Imagine a conversation that goes something like this:
Person A: “Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett — at the Alamo, after twelve days.”
Person B: “Washington crossed the Delaware; the Hessians, the long sleep.”
Person A: “Napoleon…Waterloo.”
Person B: “Napoleon — at Lodi, the Little Corporal!”
In case you need to brush up on your history, the conversation went as follows:
Person A: “I think I have an insurmountable problem. It’s going to be the death of me.”
Person B: “When things are at their worse, you have to make a bold move.”
Person A: “Honestly, I think I’m out of options this time.”
Person B: “Don’t give up just yet, this could be an opportunity to make a name for yourself.”
The two conversations are the same; only the latter is expressed in fully generalized terms — “universals,” whereas the former is expressed almost entirely in historical concepts.
I imagine that while reading this some of my readers will immediately have been reminded of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which the crew of the enterprise attempts to communicate with an alien species called the Tamarians that uses historical concepts exclusively.
In this story, when the Captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard, greets his counterpart, he says something to the effect of “I come in Peace”–i.e. the usual Federation protocol.
The answer, however, is not expressed in universal terms. His opposite number responds, “Rai and Jiri at Lungha, Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons…”
This and subsequent exchanges are, of course, extremely frustrating for both sides.
The reason is that the aliens are in effect handicapped by permanently operating on a lower level of abstraction that the humans. The only solution to the problem, orchestrated by the alien captain, is to try to forge a bond of common experiences, and thus build up a common vocabulary of historical terms around them. (The two captains are forced to work together to fight a strange creature that inhabits the planet where their ships have met.) When the individual that operates on the higher level of abstraction—Picard—is able to understand the basic mode of communication of the less advanced species and determine the universal equivalents of the historical referents the aliens rely on, he can communicate in the alien’s idiom. (The reverse would be impossible.)
In the final exchange, the fact that the two species have come to understand each other is expressed by Picard, in purely historical terms, using his own name and that of the other captain and the location of their shared ordeal:
“Picard and Dathon at Eladril.”
The episode itself is wonderfully imaginative and satisfying. It is just one example of the portrayal of human efficacy in the series, which is especially uplifting about Star Trek: The Next Generation in general. If you’re tired of drunks, depressives, terrorists, cheating housewives, and back-stabbing reality show competitors, rent it on DVD. It can reinvigorate you with a sense of the grand and the heroic.
It’s the issue of historical concepts, however, that I really want to look at.
Although the idea that a space-faring culture could possibly communicate on an exclusively historical level is ludicrous, it is interesting to note that people who use general concepts do also use historical concepts in certain instances.
For instance, when someone uses an unorthodox solution to solve a seemingly impossible problem, one might say he cut the Gordian knot. (This refers to an episode in the life of Alexander the Great, in which he literally cuts through a knot, which, as local legend would have it could only be “undone” by the man who would rule the world.)
Another example of a historical concept that people use to this day is that of a Pyrrhic victory. When someone wins a contest or struggle of some sort, but the cost is so high that he emerges with no advantage or so crippled by the victory that he cannot leverage it, then he has won a Pyrrhic victory. He might as well have lost! (This happen to Pyrrhus of Epirus, a Greek king who’s victory over the Romans in southern Italy was crippling to his fortunes in the long run.)
To “cross the Rubicon” is to make a fateful choice, with enormous consequences for yourself and others, as Caesar did when he cast the die and invaded Italy in a bid to become Emperor of Rome.
These types of terms, though few and far between in current usage, represent one of a surprising variety of cognitive tools that people are able to use to grasp reality beyond general concepts. In the next installment of this series I’ll talk about why I think these terms are important, and why the fact that we don’t have more of them in the language today is a symptom of a serious problem in our culture.
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