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.
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.
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.
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.
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