A couple of slippery fish

In Text Messages this week, Novak Djokovic and Boris Johnson have both tried to talk their way out of sticky situations. But happily for Plato, the truth (a possible Wordle solution, btw) will out.

Mobile phones and messaging apps have prompted a resurgence in the written word that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Granted, the sorts of texts most in use are typified by much-abbreviated words heavily adorned with the graphic-speak of the emoji or the GIF. But people are writing, perhaps more than ever, and if in the beginning there was the word, at least words are with us once more as we head, burning up ever faster, to the end of the Planet.

That a word game of all things should be the latest viral phenomenon comes then as little surprise. Tens of millions now wake to the prospect of playing Wordle, an ingeniously simple game that relies on choice and elimination of letters, deduction and – this its major drawback as a skilful pursuit – a measure of luck. But what curmudgeon would quibble at a teasing brain game that is elegant in its construction – five rows of five-letter spaces mean that most of the letters of the alphabet may be tried, a boon to the player – and challenging, but not forbiddingly so. The rapid global spread and success of Wordle shows that words still count.

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In the past week, both Novak Djokovic (jocularly, Novax Djokovid) and Boris Johnson will have been forcibly reminded of the significance of words. Djokovic’s lawyers tried a semantic sleight of lip when they tried to elevate information automatically to the level of evidence. In the legal sense, “evidence” is information used to establish facts. The lawyers argued that Alex Hawke, Australia’s immigration minister, lacked “evidence” of the impact of the tennis player’s presence in Australia. Federal Court Chief Justice James Allsop brought this line to an abrupt end, saying: 

“The word evidence shouldn’t mislead. What is really necessary is material before a decision-maker, which material includes the rational and reasonable use of perception and common sense, in the place the decision-maker is in… One needs to be careful when speaking about evidence in the sense of litigation.”

Did the lawyers not know this? Of course not. Typically, they were pushing the boundaries and over-egging their case. It was not ignorance at work but low-level casuistry, the modern equivalent of the two-bit sophistry of the days of Socrates and Plato.

A verbal egg-dance

About Plato and Socrates, Johnson knows much. You don’t study Ancient Greek at Eton for six years and then Classics (Literae Humaniores) at Oxford without intimate acquaintance of those and many others in the Greek intellectual, literary and cultural pantheon. But it is tempting to think that Johnson’s real hero is not as he claims the great Athenian statesman Pericles but rather the dashing, daring, deceitful and devious Alcibiades, for many the pride and the sorrow of Athenian history.

Certainly, it is on the lying, dishonest side of Alcibiades’ nature that Johnson’s career has relied, with none of the genuinely noble and valiant traits that the Athenian showed in moments that, among many others, led to the salvation of Athens. Ambrose Bierce’s old saw is here applicable: “As compared with the statesman, he [the politician] suffers the disadvantage of being alive.”

Johnson’s verbal egg-dance in Parliament last week and in a Sky News interview with Beth Rigby this week shows that he has been well briefed by his lawyers in the art of trying to avoid criminal prosecution. Being booted by his own party is one thing, being investigated by the police for breaching Covid lockdown rules is another: a foray into the great unknown that not even Bojo would want to try. So it was that Johnson fell back on such lozenges as “technically within the rules” and “implicitly” – the latter shorthand for “of course it’s so, how can it be other?”

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The Sophists of whom Plato wrote witheringly in many texts but particularly incisively in Gorgias, a dialogue ostensibly about the art of public speaking but really about ethics (yes, Johnson would certainly have studied this, though to no effect), would have applauded Johnson’s slipperiness: it is straight out of their playbook. But those who value truth and proper behaviour would certainly side with the final sentence in Gorgias:

“Let us then allow ourselves to be led by the truth now revealed to us, which teaches that the best way of life is to practise righteousness and virtue, whether living or dying; let us follow that way and urge others to follow it, instead of the way which you in mistaken confidence are urging upon me; it is quite worthless, Callicles.” (From the translation by Water Hamilton.)

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