There was an article published in 2012 on the religiously unaffiliated, and, at the time, on another now-dead blog, I pulled an excerpt, with a brief comment. It is more deserving of your attention than this post. I offer it here as something of an afterthought to an earlier post on R. Hütter on the loss of the Church as a distinct public, and even a Thanksgiving-Day conversation that I had with one of my cousins, which was about the media of perpetuating cultural distinctives and anchors and what things we hold up as valuable mirrors for self-understanding, whether individually and communally. Continue reading
Time has named the #metoo Silence Breakers as their Person of the Year for 2017; this is not the first time that they have named a group. (Vox has a piece on it here.) I don’t mean to say anything negative at all about the movement, which is really only incidental to the pattern that I want to call attention to with two quotes. Continue reading
This is something of a rant; apologies. I’ve been asked to write on civic religion for an online journal, and so the question of ritual forms that perpetuate unifying ideals has been on my mind. What are they? Hopefully not this.
I first brought up historical distance here; I encourage all to read this distinct, but related, excerpt on Sententiae Antiquae about the role of the translator to bridge historical distance, to conquer time.
Gilbert Murray, The Interpretation of Ancient Greek Literature
“I remember about twenty years ago reading an obituary notice of Bohn, the editor of the library of translations, written by Mr. Labouchere. The writer attributed to Bohn the signal service to mankind of having finally shown up the Classics. As long as the Classics remained a sealed book to him, the ordinary man could be imposed upon. He could be induced to believe in their extraordinary merits. But when, thanks to Mr. Bohn, they all lay before him in plain English prose, he could estimate them at their proper worth and be rid for ever of a great incubus. Take Bohn’s translation of the Agamemnon, as we may presume it appeared to Mr. Labouchere, and take the Agamemnon itself as it is to one of us: there is a broad gulf, and the bridging of that gulf is the chief part…
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We must always be seeking better rituals and conventions; but we moderns tend to gag at these as stifling to freedom. So we Romantic moderns, especially we Americans, tend to see the issue as simple: rituals and conventions are likely bad, as they are almost certainly not good. Cowboys like things to be so simple. At some level of our common cultural judgments, inherited from our dual heritage stemming from both Puritanism and the Enlightenment, we see ritual and convention as oppressive Catholic priestcraft, or else as either Monarchical or Aristocratic elitist oppression. It is simply in the water here — even if one were to be an American Catholic Monarchist.
Plato was also quite wary of rituals and conventions of a sort that he called “poetry” (ποίησις, from ποιέω “to make, to show, to put/place”), although he practiced a form of it. Although his concerns about convention and “poetry” come from a different place than our concerns about convention and ritual, there are important lessons for us both where his concerns overlap with ours and where they do not overlap.
We are not ourselves terribly troubled by what we call poetry — which we see as perhaps an expensive or eccentric taste at worst, and as a liberating possibility for the human spirit at best. For us, it is decidedly not conventional, or ritual. For Plato, however, Poetry was something very different; when we translate the word ποίησις as “poetry” we collude with an infelicitous conflation of two very different enterprises. We consider “poetry” as part of the “arts”, but the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word to designate the group of disciplines and activities that we would call “art”. Instead, they had the word “τέχνη” (“skill”), which would cover the range of “τέχναι” from medicine to ship-building to masonry to cooking to farming to dancing to making love to poetry, &c.  Disambiguation is helpful. Were we to first trace some of the historical backdrop that occasioned Plato’s concern, we might be in a better place to understand Plato’s Socrates, only then later to see an overwhelming number of analogues in our own world.
Before we look at Plato, then, let us sketch a few outlines of the nature of “poetry” prior to him.