Tag Archives: the school of athens

Dead Greek People V: Living in the Shadow of Empire

8 Nov

I kicked off this detour into Dead Greek People after attending a Peace and Justice Series talk at the College of St. Scholastica, so it’s only fitting that I wrap it up (for now, anyway) after another talk. Last night, Duluth was treated to Andrew Bacevich, a scholar noted for his attacks on “American exceptionalism” and U.S. military policy in recent decades. He trashed U.S. military strategy from Vietnam to Iraq, and quoted Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech with approval—the one in which Carter committed political suicide by telling Americans to stop using so much energy and be less materialistic and instead turn down their heat.

So Bacevich must be a flaming lefty, right? Well, no: he self-identifies as a conservative. (To understand why, I highly recommend this article.) Obviously, he isn’t the sort of conservative who would’ve been very popular among other self-identified conservatives in the Bush Administration, and one could argue that, if “conservatism” is something both Bacevich and Ayn Rand lovers would claim, the word has been stripped of all meaning. To get away from this confusing word, we might say that Bacevich’s platform has a whiff of Aristotle about it. (Indeed, he’s a Catholic, and a lot of intellectual Catholics are closet Aristotelians, thanks to the work of Thomas Aquinas.)

The problem is that it’s well-near impossible to apply Aristotle to a modern country, because his ideas—on the definition of freedom, on citizenship, on economics, on the importance of virtue—just don’t compute for most of us moderns. Just look at the comments from the readers on the Bacevich article, some of which are quite intelligent: some people try to cram contemporary politicians into his worldview; some are inclined to agree with some or even most of his ideas, but have one or two disputes that make them skeptical; and some are all on board but have no hope for actually seeing these ideas come to fruition in modern American politics. It is something foreign; something weird. To understand this, and to find the way out of the problem, let’s go back to Athens.

When we last left our Dead Greek People, things weren’t looking terribly good for Athens. The Spartans had won the Peloponnesian War around 400 B.C., leaving Athens seriously weakened. Sparta was the leading power for the next few decades, though Thebes eventually knocked them off, and after that no one really ran the place. Even so, Athens thrived despite its lack of military power. Plato and Aristotle founded their schools, the democracy largely remained intact, and Athens was still the cultural capital of the world.

By the 330s B.C., all this intrigue among Greek city-states wouldn’t matter all that much, either. Alexander the Great came down from Macedon, gathered all his Greek brethren, and set off on a campaign across Asia. The age of city-states was over, and the age of empires had begun. But even when Alexander’s empire fragmented after his death, the Greek influence endured. Athenian thought caught on from far western Europe to India, most importantly in Alexandria, Egypt, where they built a pretty big library to preserve all those ideas. When Europe fell into the Dark Ages after the Romans collapsed, Africa and the Middle East picked up the burden, and Greek philosophy was eventually re-introduced into Europe by conquering Muslims. If it weren’t for Alexander’s imperial ambitions, we probably wouldn’t know the first thing about Plato or Aristotle today.

Even if Alexander was good for the preservation of Greek thought in the long run, he was rather a problem at the time. Up until that point, political philosophy hadn’t thought much about empires, quite rationally pointing out that they were far too big to control. Some of the Tragedies, and historians like Thucydides, made this all too clear. Plato’s Republic imagines the perfect city, not the perfect empire; similarly, Aristotle’s political philosophy takes the community as its base unit, and his entire understanding of human nature comes out of human interaction within those communities. Neither are of much use in explaining life under the new imperial order; what’s worse, Aristotle actively helped bring about the demise of the old world by teaching and encouraging Alexander, and realized his mistake a bit too late. (There are claims that he became involved in a plot to kill Alexander so as to end the madness, though they are unsubstantiated.)

Aristotle

Aristotle teaches Alexander

Massive land empires, you see, are far too large to function as happy little communities in which everyone plays a role. They’re run by powerful people in some distant capital, and while it might be possible to work one’s way into power, the odds aren’t very good. A few groups within the empire will likely take up arms or use other means to protect their more particular identities, but this can be exhausting, and might incur the wrath of the imperial armed forces. Instead, most people become resigned to the fact that they lived in a system beyond their control, and try to carve out the happiest existence they can manage. This brings us to our last Dead Greek Person, Epicurus, who came of age just as Alexander died.

Epicurus, jaded by the political strife all about him, had a very different approach to political philosophy than his Greek predecessors. He had no vision of the ideal state like Plato, nor did he put much stock in an active citizenry living in community, as Aristotle might. He simply counseled that his followers retreat from those grandiose and often toxic affairs, and said the only things that mattered were individuals’ abilities to avoid pain and anxiety. He didn’t have much use for the gods, though if they made people feel better about themselves, good for them. He is technically a hedonist, but he took a very long view of what involves “pleasure,” and therefore wouldn’t counsel people to follow any old desire just because it made them feel good; they had to find pleasure in things they wouldn’t come to regret later on. Epicurus cautioned against falling too far in love: after all, that can cause a lot of pain. He didn’t let gender or class restrict who he welcomed into his school, which he named The Garden.

Epicurus’s ideas have been incredibly durable. His suggestion that people seek happy lives outside the political sphere would prove highly useful for many subjects of the Alexandrine and Roman Empires, and also in many of the feudal and imperial states that came afterward. John Locke, who was probably the most important philosopher for the founders of the United States, thought quite highly of him. His notions of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain were taken up by utilitarians centuries later, and might be seen as the foundation of modern economic theory. One could easily argue that most people are, and perhaps always have been, far more Epicurean than anything else: they care far more about the things that make them feel good or bad than any grandiose political affairs, and they only get whipped up into a political frenzy when someone or something threatens their comfort.

The obvious problem here is that it can be very hard to know how much pleasure or pain certain actions will cause in the long run. Even more problematic, in my opinion, is Epicureanism’s rather dismissive take on human ambition. There is a danger of it wandering over into Stoicism, which again can be a practical approach in some situations, but tries to suppress those ambitious and aspirational urges and make them go away. It can lend itself to defeatism even more than Aristotle’s acceptance of the world as it is, and when people encounter obstacles, it often tells them to simply desire less. It’s practical advice in many ways, but if it’s too puritan, it won’t work for long. Repressed urges tend to erupt in time, often in ugly ways, and shunting those impulses aside and making them taboo doesn’t quite work. They need healthy outlets. This was Aristotle’s approach: acknowledging those animal drives, and channeling them into something good. He was right to see human interaction as some form of politics, even if many people don’t like that fact.

Epicurus’s value, then, isn’t as a guide toward some utopia where we all forget about politics and live happy little lives. Instead, he grounds us, and reminds us that any ambitions we might have beyond tending our own little gardens have to remember where we all come from. Epicurus was no rebel; he simply had a much better grasp of reality than many of his politically-obsessed contemporaries. This is why Bacevich’s ideas don’t jive with our idea of modern politics: despite claiming to be prudent, they’re not something that we can bring about by electing one or two good leaders.

To his credit, Bacevich acknowledged this in his talk. He had a rather pessimistic view of modern politics, and quite rightly suggested that we tone down our expectations for it, and be glad that one or two individuals can’t change it too easily. Instead of building the ideal city or state from the top down, via a national party or some effort to change Washington, it has to start from the bottom up. (Just ask Jimmy Carter.) If we want a world that believes in a human scale instead of being forced to make do with the empires (literal or figurative) we’re stuck with, we need to start at home, and live it in our daily lives. Instead of focusing on the vagaries of politics beyond our reach, we need to change the things we have the ability to change, and closely guard things we think ought to be preserved. For all their differences, that is the enduring lesson of all the Dead Greek People: that human life is grounded in community, and everything else must follow from there. With that as our starting point, we need not be so pessimistic. In that realm, we really can make a difference.

Here’s a related post on Aristotle’s demons to round out this series.

Picture of Alexander and Aristotle from http://www.heritage-history.com/www/heritage.php?Dir=characters&FileName=aristotle.php. Picture of Epicurus from http://newepicurean.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Epicurus-sculpture-crop.jpg

Dead Greek People IV: A Democratic Empire

25 Oct

The ancient Athenian democracy was a bundle of contradictions. It was a realm of endless political disputes, yet it endured for several hundred years with only minor interruptions. It was premised on citizen participation, but people who weren’t citizens were perhaps more excluded in Athens than the masses in any other city. It gave a lot of power to people of simple pleasures, yet it produced more brilliant (and fairly elitist) philosophers and artists than any other ancient city.

The man who best shows the confusion of ancient Athens was probably Pericles. The son of wealthy nobles, Pericles came along in the 400s B.C., and while Athens didn’t have an executive leader, he was repeatedly re-elected to one of the ten spots for generals at the command of the armed forces, and there was no doubt he was calling the shots. He was a great patron of the arts, a brilliant orator, and a skilled commander of his troops. He was the architect of a grand military strategy that put Athens at the head of a union of Greek city-states. Under his watch, Athens built those monuments on the Acropolis that still stand today. He was also a democrat par excellence, defeating many of the more conservative voices in Athens with his brilliant rhetoric. This led to some members of the Athenian intellectual class to charge him with being a populist, as they worried that vesting so much power in the whims of the people would open up a Pandora’s Box.

To be fair to his critics, they had a good point. With Pericles at the helm, Athens was in good shape; he could manage all the popular sentiment, and he had the talent to keep every camp more or less happy. The problem was that people like Pericles don’t come along every day, and after he died, Athens lurched through a pair of coups and a bunch of mediocre leaders. This was especially troublesome considering that Pericles got Athens tied up in a major war against Sparta, a conflict that would decide which city-state was in command of ancient Greece. To understand what’s going on there, we’re going to need some help from someone named Thucydides.

Thucydides was the world’s second great historian. The first one was Herodotus, another Athenian who did a lot of traveling around the known world and recording everything he heard and saw. Thucydides, on the other hand, painted himself as a much more detached observer. He prefaces his History of the Peloponnesian War with an announcement that he’s trying to be as objective as humanly possible. No spin, he claims; just the facts.

The war juxtaposed democratic Athens with the famously warlike Spartans. This isn’t to say the Spartans were barbaric; in fact, they had plenty of erstwhile admirers among the Athenian intellectuals, including the likes of Aristotle. The Spartans were efficient, hardworking, and didn’t let angry mobs mess around and slow up the entire political system. They’d been an Athenian ally in the wars against the Persians, and aside from some occasional detours, the two Greek powers had managed to coexist. But with Pericles’ Athens slowly expanding its influence across the region and developing a legitimate empire, many of the smaller city-states began begging Sparta to stand up to them. In time, the Spartans agreed.

Thucydides wasn’t afraid to lay the blame at the feet of Athens. In fact, after his failures as a military commander (about which he was very honest in the History), he was exiled from the city, which leads one to wonder how genuine his supposed neutrality could have been. But in the end he had enough loyalty to Athens that he never showed any bitterness, and he never openly questioned his city’s imperial project. Nothing underscores this more than his account of Pericles’ famed funeral oration delivered over the bodies of a bunch of dead Athenians. This is the Athenian equivalent of the Gettysburg Address, a speech designed to say the dead have not died in vain, as they are fighting for a project far greater than any of them, in the preservation and advancement of a nation dedicated to the highest good. (In fact, the parallels are dead-obvious, and Edward Everett, the man who rambled for two hours before Lincoln showed him up with ten simple sentences, explicitly mentioned Pericles.) It was a reminder of the uniqueness of the Athenian project, even as the city mired itself in imperial wars.

One of the most famous moments in the History occurs some time after Pericles’ death from the plague. A couple of Athenian generals go to visit the neutral island of Melos, whose people are ethnically related to the Spartans. The rather grumpy Athenians tell the Melians that they had better submit to Athens, or else they will destroy them. The Melians complain that this is most unjust, and the Athenians sneer at their appeal to justice. The generals then utter the most famous line in international relations, and the founding line for political realism: “The strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Between this line and his refusal to explicitly condemn any moral failings of the Athenians or Spartans, Thucydides is often cast as a hardcore realist, earning praise from the likes of Hobbes and Nietzsche. Still, I’m going to cut Thucydides some slack here, and say he’s been misinterpreted. To get this, you need a much more subtle reading of the History. Before the Melian incident, things are going swimmingly for the Athenians. They’re holding true to Pericles’ grand strategy, which involved a more-or-less defensive war of attrition that would slowly beat the Spartans into submission. After they lose their moral compass and start beating people up haphazardly, things go to pieces. Immediately after slaughtering all the Melians, the Athenians launch an incredibly stupid campaign in Sicily, a total disaster that completely turns the tide of the war. Like so many other empires, they’d overplayed their hand, fallen too deeply in love with power, and were ruined. In the long run, the Melians were right: morality mattered, and the Spartans came to the defense of their Melian brethren and made Athens pay for their overreach. The strong cannot simply do as they can, and at the very least need to take a longer, more careful consideration of the consequences.

Thucydides’ dispassionate devotion to fact made him a model historian. At the same time, however, no matter how much people try to be neutral, they never quite manage it. The details they choose to include, and the structure they adopt, can reveal an awful lot about their actual opinions. Thucydides’ History reads much like one of the great Greek tragedies, with the hubris of the Athenians leading to the demise of a once-great empire. His account shows both the promise of the Athenian democratic project, and just how tenuous it became after Pericles dropped dead. But even after the Spartans ended Athenian dominance over Greece, the city endured, and we’ll save that story for next time.

Part 5: Alexander the Great’s Conquests and Epicurus

Image of the pontificating Pericles from Wikimedia commons. Bust of Thucydides from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2008/02/more-thucydides-please/

Dead Greek People III: Enough Philosophy Already

20 Oct

Perhaps the Greek philosophers detailed in the first two posts in this series bore or annoy you. If so, you wouldn’t be alone. The list of people who didn’t think much of Socrates’ philosophy went beyond an upset Athenian jury. In fact, his most enduring critic wasn’t some angry plebe, but instead a playwright. Here he is.

His name is Aristophanes, and he was an early master of the satiric play. He wrote them for festivals around Greece, where he piled up a bunch of prizes. He made quite the art of making fun of other people, most famously a politician named Cleon, whom he harassed throughout his entire career. In his play The Clouds, he decided to take a shot at Socrates.

The play involves a decadent Athenian family in which the father, Strepsiades, has been driven into debt by his useless son, Pheidippides. Rather than pay the debts, however, Strepsiades wants to find an easy way out, and suggests his son enroll in Socrates’ school, where people are taught how to make bad arguments sound reasonable. Pheidippides tells him the school is only for losers and nerds, so Strepsiades enrolls himself instead. He learns that Socrates and his obsessive pupils spend their time doing things like devising new measurements for the distance jumped by fleas and floating about in baskets so as to better observe the sun. Bored, Strepsiades winds up masturbating rather than joining the absurd intellectual pursuits, and Socrates catches him and throws him out.

Angered, Strepsiades forces Pheidipides to go learn from Socrates. Unlike his father, he learns precisely how to make a bad argument sound reasonable, and comes out capable of making an argument for beating his father, which he promptly does. Disgusted, Strepsiades tells his slaves to grab the torches and pitchforks, and the play ends as they head off to teach the disreputable Socrates a lesson.

It’s hard to know how serious this critique is, and how much of it was just in good fun. One of Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium, has Aristophanes and Socrates chatting merrily during a dinner party, with no signs of disagreement. He may not even have been that relevant; Cleon’s political career was unaffected by the constant abuse, and Cleon, despite being a rather disagreeable fellow, apparently saw no need to suppress Aristophanes. But his criticism of Socrates endured, and it certainly isn’t a totally baseless one. Intellectuals always face the danger of getting caught too far up in the clouds and losing track of what really matters, even as they argue about what really matters.

One other memorable person who lived in Athens around that time also didn’t think much of the famed philosophers’ lives of detached thought. That guy is Diogenes.

If you think he looks like a bit of a slob, you’d be right. For starters, he lived in a barrel. His only real companions were a bunch of dogs. He went out of his way to drive a lot of people nuts. His targets not only included philosophers; he even took a shot at the most powerful man in the world. When Alexander the Great came before him one day, most likely hoping for the fawning and worship he inspired in everyone else, the sunbathing Diogenes had one simple request: that he move over and stop blocking his sunlight.

Alexander thought this was pretty awesome. (He was more than the military meathead so many of his fellow world conquerors were; remember, Aristotle was his teacher.) “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes,” he said as he walked away.

The emperor of the known world was on to something. A lot of Diogenes’ actions can seem random and weird, especially since the only records we have of him are anecdotes collected by other people. He didn’t eat with utensils. He jerked off in public. He showed up at Plato’s lectures just to mess with him. He wandered around a marketplace in broad daylight with a lantern in search of an honest man. (He didn’t find one.) But Diogenes was more than an annoyance.

Instead, he had a fairly coherent idea of what it meant to lead a good life, and his philosophy was one of radical simplicity. At times, his actions are reminiscent of religious mystics. He sought to live in accord with nature, which for him meant simplicity and purity, and as an outsider, he was detached enough that he could study the culture around him and reject the customs that were damaging, or simply silly and unnecessary. He was the first person to call himself a “cosmopolitan”—that is, a citizen of the world, not some tribal loyalist to his city-state. He was in many ways far, far ahead of his times. Alexander may have been literally blocking the sunlight, but he might also, perhaps, have been blocking the light of the truth, with his obsession over wealth and power and other worldly goods.

Aside from weirdness, there is another charge that can be thrown at Diogenes. He may have claimed to be a citizen of the world, but as with Socrates, it really is impossible to imagine someone like him being tolerated in any ancient city other than Athens. He’d grown up in Sinope, but was so obnoxious there that he got thrown out, and lived in exile for the rest of his life. His cosmopolitanism was only possible because he was free to go about living his radical way of life in a safe, stable, and well-run city. This doesn’t mean he was wrong to go about pointing out the hypocrisies and stupidities of ancient Athenian custom, which certainly offered its share of ripe targets. Every community needs its cynics to keep everyone else from being too comfortable. But without the community to live in and play off of, Diogenes would quickly have been forgotten.

Aristophanes and Diogenes might not have as great a reach as the most famed Athenian philosophers, but they do offer a welcome counter-balance to the earnestness of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Sometimes basic, practical sense is far more useful than endless theorizing, and this is something that philosophically inclined people should never forget.

Next: Pericles and Thucydides

Image of Aristophanes from http://www.crystalinks.com/aristophanes.html. Image of Diogenes (from Raphael’s The School of Athens) from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Nicolas-Andre Monsiau’s Diogenes and Alexander from http://classicalwisdom.com/diogenes-of-sinope/.

Dead Greek People II: A Project Is Born

8 Oct

This is Socrates. Socrates was the first of the great Athenian philosophers of that city’s Golden Age, and thus gets blamed for pretty much everything that came afterwards. To be fair, Socrates asked for it.

Or so it seems, at least. We don’t know all that much about the real Socrates. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, none of his writings survived, if he even had any. Instead, we have to rely on a lot of other people—namely, Plato, whose dialogues usually involve Socrates making fools of several debate partners. Because of this, it can be hard to separate the real Socrates from Plato’s rather idealized version of him, and to know which ideas are original to Socrates, and which ones Plato might be sticking in his mouth.

Still, there are worse things that could happen to a person than having Plato become one’s interpreter. Plato quite clearly loved his mentor, and did everything in his power to immortalize his thought. Seeing as we’re still talking about him 2400 years later, it worked out pretty well.

Socrates was nicknamed “the gadfly” because, much like small annoying insects, he went around bothering and questioning everyone. While Plato and Aristotle founded academies and spent much of their time with people with somewhat similar interests, Socrates would chat up anyone. No one’s presuppositions were safe from Socrates, and that is what made him so radical: while he clearly enjoyed spirited debate with other philosophical folks, he wasn’t one to retreat to some ivory tower.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone likes people who go around questioning everything, and Socrates made himself some enemies. Eventually, he was put on trial for promoting false gods and corrupting the youth. (People do tend to get rather defensive over their faith and their children, even in a city like Athens, which was incredibly tolerant for the time.) His critics accused him of sophistry, or the preaching of confusing immoral nonsense designed to undermine the order of things.

Socrates was tried by a jury of several hundred Athenians, and he put on a show. He professed his own ignorance, and explained how he’d devoted his life to resolving the paradox of how he could be the wisest man on earth (as an oracle had once called him) if he also knew how ignorant he was. He played games with his accusers and was completely unrepentant for his alleged crimes, jokingly suggesting his “punishment” should involve free meals for the services he’s offered. Even after he’d been convicted, the general assumption was that he would just run off into exile, and the Athenian authorities were quite content to look the other way and let it happen. Much to everyone’s annoyance, however, Socrates had different ideas.

If we are to believe Plato, Socrates’ refusal to run stemmed directly from his relationship with Athens. He had no desire to make a mockery of its legal system, and he couldn’t imagine a contented life in another city. Only in Athens could he find as much freedom to pontificate as he did, and it was only because a substantial number of its citizens knew of his sincerity that he was allowed to go as far as he did in challenging everyone’s assumptions. (The vote to convict him was a narrow one, and he had plenty of people who were willing to fight for him.) People aren’t really sure if he was a supporter or a critic of the Athenian democracy. Some of his pupils and supporters hadn’t held it in very high esteem (including Plato, with his philosopher-kings), and one could easily see Socrates as a martyr for regime change, trying to show how perverse the Athenian system was. (How could majority rule be any good if it sentenced the wisest man on earth to death?) In my completely un-expert opinion, however, this only gets at part of the truth; Socrates is too complex to be a political revolutionary, and nothing more. He probably did intend to point out some of the flaws in democracy—he was an eternal critic, after all—but in spite of that, his loyalties never flinched. His refusal to leave stemmed from his love affair with his city of Athens, even though he knew it was far from perfect.

He didn’t have much desire to grow old and wither away, either. Socrates saw his body as something of a prison for his mind and his soul, and he believed that a life lived in accordance to virtue was far more important than a long life. The ultimate proof of this, he figured, was a willing embrace of death. And so Socrates drank the poisonous hemlock juice and died at the age of 70.

By most standards, Socrates’ choice was a crazy one, and akin to suicide. The Greeks found him just as nuts as we would today. But if he’d done the “rational” thing, we wouldn’t remember him all that much. Socrates’ scheme (or, perhaps more accurately, Plato’s scheme) was to suggest that humans should hold themselves to a higher standard. Socrates’ story is a celebration of the power of civilization. He needed a city like Athens in order to live the life he did, and only in a culture that respected his freedom to explore great ideas would he be immortalized. Humans are flawed, certainly, but they have some potential to move toward justice, and the difficulty of the project in no way invalidates it.

It’s easy to throw stones at Athens today. We can point out the abuses of slavery, the subjugation of women, and the failed military campaigns, and make a pretty good case that the ancient Athenians weren’t all that enlightened. We could gripe about how that one city has come to dominate the foundations of Western philosophy ever since; isn’t it just a lucky accident that the thought of one city wound up being perpetuated across the known world by the conquering armies of Alexander?

Perhaps. Other parts of the world developed their own robust philosophies, and some of them survive in some form. The Athenians of the fifth century before Christ had plenty of influences, both Greek and non-Greek. Still, it’s hard to fight the notion that something different was happening in Athens when Socrates began his project.

Aeschylus, an Athenian playwright who predated Socrates somewhat, might have the answer. In his Oresteia trilogy, Athens is just like any other place, and is ruled by the Furies, who are rather shrill goddesses whose idea of justice always involves vengeance and endless cycles of violence. Thankfully, Athena, the goddess for whom Athens is named, sweeps in and spares the hero, Orestes, from such a nasty fate. Reason comes into being, trials are henceforth conducted by juries instead of vindictive goddesses, and everyone goes home happy. Athens put on Aeschylus’ plays every year as part of a big civic festival. The Athenians were more than a community of producers trying to sustain themselves, or even an honor-bound band of brothers pledged to defending said community; they were willing to reach for something even greater.

The Athenians didn’t get it right all the time, as they showed with Socrates’ trial. But at least they tried. In 399 B.C., that alone made them revolutionary.

Next: Aristophanes and Diogenes

Image from New Religion and Culture Daily. The painting is called “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Luis David.

Dead Greek People I: Realists and Idealists

3 Oct

Most of the paintings and frescoes in the Vatican are, for obvious reasons, religious in nature. There is one, however, that glorifies a bunch of pagans. Its name is The School of Athens, and these two jolly men are at the center of it.

The guy on the left is Plato, and the guy on the right is his pupil, Aristotle. You’ll notice that Plato is gesturing up at the sky, while Aristotle is holding his arm outward. The artist, Raphael, knew exactly what he was doing when he painted them that way. Those simple gestures effectively sum up the way each man looked at the world. (In explaining these two worldviews, I can either be technical and lose my readers, or be general and anger the philosophy buffs out there. Easy choice.)

Plato is pointing skyward because he’s a sort of idealist. His most famous work, The Republic, imagines what the perfect society would look like. He is perhaps best known for a thought experiment called “the allegory of the cave,” in which he describes humans as toiling away in a cave for most of our lives, seeing only shadows of the way things are. Only when humans come up out of the cave can they see the light. The ideal forms are out there, and if we put enough thought into it, we can eventually find them, and make use of them to order our lives and our politics and so on.

Aristotle has plenty of things in common with his teacher, but had a rather different approach. He’s gesturing out at the horizon because he first and foremost relies on his observation skills. He assesses the facts around him and, after a while, builds a theory of the way things are. He’s not a big fan of Plato’s thought experiments, which try to figure out the way things should be. This isn’t to say he’s a pessimist; he thinks everything on earth has an end to which it aspires, and by living virtuous lives in accordance with nature, humans can truly flourish.

It would be unusual to find a person with no ideals, or a person who doesn’t make some concessions to the way things are. But most people, temperamentally, trend toward either Plato or Aristotle. The inability to understand the opposite mindset is at the root of so many disputes, as people talk past one another because they come from such different places. (My recent post on two Duluthians trying to pass a school board levy draws this contrast perfectly.)

I saw this last night, when I attended a talk at a local university by Robert J. Art, a noted international relations professor who edited the textbook I used back when I was a freshman in college. His talk was an example of political realism par excellence; while people had their quibbles with some things, most everyone I talked to afterwards agreed he had done an eminently reasonable job of detailing the challenges U.S. foreign policy will have to confront in the coming years, and the solutions to some of those issues. He also delighted many in the crowd when he laid a smackdown on the professor who comes to all of these talks and tries to cram everything the speakers say into a rigidly far-left worldview. Still, more than a few people found their inner Plato coming out when they wondered if things were always doomed to be the way Prof. Art described, with an endless posturing and positioning between the world’s great powers, and not much hope for a happier world. He wasn’t necessarily a pessimist about ending conflicts and spreading good governance, but he clearly believed we have to accept the world we live in. Aristotle would be proud.

Of course, there are dangers in both approaches. One that Plato anticipates is the problem of re-entry into the cave after a trip out of it. I suspect many readers have been there: you’ve gone out and learned everything there is to know about a subject, become a true believer in some sort of cause, and are then saddened to learn that no one else agrees with you, if they even understand what you’re talking about. Loyalty to ideals can cause serious rifts, as families, friends, and even countries fall out over different ideas over what things look like. There is a certain elitism in the Platonic approach, as people who’ve seen the light are judged to be the only people worthy of properly knowing what’s going on in the world. (Hence the philosopher-kings ruling everything in The Republic.) There’s also the added problem that lots of people who think they’ve left the cave have seen very different things when outside of it, and there’s no good way to know who’s right. An awful lot of wars have been fought between people who think they know how the world ought to be ordered.

Aristotle’s approach can also be a bit exclusive. The obvious example that leads lots of modern people to dismiss Aristotle out of hand is his announcement that women, slaves, and “vulgar craftsmen” (people who work with their hands) are unworthy of being citizens. The good news is that the Aristotelian mindset can be rescued pretty easily. Aristotle’s assumptions were based on his observations of those women and slaves and craftsmen, and it’s now obvious that those observations were quite wrong. Aristotle would probably be willing to accept that he hadn’t observed correctly, and lots of people have done their best to re-interpret Aristotle for their times.

The modern Aristotelians give some of the most coherent accounts of human nature one can find. Just about every other political philosophy bends over backwards imagining some idealized “state of nature” in which one can supposedly observe humans “as they are.” These can be interesting and sometimes insightful, but they seem to forget that normal human life doesn’t happen in an idealized vacuum. From a strictly practical mental health standpoint, it’s far more pleasant to accept the world one lives in rather than fighting a perpetual revolution. The most well-adjusted people I know all seem to be Aristotelians of one sort or another, even if they don’t know the first thing about the guy.

There are still two big dangers, though. One is a retreat to tribal loyalties because they seem most natural, and warfare that comes from lack of understanding of others. (Aristotle had no problem with his pupil, Alexander the Great, going off and slaughtering all the Persians.) The other is complacency, resignation, and even defeatism: the world is the way it is, so why bother doing anything about it? Both of those dangers aren’t true to Aristotle’s philosophy, as he (like Plato) preaches prudent, practical wisdom over such extremes. Still, this can be hard to maintain, and because of that, people occasionally need shocks to remind them that there is a big world outside of the cave.

This distinction is only a small part of the thinking of these two men. Alfred North Whitehead once said that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” and while we could argue about that, it is true that huge heaps of Western philosophy are somewhere in the shadow of Plato. Aristotle dabbled in practically every field imaginable. Like them or hate them, they had a massive influence on how we understand the world today, and when approached in good faith, they still have plenty to offer.

Next up: Socrates.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Jonathan Franzen, Fiction, and a Novel of My Own

23 Sep

Jonathan Franzen fascinates me more than any other contemporary author, though at first glance, it’s hard to figure out why. He’s not necessarily my favorite writer, nor the most talented one out there, and not even the most insightful. His dour lifestyle doesn’t really sound all that pleasant to me, and when I had the chance to attend a book reading of his at the National Cathedral, he came across as, well, weird.

I suppose that leaves us with his fame, which I’ll admit is a bit captivating to anyone with any pretension of writing fiction. This man is guilty of making me think novel-writing can still be relevant, and sure enough, there are countless glimmers of insight in The Corrections and Freedom that really speak to “the way we live now,” that vogue phrase used to describe great contemporary literary fiction. I think those sorts of work are valuable, and while I suppose my writing makes some effort to do that, I also find it limiting in some ways. What good is a novel about “the way we live now” in forty years, other than as a historical artifact? Granted, it’s not a crisp division; no story can really be removed from the time and place it’s set in, and we can learn far broader things from even the most myopic case studies. But with Franzen there’s a serious risk of drowning in the details of the present, and it’s hard to know how relevant some of his insights might be down the line. He is so relentless in his attempts to capture the moment with his ironic, self-conscious detachment that it can grow tiresome, even to people like me, who have a certain appreciation for that sort of thing.

Franzen’s power, however, emerges in his ability to bury himself in the misery modern life for ages and ages, and then come up with a brilliant ending that transcends all the previous grumbling. He’ll go on and on making you feel utterly depressed about the state of the world, and then he’ll drop something on you at the end that makes everything seem good again. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. I really liked the premise of The Corrections, and still have an autographed copy sitting on my bookshelf, but about midway through it I was distracted by something else, and it remains unfinished. If and when I ever get through it, I suspect I’ll love the ending, but I have to be willing to go through the beginning bits again, and Franzen spends so much time making his characters so profoundly flawed that one almost has to feel a personal connection to them to see them through. I found enough of that in Freedom that I sped through it, and felt rewarded afterwards. Even so, though I was moved by the ending when I read it, later reflection led to some doubt about the sincerity of the final transcendent moment. (This incisive, if overly harsh, Ruth Franklin review explains why better than I can.)

Sometimes, I think he’s actually more effective as an essayist. My favorite thing he’s written was “Farther Away,” a New Yorker essay on human solitude (which, like every other New Yorker piece I want to link to, is not online). His manifesto on literature in the digital age, “Perchance to Dream,” is also masterful, though I have my quibbles with parts of it. And now, in The Guardian, he offers an excerpt of an upcoming work of non-fiction that modestly sets out to explain “What’s Wrong with the Modern World.” It follows the classic Franzen formula to a tee. It diagnoses many Bad Things, uses examples of varying strength to make that point, and employs a caustic wit; it all makes Franzen seem rather misanthropic, and by the end he’s snuffed out most of your hope for the future of our species. (This is especially true if you like to write and are a mediocre self-promoter.) But then he turns around and points out how the apocalypse won’t be so bad after all, and gives you a chance to find some hope for humanity again.

Franzen’s escapes from his own despair make so many readers want to believe in him as a voice of redemption. We all want to think we can do that, too. He has so much potential. And yet, for me at least, he doesn’t quite get there. He is too consumed by his misery, his fleeting glimmers too brief, and too constrained by his times. Much of my inspiration for writing fiction comes not from Franzen himself, but from the critiques of him: I want to close the deal.

So, this seems like as good a time as any to make an announcement: I have a novel draft that I am, finally, more-or-less ready to share.

I’m an unpublished 23-year-old kid who’s just finished his first draft, and who hasn’t taken a formal English class since high school. I don’t pretend to be some sort of new-and-improved Jonathan Franzen. No, quite the contrary: my stumbling efforts owe a debt to him. Art, in my mind, is not a work of genius that emerges from a vacuum. It is wedded to literature that has come before it, forever in dialogue with the past. Hence my epigraph for the novel:

Man is…essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

—Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

I’ve named the thing The School of Athens, and there is a lot going on here. The basic premise—kids growing up in a small northern Minnesota town—has some things in common with my life, though I’m also pleased to say that is far less autobiographical that some of my previous attempts at fiction. None of the characters are really based on anyone from my childhood, and my fictional town of Arcadia certainly has its differences from the east side of Duluth. As the epigraph suggests, it asks what it is we’re supposed to do with our lives, and explores the tension between individual ambitions and commitments to a community. It is a coming of age story, and there is a healthy dose of teenage angst. There are clashing cultures, love stories, and of course there is some hockey. As the title suggests, there is some Greek philosophy allegory, though I hope that readers can enjoy the novel without knowing much about Plato or Aristotle.

As in many “contemporary literary fiction” novels, it confronts some problems of the modern world: the emptying of the American countryside, broken families, moral uncertainty, and an atomized society. There is plenty of skepticism about sentimental or easy solutions, and some healthy mockery of the notion that some characters have anything in common with the Greek heroes who are their namesakes or inspiration. On the other hand, though, it tries to avoid some of the pathologies that afflict Franzen and other modern novelists. While it seems to be happening sometime in the present, I never name a year. There is little to no name-dropping of brands or current events; instead, it focuses on conversation and direct contact, and the timeless traits of human interaction that haven’t changed all that much since Alexander the Great conquered the known world. All the characters are flawed, but they all have some redeeming traits as well, and contra Franzen, you won’t have to wait until the end to see glimpses of that—not that the ending will necessarily hit that note, though. You’ll have to read the thing to find out.

Still, I’m not going to measure this novel’s value by its place within some grandiose literary debate over postmodernism or literary theory or what “great” novels should talk about. (In fact, my ambivalence over that sort of theorizing is a secondary reason why I chose not to attend an MFA program that accepted me.) I’d love for this thing to succeed, but I have no illusions over making a living off of writing novels in this day in age. I just hope I’ve told an interesting story that people can relate to.

So, drop me a line if you want to read it: I need all the criticism I can get. That’s the only way it’ll get better, because I know it’s far from complete. Thanks for reading.