Have You Stopped Beating Your Father?

Heraclides tells us that, although Menedemus was a Platonist in his teachings, he made sport of dialectic. Thus, when Alexinus asked once whether he had stopped beating his father, he answered, “Well, I wasn’t beating him, and I haven’t stopped.” And when Alexinus insisted that he should have cleared up the ambiguity with a simple yes or no, he said, “It would be absurd for me to follow your rules when I can stop you on the threshold.”

——Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers.

The Hydrostatic Paradox of Controversy

If a fellow attacked my opinions in print, would I reply? Not I. Do you think I don’t understand what our friend, the Professor, long ago called the hydrostatic paradox of controversy?

Don’t know what that means?—Well, I will tell you. You know, that, if you had a bent tube, one arm of which was the size of a pipe-stem, and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would stand at the same height in one as in the other. Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way,—and the fools know it.

——Oliver Wendell Holmes, Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.

Often Repeated, Often New

You don’t suppose that my remarks made at this table are like so many postage-stamps, do you,—each to be only once uttered? If you do, you are mistaken. He must be a poor creature that does not often repeat himself. Imagine the author of the excellent piece of advice, “Know thyself,” never alluding to that sentiment again during the course of a protracted existence! Why, the truths a man carries about with him are his tools; and do you think a carpenter is bound to use the same plane but once to smooth a knotty board with, or to hang up his hammer after it has driven its first nail? I shall never repeat a conversation, but an idea often. I shall use the same types when I like, but not commonly the same stereotypes. A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times. It has come to you over a new route, by a new and express train of associations.

——Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table