In my experience, people tend toward one of two extremes when analyzing the writings of the ancients (and, to varying degrees, those of other bygone eras.) The one extreme is to assume that the authors, as products of a primitive time, have nothing to offer. We are so much more enlightened now; all of the ancients must be regarded as quite ignorant. The other extreme is to ignore the faults of the ancients, or, if they cannot be ignored, to make every possible contortion to explain them away. The ancients could not err when it came to thinking because, as Homer’s heroes could single-handedly lift boulders that a dozen modern men could hardly budge, the philosophers of old possessed intellectual powers far beyond those of any modern genius.
Take, for example, the treatment of women by Aristotle and Plato. Our modern understanding of the differences between men and women is very much at odds with the apparent opinions of Aristotle and Socrates on the subject. What do we do in the face of these problematic ancient texts?
One approach is to throw out Aristotle and Plato entirely. Sexism is so embedded in their thought, some opine, that their writing can have no value in our modern world. Even as early as the 15th century, William Caxton wrote that “if [Plato] had made fault in writing of women, he ought not, ne should not, be believed in his other dictes and sayings.”* (As we will see shortly, Caxton does not actually find fault with Plato’s treatment of women.) Likewise, Aristotle was extremely wrong about the role of the female in sexual reproduction, so his philosophy on humans generally can’t be trusted. These “dead white men” are so out of touch with our modern knowledge and sensibilities that they can hardly be considered authoritative on any philosophical question.
(I pause to note that the bland dismissal of these thinkers as “dead white men” always amuses me. The ad hominem attack itself adopts the language of racism, implying that the value of the authors is somehow related to their skin color. At the same time, it ignores the fact that classifying Aristotle and Plato as “white” should certainly raise a few eyebrows.)
On the other side, there are those who would wave away the apparent sexism of the ancients. The easiest way to do that is to simply call them a product of their times and move on. But some offer more convoluted explanations in an effort to keep the ancients from ever being “wrong”. Caxton wrote, “I cannot think that so true a man and so noble a philosopher as [Plato] was should write otherwise than truth.” And because Plato must have been right, Caxton was forced to come up with a way to reconcile the apparently sexist writings of Plato with the more enlightened views of his own day. He did so by concluding that if Plato ever said anything derogatory about women, he was only speaking of Greek women. “For I wot well, of whatsoever condition women be in Greece, the women of [England] be right good, wise, pleasant, humble, discreet, sober, chaste, obedient to their husbands, true, secret, steadfast, ever busy, and never idle, attemperate in speaking, and virtuous in all their works—or at least should be so.” So if Plato says, for example, that teaching a woman to write is multiplying evil upon evil, that may true of ancient Greek women, not of modern English women.
A more modern defense of that same type is to find esoteric meanings that are different from the ancients’ explicit meanings. So when Aristotle, in Book I of his Politics, says that “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he actually means nothing of the sort. The line is actually a quotation from Sophocles’s play Ajax. In the play, Ajax has gone insane by the time he utters the line. Obviously, Aristotle would have been familiar both with the play and the context of the quotation. So when Aristotle says “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he is slyly hinting that only a mad man would actually believe what he is saying. See? Aristotle was never sexist in the first place!
As usual, I favor the course of moderation. We should neither discard the ancients (or any author, really) out of hand, nor should we engage in mental gymnastics to defend the position that any author is always right. There is untold value in studying our intellectual predecessors, but nothing is gained by accepting their writings uncritically.
Beer of the week: Furious IPA – This aggressively-hopped ale from Minnesota’s Surly Brewing Company pours with a nice fluffy head. The piney hops certainly dominate, but there is a good balance with caramel malt notes. The label says that this beer defies categorization, but the IPA label seems right to me.
Reading of the week: Hymn To Aphrodite by Sappho – Here’s a crazy idea: if you want to know the ancients’ views on women, how about reading the poetry of an ancient woman? This is the only complete poem that has survived from Greece’s greatest poetess.
Question for the week: Is there any extant writing older than, say, 1,000 years that is actually not worth studying? Is it possible that anything has survived that long without some serious merit?
*Caxton actually discusses the sayings of Socrates as if Socrates himself was the author of the Socratic dialogues. I have substituted Plato into the quotations to give Caxton the benefit of the doubt; surely he meant to discuss what Socrates said and what Plato wrote.
“The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.”
That is just one expression of the law of noncontradiction. It can be put in a number of ways, but it always comes down to saying that mutually exclusive conditions cannot coexist.
This raises the first classic St. Patrick’s Day problem (the second classic St. Patrick’s Day problem is alcoholism): what is to be made of the Trinity? The trinitarian notion of God is that God is three persons in one being. The Father begot the Son, and the Holy Ghost proceeds from the two of them. Yet, the three are eternal and exist as a single God. This sure looks like a violation of the law of noncontradiction: nothing can be both one and many. Additionally, one cannot be primary and coextensive. That is, one thing cannot both precede another and be coeternal with it.
St. Patrick attempted to explain the mystery with a sprig of clover, known as a shamrock. A sprig of clover, Patrick observed, has three leaves that are all connected. Each leaf is independent and identifiable, yet they form a single shamrock. So the shamrock is both three and one. Just like the Trinity.
The shamrock example, however, is not very convincing. The leaves of the clover are separate and divisible from each other, and no one leaf is the whole clover itself. In effect, each leaf is just one part of the whole. And the mystery of the Trinity is not that simple (hence the term “mystery”.) The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are each believed both totally independent and totally united. An inescapable violation of the law of noncontradiction.
Dante’s attempt at a visual depiction of the Trinity seems more appropriate than the shamrock. Rather than describing the three persons as simple thirds of the single being that is God, Dante describes God as “three circles, Of threefold colour and of one dimension.” Each circle is simultaneously the same circle and distinguishable. He then goes on to state that “all speech is feeble and falls short” of describing the Trinity.
I dare say that he is right.
Beer of the Week: Primátor Stout – Guinness (both original and draught) has already been featured on this blog. So this St. Patrick’s Day beer is a stout from another part of Europe altogether. This Czech beer pours a very, very dark brown and has a head of large, tan bubbles. The mouthfeel of this surprisingly thin. As it warms, though, this beer really shows its rich malt flavor. Not bad at all.
Reading for the week: Paradiso, Canto XXXIII by Dante Alighieri – After a journey through hell and purgatory, the pilgrim Dante makes it to and through heaven to see the very face (or circles) of God. Not included in this reading is the 4th Sphere of Heaven, where the pilgrim Dante see Boethius. In a recent post on this blog, it was noted that Boethius was put to death by the order of King Theodoric the Great. Theodoric, as it turns out, was not a Trinitarian. He was a follower of Arianism, a heterodox view that Jesus, as “begotten God”, is not co-eternal with God the Father and the Holy Ghost.
Question for the week: Paradiso ends with the the pilgrim Dante’s “desire and will” being acted upon by “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” I take that “Love” with a capital “L” to be God Himself. Is it better, or merely oversimplifying to think of God as Love itself rather than as a Trinity?
A former professor of mine (in a subject other than philosophy) once complained that people were asking the wrong question when they asked why instead of to what end things happened. I submitted that why is equivocal, and to what end is but one of the reasonable interpretations of why. He ignored me and went on with his tirade.
Obviously, I was not breaking new ground. In Book II of Aristotle’s Physics, four different answers to “why questions” are enumerated. In an attempt to make Aristotle a bit easier to relate to, I will apply these four causes to the beer of the week, Genesse Ice.
First, the material cause of something is the physical matter that it is composed of. The material cause Genesse Ice is water, cheap grain, (not much) hops, and yeast.
Second, the formal cause of something is the essence or archetype of the thing. This cause is certainly the most difficult to grasp, but I think that we can say that this beer’s formal cause is the form “beer” or perhaps the more specific form “ice beer.” (Ice beer is style of beer that has elevated alcohol levels because after it is brewed, some of the water is removed in the form of ice crystals.)
Third, the efficient cause of a thing is the source of its coming to be or its maker. The efficient cause of this beer is the Genesee Brewing Company.
Finally (duh!), the final cause is the end for the sake of which a thing is; the goal. The final cause of Genesee Ice is to get drunk.
Of course, the term “drunk” is equivocal…
Beer of the week: Genesee Ice – As I mentioned before, Genesse makes some of my all-time favorite cheap beers. This does not fit into that category. Genesee Ice smells like drinking games, and not in a good way. It is the aroma of beer spilled on the flip-cup table. It is the essence of used beer pong cups. The smell is enough to put one right off. The taste, unfortunately, is worse yet. There is an unpleasant sweetness followed by a distinctly metallic aftertaste. This beer is surely meant to be consumed from a brown paper bag or from a plastic cup. And either way, it should elicit the existential question: why?
Reading of the week: Physics by Aristotle, Book II, Part 3 – “Knowledge” Aristotle tells us, “is the object of our inquiry, and men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’.” The problem is that every thing and every action has more than one cause.
Question of the week: Which of your causes do you think defines you most?
A very common mistake is to imagine that we are more intelligent than the ancients because we have access to more information. We think to ourselves (in very disrespectful tones,) “How foolish was Plato? He thought that the Sun circled the Earth! Every child knows that it is t’other way round!” We wonder, “what idiot could think that all matter is made up of four elemental parts (fire, earth, water, air)? It is as plain as day that all matter is made up of THREE elemental parts (neutrons, protons, electrons.)” We even have the nerve to question Aristotle. “How could The Philosopher be so silly?” we think. “He thought that birds do not urinate because that part of their bodily waste is turned into feathers.”
Okay. I admit that that one seems a bit more outlandish than the others. But maybe it is not as silly as it seems. He makes a significant jump when he claims the very specific relationship between birds feathers and the fact that they don’t (appear to) urinate, but it seems unreasonable to assume that they are NOT related. What separates birds from other animals? Feathers and a lack of urination. How can there not be SOME connection?
Beer of the week: Cass Lemon – Like feathers made out of urine, some ideas, while not necessarily wrong, are so strange or odd that they cause an involuntary chuckle. The first sip of this beer was like that for me. I expected a very ordinary macro-brew with a hint of lemon. Perhaps “a hint” doesn’t translate well into Korean. As far as I can tell, they ran out of fresh water at the Cass brewery. Luckily, however, they had gallons and gallons of lemon-lime Kool-aid on hand, so they just brewed the beer with that. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t taste much like beer. It was almost like a shandy.
Reading for the week: Problems by Aristotle – Aristotle’s major works are still regarded with great reverence and taken very seriously. One finds it hard to believe that some of the Problems were EVER taken seriously. If you don’t enjoy your beer, at least you’ll be able to get a laugh out of some of these. (Just promise that you won’t think that you are actually smarter than Aristotle was.)
Question for the week: Can you come up with a reasonable explanation of why underarms are the most ticklish part of the body?