on the horns of a dilemma


St Jerome in His Study (1480), by Domenico Ghirlandaio

St Jerome in his study (1480), by Domenico Ghirlandaio







faced with a decision involving equally unfavourable alternatives

(also read Morton’s fork)





In logic, the term dilemma denotes a form of argument forcing an opponent to choose either of two equally unfavourable alternatives.

The Latin noun dilemma is from Greek δίλημμα (= dilemma), double proposition, composed of δι- (= di-), twice, and λῆμμα (= lemma), assumption, premise (in English, lemma means a subsidiary or intermediate theorem in an argument or proof).


To denote a dilemma, the Doctor of the Church St Jerome (circa 342-420) used the expression cornuta interrogatio, a horned question, in Adversus Helvidium, De perpetua Virginitate Beatæ Mariæ (Against Helvidius, On the perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary). The notion is of a pair of horns representing the two parts of the dilemma: by avoiding one of the horns, one runs the risk of being caught on the other.

St Jerome also used cornuatus syllogismus, a horned syllogism, in one of his letters to Oceanus, a Roman nobleman zealous for the faith, and, adding “ut dicitur” (= “as the phrase goes”), implied that this use was a neologism or slang term in his day.

The Dutch humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus (circa 1469-1536) also used cornuta interrogatio in Paraphrasis in Lucam (Paraphrase on Luke – 1523) when writing about the gospel of Luke, 20:1-6. In the New International Version of the Bible, these verses are:

1 One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. 2 “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”
3 He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: 4 John’s baptism [= John’s authority for baptising]—was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
5 They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ 6 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”

These verses refer to John the Baptist, who baptised Jesus after saying to those who thought that he, John, was the Messiah (gospel of Luke, 3:16):

I baptise you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Erasmus wrote that, after Jesus had asked on whose authority John baptised:

Sensit ilico cornuta interrogatione impia Iudæoru conscientia.

The schoolmaster and playwright Nicholas Udall (1504-56) thus translated this sentence in The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus vpon the Newe Testamente (1548):

The peruerse conseyence of the Iewes had at once a smelle and felyng of thys forked questyon.
          literal translation:
The perverse conscience of the Jews had at once a smell and feeling of this forked question.

And, in a note on his translation forked question, Udall explained:

whiche the sophisters call an horned question, because that to whether of both partyes a bodye shall make a direct aunswere, he shall renne on the sharpe poyncte of the horne, that is to saye, shall incurre inconuenyence and bee taken in hys aunswere.
          literal translation:
which the sophists call a horned question, because that to whether of both parties a body shall make a direct answer, he shall run on the sharp point of the horn, that is to say, shall incur inconvenience and be taken in his answer.

In The rule of reason, conteinyng the arte of logique (1551), the humanist and administrator Thomas Wilson (circa 1525-1581) wrote the following (Latin complexio means dilemma, and vel means or):

A horned Argument, called Dilemma.
Dilemma, otherwise complexio, vel cornutus syllogismus, called a horned Argument, is when the reason cōsisteth of repugnaūt membres, so that what so euer you graunt, you fall into the snare, and take the foile.

The form horns of a dilemma seems to date back to the mid-17th century. The earliest instance that I could find is in Against Hope (1647), by the English poet Abraham Cowley (1618-67):

Hope, whose weake Being ruin’d is,
Alike if it succeed, and if it misse;
Whom Good or Ill does æqually confound,
And both the Horns of Fates [= fate’s] Dilemma wound!

And in Cor Humiliatum & Contritum (A broken and contrite Heart), a sermon preached at St Paul’s, London, on 29th November 1663, Richard Lee wrote:

One of the Horns of this dilemma will Gore.

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