On Hiding Behind Dead Men

It is fashionable among academicians to hide behind dead men.

In order to strengthen one’s position, one need only evoke the name of some bygone philosopher or theologian. “Oh, my poisition is Aristotilian” one will say in one breath, but in the next “Well, it’s not that Aristotelian.” If one really wanted to perpetuate Aristotle’s thoughts it would make more sense to quote him or summarize him, rather than blame him for some nuanced, unique, and unhelpfully inane proposal.

Such a strategy is used as shield, but not in a regular military sense of the word. The Romans of old would link shields in forming a turtle like shell, but this was done in order to advance. In other words, it was a part of a multifaceted strategy. In philosophical and theological discussions, some use a shield only to hide the fact that they forgot to bring a sword.

By contrast, one does not speak in such a way in normal conversations: “My mechanic is so Platonic” or “The grocer is too Socratic.” Nor does one employ such expressions in more serious life scenarios: tragedy has a way of cutting through rhetoric. A suicidal adolescent is not encouraged to quit being so “Nietzschian,” or mourners at a funeral instructed to forgo with their “Freudian” obsessions.

When a contemporary speaker hijacks a historical identity it is most often used to a hide a point rather than make one. If ambiguity is the goal, this appears to be a quite successful technique. It abdicates the speaker’s responsibility to develop a cogent position and obscures the listener’s ability to constructively critique it. Therefore, one should let dead men speak, but should never speak on their behalf.