Friday, January 30, 2015

The Athenian Stranger

I wrote last year on the hypothesis that Plato, however much he might have fictionalized his teacher Socrates in the Socratic dialogs, didn’t put words into his teachers’ mouth that he couldn’t have imagined Socrates at least supporting. The scholars probably know all about this theory and can either prove that it’s true or prove that it’s false. I’m just a guy who reads and has ideas, and it simply seems to me that it has to be that way; why does Plato have Socrates sit mutely on the sidelines in the Sophist if in so many other dialogs he’s willing to have an ahistorical Socrates say whatever he himself wants to teach?

This year, in reading half of Plato’s Laws, I still think my hypothesis holds up pretty well. Here we have a stranger not from Elea but from Athens. So again, if Plato is willing to have his fictional Socrates say things the historical Socrates wouldn’t have agreed with, and if he needs an Athenian to make this dialog with a Spartan and a Cretan work, why bring in a “stranger” instead of just using Socrates again, as he did in so many previous works? I think Plato has parted ways with some of Socrates’ vews by this point in his career (the Laws is supposedly a late work) and doesn’t want to distort the image of his beloved teacher past recognition.

Both this work and the much more famous Republic set out an (in Plato’s mind anyway) ideal state. But I’ve noticed many differences between the works. Two differences especially stand out to me. First, the Athenian Stranger says that the education of a noble man makes him a better person. Plato’s Socrates usually has a higher opinion both of education and of the human heart; he typically says that anyone – presumably even a person of less than noble character – yes, anyone who knows the right thing to do will do it. I’ve complained about this naive view before, and I was relieved last week to see that the Athenian Stranger improves on it.

The Athenian Stranger also parts from Socrates in his practical realism. While Plato's Republic stays in the realm of the ideal, the Laws deals with a very practical situation: Cleinias, a young Cretan, has been invited to start a colony and can establish any laws in the colony that he wants. Within the world of this dialog, the three interlocutors want to come up with laws that will actually work. And the Stranger has to admit that real people won’t stand for his ideal state. The conclusion he comes to halfway through (which is as far as I read this year) is that Cleinias will first have to establish a provisional government with familiar laws and then teach the offspring of the colonists the ideals of government. Maybe in thirty years the new generation can implement the ideal laws. Well, Athenian Stranger, did you forget your own words? That will only work if all the children have noble souls.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Plato, Alcohol, and Music

Whether it’s Socrates, the Eleatic Stranger, or the Athenian Stranger, the leading character in Plato’s dialogs always values the acquisition of virtue more than any other other goal of life and almost always gets around to the education of youth with regard to virtue. In the Laws (or at least in the first six books of that lengthy conversation, which is all I’m reading this year), Plato concentrates on just two virtues to teach to the young: courage and temperance. He finds that both have a relationship to fear, but he must define two types of fear in order to explain. We fear pain and harm to our bodies, and we fear harm to our soul and reputation. The first fear we have to overcome when the greater good demands it, and the virtue of courage leads us to do what we fear in order to achieve that greater good. The second fear – fear of harm to the soul and reputation – we should inculcate, since it keeps us from doing unwise and impious things; in other words, healthy doses of the second type of fear make us temperate.

So now the problem becomes this: how do we teach our children to despise the one type of fear and reverence the other? The first task is easy and obvious. The curriculum also happens to be in place already both in Plato’s ancient world and in our twenty-first century culture. We begin to teach children courage in the face of pain through gymnastics. The program works, says the Athenian Stranger to his companions in the dialog, because the gymnasium is filled with fearful situations. Every rep brings more pain; every wrestling match brings a new potential for injury.

The second half of the agenda, though, is a bit surprising and would drastically change the face of schools ancient and contemporary. The Athenian Stranger argues that, if we teach our future citizens to diminish the first kind of fear by surrounding them with that fear, analogy dictates that we teach them to augment the second kind of fear by putting them in a fearless situation. And how do we do this? Wine. That’s right. Instead of sock-hops, we should be offering our adolescents regular opportunities for supervised drinking parties! Each student is allowed only a moderate amount, of course. But still. Hmmm.

The Stranger doesn’t approve of unsupervised drinking and thinks it should be outlawed. But he finds one other place for regulated consumption in his ideal state: at the public singfest. Music, he says, can affect a culture more than legislation, especially if all the youth sing all the same songs with all the same kind of lyrical content. And, obvs!, we can’t trust songwriters to pen ditties that are good for the kids. So we should encourage the poets to write songs promoting civic and religious virtue and get everyone in the city together on a regular basis to sing them. It sounds fun and workable at first, but there’s one snag. Naturally, we have to have the old men sing these songs, because we want the most honorable segment of society to model the desired behavior to their heirs. (Women, not so honorable in Plato’s view.) But old men get intimidated, and they can be embarrassed by the age-induced changes in their voices. So we have to eliminate their inhibitions, and the vine-covered hillsides of the Hellenic world provide the perfect means.

So Plato sounds a little irresponsible in parts of this discussion. OK, he actually sounds delusional. Chaperone polite drinking symposia for the youth and then outlaw alcohol for adults? And yet in the rest of the argument he sounds profound and urgently relevant. The ancient philosopher couldn’t have foreseen the power of mass dissemination of electrically recorded music. But we have a culture (or rather a culture of multiple cultures) in which young people all know and sing the same songs of dubious virtuous content. And our country doesn’t want to change the situation. We (collectively, at least) villified Tipper Gore for wanting to put warnings on albums. That’s censorship! What happened to freedom of speech! Well, Plato wants freedom just as much as the next democrat (arguably more than the next Democrat). But he asks: how free is a society raised by musicians who ridicule virtue?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Pip’s Poetic Vision

I’ve read Great Expectations two-and-a-half times before, but I didn’t remember noticing Pip’s penchant for poetry. He has a poet’s eye, a poet’s interest in words, and a poet’s (at least a romantic poet’s) sensitivity to messages in natural phenomena–Shakespeare’s “books in the running brooks” and “sermons in stones.”

The first ingredient fills Pip’s narrative. His imagination runs as he looks up at the night sky: “And then I looked at the stars, and considered how awful it would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death.” He admits to Estella (rather late in the book) that he sees her in every place and in everything. He does in fact tell the reader so often that he “sees” Estella, it is sometimes difficult to tell when he means us to take the word literally.

Of course he has the second ingredient of a poet’s mind: the ability to express the poetic vision in words. Consider this observation from chapter XIV:
I had believed in the best parlor as a most elegant saloon; I had believed in the front door, as a mysterious portal of the Temple of State whose solemn opening was attended with a sacrifice of roast fowls; I had believed in the kitchen as a chaste through not magnificent apartment; I had believed in the forge as the glowing road to manhood and independence.
In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Pip’s most customary mental operations involve visualizing things where they literally aren’t and analyzing words. After receiving a letter from Mr. Wemmick warning him, “Do Not Go Home,” Pip spends a restless night in an inn occupying his mind with two activities: seeing the words “Do Not Go Home” on the tiles around the fireplace and conjugating the present imperative negative of “to go home”: do not thou go home, let him not go home, etc. Images and words.

Interestingly, his love of poetic expression starts long before he becomes educated through the first installment of his Expectations. When his childhood neighbor recites Collin’s “Ode to the Passions,” Pip critiques both neighbor and poet. In thinking of a popular ditty of his time, he tells the reader that its lyric contains an “amount of Too rul somewhat in excess of the poetry.”

But if the recipe for a poet requires as a final ingredient a connection to truth, Pip ultimately fails. Where Pip thinks he’s seeing through things and interpreting them usefully and correctly, he isn’t. He misinterprets and misjudges his fortune, Miss Havisham, Estella, what it means to be a gentleman, and Magwitch. But then there wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Grim Expectations

You should know when you start out reading Great Expectations that you aren’t going to get the usual happy Dickensian ending. The dinner spoiled near the beginning by soldiers and runaway convicts and feelings of guilt is a Christmas dinner. This from The Man Who Invented Christmas. One of Scrooge’s lessons comes from seeing that in every place, even in the most abject circumstances, people can always find some joy in Christmas. But Dickens found little joy in this imagined Christmas. He must have been in a dark place indeed if he needed to ruin Pip’s holiday dinner even before the novel has really taken off. So it should come as no surprise that we soon meet a crazed, unforgiving old woman who keeps her unenjoyed, ages-old wedding cake, now covered with cobwebs and feeding fat, blotchy spiders. And we shouldn’t be surprised at the ending. Dickens’s publisher made him tack on a happy wrap-up to this book, but it makes absolutely no sense. Whatever your edition includes, when you read this great classic, make sure you read the original, dark last page.

Yes, the road to Pip’s final disappointment is dark. But none of this suggests that Dickens doesn’t dazzle us with light and humor along the way. There’s good-natured Joe Gargery, always fumbling to find the wrong word. There’s the crazy Pocket family, whose children don’t grow up but tumble up. And there’s the astonishing Mr. Wemmick, who, among other delightful eccentricities, fires off a cannon at nine o’clock each evening just to please his deaf Aged Parent.

One of my favorite happy scenes involves young Herbert Pocket, who, upon meeting young Pip one day, challenges him to a fight. “By the rules!” he cries. “Choose your field!” The pale young Herbert dances and poses and squirts himself from a water bottle just like a professional pugilist. But to no avail. After Pip lands four solid blows while his opponent fails even to make contact, Herbert grabs his vinegar-soaked sponge and throws it. “That means you won,” he explains with a grin.

Herbert doesn’t fight out of anger, and he isn’t disappointed when he loses. He boxes because the pageantry and paraphernalia all delight him. As I read the familiar scene again the other day, I thought about hockey games with my junior-high pals. Like Pip and Herbert, whom I take to be just about junior-high age, we didn’t just play to score goals. We had intermissions between periods. We had self-appointed broadcasters calling the play. No puck ever went in a net without at least one of us boys yelling, “He shoots . . . he scores!!” in exactly the rhythm and intonation that we had all heard Blues announcer Dan Kelly use hundreds of times. We even had fake fights. We routinely saw players square off at professional hockey games, so that’s what we did, too. Every once in a while – for little reason or for no reason – two players from opposing teams would throw down their gloves, grab each other, and roll to the ground. Naturally, the rest of us, mimicking the NHL players we idolized, immediately stopped playing and found an opponent to wrestle with. When it was all over, we would assign five-minute penalties to the originators and have a new face-off. It was glorious.

The fight scene between Pip and Herbert must have come from experience. And if remembering my adolescent hockey adventures brings me such joy this morning, surely writing that chapter must have brought a smile to the author even in the middle of composing his grimmest work.

Monday, January 12, 2015

I Laughed, I Cried

When I set about reading three plays by Euripides and one by Aristophanes, I suppose I had a vague expectation, based on experience, that I would encounter three tragedies and one comedy. I’m sure my mind never fully realized the thought of that expectation, but its real existence became clear by rhe surprise I experienced at finding one comedy, one tragedy, one tragedy that turned into a comedy at the end, and one of neither category – or both. If the Cyclops can be considered the protagonist of the drama named after him, then I suppose I must call it a tragedy. But from the point of view of Odysseus, the escape from a blinded monster screaming, “No one has gouged my eye out!” has to appear a happy ending.

Euripides’ Ion starts out like a typical tragedy but has to be called a comedy (in the Aristotelian sense) because everything works out so swimmingly in the end. Apollo has forced Creusa, and she bears a son. Ashamed, she leaves him to die, but Apollo has Mercury bring the boy to his temple in Delphi, where the (still nameless) boy is raised by the priestess and learns to tend the site. Cut to the present. Creusa has married Xuthus, but, still childless, they go to Delphi to ask the god for aid. Apollo has nothing to say to Creusa but gives Xuthus the temple boy as a son. Jealous, Creusa tries to have the boy killed. When he finds out, he tries to have her killed. But – Surprise! – the aged priestess reveals the relationship, and everyone leaves the scene literally one happy family. Xuthus names the boy Ion, and from him descend the Ionians. He is to have a brother Dorus, from whom descend the Dorians. So, in fact, the three main characters leave the scene one big happy race.

Aristophanes’ Plutus came as no surprise. I had read it before, remembered it being funny and clever, and found just what I had remembered. Chremylus finds a way to give Plutus, the blind god of wealth, his sight. The welcome god now doesn’t bless the just and the unjust alike; he rewards only good character with wealth. But then the good people have everything they need, so trade stops. Or else they just give it all away (because they’re good). Society becomes completely unbalanced, and the personification (she doesn’t seem like a goddess even from a Greek point of view) of Poverty gets the chance to claim that she keeps people and states running. OK, maybe there is a surprise. Since everything ends up in the toilet at the end, Aristotle would call this a tragedy. But it sure is funny along the way; more modern genres give us a chance to call the play a dark comedy or a slapstick.

The fourth of these Greek classics, the Bacchantes of Euripides, I read in college in an Introduction to Drama. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that a civilization would worship a god of wine. I couldn’t believe that a mother would go into such a state of religious frenzy that she would tear her son apart limb from limb. I couldn’t believe that someone thought it would be good for college students to read this disgusting weirdness.

But between that time and now, I’ve come up with a way to appreciate this work. First, I’ve come to think of the gods as, at one level at least, the Greeks’ way of coming to terms with dangerous forces or forces beyond their control: weather, the sea, lust, fire, war, and so on. So of course they would have a god of wine, since drunkenness puts just about everything out of the drinker’s control. And I’ve realized that the word worship had for me at that time only Christian connotations of honoring the ultimate Ground of goodness and ascribing worth-ship to Him. But of course the ancient Greeks had no such definition in mind. So I now think of their worship as an acknowledgement of power and a determination to treat that power with respect. With those two changes of perspective, I now see the sense of worshiping a god of wine.

This view suggested a whole new reading of the play this time through: the Bacchantes, far from encouraging son-killing frenzies, actually makes an appeal for responsible consumption of alcohol. Does alcohol demand utter devotion of those who have consumed too much? Yes. Have drunken parents ever killed children they would otherwise never wish to harm? Absolutely. The mother in the story, Agave, comes back to her senses at the end and blames Dionysius for causing her son’s death, telling him, “The gods should never stoop to the baseness of human passions.” In one short line, she condemns both god and man. It now seems obvious to me: the message of this play is that humans have an obligation to be good, must overcome their passions in order to be good, and must never become drunk. Not only do I agree and see the importance of the moral, I’m starting to see why some well-meaning editor decided to include the play in an anthology designed for college students.

Friday, January 9, 2015

What Makes Malory Great

“All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” It’s all too easy, especially after weeks of hearing songs about peace on earth and the Prince of Peace, to think that Christ opposes violence. But our Lord’s words to Simon Peter form only one side of a tension about sword bearing in the New Testament. Soldiers repenting of their sins asked the Baptist what they should do, and he did not tell them to put up their swords. Jesus commended the Gentile centurion with the paralyzed slave for faith greater than any He had seen in Israel, a faith based on his warrior’s understanding of authority, and didn’t tell him to put up his sword. Paul tells us that God puts the sword in the hands of governmental authorities for the punishment of wrongdoers.

It’s a tension too subtle for our culture, perhaps. The sword itself is neither good nor evil. But detecting the right uses from the wrong requires discernment, judgment, and careful thought according to standards rather than taste: three activities not currently enjoying a very high place in society’s value system.

But Sir Thomas Malory understood. The battles and the armor and the pageantry and the chivalry and the defense of the defenseless and the punishment of bullies – all of that world that develops from the marvelous drawing of a sword from a stone makes Malory’s Arthurian tales good and memorable and lastingly popular. What makes them deep is the religious symbolism of the Grail story and the tragedy of the breaking of the Round Table. What makes them great is the interaction of these elements and the nuanced view it teaches us. The use of the sword can be good, Sir Thomas tells us. I don’t mean just that the swordplay makes for good storytelling; I mean that the wielding of a sword can be Good with a capital G, that it can be a virtuous act. Galahad jousts and fights (without a shield!) because God supports him in the day of battle; his deeds are commended not only by the narrator but by the Lord. On the other hand, a hermit convinces Launcelot that his life of chivalry – all those great adventures that keep readers coming back to his story – was sinful because it was done for pride.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Malory Turns a Phrase Again

Once more have I returned to the forests of Logres, full of hermitages, castles, mystic rivers with mystic boats covered in mystic samite, and many, many knights errant. The folk here speak a tongue passing strange, the which thou art asked to translate by joining number to letter. Though the test be sore difficult, whoso holdeth the challenge ever in like hard, that hardy soul shall win victory.

1. an
2. benome
3. certes
4. everych
5. hight
6. forthink
7. mickle
8. orison
9. purvey
10. raundon
11. sithen
12. sooth
13. stert
14. stour
15. trow
16. yede

a. battle
b. believe, trust
c. called
d. each
e. great speed, force
f. if
g. much, great
h. prayer
i. prepare
j. regret
k. rose, got up
l. since
m. surely
n. took
o. truth
p. went




1-f, 2-n, 3-m, 4-d, 5-c, 6-j, 7-g, 8-h, 9-i, 10-e, 11-l, 12-o, 13-k, 14-a, 15-b, 16-p

Certes, thou hast none mickle for to forthink an thou hast made errors. For everych correct answer, thou mayst be hight Champion!