Liberal Arts Blog — Scylla and Charybdis, the Yin and the Yang, Blaming the Victim, Playing the Victim

Liberal Arts Blog — Tuesday is the Joy of Literature, Language, Culture, and Religion Day

Today’s Topic — Scylla and Charybdis, the Yin and the Yang, Blaming the Victim, Playing the Victim

Learned Hand (1872–1961), the great jurist with the strangest name ever, once wrote that “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not so sure that it is right.” Hand loved to quote Oliver Cromwell’s “I beseech thee in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken.” He went so far as to say that “I should like to have that written over the portal of every church, every school and every courthouse. May I say I should even add over the portal of every legislative room in the United States? I should like every court to begin: “I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken.” It was with this quote that my mentor, Ernest R. May (1929–2009), the eminent historian of international relations, ended his book on the fall of France, Strange Victory (2000). I think it is a quote worth remembering. Especially today. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.


1. Ulysses had to navigate between two monsters: Charybdis and Scylla. Scylla was a six-headed monster on the Calabrian side of the Straits of Messina. Charybdis was a whirlpool on the Sicilian side.

2. The yin and the yang is all about the fact that reality is duality. Everything and its opposite.

3. As Father John, the principal of my high school, would say: if you haven’t found the paradox, you haven’t dug deep enough.

NB: The most annoying, most unsatisfying, but most accurate answer to every important question is always either: “it’s complicated” or “it depends.”


1. As Bertolt Brecht (above) wrote: “Food first, then morals.” (Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.” Focus on economic justice. Focus on the root cause of bad behavior, not the bad behavior. Don’t blame the victim.

2. From a similar angle of vision, Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

3. On the other hand, to ignore individual responsibility is to downplay agency. Dependency is a real risk. Moral hazard is not the figment of a deranged imagination. Culture matters. Values matter.

NB: To me, economics and culture, freedom and justice, micro morality and macro morality, are one and inseparable. To deny this truth is a recipe for intolerance and very bad consequences.


1. F. Scott Fitzgerald (above): “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

2. The scales are the best single metaphor for justice because justice is all about making tough decisions which are those where there are valid universal principles and specific facts on both sides.

3. Then there is the line from the Bible: “May he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

NB: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblins of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his essay “Self Reliance.”

Happy Election Day!

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