Hobbes or Corneille?

L’anglais n’a pas d’expression qui correspond au choix cornélien français (l’allemand non plus, d’ailleurs), mais il y en a une pour un choix entre quelque chose de peu satisfaisant et rien du tout : c’est un choix de Hobson, d’après un monsieur qui louait des chevaux en instistant que ses clients soit prennent le cheval le plus près de la porte, soit partent bredouille.

Certains anglophones ont ressenti un manque, une sorte de trou lexical, et se sont mis a appeller choix hobbésien les situations de choix où, par la nature même de l’alternative posée, on est toujours perdant.

Deux problèmes : la référence au philosophe Hobbes n’est pas claire, et phonétiquement, les deux sont trop proches pour que Hobson laisse une place à Hobbes.

Erreur ou innovation lexicale ? De toute façon, les accusations d’illettrisme fusent.

  • 2005-02-19

Mark Liberman’s Language Log entry on Hobbesian/Hobson’s choice reminds me of this recent thread on the ADS-L mailing list, which discussed the same topic: Arnold Zwicky presented a collection of examples which employ Hobbesian choice deliberately, to denote “a bad choice, between two unacceptable alternatives”. Hobbesian, though, is typically interpreted as an error, and accusations of illiteracy are thrown about.

The figure of speech to label bad choices is Hobson’s choice, which, as the Columbia Guide to Standard American English explains, means

no choice at all. Thomas Hobson (1544?–1631), a Cambridge livery stableman, rented his horses in the order of their closeness to the door; you took the next one in line or none at all.

The choice between something unsatisfactory and nothing at all, however, doesn’t really accommodate what users of Hobbesian choice want to express. Here is one of the examples from ADS-L, with Arnold Zwicky’s annotation:

In “Winning Cases, Losing Voters” (Op-Ed, Jan. 26), Paul Starr presents the Democratic Party with the Hobbesian choice of living by its convictions [AMZ: and losing votes] or compromising its principles in order to get more votes.

If neither Hobbes nor Hobson is available, it might be time to appeal to another author who, like Hobbes, is read world-wide: this is precisely the type of situation that modern-day French calls choix cornélien, a choice between alternatives that mutually obliterate each other. A Cornelian choice (or dilemma) is named after the playwright (and contemporary of Hobbes) Pierre Corneille (1606 - 1684).

To understand the concept we need to look at the Cid. Rodrigue loves Chimène. The problem: Rodrigue is on a quest to avenge his father’s honour, and the man he has set out to kill happens to be Chimène’s father. The “choice” offered to him is therefore one between honour and love, and by the very act of choosing one he pushes the other out of his reach: if he kills Chimène’s father, their budding relationship will be doomed; if he acts on his feelings, he loses his honour.

(There is a second level to the dilemma. The very situation that creates Rodrigue’s dilemma destroys his capacity to enjoy either choice. If he chooses honour and kills Chimène’s father, there will be a stain on his honour because it is dishonourable to kill a member of the family of one’s beloved; if he abandons his quest, Chimène might scorn him for being dishonourable. In its pure form, a Cornelian choice is truly impossible. But the play is a tragedy after all — real-life Cornelian choices stop at the first level of complexity, which usually is quite enough to make life unpleasant.)

It is interesting to observe how fixed expressions that express universal concepts are bound to culture-specific references.

As for what might have triggered the label Hobbesian (other than an erroneous substitution, a “citational eggcorn”, as Mark Liberman calls it), I’d speculate that the source might not be a particular passage from the work of Thomas Hobbes, but the underlying, if anachronistic dilemma of how to fit Hobbesian thought into a political world-view that is based on a belief in democracy as the form of government. To quote AHD4, Hobbes “argues that the only way to secure civil society is through universal submission to the absolute authority of a sovereign.” The choice between a wholesale rejection of Hobbes or of democracy may be a modern-day way of framing the issue. Still, in the political context of Leviathan — the English civil war — one of the salient issues was parliamentariarism: what was the king’s rule supposed to be based on? who should he share power with? what about the representation of the king’s subjects?

Back to language — Mark Liberman contends that Hobson’s and Hobbesian can’t coexist:

The key linguistic point is that Hobson’s blocks Hobbesian here. Even if there is a valid and coherent reason for Anderson to see his choice as a “Hobbesian choice”, he can’t use that phrase without taking literate readers aback, and leading some of them to make fun of him.

This is unfortunate. As for introducing a new figure altogether, I am unsure whether the reference to Corneille is familiar enough for educated English-speakers, and whether English, or any other language, is sufficiently open to such cultural imports.

2 comment(s) for 'Hobbes or Corneille?'

  1. (Comment, 2005-02-20 02:24 )

    Ah, how you bring back memories of Mme. Ruegg’s French class, in which we had to memorize huge chunks of Racine and Corneille, in particular “Percé jusques au fond du coeur”:

    Il vaut mieux courir au trépas;
    Je dois à ma maîtresse aussi bien qu’à mon père:
    J’attire en me vengeant sa haine et sa colère,
    J’attire ses mépris en ne me vengeant pas.
    A mon plus doux espoir l’un me rend infidèle,
    Et l’autre indigne d’elle;
    Mon mal augmente à le vouloir guérir,
    Tout redouble ma peine:
    Allons, mon âme, et puisqu’il faut mourir,
    Mourons du moins sans offenser Chimène.

    Still sends a shiver up my spine… Alas, I’m afraid that particular cultural reference is available only to those who have undergone a traditional Francophone education, full of dictées and Corneille. For English usage, I’m afraid it has to be “horns of a dilemma.”

  2. (Comment, 2005-02-20 03:06 )

    Oh, yes, it does. I nearly quoted the two lines “J’attire…”.