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Does the First Oath consider context?


Charlz Fel
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In Knife of Dreams, chapter 24 "Honey in the Tea," we have the following passage, in which Egwene encounters Beonin in the Tower:

"So you're the one who betrayed me!" Egwene said angrily.  A thought occurred to her.  How could Beonin have betrayed her after swearing fealty. "You must be Black Ajah!"

 

[three paragraphs here with no dialogue between Egwene and Beonin]

 

"Me, I betrayed nothing," she said quietly. "I would not have sworn to you except that the Hall, it would have had me birched if it learned the secrets you knew. Perhaps more than once, even.  Reason enough to swear, no? I never pretended to love you, yet I maintained that oath until you were captured.  But you are no longer Amyrlin, yes?  Not as a captive, not when there was no hope of rescuing you, when you refused rescue.  And you are a novice once more, so that oath, it has two reasons to hold no longer.  The talk of rebellion, it was wild talk.  The rebellion is finished.  The White Tower, it will soon be whole again, and I will not be sorry to see it so."

 

[...] "You explain yourself at great length," [Egwene] said dryly.  "Are you trying to convince yourself?  It won't do, Beonin.  It won't do.  If the rebellion is finished, where is the flood of sisters coming to kneel before Elaida and accept her penance?  Light, what else have you betrayed? Everything?"  It seemed likely.  She had visited Elaida's study a number of times in Tel'aran'rhoid, but the woman's correspondence box had always been empty.  Now she knew why.

 

Sharp spots of red appeared in Beonin's cheeks.  "I tell you, I have betrayed n--!"  She finished with a strangled grunt and put a hand to her throat as if it refused to let the lie leave her tongue.  That proved she was not Black Ajah; but it proved something else.

 

I have bolded two places.  In the first, Beonin responds to Egwene's accusation, "You're the one who betrayed me," by saying "I betrayed nothing."  In the second, Beonin attempts to respond to Egwene's question, "What else have you betrayed," using the same words, "I betrayed nothing," only this time she is unable to, because those words would be a lie.

 

In the most simplistic interpretation, this is a contradiction.  Either Beonin never betrayed anything in her life, or she did.  In the first case, "I betrayed nothing" is the truth.  In the second case, "I betrayed nothing" is a lie, and she should never be able to articulate it.  In either case, the described scenario is impossible.

 

I see two plausible explanations.  The less plausible of the two is this: In the intervening paragraph, Egwene succeeded in changing the facts in Beonin's mind.  If the rebellion was, in fact, finished, then Beonin had never actually betrayed anyone.  But since Egwene managed to convince Beonin, against her will, that the rebellion was still viable, Beonin's previous actions, in the light of this new belief, now constitute betrayal.

 

No doubt, there will be some who seize on this as the explanation; but I don't buy it.  Beonin (reluctantly) helped to choose the ten "ferrets," presumably helped to give them their commission to bring down Elaida, and then handed their names to Elaida.  Regardless of whether Egwene was still Amyrlin, regardless of whether the rebellion was still viable, I don't think this constitutes anything other than a betrayal.

 

The explanation I favor requires a premise that I think is likely, but that many people on this discussion board seem to reject out of hand: that whether or not something is a lie under the First Oath, depends on the context in which it is said.  When Beonin said, "I betrayed nothing," she did not mean, literally, that she had never betrayed anything in her life.  Rather, she was responding to the specific--untrue--accusation that she was the one who had betrayed Egwene, leading to Egwene's capture.  When she later tried, and failed, to say the same words, she was responding to the question, "What else have you betrayed?"  In this context, Beonin could not truthfully claim to have committed no betrayal.

 

 

 

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Context does play a role, but not in the way you put it here.

 

Beonin can say that she did not betray Egwene, because in her mind, she did not. She swore to obey Egwene as Amyrlin, the moment Egwene was captured that went out the door, since in Beonins mind Egwene was no longer Amyrlin.

 

When ot comes to the ferrets, whatever Beonin is able to tell herself does not change the fact that she did betray them. There is no way for her to deny this without lying.

 

The key here is what Beonins intentions are. In the case of the ferrets, Beonin deliberatly tries to mislead Egwene through a lie. But the part about obedience, there Beonin is not trying to do that, because she believes that her oath seized to hold her the moment Egwene was captured.

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Context does play a role, but not in the way you put it here.

 

Beonin can say that she did not betray Egwene, because in her mind, she did not. She swore to obey Egwene as Amyrlin, the moment Egwene was captured that went out the door, since in Beonins mind Egwene was no longer Amyrlin.

 

When ot comes to the ferrets, whatever Beonin is able to tell herself does not change the fact that she did betray them. There is no way for her to deny this without lying.

 

The key here is what Beonins intentions are. In the case of the ferrets, Beonin deliberatly tries to mislead Egwene through a lie. But the part about obedience, there Beonin is not trying to do that, because she believes that her oath seized to hold her the moment Egwene was captured.

 

In responding to Egwene's accusation, "It was you who betrayed me," Beonin would legitimately be able to deny this as long as she was not the one who committed the specific betrayal Egwene meant--the betrayal that resulted in Egwene's capture.  Judging by the rest of her response, Beonin instead seems to have attached the broader meaning you describe.  However, this question is tangential.  The main point, which I think we agree on, is that the first time Beonin attempts to say "I betrayed nothing," she is successful because, in her mind (and Egwene's), what she actually means by this is that she did not betray Egwene; not the she has never betrayed anything.

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In responding to Egwene's accusation, "It was you who betrayed me," Beonin would legitimately be able to deny this as long as she was not the one who committed the specific betrayal Egwene meant--the betrayal that resulted in Egwene's capture.  Judging by the rest of her response, Beonin instead seems to have attached the broader meaning you describe.  However, this question is tangential.  The main point, which I think we agree on, is that the first time Beonin attempts to say "I betrayed nothing," she is successful because, in her mind (and Egwene's), what she actually means by this is that she did not betray Egwene; not the she has never betrayed anything.

 

Eh, you are the one talking about a broader meaning, not me.

 

Of course Beonins first comment means that she did not betray Egwene, that is what her response is aimed at.

 

Beonins second response is an attempt to deny a specific act, her betrayal of the ferrets. She is again giving a response to what Egwene is saying, and Egwene is asking about betrayals linked to the rebellion.

 

In that sense, you can say that the Oath depends on context.

Compare this to a teenager who comes home late, a bit unsteady on his feet. The parents asks if he has been drinking, which he of course denies. What the parents are actually asking is if the teenager has been drinking that night, not if he has ever had a drink in his entire life. And the teenager in turn is actually claiming to not have been drinking that night, not that he has never had a drink in his entire life. But there is no need to bring up those specific details, because they are obvious without having been actually spoken.

Same thing with Beonin.

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Its actually pretty simple. She betrayed people. So she could say "I betrayed nothing." But when she tried to say, "I tell you, I have betrayed n-(oone)!", she failed.

 

See?  :P

 

I said that I could only think of two plausible explanations.  This is one of the implausible ones I thought of.

 

Incidentally, I am unfamiliar with the meaning of the emoticon you use.  Could you clarify?

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In responding to Egwene's accusation, "It was you who betrayed me," Beonin would legitimately be able to deny this as long as she was not the one who committed the specific betrayal Egwene meant--the betrayal that resulted in Egwene's capture.  Judging by the rest of her response, Beonin instead seems to have attached the broader meaning you describe.  However, this question is tangential.  The main point, which I think we agree on, is that the first time Beonin attempts to say "I betrayed nothing," she is successful because, in her mind (and Egwene's), what she actually means by this is that she did not betray Egwene; not the she has never betrayed anything.

 

Eh, you are the one talking about a broader meaning, not me.

 

Of course Beonins first comment means that she did not betray Egwene, that is what her response is aimed at.

 

Let me clarify:

 

Statement: I betrayed nothing.

 

Narrow meaning: I did not commit the specific act of betrayal that led to your capture.

 

Broader meaning: I did not betray you.

 

Literal (absurdly broad) meaning: I have never betrayed anything.

 

My main point (which I think we agree on) is that although Beonin's statement is false if one takes the literal meaning, the First Oath allows it because, in context, the statement has either the narrow meaning or the broader meaning.  The narrow meaning is clearly true; the broader meaning could be seen as true by someone sufficiently determined to see it as true.

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The First Oath does not take context into account in and of itself... but Beonin does. It is her interpretation of events that matter--her intent.

 

Asmodean comments on it. He says that Moiraine can say anything that she believes is true, even if it is not. This also happens later: Talene, after having resworn the Oaths, claims Elaida is Black Ajah. We know this is not true because we have been in Elaida's mind, but Talene believes it, and so can say it true.

 

As I mentioned earlier, the First Oath allows for hyperbole -- even though this is a direct contradiction of the First Oath. "I will skin her alive," an Aes Sedai might say -- but she has no intention of ever doing so.

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Perhaps it will help if I provide some additional motivation for the question.

 

Elayne told the Borderland rulers, "A search of Murandy will be profitable."  Literally, this statement was true, since the search of Murandy would be profitable to Elayne.  But in context, it was obvious that she meant, "A search of Murandy will help you find Rand."  Would she have been able to say this if she had actually sworn the First Oath on the oath rod?  My vote is no.  If she could have, then Beonin would have been able to tell herself, "When I say "I have betrayed nothing," all I really mean is the same thing I meant the last time I said it."

 

To put it bluntly, the First Oath is not useless.  If an Aes Sedai who had sworn the First Oath had told the Borderlanders, "A search of Murandy will be profitable" in that context, they would have known that the speaker believed that a search of Murandy would help them find Rand.  Not that Rand was necessarily anywhere near Murandy, but that a search of Murandy would help them find him.

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We don't know. Beonin might have been able to wriggle about it like that -- if she had thought about it. She didn't; she was simply answering, and as her intent was to answer the question in the spirit it was given, the First Oath clamped down.

 

Yes, the First Oath is useless. More or less, anyway; unless you are in a position where the other person cannot come up with a justification for the words they let off their tongue.

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She (Elayne) doesn't say that "A search in Murandy will help you find Rand". The way she says it, it is completely true - SHE thinks/knows it will be profitable for HER, so she can say it - but the Borderlanders interpret it so that they think she said Rand is in Murandy.

 

It doesn't absolutely have to do with context whether you're lying or not, context can help you let the other person thinks something you never said; something the Aes Sedai all practice a lot

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She (Elayne) doesn't say that "A search in Murandy will help you find Rand". The way she says it, it is completely true - SHE thinks/knows it will be profitable for HER, so she can say it - but the Borderlanders interpret it so that they think she said Rand is in Murandy.

 

It doesn't absolutely have to do with context whether you're lying or not, context can help you let the other person thinks something you never said; something the Aes Sedai all practice a lot

 

The Aes Sedai practice misleading implications.  They juxtapose rhetorical questions with facts that are less relevant than they seem.  However, the facts they give are always meaningful truths.  Sometimes they instruct their listeners to make connections, which the Aes Sedai are themselves unable to make because they know the connections are false.  However, I have never seen one of them get away with a statement as meaningless as Elayne's, if interpreted the way she wants.  When we say something is profitable, we do not mean simply that it will profit someone; almost anything profits someone, so the statement would be practically meaningless.  Instead, who receives the profit is a part of the statement that is supplied by the context.  Elayne was not simply making a true statement and letting her listeners draw a false connection to other statements she has made; she was making one statement, and trying to convince herself that she had actually made a much broader--in fact, meaningless--statement, because part of her statement was supplied by the context.  Beonin's example shows that it is possible to make a statement that is literally false, if the context transmutes it into a statement that is true.  By the same token, it is impossible to make a statement that is literally true, if the context transmutes it into a statement that is false.

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The First Oath does not mention context. Context MUST be supplied by the person speaking; the Oaths cannot act beyond their wording. How would they?

It's impossible to speak without supplying context of some kind, of course -- but that context does not have to be what the listener believes.

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I took it like this.

 

The first "I betrayed nothing" had to do with Egwene's capture and the fact that Beonin believes she is no longer Amyrlin and there is no longer a rebellion.  It is a truth to Beonin that she did not betray anything, in fact she says "soon the White Tower will be whole again" so it is set in her mind that she did the right thing.

 

The second "I betrayed n---" was more directed at the Lost Talents that Beonin shared with Elaida.  Egwene wonders what else Beonin betrayed, and she is unable to hide the fact that she shared Traveling and inversion and whatever else they learned with the White Tower's Amyrlin.  So rightfully, the First Oath stops her from that lie.

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Interesting post. I take it your conclusion Charlz is that context CAN be considered by the First Oath, because the intention of the oath bound is considered? i.e. if the oath bound intends to express something that is understood (only) in a context, the oath restrictions will follow that intention. Simple put: the oath is in the head of the oath bound. This is what I imagine the main trick bending the oath is; to use or not use context when wording a statement.

 

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