To deal with the current election season, we would do well to return to our roots as a thinking people.
In the 18th century, colonial Americans trained their minds on syllogisms. These were forms of logical argument consisting of two premises that lead necessarily to a conclusion. Americans learned these from popular handbooks, for instance, one written by Isaac Watts, whose name is still in many hymnals because he wrote so very many odes to God. Americans also learned syllogisms from almanacs, the second most broadly circulating kind of book after the Bible. In the almanacs, these little logical arguments showed up in a very boiled down form as “maxims.”
The standard example of a syllogism is as follows:
All human beings are mortal.
Bill Gates is a human being.
Therefore Bill Gates will die.
All human beings are inside the set of mortal beings. Bill Gates is inside the set of human beings. Therefore he is also inside the set of beings that will die. One can graph this syllogism with a Venn diagram, and such a diagram captures the logical relationships at stake.
(I’m sorry, Mr. Gates, to call attention to your mortality. The example used to be Socrates, but to give it a charge, it’s better to use the name of someone whose name people still recognize and whom we lionize so much that we have come to forget that he is mortal like the rest of us.)
The 18th-century Americans used syllogisms not merely to train their minds but also to help them think about their political principles and potential leaders. We find a lovely example in the all-important second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, beginning “We hold these truths …”
Here are a few that are relevant to our current difficulties in trying to select our next president:
No liar is fit to be believed.
Every good Christian is fit to be believed.
Therefore no good Christian is a liar.
He that is always in fear is not happy;
Covetous men are always in fear.
Therefore covetous men are not happy.
As the captain, so are his soldiers,
But the captain is an ass;
Therefore his soldiers are too.
(I modified the third one.)
It is necessary that a general understand the art of war.
But Caius does not understand the art of war.
Therefore it is necessary that Caius should not be a general.
Both Clinton and Trump fall short in relation to the standards of the first syllogism. Trump falls much farther short than Clinton on the second and third. And the fourth pretty much sums up specifically Trump’s inadequacy. Indeed, we might modify it slightly.
It is necessary that a president understand the art of democracy.
But Trump does not understand the art of democracy.
Therefore it is necessary that Trump should not be a president.
Perhaps you’d like a break from the extremely depressing rigors of trying to distinguish between two deeply flawed candidates? You might enjoy these other syllogisms:
London and Paris are in different latitudes.
The latitude of London is 51 ½ degrees.
Therefore this cannot be the latitude of Paris.
Gulo cannot make dinner without flesh and fish.
There was no fish to be gotten today.
Therefore Gulo this day cannot make a dinner.
In this life we must either obey our vicious inclinations, or resist them.
To obey them will bring sin and sorrow; to resist them is laborious and painful.
Therefore we cannot be perfectly free from sorrow or pain in this life.
And let me wrap up with my personal favorite:
Knowledge is better than riches.
Virtue is better than knowledge.
Therefore virtue is better than riches.
Let’s put an end to epistemophobia and return to our roots as a thinking people.
Editor’s Note: Submit your election syllogism below! We’ll publish a post with the best ideas.