Martin Hägglund is a professor of comparative literature and humanities at Yale. He has written a very interesting book titled This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (buy from that link, and I get #commissions!). This Life caught my attention a while back, but I was not able to get to it because of numerous obligations. I have serious disagreements with the book, but found it helpful in a number of regards. There is a good review of This Life by Nathan Brown here, and another by Samuel Moyn here. I’ve just found another review/exchange, as I post this here, between Hägglund and Robert Pippin — so far (I’ve only dipped into it), it’s great. There are other reviews out there, and some are bad; the ones I linked to above, as I recall, are the better ones that I found.
Some irresponsible and half-baked brief thoughts about the Game of Thrones TV series (and universe) in the wake of the end of the show. People have been complaining and complaining. Turns out, one of the Game of Thrones writers was involved in writing the script for X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I didn’t realize this; having seen season eight of GoT, I’m not surprised. For those who are holding out hopes that the missteps of season eight can be revised in the books, think again (and again, and again).
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.
Translators are confronted with numerous choices when rendering ancient Greek words into English, and one of these is how to bridge the distance between the world of the text and the world of the reader. This historical distance can be notoriously difficult to see when one engages with a text that has already been translated, and which arrives in the world of the innocent reader as pre-chewed food. (A recent post on the shift in words we translate as “happy” reminded me of the need to write something on this more specifically.) This highlights a central feature of the secularity of our modern world: historical distance, the autonomy of historical epochs and local worlds, and the seeming worldliness of every bridge or road we might build to traverse them. Continue reading