Monday, January 30, 2012

Which Came First: Plato or His Ideas?

We sometimes ask jokingly, Which came first: the chicken or the egg? If the chicken were first, where would it have come from if not from an egg? If the egg were first, where would it have come from if not from a chicken? Several ancient Greek philosophers asked more seriously, Which came first: Unity or Being? If Unity existed first, then it had Being. But if Being existed first, then it was one thing and therefore had Unity.

In Plato’s Parmenides, a very young Socrates travels to hear such questions discussed by Zeno, famous for his paradoxes of motion. Zeno, for instance, said that an arrow never reaches its target. It must first cover half the distance to the target, and then it must cover half the remaining distance, and then again half the remaining distance. But distance can be divided indefinitely, halves of halves of halves on into infinity. The stages the arrow must travel, then, are inifinite in number, and a journey to infinity, by definition, never ends. Curiously, in Plato’s dialog, it is Zeno’s teacher, Parmenides,who does all the talking. And he doesn’t say anything about flying arrows, but he does lead Socrates through some similarly weird paradoxes.

At the beginning of the dialog, Socrates has heard that Parmenides and Zeno teach that all is one -- that plurality is an illusion -- and he asks to hear the rationale. Parmenides responds by telling Socrates that he should examine the consequences of both sides of any hypothesis. For instance, supposing that unity exists as pure unity: it is nothing other than singleness itself. Well, then, it can’t change into something else, since then it would not be unity; but it can’t stay the same, because it would then have similarity (to itself) in addition to having unity. With similar arguments, he shows that unity cannot be a part or a whole, cannot be in any place or time, and so cannot exist.

And now, to flip the coin, Parmenides traces the consequences of unity having mixed qualities. If unity has being, then there are two things: unity and being. But then each of these is a single existing thing, so each of the two in turn have two parts. This division of each part into two more goes on forever, like the path of Zeno’s arrow, so unity is actually infinite. Yet it is itself and no other, so it is finite. It is other than not-one, but not-one is other than it, so they are both alike in being-other, and therefore one is the same as not-one.

Well, after all those troubles, perhaps unity just doesn’t exist. But if we say unity doesn’t exist, then we still have said something about it and seem to know what it is we’re denying existence to, so unity must exist. If it doesn’t exist, it must exist. Get it? Next Parmenides examines “the others” (i.e., everything that isn’t unity) and finds the same ultimate contradiction: they must not exist, and so they must exist. His conclusion: “Let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be.”

Every time Plato talks about the “Ideas” (or “Forms”), it seems to me he makes the same mistake, a mistake that leads him to problems like Parmenides’ paradoxical conclusion. Plato always talks as if the Idea of a quality has the quality it represents. The Platonic Form of Heat is hot, Whiteness is white, Unity is single, and so on. But it seems to me that an idea of a quality doesn’t necessarily have the quality. Greatness may be great, but then so is smallness; all ideas are great things. Unity may be single, but so is duality; duality is a single idea. Duality itself is not two things. It may be an idea of two things, but one thing and one thing do not make a duality unless there is a tertium quid, some combination that makes a duality of the two things.

As long as I’m talking way above my philosophical pay grade, I’ll go a bit further. The doctrines of the Trinity and of what Aquinas calls the simplicity of God seem to me to solve all the problems of the Greeks’ search for the First Thing. That God is simple doesn’t mean He doesn’t have various attributes; it means the attributes come in indivisible community. It’s not that God is fundamentally the Existent, the I Am, and then also happens to be good and all-knowing. It’s not that He is fundamentally One and then also happens to be eternal and good. Existence, Unity, Goodness, and Intelligence all come as a package, all have equal priority. And if Parmenides discovered that the existence of One necessarily brings about all the other numbers, it shouldn’t be hard to accept that the One God exists in three Persons.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Optimistic Pessimism

To go along with my sizable sample of the poetry of Byron this winter, I read a chapter on Byron by Chesterton in a book called Twelve Types, in which he says (1) that most critics think of Byron as a pessimist and (2) that those critics are wrong. In Chesterton’s inimitable style, he argues that no one writes from pure pessimism, since there would then be no purpose in writing: one must be optimistic about something, even if one is only optimistic about pessimism. This, he says, is Byron’s position. He may offer cynical critique of nearly everything in human life, but to write about it at all shows that he has some hope his views will make things better. And Byron seems to agree, if this stanza from Don Juan is any indication:

 'Not to admire is all the art I know
(Plain truth, dear Murray, needs few flowers of speech)
To make men happy, or to keep them so'
(So take it in the very words of Creech)—
Thus Horace wrote we all know long ago;
And thus Pope quotes the precept to re-teach
From his translation; but had none admired,
Would Pope have sung, or Horace been inspired?

Chesterton claims that Byron’s optimistic pessimism only runs through his early works. By the time he wrote Don Juan, according to Chesterton, he was so thoroughly cynical, he could only throw one last disdaining guffaw at the human race. But I haven’t found that to be true in my reading. As I mentioned in the previous post, Don Juan has a lot of humor. It also has a lot of affection for several of his characters. Sure, Byron reveals the brutal truth – as he sees it – behind the masks of love (either an illusion or an infatuation with self), marriage (the original interest always wanes), morals (he doesn’t regret his youthful indiscretions and in fact finds that the experience – even the experience of negative consequences – makes him wiser), Wellington (wouldn’t his pension be better spent on the poor?), kings (selfish tyrants, all), high society (it consists of only two groups: the boring and the bored), Wordsworth (inscrutable), fame (which lasts only as long as the paper or stone that tells the story), power (the jailer is bound to the jail as much as the prisoner), war (the gains are almost never worth the cost), and more. But he also claims to be writing for the purpose of improving the world: “My object is morality (whatever people say).”

One thing Byron consistently praises is the experience of old age, as shown in this exchange between the young Juan and an older man:

'You take things coolly, sir,' said Juan. 'Why,'
Replied the other, 'what can a man do?
There still are many rainbows in your sky,
But mine have vanish'd. All, when life is new,
Commence with feelings warm, and prospects high;
But time strips our illusions of their hue,
And one by one in turn, some grand mistake
Casts off its bright skin yearly like the snake.

And apparently the greatest lesson of experience is not to commit the passions.

The nightingale that sings with the deep thorn,
Which fable places in her breast of wail,
Is lighter far of heart and voice than those
Whose headlong passions form their proper woes.
And that 's the moral of this composition,
If people would but see its real drift.

Is this pessimistic? I prefer Bruce Catton’s characterization of Byron as melancholy. But better still would be to say that Byron, living in the Romantic age, had a view of the world distinctly unromantic. He admires the disillusionment of the old man Don Juan talks with (had Byron not admired, would he have sung?) and seeks the same for his audience. But, publishing the work bit by bit over time, Byron found as he went along that the romantic public wasn’t in the market for disillusionment. So he answered the public’s criticism of his poem by unclothing it himself to reveal its humble purpose and feeble reach.

O Love! O Glory! what are ye who fly
Around us ever, rarely to alight?
There 's not a meteor in the polar sky
Of such transcendent and more fleeting flight.
Chill, and chain'd to cold earth, we lift on high
Our eyes in search of either lovely light;
A thousand and a thousand colours they
Assume, then leave us on our freezing way.

And such as they are, such my present tale is,
A non-descript and ever-varying rhyme,
A versified Aurora Borealis,
Which flashes o'er a waste and icy clime.
When we know what all are, we must bewail us,
But ne'ertheless I hope it is no crime
To laugh at all things—for I wish to know
What, after all, are all things—but a show?

They accuse me—Me—the present writer of
The present poem—of—I know not what—
A tendency to under-rate and scoff
At human power and virtue, and all that;
And this they say in language rather rough.
Good God! I wonder what they would be at!
I say no more than hath been said in Dante's
Verse, and by Solomon and by Cervantes;

Ecclesiastes said, 'that all is vanity'-
Most modern preachers say the same, or show it
By their examples of true Christianity:
In short, all know, or very soon may know it;
And in this scene of all-confess'd inanity,
By saint, by sage, by preacher, and by poet,
Must I restrain me, through the fear of strife,
From holding up the nothingness of life?

In his attempt to strip man of his pride, I’m with Byron all the way. And of course I see the connection he highlights between his message and that of Ecclesiastes. And yet, does not the loveliness of Byron’s language speak to a somethingness of life? For, though quoting the most familiar phrase from the Preacher’s book, he neglected to quote the next-most familiar, which localizes the vanity with relation to the Sun.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Four Surprises in Byron’s Don Juan

Before this year, I hadn’t read any of Byron’s poetry other than the short poems that show up in anthologies for English classes: “She Walks in Beauty,” “When We Two Parted,” and such. But I had an idea what I would encounter, knowing that Byron had a reputation for being a libertine. Last year I read a scene in A Stillness at Appomattox in which Bruce Catton characterized some of Byron’s works as melancholy. So my barely founded idea was that I’d find in Byron a poet who glamorized no-strings relationships and could grow wistful about lost loves. Deciding to start my encounter with Don Juan, I assumed I would jump right in to a poetic tale of just such a characer.

But Don Juan surprised me in several ways. First, it’s much longer than I thought: as long as a novel. Not knowing its heft, I didn’t really plan enough time to read it, so I’m pulling double shifts to get through it. But fortunately,it surprised me in a second way by not often using unusual words or complex, inverted grammatical patterns. So it’s not very difficult to read. The third surprise is that the lead character’s name is not pronounced “Hwan” but in two syllables, “JOO-un,” as if rhyming with “new one,” a rhyme which in fact Byron uses.

And that remark leads to the fourth surprise: Don Juan is funny. The opening story, for instance, is a romp involving Juan, his inattentive father, his mother who is proud of her education and wants more physical comfort than her husband provides, the neighbor who grants her desires, and his young wife, who turns to the teen-aged Juan for what she fools herself into thinking will be a Platonic relationship. Such stories usually end up comical farces, but in other episodes Byron finds humor in travel, court life, and even war:
Our friends the Turks, who with loud 'Allahs' now
Began to signalise the Russ retreat,
Were damnably mistaken; few are slow
In thinking that their enemy is beat
(Or beaten, if you insist on grammar, though
I never think about it in a heat),
But here I say the Turks were much mistaken,
Who hating hogs, yet wish'd to save their bacon.
As you can see, Byron matches the humor in the story with humor in his poesy, such as making fun of his own bad grammar and using “bacon” both as a bad pun and as a surprising rhyme to “mistaken.”

Byron uses even sillier rhymes in this description of the Russian army:
Achilles' self was not more grim and gory
Than thousands of this new and polish'd nation,
Whose names want nothing but—pronunciation.

Still I 'll record a few, if but to increase
Our euphony: there was Strongenoff, and Strokonoff,
Meknop, Serge Lwow, Arsniew of modern Greece,
And Tschitsshakoff, and Roguenoff, and Chokenoff,
And others of twelve consonants apiece;
And more might be found out, if I could poke enough
Into gazettes; but Fame (capricious strumpet),
It seems, has got an ear as well as trumpet,

And cannot tune those discords of narration,
Which may be names at Moscow, into rhyme;
Yet there were several worth commemoration,
As e'er was virgin of a nuptial chime;
Soft words, too, fitted for the peroration
Of Londonderry drawling against time,
Ending in 'ischskin,' 'ousckin,' 'iffskchy,' 'ouski:
Of whom we can insert but Rousamouski,

Scherematoff and Chrematoff, Koklophti,
Koclobski, Kourakin, and Mouskin Pouskin,
All proper men of weapons, as e'er scoff'd high
Against a foe, or ran a sabre through skin.
On top of the strange names, Byron makes this passage humorous by such techniques as using two words to rhyme with one (“poke enough” with “Strokonoff” or “new one” with “Juan” ) and the frequent occurrence of two superfluous syllables at the end of a line of iambic pentameter (“And more might be found out, if I could poke enough”). I doubted myself for a long time, wondering if these features only sounded funny to me because they were unfamiliar. Maybe Byron just had a unique style that the experts consider lofty. No, my first impression proved true. The excessive syllables and the twisted rhymes involving multiple words all disappear in a passage about the death of a young girl:
Twelve days and nights she wither'd thus; at last,
Without a groan, or sigh, or glance, to show
A parting pang, the spirit from her past:
And they who watch'd her nearest could not know
The very instant, till the change that cast
Her sweet face into shadow, dull and slow,
Glazed o'er her eyes—the beautiful, the black—
O! to possess such lustre—and then lack!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Mighty Plato Has Struck Out

A couple of days ago, I wrote in praise of Plato for all the good conclusions he reached, through reason, about things beyond his human comprehension, as for instance the existence of one, eternal, perfectly good God. I also mentioned a couple of ideas that were charming if not exactly true, such as the creation of the gods of the planets out of fire, and an early atomic theory involving particles that look like RPG dice. But after a couple more days of reading, I’ve soured on Plato some, and for this at-bat, I’m calling him “out.”

Plato’s first strike is a mammoth whiff that misses the ball by a mile. In the Timaeus, when speaking of the senses, he describes some surprising color combinations. A mixture of black and white, it seems, produces blue. Red mixed with black and white produces purple. And a combination of “flame colour” with black yields green. These mistakes are bad enough, but Plato clings to them with a terrible defense of “probability” over experimentation:
There will be no difficulty in seeing how and by what mixtures the colours derived from these are made according to the rules of probability. He, however, who should attempt to verify all this by experiment, would forget the difference of the human and divine nature. For God only has the knowledge and also the power which are able to combine many things into one and again resolve the one into many. But no man either is or ever will be able to accomplish either the one or the other operation.
Previously in the book, Plato explains that we depend on probability only for explanations of things beyond our comprehension. Now he’s afraid to mix paint. The result is a God-of-the gaps theory that completely stultifies science. The same eschewal of simple investigation leads him to say other silly things, such as that when we expire air through the mouth, it comes around and reenters the body through the skin, since nature abhors a vacuum and the space of the expelled air must be filled with something. Did he not see that the torso gets smaller when we exhale?

Strike two comes on that sinker ball that fools Plato time and time again in every dialog. “No one is voluntarily bad,” he says here in the Timaeus; evil actions are always caused either by disease or by ignorance. “Just teach kids that drugs are bad, and they won’t use them,” our school systems say. Right. See how well that’s worked? Aristotle and Aquinas say something similar but significantly different when they say that people always choose what they believe is in their best interest, although sometimes it isn’t. Pleasure is good as far as it goes, but often it seems to be in our best interest when it’s actually not worth the price to be paid later. People might have all the knowledge they need (“Doing this now causes regret in the morning”) but simply not take it into account when faced with an object that excites passion for a meritricious pleasure. Sometimes people even say out loud, “I know I shouldn’t, but . . . ,” just before commiting a vicious act. So, Plato, of course people can be voluntarily bad.

Plato blasts the third pitch down the left-field line, missing a home run by inches. Blood, he says, circulates throughout the body, bringing nourishment to all its members in order to provide growth and replenishment of decaying material. Very good and amazingly prescient. The only problem is that this nourishment comes in the form of triangles that separate and combine to form new particles of earth, water, air, and fire. But substitute minerals, amino acids, proteins, etc., and Plato looks pretty good here.

The manager is a little wary of his pitcher after Plato making such good contact, so he brings in a relief pitcher: George Gordon, Lord Byron. I started Byron’s Don Juan a couple of days ago, and coincidentally found him picking a bone with, of all people, Plato. Very near the beginning of Byron’s poem, young Juan begins his life of lechery in an encounter with a young, pretty wife who thinks she can hold the handsome youth’s hand while pursuing a strictly “Platonic” relationship, a plan that naturally does not work out as she pretends to hope it will. The poet comments:
O Plato! Plato! you have paved the way,
With your confounded fantasies, to more
Immoral conduct by the fancied sway
Your system feigns o'er the controulless core
Of human hearts, than all the long array
Of poets and romancers:—You 're a bore,
A charlatan, a coxcomb—and have been,
At best, no better than a go-between.
By the way, Plato’s original idea of the highest love, as found in his dialog called Symposium, involves sex. It’s just that the sex is all in the service of a love for a person whose exceeding comeliness lifts the lover’s thoughts and inspires him to contemplate divine beauty. The expurgation of carnal knowledge from the idea is a modern alteration.

Either way, it’s strike three. Plato is out.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Plato’s God Has Dice but Doesn’t Throw Them

I first heard of Plato’s Timaeus from a professor teaching the history of music theory at the University of Iowa. He mentioned it as the source of Plato’s explanation for Pythagorean tuning of the diatonic scale, but he also described it as a strange, mystical book difficult to understand. In the following years, I discovered that the Timaeus was not only intellectually elusive, but physically, as well: I couldn’t find it in any available collections of Plato’s dialogs. What a relief to find it in the Britannica set some fifteen years ago! When I finally read it, I found that the mystical part about numbers didn’t form a huge part of the dialog, and one could easily miss the passage about the scale if not reading carefully. And I also found that, far from being difficult to read, the Timaeus was in many ways very familiar.

What is called a “dialog” consists mostly of an uninterrupted disourse by Timaeus telling a creation story, beginning with one eternal, perfectly good God who wishes to make a good world for his pleasure. That’s definitely not the typical Greek myth; in fact, everything so far is consonant with Biblical doctrine. The Timaeus, in fact, reads like an authoritative sacred scripture with its pure narration of God’s doings, but the characters in the dialog deny all inspiration. They insist that the one God is beyond human understanding (also in accordance with the Bible) and that we must accept the most probable account of him that human reason can devise. Paul was right once again, it seems: even without revelation, God’s eternal power and deity are apparent to those who seek to understand Him through his creation.

The Timaeus’s account diverges from the Biblical account eventually, of course. According to Plato, the one God made the first gods out of fire and assigned them to the planets; although he doesn’t name them, its seems clear that Plato is referring to the Moon (Diana), the Sun (Apollo), Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These immortal gods then begat other immortal gods and shaped mortal bodies for other immortal souls that the One created. The creation of the gods sounds a little more like the common Greek religion, but the gods created out of fire could be taken as angels, the Bible’s ministers of flame. The Timaeus was the only Platonic dialog available in Latin to medieval scholars before the twelfth century (ironic considering how hard it was for me to find in the twentieth century), so it’s no surprise that many theologians of the Middle Ages read the dialog, viewed it as Christian analogy, and related Plato’s created gods to the angels that, according to their medieval cosmology, propelled the planets.

Plato’s uninspired reason also told him that all mindless operations produce only things without purpose; anything existing with a purpose must have been planned by an intelligent being. Some modern Darwinists claim that reason tells them otherwise, that materialistic forces can create living things that appear to be designed. Others say that the beautiful, intricate design of life is real, not just apparent, and was created by interstellar aliens. But back to Plato, who, you’ll remember, said we must accept the most probable of explanations. Plato’s Timaeus seems to accept mindless operation of the deterministic world as a secondary cause under God’s control, a cause that works randomly. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t explain clearly how a mind with purpose using natural, deterministic operations creates randomness; perhaps he’s saying that such doings aren’t truly random when seen with a divine mind.

But curiously, the very symbol of randomness – dice -- shows up in the Timaeus. One wonderful passage explains the shapes of the individual particles of each of the four elements, and it turns out they look like the dice from role-playing games. Earth, Timaeus says, has the most stable shape: that of a cube. The other three all have the shapes of regular polyhedrons with equilateral triangles as sides. Fire has four sides, like a three-sided pyramid. Its acute angles cause pain when they tough our skin and help it penetrate even the densest earth. The air particle has eight faces, and the water particle twenty. But Plato says clearly that God works all things in wisdom; Plato’s God, like Einstein’s, does not throw these dice.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Redeeming a Flawed Classic

The first time I read the Aeneid, I found the battles of the last four books wearisome after the more interesting adventures of the first two-thirds of the epic. This time through, these last books seem richer but still unsatisfying. I can sympathize with the Romans’ admiration of courage. But to what end do all the young men in Virgil’s battles make their courageous last stands? I can’t get over these lines:
Henceforth, beneath his [Romulus’] auspices, shall rise
That Rome, whose glories through the world shall shine;
Far as wide earth's remotest boundary lies,
Her empire shall extend her genius to the skies.
Virgil wrote the poem in honor of his patron, Caesar Augustus, and therefore has to hold up the Imperator’s empire as the goal of his history. But I can’t buy into that view, so I can’t fully enjoy the Aeneid’s story.

Do-or-die declarations like this one of the Italian Turnus can’t help but stir the soul of a fan of Rooster Cogburn:
Or [i.e., either] I, while Latins sit and see the show,
Will hurl to Hell this Dardan thief abhorred,
This Asian runaway, and on the foe
Refute the common slander with the sword,
Or he, as victor, reign and be Lavinia's lord.
One of us is going down, he says, and if I am the one to die, at least I’m going down swinging. But see what prize Turnus fights for: the fair Lavinia. Not that he knows anything about Lavinia except that she’s beautiful and the daughter of a king. Turnus is motivated entirely by mad passions, and his passion for Lavinia doesn’t even sit at the height of his madness:
He, wild with love, upon Lavinia fed
His constant gaze, but maddening with unrest,
Burned for the fight still more.
I’m not the only one who can’t fully embrace Roman wars of empire; Virgil himself seems ambivalent about the belligerent Roman outlook. The beauty of his verses glorifies scenes of squirting blood and trampled gore, and surely this aspect of the poem pleased the Dictator of a society that feasted on gladiator games. But Virgil reveals the flaws of the philosophy in some moving scenes involving fathers. Mezentius, for instance, mourns his dead son, Lausus, and gets no solace from the idea that Lausus has died to save his father’s homeland:
Shalt thou, my son, expire,
And I live on, my darling in the tomb,
Saved by thy wounds, and living by thy doom?
The squire of the dead Pallas weighs the costs of war by looking at his lord’s death through the eyes of Evander, Pallas’ father:
Poor boy; hath Fortune, in her hour of pride,
To me thy triumph and return denied?
Not such my promise to thy sire; not so
My pledge to him, who, ere I left his side
In quest of empire, clasped me, boding woe,
And warned the race was fierce, and terrible the foe.
He haply now, by empty hope betrayed,
With prayer and presents doth the gods constrain.
We to the dead, whose debt to Heaven is paid,
The rites of mourners render, but in vain.
Unhappy! doomed to see thy darling slain.
Is this the triumph? this the promise sworn?
This the return? Yet never thine the pain
A coward's flight, a coward's scars to mourn.
Again we see the “quest of empire” as the war’s original purpose, and yet on the day of reckoning that purpose crumbles for the squire. He knows that Evander’s only solace is the knowledge that Pallas didn’t die running from a fight.

The quest for empire -- knowing that the empire in question will survive on slavery, enjoy the spectacle of lions mauling and eating Christians and other outcasts, and keep the “peace” only by the point of the legionnaire’s lance -- leaves me totally cold. And yet I don’t want to dismiss a classic that survives today thanks to the care of medieval Christian scholar-monks. So I look for what good I can. I enjoy the poetic language, of course. (Based on my meager ability for and experience in reading portions of Virgil in Latin, Taylor’s translation seems to preserve the sophistication and music of the original.) But what of the Aeneid’s message? While I don’t see any more benefit in Pallas’ death than his squire does, I have to say that some things are worth fighting, dying, and killing for. There’s a reason I enjoy seeing Rooster gallop across that field with the reins in his teeth and a gun in each hand. So I try to put myself in the shoes of a Roman, put Empire in that space of my mind where worthy causes reside, and find beauty and inspiration in the resolve shown by Virgil’s characters. I don’t agree with the premise, but given the premise, the conclusion follows.

Once several years ago I shared a flight with twenty or thirty Christian college students on the last leg of their return from Southeast Asia. One of them explained to me that they had been on a mission trip when a revolution broke out and that, fearing for their lives, they came home. Naturally, their departure from the troubled country was not easy, and this flight constituted the final stage in an ordeal that had lasted several days: when the plane landed, the exhausted, relieved group burst into cheering. That scene has haunted me ever since. Was their return truly a cause for celebration? I had to ask myself, Do they think they should share the gospel only until their lives are in danger? Aren’t we supposed to preach even when our lives are in danger – especially when our lives are in danger? I don’t know all the circumstances and can’t judge anyone in particular; I don’t know what I would do had I been in their situation, although I hope I would have asked God to give me the courage to do his good pleasure. But I have often imagined how I would react if one of my children had been on that trip and had stayed behind to make the ultimate sacrifice. I don’t know exactly how I would deal with the loss, but I know I would have more comfort than Evander, knowing that my child had lived to die for the worthiest cause.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Virgil’s Remembrance of Things Past

In reading through the Aeneid this time, I’m struck by its constant references to tradition and heritage. The whole poem celebrates Virgil’s patron, Caesar Augustus, by providing him with a divine pedigree. But Virgil also provides stories to explain many other aspects of Roman culture. The practice of closing the doors of the temple of Janus in times of peace, he says, comes from King Latinus. He justifies Rome’s utter annihilation of Carthage with the story of Punic Queen Dido, who tempts Aeneas to abandon his mission. And Virgil traces many Roman clan names back to specific Trojan heroes. Two stories explain Rome’s ambivalent attitude toward Greece. First, Rome’s right to subjugate Greece follows of course since, as the story tells, Roman culture goes back to Troy, which the Greeks destroyed. But the Greek Evander’s willingness to forget all enmity and aid Aeneas sanctions Rome’s respect for Greek art, philosophy, and rhetoric.

But Roman heritage goes back even beyond the time of the story, as Virgil shows by using the Homerian practice of calling each person and tribe by a variety of names that trace lineage. The Trojans are sometimes called Dardans after an earlier king, for instance, and the Carthaginians are sometimes called Phoenicians to reflect their geographical origins. Virgil sometimes refers to individuals through parents’ names, calling Aeneas, for instance, the son of Venus, Achilles the son of Peleus, and Agamemnon and Menelaus the Atridae (sons of Atreus).

This atmosphere of tradition seems to send a message: We are where we come from. The Bible shares Virgil's respect for the past. God reveals Himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, and a blind man once showed both his faith and his knowledge of Scripture by calling Jesus the Son of David. Twenty-first century Americans, on the other hand, seldom use references to heritage, perhaps surprisingly. Why don’t we call the President the Heir of Washington? Why do we speak of amendments to the Constitution and never of amendments to the Madisonian Canon? It could be that an arbitrary, quirky practice of ancient Mediterranean cultures has simply died. But maybe we’ve lost the message.

Now I shouldn’t say that we Americans never remember our past. It's just that we generally save our remembrances for holidays and centenniels, and we usually celebrate these memorial days by buying appliances at sale prices. We also remember so-called self-made men like Ford and Edison in the names of some products. But we don’t have a habit of consciously honoring the past for its glorious self. And if Virgil’s message – we are where we come from – is true, what does that say about us? That we come from nowhere? Maybe the U.S. can’t pretend to have self-made men if her people constantly remind each other of the past that has shaped us. Or maybe we’re just bad students of history.

A short follow-up on Ajax. A few days ago, after reading half the play, I reported that Athena made Ajax mad only to protect him from himself. As it turns out, Athena was in fact toying with Ajax to punish him. But then we discover that Ajax has refused the help of the gods, claiming to be all-sufficient. It seems Henry Ford was not the first self-made man. He should be called the Son of Ajax.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Ghost of Panathenaea Past

Curiously, The Trojan Women of Euripides tells the same story as his Hecuba, but slightly differently. The time is still just after the Fall of Troy, and the dialog still centers on Hecuba as the Greeks take the women as slaves, concubines, or wives. (The captive women don’t see much difference in the categories.) But here, Hecuba doesn’t plead for anyone’s life. This play conveys a sense of utter powerlessness, and gaining an ear to plead with would yield some modicum of power. Instead, Hecuba simply mourns and struggles to find meaning in the scene of slavery and death. In one of her bleakest moments, she sounds a bit like the nihilist Macbeth:
O vain is man,
Who glorieth in his joy and hath no fears:
While to and fro the chances of the years
Dance like an idiot in the wind!
And none by any strength hath his own fortune won.
Cassandra has always attracted me as a character. The gods gave this daughter of the Trojan king Priam the mixed gift of constantly prophesying the truth. Of course no one believes her; the Trojan future she prophesies is one of destruction. The Bible tells some similar stories about kings not believing prophets of doom (II Chron. 18, Jer. 23, I Kings 22, etc.). And I have a lot of experience with leaders who don’t want to hear about bad news or about risks in their plan. So I identify with Cassandra, and I love her scene in The Trojan Women. She sounds a little mad, but then there’s a fine line between inspiration and madness. Hecuba also has a wonderful scene in which she cradles the body of her poor dead grandson, Astyanax (who plays a big part in one of the greatest scenes of the Iliad). She finds some comfort in knowing that people will remember Astyanax as the little boy who frightened the Greeks so much they had to kill him.

When I first started reading the ancient Greek plays some twenty years ago, I preferred Euripides over Aeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides wrote what sounded to me like deep, emotional characters, while the earlier playwrights sounded cold and formal. My view has flipped over the years: the most emotional scenes in Euripides now sound histrionic to me sometimes, but the stately pageants of the originators of the form have grown deeper with my experience. As I started the Aias of Sophocles yesterday, it struck me as much more pious and respectful of the gods than the two other plays I had just read, so in this go-around, I immediately identified with its world more than I did with Euripides’ offerings: its human characters live in a world where right and wrong exist but aren’t always clear to earthly creatures and where the gods are justly worshiped. The Olympians, who in other plays (and, for that matter, in my other current book, The Aeneid) just meddle with humans according to their imperfect whims, seem in Aias to be working all things together for good for those who love them. Yes, the play starts with Aias (better known to our culture as Ajax) having been made crazy by Athena, but she has only struck him with madness because he was about to kill Odysseus and the other Greek chiefs in rage. So she made sheep look like men to him, and the worst he has to deal with when he snaps out of it is humiliation, not the guilt of murder.

But my connection to the play only got stronger when I read this exchange between Odysseus and Athena (which I had not remembered from my previous reading of Aias):
OD. My Queen! what dost thou? Never call him forth.
ATH. Hush, hush! Be not so timorous, but endure.
OD. Nay, nay! Enough. He is there, and let him bide.
ATH. What fear you? Dates his valour from to day?
OD. He was and is my valiant enemy.
ATH. Then is not laughter sweetest o’er a foe?
OD. No more! I care not he should pass abroad.
ATH. You flinch from seeing the madman in full view.
OD. When sane, I ne’er had flinched before his face.
ATH. Well, but even now he shall not know thee near.
OD. How, if his eyes be not transformed or lost?
ATH. I will confound his sense although he see.
OD. Well, nothing is too hard for Deity.
The scene immediately reminded me of the Ghost of Christmas Past. Athena’s playful chiding and ironic questioning (“Then is not laughter sweetest o’er a foe?”) certainly resonate with the Ghost’s method, and two of Odysseus’ lines sound a lot like Scrooge’s. (I’m thinking of “Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!” and “The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can,” from A Christmas Carol.) The G. of C. P. leads Scrooge to see his need for repentance without commanding him, and Athena, too, tries gently to lead Odysseus to see his fellow man not as an object of scorn but as “his business.”

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

In Search of Rome, In Search of Virtue

For reading the Aeneid this time, I chose the verse translation by Edward Fairfax Taylor. The introduction to the book says that Taylor started the translation at 16 (!) and completed it while working as a clerk in the House of Lords. He used the nine-line form of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which seems well suited to the lofty theme of the epic panorama: the irregular rhyme scheme lends a unity without sounding sing-songy, and the periodic weight of the extra foot in the ninth line tolls a stately cadence.

Starting the poem brought to my mind the Iliad, not only because Virgil’s story tells the sequel but also because of the similar tone. In a post from 2010, I said that Homer’s characters try to make good in spite of the gods they are forced to worship. The opening lines of the Aeneid reflect this same tension:
I .Of arms I sing, and of the man, whom Fate
First drove from Troy to the Lavinian shore.
Full many an evil, through the mindful hate
Of cruel Juno, from the gods he bore,
Much tost on earth and ocean, yea, and more
In war enduring, ere he built a home,
And his loved household-deities brought o'er
To Latium, whence the Latin people come,
Whence rose the Alban sires, and walls of lofty Rome.

II .O Muse, assist me and inspire my song,
The various causes and the crimes relate,
For what affronted majesty, what wrong
To injured Godhead, what offence so great
Heaven's Queen resenting, with remorseless hate,
Could one renowned for piety compel
To brave such troubles, and endure the weight
Of toils so many and so huge. O tell
How can in heavenly minds such fierce resentment dwell?
Virgil calls Juno cruel and questions her resentment as if it were not only inscrutable but totally irrational. And still he immediately sanctions Aeneas’ mission by noting his goal of bringing “loved household-deities” to the Italian peninsula. In his moving tale of the Trojan horse and the fall of his city, Aeneas says that he and his comrades fought back “elate, but not with Heaven our friend.” While explaining how the last battle turned against the Trojans, he says:
Next, Rhipeus dies, the justest, but in vain,
The noblest soul of all the Trojan train.
Heaven deemed him otherwise.
Do Virgil and Aeneas truly think that Rhipeus’ justice was all in vain? Do they believe that the gods are so unjust that they have no reward for Rhipeus in the afterlife? Apparently not, since his death indicates to Aeneas Heaven’s disapproval. Yet Aeneas doesn’t say that he only thought Rhipeus was the justest and noblest; Aeneas speaks as if he knows a truth that the gods are not privy to. And thus the tyranny of the ancient gods is revealed: they have more power than their subjects but less moral virtue and knowledge. If Virgil judges the gods by the standards of justice and nobility, doesn’t that make virtues the real gods? Or better yet, doesn’t it suggest a God Who sets the standards?

I once had a Wiccan student who wanted to talk with me about our religions. She told me that all believers worshiped the same God, but each saw Her/Him from a different, limited angle. I was much more interested in hearing her talk about Wicca than she was in hearing me talk about Christianity, so I asked her to elaborate. She said that the Goddess had four aspects, of which one was dark and evil. If I remember this right, she thought I as a Christian saw an aspect of the same Deity that looked masculine and benign. I asked her to explain her goal in life (or lives), and she said it was to become fully good. At that point I jumped in and said it sounded like she wanted to be greater than her goddess. Stunned, she asked me what I meant. “You said your Goddess had an evil aspect, but your goal is to remove all evil from yourself. So your goal is to be better and greater than your Goddess.” “I’d never thought of it that way.” “Well, when you think about it, remember that our Gods are not the same and that I know that I will never, ever be greater than Mine.”

I don’t know if that student represented Wiccans well. Wicca is a religion with a long history and may make more sense than it made to me that day. But I thought of her yesterday as I read about Aeneas, always wary of the evil in his gods and sure of his understanding of virtue, but too blind to look for the God that provides the standard of virtue.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Euripides and Honor

Yesterday, I started year 6 of The Plan with Euripides’ Hecuba and Virgil’s Aeneid, a perfect pair since they both deal with events following the fall of Troy. In Virgil’s epic, the noble Trojan Aeneas sails westward with the promise of founding Rome as a new Troy. In Euripides’ tragedy, Hecuba, captured queen of the fallen city, mourns as she sees her children killed in the aftermath of the war.

The play focuses on honor, both honor in life and honor in death. Hecuba pleads at one point for permission to die along with her daughter, Polyxena, offering the reasoning that dying on one’s own terms is better than living as a slave. Polyxena herself must die for honor – the honor of Achilles, whose spirit appears to the Greek chiefs and demands her blood in return for all he did for them. Agamemnon asks the pleading Hecuba simply, Do you think it right that I should dishonor a friend and a hero?

As I returned to ancient Greece yesterday, the culture struck my twenty-first century suburban sensibilities as barbaric and heartless: after all, why assume that honoring Achilles means killing a girl? But the play doesn’t just accept the bloodlust; the whole idea of the story is that what sounds good to the Greeks in theory brings terror to the life of the sympathetic main character. Euripides seems to be challenging his culture’s brutal assumptions, although not necessarily with anything satisfactory to offer in its place.

I wonder how much Euripides shaped his contemporary’s doubts and how much he reflected them. Both Hecuba and Agamemnon believe in the gods; it’s hard not to when the spirit of a demigod shows up demanding a sacrifice. The character Talthybius, on the other hand, questions the existence of the gods when he sees the once-glorious queen debased to dishonorable servitude. But then what was an ancient Greek to do, with a mythology that gave him whimsical gods? The chorus tells Hecuba to pray but admits that the outcome is a coin toss: “Either thy prayers will prevent thy being deprived of thy wretched daughter, or thou must behold the virgin falling before the tomb, dyed in blood gushing forth in a dark stream from her neck adorned with gold.”

Reading Hecuba makes me grateful for God’s revealed teachings (1) that God is not whimsical and works even pain and evil for good, (2) that he does not require the blood sacrifice of children, and (3) that, though we are all slaves to something, being a slave of God is the greatest honor a human could receive. But I can’t say that even these doctrines solve all the conundrums or make it easy to accept war and the death of children. So I’m grateful, too, that Euripides wrestled with these great questions and that his searching words survive.