Abusus non tollit usum. Corruptio optimi pessima. Exceptio probat regulam.
These three Latin adages have helped me to stay sane more perhaps that the thousands of pages of philosophy I have read. In short, they remind me not to forswear use because of abuse; not to overlook excellence because of the horror of its corruption; and not to relativize rules just because the exceptions are so teasing. The easy slope of the mind into these betrayals is observable wherever one looks, particularly in this particularly abusive, corrupt and exceptional age in which we live.
First, let me translate – the need for this is itself a sad feature of a culture no longer conversant in its classical tongues: ‘Abuse does not preclude use,’ ‘The corruption of the best is the worst,’ and ‘The exception proves the rule.’
The first is rather simple. We continue to cut our baguettes with knives, despite the number of human necks that have been likewise cut with the same sharp instrument. Where would our culture be without knives? The principle of the adage is that only things intrinsically good can be abused. You cannot really abuse trash, or mistreat garbage. But you can abuse a child, and we instinctively know the reason: because a child is the most precious thing our sad world possesses.
We forget this general truth, however, when it is religion that is being abused, as many mentally slip into an illogical argument for its abolition. Abusive politicians and policemen are also a scourge, but a world without politics and policing is a world with nothing to order and nothing to defend. So the next time someone displays indignation over the abuse of this or of that, look quickly at the value of the abused item, and beware of the temptation to merrily cut off noses to spite faces you’ve yet to behold.
Partially overlapping with this principle is the second. As abuse is only of inherently good things, so is the abuse and corruption of the very best things productive of the very worst, as we saw with children – and, I repeat, with religion. We do not find a crushed mosquito revolting, but the corpse of a dog already makes us jump with horror and disgust. The better the body, the more repellent the remains.
Late antiquity wracked its collective brain as it watched the magnificent Roman civilization slowly decay and putrefy. This challenged historians and philosophers for centuries to come – from Augustine to Gibbon – to make sense of one the very best of human societies turning into one of the very worst.
Whether or not you believe in angels, it is significant that traditional Semitic angelology has it that the very highest of the angels fell to become the very lowest; the initially quite lovely name of ‘Lucifer’ (‘Light-Bearer’) now sounds, well, luciferian. Another example is this: the closest and most intimate of human bonds are those of blood, the sacred family ties; however, the bloodiest of human conflicts involve fratricides and civil wars. Likewise, no enemy is as fierce as a friend turned fiend. The list of the best becoming the worst goes on and on.
The third adage is potentially the most controversial, although, in practice, it seems perhaps the most obvious. Without going into the more intricate philosophical or even scientific ways in which it might be questioned, I think we are justified in noticing, at least first of all, how it functions in our daily affairs.
Most people are right-handed and the world is full of acknowledgments of this statistical preponderance – from automobile production, road construction and classroom desks, the order of strings on most guitars and violins, and – on a somewhat darker note – all the way to ‘sinister’ allusions and ‘left-handed’ compliments. Still, we make allowances for lefties wherever we can. After all, they are not guilty of their orientation.
We would be over-accommodating, however, were we to insist that half of all classroom seats have left-handed desks. Clearly, the left-handed fact is an exception to the right-handed, and it draws attention to — ‘proves’ – the rule. Such proof does not, however, require us to extirpate the exceptions, or banish them to a ghetto. It just means the world is far more interesting, and beautiful, in part because it is not imperiously symmetrical.
If we become fearful that acknowledging an exception might endanger the rule, we could end up turning living and life-nourishing norms, along with natural and obvious majorities, into laws of Medes and Persians. We could err by biting down on 100% rules as the only way to honor nature. But even modern science – once proud of its ‘laws of nature,’ of presumed necessity and universal validity – is now accustomed to conceding that it is dealing with statistical probabilities in most cases. The world’s general tendencies and approximations are simply thrown into clearer profile by the very exceptions that deny them universality.
If I have to swerve into the wrong lane in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian, that moment of exceptional behavior simply highlights with a touch of drama how important it is – 99% of the time – to stay in the right lane (and for pedestrians to keep off the street). I should like to escort this principle into more controversial territory, but I will leave that for another day.