Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Of vessels, whether they be imperfect or empty

“I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound’.”

Yesterday, August 4 was Senator Barack Obama's birthday. As part of his celebration and has become the norm among politicians he used the occasion to hold a fundraiser. The news agency Reuters covered the event in its online blog under the headline Obama seeks to dispel notion he's 'presumptuous'.

I have no comment on whether Senator Obama is or is not presumptuous. Nor do I have any comment on whether he comes across that way or whether he needs to dispel the notion that he is.

What struck me about The Reuters item is how it begins, with a quote from Senator Obama referring to himself as an "imperfect vessel" in the movement for change. I read the story about this morning and have been busy at work ever since but that phrase "imperfect vessel" kept nagging at me. Then, just a couple of hours ago, the lightbulb went off.

There is a literary reference involving vessels that Senator Obama's reference to himself made me think of one from Shakespeare's play, Henry V, which, according to a well-done summary by The Hudson Theater Company, addresses themes related to the virtues and vices associated with warriors and the ethical complexities of war:
Can sensitivity and warmth—the spiritual values that elevate human life—coexist with the ruthless strength and shrewdness that a ruler needs to govern? In Henry V this question can be plausibly answered in two ways that seem to be mutually exclusive. Some readers find the play a patriotic tribute to Henry, who is seen as an ideally heroic leader who takes England to new heights of power and defeats a traditional enemy; he is an hero suited to the threatening times England endured in the late 16th century, when the play was written, and the play has been popular in times of national crisis ever since. Alternatively, though, the play is a mordant commentary on politics and war, in which Henry is a Machiavellian militarist, a cold-blooded, power-hungry hypocrite who uses religion to justify the horrors of an unnecessary war. This anti-heroic view has found its audience primarily in recent decades, but the observations that war is hellish and that it is often conducted for selfish ends are not new, and Shakespeare could easily have found them suitable material for a play.

Both readings are equally valid, and they may reflect Shakespeare's own ambivalence towards the subject of power. (source)

Although Henry V contains more famous lines, and as with most of Shakespeare's lines, these are often quoted out of context, sometimes when the speaker is not even aware she or he is alluding to Shakespeare, the line with which I began this post...

“I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound’”

...fits well with the context of Senator Obama's remark about himself being an imperfect vessel.

Note first that the Shakespearian line actual references another canonical writer, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato who uses the phrase "empty vessel" in a Socratic dialogue about qualities necessary for a good governor in The Republic, Book VI.

Plato writes:
There is another point which should be remarked.

What point?

Whether he has or has not a pleasure in learning; for no one will love that which gives him pain, and in which after much toil he makes little progress.

Certainly not.

And again, if he is forgetful and retains nothing of what he learns, will he not be an empty vessel?

That is certain.

Labouring in vain, he must end in hating himself and his fruitless occupation? Yes.

Then a soul which forgets cannot be ranked among genuine philosophic natures; we must insist that the philosopher should have a good memory?

Certainly. (emphasis mine) (source)
Plato's reference to an empty vessel is part of a larger argument he is advancing regarding the the fundamental role knowledge plays in being a good leader. When Shakespeare picks up on the phrase "empty vessel", and includes it in the line I am discussing, the line is spoken by an boy on a battlefield who has just had to play translator for a blowhard officer who pretends to show great mercy by sparing the life of a French soldier. The officer parades away, leaving the boy in mortal danger, and the boy says:
I did never know so full a voice issue from so
empty a heart: but the saying is true 'The empty
makes the greatest sound.' (emphasis mine) (source)


Anonymous The Bird said...

Great post... outstanding. Saw your link on RCP.

August 5, 2008 at 10:17 PM  
Anonymous Mirlo said...

What puzzles me is that Senator Obama would choose the metapher "imperfect vessel" for himself. It doesn't sound coherent with other things he sais and does. In my perception, it comes across phony.

I like your train of thought and combination, it reliefs my confusion somewhat. Thank you.

August 6, 2008 at 9:28 AM  
Blogger CognitiveDissonance said...

Heidi, his use of the term "imperfect vessel" struck me as a religious allusion. I grew up in a fundamentalist church and can remember many sermons about God using "imperfect vessels" to do his great works. I can't seem to find the Biblical reference. At any rate, this still strikes me as presumptuous.

August 6, 2008 at 3:35 PM  

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