Ancient and modern

Greta and the gap between words and actions

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

Greta Thunberg and her supporters were loud in protest at COP26, but one wonders to what end. They demanded deeds, not words, but words were all they had to offer, except when they were so devoutly letting down the tyres of SUVs.

Ancient Greeks were extremely interested in the distinction between word (logos, cf. our ‘-logy’) and deed (ergon, cf. our ‘energy’). In one branch of usage, logos was seen in opposition to ergon. The distinction was that logos was merely verbal and therefore a potentially deceptive representation of reality, while ergon was the real thing, reality itself, a fact. One Greek myth suggested that the goddess ‘Conflict’ was responsible for such misuse of logos, because she was the source of ‘quarrels, lies and words with double meanings’.

Another usage of logos was emphasised by the philosopher Gorgias. He argued that logos had a positive power of its own: it could actively affect the emotions, being able to ‘remove fear, relieve one of grief, produce delight and increase pity’ i.e. not so far from ergon after all because it could make people change their minds and so feel and therefore act (cf. ergon) differently. In this sense, then, logos wielded a power to persuade — a mighty power indeed.

A third usage was the philosophical one: logos as ‘reckoning, account’, especially a rational verbal account, whence ‘reason’, ‘theory’ (hence our ‘logic’). Enter Plato. For him logos used merely in the Gorgianic sense of a means of persuasion was a dangerous force because it had no moral basis: it could persuade you to do anything, right or wrong. When used properly, however, logos was the key to answering the most important problem that humanity faced and the most crucial to our happiness — knowing what right and wrong were.

To turn all this back to Ms Thunberg: where exactly does ‘protest’ feature on the spectrum of ‘words’ and ‘action’? Does it alter what is actually done? Does it persuade? Does it raise the moral level of the debate? Or is it just ‘Blah blah blah’?

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