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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John A. Bremer (1927–2015)

My friend John Bremer died this past November. He was 88, and lived a remarkable life. I loved him fiercely. Continue reading

“All Things are Full of Gods”, and Homer (and Hans Jonas)

I

In the world of Homer, it is difficult to think of anything that cannot be described as alive, from the highest power to the lowest impulse. The Homeric world restricts the title of “god” to something that is “deathless”, and this boundary between divinity and mortality cannot be crossed so as to make a mortal become immortal (V.440-442). Yet if we insist on the rigidness of this divide too strictly, we ignore the tissue of connections and participations between the deathless gods and mortal men.

The most obvious connections are through the half-god children of the sexual unions of gods and mortals (who receive special divine care, and mourning — the sons of Zeus and Ares, respectively). There are other connections, however, such as dream-visions (II.1ff.), prophets (who are given to “hear” divine speech [VII.53, clarifying the odd VII.44-45]), and especially through reciprocal gifts. These gifts include libation and sacrifice on the part of humanity (which secure protection, the failure to perform them making the gods wroth [V.177-178] even when such failure is merely due to human forgetfulness [IX.535-540]; the gods, it should be noted, take pleasure in these sacrifices [“savoring” the smell of them in I.66; IV.49; and, in a lesser sense, IX.500], and can even be said to “dine” on them [IX.535]). On the part of the gods, this reciprocity of exchanges can be seen in the “gifts” that they “lay on” people ([XIII.726-734, etc.] — for people are sometimes spoken of as godlike, and some are likened to the gods they have some symmetry with [II.169; III.16ff.; III.156-160; III.309; VII.47; VII.207-213; XV.603-606, etc.], and by which they are loved [so Aphrodite to Helen III.413-417]).

Focusing too hard on the divine-mortal spectrum, and the threads that connect the poles of it, overshadows not only the presence of divinity amidst mortality, but also occludes a feature of the Homeric world that it does not share with ours: the pervasiveness of life. In the increasingly rational environment that followed in the centuries after Homer, it is a short distance from presenting all things as full of life to Thales’ reported position that all things are modifications of water (the gods themselves come from Ocean in Homer), and Thales’ famous alleged statement that “all things are full of gods.” 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

Stars Down to Earth

I

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2, Cassius says to Brutus concerning Caesar:

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
 .

“The fault […] is not in our stars”, which stars are here connected to the “fates” of “men”. James Dunn notes, commenting on this passage, that

[…] the fear that the stars may indeed be involved has been a recurring suspicion or nightmare in all ages. And if not the stars, then supra-mundane forces of some sort or kind.
[James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 102]
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These “supra-mundane forces” are typically the gods, or some sort of divine/angelic (or demonic) powers. The notion of fate that accompanies the above passage from Shakespeare is, arguably, even more intense, and sounds rather Homeric, as though:

[…] No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you —
it’s born with us the day that we are born.
[Iliad, VI.488-489 (lines 582-584 of Fagles’ transl., p.212)]
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This fate is inescapable; yet it is not always, as is often thought, inflexible. It can be steered, and even in some cases escaped temporarily, though this fate will always catch up with the individual in the end. The Greek word for “fate” (“moira”, “moros” or even “aisa”) means portion or allotment: it is the lot that is assigned to one, as C3PO whines in Star Wars: A New Hope: “We seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.” This lot is what is simply “laid on us“, and includes what are the very ambiguous “gifts” (δωρα) of the gods —e.g., the loveliness of Helen of Troy; double edged gifts, if ever there were– that would not and cannot be chosen (“no one can have them by choosing” Iliad III.66); this lot includes, at its climax, death.

I suggested that the cup of this portion is, to some degree, flexible: Achilles in the Iliad has two fates he might fill up his allotment with [IX.410 ff., Fagles, 265], though some things are not flexible, because they are beyond one’s lot or portion, and pursuing them would bring about calamity for all. The fates are, it seems, above the Olympian gods such as Zeus, though he is the one who seems to distribute the portions, the limits of men — and as we see in the Iliad VIII.70 ff., where Zeus apportions different fates to the two different armies of the war in his “golden scale”, and in the Iliad XVI.400-550. [Fagles, 427], he can override the fates or portions of men, though the cost could be great, and would bring great turmoil and chaos even among the gods.

The historical-natural-cosmic and the theological are here one and the same. Here, there are no elemental powers that are not in some sense divine, and the difference between magic and religion, or between divination and naturalistic predictions, is unrecognized, moot. Continue reading