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What Does "Eristic" Mean?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2016
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“Eristic” refers to the process of creating strife, discord, or confusion. The term is named after the Greek goddess of disorder, Eris, also known as Discordia. In debate and argument, eristic principles are employed for the sake of prolonging rather than resolving the conflict in question. These principles are often employed in modern political discussions and debate. During the 1960s, the joke religion Discordianism was founded on the belief that eristic principles dictate most human behavior, especially the behavior of people in groups.

According to ancient Greek theology, every Earthly realm or concept was watched over and maintained by a corresponding god. Eris was the daughter of the goddess of night; her siblings included the gods of death, vengeance, and fate. Her jurisdiction involved any state of conflict, disorganization, or chaos. Such situations were therefore said to be eristic. The most famous Greek myth regarding Eris is the tale of the golden apple, also known as the Judgment of Paris.

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According to this legend, Zeus invited the gods to the wedding of a sea nymph, but left out Eris, fearing she would cause trouble. Feeling spited, Eris delivered a golden apple to the wedding; written on the apple was the word “kallisti,” meaning “for the fairest one.” The other goddesses argued over which one of them was the fairest; Zeus, wisely declining to get involved, commanded a human being named Paris to decide. Aphrodite bribed Paris with the hand of the most beautiful woman on Earth, Helen of Troy. According to tradition, this led directly to the Trojan War, a seminal event in Greek history and the inspiration for the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey.

In modern times, anything that causes conflict or discord is said to be eristic. In speech and debate, for example, there are certain tactics that are not meant to fairly win a debate, but merely to prolong the conflict or confuse and anger an opponent. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer identified these “38 Stratagems” in his book Eristic Dialectic. These tactics are not considered fair by the rules of debate etiquette. Nevertheless, they are often used in modern political debate and in open discussion of controversial topics.

In the 1960s, the American writers Kerry Thornley and Gregory Hill decided that eristic principles clearly dictated much of human behavior and history. Accordingly, they invented Discordianism, a religion celebrating Eris and her work in the modern world. While some considered Discordianism a joke or an art prank, it attracted many adherents who saw the sense of its nonsensical concepts. The symbol of Discordianism is the golden apple of Eris, known as the Apple of Discord. The author Robert Anton Wilson, who often wrote about Discordianism, described the eristic principles governing human activity as “chaos, discord, confusion, bureaucracy and international relations.”

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