A reflection on the fragments of Melissus of Samos

Arguments over the qualities of any specific event, object or person are legion. The classic example is the adage “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter,” clearly a line of argument from the relativist school of thought. However, as I have attempted to show previously (see on Value), by accepting this argument you are inferring that the individual holds both values at the same time – but are instead stating that both such names are devoid of real quality, mere labels assigned by the individual observer. If we take this argument to its logical conclusion then there is no good or evil, only action beneficial or negative for a particular party – thus altruistic generosity, good governance and liberty are in the same basket as tyranny, genocide and desultory revolution. As I deny the truth of these claims, I will seek to examine how a quality can infer true value, and will do so by analyzing the methods by which we come to understand qualities in their abstract form.

Firstly, we must examine the term quality. For the purpose of this reflection, I shall use the term quality in relation to value in the same way I previously used knowledge in relation to truth (see on Knowledge). By this, I am suggesting that the quality of an object is referring to an abstract value, of which said quality is representative. In this sense, quality is that aspect of an entity which refers to a value. In simple terms a good person is an entity ‘person’ which has the quality ‘good’. The quality good modifies the object in reference to the abstract entity ‘goodness’ from which we derive our use of the term. In this sense all good objects are objects that can be measured in relation to this abstract ‘goodness’.

It would be remiss of me to not at this point attempt to ignore the argument of the relativist whom I spoke of at the start of this discussion. They would argue that the term ‘good’ is merely a social label which humans have generated – each individual culture with its own normative boundaries for the term and differing words with mutually unintelligible translations. I would posit, however, that these definitions exist prior to humanity, and will exist after humanity. It is the height of our species arrogance to think that we alone shape and determine the face of the universe through our thought. We cleave to the idea that our minds shape our destiny – despite understanding that we are one asteroid collision, super-volcanic eruption or nuclear conflagration away from our annihilation. Thus, these concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, must transcend our own traditional cultures – or they must have no value at all.

If an interlocutor was to deny my above point – suggesting that such concepts are merely ‘false consciousness’ expressions of my acculturation – I would argue that they must follow their train of thought to its logical conclusion. If there is no universal good or evil, then there is no impetus for me to respect the rights or wrongs of other cultures. In fact, if I am an ethical humanist, I should advocate for the destruction of all cultures and the collapsing of all of humanity into a single frame of reference. This is the closest point we can reach of equality and fraternity between humans – all other structures merely create disharmony and discord. Even more sinister, if we take this analysis to its radical conclusion we find that it is impossible for any person to hold any common view with others – thus there is no impetus to respect the good or evil of other people, and we can only pursue our naked interest, the law of the tyrant.

With these criticisms laid out, the question can now be fairly asked: if qualities are cultural makers for universal values, imperfect but still seeded in true understandings of reality, how do we infer these universal values rather than relying on our imperfect cultural understandings of value? I would posit that the best we can do is to logically examine our beliefs, cosmology and ethics – ensuring that they are harmonised across the entirety of our action. Secondly, I would suggest that we should struggle to read and listen as widely as possible – seeking to understand universal questions such as: What is Goodness? How do I lead a Good Life? What is my position and duty in the world? These queries can be found across cultures, and as long as we are generous in our readings we can benefit deeply from cross-cultural encounters. However, to do this we need to focus not on the specific grammar of an argument, but instead on its intention. To quote Zhungzi:

“The fish trap is for catching fish, once you have the fish, you can forget the trap.

The snare is for catching the hare, once you have the hare, you can forget the snare.

Words are for catching ideas, once you have the idea, you can forget the words.”

Original text

Fragments

Painting

Michiel Coxcie, Plato’s cave, 16th C

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