compelling

by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©1996 Resource Books All rights reserved.
 
compelling, gerund (14th century): 
    1. Forcing, driving, or constraining.
    2. Obtaining or bringing about by force: exacting.
    3. Forcing to yield or submit; subduing.
    4. Gathering or uniting by force; herding.
    compelling, adjective (17th century):
    1. Forceful.
    2. Demanding attention.
    3. Convincing.
    4. Persuasive.
Nam et ipsa, scienta potestas est.
In and of itself, knowledge is power. 
-- Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Of Heresies
Most people leave off the nam at ipsa part. Especially political figures. "Knowledge is power," they like to say -- and, apparently, we like to hear.  Education holds primacy as an instrument of national strength, ranking alongside weapons, only cheaper.  "Knowledge is power" fits on a bumper-sticker, works as a sound-bite, and makes a compelling argument, some will say.
  • Compelling what, though?  Much like impressive, this word doesn't really say anything. As support for education, one might reasonably be compelled to infer that knowledge -- whether information-in-the-brain or data-in-the-base -- assures power over people and policies, enterprises and institutions.
  • If, as expressed throughout this memoir, 'volition' is the most beautiful word in any language, then it will come as no surprise to the reader that the inflected verb-form 'compelling' would be unwelcome in my vocabulary. Forcing and driving, constraining and exacting, subduing and herding -- give me a break.  However,...
  • ...it is the adjectival application of 'compelling' that really bums me out.  Here's why.  In one year during the '80s, I received 73 rejection letters.  My first literary agent explained that publishers "do not find [such-and-such] to be compelling."  Ouch.  Same for my second literary agent ("[such-and-such] lacks a compelling motif").  Commercial success in literature, I am compelled to concede, requires compelling content -- a weapon for convincing and persuading, thus overpowering the reader's volition.
As for knowledge, education does give the student power over something -- um, knowledge.  That ought to be enough.  Learned principles are essential to analysis and to critical thinking, studying the experiences of others will provide insights and foster understanding.  Marshalling and organizing concepts and ideas -- plenty of power, there.  That may be a compelling argument, but I don't have the power to say so.

 
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