Ass and Name
Zola and Zoilus
A few Neos
What's in a Nem?
Pleo III-Two More Pleons
Achron.. and Acroam..
Per IV--Perpotation et al.
Per and Pre--Prevenient
Perpense and Perpend
Epi I--Epiplexis, et al.
The Doric Column
Epi III--Episemon et al.
Playing with Pleo III
Pleonasm and Pleonexia
We will conclude our foray into the rich world of "pleo" and "pleon" with these two terms, derived from rhetoric and moral philosophy, respectively. Rarely is either used today , but there really is no good reason to neglect them. I will argue here that the first, which often is held to be a stylistic vice, actually is not so unambiguouly vicious, while the latter, meaning "greed," may too have some "play" in its joints.
The OED gives the standard definition: in grammar and rhetoric, "the use of more words in a sentance than are necessary to express the meaning." One could simply have defined it as "superfluity of expression." Maybe the first definition was intended as an example of the phenomenon! In any case, the word goes back to the ancient rhetoricans, and Aelius Donatus in the 4th century A.D. lists it as one of the 12 stylistic voices. But already in the 16th century, English rhetorician George Putteham, in his Art of English Poesie, muses on the ambiguity of the term. He gives as an example of pleonasmus, "I heard it with mine eares," and then goes on to say, "as if a man could heare with his heeles, or see with his nose." But though it is a vice, it is "not much to be misliked, for even a vice sometime being seasonably used, hath a pretie grace." Reflecting this ambiguity also is the 18th century theologian Warburton, who says, "the genius of the Hebrew tongue, which so delights in pleonasms."
The word can be used to form other terms, too, such as pleonast, the person who uses pleonasm, pleonastic, which would be characterized by pleonasm, and pleonasmic, a rare term meaning "redundant" or "superfluous," and attested in the 17th century in the example of a "pleonasmic fool." I actually like the sound of this last phrase--it suggests something excessive, superfluous or unnecessarily repetitive about a person. I think it has real possiblities.
Thus, I am not willing simply to adopt the traditional rhetorical usage without a quibble. Though the dictionaries may term it a vice, I generally am more positive toward it, except with the example given of a "pleonasmic fool."
Pleonexia is a word transliterated directly from the Greek. and means greed or avarice. The adjectival form, pleonectic, is even more attractive to pronounce, perhaps because we have other words in English ending in "ectic" or "etic" that are very visual in their connotations or useful to employ (e.g., splenetic or anticlimatic). Thus, saying that a person has a pleonectic disposition or manner means that s/he is greedy or avaricious.
Plato uses pleonexia in the Republic as a word to characterize Thrasymachus' attitude toward justice. Thrasymachus says, in Book I of the Grube/Reeve translation, "A person of great power outdoes everyone else." The Greek word rendered as outdoes is pleonektein. Reeve comments that for Plato "pleonexia is, or is the cause of, injustice (359c), since always wanting to outdo others leads one to try to get what belongs to them, which isn't one's own." Thus it is no surprise that when Plato gives his (admittedly anticlimatic) definition of justice in Book IV it is something where each person does his own (unique) work or keeps his own things. Pleonexia, greed, is at the heart of injustice.
And, this is fine, as far as it goes. It is so fine that perhaps I should just stop here after repeating the definition and giving an illustration. But, I don't think I will. Plato assumed that happiness and justice were to be found in a city where each person knows the task to which he is uniquely qualified and spends time doing it. One then becomes satisfied with one's own things and lives a life of harmony and virtue.
Yet Plato's naivete in the Republic with respect to other things (such as law--see my essay criticizing Plato's method in Books I-IV of the Republic), makes me wonder if we there might also be some oversimplification here. I disagree with Plato that the striving, greedy person is the opposite of the person who is satisfied with his or her own goods and station in life. I would argue, in contrast, that the nature of the soul, if there is such an entity, is always to be striving for something. Some long to outdo others in wealth, to be sure. Others may want to attain victory on the field or play or a number one ranking in the classroom. It is human nature to want to outdo and to win, and not simply to be content with one's own situation and possessions. Thus, maybe it is too simple to define pleonectic and pleonexia solely in terms of greed; why not see it as a desire, to be sure, a desire for more of many kinds, and a desire that has a great danger of disappointing the self and hurting others, but one which is not in its essence bad? Thus, we might say that pleonexia is a longing for more which never is completely satiated.
It is fun, at times, to "massage" the dictionary, even if it results in sacrificing clarity for a potentially more refined and complex understanding of human motivation.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long