Saturday, July 7, 2012

Some notes on evidence, biography, and historiography

WOULD LIKE TO OFFER some observations on
the historiographical methods of writers -- past and present -- concerned with writing the lives of eminent characters. That biographical investigations depend on the collection and weighing of historical evidence is hardly a contentious claim. And yet life-writers rarely take the time to explain to the reader what selective criteria govern their choice of what sort of data is significant and what is not. The success of a biography is usually measured by standards of literary or psychological coherence, but I do not believe that we have paid sufficient attention to the manner in which life-writers achieve this sense of coherence through tactical arrangement (manipulation) of historical evidence. Essentially, then, my comments have less to do with the details of any one life than with the methodology of writing history. This is an outgrowth of one of my long-term Big Projects, the one examining the way writers have approached the question of historical evidence in early modern versions of the life of Socrates.

Today we are accustomed to consider biography as a special branch of history; we are particularly interested by the supply of facts discovered and the pattern of meaning into which they are arranged. However, life-writers have not always aligned themselves so scrupulously with the standards of objectivity we have come to assume (perhaps naively) as the basis for history and life-writing.  Early-modern biographers often have a purpose in their work quite separate from the life itself -- some sort of polemical thrust that propels the writing in a specific direction of its own. 

In the process of culling the historical data and presenting it as part of an argument designed to establish a particular interpretive viewpoint, early modern life-writers often force the evidence to serve their purposes.  In so doing, they often commit logical fallacies, as well as several sorts of fallacious arguments peculiar to biography. Let me offer a few examples as an indication of the sort of fallacious argument I wish to uncover and define:

1) Attribution by ostensible appropriateness:  Stories adhere to figures about whom they seem to be appropriate. In the apocryphal biographical tradition, two such stories recur with astonishing frequency. First, probably because in the Apology  Socrates mentioned the way Aristophanes' Clouds affected public opinion, opponents of the stage recruited Socrates to support their cause, claiming that he considered the stage a danger to society. There is no teaching to this effect anywhere in the first-hand accounts of Plato and Xenophon, nor in the earliest layers of commentary, yet it is a staple of the antitheatrical paper wars of the Puritans and later in the Restoration and 18th century.

Another similar construction of biographical tradition centers around Xanthippe. As it happens, Xenophon introduces the subject of Xanthippe's legendary difficulty to foreground Socrates' legendary patience. By shifting the emphasis of the story, misogynistic historians conscripted Socrates to serve as an authority in their struggle to establish female inferiority. Powerful expressions of hatred for women emerged in medieval manuscripts; they comprised a large part of the aphoristic tradition, as in the Dicts and Sayings of the Ancient Philosophers, the first English book published by Caxton, and were distributed through early modern polemical writings on gender. There is in fact little or nothing in the original sources from which this tradition could have emerged. The tacit argument seems to be that such opinions would be likely in one married to a woman like Xanthippe, and that's enough.

2) Denial by ostensible inappropriateness : Conversely, the validity of stories attached to certain figures is questioned because of incongruence with what is known or believed about the character. Thus, Bentley, universally lauded as  the founder of historical criticism, examines the conduct of Xenophon as it is portrayed in the so-called Epistles of Socrates, with the purpose of proving the letters to be not genuine.  Bentley mentions the well-known "fact" that Socrates had two wives, and adduces the epistolary conduct of Xenophon as evidence of the spurious nature of the text:

Xenophon sends a Letter [Ep. xxi.] top full of kindness and commendation to Xanthippe and the Little ones; but it was very uncivil in him, to take no notice of the other; since, according to the story, she brought her Husband the more Children.  Nay, if we allow this Letter of Xenophon’s to be genuine, he play’d a false and dirty trick, and much against his character.  For at the date of this Epistle, if we believe the very next to it [Ep. xxii.], he was writing Socrates’s Memoirs.  So that while he here in his Letter wheedles the poor Woman, and makes her little Presents, and commends her for her love to her Husband, and for many good qualities; in his Book [Xenoph. Conviv. p. 876.] he traduces her to that present Age, and to all Posterity, for the most curst and devilish Shrew, that ever was or ever would be.  Nay, which makes it baser, he was the only Man that said this of her; for neither Plato nor any of the old Socratics writ a word about her Scolding.  Which made Athenæus [Lib. v. p. 219] suspect it was a Calumny: especially since Aristophanes and his Brethren of the Stage, in all their Raillery and Satyr upon Socrates, never once twitted him about his Wife. Well, let that be as it will, but what shall we say to Xenophon's double dealing? For my part, rather than I'll harbour such a thought of that great Man, I'll quit a whole Cart-load of such Letters as these. [A Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris, Themistocles, Socrates, Euripedes, and Others; And the Fables of Aesop (London: Printed by J. Leake, for Peter Buck, 1698), pp. 106-110.] In this account, Bentley argues that in order for these letters to be genuine we must accept a Xenophon far less attractive than we had previously known. It seems urgently important to separate the fact that Bentley was right (to dismiss the letters as spurious) from his method of argument. Simply stated, he appeals to the known ethos of Xenophon and rejects as false anything that differs from the presupposition that Xenophon is great. The argument cannot withstand much scrutiny. Think of it this way -- if historians rooting about in the archives were to discover a reliable document that contradicted what we previously knew about a historical figure, we would ordinarily expect that the fact or text would require us to alter our earlier understanding of the said character.  Yet even today biographers and editors introduce the established understanding as a touchstone to judge the genuineness and merit of a story or a text.

3.)  The portability of anecdote – in ancient biographies one frequently encounters stories told interchangeably about different historical figures. Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives of the Philosophers, even crossreferences many of these. I have heard this phenonemon called "Joe Pye's Law" – I'd dearly love to find a reference to this principle in the literature – which stipulates that any good story told about a prominent historical character is transferable to any other character of equal status. Thus, some of the sayings of Diogenes show up under the heading of sayings of Socrates, anecdotes about one libertine fit perfectly well when applied to another libertine, stories told about Eleanor Roosevelt show up accruing to Margaret Thatcher, jokes about stupid politicoes migrate from one prominent dummy to another.

4.)  The Argument from Ignorance -- contending that a lack of evidence allows an otherwise unsupported contention to stand because it has not been ruled out.  The eminent Italian historian Mario Montuori has written many articles and books about the trial of Socrates in which he argues that the charges brought against him were justified.  Montuori has collected some interesting 18th-century texts that also make a similar claim – but the main part of his argument relies on the absence of evidence that would rule out his interpretation.

5.)  The Argument from Omission -- contending that the silence of witnesses and earlier historians on a subject is significant in itself, as when early modern historians denied that Socrates could not have been homosexual, since if he had been his enemies would surely have used it against him. Obviously, this argument is combined with an anachronistic, universalizing assumption that all cultures in all times shared the author's own disapprobation of homosexuality. 

6.)  The A Priori rule of thumb: Perhaps the most common biographical fallacy occurs when the life-writer assumes (inherits, premises) the character of the biographical subject, and then claims to be able to deduce whether a story or a putative fact is likely. The biographer dismisses data because it is apparently incongruent with what is known about the subject. Biographers refuse to consider certain stories (or other biographical data) on their own merits because they do not fit the taken-for-granted image of the subject.  This approach is analogous to the argument once proffered to explain away the bawdy comedy in some of Shakespeare's plays -- these scenes must have been written by somebody else, so the argument goes – forsooth, the Bard's world-view was far too lofty for such mean stuff. Ultimately, this argument is a variation of the fallacy known as Begging the Question (assuming as a premise that which one sets out to prove). As I have suggested, this approach as a biographical fallacy could be called the Argument from Ethos; Bentley apparently considers this as strong an argument as any for concluding the Epistles of Socrates are spurious. By carefully comparing implicit and explicit dates within the letters and chronology supplied by other sources, he demonstrates the fraudulence of letters (false dating, internal contradictions, etc). But the capstone of his argument is the simple claim that the "Socrates" the Epistles present cannot be reconciled with what we know of Socrates from other sources.

7.) The fallacy of deductive selectivity – The problem is that one can always discover evidence. No matter what position one wishes to confirm or to promulgate or to deny, evidence can be found -- not always reliable evidence, certainly, and not always persuasively or even coherently arranged. Students of life-writing have occasionally noted that it may be worthwhile to study what a biographer includes or excludes. Let's examine how this works in one interesting instance. Proponents of the doctrine of natural religion were interested in discovering examples among the ancients and among contemporaries outside the reach of Christian revelation who would serve to demonstrate the providential nature of reason. There is not sufficient space here to trace this argument in any detail,so it must suffice to point out that out of select passages in Plato and the frequent occurrence of the word "god" in the singular and the fact of his persecution emerged the image of Socrates as the proto-christian enemy of superstition, the shining figure Addison (among many others) calls "a Martyr for the Unity of the Godhead." The principle of selectivity is apparent in the fact that such readings choose to ignore those times Socrates referred to the gods in plural, when he recommended that individuals should respect the religion and rituals of their country, and when he reminded his disciple not to forget the cock owed to Aesculapius. And of course complementarily partial readings are easy enough to develop: nearly as many early modern writers  -- largely those with an investment in doctrine opposing natural religion -- simply dismiss Socrates as no more than a superstitious pagan among superstitious pagans.  

Curiously, a third position emerges from time to time: the heathen wise-men who discovered for themselves the unity of the godhead did not always proclaim it from the rooftops? Bossuet declares, "What passed even among the Greeks, was a kind of preparation to the knowledge of the truth.  Their philosophers were sensible, that the world was ruled by a God very different from those, whom the vulgar adored, and whom they worshipped themselves with the vulgar" [Universal History, 1681]. This double doctrine could be explained in several ways: it was part of some kind of secret order, like the mysteries; the philosophers kept the dangerous truths away from the general populace because they feared a breakdown of the rule of law, and so they went about teaching indirectly and individually; and finally, the truth was hidden because the philosophers were hypocritical and cowardly, fearing to speak the truth which would bring about their persecution and death.  In retrospect, of course, these arguments appear to be unfair. After one group of writers has constructed an anachronistic interpretation on slim evidence – Socrates as proto-christian – another group of writers has counterattacked also using the same slim evidence to condemn the proto-christian Socrates for not saying enough about the sacred truths he had discovered.

8.)  The Bed of Procrustes:  My comments on this last approach will break no new ground – but I will say a few words anyway. Readers will remember the giant host who stretched short folks to fit his guest bed, and cut extraneous bits from the long folks. Long after Theseus pitched him over the cliff in the golden days, Procrustes lives on in those interpretations based on selective stretching and cutting off bits of evidence, all to conform to the writer's interpretive bias. John Gilbert Cooper's 1749 Life of Socrates presents a philosopher who would bear the official seal of approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury (however, his book attracted the defensive rage of Bishop Warburton, because it disagreed with the mighty bishop's notion that neither the ancient Jews nor the ancient Greeks had ideas about a future state of rewards and punishments). 

Or look at early lives of Swift. Lord Orrery's biographical sketch is based on his theory that Swift's character was warped by frustrated ambition; Orrery manhandles the evidence to confirm his position. Patrick Delany soon answered some of the charges a few years later, though he did not entirely dismiss the charge that spleen drove Swift to mockery and misanthropy – this view, I would contend if there were time, ignore an abundance of evidence that moves in another way. Even the more sympathetic lives written by Deane Swift and Thomas Sheridan cannot completely break away from a priori biases. I could go on and list other biographies that begin with a position and coerce evidence to fit the plan– the Freudian accounts of Swift's excremental vision, Tim Mowl's life of William Beckford (grounded on the premise that Beckford was dishonest in every aspect of his life), I.F. Stone's well-intended but deeply flawed account of the trial of Socrates (based on the notion that Socrates was an enemy of free speech and democracy)... but I have to stop somewhere. These are all coherent accounts, sometimes featuring occasional brilliant insights, yet even when I agree with a biographer's conclusions, when these conclusions emerge out of a thicket of obfuscations, evasions, and denials, I am disturbed and disappointed. The biographers are bullying me: "Look at this! Look at this!" I hear them cry. "Pay no attention to that," they hasten to add. 

Many of us don't respond too well to bullying. So then I tell myself perhaps it's time somebody sat down and anatomized these abuses of evidence.

This discussion springs from notes I compiled some time ago. I have yet to discover a useful guidebook to biographical and historical shortcuts and fallacies, and would welcome suggested readings. I have published on the use of Socrates in various early-modern arguments--see my articles, available on