‘Obscurity and vagueness of expression is always and everywhere a very bad sign: for in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it derives from vagueness of thought, which in turn comes from an original incongruity and inconsistency in the thought itself, and thus from its falsity. If a true thought arises in a head it will immediately strive after clarity and will soon achieve it: what is clearly thought, however, easily finds the expression appropriate to it. The thoughts a man is capable of always express themselves in clear, comprehensible, and unambiguous words. Those who put together difficult, obscure, involved ambiguous discourses do not really know what they want to say: they have no more than a vague consciousness of it which is only struggling towards a thought: often, however, they also want to conceal from themselves and others that they actually have nothing to say. Truth is fairest naked, and the simpler its expression the profounder its influence.’
Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘On Books and Writing’, from Parerga und Paralipomena, in Essays and Aphorisms, translated and edited by R. J. Hollingdale.
‘The very first lesson that we have a right to demand that logic shall teach us is, how to make our ideas clear; and a most important one it is, depreciated only by minds who stand in need of it. To know what we think, to be masters of our own meaning, will make a solid foundation for great and weighty thought. It is most easily learned by those whose ideas are meagre and restricted; and far happier than they such as wallow helplessly in a rich mud of conceptions. A nation, it is true, may, in the course of generations, overcome the disadvantage of an excessive wealth of language and its natural concomitant, a vast, unfathomable deep of ideas. We may see it in history, slowly perfecting its literary forms, sloughing at length its metaphysics, and, by virtue of the untirable patience which is often a compensation, attaining great excellence in every branch of mental acquirement. The page of history is not yet unrolled that is to tell us whether such a people will or will not in the long run prevail over one whose ideas (like the words of their language) are few, but which possesses a wonderful mastery over those which it has. For an individual, however, there can be no question that a few clear ideas are worth more than many confused ones. A young man would hardly be persuaded to sacrifice the greater part of his thoughts to save the rest; and the muddled head is the least apt to see the necessity of such a sacrifice. Him we can usually only commiserate, as a person with a congenital defect. Time will help him, but intellectual maturity with regard to clearness is apt to come rather late. This seems an unfortunate arrangement of Nature, inasmuch as clearness is of less use to a man settled in life, whose errors have in great measure had their effect, than it would be to one whose path lay before him. It is terrible to see how a single unclear idea, a single formula without meaning, lurking in a young man’s head, will sometimes act like an obstruction of inert matter in an artery, hindering the nutrition of the brain, and condemning its victim to pine away in the fullness of his intellectual vigor and in the midst of intellectual plenty. Many a man has cherished for years as his hobby some vague shadow of an idea, too meaningless to be positively false; he has, nevertheless, passionately loved it, has made it his companion by day and by night, and has given to it his strength and his life, leaving all other occupations for its sake, and in short has lived with it and for it, until it has become, as it were, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone; and then he has waked up some bright morning to find it gone, clean vanished away like the beautiful Melusina of the fable, and the essence of his life gone with it. I have myself known such a man; and who can tell how many histories of circlesquarers, metaphysicians, astrologers, and what not, may not be told in the old German story?’
Charles S. Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear.
‘The signposts raised up on the road don’t show their direction in a sweet and florid style: they flaunt the style of their utility. Clear, direct, insistent, and authoritarian, they don’t say: “if I am mistaken”, they don’t doubt themselves, they do not excuse themselves from roughly throwing the direction arrows and the mile markers into the eyes of the people who pass. But does the traveler complain about it? As long as he has the heart of a philosopher, he gives thank to the author of profitable brutalities which he does not even feel tyrannized by.
It is his choice to slow down or step on the gas, to follow to change his direction. The milestone says what it is in clear terms, and what is necessary to take into account. The more that precise facts limit thought and, because of that narrow limit, the more that fantasies of the heart, wishes of the imagination, the needs, the amenities and personal interests will obtain safety and will be able to give themselves a career. An uncertain direction, a fact, whether vague or false, while appearing to flatter the arbitrariness of the walker, will restrict the freedom of his movements, of his rest, they will diminish his real powers, for the risks attached to the consequences of an indifferent or capricious itinerary will be increased by the insufficiency of his knowledge.
It is a great error to think that contingencies, as they say, accommodate themselves more easily to a lax and vacillating principle: to the contrary, all indecision of principles complicates the study of the facts, as well as their treatment; uncertainty thus is inserted at the sole point from where a little light could come to them, to the complexities of the earth shadows in the sky will be added.
Truth, a harsh but clear sun, is content to establish from above what is necessary to know and think before acting. It shows the good, it marks out the bad; it distinguishes the proportions following which the one and the other confront each other and mix in the infinite variety of our human events. Once so enlightened, man is far from having resolved the problems of practical life, but he has something to resolve them and if, as happens to him too frequently, he can choose only between evils, he will better discern which will be the least, his effort can be applied to avoiding the worst; that makes perhaps the greatest point of the government of oneself and others.’
Charles Maurras, Mes Idées Politiques, translated by Cologero Salvo.
Hat tip for Peirce and Maurras: Cologero Salvo.