When you read ancient history, you encounter an unbroken record of conflict. What is remarkable is that the writers do not seem to believe there is an alternative to deadly struggle. Life becomes cheap. Ethics is based on honor. The interpretation of this Aristotelian value is that one must fight to the death when honor is threatened.

Shakespeare, the wonderful subversive, questioned what exactly honor is. Can it heal a wound? Honor is, he concluded, a scutcheon. A scutcheon is a protective covering, a shell. Shakespeare's Falstaff provides the classic speech on honor.

He is the herald, in his way, of the future. Strength lies more in avoiding death than running into it mindlessly.

Mathematics and the number two

I flunked math consistently while earning Phi Beta Kappa at the end of my junior year in college. I thought math was dumb and I was right in one sense. It is just a system, a means. It has no truth beyond its uses as a way to figure things out. Poets have always managed to perceive the limitations of math.

The greatest limitation of math is the number two when it is applied to human thought. Binary Thinking is the engine which makes a world based on the knee-jerk notion that honor is the height of ethics possible.

What is binary thinking?

Binary thinking is my way or the highway.

It limits choices to one, to an either or. Liberty or death, yes or no, this or that. The only situation in which any of these binary oppositions might work is if no harm would result from either choice. Oh, and if the choice was actually free.

What is always missing in binary thought is an ethical element. Ethics evaluates consequences and assesses levels of harm.

Triadic thinking is ethical thinking and should be the wave of our common future.


The reality of violence is the dominant reality of our history to date. It must end. The only way it will end is if we allow ethics in and throw binary thinking out. The achievement of an ethical result is never perfect. Thus, it can never be final.

Yes or no has no place in ethical thought. Degrees of harm are all that matter.

This is a hard pill to swallow. It is relativistic, fallible, imperfect, and even messy. But it beats decisions based on the imposition of power to achieve its ends. "My way" minus ethics and aesthetics leads to disaster. The ultimate binary was the Holocaust. We say it must never happen again — but we are not yet to the point of knowing it is impossible.

To get there, we need to make ethics central to thought and aesthetics central to expression and action. We must build upon the values of tolerance, helpfulness, and democracy.