Saturday, January 30, 2016

Plato and Conclusions

I’m now four weeks into year ten of my ten-year plan to read classic literature. So I’ve been passing important milestones that were only tiny dots on an abstract map ten years ago. A couple weeks ago, for instance, I finished reading all the extant dramas from ancient Greece. At dinner on Thursday evening, I told my wife that I would finish the works of Plato the next day; she asked me if I had any profound conclusions. It was the question I should have expected; but I didn’t, so I was stumped for a while. I finally said something about how it appears that Plato eventually moved beyond his mentor’s thought and so replaced Socrates in the later dialogs with various other characters identified only as “Strangers.” But a different, better answer occurred to me the next morning as I was actually reading the last few pages.

At the beginning of this past December, I noticed a note I had written in the margin of my 2015 schedule next to Augustine’s name: “+ De vera religione.” I hadn’t remembered writing it; I certainly didn’t remember where I picked up the tip to read that treatise by the Bishop of Hippo. But I looked the title up and read it online, a few pages each morning over the holiday break. In that book, Augustine lays out the clearest explanation I’ve come across of the Platonism in his theology, with much more detail than the few words in his Confessions. He says that in reading Plato, he learned the basics of the religion that Jesus revealed openly. “You have persuaded me,” he says, apostrophizing the philosopher, “that truth is seen not with the bodily eyes but by the pure mind,” that lust for the perishable things of this world hinders our perception of truth, that the mind therefore needs healing in order to behold the Eternal, and that all existing things have their being from the eternal God, Who created the world by Truth. He goes to say that he believes Plato would have admitted if asked that the necessary healing of the soul could only come about if God Himself endued a man with divine wisdom from the cradle and gave him the majesty and authority to convert the human race.

So here’s my conclusion – maybe not original, but profound if only in that I now understand the profound conclusions of others. Plato was special. There’s a reason Augustine credits Plato with pointing him toward Christianity. There’s a reason Dante placed Plato in the highest, least hellish circle of hell. Plato saw what so many others in the educated, religious culture of his ancient Athens could not see. In the Laws (the book I finished yesterday, completing my decade-long journey through all of Plato’s writings), he confesses very clearly that the stories of the gods told by the poets and dramatists could not possibly be true and that the Creator, the Mind that moves the heavens in such an orderly way, the Author of the human soul, must be all-wise, all-knowing, all-good, and a righteous Judge. There’s no room here for Zeus wresting power from his father, no room for Hera toying with humans like a cat with a cricket, no room for Aphrodite demanding worship. Yes, Plato tosses in a line about the existence of at least one evil god and the possibility of yet more gods, but his argument focuses on and supports only the one eternal, good, true, wise, loving Ruler of existence. So Augustine didn’t just teach Christianity in Platonic terms; he saw Plato as having received glimpses of the true Light of Heaven and so believed that Plato himself, to the extent of his limited ability, taught elements of Christianity.

So, in more than one sense of the word, I’ve reached conclusions. Plato himself, however, did not come to any solid conclusion that I could find. He approached the end of the Laws saying that the chief guardians of his ideal city should rule by contemplating the one thing that binds all virtues, the one commonality among wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. And the Stranger that leads the dialog says he will not end the discussion until he and his companions have found that common aspect. But I read the last three or four pages several times trying to find it without success. I guess I really should say that I finished reading the works of Plato three times yesterday.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Seventeen Stages of Grief

I dove into Tennyson’s poetry this month with all the wrong expectations. I knew “Crossing the Bar” and “The Eagle,” and I read his Arthurian cycle, Idylls of the King, last year. So, forgetting that he wrote mostly in the latter half of the nineteenth century, not the first, I guess I expected something more Romantic and lush, something more like Shelley. As a result, I spent the whole time being a little disappointed, and yet as I look back over the titles and over my notes, I remember it as an overwhelmingly positive experience.

One of the dissatisfying features I met was a frequently prosaic level of vocabulary. Take these lines from Enoch Arden:
Annie, seated with her grief,
Fresh from the burial of her little one,
Cared not to look on any human face,
But turn’d her own toward the wall and wept.
Sure, the scene of a mother unable to face a visitor just after burying her child elicits emotions, but the language here doesn’t itself especially contribute to the effect. I could even question whether the word “fresh” is the right word to convey the brief lapse of time; once I notice the word, it actually detracts from the proper atmosphere.

I also found it difficult to get through disjointed lines like these from The Princess:
Aglaïa slept. We sat: the Lady glanced:
Then Florian, but not livelier than the dame
That whispered ‘Asses' ears', among the sedge,
‘My sister.' ‘Comely, too, by all that's fair,'
Said Cyril. ‘Oh hush! hush!' and she began.
It’s almost as if Tennyson found that he had too many syllables and, like a Procrustes of poetry, lopped off some key words to make his lines fit the meter. Where did the Lady glance, and why? I think Florian said something, but he doesn’t get a verb, so I don’t know. And I have no idea who or what is among the sedge.

I promise I’ll get to the good stuff and explain the title soon, but I have one more beef to air. I can accept that Tennyson’s figures don’t come anywhere near as frequently as Shakespeare’s or Keats’s, but when they do come, I expect them to make sense. Instead he jarred the flow of my reading often with lines like this one from Maud: "My life has crept so long on a broken wing." Can one creep on a broken wing? A bird trying to fly on a broken wing moves very quickly, increasing its speed, in fact, by 33 feet per second per second. If it walks or hops instead, I suppose the motion could be called creeping, but then it wouldn’t be creeping on the broken wing.

Once I started reading In Memoriam A. H. H., though, I forgave Tennyson everything. I’ll offer this sample from canto LXX:
I cannot see the features right,
      When on the gloom I strive to paint
      The face I know; the hues are faint
And mix with hollow masks of night;

Cloud-towers by ghostly masons wrought,
      A gulf that ever shuts and gapes,
      A hand that points, and palled shapes
In shadowy thoroughfares of thought;
Trying to picture the face of his deceased friend, Tennyson mourns that he can’t call up anything but a generic outline (a phenomenon very familiar to me and one that, coincidentally, I just read about last month in William James). The mourner describes his efforts as a striving to paint, but his canvas is only that immaterial mental blank that we perceive as darkness when we think about vision while our eyes are closed. Not only does the imagined paint have nothing to stick to, but Tennyson finds that his intentional efforts are all answered by involuntary images presenting themselves in a succession beyond his control. They are “faint,” “hollow,” “ghostly,” “palled,” and “shadowy,” and the image the reader gets is one of being lost on a foggy, moonless night in a network of narrow streets in a forgotten city: a discomforting setting that perfectly matches the disorientation death causes.

Trying and failing to recall the deatils of the face of a loved one who has passed is only one of the many stages of grief Tennyson recounts in the poem. Like a lot of people, when I first heard about Kübler-Ross’s model of five stages of grief, I recognized my own experiences and believed someone had found the one pattern of human bereavement. But when I go through In Memoriam and recognize so many other actions and thoughts used to confront loss, I start to wonder why we all bought into the notion that denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance were the five stages. Tennyson also goes through periods of doubt about the afterlife (which includes wrestling with the theory of evolution), guilt for feeling grief, treasuring the pain itself (“ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost . . . ”), imagined conversation with his departed friend, revisiting the old stomping grounds, doubt that the good times were really so good, attempts to recall more memories in order not to lose more than necessary, determination to make the rest of his life better and more joyous (surely more than mere resignation), and more. It all sounds very familiar, and finding my common experience expressed in such eloquence is one of the greatest rewards of reading poetry. T. S. Eliot characterized the work as “the most unapproachable of all his [Tennyson’s] poems.” But for me, it turned out to be the Tennyson work that opened the door to all the others.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Metamorphoses is Transformed

Today’s post must begin with a short autobiography. I was born on June 16, 1959. Then I heard from various sources (mostly television and peers) that most old literature was boring. (Yeah, I skipped some things. I told you it would be brief.) Fortunately, the makers of children’s books promoted the idea that many nineteenth-century novels weren’t boring at all. So Dickens and Verne and Melville and Hawthorne provided my entry into classic literature and great books, sometimes through children’s abridgements, sometimes through Classics Illustrated comics, but often through the real thing. By the time I hit adulthood, I decided that classic books were definitely my cup of literary tea and that I wanted to give myself the education in classic literature I never received in school. But when I started my first, inchoate reading program back in the early 90s, I still had a nagging fear that when I finally read Sophocles or Homer or Dante or Aristotle, I’d discover that they were boring after all. To my joy and amazement, my fears all proved wrong. Every piece of classic literature I picked up kept my rapt interest, even if, as very infrequently happened, I had to say I didn’t like a particular book because of disagreement with its outlook or philosophy.

Then I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I knew the book’s title gave a giant clue about the ending of every story in the book, but still I started rolling my eyes every time a character turned into a bird or a tree just as the story was getting interesting. I couldn’t find a plot or progression to hold the book together, and I found myself simply counting down the tedious pages as a bored junior-high student counts down the dreary days until summer begins. “This,” I said to myself, “is the book I was afraid I would read when I started this project with the classics.”

Ten years ago, as I wrote up my current ten-year plan, I scheduled Metamorphoses for year 10, thinking that I would give it a second chance, but not committing myself to the torture too soon. But now the book is wonderful (in every sense of that word)! Some twenty years after I first read the book, now I can’t quite figure out why I didn’t like it the first time. The stories still string along aimlessly with ever-shifting means of connecting one to another. Every story still involves at least one metamorphosis. But it all makes sense this time, and I can’t wait to get back to it every morning. Maybe it helps this time that I noticed that those unstable transitions between stories mimic the stories themselves. Maybe it’s that I caught the Heraclitean note of constant change in the creation story at the beginning of the work. Maybe it’s just that I’ve weened myself from dependence on a persistent plot line (a realization I’ve written about here and here). Now that I see that – like the characters in Ovid’s stories, like the stuff of his world, like the narrative thread of his mythological epic – my view of Metamorphoses had metamorphosized, I find myself a part of the book. How can I not like it now?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Living with Zeus

Jews and Christians believe in a Golden Age in the Garden of Paradise and in the Fall of our first parents, the wreck of humanity that passes on to generation after generation and which can only be erased through sacrifice. The ancient Greeks also believed in a Golden Age and a Fall. Their fall, however, was not the fall of men but of the gods, the rebellion by Zeus against his father Chronos. The Greeks, too, had their sacrifices, but far from being obedient offerings to a just God who teaches repentance through the sacrament, the Greek sacrifices were offered merely as attempts to placate – or even just temporarily distract – their petty immortal masters. In the mean time, what could good Greeks do other than to try to be better than their gods?

Old Father Time apparently ruled in wisdom, but Zeus pretty much ran the world as a breeding ground for young women to make sport with. And because Zeus was such a problem, his wife, Hera, was a problem. Hera held a specially dark spot in her heart for Heracles (aka Hercules), the son of one of her divine husband’s dalliances. Over the first week of January, I read five ancient plays about Heracles: three by Euripides and two by Sophocles. In each one of them, the hero wants to do good and be a friend to others but can only try to do so during his respites from Hera’s cruelty. During his life, he wrestles Death to win Alcestis back from the grave. After his death he appears to Philoctetes with words of wisdom that ultimately lead to success against the Trojans, and in Euripides’ Heraclidae, he leads Athens to victory against a Peloponnesian invasion.

In the best of the five tragedies, Heracles Mad, the hero returns from his last of his twelve labors (assigned to him by Hera’s lackey, Eurystheus) to find that Lycus, a usurper, wants to kill Heracles’ children because they have some claim to his shaky throne. (Yes, Zeus, usurpers are the bad guys in stories!) Does Heracles defeat Lycus and set his son on the throne? No, Hera drives him mad and makes him kill his own children. (Seriously, how did anyone ever call their service to this virago “worship”?) When Heracles snaps out of it and discovers his horrible deed, he is, needless to say (a phrase always used ironically), devastated. But then, enter Theseus, better than the gods, homo ex machina, to save the day. He tells Heracles that tragedy reveals true friendship by showing who stays with the sufferer through his deepest calamity (hence, no Greek god can ever be a true friend), and then, proving himself in this test of friendship, he offers to take the beleaguered hero back to Athens and settle him in honor.

Some people still try to be better than their gods. I once had a very nice wiccan student who talked religion with me from time to time. One day she explained to me that her goddess has a dark aspect, but that she – my student – tried in her successive lives to quell the dark side in her own soul. When I suggested to her that she was then trying to become better than her goddess, the quiet look of concern on her face showed me that he had never thought of it in that light before. When she told me later that our religions weren’t that different, I was able to point out to her that I could never have the goal of being better than my God. I hope she finds her Way.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Monuments of Literature, Literature of Monuments

Traveling can make reading difficult – traveling that doesn’t involve long flights, that is. I’m eager to get away for an hour in the middle of a work day, find a lonely table in a restaurant, and read some history or philosophy. But why would I take time away from the very things I traveled so far to see? Still, here and there, in the early morning or on the Metro, I’ve been reading Greek dramas and Tennyson poetry the last few days during my visit to Washington, D.C., with my daughter.

But it occurs to me this morning that my most thought-provoking reading lately has involved displays in museums and on monuments. On Thursday, for instance, we walked the circuit of memorials on the west side of the National Mall and around the tidal basin. There’s not much to read, of course, on the Washington Monument. But then we entered the fairly new World War II Memorial, the bright stones of which are replete with text and ideas. Like the War itself, the memorial is too large to comprehend in one glance (or one camera frame). So we moved slowly around the fountains of celebration and peace and unity, and read the quotations by presidents and generals about purpose and achievement, liberation and sacrifice, and we felt an awful thankfulness and that true pride that walks on humbled knees.

From there we walked along the Reflecting Pool and watched some ducks point their tailfeathers up as they fed from the penny-strewn bottom, oblivious to the sacred memories surrounding them. At the west end of the pool, we turned right and started descending a path lined by solemnly dark slabs, reading only a tiny sampling of the thousands of words there. As unlike the World War II Memorial as gabbro is from granite (i.e., as black from white), the Vietnam Memorial has nothing to say about why we went or what we accomplished; even the most tentative statement along those lines would have raised inappropriate controversy. But no one can argue with the meaning of its overwhelming litany of names: These People Did Not Come Back.

Noting that the eastern wall of the Vietnam Memorial points to the obelisk of the Father of the Country, we turned back west to see the Lincoln Memorial reflected in the western wall. Now there’s a mystery not written in words. I know not exactly how, Robert B Emro, but your sacrifice serves the memory of our two greatest leaders, and we honor you for it.

Our breath gradually returned as we made our slow way back up the western ramp to go pay our respects to the Great Emancipator. Since the last time I visited the Lincoln Memorial, both of the speeches memorialized on its inner walls have become dearer to me. I analyze the Gettysburg Address at least once a year with my students as a model of writing. And Ronald White’s book about the Second Inaugural Address has me convinced that what he dubs Lincoln’s Greatest Speech is in fact one of the greatest speeches of history.

We discussed school textbooks on our journey up the hill. Now there’s some weird reading. My teachers and books taught me that the Civil War was not about slavery but about states’ rights. My daughters’ teachers and books taught her the same. But on three separate occasions in the last year, I’ve read the view that history textbooks offer this theory only so they can be sold in the Deep South. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural tells us that “all knew” that slavery was the cause of the war. The Republican Party was founded as the Anti-Slavery party, and the southern states seceded because the openly Anti-Slavery Lincoln was elected. Yes, Lincoln followed his duty to restore and preserve the Union, but for the first year of the war, that meant a Union in which slavery was at least confined to a limited area, whereas the southern states did everything they could to spread slavery to new territories. Of course the Civil War was about slavery!

The question arose as we approached: How much worse might things have been if this extraordinary man had not been here to lead the country through its greatest crisis? Well, first, if Lincoln hadn’t been elected, the country would not have split, and the Civil War as we know it would not have happened. But based on what I’ve read by Shelby Foote, Bruce Catton, James MacPherson, Eric Foner, and others, I believe that American slavery would have continued its legal status, definitely through the 1960s and perhaps even until today. And it would have spread. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the U. S. may well have taken even more of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean (through wars which, along with the Mexican War of the 1840s, might even get monuments on the National Mall) in order to spread the “peculiar institution.” More of these territories would have become states, and the representatives they sent to Congress would have given slavery an unstoppable majority in the Senate and perhaps even in the House. This means the federal government would never have sponsored a transcontinental railroad or land-grant colleges, both of which Congress authorized while southern representatives were gone. The Homestead Act probably would have come about, but it may have required two houses on every tract of free land: one for the family and one for the slaves. In other words, the growth of wealth, education, and freedom would have been stunted in our country. Perhaps some northern states would have eventually seceded (led by Massachusetts probably). And then would America have been prepared to tip the scales in 1941? Would the waters dance in a World War II Memorial on the National Mall? The Mall, in fact, would represent a pro-slavery country, and if there were a Memorial to WWII, it wouldn’t sit between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, because there wouldn’t be a Lincoln Memorial.

The state of Georgia has chosen to represent itself in the Statuary Hall of the Capitol Building by a sculpture of Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy. Now in what other country would you ever see the Second-in-Command of a failed rebellion honored in the nation’s capital? After talking about and thinking about Lincoln and the Civil War and slavery, I looked up Stephens just to check my memory. And sure enough, Stephens said clearly that the Confederacy was based on slavery, that the conflict began because of slavery (pace high-school textbooks), that the Founders of 1776 were wrong to believe all men were created equal, and that the Confederacy was the first country ever to be founded on the “natural law” of white supremacy. And yet he sits in the Capitol Building of the nation that defeated his rebellion, sharing a room with some of those Founders he so firmly disagreed with. It’s a good thing for Georgia that the Founders they so despise believed in free speech, because the presence of their statue of Stephens constitutes the greatest exercise of that right in the history of the world.