Poetry, Power, and the Arrest of Thought (Part One)

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. [1] 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.
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An Example of Historical Distance & Difference: Χάρις, Linguistic Singularity, and Confessional Projection

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

David Bentley Hart on Heidegger: Modernity-as-Nihilism

(Some scraps while I read and write away at several other, more substantial, pieces.)

Earlier I posted an excerpt from the later Heidegger; I have also posted thoughts from David Bentley Hart (on Marilynne Robinson, of Gilead fame). Wishing to combine the two, we might discover that Hart published an article on Heidegger in February of 2011 (ignore the venue of that link, if it bothers you: the article is worth reading). This is the last time I’ll be posting about Hart for the foreseeable future, though there is much about Heidegger I shall eventually get to here (barring death). Continue reading

On Might and Right

Most people plot all things with reference to wherever they are, interpret all things from the little realm they occupy. We craft entire false narratives for the meaning of the artifacts we come across through the lens of the history that is familiar to us; thus, we misinterpret the word “good” when we read it in our earliest sources, plastering over it senses that are more familiar to us, and forget that we occupy a history, a world that began, and that will end.

Historical consciousness may be one of the characteristic features of the Secular Modern, but we are quite adept at parochial amnesia. This is a threat to what we have achieved, and obscures the principles that emerge in the reasons for the transition from the early aristocratic ideas about  “the good” to the more social and cooperative ideas about “the good”.

Without understanding the role of power in the aristocratic ideals of the earliest rulers, we cannot understand the problems that Plato addressed when he narrates Socrates’ interactions with Meno or Thrasymachus, nor can we understand Augustine of Hippo’s presentation of what lies at the heart of the civitas terrena, the earthly (rather than divine) city.

–but what is this model of power and authority, and more specifically, what was this earliest sense of “goodness”? Continue reading

Unification in the Gospel According to Mark

Across cultures and traditions, across temporal and national epochs, people express a desire for perfect unity, simplicity, and integration. Not everyone, of course — and yet the desire cannot be brushed off as peculiar to a tradition or a time period. The expression is colored by a number of cultural features, and so the metaphors used for this unification and simplification vary from mostly natural imagery (Daoism) to mostly political imagery (Christianity). The predominant metaphors are important, and weight a tradition in a certain way. Traditions can overlap, of course, and the boundaries between them are not always quite as neat as either cultural taxidermists or identity politickers would like; and yet, the desire for unification remains. Nor is it simply a desire: in (neo-)Platonism, Daoism and Christianity (to offer three examples), the ethical drive for unification is connected with both cosmological speculation about the characteristic features of the world as a whole and ontological reflection on the nature of being itself. Specifically within the Christian tradition, the desire for unity, and the accomplishment of unity, is tightly connected to Christology.

The imagery of God as a king at war against the agents of injustice, chaos, and death surrounds all Christology. Because of this, there is an inescapable political element to Christian models of the unification of the person; a sloppy reading of this can lead to some very unethical social, religious and political positions. Here I will trace the twin themes of integration and unification in Mark, which signal the health that is found in redemption (itself a loaded economic, political and military term for liberated captives), and a return from an unnatural slavery under dark powers. I will occasionally ask about the consequences of this political language, sometimes with regard to the pursuit of unification in non-Christian traditions. Does the non-frustrated pursuit of integration in non-Christian traditions indicate that Christology is superfluous to this project? What does Christology assume about the good, about the world, and about reality? Continue reading