Ancient Greek antilogic is the craft of suspending judgment

Ancient Greek antilogic is the craft of suspending judgment

Robin Reames writes:

In Syracuse, 2,500 years ago, there was a famous teacher of rhetoric named Corax. This new discipline was in high demand: mastery of persuasive speaking, it was hoped, led to fame and wealth. As the story goes, Corax’s most talented student was Tisias. Corax agreed to teach Tisias with the understanding that the student would pay when he won his first court case. Tisias advanced so rapidly through his lessons that Corax wanted Tisias to hand over the fees they had previously agreed he would pay. But Tisias refused to pay before winning his first case, according to their original pact. So Corax, in order to recoup his fees, took his student to court.

In the trial, Corax made an impressive case. He argued that, whether he won or lost, he should be paid the fees: if he won, he should be paid because he won, but, even if he lost, he should still be paid because Tisias had promised to pay upon winning his first case. So, either way, Corax should be paid the fees. The jury was dazzled by the argument, which somehow had made an equally compelling case in Corax’s favour even with opposite verdicts.

But the trial wasn’t over. As Sextus Empiricus recounts, when Tisias took the floor, he contradicted Corax point for point. But he did so, quite remarkably, by using ‘the same argument, altering nothing: “Whether I win,” he said, “or whether I am beaten, I am not bound to pay Corax the fee; if I win, because I have won; and if I lose, in accordance with the terms of the compact; for I promised to pay the fee if I should win my first case, but if I should lose I shall not pay.”’

The jurors were no longer delighted but flummoxed. How could they possibly reach a verdict? Corax and Tisias had presented diametrically opposed arguments that were somehow entirely equivalent to one another in both strength and plausibility. Each argument was a perfect counterweight against the other. The conflict was irresolvable, and so, Sextus recounts: ‘The judges then, thrown into a state of suspense and perplexity owing to the equipollence of the rhetorical arguments, drove them both out of the court, crying “A bad egg from a bad crow!”’ (Corax means ‘carrion crow’ in Greek).

This practice of putting two arguments in competition so that neither one can defeat the other came to be known as ‘antilogic’ in the history of ideas. Antilogic was a form of contradiction that caused a person to simultaneously believe opposite things about a single event or phenomenon, without any way out or means of resolving the contradictory views in which they had become ensnared. [Continue reading…]

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