion does not hold: the central piece in the game becomes white, and the game is over.

Dialectic or comparative argument

A comparative argument between two options has different rules.  These rules describe an argument structure akin to the Socratic method – the dialectic. 

In the case of opposing arguments ‘a’ and ‘b’ both sides of the argument can be developed constructively, and both sides of the argument can be refuted.  In this case the stronger argument prevails:  using  the allegory of the game, one white piece or false premise does not win the game in this case: the rules have changed.

 Instead the game involves trying to turn most of the pieces on the board to one colour.  The colour of the ‘conclusion’ tile is determined by the quantity (or quality, to break with the allegory) of the premises on each side.


Rules for Argument III – Terms


A discussion on a point, topic or theme following the structure Premise + premise -> conclusion


A statement in an argument that asserts something, says that something is true.  In an argument a conclusion  is supported by other statements, called premises.


A premise is a statement in an argument that supports a particular conclusion.


Something not stated that must be true in order for a premise or a conclusion to be true.  Meanings are a kind of assumption: every word in a statement has a meaning or set of meanings that could be stated in order to make the statement more clear.

In an argument people can actually agree on a premise or conclusion while agreeing to quite different things, if they have different assumptions about what words in the statement mean, or different assumptions about the things referenced in the statement.

Hidden Assumption:

A hidden assumption is one that has not been considered or uncovered.


Any assertion whatsoever, including conclusions, premises, supporting premises, and sentences related in no way to an argument at hand.

Supporting Premise:

A premise that supports another premise in the same way that a premise might support a conclusion.  A supporting premise has another premise as its conclusion.   (A supporting premise may also be a premise that supports the ‘proper’ conclusion.)


Thesis + antithesis -> synthesis

A mode or method of debate.  The dialectic is sometimes called the ‘Socratic method’.  It is used for discovering different sides of an argument and comparing their strengths.  For this reason it is considered a philosophical rather than a rhetorical tool.  That is, the dialectic is often thought to be about discovering what is true rather than persuading others to believe a particular argument.

The dialectic consists of an idea, an assertion, a proposition (a statement or conclusion) called a ‘thesis’.  The method of the dialectic requires that the opposite of the thesis also be found: the ‘anti-thesis.’

When the thesis and the antithesis are brought together and assumptions about them examined, it is possible to develop a ‘synthesis’:  determining which is the most reasonable of thesis/antithesis.


A dichotomy is a pair of binary opposites.  Examples of dichotomies are 0/1, right/wrong, up/down, left/right.   An argument is dichotomous when two opposing assertions are presented.  For example the argument ‘It’s good to be rich’ has the opposing assertion ‘It’s wrong to be rich.’  An argument like ‘either you’re with us or you’re against us’ is also based on a dichotomy: on opposing ideas.

Any debate topic is a dichotomy, since it is presented in a form in which speakers are ‘for’ and ‘against’ a proposition.

False Dichotomy

The presentation of two opposing positions as the only two choices, where in fact there are others.

e.g Either you’re with us or you’re against us.

The example is a clear case of false dichotomy. The argument presents two choices, when in fact there are clearly more options. The audience might feel neutral towards the speaker but is not given that choice.

Many dichotomous arguments can be shown to be false by drawing the dichotomy out into a ‘continuum’.  If a dichotomy is two points representing binary opposites, a continuum is a line between those two points.

Take the above example.  If we say in response to that statement ‘no, we’re neither with you OR against you’, then a middle point is identified between the two extremes.  This creates a ‘continuum’: a line between two extremes.  A continuum can have an infinite number of possible points.


As above. A continuum, technically, is an infinite series of points between two end points. In the context of argument it is a range of statements that express positions somewhere between two extremes.

By way of an example, the thesis ‘It’s good to be rich’ has, as mentioned, the anti-thesis ‘It’s bad to be rich.’  This might be the first that springs to mind.  But by looking at the terms in the original proposition, other ‘anti-theses’ can be found.  For example, it could be argued that the opposing argument is that ‘It’s good to be poor.’  Or that it’s WRONG to be rich, which is to define the opposite of good in a particular way.

Rhetorical fallacy

An archetypal mistake in argument.  A fallacious premise does not necessarily make an argument untrue. But the premise itself is not valid used as a support for a conclusion.

Rhetorical device

An archetypal device of content or style in rhetoric.

Rules for Analysis of Argument

Method for analysis of argument (difference between constructing an argument and analysing one is that in the second case both sides of the argument are divined to discern the stronger argument. Constructing an argument involves finding all of the premises that support one conclusion. )

1. Find the proposition or conclusion of the argument.

2. Look for premises of (assumptions behind) the argument put in the conclusion (An assumption, like a premise, is something that must be true for the conclusion to be true. Assumptions are distinct from premises in that they are unstated)

3. Look for assumptions in meanings of the words in the proposition (it must be assumed that words have particular meaning in order to deploy them in argument. The assumption is the particular definition for a word.  In the case of many words the meaning is contested territory, or ambiguous, or context-dependent).

4. Look for assumptions underlying the premises (These Supporting Premises stand in the relation to premises that premises do to the conclusion: in essence they and the premise they support are arguments in themselves.)

5. Look for assumptions in the meanings of the words in the premises.

6. Make an anti-thesis from the argument and look for premises.

7. Make an anti-thesis from the premises of the argument and look for premises that support those (supporting premises of the antithesis.)

Notes on Plato’s Phaedrus (2/2) Argument Against Rhetoricians and Writing

Argument Against Rhetoricians

In one sense the second part of Plato’s Phaedrus is an exegesis on the first: a discussion about argument following the argument for and against love given by Socrates.  In another sense, the second part makes the first a demonstration of the different qualities that rhetoricians, speechmakers, might possess. These qualities are properly the subject of the second half of the Phaedrus.

In this part of the dialogue Socrates is no longer arguing about love, but instead for a certain kind of argument: the higher, philosophical kind that he used to defend love and passion as a striving of the soul for pure beauty.

In making an argument against ‘low’ argument designed only for persuasion, Socrates is making a refrain upon arguments put in several other dialogues by Plato.  In A Sophistical Refutation and in The Republic Plato rails against writers, sophists,

Here the subject, specifically, is the construction of speeches, and so Socrates considers how different speakers might put together an oration.  The two speakers are antithetical – the first is the professional Rhetorician, someone who believes any argument can be made to appear to be the truth, if sufficiently persuasive.  The second speaker is the philosopher,  someone who seeks the truth, rather than merely trying to persuade people of it.  The synthesis of this part of Socrates’ argument has already been put in the first part of the dialogue:  the conclusion is that the philosopher is to be valued far more highly than the rhetorician.  The philosopher, asserts Socrates, has wisdom, while the rhetorician has wit and the semblance of  true argument.

Having established by example that the philosophical argument is higher, more substantial, more divine, more ideal, than the merely rhetorical argument, Socrates approaches the argument from a different vantage in the second part.  This time he compares spoken discourse or argument with written argument of the sort that Lysias has prepared, and of which Phaedrus has a copy.  Written argument is painted as insubstantial, an image of knowledge, rather than the thing itself. This is contrast with the true discourse that comes directly from a human soul as spoken word.

Socrates famously could not read or write.  Two-and-a-half thousand years later this seems odd for one of the most historically significant philosophers for Western and other civilisations.  We know of Socrates from those who wrote about him.  The most significant of these was his pupil, Plato. 

Plato wrote most – not all – of his philosophy in dialogue (or script) form.  This is unusual (not unheard of) today, but was common in the past.  Dialogue seems a more natural form  than prose for cultures in which writing is relatively new. 

Plato usually populated his dialogues with real people – famous people: rhetoricians, philosophers, teachers – some living and some who had died.  Socrates was Plato’s teacher, and is also his ‘main character.’  Over a long career and many works of philosophy, Plato wrote Socrates into his philosophy.  We can only speculate as to what extent this Socrates is Socrates, and to what extent an instrument for Plato to make his own arguments (there’s enough material and food for thought to speculate a lot).  Scholars suggest Plato’s early works may have faithfully rendered Socrates philosophy, but that his later works may more closely reflect his own ideas, placing these into the mouth of his established lead. 

Socrates’ argument against writing

Among the ancient gods of Naucratis in Egypt there was one to whom the bird called the ibis is sacred.  The name of that divinity was Theuth, and it was he who first discovered numbers and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games of checkers and dice, and above all else, writing.

Now the king of all Egypt at that time was Thamus, who lived in the great city in the upper region that the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes; Thamus they called Ammon.  Theuth came to exhibit his arts to him and urged him to disseminate them to all the Egyptians. 

[..and when they came to discuss the art of writing..]

Theuth said ‘O King, here is something that once learned will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom. Thamus, however, replied “O, most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are.  In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it; they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from inside, completely on their own.   You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.  Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being  properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing.  And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.

SOCRATES: You know Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The figures in painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemly silent.  The same is true of written words.  You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.  When it has once been written down, everey discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not.  And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself, nor come to its own support.

PHAEDRUS: You are absolutely right about that, too.

SOCRATES: Now tell me, can we discern another kind of discourse, a legitimate brother of this one? Can we say how it comes about, and how it is by nature better and more capable?

PHAEDRUS: Which one is that? How do you think it comes about?

SOCRATES: It is a discourse that is written down, with knowledge, in the soul of the listener; it can defend itself and it knows for whom it should speak and for whom it should remain silent.

PHAEDRUS: You mean the living, breathing discourse of the person who knows, of which the written one can be fairly called an image.

In conclusion Socrates makes high demands on the person he considers worthy as a speaker (and a philosopher).  In efforts to write and deliver extraordinary speeches his criteria serve as a good set of aspirations:

‘First you must know the truth concerning everything you are speaking or writing about; you must learn how to define each thing in itself; and, having defined it, you must know how to divide it into kinds until you reach something indivisible.  Second, you must understand the nature of the soul, along the same lines; you must determine which kind of speech is appropriate to each kind of soul, prepare and arrange your speech accordingly, and offer a complex and elaborate speech to a complex soul and a simple speech to a simple one.  Then, and only then, will you be able to use speech artfully, to the extent that its nature allows it to be used that way, either in order to teach or in order to persuade.  This is the whole point of the argument we have been making.

Socrates’ argument against rhetoric and rhetoricians has two vehicles in the Phaedrus.  The first vehicle is demonstration in the form of arguments for and against love in relationships.  Here Socrates shows how a rhetorical argument is defeated by a philosophical one. 

The second vehicle for Socrates’ proposition that philosophical discourse is higher and more powerful than rhetorical or persuasive speechmaking is the argument against writing.  The proposition is argued in the second part of the dialogue that writing is a secondary form of communication, speech the primary and superior mode.  This conclusion, though, becomes a premise in the larger argument for philosophy over rhetoric – for speech-making grounded in the search for truth, rather than in creating the perception of it. Because writing, as Socrates has it,  can only ever rise to the level of the rhetorical speech.  True wisdom cannot be recorded on the page.

Romantic irony

It only remains to discuss the romantic irony inherent in the Phaedrus that provides a diversion from the main argument in the text, or a duplicitous complication of it, depending on how it is interpreted.

The Phaedrus is a written text.  Plato, unlike Socrates, could and did read and write.  We know much more about Socrates and other ancient Greek figures because Plato did write, and because many of his texts have survived.

Depending on how this fact is approached, there may be substantial consequences for the argument against writing overall.  If these are accepted, the convolution flows on to broader argument against sophistry that the Phaedrus is designed to contain.

The simplest way to approach the fact that the Phaedrus is effectively a written argument against the written word is to say that Plato was forced to write his argument down in order to communicate it to us, thousands of years afterwards.   All of the greatly more powerful arguments made via the medium of speech in Ancient Greece, and not written down, have disappeared. The written word has one great advantage over the spoken word, then (except on Twitter): longevity.  Of Socrates, we know only what others’ wrote. 

This is a powerful argument for the merits of writing things down. And Plato may have employed this method for its merits, and despite its short-comings.  Aware that the written argument is a semblance of the spoken, Plato nonetheless considered it better than nothing.  To the extent that Plato was providing a record of actual spoken arguments, this can be seen as an especially faithful exercise.  Writing may be the poorer format for argument.  But given the ephemeral nature of speech, the true expression of the soul, writing is the only way to carry words and ideas into distant futures.   

Plato may be forgiven, then, for creating the conundrum of a written argument espousing the relative virtues of speaking them. He has at least adopted the forms of written speech, and does so frequently – in this way (as dialogue in On Sophistical Refutations shows) – he considers that he avoiding the worst, lowest, and least truthful genres of literature.  In this way Plato’s intention can be seen as benign, and his argument as consistent.

The alternate interpretation is that Plato has deliberately contradicted the argument put by Socrates. And he has done so, again through demonstration, via the very medium in which Socrates’ argument is contained.  At every turn, as Socrates presents his case for the virtues of wisdom and truth directly from the soul, he struggles against the cruel romantic irony that the audience is comprised of readers, not listeners. This inexorable contradiction sits at the shoulder of the reader.  The argument put by Socrates is brilliant.  But should the reader attribute this to Socrates’ brilliance, and assume that what we have is a shadow, an echo, of the genius of the man?  That Plato has done his best in a poor medium ill-equipped for the task?

What mitigates against this interpretation is that the Phaedrus appears to be a written work of genius. In content it exhorts the virtues of spoken language.  In form it exemplifies the virtues of language written down: expert use of various styles of language as needed, crafting of narrative devices, analogies, points of reason that constitute individual, subsidiary arguments; the masterful way the disparate arguments on very different themes are interlocked, supporting one another while raising more difficult questions on the nature of love, language, truth and the human soul.  If written argument is impoverished, it does not appear so in consideration of The Phaedrus.  If Plato had wanted the reader to ignore the counter-argument represented  by the fact that the Phaedrus is a written argument, he might have thought to write tne dialogue less well.


I’ve written down this bit of discourse so that you can look at and be reminded of it later. I should add also that the treatment presented here is really a remembered bit of discourse from preparation from tutorials for a unit I taught at uni years ago.  The lecturer who convened the unit and introduced me to the Phaedrus was Adam Dickerson: he mentioned most of the salient points raised here.

An Epilogue (inappropriately) to these notes is forthcoming on the question as to how Plato would revise his argument in the context of modern text and speech-based technology.

Notes on Plato’s Phaedrus (1/2): The Argument for Love

PERSONS OF THE DIALOGUE: Socrates, Phaedrus.

SCENE: Under a plane-tree, by the banks of the Ilissus.

SOCRATES: Phaedrus, my friend! Where have you been? And where are you going?

PHAEDRUS: I was with Lysias, the son of Cephalus, Socrates, and I am going for a walk outside the city walls because I was with him for a long time, sitting there the whole morning.  You see, I’m keeing in mind the advice of our mutual friend Acumenus, who says it’s more refreshing to walk along country roads than city streets.

SOCRATES: He is quite right, too, my friend.  So Lysias, I take it, is in the city?

PHAEDRUS: Yes,  at the house of Epicrates, which used to belong to Morychus, near the temple of the Olympian Zeus.

SOCRATES:  What were you doing there? O, I know: Lysias must have been entertaining you with a feast of eloquence.

PHAEDRUS: You’ll hear about it, if you are free to come along and listen.

SOCRATES: What? Don’t you think I would consider it ‘more important than the most pressing engagement,’ as Pindar says, to hear how you and Lysias spent your time?

Phaedrus tells Socrates of a fine speech delivered by Lysias on the topic of love.  The argument in short is that although it is usual to fall in love and seek a partner who loves you, in fact it is better to seek out companionship without love.

Socrates says he would like to hear the speech, and Phaedrus says that of course he cannot remember it verbatim. It transpires though that Phaedrus has a written copy of the speech. They find a quiet spot to sit by a river outside Athens, and Socrates – who famously could not read or write – listens to Lysias’ speech.

  1. The  feelings of someone in love will change over time, ‘desire dies down’, and the person will wish they had not done favours for the one they loved.  Not so with someone not in love.
  2. A lover counts costs and benefits from a relationship, but someone not in love will not keep account of the trouble they’ve been to.
  3. Lovers admit they are sick, when they recover they renounce their love.
  4. Selecting a lover only from those who love you means choosing from a small pool.  The group of people not in love with you is much larger, and so ‘you’ll have a much better hope of finding someone who deserves your friendship’.
  5. Lovers are indiscreet and may shout their feelings to the world (not good if ‘you’re afraid of conventional standards and the stigma that will come to you if people find out about this’).  Someone who does not love you will not be excited.
  6. It is easier to make a relationship without love last a long time, because the lover is ‘easily annoyed’ and always looking for a problem or flaw with the relationship: ‘he watches like a hawk everyone who may have any othe radvantage over him’. Someone not in love is not jealous, and this leads to better friendship.
  7. Lovers who are attracted to one another physically do not know whether they will be attracted when this desire is satisfied.
  8. A non-lover will make a friend a better person through honesty.  But a lover will offer praise, not useful advice  ‘partly because desire has impaired his judgement’.
  9. (Style:  Lysias lists the first seven points of the argument in a bare bones style.  At the eighth point, though, the speech is addressed directly to a singular ‘you’.  It becomes clear that this is a speech of seduction: designed to be employed to get someone to go to bed with the speaker despite the fact the speaker is making it plain he is not in love with the intended partner.  It does the job of being a rational argument as well, but it certainly has a humorous aspect.)  Lysias goes on: ‘if you accept my offer’ then he will plan rationally for the benefits to flow from the relationship. He will not become angrily easily, like a lover,  He will forgive easily, on the other had.
  10. In conclusion, Lysias returns to rational argument, and states that the person attention and affection should be given to is the person who most deserves it and can return it ‘not those in the direst need – ‘not to those who merely desire the thing, but to those who really deserve it.’   So it is not ideal to have a relationship wih someone just because they want to have a relationship with you.

At the conclusion of the reading of the speech Socrates says it made him happy because he could see Phaedrus happy.  But he is critical of Lysias’ speech and immediately says he can give a better one.

Before Socrates even begins his speech he prepares the ground.  He is self-deprecating (But, my dear Phaedrus, I’ll be ridiculous  – a mere dilettante, improvising on the same topics as a seasoned professional!’) He also makes it clear that he concedes certain arguments made by Lysias, and does not want to argue against them (for example the argument that the non-lover is rational, while the lover may lose his wits).  He suggests that he should cover his head while giving the speech so as to avoid becoming embarrassed.

Socrates always claimed to know nothing.  In this instance he alludes to this lack of knowledge, on specific topics or in general.  In this case, though, how can he construct a speech?  He claims that Muses, the spirits of poets, will overcome him, that he will be a channel to communicate their message.

After summoning these spirits he begins his speech in the form of a story:

‘There was once a boy, a youth rather, and he was very beautiful, and had very many lovers. One of them … tried to persuade him that he ought to give his favours to a man who did not love him rather than to one who did.  And this is what he said:

Assuming the voice of the older persuader, Socrates says it is first important to examine the concepts essential to an argument. That participants in the argument should ‘agree on defining what love is and what effects it has’. The first point of order is to distinguish desire grounded in love from desire that is not (desire based on ‘pleasure’ is distinct from desire based on ‘what is best’. Love, or ‘eros’ is a variety of the former.)

Only after considering these questions of definition does Socrates move on to mounting a series of arguments similar to those of Lysias in content.  Socrates, though, displays a virtuosity – an expertise – that Lysias does not. His argument makes Lysias’ look like a series of rational points explained without Art or Persuasion.

..You should know that the friendship of a lover arises without any good will at all.  No, like food, its purpose is to sate hunger. ‘Do wolves love lambs?’ That’s how lovers befriend a boy.

Socrates’ language is emotive, it changes in style (although this is difficult to see in English) from lyric (poetry of love and nature) to epic (poetry of heroes, gods, and myth). It uses analogy and metaphor.  It is grounded in philosophy: ideas about the nature of the human soul.

But when he is finished Socrates appears to doubt his own argument.  One reason he gives is fear of divine retribution: Love, he says, is one of the Gods, the son of Aphrodite..  Given that he himself knows nothing, and is nothing but a mouthpiece for forces and spirits in the world, he can hardly go against Love. (‘..I thought I heard a voice coming from this very spot, forbidding me to leave until I made atonement for some offense against the gods.’)

And so Socrates instead puts the opposing argument: that it is better to love the object of desire than not to be in love:

There’s no truth to that story – that when a lover is available you should give your favours to a man who doesn’t love you instead, because he is in control of himself while the lover has lost his head.  That would have been fine to say if madness were bad, pure and simple; but in fact the best things we have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the god.

Socrates points out that several kinds of madness are respected: the madness of the Delphic Oracle, the madness of musicians who write inspired music and poetry (‘madness that is possession by the Muses, which takes a tender virgin soul and awakens it to a Bacchic frenzy of songs and poetry’, the madness of those who predict the future.

Socrates grounds his argument about divine madness of love in philosophy: he says that in order to present his argument he must explain ‘about the nature of the soul, divine or human’. This is an excerpt:

On the Immortality of the Soul

Socrates:  Every soul is immortal.  That is because whatever is always in motion is immortal, while what moves, and is moved by something else stops living when it stops moving.  So it is only what moves itself that never desists from motion, since it does not leave off being itself.  In fact, this self-mover is also the source and spring of motion in everything else that moves, and a source has no beginning.  That is because anything that has a beginning comes from some source, but there is no source for this, since a source that got its start from something else would no longer be the source.  And since it cannot have a beginning, then necessarily it cannot be destroyed.  That is because if a source were destroyed it could never get started again from anything else and nothing else could get started from it – that is, if everything gets started from a source.  This then is why a self-mover is a source of motion.  And that is incapable of being destroyed or starting up: otherwise all heaven and everything that has been started up would collapse, come to a stop, and never have cause to start moving again.  But since we have found that a self-mover is immortal, we should have no qualms about declaring that this is the very essence and principle of a soul, for every bodily object that is moved from outside has no soul, while a body whose motion comes from within, from itself, does have a soul, that being the nature of a soul; and if this is so – that whatever moves itself is essentially a soul – then it follows necessarily that soul should have neither  birth nor death.

All soul looks after all that lacks a soul, and patrols all of heaven, taking different shapes at different times. So long as its wings are in perfect condition it flies high, and the entire universe is its dominion; but a soul that sheds its wings wanders until it lights on something solid, where it settles and takes on an earthly body, which then, owing to the power of this soul, seems to move itself.  The whole combination of soul and body is called a living thing, or animal, and has the designation ‘mortal’ as well.

Socrates is here speaking figuratively of wings and souls aflight, and rhetorically he is doing much more as well.  He is defining terms.  This brief passage gives a definition of ‘soul’ and ‘body’ and ‘mortal’, binding together meanings and terms that can then be used in an unequivocal sense.

Socrates goes on to explain that there are two forces that drive the soul: one upwards, one downwards.  The first is always striving to lift the soul to the highest level of existence where ‘truth stands’, bec ause ‘this pasture has the grass that is the right food for the best part of the soul, and it is the nature of the wings that lift up the soul to be nourished by it.’  The second, in contrast, is a force that drives the soul downward to the Earth.

All embodied beings – human and animal – are fallen souls, our wings broken.  But within us the two forces are still in conflict.  Something in the soul wants to regrow its wings and depart the material world. On Earth the divine is experienced (as a kind of madness) in a number of ways.  The first is philosophy: ‘only a philosopher’s mind grows wings, since its memory always keeps it as cloase as possible to those realities by being close to which the gods are divine.’

Another kind of divine madness can be produced by the experience of beauty, one of the high truths or ideal forms:

The fourth kind of madness – that which someone shows when he sees the beauty we have down here and is reminded of true beauty; then he takes wing and flutters in his eagerness to rise up, but is unable to do so; and he gazes aloft, like a bird, paying no attention to what is down below – and that is what brings on him the charge that he has gone mad.

In any case, says Socrates, where we have an experience of beauty, it is as if the soul remembers something it knew before its wings were broken, before it fell to Earth, taking up a mortal body.

…In case there is doubt about the different aspirations of the soul, even after Socrates’ explanation, it can be seen that by now he has demonstrated through his speeches the high and low to which we might aspire. It is also clear that we aspire to either high or low in constructing argument as well as setting on partners.  The first speech given by Socrates and Lysias is designed as an appeal to the lowest things in humanity, the second, delivered by Socrates in refutation of the other argument does philosophy and appeals to everything high and noble about the human mind.

By way of explanation, consider again the original speech that Phaedrus has written down, and the first speech made by Socrates. The proposition being supported is that people should find partners they do not love.  Parts of both speeches are written as though directly addressing a possible object of amorous intention, so that the argument becomes a personal one. In effect the speaker is addressing a potential partner, attempting to show them that they would make a good match because the speaker does not love the other.  Socrates makes a show of stating that he is addressing an imaginary beautiful young boy.  But at the same time he indicates Phaedrus possesses youth and beauty, and so is perhaps flirting also.

The argument that is being constructed here is no more or less than the ideal, rational, logical pick up line.  It’s an argument that anyone with enough skill should be able to use to persuade attractive people they are not in love with to sleep with them anyway.

Perhaps unsurprising that Lysias is so proud of his argument for persuading potential lovers. Unsurprising that Phaedrus has learned the argument well, and carries the written form of it with him.  It is a pragmatic argument – it confers advantage on the speaker. This is its main function: the other is as a pretty and well-made bit of rhetoric.

Socrates shows he can play this game with skill, and then aims higher in refuting this argument. The philosophical talk of the last part of the speech – the argument FOR love – represents the higher path.  Philosophy itself is the higher path because it reveals the world to us even as we engage in dialogue. When argument engages with philosophy it becomes something more than persuasion.  The argument is no longer pragmatic, it is about truth.  Lysias chooses to make the argument for desire without love because it is convenient to do so.  Socrates, once he thinks things through, has no choice.  Having discovered that his position is for love, he is bound to argue the truth.

This distinction represents two different kinds of argument.  One is aimed purely at persuasion, at winning, at convincing people the speaker is right.  The other is partly about the art of persuasive speaking.  But it is also about philosophical or scientific exploration.  Through argument we increase understanding of the world. According to Rhetoric any argument can be made with equal success – the skill of the person making the argument is the only factor in which argument is more persuasive.But an argument grounded in philosophy is an argument grounded in truth – an attempt to find truth.  Once Socrates has developed his argument about love, there is no alternative – he is unable to argue the opposite case.

Socrates goes on to recommend that Lysias abandon his type of argument – his sophistry, his rhetoric – for argument grounded in philosophy instead.

Rules of Argument (1)

Structure of argument

An argument is constituted of a proposition or conclusion, and premises.

The  proposition or conclusion is the idea being argued.

Premises are reasons or points supporting the argument:

Premise + premise  -> conclusion

Or even..

Premise -> conclusion

Complex arguments

i.)   String of premises:  Complex arguments can be constructed with a long list or stringof premises.

Premise + premise + premise + premise + premise  -> conclusion

ii.)   Nested arguments: Complex arguments  may also be produced by ‘nesting’ arguments.   This means that a premise may in fact be a conclusion supported by its own premises:

Premise +  (premise + premise -> conclusion) -> conclusion

In this case an argument may be constructed to reach a conclusion that then becomes a supporting premise  for another conclusion.

iii.)   Assumptions:  ‘Assumptions’ and ‘Definitions’ may be seen as ‘hidden’ or nested arguments.  An assumption is something that must be accepted before  a point of argument can be considered, defended or refuted.  The alternative is to refuse to accept the assumption.  This moves the argument into the ‘nested premises’ that support the assumption rather than the main argument.  The premise is taken as a sub-conclusion, and the  premises that support this sub-conclusion (assumptions about it) are examined.

iv.)  Definitions:   Every term used in an argument has a ‘meaning’ and a ‘definition’.  These can be seen as kinds of Assumptions that can be explored as nested arguments (as arguments that must be settled before the main premises can be discussed).

Dialectic argument (the Socratic method)

This type of argument is ideall  for divining truth, rather than just persuading.

The basic structure premise + premise -> conclusion is retained.  But in this case the aim is to discover the conclusion, rather than support a conclusion that is already known.

The first premise, the ‘thesis’, is a proposition.

The second premise is the ‘antithesis’, ideally (and by definition) the opposite argument to the original ‘thesis’.

The thesis and antithesis serve as premises that support a conclusion called a ‘synthesis’.

The synthesis is the higher truth discovered by the process of argument.  Different (opposing) hypotheses are put forward on a topic  and the process of dialectic shows what hypothesis is stronger, or what combination of the hypotheses might be the best conclusion.

This form of argument is the basis of debate.

Next: Types of Premise, Missing Premises (syllogism)

Notes for a Tutorial on Humpty Dumpty

Language as Game of Power

… there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents –‘
`Certainly,’ said Alice.
`And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’
`I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean –    neither more nor less.’
`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master … that’s all.

– from Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (Chapter Six)


1. Is Humpty Dumpty right?  Can we make up language for ourselves – attach our own meanings to words? What advantages are there?  What sort of problems are we likely to run into? (In terms of advantages, how successful is Humpty Dumpty’s argument style?) How did we decide on particular meaning-word relationships in the first place?  Could we replace them all in order to free ourselves? Can we think without words?

Of course we’re free to do what we like with language and we can invent our own words.

 Advantages are that we can win arguments because nobody else can use our language like we can.  We need to make sure other people use our language, our style of language, not theirs. Ideally we want to attach a certain prestige to our style of language.  Give it a name, print it in journals with nice covers, develop more traditions that people should follow. Talk in it about serious sounding topics.

Some powerful traditions or styles of language that have been successful in following this path: legal, academic, particularly, news, religion, science)

We’re born into a culture already full of powerful language traditions. These influence us.. we can’t escape them.  Logic.  Mathematics. Argument. Academic. Some we have to follow because society demands it.  Some we have to follow because our own mind demands it. Can we think without language? Can we free ourselves from those traditions? That’s what Humpty Dumpty is trying to do.

Clarify not really talking about different ‘languages’  Not sure there really is such a thing? (everyone is speaking a slightly different language, they ‘change with the curve’, not all of a piece)

2. To what extent do people agree on the meanings for words? How are meanings developed and decided? How does this process relate to argument?

i.)    Symbolic interaction and construction of meaning
ii.)    Control of meaning and words in argument:

Gf and bf  (or bf/gf or bf/bf) arguing.. bf says ‘I didn’t do anything wrong’, Gf says ‘A good bf would never make his gf upset.’ What happened? Gf just defined the word ‘wrong’. Now anything the bf says must fit this idea of what’s wrong.  Of course he can argue that he did not make his gf upset (she becomes more upset).  Or he can suggest that ‘wrong’ means something else (she becomes more upset).

…suggests there is a contest around every word.. shows that language is inherentlypolitical. Not only do words mean different things to different people, they want them to mean different things and will fight to make that happen.

Assumptions behind premises.

Arguments in general usually contain a lot of assumptions – things that already need to be true so that the premise holds true and properly supports the conclusion. Meanings of words can be seen as a kind of assumption.

Lost at the edge of an an alien jungle two travellers faced a storm the like of which they had never seen.  ‘Life could never have evolved here if it wasn’t possible to survive the storm.’ said one traveller. ‘God will protect us,’ said the other.
The assumption behind a premise can always be argued prior to arguing the point of the premise. As long as there is time. So one device for attacking argument is to go looking for assumptions in an argument.  They’re usually easy to find, especially when you can just pick on the meanings of words. 

6.    What does Humpty Dumpty mean when he says ‘the question is only ‘which is to be master?’
Two possible answers..
First Humpty Dumpty might be asking whether language will master us or we will master language (can we rewrite language enough so that we are in control of our own meanings? Or is the external pressure too much?)

The second answer is that Humpty is acknowledging that language is a game of power, by which it is decided who rules (and who sets the rules).

At every point in society where language enters in.. where meanings and words are related and must be used to make society work… those are points of entry for argument.. places where good language can change power relationships, build arguments, redefine words (Law, Marketing and advertising (Culture Jamming), politics – satire.

Power games of language present opportunities for oppression through changing meanings and also an opportunity for opposition.  George Orwell in 1984 wrote about a Communist society where a deliberate effort was being made to control language so that established power would last forever.  ‘If you want to imagine the future of the human race, imagine a boot stamping on a person’s face forever.’

More optimistic view:  Bakhtin’s dichotomous forces in discourse, language, media: monoglossic (centripetal) and heteroglossic (centrifugal).

‘Law must retain useful ways to break with traditional forms because … the forms of Law remain when all justice is gone.’ Frank Herbert

Words and who controls them

Have said that there is a game of power around many, many words, and that to some extent we are all involved in games of power about language. In consideration of the political games around the meanings of particular terms, consider:

1. There might be more than one ‘player’.

2. what benefits flow from control of language and words.

Eg Crazy, love, welfare, capitalism, freedom, democracy… These games around definitions for words are a major reason for the way language changes… of course there are other reasons, like trying to make it shorter to fit it into tweets and texts.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Parliament: the musical

“I am not a prude, but I fail to see why such a shower of filth and sexual allusion should be foisted onto an unsuspecting public in the name of modernity at all costs.”

– Moon,  The Real Inspector Hound, Tom Stoppard

It’s easiest to understand Australia’s Federal Parliament of recent months as a sort of shambolic ritual only dimly reminiscent of its original function.

Some days it appears as though disconsolate mandrills or baboons have overrun the Parliament’s chambers, so that the House of Representatives and the Senate become cacophonous, shrill, deafening.  Those listening on radio  imagine biting, spitting, libidinous assaults, and faeces and other projectiles flying as factions among the apes engage in disorganised battle. It sounds, at times, more like a zoo than a circus.

At other times echoing soliloquy greets the ears of anyone passing. These, though, are not the fine tirades offered in proper theatres, but droning, endlessly repetitive and mundane affairs that may go on for forty minutes or an hour, despite a dearth of content. There is something clever, at least, in the construction of such long passages of syntax so entirely lacking in semantic substance.

The Parliament, through some sort of adjudication of these debates, brings out publications that are still called ‘legislation’. These are lacklustre, arbitrary documents on the subject of this or that, or revisions to ealier such documentation.

The exact purpose of these legislative documents is lost to history. They are today a kind of trite proclamation without either majestic language or semantic attention to detail.  Instead a sort of jack-of-all-trades legalish language is used, displaying little or no expertise in powerful or precise communication.  In the courts of modern Australia judges are called upon to interpret this output of the Parliament as edicta, proclami, rules for civil conduct.  And this is a vexatious task at best, since the legislation, in large part nonsense,  is often open to almost any interpretation at all.

What we have now is a performance of Parliament, tending to the grotesque. By turns it lauds and lampoons in exaggerated, superficial style a long disappeared, less cartoonish earlier iteration of itself.

Cultural and semantic shifts – in values and meanings, respectively – mean that we can only guess at the ancient purpose of this dramatic device we’ve inherited. We have terms such as ‘democracy’, ‘debate’, ‘the vote’, ‘representation’. But there is no accurate method for ascertaining precisely what people used to mean when they employed those terms – esp. what was connoted.

And so we, in latter times, cannot know whether the original political language meant anything like what we mean when we employ the same terms.  And this in turn makes it difficult to guess at the Ancients’ intention. Here is an example of the sort of thing we no longer understand, taken from a paper-book library of the Twentieth Century:

The great practical strength of the Westminster system is that it takes a continuum of disparate political views and reduces them to a manageable dichotomy.  However, the Westminster system also contains a fatal flaw: it takes a continuum of disparate political views and reduces them to a manageable dichotomy.

Incomprehensible, of course, today.

How much has been lost is unclear, but it is apparent that the corridors of the Australian Parliament House in Canberra were once corridors of power. Beyond the ceremonial role, it seems, according to the best political archaeologists, that the institution of Parliament once had some part to play in setting the course of the nation.  Here, in what has become a theatre of low badinage and little import, elected officials once made decisions in a representative way on behalf of an entire country.

This is ludicrous now.

Little remains to suggest there was ever any real political power in Canberra’s sprawling Parliament. The only vestige is the extraction of monies:  the absurdity that allows for public funding of this large, unspectacular circus. To this day citizens are regularly taxed in order to keep the pantomime going without ever being quite sure why.

If the original purpose of Parliamentary Democracy is forgotten in Australia, what can we say of its function today?  Entertainment?  Not likely. For those who love soap opera, perhaps – there are always running subplots in the Parliamentary show that may satisfy fans of relationship dramas, involving trysts, betrayals, affairs, and so on. Comas are so common in Parliament today that they no longer receive medical attention, and often go entirely unnoticed.

The overall effect, according to audiences and critics is a half-baked, unfunny, over-acted, often cheesy and always desperate attempt at theatre that regularly falls flat.

Members of the cast are often elsewhere when on stage. They are always dreary when not in the spotlight. First there is the changing set of central characters, the principal politicians involved in this never-ending show.  Look, here is the statuesque diva who plays the part of Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.  Dame Gillard has been unconvincing of late, according to reviewers. Many have questioned an earlier belief in her potential on the stage. Her performance wavers from show to show, suggesting a lack of commitment to any specific interpretation of her own character.

Sometimes the Prime Minister’s lines indicate she is guided by ideals, at other moments she is cruelly pragmatic.  By what method of training she arrived at this inconstancy is not known: Stanislavski, certainly, has had little do with it. She has received the attention of cosmeticists again and undergone procedures better understood: tonight she appears a little less tired than in the matinee.

And now comes Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader, a sort of modern day Pantalone, representing, we suppose, the stereotype of profound stupidity in power.  In the starring role, opposite Abbott’s grinning gargoyle, Julia Gillard has been able to maintain her prominence.  But this cannot be attributed to wit, elegance, acting chops, but the Ham and inanity of Tony Abbott and his bumbling henchmen.  Their characters are depraved, and their performance abysmal, and as a result the drab party of Gillard has somehow kept its place in the façade.

Many blame script-writers and developers of plot for the steady decline in the quality of drama produced for the Parliamentarian players. There is little or no ad-libbing in Parliament: this art has disappeared along with the talent rumoured to have graced this stage.

The playwrights, seemingly unskilled in the use of either grammar or rhetoric, are concealed from view in the main. The exception is the occasional appearance of a writer as a prompt for the actors, who otherwise rely on countless bits of paper and very short lines to make delivery of the proper statements, despite their sieve-like minds.

Beyond the main characters, and for a weak sort of comic relief there are the three Independents – Oakeshott, Windsor, and Wilkie.  These are unaffiliated figures who should bring levity to the play. But they do not. As is common in Dell’arte and elsewhere, these lowly figures are wiser by far than the characters who populate the major roles.  But  here something has gone awry: unlike the Arlechino of Commedia, reflections tend to the sober rather than the witty, and to melancholy in favour of the ridiculous.

The Independents seem almost paralysed by their role in the play of Parliament. The result is not comic relief at all, but a kind of sotto voce moralising audible beneath the din of self-important cant and cliche emanating from centre-stage. Two of their number at least bring gravitas to their performances, but the third is paranoid and flighty, unable to make his character’s objectives clear.

The practical question most often heard now about the Parliamentary farce is why the play Goes On. The answer, for the moment, is that nobody quite knows how to stop. However preposterous and demeaning Parliament becomes to all concerned, it seems likely to continue, at great cost both to citizens and to Art.

Whatever made the ritual function properly in the first place was pivotal to this civilisation, and its remnants, its vestigial form, remains deeply embedded in our institutional structures and culture.

(Australian Parliament: The Musical – The Archaeology of a former seat of Power)