Making Things Personal

I was walking today through some side-streets of Falmouth, Massachusetts and saw a lawn sign that caught my attention.  The sign said, “Drive As If Your Kids Live Here.”  What an effective message, I thought to myself.  The writer is making a direct appeal to the reader, asking him to put himself in the shoes of the people living in the neighborhood. 

It was not like other cautionary signs, which threaten punishment for violations of speed, or seek to persuade readers with appeals to reason or statistical data about car accidents.  No:  there was none of this.  There was only drive as if your kids live here.  That was the message, and only that:  a direct appeal to the emotions, a demand that the reader see the world from the perspective of the other.  How much more effective is the emotional appeal than the appeal to reason!  Can the rational appeal probe the stirrings of the heart?  Can it impel a man to immediate action in service of an ideal?  No; only the personalized appeal can do this.  The message must be personalized, it must be specific, and it must resonate.

Consider this difference in the two approaches.  In Act I, Scene 2 of Hamlet, a cold and detached Claudius asks Hamlet to cease his extended mourning for the death of his father.  He tells the aggrieved Dane, in formal and unfeeling language,

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,

To give these mourning duties to your father.

But you must know your father lost a father,

That father lost, lost his; and the survivor bound

In filial obligation for some term

To do obsequious sorrow.  But to persever

In obstinate condolement is a course

Of impious stubbornness.

The entire argument is based on granite logic, and has about as much warmth and tenderness as the head of a diamondback rattlesnake.  Contrast this with the sincere and succinct expression of sympathy that Hamlet gets a bit later in the same scene, in line 186, when his friend Horatio, expressing his condolences to Hamlet, says only this about Hamlet’s deceased father:

I saw him once.  ‘A was a goodly king.

This is all he says.  I once saw him; he was a good man. There is no elaborate appeal to reason, no pedantry, and no false displays of sincerity. There are only nine words.  But that is enough.  For when a man is motivated by heartfelt sincerity, this will shine through in his words, carriage, behavior, and deportment.  It cannot really be faked.  A sincere man will reveal himself to be sincere; and a scoundrel will also reveal himself to be what he is.  The nature of a thing cannot be concealed for long.  The French writer Jean de La Bruyère, in his Characters (“Of Personal Merit,” 37) accurately states:

There exists nothing so subtle, so simple, and so imperceptible which is not revealed to us by a something in its composition.   A blockhead cannot enter a room, nor leave it, nor sit down, nor rise, nor be silent, nor stand on his legs like an intelligent man.

A dunce remains a dunce, regardless of his temporary outfitting and vestiments.  But to return to our subject, which remains the power of personalization in argument.  For statements to hit their mark, and make an impression on the reader or listener, there must be some degree of emotional personalization.  Prometheus, chained to a gore-spattered rock in the Caucasus, could have suffered quiet agonies in mountainous oblivion.  But the ancient poets and dramatists would have none of this.  They make him enunciate his sufferings in vivid, excruciating detail.  Cicero, in his Tusculan Disputations, quotes poor Prometheus as speaking these agonized words:

When the consumed liver is renewed through regeneration,

Then he again returns to the revolting feeding ground.

So I feed this sentry of my dismal suffering

Which defiles my existence with everlasting torment.

For, as you clearly see, immobilized by Jove’s manacles,

I cannot ward off this dire bird from my chest.

Abandoned in solitude I greet the curse prepared for me,

Seeking an end to this evil by lusting for death.

But far from death, I am banished by the divine will of Jove.

And in these time-worn ages congealed in grimness,

A dire calamity is imposed on my body,

From which droplets extracted by the sun’s rays fall

Which continually spatter the rocks of Caucasus.

Notice how everything here designed to be congealed in grimness:  a bringing-together of things grim and horrible. Prometheus is not satisfied with saying only that he is suffering.  No!  He must describe his gory torments in detail, until we can almost see the red drops oozing from his exposed viscera.  And yet it is all very effective, which is the entire point.

Readers and listeners demand this emotional connection.  They demand this personalization of things.  As far as the human mind is concerned, nothing is more maddening than logic.  Too much slavish adherence to “logic” usually produces nothing but a dead mechanism.  One need only look at the ideal state contemplated by Plato’s Republic to see the ghastly result of too close an adherence to the confines of logic.  In fact the terrors of illogic have proven to be far more influential in human development than the As, Bs, Xs, and Ys of formal logic. 

According to Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods (II.5), the philosopher Cleanthes believed that man’s notions of the gods—that is, the rise of human religious sentiment—was traceable to four sources.  These were: (1) premonitions of future events, or the ability to make use of omens and auguries; (2) what we deduce from the profit we take from the climate and fertility of the land; (3) the observation of terrifying natural phenomena, such as storms, pestilences, earthquakes, comets, and similar wonders, “all of which so frightened men that they presumed the existence of some heavenly and divine power,” and (4) the appearance and motions of the heavenly bodies. 

None of these four factors really make use of “logic”; they rely more on our sense of awe and wonder in the face of forces man cannot understand.  Fear, wonder, and awe are for Cleanthes the foundations of religious belief.  That may evolve, over the centuries, into something more rational, but the beginnings are rooted in fear and awe.  In order to be impressed into obedience, man had to make some sense of his fears and personalize them.  So let us accept that, more often than not, it is part of our nature to make things personal.  It is a truth tied to the movement of life.  Human vanity and self-interest require a steady expenditure of time and effort on our part; that is, of course, until we reach old age, and begin to realize the folly inherent in such blind pursuits.  The subtle Bruyère made a profound point along these lines when he said, in his Characters (“Of Freethinkers,” 31):

There are two worlds:  one we dwell in but a short time, and which we must leave never to return; and another, to which we must shortly go, there to abide forever.  Interest, authority, friends, a great reputation, and riches are most useful in the first; an indifference to all these things is most useful for the next.  It is a mere question of choice.



Explore the new translation of Sallust’s “Conspiracy of Catiline” and “War of Jugurtha”: