On Speed

Okay, it’s been a while since I last posted something for your infotaining pleasure.  While I do have few little things cooking up (a small piece on Pascal’s Wager, some notes on the American conservative movement, and a treatise on Lo-Fi Music), I thought I’d take this hiatus as a chance to post a “Bickerstaff Classic”.

The following piece is an example of progymnasmata:  exercises undertaken by ancient students to practice the arts of rhetoric.  This particular one — done for a class on classical pedagogy — takes the form of an encomium: a tribute to or praise of a person or thing (as in, for example, the title of the Led Zeppelin tribute album from whence the term originates).  Enjoy.

The Velocicomium: In Praise of Speed

Many are the honours heaped upon wisdom by those who see it as a faculty derived by man from The Gods above.  Yet it is not the only faculty by which men attempt to emulate the abilities of the divine.  Though unjustly discouraged by the tyrants who regulate the highways, speed is also a virtue which, owing to its divine nature, deserves much honour and praise.  It is with such a task I charge myself with today.

The origins of speed lie in mankind’s observation and admiration of the gods.  As they saw Apollo’s chariot in its daily swift flight across the heavens, the ancients could not help but desire such ease of movement.  Yet our frail bodies – for, as a wise counsel has stated, “the earth rears nothing frailer than man” – are unable to imitate the rapidity of divine motion across the face of the earth.  As such, human beings have had to employ their reason, that most divine of all gifts, in order to contrive mechanical devices by which they may emulate the gods.

Surely no-one will argue that the gods are anything less than the full embodiment of virtue, strength, and wisdom and that it is most laudable for mortal men to look up to the gods as a model for the good life.  To the extent that we wish to be wise, we must emulate Athena; to the extent that we wish to be just, we must emulate Themis; to the extent that we wish to, umm, throw thunderbolts from the sky, we must emulate Zeus.  No man who seeks such ends would be worthy of blame (though hurling thunderbolts at people is just not cool, man), and, similarly, the man who seeks to imitate the rapid motion of Mercury or the power of Apollo, would certainly be worthy of our admiration and not censure in the form of onerous and unjust fines.

It has been said that “Speed means freedom of the soul” in that it liberates our divine spirit from the lethargic limitations of the body by means of the application of reason.  Our physical forms are gifted with a mobility hitherto available only to the mind in its mental flight through imaginary space.  In this sense, speed represents a triumph of the divine soul over our mortal bodies since it enables the wise and ingenious man to outrun even the most physically gifted athlete.  It is in this way that, according to Zeno’s celebrated paradox, the Tortoise is able to constantly stay ahead of the mighty and swift Achilles.  While Achilles was exhausting himself, the Tortoise, reasonable creature that he is, stopped by the local car dealer.  This triumph most certainly pleases The Gods since it is well known that they favour reason over strength.  Why else would the ancients have personified human strength in Hercules, a mortal, whereas wisdom and reason are personified in a divine form, that of Athena and Zeus?

In the works of the noble tragedians, the god emerges on the stage by way of an ingeniously contrived machine.  Likewise, it is through the ingeniously contrived machinery of the motor car that the divine abilities of human reason are allowed to emerge upon the stage of the highway.  What else is speed but, quite literally, “the god from the machine”?  And, so being, it imbues the user with the godlike power of rapid motion.

Speed also gives mankind dominion over nature, further accentuating the power of reason over physicality.  Like Demeter’s gift of agriculture, godly speed has enabled man to transform nature as he sees fit, making nature subservient to human needs.  Before the invention of the motor car, cities were separated by vast stretches of wilderness that prevented easy travel and communication.  Now these formally vast distances can be traversed with ease and comfort as nature’s expanse is tamed and shrunk.

This also has the beneficial effect of inculcating respect for our ancestors.  As we enjoy the ease with which we are able to travel between cities, we are reminded, by contrast, of the immense difficulties endured by our forefathers as they slowly crawled across the countryside.  As such, we are filled with admiration for the sluggish toil of those who came before us without having to actually partake in their hardships.  Furthermore, the ever increasing abilities of our machines is testament to the steady progress of the abilities of our engineers to devise faster and better (the two qualities being obviously synonymous) machines.  As we accelerate, we are filled with respect and admiration for the immense labour and inspired craft of the generations of engineers whose collective work finds its apotheosis in that fleeting moment of haste.

The habit of fast driving is also itself a praise of the human ingenuity that creates these machines.  The man who loves speed loves his vehicle since he wants to see it used to its fullest possibility.  The car that never reaches its maximum revolutions per minute is like a flower that has been plucked before it can offer its full fragrant bloom to the world.  We honour the craftsmen and engineers, and by extension the gods who inspired them, by pushing their creations to their operational limits.

There are those who say that speed is to be avoided by virtue of its recklessness and that slow travel is to be preferred by virtue of its prudence.  They argue that minimal velocity results in minimal danger.  This viewpoint constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of speed for, as the wise philosopher Jerome of Clarkson has stated in a most edifying declarative maxim: “Speed has never killed anyone; suddenly becoming stationary, that’s what gets you.”  Therefore, the man most committed to driving fast is safe since he applies his will most strongly against the abrupt cessation of motion which, as opposed to velocity itself, is the direct cause of automobile related injuries.

Moreover, it is clear that the highways are dangerous places indeed, rife as they are with thieves, madmen, and minivans.  It is clear that the longer one spends in a dangerous location, the more one becomes susceptible to the capricious vagaries of fortune.  Therefore by minimizing the time spent on the road, the speed-enamoured individual minimizes the chance of some malfeasance occurring in his journey.  When a man finds himself in a dangerous location, he would surely be advised to remove himself from that location with proper haste.  It is in this way that the speeder, unlike the laggard, exercises due prudence: the man that hurries to his destination, hurries away from danger.

Now, there are also those who would say that airplane travel is a greater emulation of the gods than high-speed road travel.  This is simply incorrect.  Airplane travel is a perversion and a Promethean blasphemy since it removes man from his proper place: on the ground.  If man was meant to fly, The Gods would have given him wings.  To this, it could be argued that The Gods likewise did not equip man with turbo-chargers and fuel-injectors and that these devices are also a perversion of the divinely instituted natural order.  However, it is obvious that horizontal, land-based travel is undoubtedly the natural form of motion for a man and, indeed, any terrestrial creature. The motor car is a mere refinement of that natural motion: the four wheels standing in for our four limbs.  It does not offer any new form of motion (to do so would be an offense to The Gods), but instead merely improves our existing abilities to progress across the face of the earth.  To suggest that, like the airplane, the car too is unnatural and an offense to the will of the gods is to suggest that, since man was not given shoes by nature, the marathon runner should run his race unshod.

While there is much else that could be said about speed, I will follow my own advice and arrive swiftly, and thereby safely, at my destination so that the form of my encomium will reflect its content in praising the divine gift of speed.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on June 13, 2009.

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