In the ancient world, texts are written for the ear, not for the eye. Continue reading
In an earlier post, I offered some words about my late friend and former professor, John Bremer. John was a prolific writer, and most of his work went (and remains) unpublished. One of these unpublished works was a not-fully-edited set of short essays, titled “Plato’s Understanding of Philosophy” (or simply the “P.U.P. Papers”, as John called them). There, John wrote that Continue reading
I am packing my library for a move, but dawdling in some of the books I should be carefully Tetris-ing into boxes. As I do, I am running across passages that are worth putting up here. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual is one of several works with such passages.
We have examined the Homeric idea of the good and goodness here before on Into the Clarities, and it is worth noting that the Platonic idea of the philosopher is set against the background of the ideal of the Homeric hero. We have also looked at the kind of cosmos in which the stars were thought to hold sway, such as in the opinion voiced by Seneca the Younger, below. Here below, the difference introduced by reason (λογος) in the ancient Homeric world stands out as remarkable; the post-Platonic and Late Antique model of reason is also contrasted with developments in the later Middle Ages. After Aquinas, the will played a more and more prominent role in anthropological models and in the way that individual virtue was understood. (On this note, see Bonnie Kent’s Virtues of the Will, which I also began dipping into.) Continue reading
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.