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.
This is the fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume V: Ralph Waldo Emerson
Lately, I’ve been thinking about a philosopher who held that the true philosophies of all great minds were intentionally hidden within their works. He posited that subtle references and hints in the works of Plato, Aristotle, etc. can guide careful readers to understand the real opinions of the authors, opinions that they had not dare explicitly express. There are some very fervent admirers of this philosophy. But others have called it a “philosophy of deception,” or “esotericism for the sake of esotericism.”
Even though I haven’t made a serious study of these notions, I do have a habit of looking somewhat askance at examples that are put forward in defense of an overt position. If, on closer examination, it turns out that an example does not really support the position, what then? Did the author simply pick a bad example out of laziness or mistake? Or, as these esoterically-minded thinkers would hold, are bad examples chosen deliberately to hint at an intent other than the explicit intent of the author?
Our questions may be explored with this quotation from Emerson:
“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” – Emerson, The American Scholar
Seemingly, the examples of Cicero, Locke, and Bacon are wholly appropriate to support Emerson’s point that the young scholar must think for himself. For well over a thousand years, Cicero’s tracts had been mandatory educational reading, and had often been presented as if the student had a duty not only to learn from them, but to accept their views as his own. In fact, there is ancient graffiti from the city of Pompeii that reads, “you will like Cicero, or you will be whipped.”
These authors, however, are not actually good examples of “young men in libraries” who wrote books. Of Cicero’s writings, his early work is almost entirely in the form of speeches made as a legal advocate. His philosophical works were not written until near the end of his life. And although some of Locke’s early manuscripts were published posthumously, all of his major works were published after the age of fifty-five. Bacon’s Essays were first published when he was in his late thirties, and his New Organon (the most likely of his books for Emerson’s “meek young men” to pore over) was not published until he was nearly sixty.
Reading between the lines, what do these examples say about Emerson’s claim that the Western canon was written by “young men in libraries”?
Another trio of examples raises a similar question:
“[T]he highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought.” – Emerson, Self Reliance
Unless I am mistaken, this sentence is meant to convey that the highest merit in thought is to be original. In some respects, it is clear that Moses, Plato, and Milton were all highly original thinkers. The first five books of the Bible, including a large body of law that created a new and distinct society, are traditionally ascribed to Moses. Plato’s work, as I alluded to three weeks ago, has been fought over by philosophical schools seeking to claim his writings as their own foundation. And I recently heard an eminent scholar claim that Milton’s Paradise Lost is the nearest rival of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
Still, these “original thinkers” are all have clearly identified outside sources. Moses, in particular, is striking as an example of originality. The writings attributed to Moses are traditionally viewed as divinely inspired. And this inspiration is not run-of-the-mill genius, but a direct transcription of the words of God. If what Moses wrote was essentially dictated to him by God, how are those ideas original to Moses? And how is it that Moses, of all people, “set at naught” tradition? Similarly, Plato’s corpus is composed primarily of dialogues that purport to express the philosophy of Socrates, not necessarily the philosophy of Plato himself. And although Milton certainly added a tremendous amount of material and emotion, his great poetic works are based on well-worn scriptural stories.
So why do we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton the highest merit, that of originality? Did they really set at naught books and traditions, and speak not what men but what they thought? Is Emerson trying to tell us something in code that he dare not tell us explicitly? Or is this a case of looking for esoteric meaning where there is none?
Beer of the week: Voodoo Ranger – New Belgium’s popular IPA has a lot going for it. It pours with a nice head that leaves decent lacing on the glass. The aroma is subtle, with citrusy hops. The beer is smooth, with a nice bitter bite at the end. And it is all balanced out with a hint of gingerbread.
Reading of the week: The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson – This section of the essay, originally given as a speech, is about the influence of books. Books are both the medium for “transmuting life into truth,” and a source of “grave mischief.” They must, therefore be read in a very particular way.
Question for the week: Is there really something hidden in Emerson’s choice of examples? Or, in looking for deeper meaning, do we just see what we want to see?
This is the second in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts will be available here. Volume II: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius
The non-aggression principle (or “NAP”) is an important concept in natural rights theory and contemporary libertarian political theory. Essentially, the non-aggression principle holds that one may not forcibly interfere with another or his property. I’ve heard it expressed as: you are free to do as you like so long as you keep your fist away from my nose and your hands out of my pocket.
Wikipedia helpfully lists several other formulations over time:
“Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” – John Locke
“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’, because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual…. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.” – Thomas Jefferson
“Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” – Herbert Spencer
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” – John Stuart Mill
“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.” – Murray Rothbard
Sounds pretty reasonable to me…
Beer of the week: Mastne Cieszyńskie – This is a really good Polish ale. Mastne Cieszyńskie is light brown and a little bit hazy. The smell is classic and malty with a hint of raisin. The flavor follows the aroma. This is a very enjoyable ale.
Reading for the week: Crito by Plato, 44e to 48d – The fact that Plato is in the same volume of The Harvard Classics as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius seems to indicate the editor of the series sided with the Stoics in the ongoing battle for what school of thought gets to claim Socrates as its own. In this excerpt from Crito, the title character is trying to convince Socrates to escape from Athens, where he has been sentenced to death. In part, he argues that if Socrates choses to die when he might otherwise live, he will be committing an act of violence upon his friends and children.
Question for the week: Particularly in the the formulations by Locke and Jefferson, it is clear that the NAP relies on an underlying assumption of equality. Without that assumption, can the principle still be compelling?
As repugnant as many Americans find the idea of monarchy, there are some arguments to be made in favor that particular form of government:
- A monarch has a vested interest in the continuing stability of his country. If he may be on the throne for several decades and then pass the crown to his son, there is a lot of incentive for a king to plan for the long-term. Compare this to an elected politician, who is either subject to term-limits or must always have an eye on the polls for the next election. Once he reaches his term-limit, he is at liberty to steal as much as he can and let the next office-holder take the blame. If there is no term-limit or if he has not yet reached it, the elected politician has a lot of incentive to prioritize short-term results lest he be ousted at the next election. Fiscal responsibility, therefore, seems much more likely to exist in a monarchy than in a republic.
- A monarch may act as a very effective check on popular government. Because he has no fear of being removed when the people go to the polls, a king may safely attempt to stand in the way of a popular faction that would inappropriately impose itself on others. Emperor Franz Joseph supposedly claimed that his role as monarch was “to protect my peoples from their governments.” Alcohol prohibition in America is a great example of how a dedicated faction can overrun all official opposition with the threat of the ballot box. The result is often gross incursions of the government into private affairs.
- A monarch also serves as a unifying principle. Like the flag, the crown is a non-partisan symbol of national unity. To be sure, not every monarch is universally loved. But it is possible for an American president to be elected by a relatively small fraction of the population. (Bush the Second got some 50 million votes in 2000, and the total population of the USA at that time was well over 280 million.) And elections are almost always very decisive. As a result, it is uncommon for Americans generally to “rally behind” their elected officials the same way royal subjects may rally behind their king.
These arguments are certainly somewhat compelling. In particular, the independence of the monarch from popular whims and contentious factions is an attractive feature of the system. History, however, tells us that people are not always better off under a king than under a republic, (or under a rightful king rather than a usurper.) The customary means by which one ascends to the throne is birthright, but not every child of a king is fit to wear the crown. In Meno, Socrates antagonizes Anytus, one of the men who would eventually accused him of corrupting the youth of Athens, by listing great men who had inferior progeny; if Themistocles, Pericles, or Thucydides did not have sons who lived up to their fathers’ reputations, why should we expect great kings to fare any better? And if the notion of birthright is abandoned on these grounds, what is left of monarchy?
Beer of the week: Arthur – Speaking of progeny, Arthur has a family connection. This farmhouse ale is not named for King Arthur, but for one of the brewers’ uncles who grew up on the farm that gives Hill Farmstead Brewery its name. It pours a cloudy straw color with lots of big, white bubbles. The aroma is of yeast and tart grapes or white wine. The finish is more sour than expected, with lots of lemon, white grape, and earthy yeast flavor. I really enjoyed this Vermont treat.
Reading of the week: The Tragedy of Richard II by William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2 – When King Richard returns from Ireland, he finds that some of his supporters are fled, others dead, but most have gone over to the usurper, Henry of Bolingbroke. Richard flashes from hope to despair and back (and back again) in this scene. Two of his speeches are of particular interest to me. In the first, Richard enlists nature itself to preserve his monarchy by setting spiders and vipers and toads in Bolingbroke’s way. In his later speech, however, he acknowledges that there is nothing about the nature of kings that separates them from other men: “For you have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?”
Question of the week: Are the above arguments for monarchy really compelling? And if so, how can the problem of unfit heirs be remedied adequately to justify a monarchy?
Writer’s block has proved to be a very fruitful topic for a number of authors. When heeded, the classic advice “write what you know” leads to an awful lot of writers writing about writing and writing’s attendant struggles. The film Barton Fink, for example, is a film about a screenwriter who can’t seem to get any words on paper. It is no mere coincidence that the Coen brothers wrote and produced that film while taking a hiatus from writing and producing Miller’s Crossing. Unable to find the right way to finish the first film, they turned to writing about writer’s block. (Unsurprisingly, Barton Fink features many of the same cast members as Miller’s Crossing. But that might have more to do with the fact that the Coen’s work with the same actors repeatedly.)
A quick google search turns up innumerable pieces of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. From a change of scenery, to a change of diet, there are heaps of “sure-fire ways to get your creative juices flowing.” But nobody seems to ask the question: should the person be writing at all?
In Phaedrus, Socrates relates a myth about the god called Theuth. Theuth was a great inventor, who devised mathematics and astronomy as well as “draughts and dice”. His greatest invention, however was writing. Theuth congratulated himself on giving such a great gift to humanity. But as it turned out, his gift was not as beneficial as he had expected.
People now do not have to remember anything, since they can always just reread anything they don’t recall. As a consequence, apparent knowledge is everywhere, but actual knowledge is seldom seen. Likewise, writing does not make people more wise. One does not become wise by reading, but by internalizing and understanding. Particularly where there is a very large amount of available writing (for example, a library or the internet,) one is apt to read more but understand less.
As a result of these contemplations, I have elected not to write a blog post this week. Kindly disregard the foregoing. (I wrote the beer review beforehand, so you might as well read it.)
Beer of the week: Dundee Stout – After declaring that I was done with winter beers last week, the weather forced me to reconsider. It snowed the next day, as well as several subsequent days including this morning. I suppose that one more hearty stout is in order. This very dark brown brew pours with a pretty tan head that fades just a bit too quickly. There are hints of ripe, dark fruit in the aroma. Although stout is not my favorite type of beer, I really enjoy this one. The dark roasted malt gives a sort of chocolate-covered espresso bean flavor to this beer. I did not expect much of Dundee (brewed by the the same company as Genesse,) but I think they might actually be one of the best values in American beer.
Reading of the week: Phaedrus by Plato, 274c – 275e – Phaedrus intended to impress Socrates by reading to him a beautiful speech. Socrates, in typical fashion, totally derailed his interlocutor’s desired course of conversation. Instead, the couple discuss at length the art of rhetoric.
Question of the week: What do you do when you feel creatively stifled?
The night before Thanksgiving, I visited the Lutheran church where my friend’s father is the pastor. His sermon, as one might expect, was about giving thanks. Specifically, he argued that one of the principle advantages of giving thanks is to prolong enjoyment of the blessing. Taking the time to enunciate what one is thankful for effectively draws out the enjoyment of it. Giving thanks beforehand allows one to enjoy the anticipation. Giving thanks afterwards allows the enjoyment to linger. Giving thanks during forces one to focus on what is enjoyable. The sermon really rang true to me. Also, there was a pie social after the service.
The desire to extend enjoyment indefinitely is a constant factor in my day-to-day life. I have watched countless re-runs late into the night rather than go to bed and “give up” on the day. I also have looked for reasons to have another beer rather than stop drinking. The bulk of this blog post, in fact, was written late at night as an excuse to stay up and have another beer rather than go to bed and end my enjoyment of the day.
I not only attempt to drag out time; I am a great hoarder of consumable goods. Halloween candy lasted for months in my childhood because I was keenly interested in prolonging my enjoyment from it for as long as possible. When there is good beer in the house, I ration it carefully. As I mentioned in an earlier post, an elderly Australian man once mocked me for how slowly I consumed a glass of Coopers. He was not a beer drinker himself, so my efforts to explain the purpose of savoring a good beer were wasted on him.
Attempts at prolonged enjoyment are not always successful. I have also let things go to waste rather than accept the finality of their enjoyment. I have let my tea grow cold rather than finish it and accept that it is gone. When I was little, I had toys that I would hardly play with for fear that they would break and thus end my enjoyment. I grew out of nice clothes that I had barely worn since I did not want to risk staining or tearing them. When I was small, I would use my roller-skates only occasionally to minimize the chances that they would get scuffed or damaged. One day, they no longer fit. I had tried so hard to preserve them for future enjoyment that they had become no use to me at all.
No pleasure can be extended indefinitely, but there is usually the option to prolong the enjoyment somewhat by patience and focus and thanksgiving. In the end, a fine touch is required. Neither let the beer grow warm and unpleasant, nor gulp it down without savoring.
Beer of the week: Troegs Perpetual IPA – If only this beer could be enjoyed perpetually. Troegs Perpetual is a lovely golden IPA with a nice foamy head. The aroma is dominated by sweet floral hops, but the bitterness of the hops is very well balanced with nice malt body.
Reading for the week: Gorgias by Plato, lines 493d-495b – A crucial question that this post does not address is whether prolonging pleasure is actually a good thing. In the dialogue Gorgias, Socrates makes his interlocutors squirm by forcing them to address whether even the most base and immoral pleasure seeking can be considered good.
Question for the week: Are efforts to prolong pleasure at odds with an ideal of “taking life as it comes”?