The Dilemma Of Perspective

Perspective is one of the most important lessons of the cognitive disciplines. It also weighs heavily in the balanced consideration of moral problems. What may seem to be one thing to one man, is likely something else to another. It can be disquieting for us to see the world as others see it, for every man’s window overlooks his own tangled garden of direful secrets.

Several anecdotes illustrate this in amusing ways. The Roman writer Aulus Gellius (Noctes Atticae V.5) relates a conversation that took place between the Carthaginian general Hannibal and King Antiochus of Syria, in whose court Hannibal had taken up residence after his defeat in the Second Punic War.

Hannibal had been asked to be present at one of Antiochus’s military parades and to review his troops. The parade proceeded with much pomp and ceremony, with chariots, elephants, horsemen, and infantry paraded magnificently before the reviewing stand, all accoutred in glittering yet untested finery. Never was armor or blade so polished, and so unscratched.

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Hannibal

The king turned to Hannibal and asked him, “Do you think that this is enough for the Romans to deal with?” What he meant by this, of course, was whether Hannibal thought that the Romans would ever be able to contend militarily with his army. Hannibal, wise in the ways of war, smiled faintly and answered, “Yes, I definitely think this should be enough for them, as greedy as they are.”

By this sarcastic response, which laughed at the worthlessness of Antiochus’s pompous army, Hannibal meant that Antiochus’s troops would be sufficient to satisfy the Romans as a captured prize. The king was not amused by this difference in perspective. Hannibal was invited to no further military parades.

Another anecdote in Aulus Gellius presents the same point in a more nuanced way. This is the famous “court paradox” or “lawyer’s paradox” which Gellius uses as an example of what is called in Latin a reciproca, or a “convertible proposition.” The paradox is stated in Attic Nights (V.10) in the following way.

Protagoras was a famous rhetorician, noted for his unmatched dexterity in arguing cases. He was approached by a wealthy young man named Euathlus, who wished to be instructed in the arts of rhetoric and oratory. Euathlus promised to pay Protagoras a large sum of money. He advanced Protagoras half of the sum at the beginning of his instruction, and promised to pay the balance when he had pleaded and won his first case before a jury. Protagoras agreed to this arrangement.

Euathlus made great progress in his instruction, yet never undertook any court cases; it soon became clear he was dragging his feet to avoid paying his instructor. Protagoras eventually brought suit against him for payment of his fee. He said to Euathlus, “No matter what perspective you look at this issue from, you will have to pay me. No matter how the verdict goes, I will win. If the jury rules for me, you will have to pay me as a result of the verdict. If the jury rules against me, you will then have won your first case, and you will still have to pay me.”

Euathlus paused for a moment, then looked at him squarely and said, “Protagoras, you are unfortunately not correct. Things are the opposite of what you just said. I will not have to pay you, no matter what the jury’s ruling may be. For if the jury decides in my favor, then I can rely on their verdict and pay you nothing. But if they rule against me and I lose, then I will still have to pay you nothing, since by the terms of our original contract I will not have won my first case.” The jury, we are told, was utterly baffled by the situation, and could not reach a decision. Thus was an old master confounded by a devious pupil.

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Lorenzo Valla

As a logical exercise, how may this dilemma be resolved? The Renaissance humanist Lorenzo Valla discusses the paradox in his 1439 masterpiece Dialectical Disputations (III.13), and insists that the jury need only to have considered that Euathlus defrauded his master, and thereby was unjustly enriched.

This is true, but avoids the issue. The way to resolve the paradox is to realize that each man—Euathlus and Protagoras—believes that his own premises apply absolutely to the situation.

The two positions are logical “disjuncts”: they proceed on their independent tracks, and come into play depending on who wins or loses, and on whether we should respect the jury’s verdict or the original agreement of the parties. In a sense, they are both right: the outcome depends on whose logic controls. Perspective is everything. Choose your logic, and you choose your outcome.

But just because perspective may be relative does not mean that we should shrink from taking a position. One final anecdote illustrates this point well. Plutarch, in his Life of Solon (ch. 20) mentions a strange law that Solon had instituted in Athens during his archonship.

Solon, generally considered the city’s most wise lawgiver, decreed that in the event of civil discord, violent factionalism, or revolution, every citizen must take a side. No citizen was permitted to sit on the sidelines and await the outcome of civil strife. Neutrality was forbidden. The penalty for violating this law was the forfeiture of one’s property, followed by an ignominious exile.

Busto di Solone (640 a.C ca-560 a.C ca), marmo

Solon of Athens

At first sight this law seems dismaying. Gellius thought as much when he first heard of it, and says so specifically in a complaining chapter of Attic Nights (II.12). Why would any leader encourage a situation where a citizen was forced to take a side in factionalism? But Solon saw things differently. With his unrivaled knowledge of human nature and politics, he foresaw that civil disorder would be more speedily resolved if every man in the polity had some stake in the outcome of a common discord. The good men on both sides would encourage the equitable settlement of differences. Civil war and paralysis, he knew, were actually prolonged by public apathy, not shortened by it. Equity demands that everyone should have some “skin in the game.”

So much, then, for perspective. It is the most difficult, and most important, lesson of the mental arts. Moral philosophy would be meaningless without it.  It is a humbling and necessary experience to attempt to see the world as our adversaries may see it. To escape the straight-jacket of one’s own experience, and to try to see the panorama stretching before us through a differently crafted lens, requires heightened powers of sensitivity and concentration.

But at the same time, this relativity of perspective does not imply the abandonment of our own views. Quite the contrary, in fact. We must take our positions on important issues and advocate for them strenuously, just as our litigants in the “court paradox” did. For as Solon’s law holds, a man’s worst offense is to have no perspective at all.

Read More: The Fears Of Being A World Traveler

32 thoughts on “The Dilemma Of Perspective”

  1. Great article!
    Being able to see things from other people’s perspective is a critical skill. It’s useful in both personal and professional relationships.
    It’s also especially crucial for the advancement of Red Pill culture. Some guys just dismiss mainstream/feminist culture as being irrational, but feminism makes sense to feminists. The difficult work is to root out and examine in the light of day those assumptions and values on which feminism is based. This does much more work toward supporting Red Pill views and undermining feminism than do petty insults and attributions of feminist belief to feminists just being bitches.

    1. The article is even greater when one considers that your thought (and mine) – the elimination of feminism – was achieved without any mention of it. Quintus Curtius is one of the better writers on ROK.

  2. This practice, of understanding someone else’s perspective, will save you unnecessary anger and frustration. Instead of hating or viewing with contempt the man that has the different perspective, understanding his perspective will help you empathize with him. You don’t have to agree with their logic or actions but you will want him to see things from your perspective and hope he will be better off for it.

    1. Yes. I have very firm convictions, but I believe that you owe an opponent the courtesy, of being able to accurately describe his view of things, in a way that he would recognize and own as his own view; if you can’t do that, then you can’t begin to have a real debate on the merits of any point of view.

  3. You also need to understand their perspective so you know what their intentions are if they are your enemies.
    Or, if you’re running game, you should try to get inside the girl’s head and show her that you’re coming from the same place to create a powerful connection.
    Alas, this is an introvert strength and an extrovert weakness. It’s something that types like me need to consciously think of.

  4. fascinating article. Arguments from the ancient world seem to have a different kind of authority to those from the modern world. They seem to function almost as fables.
    In terms of the ‘lesson’ contained therein, and insofar as it applies to latter day ‘enemies’ then it will be interesting to tease out the implications.
    From a very different perspective (in a different sense of the word?), namely that of psychology, we might call this say theory of mind; the ability to ‘read minds’ or take the position of the ‘other’ person or party or generalised perspective – if we are talking about say feminism. Those who cannot do this, may have some kind of developmental disorder, for instance some kind of autistic spectrum disorder that prevents them understanding different points of view. But outside of such an inability there is often an element of choice, and decision in such things. One criticism of some types of christianity, but also of leftism, socialism, or general do-gooding is that it assumes that one ought to ‘walk a mile in another’s shoes’. The golden rule is more than that, but arguably is closely related to philosophies of empathy and altruism etc. The more right wing one gets the more one finds a kind of position of ‘splendid autism’ being taken. Strong men, patriarchs who are heads of families etc, often take pride almost in ‘not seeing the other point of view’. This can be a grave mistake as this article suggests (albeit in a different context). The real test of the mettle of your self-belief, and the strength of your convictions, is the ability to be able to take the perspective of another, that is see their point of view, while remaining firm in ones own convictions. That is to say, once can do this, without necessarily succumbing to empathy, altruism or any other kind of ideological sway, one’s own views will be far more solid in their basis, more easily defended, and more persuasive when they are advanced to others.
    On the occasions when I find myself persuaded of some new political opinion etc, it is most commonly when I have not been previously exposed to that perspective, and therefore have not been ‘innoculated-in-advance’ to the allure of such a perspective. This is I believe one reason why historically Jesuits were so effective – they were taught to know all the arguments of their opponents, all the possible perspectives they might have.
    One potential advantage the ‘manosphere’ may have with regard to the above is the fact that it has been widely ‘condemned in advance’ by those who would say it is about misogyny etc. This lack of understanding ‘our” perspective, of the possibility this present of ‘showing’ the I think very reasonable thinking behind the kinds of opinions we hold, and the claims we make presents a considerable opportunity to persuade those who have not been ‘innoculated’ to what I believe are a set of very reasonable, if still developing, arguments.
    Nonetheless, in keeping with the spirit of the message, no such complacency is appropriate to the extent that we do not understand the arguments and perspective of those who we would ourselves seek to persuade. Too often people dismiss ‘cultural marxism’, ‘feminist theories’ in a facile manner, that suggests they are all self-evidently wrong. They are not. They have persuaded huge numbers of people partly on account of indoctrination, but also because many of their arguments within context may be very persuasive. It is necessary to understand your enemy before you can hope to defeat them. …. but don’t go overboard either

  5. The ancient rhetoricians used declamations to learn how to debate an issue. One of the exercises was called “utrumque partes”, which meant arguing both sides of the issue. So you would get an imaginary case, first you would argue for one side, and then you would take the other side’s perspective and argue from their side.

  6. Hannibal was fucking gangsta . And that euathlus what a crafty devil. Brain hurting now gotta go . Really enjoyed this article !

  7. I enjoyed the article. Immediately made some connections to different concepts & fields as to where the question of perspective applies, as no doubt, other commentors did.
    The most easily accessible one would be in the visual field of art & architecture. The old fable of the blind men describing an elephant at the zoo is another one that comes to mind. The great samurai swordsman Musashi writing about inhabiting the spirit of the opponent you are facing in a duel in his Book Of Five Rings.
    ‘It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’ -Aristotle
    ‘If you know the enemy & know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles’-Sun Tzu
    (‘But Sunny ol’ chap, what about battle no.101 & more?’-Frank
    ‘Don’t worry, Quintus or some other ROK scribe will address those concerns when that time comes, heh’-Sun Tzu )

    1. Hannibal was a Carthaginian. Carthaginians were a Semitic people, originally having been colonists from Phoenicia, which was located in what is now Lebanon. So, actually, they were Semitic Middle Easterners. The Carthaginian language (Punic) was a member of the Semitic language family.
      The population of Carthage was probably a mix of Semitic, Numidian, Berber, and Libyan peoples.

  8. Stridency is part of human nature unfortunately. We are all guilty of it. It’s part of the brain’s ability to make assumptions, which is an important cognitive tool but like all tools it can be misused. What we are seeing now is a new anti-enlightenment. Because of the oceans of information on the internet, people are picking and choosing their realities. I try my best to be guided by reason (yet I’m sure i fail) and I can tel you that both the Left and the Right are slaves to entirely different world views. There is no middle ground.

  9. I had not heard this one of Solon’s Laws, but as soon as I did I saw the wisdom of it and wished for it to be the law of our land, as well. So much of the ill that has befallen us, is due to the fact that people “tolerated” an ever-worsening situation through apathy and the belief that they could somehow remain personally aloof from the increasingly bad choices of others in society. Now we see that we are almost compelled to submit to evils, which we could have prevented by demanding clarity and resolution from their inception, when the civil strife began. We have arrived at a state of affairs where the country is more polarized than at any time besides, perhaps, the Civil War – and all because we tolerate apathy.
    Our Lord Himself, addressing the Church in Laodicea, said that He could do something with them if only they would be hot or cold about the faith. But since they were lukewarm, all that was left was to be vomited out of His mouth. Mediocrity, “tolerance,” apathy, the “cover your own ass” mentality – this seems to be the greatest evil of all, to me. I disagree with Elie Wiesel’s saying, that “the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” But I do acknowledge that indifference is the void, the emptiness that consumes one’s capacity to think anything, feel anything, stand for anything… and therefore, the vacuum into which everything substantive vanishes. At least the heretic, the bitter enemy, can repent and direct their energies in a better direction; the apathetic stand still while the revolutionaries break in and kill and steal.
    I would point out, however, that I agree with Valla. I agree with you that, provided we grant the premises of one side or the other, the logic will play out differently from those premises. But, looking at the situation objectively, Valla is right to say that the only question, is whether Evathlos defrauded Protagoras. It seems clear to me that Evathlos did not defraud his master (because he had not yet won a case, and so their deal had not yet been broken); the jury should have decided in favour of Evathlos, while affirming that indeed, if he would not pay Protagoras from his winnings and a new case was brought against him, he would then (but only then) be found guilty. Protagoras was right, and if the jury had been even slightly savvy, Protagoras would have gotten his gold, one way or another.

    1. I’m gratified that you enjoyed the article, Cui, and added such a thoughtful comment. Truly, the dialogue we have here at ROK is something special.
      I hope you find these ethical and moral problems useful for you in your teaching and research.

      1. Thanks for the kind sentiment, Quintus. But what did you think, about my thoughts on Valla? It seemed to me that he was right, so I’d be interested to see if you think I missed something.

        1. Yes, I do think Valla was right. He’s one of the most powerful intellects of the Italian Renaissance and can write scorching prose. In Latin composition, few (if any) were better. In his book (which I cited) he goes on to craft imaginary speeches that either party could have made to advocate for their cases.

  10. Re: the lawyer’s paradox. It’s quite simple actually. The jury’s decision lay completely outside of their (master and pupil’s) terms. The law would have spoken, and thus the loser couldn’t refuse to pay or force the winner to pay without running foul of the law.

  11. At first, i enjoyed the article, specially because i’m about to become a lawyer in the next couple of years, here’s some of my thoughts on that:
    “(…)because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity(…).”
    (Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince, Chapter XV – DE HIS REBUS QUIBUS HOMINES, ET PRAESERTIM PRINCIPES, LAUDANTUR AUT VITUPERANTUR)
    That’s why, there is a lot i disagree on the Marco Aurélio- meditations, because in one of his passages, he says a man should never learn those kinds of knowlege, perhaps in some utopic world this might not be needed, but right now, it’s almost impossible to one’s reach success without knowing what really works and how other peoples think, in order to persuade them, etc.
    Quintus, you might be the only rok writer i make an effort to comment, hehehe, keep it up with the good work!

  12. Perspective is perhaps fundamental to writers of fiction, too.
    Dan Simmons, writer of Hyperion, has long been critical of reprobates who call themselves “feminist authors”, or “black authors”, or “socialist authors” in the context of fiction. The reason is because if you would be an honest author and write great fiction, you have to understand and provide competing points of view to your own. And if you cannot get away from your own identity informing that understanding, you will never succeed. In short, empathy. And the first step in empathy is recognising it is entirely different from sympathy. Taking from his 2008 message which can be found here: http://www.dansimmons.com/writing_welll/archive/2008_06.htm
    “Writer, either have and use this Third Path of true empathy or do not presume to write.
    It is easy to show empathy toward Gandhi and Christ and Martin Luther King. Even an unenlightened semi-human (such as a politician) can do this. To be a writer, you must be able to show empathy toward Adolf Hitler, if Adolf Hitler is your character. You must lie down in the snow next to Hitler – or in this case, in the flames – and rise, or not rise, secure in your hatred of all Jews.
    If you’re a great African-American novelist who cannot see into the human soul of a white man or woman because all you see is racism and historical inequity, quit writing fiction. If you’re John Steinbeck who knows every niche in the human heart of the displaced and powerless Oakies but has no clue as to the thoughts and feelings of the lettuce-growers and ranchers, admit defeat and do not publish fiction. (Or, if published, have your ghost call back the books and have them posthumously pulped.) If you have received the Nobel Prize for your sympathetic fiction-portrayal of the Oppressed and Downtrodden in South Africa but have no real understanding of why the landowner grandsons and granddaughters of colonists acted and thought as they did, pack it in. If you’re the screenwriter who drove Thelma and Louise triumphantly over the cliff of the Grand Canyon in a world where all men be slime, rent a Cadillac and go thou and do likewise.
    It goes without saying that the reverse spin on all of these failures at empathy deserves the same fate. But it is easier to claim personal empathy when all one is feeling or showing is the somewhat smug and consensus-happy sympathy of the crowd secure on their pyramid-pinnacle of looking-back-at-history and self-pronounced enlightenment.”

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