Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Politics" [Book I]: Slavery In the Ancient World

Overall, while I still prefer Plato, I enjoyed the first book of Politics significantly more than the first book of Ethics.

The first thing a modern reader will immediately zero in on in the first book of Aristotle's Politics is Aristotle's views on slavery. It's commonly held that our ancestors kept slaves unquestioningly and then via Abraham Lincoln we morally progressed past the barbaric practice.

First of all, here we have, right out of the mouth of an Ancient Greek, proof that the unquestioning part is false:
"Others affirm that the rule of a master over slaves is contrary to nature, and that the distinction between slave and freeman exists by law only, and not by nature; and being an interference with nature is therefore unjust."
 Later Aristotle disagrees with this view and argues that slavery (or at least hierarchy) is natural; that those with higher brain function are meant to rule and those of physical strength are meant to serve. However, let it not be forgotten that in Ancient Greece there were those who spoke out against slavery.

This goes a little beyond the scope of Politics, but another thing to keep in mind when discussing slavery in the Ancient World is the difference in circumstances our ancestors were in. It's easy for us say that we will not stand for slavery. After all, countries in the Ancient World didn't have the convenient prisons that we have, at least not at the mass size that we have today. Most countries in the Ancient World, largely thanks to geography, were almost constantly in a state of either war or threat of war, which means war prisoners. Ancient Egypt was rarely at war, again thanks to geography, and therefore had few slaves. So what should these countries do with the surplus of criminals and prisoners of war? Should you slaughter them all like the Assyrians were prone to do? The nice answer would be to let the prisoners of war become citizens, but how long would that last before their numbers swelled and they started a rebellion? Also, we have technology and machinery to do the work that hitherto depended on slaves, so we can easily afford to write up the Emancipation Proclamation and act like we're "enlightened".

I'm not saying any of this to condone slavery. I agree with C. S. Lewis on this issue:
"Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters." - C. S. Lewis, Equality
I write merely to make North Americans realize that if we found ourselves in a similar situation as our ancestors, we might not act so differently.  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Ethics" [Book I]

I don't have much to say on this one. The first book in Aristotle's Ethics is very much an introduction. In it Aristotle tries to define happiness and eventually comes to this definition:
"When then should we not say that he is happy who is active in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life?"
In later books he will discuss the virtues that are necessary for happiness.

Two quick thoughts:

Overall, I found Aristotle less enjoyable than Plato. Plato wrote in a more genial way, whereas Aristotle is more serious and technical. Part of it could be the translation, but I also found Aristotle harder to understand. Of course, it could also be my limited brain capacity, but I felt like I could understand more with just a little more clarity or with more examples (Plato was full of examples). This is the first of the Books that I wished I had a tutor for.

Secondly, I thought it interesting that the idea of true happiness happening beyond our earthly life wasn't given much thought. Aristotle briefly touched on what he called the Idea or ultimate good (reminiscent to God), but ultimately left it as a rabbit trail, because he considered it impossible for humans to come in contact with it. I, of course, think differently.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"The Republic" [Books I-II]: On Children's Literature

I have completed the first two books of Plato's Republic (the following books occur later on my reading timeline). The dialogue of the first two books were concerned mainly with the nature of justice and, not surprisingly, it is just as relevant to me as it was to 400 BC Athens.

I was struck by similarities between Plato's writing and my favourite author C. S. Lewis's writing. I have known for a while that Plato was a pretty big influence on Lewis, but I don't think I fully appreciated it until I started reading The Republic. This is the first book of Plato that I read where Socrates is in a dialogue that isn't concerned with his trial or execution. Both Plato and Lewis are lovers of, and have faith in, reason. It's very refreshing for someone like me who can sometimes feel overwhelmed by emotionalism in people to hear cold, hard reason from men who lived and breathed it. Of course, I balance this with my love for fantasy and mythology, as did Lewis.

The part that struck a personal chord with me happens towards the end of Book II. Socrates is talking with Adeimantus about the sort of stories children should read and should be told. It struck me for two reasons. First, that children's literature is my secondary literary passion after the classics (I suppose the third would be Star Wars EU). And secondly, that Socrates is on my side of the argument. Socrates says,
"[...] The narrative of Hephaestus binding Here his mother, or how on another occasion Zeus sent him flying for taking her part when she was being beaten, and all the battles of the gods in Homer - these tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thought."
I completely agree. Personally, I grew up in the shadow of Knights in Shining Armour and, speaking for myself, it's a wonderful way to grow up. Having nearly flawless heroes to look up to (of course, their few flaws are always easy to recognize) in childhood, I think, gives children a focal point for virtue, an idea of the 'golden age' and loss of innocence.

I think it's great for kids to have imaginary role models, because real role models will always let them down. Why settle for anything less than King Arthur or Superman? Socrates's main point was that stories with 'models of virtuous thought' will give children a solid sense of virtue early in life. However he didn't mention the position that idealized stories will give children a false view of the world and is , thus, bad for them. Of course, a day will come when the hammer falls. Not every story ends with a happily ever after, warfare is a messy moral quagmire rather than good battling evil, real knights were not the chivalric heroes we were told they were etc, but this, I think, is essential. Loss of innocence is a universal human experience (it's all over art) and to deprive children of that punch to the gut is not helping them. It hurts, but then it should hurt. Children should not become numb to the injustice of the world by being given early exposure, but they should be appalled by it for the evil that it is.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Lysistrata": Vulgarity In Art

The year is 2010. I'm in Grade 12 English. I look at the cover of the new book we will be studying, the title: Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon. For much of my past two English classes the books haven't really been to my taste, but I grudgingly acknowledge they are worthy of some decent discussion. However "Brighton Beach" is where I drew the line. I said then, and I say now, the book had simple, basic characters in simple, basic situations. The snarky pre-teen who thinks he's the most unfortunate person in the world, the over-worked father, the girl who dreams of being a star etc. All have been done to death and there's nothing very memorable about their representatives in "Brighton Beach". When I was finished the book, I felt much the same as when I started. Very little to discuss.

However, what really stuck out to me at the time was the vulgarity of it. Now, let me say right now, this isn't "Christian puritanism". I don't have a problem with sex in art, even, theoretically, perverse sex. It just has to be done right, at the very least taken seriously. In "Brighton Beach" it was really immature, present to give readers (or audiences, as it was originally a play) a dopey grin and say "He just went there!". Stupid, juvenile and it has no place in literature. If you want to sneak this under your bed and have a giggle at night, whatever turns your crank, but don't put it in a classroom to be studied. Brighton Beach Memoirs has the artistic credibility of an episode of Two and a Half Men.

That's how I felt then and, honestly, it's how I feel now. However, Lysistrata (along with The Clouds) had me questioning my stance. Here are books (also originally plays) that have interesting things to say, but also have raunchy humour. Interesting.

Could it be that I was wrong about raunchy humour? Does it have a place in literature? I'm still skeptical. After all Aristophane's plays wouldn't be the first classics to be generally accepted as having flaws. Paradise Lost, also one of the Great Books and one of my personal favourite books, is known to be anti-climactic and to wrongly portray Paradisal sex. It's also sometimes criticized for making Satan an interesting character, but making God bland. Is it possible that I'm right and the raunchy humour in Aristophanes is a flaw? It does seem really immature, like something middle-schoolers would chuckle about after learning a new anatomy word.

Either way, here we are. The works of Aristophanes are among the Great Books of the Western World.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"The Clouds": Experiences with Sophistry

Aristophanes' The Clouds is startlingly relevant to our culture. I accepted pretty early on that classic literature is timeless and can be read, enjoyed, and can provide crucial insight for every generation, but the The Clouds is different. Although, every generation can get something out of it, it seems to be particularly relevant to 20th-21st Century readers.

The setting of The Clouds really does seem like a cultural mirror of our own. A new group of philosophers called the sophists were all the rage and allegedly rejecting traditional Greek thinking in favour of their new way of thinking. In the play Socrates and his sophists rejected the traditional gods in favour of "the clouds" and scientific thinking. The sophists also rejected the reliability of reason and static norms of good and evil. A young Athenian feels justified in beating his father because his father beat him "for his own good" so why shouldn't he return the favour? There's even a small part about homosexuality being socially accepted. And this was 2400 years ago! History truly repeats itself.

This aspect of the play I found very compelling. I especially liked the dialogue between Right and Wrong. In the play Socrates was instructing his students how to win a debate with an inferior argument. These ideas brought me back to my Grade 11 Law class. In this class a pair of students were assigned a topic and a position and were expected to defend this position in a class debate. I was assigned to be for the death penalty and, luckily for me, I'm fuzzy on the death penalty issue so I could debate either way. Me and my partner ended up "winning" the debate, but I won with faulty logic. And I was fully aware of it, but the goal of the debate wasn't (radical thought) finding out the truth, it was about winning. If I used a weak argument that I could see through, but my opponents couldn't, full marks for me! Sophistry is alive and well in modern education.

Now I have to get into the negatives. As a fan of Socrates, I was really upset by his portrayal in The Clouds. According to Apology, The Clouds' portrayal of Socrates is part of the reason for his trial. In The Clouds we see Socrates portrayed as a bumbling fool who corrupts the young by teaching them to reject reason, morality and the gods. Nothing is further from the truth, as seen in Plato's works. As much as this slander frustrates and saddens me, The Clouds serves as an example of the power that slander can have. Socrates' subsequent trial and execution are proof of that. To me, as well as being a political satire, The Clouds serves as a grim reminder to not take portrayal lightly.

I have another gripe, but I'll wait until I finish Lysistrata, because it involves Aristophanes' works in general.

Friday, February 3, 2012

"Crito": Our Debt to the Government

Another delightful read by Plato. Crito takes place in Socrates' cell as he is awaiting execution. His friend Crito comes to visit him and proposes that he and his friends band together and work out Socrates' escape, but Socrates chooses to submit to his government's justice.

It really amazed me, seeing a wrongfully convicted man sitting in his cell and calmly having a conversation with his friend whether it is morally right to attempt an escape. I know my first reaction, if given the opportunity of escape, would be to snatch it and blow a kiss to the guards as I slip through their fingers. Heck with the government! You wrongfully convict me, I escape. Simple as that.

Of course, this is what I've grown up with. Many stories I grew up with were about a small group of freedom fighters taking on the empire that has been oppressing them. Once the empire tramples on our rights, everyone to arms! Though I'm Canadian, figures like George Washington are presented to me as a hero rather than a trouble-maker. This view of submitting even when the government is wrong is utterly alien to me, but very interesting as well.

One thing to keep in mind is that in Crito the government was mistreating Socrates alone. If the government had been oppressing a larger group, I suspect Socrates might have responded differently, but I can't do his speaking for him. As it was, Socrates only had to contemplate whether it was righteous for an individual to escape wrongful conviction.

The most startling of Socrates' reasons for remaining in his cell was that he thought he owed the government his life. After all, it was the government that married his mother and father and therefore without the government, he may not exist. My personal debt is larger. Not only did the government allow my parents to marry (they might have defied the government and done so anyway), the Canadian government allowed my father to move from his home in the Netherlands and become a Canadian citizen. Do I owe a life debt to the government and would it be unnatural for me to take arms against it? I'm not sure if I wouldn't take up arms, but at the very least it's something to think about.

However Socrates wasn't the only person to be affected if his escape took place. Then not only would Socrates be on the run, but also his friends who would have been able to lead normal lives except for their helping him escape. He also had his children to consider. Crito tried to convince Socrates that it was unfair for their children to lose their father, but Socrates replied that it would be better for them if he died. If he lived, he would take his children with him and they would grow up as exiled fugitives, whereas if he died, they could be raised by his friends, be given a good education and would be able to live good lives.

I'm in awe.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Apology": Socrates and Batman

I've now finished Plato's Apology, the first Book on the list. This was my second time reading Apology and it amazed me just as much this time around. Socrates's unwillingness to submit to falsehood and a life without virtue in the face of death, is truly inspirational. I could easily gush about Socrates's awesomeness for the entire post, but I have something else in mind.


Even during my first reading, I couldn't help but think about Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, especially The Dark Knight.

Socrates was asked why he didn't pursue a respectable career, like a politician, if he wanted to  fight for truth and justice. Why resort to being a philosopher? An unpaid philosopher at that. Socrates replied,
"Be sure, gentlemen of the jury, that if I had long ago attempted to take part in politics, I should have died long ago, and befitted neither you nor myself. Do not be angry with me for speaking the truth; no man will survive who genuinely opposes you or any other crowd and prevents the occurrence of many unjust and illegal happenings in the city. A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time."
 Bruce Wayne came to a similar conclusion in Batman Begins. Socrates decided to live a quiet life as a philosopher and help as many as he could to gain wisdom, because he would soon get killed opposing injustice in public squares. Bruce Wayne has a desire to fight injustice, but realizes he cannot do it as himself: he must become a symbol. Both Socrates and Bruce Wayne realize they cannot walk right up to the corrupt and demand justice or they will be killed very quickly. They must do it covertly. Socrates teaching in obscurity, Bruce Wayne donning the persona of a harmless, drunken billionaire.

In The Dark Knight we see a different approach to fighting injustice in Harvey Dent. Dent doesn't want to hide. He made his cause known to all during his "I Believe in Harvey Dent" campaign and continues to rattle the cages of criminal organizations. He is incredibly successful at first and even Bruce Wayne begins to think that Batman will no longer be necessary now that Gotham has its true hero. Then enters the Joker - the agent of chaos - and Harvey Dent's words proved prophetic: "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain". Dent fought injustice publicly and paid the price. He lived long enough to see himself become the villain, but he also died a hero, thanks to Batman.

Batman knew that Gotham would lose hope when they realized their hero, Harvy Dent, had become a murderer so he took the blame upon himself. He knew that Gotham would hate him for it, but "that's the point of the Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice". Such is the life of good men.

Socrates managed to cause all kinds of trouble by showing people their faults and instructing them to lead a life of truth and virtue. He managed to live to 70. Unfortunately, Socrates managed to rattle the wrong cages and found himself thrust out of living an obscure, private life. His interference came to the attention of powerful people like Meletus and they made sure his influence was ended permanently.

As of now, we don't know what will become of Bruce Wayne, but perhaps the poster for the next Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, holds a clue:

What interests me most about this poster is not that Batman's mask is in pieces, but that it isn't on his face. It would imply that somewhere, dead or alive, is a maskless Batman, his secret exposed to the world. In this scenario, if Bruce Wayne isn't already dead, like Socrates, he soon will be. People like Meletus will make sure of that.

All of this is just speculation. We will all know the fate of our hero on July 20, 2012.

Luckily for us, and perhaps the people of Gotham, though heroes can be killed, their influence will never die. Meletus may have thought he could stop Socrates's influence by killing him, but the jokes on him. Today, 2400 years later, the teachings of Socrates, as recorded by his student Plato, lie conveniently in my hands, and in the hands of any who wish to learn from him.
"People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne, as a man I'm flesh and blood. I can be ignored I can be destroyed but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting." -Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins



The Dark Knight Rises poster:

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Some Quick Thoughts On 'The Great Conversation'

I wasn't expecting to post a blog on The Great Conversation, the introductory book to The Great Books of the Western world by Robert M. Hutchins, but here I am. 

This book started out about how the traditional Western education was founded on the Great Books and how the Books have since fallen under the radar. Some good stuff about how modern thinkers threaten to outmode the Books, labelling them as archaic, illusory and irrelevant in the light of modern science. Hutchins then went on to lament against modern education and, while I am so with him on this, I felt he was getting a little of track. 

However, it wasn't until Chapter VIII when things started to get... trippy. For the next two chapters Hutchins asserted that a "world law" was needed for the future. Effectively, a world democratic government. The Great Books were needed for wisdom to bring this visionary Babel of his to life. In all honesty, I was astonished by this. I have to say, though I hate to say it as it sounds terribly pretentious coming from an 18 year-old to a well-educated man, this ideal is so naive. We've all learned from Star Wars that republics turn to empires. What do you do when the government becomes corrupt and starts gunning for you? Flee the country. If this vision became a reality, there would be no other country. Not to mention the inevitable assimilation of the world's cultures and moral relativistic quagmire resulting from compromise. Everyone must be happy. This isn't the only example of this naivete. He also said, in the same chapter,

"The United States is unlikely to endanger peace through malevolence. The people of this country do not appear to bear any ill-will toward any other people; nor do they want anything that any other people have. Since they are devoted to their own kind of society and government, they do not want any other nation to threaten the continued prosperity of their society and government Any military moves made by the United States will be made in the conviction that they are necessary for the defence of this country."

I'm sorry, but since when were Americans exempt from human depravity? Or good old human stupidity? We're all in the same boat.

The following chapter outlined how an understanding of the Great Books is essential for unity with the East (esp. Russia, this book was published in 1952), making the introduction to a timeless collection of books dated. These two chapters presented the Books as a means to an end, a very specific end. What happens if you don't share the author's political opinions?

Luckily for me, the Great Books stand for much more than a political agenda.

As a side note, Hutchins said that he felt, in some ways, a student who hadn't grown up in public school might be better prepared for the Great Books, because he wouldn't have the prejudices (or 'chronological snobberies' as C. S. Lewis would say) that the schools would impart on him. Good thing I was home-schooled then. 

Next up: Plato's Apology.