Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Plato Vs Aristotle Revisited

I've been thinking about this post earlier in the month where I quoted Ayn Rand on how Aristotle 'paved the way' for the golden ages in Western civilization.  As I said then, I don't know enough of the philosophical history behind the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, etc., to really comment on how true that is.  (I still don't, but I'd find some really solid analysis on this to be fascinating.)  I did think quite a bit on the approach that each one encourages towards learning.
Plato is famous for presenting the Socratic method, in which a pupil is asked a series of questions in hopes of finding true answers.  The Aristotle approach (well, the surviving records) are very much lecture notes.  Plato makes the student work and continually ask questions about what they believe.  Aristotle gives you the answers so that you can learn them.  If we look just at this aspect, I'd have to give the nod to Plato.  I'd much rather have a culture that respects questioning wisdom than one that simply applies the knowledge that has been given to it.
Which isn't to say that I'm all that fond of rejecting received knowledge simply because it is received.

The writings of Aristotle are like a guide book from a very wise man.  In more than 2000 years, I can't see any large improvements over his writings on drama.  Which is amazing!  I can see how he inspires a pure scientific approach.  He looks at what is and tries to explain that.  This is the 'objective' viewpoint that so inspired Rand.
The writings of Plato ask us to consider things.  His approach produces questions and sharpens definitions.  Sometimes the discussion goes into unproductive areas, but not always.  With good guidance, the method has obvious benefits.
I'd be very surprised if Western thought hadn't benefited greatly from both writers.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Why Read Old Books?

A very good article on what lessons we can take from classic Greek and Roman sources and how to apply those lessons today.  Fair warning: it gets political.  Still worth reading.  I hadn't thought of this interpretation, but of course it's true:
How many times has the natural hitter on the bench sulked at the novelty that the cousin of the coach is batting cleanup? How often has the talented poet suddenly turned to drink because the toast of the salon got rich with his drivel? He should read his Homer: the self-destructive Achilles should have enjoyed more influence among the dense Achaeans than did the university president Agamemnon. By any just heroic standard, Ajax, not Odysseus, the Solyndra lobbyist, should have won the armor of the dead Achilles.
In the tragic world, thousands of personal agendas, governed by predictable human nature, ensure that things do not always quite work the way they should. We can learn from classics that most of us are more likely to resent superiority than to reward it, to distrust talent than to develop it. With classical training, our impatient youth might at least gain some perspective that the world is one where the better man is often passed over — precisely because he is the better man. Classics remind us that our disappointments are not unique to our modern selves. While we do not passively have to accept that unfairness (indeed Achilles and Ajax implode over it), we must struggle against it with the acceptance that the odds are against us.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Smart - Poetry

For the rest of this series, click on the 'Poetry' link at the bottom of the post.

Our next poem is from a man named Christopher Smart, who is described as a 'relgious mystic'.  The title is 'To Jeoffry His Cat'.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of Godin the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons, he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is the term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in his goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neigher will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat.

I'm guessing that non-cat people would hate this poem.  I'm a cat person myself, so I rather like it.  The numbered list is especially eye-catching.  I'm not sure how much devotion to God such actions are, but I certainly can't dispute them either.
'For he is of the tribe of Tiger/For the Cherub Cat is the term of the Angel Tiger.'  These phrases certainly do seem to be of a mystic bent.  I'll have to tell this to my kitties and see if they seem pleased or not.  I hope that they will 'purr in thankfullness'.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ethics - Aristotle

This is in regard to Book II and parts of Book III and VI.

These readings from Aristotle seem to be a direct answer to Plato's 'Meno' in the sense that Aristotle tackles the question of what virtue is.  He says that intellectual excellence is a product of teaching and moral excellence comes from custom.  He says that moral virtue doesn't come from nature and can't come to us by custom.  He argues:
'The Virtues then come to be in us neither by nature, nor in despite of nature, but we are furnished by nature with a capacity for receiving them and are perfected in them through custom.'
The seems exactly right to me.  We must be carefully taught virtue.  And that teaching should be backed up by constant example from the people around you.  He also says:
'For Moral Virtue has for its object-matter pleasures and pains, because by reason of pleasure we do what is bad, and by reason of pain decline doing what is right (for which cause, as Plato observes, men should have been trained straight from their childhood to receive pleasure and pain from proper objects, for this is the right education).'
Which seems to be an argument in favor of spanking.  I liked this bit here:
'Again, one may go wrong in many different ways (because as the Pythagoreans expressed it, evil is of the class of the infinite, good of the finite), but right only in one; and so the former is easy, the latter difficult; easy to miss the mark, but hard to hit it: and for these reasons, therefore, both the excess and defect belong to Vice, and the mean state to Virtue;'
This sets up a lengthy list of examples in which Virtue is the mean between two undesirable states.  For instance, Cowardice---Bravery---Reckless.  I'm not sure how much I agreed with this section.  To take this example, I don't have a problem with the idea that Cowardice and Bravery exist on opposite sides of a spectrum.  I just don't think that the if you continue along that spectrum you get to Recklessness.  It seems to me that Recklessness isn't a matter of being too Brave but of simple ignorance of possible dangers. 
There are also plenty of virtues that don't really fall into this set up.  For instance, Ignorance---Knowledge---???  Or False---Honest---???  Which isn't to say that overall idea of a golden mean isn't useful, I just wonder if Aristotle pushes it too far here. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Picture from 'Antigone'

I think I mentioned that I was in a one act version of 'Antigone' 'way back in high school.  Here is a picture from a rehearsal.  I'm playing Haemon and am lying dead while Creon weeps over me.  (I've lost about 100% of that beautiful hair.  Sigh.)

Readings for May

I think this is the only thing so far that the Amazon Kindle department doesn't know anything about.

May Nicomachus: Introduction to Arithmetic link

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Poetics - Aristotle

'Poetics' is largely a study of literature, some epic poetry but mostly stage drama.  In it, Aristotle conducts a very thorough breakdown of the pieces that go into a dramatic effort.  He uses contemporary examples throughout and explains why 'Oedipus Rex' is such a great play.
Like many of Aristotle's works, 'Poetics' reads like a series of lecture notes.  It works, but I found myself wishing for a whiteboard to help me keep things straight.  Especially the six parts that go into a tragedy (Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Melody, Spectacle).  As I was reading through, I kept looking for areas where I would disagree but I found very little.  The basic rules that Aristotle pointed out still work.  The exceptions also work as they clearly are based on a simple reversal, in many cases simply for the sake of that reversal.
Some highlights to me:
  • A story should contain a beginning, a middle and an end.  This seems like a no-brainer but just last week I saw a movie that was structured Beginning/Middle/End/Beginning/Middle/End/Beginning/Middle.  By the time the third part of the story started, I was simply waiting for some kind of climactic payoff so it would be done.  It failed that criterion.  (My friend was pleased that she got to see some shirtless Ryan Gosling, so it wasn't a complete loss.  Btw, I think that would fall under the 'Spectacle' heading.)
  • A story is superior to history because a story has a specific reason behind it.  History is prone to more random events where good and evil is harder to figure out.  In this way, art is only 'art' if it has some narrative purpose behind it.  
  • Drama depends on reversals.  Aristotle mentions the reversal of powerful to powerless and that is still a staple today.  Not just that a rich person becomes poor (though we get that) but that a rich person goes to prison and loses all freedom and power.  
Aristotle's main strength seems to be in taxonomy.  He does great work in categorizing things both in general and in their parts.  I'm curious how drama grew up in cultures that didn't have an Aristotelian influence.  Places like Japan, China and India.  Unfortunately I'm wildly ignorant here but I'd love to see a study of, say kabuki theater, as it relates to Aristotle.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Intro to Poetics - Aristotle

As I was preparing to read Aristotle's Poetics, I ran across this clip from an AP class.  It seems like a good intro:

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Searching for Virtue

A couple of days ago I started composing a little dialogue in which I try to engage Socrates in the search for the definition of virtue.  I come in all confident and quickly founder on whether or not 'virtue' is a synonym for 'good'.  I had some vague ideas as to what points I would try and make but now I'm not so sure.
The bombing in Boston has taken over some part of my mind's efforts.  This atrocity has hit me harder than some other recent events like the shootings in Newtown.  I'm not sure why.
I keep thinking of the supreme dedication and effort that marathoners put into a marathon.  The months of training and discipline.  We expect that kind of thing from professional atheletes.  It's not hard to think something along the lines of 'pay me $10 million a year and I'll dedicate that kind of time to diet and exercise'.  But the overwhelming majority of marathoners are every day folks.  They put all that time and energy into training themselves so that they can achieve a very personal goal.  There is no big payday ahead of them.  They'll get admiration from friends and family but that's about it.
On Monday some of these every day people ran in one of the most famous marathons in the world.  They pushed themselves for hours.  And then, just short of the finish line, some random group of them were targeted.  Some of them were just yards short when the bomb went off.  The explosion and the shrapnel were low and this resulted in multiple amputations.
This was evil in a very pure form and I don't know any other word that covers it.
So as I sat back and had a little fictional joust with Socrates over the definition of 'virtue', my mind kept trickling back to a sure antonym.  The Boston bomber(s) were the precise opposite of virtous.  They were evil.  They took a good and noble thing and destroyed it.  They took good and precious lives and blotted them out.  If you ask me what evil is, I can confidently hold up the Boston bombs as an example.

There was virtue in the story as well.  I think of the people who moved quickly to help the injured.  They displayed a quick and brave sort of virtue and they deserve great honors.  I want to think of them instead of the evil ones but I can't quite get there yet.

I'm kind of hoping that merely writing this will let me move past the very emotional state and let the more analytical part of the mind start working again.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Meno - Plato

'Meno' is a typical dialogue between a man named Meno and Socrates.  The conversation gets rolling when Meno asks:

"Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither teaching nor by practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?"

Socrates, as is his wont, cannot give a straight answer.

"...I confess with shame that I know literally nothing about virtue; and when I do not know the 'quid' of anything how can I know the 'quale'?"

Thus begins the Socratic dialogue wherein the seek the meaning of virtue so that they can circle back to the original question of how it is acquired.  (The smartass in me might have given Socrates some purposefully bad answer, 'Virtue is the quality by which one judges a horse!', just to force him into a straight answer.  We're probably better off that Plato didn't write 'Meno' in that way.)
Meno tries to define virtue. He speaks of administering the state, benefiting himself and injuring enemies and taking care not to suffer personal harm.  He lists a woman's duties as keeping house and obeying her husband.  Then he notes that different ages and conditions have different virtues.  "Virtue is relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do. The same may be said of vice."
Socrates notes that the definition is 'a swarm' and not very precise and asks for some common element.  Meno finds this difficult but Socrates keeps at it.  He notes that both men and women must have temperance and justice.  Meno agrees that justice is virtue.  The verbal jousting goes on at some length.  Meno comes around to suggesting that 'Virtue is the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining them."  Socrates counters that everyone really thinks of themselves as honourable; is everyone virtuous?  No, of course they're not.
Eventually they get back to the main question. Socrates points out that virtuous men don't always have virtuous children.  If their children could be taught virtue, like they can be taught things like horse-riding, then these virtuous men would certainly have done a better job teaching them.  He concludes that the absence of teachers suggests that virtue cannot be taught.  There is a pretty obvious flaw in that reasoning.

I'm a fan of the Socratic method but there is a fine line between an honest search for answers and using verbal cleverness to make others feel foolish.  I have trouble reading Plato/Socrates as being on the right side of that line.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Plato vs Aristotle

While I was gathering material for this months readings, I was reminded that Ayn Rand's views on aesthetics were guided, at least in part, by Aristotle.  I'll write about that connection later, but while I was looking for it, I found this Rand quote on Aristotle:

"Aristotle may be regarded as the cultural barometer of Western history. Whenever his influence dominated the scene, it paved the way for one of history's brilliant eras; whenever it fell, so did mankind.  The Aristotelian revival of the thirteenth century brought men to the Renaissance. The intellectual counter-revolution turned them back to the cave of his antipode: Plato.
There is only one fundamental issue in philosophy: the cognitive efficacy of man's mind. The conflict of Aristotle versus Plato is the conflict of reason versus mysticism. It was Plato who formulated most of philosophy's basic questions - and doubts. It was Aristotle who laid the foundation for most of the answers. Thereafter, the record of their duel is the record of man's long struggle to deny and surrender or to uphold and assert the validity of his particular mode of consciousness." 

I've written before about the bright spots of Western history (ancient Greece and Rome, Renaissance Italy, Enlightenment Paris and England).  I don't really know enough about the darker spots to find common reasons for their declines.  This is something that I'll keep an eye out for now. 
I do want to write something that is at least a bit in Plato's defense.  After I wrote about Plato last year, Stan left this comment:

"I've always liked the Whitehead quote, and I've always viewed systematic interpretations of Plato with suspicion. Take the Republic: Is Socrates Plato's mouthpiece? Didn't Plato write the arguments of the other characters as well? Does dialectic lend itself to system? We don't think of Shakespeare as any one of his characters, so why think of Plato as any one of his? Whitehead is suggesting that the seeds of even contradictory philosophies are all found in Plato. For me, the dialogues are best read as a training ground for philosophic thought, rather than a source for statements of Platonic dogma."

This year when I read Plato I tried to keep the 'training ground' idea in front of me and that helped.  

Monday, April 8, 2013

Thomas Gray - Poetry

The next poem is our first one by a poet born in the 18th century, Thomas Gray.  The title is 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.  The little intro paragraph says that it is 'One of the most quoted of all English poems...'.  The entire piece is too long for me to type out, but here is a link to the full text.
The whole poem is very worthwhile.  My favorite bit:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

What a well put sentiment!  The entire poem is written about a small graveyard and the people buried there.  This section of it wonders on the potential of the dead and what they didn't accomplish.  Dead before they could really shine, or worse, filled with potential that they couldn't tap into.
A very beautiful poem.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Paparazzi of Plato

Every time I read Plato, I'm reminded of this wonderful New Yorker piece by Steve Martin.

TABLOIDUS: Socrates, I wanted to show you my new Nikon FM2 with a 600-millimetre lens.

SOCRATES: Thank you, Tabloidus. It looks fine for taking pictures of ducks flying off in the distance.

MO-PED: That is a very fine purpose, in combination with a motorbike and an infrared night scope.

CLOOLUS: What else do you photograph besides nature?

TABLOIDUS: I love to photograph children.

SOCRATES: That, too, is a good and noble profession.

TABLOIDUS: There is nothing more beautiful to photograph than a mother breast-feeding her baby. Especially if it is Madonna.

CLOOLUS: You photographed Madonna breast-feeding her baby?


SOCRATES: What was she like in person?

TABLOIDUS: Well, I didn't actually meet her.

SOCRATES: Was she so full of herself that she would not speak to you?

TABLOIDUS: Oh, no. Because of the lens, I had to be three hundred yards away and shoot through her bedroom window.

CLOOLUS: It seems odd to me that Madonna would agree to have herself photographed this way.

TABLOIDUS: Her agreement was tacit.

CLOOLUS: But it seems to me you have invaded her privacy.

SOCRATES: Cloolus, what is privacy?

CLOOLUS: Privacy is when you are alone.

SOCRATES: Are you private when you are alone in a crowded market?

CLOOLUS: Certainly not.

SOCRATES: Are you private when you are alone in a car?

CLOOLUS: More so, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Are you private when you are in a car with tinted windows?

CLOOLUS: That is starting to be private.

SOCRATES: Are you private when you are in your home?

CLOOLUS: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Is it not true that if you tint your windows or stay home you are in some way protecting your privacy?

MO-PED: It cannot be otherwise.

CLOOLUS: But Madonna was in her home.

SOCRATES: Yes, but her windows were not tinted with UV-40 Reflecto-coat. Nor was she alone.

MO-PED: She was with her baby!

SOCRATES: Therefore, she was not protecting her privacy. And how can one invade what is not protected?

CLOOLUS: I am confused.

SOCRATES: Can something be tinted and not tinted a the same time?

CLOOLUS: It would be impossible.

SOCRATES: Can something be private and public at the same time?

CLOOLUS: They are mutually exclusive.

SOCRATES: And is it not true that privacy and UV-40 Reflecto-coat are one and the same?

MO-PED: He has proved it!

SOCRATES: Tabloidus, where were you when you took the picture?

TABLOIDUS: I was hiding on a rooftop. Further, I was wearing black clothing and a hood.

SOCRATES: So you were merely protecting your privacy while Madonna invaded your camera lens?

TABLOIDUS: I cannot argue otherwise, Socrates.

CLOOLUS: But is it not wrong to spy on a woman breast-feeding her baby?

MO-PED: When you become a singing star, it is wrong to want your breast-feeding to be private.

CLOOLUS: But why?

TABLOIDUS: Because of the public's right to know.

SOCRATES: Is it not true, Cloolus, that when the public is shopping in a supermarket, very often at the checkout point it has an overwhelming desire to see Alec Baldwin's newborn or Frank Gifford having sex?

CLOOLUS: I cannot deny it.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Greek Timeline

Normally I'd put up biographies of Plato and Aristotle but I did that last year.  You can read them here and here if you'd like.  The main reason that I do the biographic sketches is so that I can get a feel for the people and their times. I've been trying to get a handle on the larger picture of ancient Greece by reading and watching documentaries on the period.  There were three different wars that pictured the ancient Greek worldview and it's useful to put the various writers in context of those wars.  (As future historians learn about the 20th century, they'll need to be very aware of both world wars and the Vietnam war.  Same deal.)

Trojan War - (Sometime in the 1200s or 1100s BC)  This was the legendary war that provided so many stories of heroism and courage.  The Greeks wrote and sung about the happenings of this war for centuries. 

Homer - (850 BC?)  The Homeric epics cemented the Trojan war and its aftermath in Greek storytelling. 

Aeschylus - (525 - 456 BC)  Wrote about Agamemnon's return from the wars and the ensuing bloodbath.

Greco/Persian wars - (499 - 449 BC)  Notably, this started with a Greek adventure into Persian territory.  The Persians counter-invaded in 492 and the incredibly influential battle of Marathon happened in 490.  Two generations of Greeks lived with the reality of war with the Persian empire.

Sophocles (497-405 BC) and Herodotus (484 - 425 BC) - Both men grew up in the wars.  It's notable that Herodotus traveled extensively during this whole period. 

Socrates (469 - 399 BC) - Grew up as the wars were winding down.  Was in his late 30's when the next war really heated up.

Peloponnesian War (431 - 404 BC) - This war had many phases, but the most important for this timeline is that Athens was completely humbled by the end.  We're set to read Thucydides on this subject next year. 

Plato (428 - 348 BC) - Grew up during the long fight with Sparta.  His adulthood was mostly in the post-war era. 

Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) - Lived entirely after the wars.  By this time Athens was no longer had an empire nor a world power. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Author Timeline

Homer 7th or 8th Cent(?)
Aeschylus 525-456
Sophocles 497-405
Herodotus 484-425
Plato 428-347
Aristotle 384-322
Lucretius 99-55
Nicomachus 60-120
Marcus Aurelius 121-180
Hobbes 1588-1679
Milton 1608-1674
Pascal 1623-1662
Swift 1667-1745
Rousseau 1712-1778
Kant 1724-1804
Mill 1806-1873

Monday, April 1, 2013

April Readings


Plato: Meno link
Aristotle: Poetics link
Aristotle: Ethics (Book 2, Book 3 Ch. 5-12, Book 6 Ch. 8-13) link