Aristotle defends persuasion and poetry

The Rhetoric & The Poetics of AristotleThe Rhetoric & The Poetics of Aristotle by Aristotle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since I decided to incorporate rhetorical analysis in the courses that I teach, I figured that I needed to read the classic work on rhetoric. I picked up this edition a number of years ago at a rummage sale, and it had the Poetics as well. Reading these works and the introductory material helped me to see how integrated Aristotle’s ideas were across his works, since the Rhetoric related not only to the the Poetics but to his works on logic, ethics, and politics as well (I have not read these). The introductory material also pointed out Aristotle’s differences with his teacher Plato on rhetoric and imitative poetry.

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Over the summer, I have been and plan to read more about the discipline of rhetoric, and I hope to post my course materials on my blog toward the end of the summer.

Crito and Rousseau

I assigned Plato’s dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo for class this semester and last. In the Crito, Socrates’ friend tries to persuade him to escape from Athens before his execution, which prompts Socrates to do his usual dismantling of his interlocutor’s ideas. Near the end of the dialogue, Socrates pretends to converse with the laws of Athens. To the statement that the legal decision was unjust and therefore can be disobeyed, he has the laws reply as follows:

“And was that our agreement with you?” the law would sar, “or were you to abide by the sentence of the State?” And if I were to express astonishment at their saying this, the law would probably add: “Answer, Socrates, instead of opening your eyes: you are in the habit of asking and answering questions. Tell us what complaint you have to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the State? In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?” None, I should reply. “Or against those of us who regulate the system of nurture and education of children in which you were trained? Were not the laws, who have the charge of this, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?” Right, I should reply. “Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands?- you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies? And will you, O professor of true virtue, say that you are justified in this? Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? also to be soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father, and if not persuaded, obeyed? And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence; and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right; neither may anyone yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battle or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just: and if he may do no violence to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his country.” What answer shall we make to this, Crito? Do the laws speak truly, or do they not?

I had read this before, but I don’t think that I had realized the parallel with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conception of the “general will of society” and society’s right of life and death over its members.

The quote from Crito was taken from the Internet Classics Archive given the ease of copying and pasting. I read the Crito in Five Dialogues (Hackett, 2002, trans. by Grube/Cooper).

Ariel v. Caliban

ArielAriel by José Enrique Rodó

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rodo, influenced by Plato, Renan, and a host of other authors (who are constantly referenced), sets his work in a Latin American classroom, where the wise teacher urges his young students to pursue idealism and excellence over materialism and utilitarianism. I need to understand more about Hegelian thought and Romanticism, but it is certainly in that stream of thought, where cultures contribute to the progress of the human spirit. It was a thought-provoking read, and according to Howard Wiarda it’s a very influential book in Latin America.

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A world-famous conversation


The Republic
by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m so glad that I finally have read The Republic. The dialogues in this book touch on so many different things: the nature of the just life, the best form of government, education, the influence of entertainment (in this case poetry, including drama) on citizens, metaphysics, the afterlife, and more.

It was fascinating to read Plato’s descriptions (through the character of Socrates) of the interplay between reason, emotions, and desires in the human soul. In some ways, he is dealing with the same issues that Christians do, answering the question of how one can live a good life when beset by strong desires to do the opposite. On the other hand, his solutions (and the way that he expresses the problem) are very different, as you would expect (although there are some fascinating similarities). There’s a pessimistic view underlying The Republic that there are just a few people equipped by nature and nurture to be philosophers, a view that cries out for the need for God’s redeeming action in Christ.

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Socrates’ critique of the philosophers

Recently, I wrote about the pessimism of Plato regarding the preservation of philosophy in Book VI of The Republic. Here is one other note about that (it will make more sense if you read the original post first, if you haven’t done so, where you will see the thoughts below as an update).

In Book VII, Socrates does walk back a bit from this criticism, saying “I had forgotten, I said, that we were not serious, and spoke with too much excitement. For when I saw philosophy so undeservedly trampled under foot of men I could not help feeling a sort of indignation at the authors of her disgrace: and my anger made me too vehement.” He doesn’t go further with this, though, so I think my point still stands.

“Do you see any way in which the philosopher can be preserved in his calling to the end?”

Preface: I’m not an expert in any of the fields that I dig into here. I put these reflections up for your evaluation. Let me know where I’m wrong or uninformed.

I’ve been reading through The Republic by Plato. It’s a fascinating book, of course, and it deals with so many great questions. Reading Book VI this morning (in traditional book form, but here’s the link) I was struck by the way that Plato, using Socrates’ character, presented the attainment of the life of a true philosopher as nearly impossible. His pessimistic answer to the question “Then, do you see any way in which the philosopher can be preserved in his calling to the end?” is that even those who have the proper moral and intellectual gifts are likely to fall victim to flattery. The result of this apostasy is that  “philosophy is left desolate, with her marriage rite incomplete: for her own have fallen away and forsaken her, and while they are leading a false and unbecoming life, other unworthy persons, seeing that she has no kinsmen to be her protectors, enter in and dishonour her; and fasten upon her the reproaches which, as you say, her reprovers utter, who affirm of her votaries that some are good for nothing, and that the greater number deserve the severest punishment.” (Similarly, Boethius has Philosophy describe a time where she was ravaged by brutish philosophical pretenders in Book I, Prose 3 of Consolation of Philosophy.) The true philosophers are few: “the worthy disciples of philosophy will be but a small remnant.”

Is there hope for philosophy? According to Plato, yes. But only in the philosopher finding or creating an entirely new society where he can rebuild from square one, founding a society that respects philosophy and philosophers.

It’s hard to escape the connections to the New Testament’s considerations of the perseverance of believers in the passage that I referred to in the first paragraph. Part of this could be that the 19th-century British translator, Benjamin Jowett, expressed this in more Christian terms than another translator might. But two things struck me here:

First, Clement of Alexandria famously wrote that philosophy was God’s means of preparing the Greeks for the gospel: “Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring “the Hellenic mind,” as the law, the Hebrews, ‘to Christ.’ Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ.” This is the kind of passage that you can see what he was talking about. Two caveats: a) I don’t know what Clement thought about this passage in The Republic, or much else about him besides this quote and b) I know that his method of approaching pagan literature has been controversial.

Second, Plato’s narrow confinement of the philosophical life to those who have the right nature and nurture is quite different from the Christian approach. Peter Brown points out in The Rise of Western Christendom (2nd edition) that ancient Christians surprised watching pagans by “claim[ing] to be able to transform the human person entirely, through conversion and baptism, in a manner which shocked traditional pagans, as wildly optimistic and, even, as irresponsible – for it seemed to offer easy, ‘instant’ forgiveness of crimes” (68). While “philosophical speculation and moral self-improvement were regarded as upper-class pursuits, not open to the average person” (70), for Christians’ “commitment to truth and moral improvement were held to be binding on all believers, irrespective of their class and culture” (71). Cyprian’s description of his conversion seems to be an example of this.

Brown says that Christian leaders presented their teachings as the true philosophy and the Church as a school of virtue. He says this in general terms, but does cite one quote from Lactantius (ellipses in Brown’s quote): “The few commands of God so change the whole man and render him new when the old self has been put off, that you do not recognize him to be the same … For with one washing, all malice will be wiped out … Here is that which all philosophers sought in their whole life … He who wishes to be wise and happy, let him hear the voice of God” (68).

Two passages from 1 Corinthians come to mind where the basis for the Christian approach is seen:

  • “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ ” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV)
  • “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV)

UPDATE (1/27/13): In Book VII, Socrates does walk back a bit from this criticism, saying “I had forgotten, I said, that we were not serious, and spoke with too much excitement. For when I saw philosophy so undeservedly trampled under foot of men I could not help feeling a sort of indignation at the authors of her disgrace: and my anger made me too vehement.” He doesn’t go further with this, though, so I think my point still stands.

Plato’s universe

Stephen Nichols, in his For Us and For Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church, gives a helpful description of Plato’s view of the universe, which influenced Greek philosophers in the ancient world, including the early centuries of the Christian church.  Below is a chart that’s in his book, with some further explanations drawn from his book in brackets:

The Ideal [God-like, but impersonal]

The Demiurge (creator god) [created by the Ideal]

The World, Humanity and Matter [these are the perfect concepts, or ideals, of justice, beauty, and truth, as well as the forms of material things]

[boundary between World of Forms (above this line) and material world (below)]

Males

Females

Animals

Flora and Fauna

Rocks and Dirt

Nichols writes that according to Plato, our souls would escape their imprisonment in our bodies upon death and then go to be in the world of Forms.  Also, Plato’s separation of God in the Ideal and the Demiurge influenced docetists like Valentinus who believed that God in the Old Testament was the Demiurge, rather than the God of both the Old and New Testaments.