Half the wrong conclusions at which mankind arrive are reached by the abuse of metaphors, and by mistaking general resemblance or imaginary similarity for real identity. Thus people compare an ancient monarchy with an old building, an old tree, or an old man, and because the building, tree, or man must from the nature of things crumble, or decay, or die, they imagine that the same thing holds good with a community…All that we hear every day of the week about the decay of the Turkish Empire, and its being a dead body or a sapless trunk, and so forth, is pure and unadulterated nonsense.
—Lord Palmerston on Turkey, from his letters to Lord Granville and his brother.
Lord Palmerston recoils from the insistent caricature of the Turkish empire as in decay, a dead body or sapless trunk. Instead, he sees these for what they are, metaphor’s ability to mistake similarity or resemblance for identity.
Lord Palmerston’s letter continues with an overt shift in his language. He frames Turkey in terms of self-consciously technocratic considerations fitting a statesman. He continues: “if we can procure for it ten years of peace under the joint protection of the five Powers, and if those years are profitably employed in reorganizing the internal system of the empire, there is no reason whatever why it should not become again a respectable Power.” The problem of Turkey shifts from one of managing organic decay to a geo-political issue requiring the coordinated application of political resources.
Anthony Trollope would call these letters, in 1882, “sententious morsels of didactic wisdom, which would not have been put there in the hurry of private correspondence unless they had been intended for other eyes.” Nonetheless, the underlying wisdom around the nuance of metaphor persists. Metaphors are not merely rhetorical flourishes, but powerful tools that shape our understanding through the careful juggling of similarities. Benjamin Cardozo would later echo his caution in the context of the law. Cardozo warned in 1926, metaphors in law are “to be narrowly watched, for starting out as devices to liberate thought, they end often by enslaving it.“