A newly discovered fragment of one of Simplicius of Cilicia’s commentaries on Aristotle – this time on the Politics – has revealed, among other things, a substantial addition to our knowledge of the paradoxes invented by Zeno of Elea (recently the subject of an episode of In Our Time).
Just as one grain of millet falling to the floor makes no sound but thousand grains falling make a great noise, so too the opinion of one man carries no weight but a myriad opinions together can move the world, and so a myriad nothings become something. But the desires of men being various in both their content and their strength, yet there are those who speak of a single Object of that desire, for the attainment of which the opinions of all these men have spoken. And this Object can in truth be anything, and so everything, and therefore is nothing.
The attainment of this Object is impossible. For firstly, in order to do this, one must take the initial step of triggering Article 51; and before that one must reach the halfway stage before that triggering, and so forth, Achilles and the tortoise yadda yadda. But secondly, and more importantly, because this Object is both anything and everything and nothing, it is unattainable; for every completed action, however great, will fall short of the ultimate greatness of the true Object and so can be condemned as insufficient, and every move in one direction will be denounced because it does not also move in the other direction, and every step will be both too far and not far enough.
Of men we know one thing, that their opinions change like the wind and flow back and forth like the tides, and so the popular assembly votes many times on different issues and occasions to allow them to express their changing views. And yet in this one thing, in their desire for the Object, their opinions are held to be unchanging and irrevocable; and this gives strength to those who profess to know the nature of that Object and to speak for those who desire it.
A clever speaker in the assembly can always say, thinking of his own desire, that every action that is completed or proposed is a betrayal of the Object for which all have expressed their desire. As I have said, this Object is composed of many different desires, none of which takes precedence over the others; and so the clever speaker does not directly impose his own desire upon the desires of others, but claims instead that they are inextricably linked within the Object, so that the thwarting of his own desire would entail the thwarting of the desires of all, even those who actually desire something quite different. And this is bloody convenient for him.
And so the Object was never solely about clamping down on immigration (except for People Like Us), and so have its proponents repeatedly emphasised; but nevertheless a failure to clamp down on immigration (except for People Like Us) would be a betrayal of the expressed desires of all (even those who weren’t terribly bothered about immigration but wanted more money for the shrines of Asclepius). The part becomes the whole, or the essence, in one moment; and in another moment it is merely a part again, or entirely absent if that suits the argument better.
For the Object is anything and nothing. To attain the Object, people can be persuaded to burn down their own houses and expose their children, and yet the Object can never be attained, for that which can be attained will never wholly satisfy the desires of all, and so cannot be the true Object. And the value of this enterprise can never be truly examined, for we shall never attain the true Object, and so cannot tell whether it was worth the effort. And those who promoted the quest for the Object cannot be prosecuted for bad advice, because we will always have failed to achieve what they advised, and in any case they were just reflecting the desires of the population.
The Object is the Object.