The Horns Of Dilemmas

There are times to act decisively, times to observe events and await opportunities, and times to discuss.  There are also times to say nothing at all.  Aesop tells a story to make this point.  A monkey, he says, was once taken as a shipboard pet by a Grecian sailor.  When the sailor’s vessel approached Attica’s Cape Sounion, a storm arose and the ship capsized; all aboard ship were tossed into the sea, but a dolphin appeared and prevented the monkey from drowning.

The dolphin allowed the monkey to climb on his back, and then proceeded to head for the shoreline.  Athens’s port was called Piraeus, and the dolphin decided to go there.  While they were on their journey, the dolphin asked the monkey if he was an Athenian; the monkey replied in the affirmative, and added that he even had Athenian parents.  There was something about the way the monkey answered that caused the dolphin to doubt his veracity, so he asked the monkey another question.  “Do you know Piraeus?” he asked.  Piraeus was the name of a port, not a person, and anyone from Athens would know this.  But the monkey foolishly replied, “Yes, I know Piraeus very well, he is a good man.”  Upon hearing this, the dolphin knew that the monkey was lying to him.  He dived far down below the water’s surface, leaving the monkey to drown.

The monkey had answered like a fool, of course.  Better still would have been simply to tell the truth:  and yet how often people will lie for no apparent reason!  It is a strange thing; it is almost as if they feel that a lie becomes some kind of protective barrier, erected to prevent the listener from gaining some kind of intimacy with the speaker.  Perhaps more interesting are those situations where someone is placed in a situation where no answer helps him.  You may have heard the expression, “on the horns of a dilemma”; it is meant to describe a circumstance were a person is faced with no reasonable option.  But why “horns”?  Why is this word used?

This is rhetorical terminology that goes back to classical times.  In Quintilian (I.10.5) we find the word ceratina, which means “horned fallacies” or “horned arguments.”  It seems that the ultimate origin of the term is found in one of Seneca’s letters to Lucilius (XLIX.8), where he poses this question:

What you have not lost, you have.  You haven’t lost horns.  Thus, you have horns.  [Quod non perdidisti habes.  Cornua non perdidisti.  Cornua ergo habes.]

The argument is ridiculous, and it is meant to be; it is intended to point out a logical fallacy.  There are other references in ancient writers (e.g., Aulus Gellius XVIII.2.9) to this “horn” issue, making it clear that it was a known expression.  Related to this logical puzzle is the so-called “crocodile problem,” known in Latin as crocodillina.  The Oxford Latin Dictionary defines the word unhelpfully as “a dialectical puzzle about a crocodile”; but we are left in the dark about what the puzzle is.  The word is mentioned in Quintilian (I.10.5), but he reveals little.  To our rescue comes the Renaissance humanist Angelo Poliziano, who, relying on an obscure writer named Doxopater, explains the crocodile puzzle as follows in his Miscellanies (Ch. 55).

A woman and her son are walking along the bank of a river.  A crocodile lunged out of the water, snatching the boy; he told the woman he would return the son if she correctly predicted what he would do next with the child.  By this he meant, do you think I will keep him, or do you think I will return him to you.  The woman replied, “I don’t think you will return him.”  The crocodile thought that this was an honest answer, and so returned the boy.  But we can see the problem here; the Greeks called this puzzle a prion, a saw, presumably because it could “cut both ways.”  For if the mother predicts that the boy will not be returned, then the crocodile breaks his promise no matter what he does:  if the crocodile then keeps the boy, he would be breaking his promise; but if the crocodile had decided to let him go, then he still breaks his original promise, because the woman’s guess would not have been correct.  The crocodile is thus on the horns of a dilemma:  he is trapped in a paradox, and cannot do anything without violating the terms of his agreement with the woman.

Woe unto him who obsesses about such paradoxes!  For in practice a man cannot allow such conundrums to fetter his mind; to do so would paralyze thought and smother action.  At the hour of decision, a man needs every ounce of fortitude that his spirit can muster.  The critical moments usually arrive at the time of his greatest vulnerability:  they arrive at that time when his fortunes are at their nadir, when his spirit has been laid low by demoralizing hardships and unrelenting opposition from all quarters.  When it is time to pass through those dangerous pathways, the ledge has only enough space to accommodate one man.  It is as the Egyptians say,

عند المضيق لا اخ و لا صديق

And this means, “At the narrows, there is no brother and no friend.”  He who presses forward, secure in his exercise of masculine virtue, and despite all hardships, despite all reverses, and despite the vanishing confidence of his fellows, cannot fail to achieve true glory in his endeavors.  The will must become an unconscious manifestation of an unconquerable instinct, born of Vesuvius’s rolling fires.  An old piece of sea-poetry–the authorship is not clear–called “The Mariner’s Address to His Mistress” contains the following lines:

The mariner still views his chart,

Or looks upon the pole,

Whose star will guide him to his mart,

However the billows roll.

Another sighs in secret sorrow

O’er those lie left behind;

The ship rides on to-day. Tomorrow

Their forms have left his mind.

Their joys and sorrows, hopes and fears,

Are transient as the wind;

Eyes bright in hope, or dim with fears,

Are emblems of their mind.

And observe how quickly do Fortune’s tables turn!  Know, you Exerciser of the Will, that the scales of mortality may hinge on a fraction of a fraction!  Consider this.  In 1822, the whaling ship Baffin was cruising after its prey.  In one of the boats was a harpooner named John Carr, and experienced and courageous whaling-man.  His boat found itself amid a pod of whales, surrounded by nearly a hundred of the animals.  Carr had his men row quietly in their midst, and he harpooned one whale who swam towards the boat; when the barb struck its target, the whale jerked sharply to one side, and this wrested the line from its place at the stern, throwing it up upon the gunwale.

The whaleboat rolled into the waves, and began to fill with water.  Carr, being the man of action that he was, took immediate measures to save the situation.  His attempts to set the line back into place came to nothing; a coil of line wrapped itself around his arm for an instant, and he flew out of the boat into the sea.  The whale dived, and he was gone.  To everyone in the boat, the most shocking aspect of the entire tragedy was the speed with which he had left the Realm of Life and entered the Realm of Death.  It was a fraction of a second’s fraction.  We are told that the velocity of a whale as he descends is between thirteen to fifteen feet per second.  If one second meant thirteen to fifteen feet, then it would only have taken one-third of a second for him to go from the boat into the deadly waves.  His comrades in the boat never even heard him utter a single word:  one instant he was there, and the next he was gone.  Know, then, that this is the arithmetic of mortality, acted out on the stage of life’s eternal and unforgiving drama, in a theater where none may refuse to participate.



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