Father Knows Worst: The Fallacies of Polonius

In Act 1, Scene 3 of the play, Polonius speaks to his son Laertes, telling him to commit a “few precepts to memory” including the dictum: “This above all: to thine own self be true, /And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou cans’t not be false to any man” (1.3.78-80).

This is a very well-known saying and is often thought of as great advice, but it’s really not. Polonius spouts nonsense masquerading as wisdom—in the process committing not one, not two, but three logical fallacies all together.

For one thing, he commits the post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) fallacy. His argument is that if you are true to yourself, it will follow that you will be true to others. However, he compares this to the night following the day—which is ridiculous, because the night only follows chronologically, not causally. [The idea behind the fallacy is that because some event A preceded event B, then event A caused event B.]

On a related note, he is committing the fallacy of false analogy. When this happens, two objects or events A and B are said to be similar. But in truth they are shown to only appear to be similar (or are only superficially so). Polonius compares a chronological sequence (“Day follows night”) to another statement (“If you are true to yourself, so will you be to others”), which is a causality of the “if…then” variety. Comparing chronological events to causally related ones is comparing apples and oranges, so his analogy is false.

Of course, who can deny that the entire statement qualifies for the circular-logic fallacy. Circular logic assumes the very thing it tries to prove. Not only is his entire argument founded on a false analogy but it hardly makes sense anyway. For one thing, he terribly misjudges human nature—of at least some people—on the idea that being true to yourself means you’ll act the same way to everyone else. It sounds like a noble statement, but it’s not very persuasive!

Actually, we could also accuse Polonius of the non sequitur fallacy, which literally means “It does not follow.” This gets into a gray area and is a bit subjective—especially depending on what your view of human nature is—but the inference Polonius gives does not necessarily follow from the premises. Are there even more problems with this than what we’re talking about? Possibly…