Monday, March 18, 2013

"Poetics": Tragedy and Epic Poetry 101

Poetics is Aristotle's classification of poetry. He classifies the different types of poetry and goes over various conventions of poetry and how it can be done well and how it can be done poorly.

"Poetry", as Aristotle defined it, referred both to what we would think of as poetry (i.e. written verse) and also plays, mainly tragedy and comedy. Poetics deals mainly with tragedy and epic poetry. Aristotle wrote a second book about the remaining forms of poetry (e.g. comedy), but it has been lost. Aristotle wrote that poetry is primarily a mode of imitation, which is different, I think, from modern views of poetry. We would probably say poetry, or art in general, is primarily self expression. We tend to shy away from calling art "bad" by saying things like "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "to each his own", but in ancient Greece, art either hit the mark (was a good imitation) or it didn't (was a bad imitation). Like a lot of Greek thought, I find these ideas refreshing and I would be inclined to agree with them. I would love to see an ancient Greek philosopher like Plato or Aristotle walk into a modern art gallery and debate with modern artists and critics. It would make my day.

Even though this book was aimed at tragedies and epic poetry, much of the guidelines Aristotle sets out could be readjusted to fit modern movies or novels. For example Aristotle's listing of the six components of a tragedy (Spectacle, Character, Plot, Diction, Melody, and Thought) seem like they could be applied, with some adjustment, into most forms of story-telling.

I prefer epic poetry to tragedies, but I have to admit, Aristotle gave really good reasons for the superiority of tragedies. He said that tragedies can be enjoyed being watched or being read, while epics can only be read and tragedies relative short length make them pithy while the length of epics can make them diluted and less unified. I think I still prefer epics to tragedies, but I can really see Aristotle's points. Interestingly though, of the epic poetry I've read, my favourites (e.g. Paradise Lost and the "Divine Comedy") were non-Greek; I think I enjoyed the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles more than The Iliad. It will be interesting to see what I think of The Odyssey when I get to it on the reading list.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Meno": The Nature of Arete

Meno opens with Meno asking Socrates whether or not "virtue" can be taught. The word "virtue" is translated from the Greek word arete. My history teacher taught me that arete means "excellence". Now, having read Meno and seeing arete being used many times in context, I think both definitions are a little lacking. For example when Meno attempts to define arete as ruling over others, our word "virtue" doesn't seem to fit; "excellence" seems a better fit. However, Socrates then replies that Meno should add ruling "justly and not unjustly", making "excellence" alone a poor fit. It seems that arete covers both the English words "virtue" and "excellence".

After being given the question, Socrates responds with another question: what is arete? Most of the following dialogue is concerned with defining this elusive word. Socrates makes Meno realize that he doesn't know what virtue is, not to mess with him, but to make him wise. Socrates firmly believes that it is better to know that you know nothing than to think that you know anything when you really don't.

Meno attempts to define arete by saying that it differs from person to person, depending on their role or nature. He says that men run cities and women run homes, and therefore different people have different virtues. Socrates defends universal morality by comparing the virtues to bees. Bees have different features, but they are all bees. Similarly, although men and women have different jobs to do (in ancient Greece), they are compelled to do those jobs with the same qualities (e.g. justice and moderation). Justice and moderation are virtues for all of humanity.

Socrates also said that no man desires evil for its own sake. Rather men desire evil things thinking they are good things or with good things as the ends. 

One quote I particularly liked: "We will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find what we do not know and that we must not look for it".  This quote really speaks to the post-modern idea that there is no objective truth and also agnosticism.

Interestingly Socrates argued that human rationality comes from our pre-birth existence, either as a past life or elsewhere. He tells an uneducated servant boy to figure out a math problem. The servant boy answers the math problem by answering questions asked by Socrates, not be being taught by him. This proves that rationality is inborn and not taught. Socrates goes on to say that "learning" is merely recollecting from past existence. Cool stuff.

It was only towards the end that Socrates' argument lost me. Socrates asserted that arete is caused by neither nature nor nurture, but is a gift from the gods, after refuting that arete is a kind of knowledge. Socrates said that arete isn't knowledge, because there are no teachers. He used the example of good men having bad sons. If arete could be taught certainly the good men's sons would have turned out good as well. I don't know if I completely agree though. If not for my parent's correcting I don't know if I would have the same morals I do today. I don't even know if I would have the same morals if I hadn't grown up watching and reading stories about heroes. Of course lessons can fall on deaf ears, so there seems to be a combination of nature and nature. And isn't everything, to an extent, a gift from the gods (God)?

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed getting back to Plato, my favourite Great Books author. I find his philosophy of eternal forms so refreshing in my relativistic culture. I think we can learn a lot from him.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

"The History" [Book II: Euterpe]: The Ancient Egyptians

Near the beginning of Book II of The History, Euterpe (named after the Muse of Music), Herodotus speculates about what lies south of Egypt and where the Nile's source is and what is the case of the rising and falling of the Nile. The speculation of uncharted territory filled me with a numinous awe that I don't think I've ever gotten from reading non-fiction before. I don't know if Herodotus intended it, but the thoughts of the mysterious unknown gave me the chills. The fact that we now know what lies south of Egypt, what the source(s) of the Nile is (Lake Victoria and Lake Tana), and what causes the flooding of the Nile (an increase in rain at the Niles sources), did nothing to dampen the mood.

Ancient Egypt is one of my favourite historical subjects, because it is so mysterious. Herodotus said that "there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works which defy description" and my history teacher described Ancient Egypt as "intoxicating".

Interestingly, the Egyptians are familiar with the story of the Trojan War, but they told it differently. The Egyptians said that Paris, after he had taken Helen, made a stop in Egypt, and the Egyptians, realizing that Paris had taken another man's wife took Helen away from Paris. Paris went back to Troy without Helen and Menelaus retrieved her from the Egyptians. The Trojan War was still fought, but Helen was not at Troy during it. Herodotus thought that the Egyptian story was more historically credible than Homer's version, because he didn't think that Priam would risk his country by allowing Paris to keep Helen. Herodotus thought that Homer wrote The Iliad the way he did, because the Egyptian version is "less adapted for epic poetry."

Also interestingly, Herodotus refused to mention the name of Osiris. It reminded me of Voldemort.

After going over the animals, culture, and religious customs of Egypt, Herodotus repeated stories of various pharaohs that he he had learned from the priests of Egypt. Two of the most interesting were the stories of Mycerinus and Sethos:

File:Menkaura Bust Closeup.jpgMycerinus (the Latin name for Menkaure), pious son and grandson of two impious pharaohs (the famous pyramid builders Chephren and Cheops respectively), was told by an oracle that his life would draw to a close prematurely. Upset, Mycerinus asked we he should have a short life, while his wicked father and grandfather had long lives. The oracle replied that Mycerinus had to die precisely because of his goodness. "Egypt was fated to suffer affliction one hundred and fifty years - the two kings who preceded thee upoun the throne understood this - thou hast not understood it."

Sethos, formerly a priest, neglected the warrior class, and when Sennacherib, King of the Assyrians, invaded, the warriors refused to fight for Sethos. He pleaded to the gods for deliverance and, because he was pious and favoured of the gods, they sent mice to nibble at the bowstrings of the Assyrian soldiers during the night. Because of this, the Assyrians were driven from Egyptian territory and Egypt was saved from invasion. A statue of Sethos with a mouse in his hand was raised, with the inscription "Look on me, and learn to reverence the gods".

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Herodotus and I think he is now my second favourite of the Great Books authors, under Plato.

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