J. R. R. Tolkien
(The realm of Faërie is no frivolity, but a place of profound enchantment, offering glimpses into deep mysteries and addressing fundamental human desires.)
“Lies, though breathed through silver”. It was September 1931. Little could J. R. R. Tolkien have guessed that this insult of myth, from the mouth of his hard-headed friend C. S. Lewis, would spur him to a rebuttal that would blossom into the most sustained and thoughtful argument for the value of fiction in the history of literature. And, while we’re at it, little could Lewis have guessed that Tollers’ argument, as they walked in a park behind Magdalen College, Oxford, would plant a mustard seed that would eventually transform Lewis into a myth-maker himself, not to mention the most celebrated writer on God (that myth of all myths) in the twentieth century. What was that argument? What path could possibly carry a wayfarer from the valley where myths are childish propaganda, to the hilltop where they are powerful elicitors of fleeting joy and hint at truths beyond our comprehension?
(What does it really mean for an opinion to be “a matter of taste”?)
When we say “it’s just a matter of taste”, a bold and negative message lies behind the word “just”. Whether intended or not, the word creates a whiff of denigration. We discredit the thing we’re describing, reducing it such that it does not require much attention or respect. It’s a surefire conversation-ender. We are in effect saying that the question of whether the food is good, the music inspiring, or the sight beautiful, is not really worthy of discussion. We are also espousing a momentous philosophical position: that the matter at hand is subjective, in the sense that two individuals considering it may come to contradictory conclusions about it and neither could possibly be justified in criticizing the other. Probably not very many of us, when we make such a statement, are actually prepared to defend our implicit position, or the accompanying subliminal evaluation. More likely, we are simply incorporating into our daily language certain assumptions about the world, about truth, about goodness and beauty and love and appreciation and worthiness. Sometimes we can use quippy phrases because they come easily, whether or not we realize that we are taking a side on something. In time a fallacious circle is likely to complete itself: someday when we actually consider the matter, we will find ourselves thinking our assumption very likely to be true, simply because our manner of thinking has been shaped by our (and our community’s) manner of speaking. If we are trained long enough to talk as if something is so, we will tend to think it is so unless we examine our ideas deliberately.
Pliny the Younger
(A wealthy lawyer reveals his personality and attitudes, and the way of life in Imperial Rome.)
Many of us are acquainted with, or at least aware of, a certain species of lawyer, politician, or businessman. At first we notice the more grating aspects of his personality. He is near the top of his game, and can barely see beyond his own prosperity. He knows a whole lot of people, many of whom are famous, and somehow he reminds us of this in nearly every conversation. He loves to talk of his success stories, his valuable properties, praise he has received, and difficult decisions or tight places from which he has emerged victorious. He is sensible of the fact that his reputation is what keeps him successful, and he has become entrained on reputation to such an extent that the development of it is unabashedly the single guiding force in his life, the basis upon which he makes all significant choices. Maybe this trait lurks in of all of us to some extent, but what our bold tycoon doesn’t often realize is that so ardently exhibiting a concern for reputation can actually harm your reputation.