Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Notes About Notes

In my second decade of planned reading (2007-2016), I read all of Plato’s surviving works and almost all of Aristotle. For the third ten-year schedule, I decided I would simply read through my extensive notes on all these philosophical works. I thought this exercise would just remind me of the main points and the flow of argument, but some other interesting things have happened.

Take the Republic, for instance. I had read Plato’s blueprint for utopia twice in my life and had some clearish memories about how the dialog felt, how Plato’s version of Socrates got from point A to point B. Some of that flavor made it to my notes, but for the most part I had just recorded main lines of argument and the points stated. As I read through the notes on books I-V ten years after writing them, without the deceptively connective tissue, the arbitrariness of some of the features of Plato’s model society was clearer, the veneer of deductive logic almost transparent. Rulers must come from the military class? Slaves can’t act in plays? (People have to be slaves?)

The genius of Aristotle, on the other hand, seems to shine through no matter how much I condensed his words. In the Prior Analytics, Plato’s most famous student pretty much invents the formal study of logic and then begins to show how to use it in argument before the assembly. His advice covers a wide range: from analysis of your opponent’s syllogisms to knowledge about the psychologically best time to spring your conclusion on the audience. Plato would have dismissed it all as machination in the cause of power rather than truth, but then that’s why he and Aristotle are arguing in Raphael’s painting.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is one of my favorite books of philosophy. Just in books VI-X, which I reviewed this month, he covers many vital topics. He shows me why I sometimes do things I don’t want to do. He outlines the three prototypes of Dickens’s villains (a topic I’ll have to devote a whole post to some time!). He describes various kinds of friendship and helps me understand when and how both to forge a relationship and to break one. He explains why marriages fail (and by extension, how to make them last). His explanation of what a happy man gets out of true friends suggests the reason God, who needs nothing, wants happy people. And if, when Aristotle says in book X that happiness is the virtuous act of contemplation, a Christian recognizes the Triune God as the ultimate object of contemplation, Aristotle’s ending simply becomes a theological treatise on the purpose of creation and life. No wonder Dante gives Aristotle the most honored position among pagan philosophers in Limbo.

Now, to prepare to write this post, I went over the notes I just took this year: notes I took after reading the notes I wrote ten years ago. And now you’re reading my notes about my notes about my notes. You’re so far from actual Aristotle, you should stop looking at my blog right now . . . (hmmm, still here, I see) and read the Ethics for yourself. Of course, what you find there will be a translation of what scholars believe were students’ notes of the master’s lectures. I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Top Three

I can’t agree with Stranger Things’s Dustin about the Three Musketeers candy bar. “It is Top Three for me,” he says to his buddies on their Halloween quest for free sugar rushes. Dustin loves his nougat. Me? I think a Three Musketeers bar is a Milky Way that forgot its best part.

The Three Musketeers the novel, on the other hand, I love. It has both the nougat of historical fiction and the caramel of broad comedy, and with the deliciously grim brooding of Athos, it becomes not just a Milky Way, but a Milky Way Midnight Dark. Yum!

A big part of my current list is meant to recapture the passionate engagement of my adolescent reading, and rereading Dumas’s rollicking tale of D’Artagnan and his friends certainly fulfilled that mission. Of course, the experience wasn’t the same as it was forty-two years ago: I’m not the same person I was then. I loved it this year just as much as I did then, but now I think I understand much better why it moved my teenage self so deeply.

In 1976, the characters of Athos and D’Artagnan especially revealed to me a whole new depth of life I didn’t know was possible. I saw in these heroes a nobility that had (I know I understood this even then) nothing to do with their wenching and their drunkenness. As immoral as the Musketeers are in many ways, at their best moments they act by internal principles. Athos especially avoids reacting viscerally to almost all present circumstances; he acts according to the inner man, a core somewhat shaped by past circumstance, yes, but internalized nonetheless. D'Artagnan on the other hand responds in the heat of the moment most of the time, but he can always explain his knee-jerk reactions as following lessons his father taught him or obeying the code of bravery.

As an adolescent, I didn't really know any philosophy of life, any ethic. My Christianity consisted of believing the right things about events commemorated by major holidays and generally feeling pretty good about not making graven images, murdering, or committing adultery (pretty easy to avoid for a seventeen-year-old suburban kid). My daily, hourly, minute-by-minute conduct, however, reacted to circumstance based on feelings, and both the feelings and the reactions were almost entirely out of my control. Of course, I could (and often had to) justify my actions by some quick moral reasoning. But that was all after the fact. These two characters showed me, maybe for the first time, that there is such a thing as character, deliberate character, shaped and honed by adherence to principle and followed by determined practice until it becomes second nature.

My favorite scene in the book was and still is the lunch at the bastion at La Rochelle. The four companions, needing to work out some plans where the Cardinal’s men can’t possibly hear them, wager their comrades in the attacking forces that they can eat lunch in a rocky ruin in the middle of the battlefield. Their compatriots see the escapade as a daft bit of derring-do, but the Musketeers go to their noisy repast in full assurance of ultimate success. This is not the confidence of adolescence: the irrational sense I had at the age of my first reading that nothing could kill me (except rejection by a girl). It’s trust in training. It’s mature knowledge of one’s own strengths and the enemy’s weaknesses. It’s mastery over fear. This scene has stuck with me and provided a model of courage many times in my life – not all of which, I’m afraid, found me faithfully following the model.

As book lovers know very well, reliving an experience is not always the best way to capture a cherished memory. We reread our favorite books over and over, but that activity can’t rebirth the unique moment of seeing Rivendell or meeting Captain Cuttle for the first time. Books in a series, though, provide the next best thing. Why I didn’t read the sequels to The Three Musketeers when I was seventeen, I can’t tell you. But they’re on my list to read now. We’ll pick this topic up again in 2020, when I’ll read Twenty Years After, and by which time, I hope, we’ll have two more seasons of Stranger Things that I can enjoy for the first time.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

In Which I Use the Word “Mobius-Strippy”

During my second decade of planned reading (2007-2016), I began every year with Greek drama. To begin this year – year 2 of my third ten-year plan – I stayed on the stage but moved forward 2400 years and read some plays by Tom Stoppard. I had read The Real Inspector Hound and The Invention of Love and seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Shakespeare in Love and enjoyed every postmodern, mobius-strippy twist of dramatic logic. So wanting to experience more of Tom Stoppard’s special brand of surreality, I decided, in some way that I’ve since forgotten, to explore Arcadia and The Real Thing in the first few days of 2018.

I hate to be curtly dismissive of the work of an award-winning playwright and critical favorite, but compared to the others I had liked so much, these two plays just didn’t work as well in my view, as much as I again appreciated the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. The Real Thing, for instance, primarily seemed to ask, What is the real thing in relationships? But even the character who believes in romance and commitment divorces his wife and leaves his child. (Maybe romance and commitment aren’t entirely compatible principles.) It's a play about deep moral issues with no foundation other than feelings and ill-trained logic to build on. Living in a post-Christian world is tough for the ethicist, but surely we can’t accept the abandonment of children as the Real Thing.

I liked Arcadia much better, partly because its characters seem more genuinely concerned with the questions it asks: does love intrude on Newtonianism, for instance. But the play offers few answers. It struck me in the end as though Stoppard wanted to delve into the old conundrum of free will and determinism and tried to make it sound original simply by replacing “determinism” with a more specific scientific term (i.e “Newtonianism”). But no less august body of scientists than the Royal Institution named it one of the best science-related works ever written, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. In any case, the non-interacting interaction of characters from different times (Click the timey-wimey link and watch that Dr. Who scene again if you’d like; I’ll wait. —Back? Good, I’ll finish my sentence now. —Yes, I thought so, too.) culminating in a scene in which characters move across the stage like the feet in a cosmic waltz makes me want to see the play in the flesh.

It occurs to me that I’ve liked Stoppard most when the object of his characters’ lines are, recursively, characters and dramatic lines, objects that Stoppard knows very well. Who, ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is writing their lives? Are we watching a play, ask the critics of The Real Inspector Hound, or actually in a play? I have more Tom Stoppard planned for year 5 and year 8 (more details on this page), and I’m curious to see if the pattern of my reaction continues. If only I had my Tardis right here, I’d let you know today.