The use of comparison in making language clearer, more vigorous or more picturesque, is familiar to us through figures of speech—particularly simile, metaphor, personification and parable, in all of which comparison is either expressed or implied.
In Exposition, comparison helps to make explanations more intelligible, more emphatic or more attractive. When your subject-matter is unfamiliar to your audience, when you are dealing with something outside their experience, or with abstractions, then comparison will be found a great aid to elucidation. For example, if you were explaining the National Budget to a juvenile audience, you would help to make your explanation clearer if you compared the calculations of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to those of a prudent housekeeper who estimates the amount of money coming into the house, and allows so much for rent, food, fuel, light and so forth. That homely illustration might be extended—you might call the Chancellor the Nation's Housekeeper.
One of the commonest comparisons made is that of a collection of people—a nation, a church, a school, a profession—with a living organism. St Paul thus compares the Christian Church, in the Twelfth Chapter of his Epistle to the Romans: "For as we have many members (i.e., limbs, organs, etc.) in one body, and all members have not the same office (i.e., duty), so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another." At school we are taught the value of a corporate life. We speak of London as the heart of the British Empire. We speak of parks as the lungs of a city. Again, we compare our Empire to a family; Britain is the mother-country, the Dominions are her sons, the Colonies her daughters, and so on.
So far, so good. But there is a temptation not to let the matter rest here, but to carry the comparison further; to base arguments or to draw conclusions from the resemblances noted; to infer that because two things are parallel in one respect, they must also exhibit similarities in other respects. This is termed Argument by Analogy.
Now, Analogy may or may not be a safe guide. In English Grammar its use as a clue to the formation or pronunciation or inflexion of words is limited. Reliance upon analogy leads the puzzled foreigner astray; he fancies that because the plural of mouse is mice, the plural of house must be hice; he imagines that dough, rough, through, thorough, slough are pronounced alike as to the final —ough. On the other hand, in a logically constructed language like Spanish, analogy will rarely lead the student wrong.
Englishmen, at the time of the revolt of the American Colonies, complained of the unfilial attitude of Britain's sons across the Atlantic; i.e., they argued that Britain's parental authority entailed filial obedience on the part of her dependencies. On the other hand, the fact that the time comes in a family when a son arrives at years of discretion, when he can be trusted to fend for himself and to assume his own responsibilities, has been urged as a reason for granting colonies complete independence when they have shown themselves capable of self-government. But neither argument can be conclusive in itself, for it is based on resemblance only, and not on fact.
The danger of pressing a comparison too far—of carrying it, as we say, to its logical conclusion—is pretty obvious. We could be drawn into the most ridiculous and fantastic judgments; e.g., if we pressed the comparison between a nation and an organism too far, we should be drawn into discovering activities in a nation parallel, say, to the digestive or respiratory systems of an organism. We need hardly be warned against such wild and extravagant flights of fancy.
But it is very easy to pass from the simple illustration referred to earlier in this section, picturing the Chancellor of the Exchequer as the Nation's Housekeeper, to an argument of this kind: The prudent housekeeper naturally wants to lay out the limited amount of money at her disposal to the best advantage; she purchases the provisions and goods she wants where she can get them cheapest; she wants the best value for her money; therefore it is to the advantage of the nation's "housekeeping" to buy goods in the cheapest market, and to allow free and unrestricted imports into the country.
The conclusion reached may be sound enough, but it is not proved by the illustration. The danger lies in the plausibility of the argument, which may easily deceive people ignorant of the complicated machinery of international trade and of the intricate considerations which go to determine national policy.
A common form of false analogy is to argue that ability in one sphere must mean ability in another. So-and-so, a lawyer, is a very clever man; therefore he will make a good Foreign Secretary. He may indeed prove so; but it will be in virtue of his diplomatic, not his legal ability. The transference of ability from one subject to another has already been referred to (see Chapter Six). The retention of certain subjects in the educational curriculum is often supported by recourse to an analogy like the following:
"In order to become fit, an athlete puts himself through a severe training, takes strenuous exercise and submits to strict discipline in the matter of diet, eating only the plainest fare. So, too, the plainest intellectual fare is best for the growing mind, and such subjects as Latin (or Mathematics, or Grammar, or Gerund-grinding, or what not) which provide a fine mental discipline, are clearly the best for improving the child's brain and making it equal to the hard tasks of thinking that it will have to face."
False analogy is at the root of many specious a fortiori arguments, like the following example taken from an advertisement for — Powders. A letter from Mrs Blank is first quoted, alleging that the powders had cured her of Malaria. The advertisement continues: " If — Powders can conquer such a terrible complaint as Malaria, everybody will at once appreciate that they can make child's play of such troubles as Colds, Chills, 'Flu, Headaches, Neuralgia and Rheumatism." A similar kind of proportional false analogy is exemplified in the following arguments: "Trade improved when sixpence was taken off the income-tax. Therefore if another sixpence is taken off, trade will improve to the same extent." And again, "Periods of monetary inflation are periods of active trade, little unemployment, rising wages and high profits. Why not increase the note issue and so produce this desirable state of affairs? " These arguments might be continued to their logical conclusion to prove that, if income tax were abolished altogether, or if the country were flooded with paper-money, unemployment would cease and the millennium of prosperity dawn at last! But, as I have hinted already, few analogies will bear being carried "to a logical conclusion "; they are more likely to end in a reductio ad absurdum.
One method or argument by analogy is especially delusive. You have, we will say, a difficult problem to solve; then the recipe is as follows: compare it with a much simpler problem, resembling your problem in some respects, to which there can be only one indisputable answer. Then, while your readers or hearers are wondering why they had not seen the resemblance before, take another simpler problem and apply it likewise; and then they wonder why they have been so stupid as not to have guessed the solution before. An example from Macaulay, who uses this device frequently, will make the method clear. In his essay on " Gladstone on Church and State," he is discussing whether the State should assume responsibility for the spiritual as well as the temporal interests of its members. These illustrations follow:
"It is of very much more importance that men should have food than that they should have pianofortes. Yet it by no means follows that every pianoforte maker ought to add the business of baker to his own, for, if he did so, we should have both much worse music and much worse bread. It is of much more importance that the knowledge of religious truth should be wisely diffused than that the art of sculpture should flourish among us. Yet it by no means follows that the Royal Academy ought to unite with its present functions those of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge."
The eager and uncritical readers at once says: "How absurd! Of course the State has no business to interfere in religious matters! " But, in reality, the cases Macaulay quotes are not parallels at all, and they prove nothing.
This method of delusive analogy is one of the most effective weapons in the armoury of the controversialist. At election times the platform speaker addressing meetings crowded with his own supporters uses it to score easy and immediate triumphs. Archbishop Whately in his Rhetoric has a passage which aptly describes it. He says,
" When the occasion or object in question is not such as calls for, or as is likely to excite in those particular readers or hearers, the emotions required, it is a common rhetorical artifice to turn their attention to some object which will call forth these feelings; and when they are too much excited to be capable of judging calmly, it will not be difficult to turn their passions, once roused, in the direction required, and to make them view the case before them in a very different light. When the metal is heated, it may easily be moulded into the desired form. Thus, vehement indignation against some crime may be directed against a person who has not been proved guilty of it; and vague declamations against corruption, oppression, etc., or against the mischiefs of anarchy; with high-flown panegyrics on liberty, rights of man, etc., or on social order, justice, the constitution, law, religion, etc., will gradually lead the hearers to take for granted, without proof, that the measure proposed will lead to these evils or these advantages; and it will in consequence become the object of groundless abhorrence or admiration. For the very utterance of such words as have a multitude of what may be called stimulating ideas associated with them, will operate like a charm on the minds, especially of the ignorant and unthinking, and raise such a tumult of feeling as will effectually blind their judgment; so that a string of vague abuse or panegyric will often have the effect of a train of sound argument."
Here is an example of this use of delusive analogy from the speech of a candidate at the General Election of November 1935. "If you were steaming across the Atlantic into fine weather in the Queen Mary under a first-class captain and crew, with a storm behind you, you would not be ready to change into a rather unseaworthy old tramp ship commanded by an inexperienced captain who announced his intention of steering straight back into the storm area." Who would? For the same reason," the speaker went on, " you should support my party and reject the other."
The "Ship of State " is a favourite image of the politician (7) and the use of it frequently shows him "at sea." Unless he is a nautical expert, he soon finds himself in difficulties; but even the merest novice in nautical matters can see the absurdity of the following passage in a recent speech:
"Yet despite the manifold difficulties which press upon us both at home and abroad, anchored to such a firm and unyielding rock as this, I both hope and believe that our common ship could he steered as it were mentally by the hand of its competent guides so as to turn the corner, and slowly but surely win through to the goal which we have always kept with such steadiness in sight."
My local representative in Parliament said in his Election address that his party had made the United Nations the sheet-anchor of their foreign policy. A sheet-anchor is a spare heavy anchor used only in emergency when a ship is moored, and rarely carried by merchant ships. Did he really mean that his party regarded the United Nations as a resort only to be made use of when we are in difficulties, or when every other resort has failed? (See also the section on " Metaphors " in Chapter Three.)
But the flower of my collection of nautical analogies is surely the following:
"A little over a year ago the ship of State was heading for the rocks. The skipper had to change his course suddenly, and many of his officers and most of his crew deserted. lt was a case of all bands to the pumps, and I signed on with my friends, not for six months or a year; I signed on for the duration, be the weather fair or foul, and I am going to stick to the ship, whether it goes to the bottom or gets into port...."
The author of this remarkable passage would be flattered by the comments passed upon it by a number of schoolboys who were asked for their criticisms on it; and I cannot resist quoting a few of them here. "This series of episodes is surely unparalleled in the whole history of the Mercantile Marine." " If the ship had not struck the rocks, why was it necessary to man the pumps? " " Are seamen usually engaged in the middle of a voyage on the high seas? " "When they sign on, don't they sign on for the voyage, and not for any specified term? " " I have never heard of any 'fair-weather clause ' in a seaman's contract." "The man who sticks to the ship when it goes to the bottom must have lost his senses." These were some of the kindest observations passed upon it.
The schoolboys were not old enough to remember the recruiting posters during the first Great War with their appeal to men to enlist "for three years or the duration "; they therefore did not notice the emotional significance of the phrase "for the duration" (see Influence Chapter Three). But they were not slow to point out that the author intended to appeal to passion and prejudice rather than reason, and that, even if the details of the illustration he had used had been circumstantial and consistent, it was no substitute for argument.
And this was part of a speech broadcast by Mr Baldwin in October 1932 shortly after the resignation of certain Cabinet Ministers from the National Government.
A mistaken application of analogy led to the present form of the Constitution of the U.S.A.. Those responsible for framing it set out to imitate certain characteristics of the English Constitution. But in their estimate of it they overrated the influence of the Crown in the person of George III—an influence due to transitory causes only—and they paid more attention to the theory of the Constitution, as explained by the lawyer Blackstone, than to its working in practice. Hence they created a strong executive (representing the Crown in England) and carefully separated the three departments of government—the executive, the legislative and the judicature; but they neglected the fact that in actual practice in England those holding the highest executive posts sit in Parliament and are responsible to it for the conduct of their official duties.
The fact that during the nineteenth century England became the most prosperous country in the world and that Parliamentary institutions were more highly developed in England than in any other civilised country caused other countries to attempt to model their government on hers, with not altogether happy results.
History is a happy hunting-ground for those who seek parallels in the past as arguments to support their policies for the future. Human nature, they tell us, changes slowly, if at all. Similar sequences of events can be observed again and again. A famous archaeologist shows us that world civilisation has not been a steadily continuous development in a straight line, but a series of cycles, or " revolutions," passing, in the sphere of Art, through three stages between rise and fall—rugged strength, graceful beauty, and excessive ornamental elaboration. In Architecture, for example, a parallel can be drawn between the successive classical styles, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, and the Norman, Early English and Decorated styles in England. Again, in the broad outlines of the Revolutionary movements in France in 1789 and lately in Russia there is apparently a close parallel; each movement began with a bourgeois or middle-class revolt, developed into a "reign of terror" and ended in a military dictatorship. Again, the sequence—war, boom, depression— evident in the first half of the nineteenth century, appeared to be repeated in the years 1914-1934.
In other words, "history repeats itself". So it does, but with a difference. We must be wary of making assumptions based upon an over-simplification of historical developments. Conditions are rarely precisely similar; there is usually a " snag" somewhere, some circumstance which does not fit in, which may render the whole argument useless. For example, during the fiscal controversies in the early part of this century we often found in arguments supporting Free Trade comparisons made with the nineteenth century; but the fact that certain conditions existent in the nineteenth century favourable to Free Trade were absent in the twentieth century was neglected; for in the nineteenth century we had an expanding market for our goods, whereas in the early twentieth century the market was stationary or contracting. By judiciously selecting convenient facts and neglecting or failing to see inconvenient ones, we can make "history " provide specious and plausible support for any theory we may wish to advance. Beware of the man who begins "History teaches us . . ."; he may be like the man who prefaces a lie with "As a matter of fact . .."
An example of the ingenious, or perhaps I should say ingenuous, way in which "history" may be made to serve as an " awful warning" to those whose views differ from one's own was recently provided by a leading article in a popular " Isolationist " newspaper apropos of the tercentenary of George Herbert. The gist of it was as follows:
"There was once a poet called George Herbert. He wanted King James to make an alliance with Spain; but the King did not take his advice. Now no one has heard of him (!), and no one will ever hear again of the people who want us to be involved in foreign entanglements to-day (!!)."
The exclamation marks are mine.
Comparison should never be used as the sole support of a theory or judgment. It can be used by way of illustration and explanation, to elucidate or to verify a fact already established. It also has another very valuable use; it can often start a train of thought or suggest a working hypothesis. The resemblance noted by Newton between the fall of an apple from a tree and the movement of the celestial bodies through space suggested to him the theory of gravitation. Darwin's theory of evolution originated in the discovery "that selection was the keystone of man's success in making useful races of plants and animals," and in wondering whether anything similar had taken place on a very much larger scale in Nature. But resemblance was only the starting point in both these theories; before they were substantiated the whole processes of induction and experimental verification had to be gone through.
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