For those of us who subscribe to the concept of free will or self-determinism we can spend a heck of a lot of time weighing up the pros and cons of the various courses of action. Sometimes we may conclude that we have been presented with a Hobson’s Choice – a phrase we looked at many moons ago – in which only one option is really available and we either have to take it or lump it.
On the other hand, we may conclude that there are two courses of action we could take but the anticipated outcome of either is just as unpleasant as the other. Such a prospect is known as Morton’s fork, named after John Morton (c 1420 – 1500), Archbishop of Canterbury, who had an ingenious line of thought to determine whether someone could afford to pay a forced loan, euphemistically called a benevolence, to his master, Henry VII.
Francis Bacon picks up the story in his The historie of the raigne of King Henry the seventh of 1622; “there is a Tradition of a Dilemma, that Bishop Morton the Chancellour vsed, to raise vp the Beneuolence to higher Rates; and some called it his Forke, and some his Crotch…That if they met with any that were sparing, they should tell them, That they must needs haue, because they laid vp; and if they were spenders, they must needs hauve, because it was seene in their Port, and manner of living. So neither kinde came amisse.”
In other words, the crafty Bishop thought that if you were living frugally, you must have amassed savings and if you were extravagant in your lifestyle, you could obviously afford to pay. It described a situation that was analogous to being between the devil and the deep blue sea or between a rock and a hard place.
Inevitably, the phrase was occasionally used in a figurative sense. An example of such is to be found in the Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette and Paisley Herald of 16th May 1885. With impeccable logic the columnist queried a recent budget which increased the tax on beers and spirits, commenting; “one prong of Morton’s fork certainly applies to the Teetotallers. If they do not spend money on liquor, they must be better able than others to contribute to the national necessities.” Quite.
There was a time when correspondents to newspapers used the letters’ page to showcase their erudition. One such was moved in September 1888 to pen a letter to the Thunderer aka the Times to comment upon the question of tithes in Wales. With impeccable logic he wrote; “either the tithe is the titheowner’s, in which case they should give it him, or it is public property, in which case they should not keep it in their own pockets. How will they escape? MORTON’S FORK.”
While we are on the subject, we may as well deal with Buridan’s Ass, the logician’s equivalent of a drinker of rosė wine and named after the 14th century philosopher, Jean Buridan. It is a reduction ad absurdum, illustrating the mental paralysis that can beset someone seeking to exercise free will. The conceit is that an ass will choose to go wherever is the nearer so if it stands equidistant from a pail of water and a stack of hay, it will die both of thirst and hunger because it can’t make a rational decision between the two courses of action.
Exercising my free will, I will quit while the going is good!