Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, June 26, 2015

ARISTOTLE: On Tragedy (Literature and History)



The Great Books of the Western World set begins with Homer.  But the Preface quickly states “Readers who are startled to find the Bible omitted from the set will be reassured to learn that this was done only because Bibles are already widely distributed, and it was felt unnecessary to bring another, by way of this set, into homes that had several already.”  Western literature may really begin with the book of Genesis, or maybe the book of Job, but Homer is unquestionably at the forefront of any history of Western culture.  Homer’s stories have inspired artists, poets and dramatists from Aeschylus (Agamemnon GB 3 458 B.C.) to the Coen brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2000 A.D.)  There’s a good reason why.  Aristotle knows poetic genius when he sees it.  He says “Homer…In writing the Odyssey did not include all of the hero’s adventures…No, what Homer did in the Odyssey, as also in the Iliad (GB 3), was to take an action with a unity…”  What does Aristotle mean by “action with a unity”?  The Trojan War lasted more than ten years.  When Homer wrote the Iliad he didn’t try to tell everything that happened at Troy.  And he didn’t begin the Iliad in year one.  That’s what historians do.  But neither did Homer start his story at any randomly chosen point in time.  That’s what bad poets do.  Homer begins his tale with a feud between Agamemnon (leader of the Greek expedition) and Achilles (the best Greek warrior) over the spoils of war (Chryseis and Briseis, captured Trojan women, the “booty” of war).  Their feud takes place after the Greeks had already been besieging Troy for nine years.  From this one incident the story goes on to explore the whole range of what it means to be human.  The Iliad is really just a long meditation on human activities.  It covers love and hate, life and death, war and peace.  Homer’s poetic genius compresses all these activities and emotions into one coherent story.  This is what Aristotle calls “action with unity.”  It all makes sense.  The characters in the Iliad drink wine and roast meat; they make love, fight one another and do all those things normal human beings do.  We see ourselves through them.  This is powerful literature.                   

A historian would tell a different story with a different purpose.  Aristotle says “the poet’s function is to describe not what has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen.”  For Homer it doesn’t matter whether the Trojan War really happened.  The important thing is to show how it feels to be Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector and Odysseus.  Herodotus (Persian Wars, GB 2) tells stories too.  But his primary purpose in writing history is to tell what happened when real Greeks and real Persians fought real battles.  Later on Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, GB 3) specifically calls his book a “history.”  His style is more analytic and less poetic than Herodotus.  Aristotle thinks it’s important to distinguish between genres.  How can I tell if I’m reading poetry or history?  Aristotle offers this distinction: “Where the historian really differs from the poet is in his describing what has happened, while the poet describes the kind of thing that might happen.  Poetry therefore is more philosophic and of greater significance than history, for its statements are the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are particulars.”  We started with literature; then considered history.  Now Aristotle wants to bring in philosophy too.  That’s as it should be.  The best liberal education combines literature and philosophy with history and even adds mathematics and science with the fine arts thrown in as well.  Western culture was built on these ideas; from poets like Homer, philosophers like Aristotle, and historians like Herodotus and Thucydides.  We are their cultural heirs; but only if we take the time to read them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

ARISTOTLE: On Tragedy (Watching Movies With Aristotle)



Imagine going to a movie with Aristotle.  He says things like, “A tragedy (movie) must include (a) the Spectacle, i.e., the stage-appearance of the actors, because they act the stories…” and so on.  We don’t know if he really talked like that but that’s the way he writes.  And this is what Aristotle would expect from a good movie.  “Every tragedy (movie) must contain six (and only six) parts which determine its quality.  They are Spectacle, Melody, Diction, Character, Thought and Plot.”  Wow.  Aristotle has very clear notions about what he expects.  But he goes even further and ranks them in order.  “Plot is the first essential; the very soul, as it were, of (Tragedy) a movie.  Character comes second… third comes Thought… fourth among the literary elements is Diction… As for the remaining parts, Melody is the greatest of the pleasurable accessories.  Spectacle is certainly an attraction, but it is the least artistic of all the parts and has least connection with the art of poetry.”  There you have it.  All you need to know to analyze a movie.  How does this theory actually work with a modern film?  Let’s try one and see.

O Brother, Where Art Thou would be a good movie to take Aristotle to.  The plot is based loosely on Homer’s Odyssey and is a story he would be familiar with.  The “hero” of O Brother is Ulysses Everett T. McGill and like the ancient Greek hero Ulysses, Everett is trying to get back home to his wife and children.  The plot is summed up this way on IMDb: “Along the way, they meet a contriving one-eyed Bible salesman, a blind prophet, a trio of sexy sirens, and a man who sold his soul to the devil. In their race to reach the treasure before it's flooded, they end up crashing a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob, help a sensitive Baby Face Nelson rob three banks in two hours, and even have enough time to put out a best-selling record as The Soggy Bottom Boys.”  That’s the basic plot. 

How about the second part, Character?  Everett, again like the Greek Ulysses, is a slick talker but unlike Ulysses “He is chained to two other prisoners, slow-witted Delmar and hot-tempered Pete.”  Aristotle says we come to know an actor’s Character by the way he acts and the things he says.  We know Delmar is slow-witted and Pete is hot-tempered by watching what they do and listening to what they say.  Thought is the third part of Aristotle’s dramatic theory and we get a pretty good notion of what Everett, Delmar and Pete are thinking by listening to what they say.  Diction is the fourth part of Aristotle’s theory and Delmar and Pete talk the way we would expect men to talk in Mississippi in the 1930s.  Everett speaks with an eloquence that would be unusual in any age.  But so did Ulysses.  So Aristotle would think this is entirely appropriate for the movie.  He would argue “Diction” should fit the time and place for the story.  The fifth part of Aristotle’s theory is Melody.  “Melody” in modern films consists mostly of the soundtrack.  The music is there primarily to support the story, not the other way around.  In opera music takes center stage.  In most films music is there to set the background for the action on the screen.  It just so happens in O Brother that music is an integral part of the story.  But these characters don’t suddenly burst out with arias from a Verdi opera.  That would be inappropriate.  The Soggy Bottom Boys sing (appropriate) gospel music.  The final part of Aristotle’s theory is Spectacle.  Modern special effects would dazzle Aristotle, as they do us.  But his question would be do they enhance the three main parts; Plot, Character, and Thought?  Reading Aristotle won’t turn us into professional film critics.  But it’s always interesting to take his theory out to the movies with us. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Role of Art in the Affairs of Men

If a tree falls in the woods and there is no one there to hear it, was a sound made by the tree falling?  Your answer to that question depends on your definition of "sound."  There is a common tendency to confuse two different questions when you ask whether a sound is made: what actually (physically) happens; and how can you know (or verify) what actually happened. Verification is the act of proving or demonstrating why something is true, as opposed to not having proof or lacking knowledge that something is true.

We infer something happens when we lack direct observation of a particular event, but we have reason to believe that it occurred. If you have a tape recording of a tree falling, you will have physical evidence to support a belief that a sound was generated. Unless the tree falling in the woods happens inside a closed dome with a vacuum inside, then we can logically infer that a sound was made. Why? Because the physics of one object falling against another creates a sound wave that is transmitted through the air. Now, if there are no human ears to receive sound vibrations, and no instruments to record the event, then we lack empirical evidence. Still, we  are justified in saying that sound was created because we infer from the evidence (the given facts) that such an event occurred.

There is no metaphysical mystery here. There is simply the problem of explaining why we believe something happened. Any confusion concerns our use of language, not the facts themselves. The facts are given to us-- a tree falls in the woods and there is no observor present. We know what is supposed to happen: a falling tree makes a sound. The problem here is how do we go about demonstrating what we know to be true (a falling tree makes noise) when we have no witness. This is a common problem in our criminal justice system. How do we prosecute criminals when there is no eye witness to the crime? Answer: we gather evidence and build a logical case.

Any time you move from empirical events like a tree falling in the woods to the concept of beauty, then you have a different kind of problem-- the problem of human language. All language is metaphorical, i.e. it lacks precision. It is a symbol system in which every noun or verb is merely a substitute for something else (the "thing itself" or the "event itself"). Language is not the direct experience of anything. It is a mere reconstruction of something else. Thus, all language is grounded in ambiguity. Every word we use operates as a replacement or substitute for something else (what Kant called "das ding an sich"). That is why we disagree about such things as color or smell or the tactile feeling of a rough surface versus a smooth one.

Aristotle is a classifier. He puts things (concepts) into categories because that is what classifiers do. Science is based on the principle of classification. Everything has its proper category because that is how we distinguish one thing (one class of objects) from another. The properties associated with a particular object become the means by which we identify it. Without a scheme of grouping things having similar properties or "values," we would be unable to talk about them intelligently. All language involves an act of substituting a verbal description for the thing in nature we are trying to describe. What, then, is beauty? Is it a feeling we have when we look at something, or is it a concept we have when describing it?

When Aristotle talks about tragedy, what foundation is he working from? Does he have any personal experience from writing tragedies? No. But he has knowledge derived from reading or listening to plays written by people like Sophocles. Still, his views are nothing more than opinions. As far as we know, Aristotle never won any prizes for writing a tragedy of his own. So, what makes him qualified to explain to us how tragedy works?  Why should we believe him?

Well, for one thing, he is smarter than just about anybody else living in his time. But this is not simply about Aristotle being smarter than everybody else. This is about the wisdom of what he says. Tragedy is never about human perfection. For Aristotle, tragedy concerns the fall of someone we respect and admire, but is flawed in some particular way. Perhaps he has an overly high opinion of himself. That would be the flaw of vanity. Then, you take a person who we admire but we know to be flawed, and observe how he responds when his world crumbles around him. For Aristotle, this is the defining element of tragedy: a person who is admirable and blessed with prosperity who falls into ruin because he fails to realize or acknowledge his own weakness ...  In other words, human frailty. The reason we still listen to Aristotle when he talks about tragedy is that he identified the qualities that we look for in art, e.g. nobility and honor, even in the face of suffering.  Aristotle knows something about art because he knows a lot about human beings themselves, especially the kind of human beings we admire and want to emulate. This is why he is still relevant today. He didn't just enumerate his personal preferences for art-- he defined for us the role that art plays in our lives and why tragedy is the school of virtue. And this is what Aristotle teaches us: we learn from observing what transpires around us, both in nature and society. We learn from our mistakes, and we move on. None of us want to end up like King Lear, carrying a dead daughter in our arms. In art, tragedy becomes the antidote to personal failure.

Monday, June 22, 2015

ARISTOTLE: On Tragedy (and Beauty)



There’s an old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I may think one thing is beautiful and you may think something else is beautiful.  And if beauty really is in the eye of the beholder then we’re both right.  Our assumption is people don’t agree on the meaning of beauty.  But this is a troubling assumption.  For one thing we’re questioning the very foundation of language and the meaning of words.  If we agree the word beauty means one thing for me and another thing for you does the same claim hold true for the word justice?  Is there one “justice” for me and another one for you?  Is there one “history” for me and a different History for you?  This is a problem.  Maybe it’s all just a problem of semantics, a confusion of words.  But maybe it’s a very real and practical problem.  If we adopt the motto that beauty is in the eye of the beholder are we willing to go on and make the claim that any painting is just as good as any another?  Then why do some paintings cost a fortune while others end up in the trash?  We could ask the same thing about movies, books, songs, furniture or clothes.  What makes one thing more beautiful or more valuable than another?  Is it entirely personal preference?

Aristotle doesn’t think so.  He answers that question in this week’s reading selection taken from his Poetics.  As usual he doesn’t try to tackle the whole problem all at once.  Aristotle takes complicated problems and breaks them down into simpler parts.  In this case he restricts the idea of beauty to “poetry” and even further limits his scope by saying, “We shall have something to say about Epic poetry and Comedy later on.  Let us now consider Tragedy…”  What he wants to do is lay down some basic principles we can use to evaluate performances of tragic drama.  A Tragedy (King Lear for example) is a very complex artistic creation.  Aristotle’s goal is to break tragedy down into simpler components.  First he defines tragedy so we begin with the same notion of what it is: “A tragedy is the imitation of an action.”  That’s pretty simple.  Then he describes four requirements of tragedy: (1) it needs to be “serious, have magnitude, and be complete in itself.”  A tragedy is not a modern-day sitcom.  (2) It has to have “language with pleasurable accessories.”  The characters need to speak in noble language that elevates the soul; no slang terms or street talk.  (Note: in Aristotle’s day tragedies were performed like modern operas and included music.  He says “pleasurable accessories” should also include “rhythm and harmony or song superadded.”)  (3) It is “a dramatic as distinct from a narrative form.”  A tragedy is a play, not a novel.  The story has to be told through dialog between characters.  (4) It should include “incidents arousing pity and fear.”  We should feel sorry for the characters and be afraid that the same thing could happen to us.

These are the four basic elements Aristotle uses to designate tragedy.  Of course we don’t have to agree with him.  For example, does tragedy necessarily have to use noble language?  Consider the American hit play and movie West Side Story.  We might tell Aristotle the characters in West Side Story use street language.  But it’s still a tragedy.  Aristotle might reply that’s your opinion because you live in a democracy and your standards are low.  Plots about street gangs do not make good Tragedies.  Or he might say: you’re right.  I lived a long time ago and times have changed.  Then we’d be faced with this question.  Can ugly characters using ugly language still tell a beautiful story?  Now we’re right back where we started; what do we mean by beauty?  Can a sad movie be beautiful?  Aristotle wants to train the beholder’s eye to see beauty even in tragedy.   

Monday, June 15, 2015

Pride Goeth Before a Fall

King Lear is not about politics and it is not about justice. And, it's not even tragic in the classical sense of the word. The character of the Fool has no equivalent voice in Greek tragedy, unless you believe the Greek chorus lends some ironic flavor to the action. But irony is a mood missing from classical theatre, with the possible exception of Aristophanes.

To me, the whole post-modern era is infused with a sense of irony. We often say one thing when we mean something else. When Edmud says to Kent, "Sir, I shall study deserving" he is being ironical. He already believes he is deserving but he means to make others, including his own father, acknowledge this fact.

King Lear is not about who we are; it's about who we might become in the process of living, and what we must go through in order to be the person we are capable of being (the path of spiritual transcendence).  Gloucester, Kent, Lear, and Edgar have much to learn along the way. Their journey involves a lot of pain and a lot of self discovery. They are going to find out that things are not always as they seem. Kent, of course, already knows this. But he is unable to persuade Lear or to help others who need his advice. That is because in Shakespeare's world, there is no shortcut to wisdom. Just as Oedipus was unable to heed the advice of others, Lear is unable to avoid the calamity which comes about from his own hubris.


I think Shakespeare is saying we all have the potential of being (behaving) one way or another.  Regan, Goneril and Edmund are examples of living one particular way: ambition, cruelty and deceit; Cordelia, Edgar, and Kent are examples of living a different way: loyalty, truth, and perserverence. King Lear falls in between. He is the central character around which all action occurs. Like Oedipus, Lear is both the victim and the perpetrator of his own fate. His misfortune is directly related (caused by) the flaws in his own character. In both cases, their inability to control their temper, or listen to the voice of moderation, brings about their ruin. Unfortunately, other people are damaged along the way. Lear's anger (his ego, we might say) is the instrumental cause of much suffering in this play. But that is who he is. Shakespeare says that we are who we are and sometimes this is not enough. Kent says about Lear that "He but usurped his life." In other words, he cheated himself of happiness. But it is Albany who has the best line  summarizing our human condition: "The weight of this sad time we must obey." Thus, our mortality hangs over us like a veil whose deliberate use puts out the great light illuminating all our fears and our failures.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act V Justice and Tragedy)



By the time the curtain closes on King Lear seven of the main characters are dead.  Is this why we call the play a “Tragedy” because so many people died?  No.  It’s sad when people die but it’s not tragic in the classic sense of the word.  Consider the classic Greek tragedies we read in the Great Books: Antigone by Sophocles; Iphigeneia at Aulis by Euripides; Agamemnon by Aeschylus; Medea by Euripides; and Oedipus the King by Sophocles.  What do these plays have in common with King Lear by Shakespeare?  King Lear dies at the end.  So do Antigone, Iphigeneia, and Agamemnon.  But Medea and Oedipus don’t.  Obviously having main characters die in a play is not what makes it a tragedy.  How about this approach?  Lear was a king.  So were Agamemnon and Oedipus.  But Antigone wasn’t a king.  Neither were Iphigeneia or Medea.  So that won’t do either.  Maybe what we’re searching for in tragedy is something Aristotle loosely calls poetic justice.  For example, at the end of King Lear (and also at the end of all the Greek tragedies mentioned above) we put down the book with a gnawing sense that either a grave injustice has been done (Antigone, Iphigeneia); or else the price of justice was so high it makes us wonder if justice is worth it after all (Agamemnon, Medea, Oedpius). 

So maybe we should frame the problem by asking what happened to the characters in King Lear.  Then ask these two questions.  Was it a tragedy?  Was it justice?  Let’s look at what happened to each of them and try to determine if they got what they deserved.  Cornwall was killed by one of his servants.  Regan was poisoned by Goneril.  Goneril committed suicide.  Edmund was killed in a duel by Edgar.  Gloucester and King Lear died of broken hearts.  And Cordelia was hanged in a prison cell.  In a certain sense Cornwall, Regan, Goneril and Edmund were bad guys.  So those cases weren’t tragedies but they were good examples of poetic justice because they all got what they deserved.  Gloucester and Cordelia didn’t deserve what they got.  They were both good guys and they were both victims of injustice.  What happened to them was sad but those weren’t tragedies either.  (Our next reading selection (Aristotle On Tragedy) will explain why.) 

That leaves King Lear.  Did he deserve what happened to him?  That depends on how we answer a simple question.  Was King Lear one of the good guys or one of the bad guys?  The classic tragic hero has to be a good guy; at least most of the time.  All of the ancient Greek tragic heroes were good most of the time.  But they all suffered because of some flaw in character resulting in their sudden downfall, their own death, or some monstrous injustice falling on their loved ones.  This is the essence of tragedy.  The moment King Lear turned power over to Regan and Goneril he set the stage for a tragedy of epic proportions.  That makes Lear the only true tragic hero in this whole drama.  That’s why the play’s called King Lear and not Cordelia.  What happened to Cordelia was sad but it was King Lear alone who created the political environment for injustice to be carried out on such a massive scale.  It was King Lear alone who put power into the wrong hands.  Justice is the appropriate use of power and King Lear allowed power to be used inappropriately.  This is a theme Plato will explore more fully when we read The Republic in a couple of weeks.  Balancing Aristotle’s ideas about tragedy and Plato’s ideas about justice will give us far better insight into unraveling the deeper meaning of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  These are three of the true heavyweight champions of Great Books and it's a real tragedy more people don’t read them.      

Saturday, June 06, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act IV Facing Adversity)



Life isn’t easy.  Just ask King Lear and Gloucester in Act IV.  A lot of bad things happened to them.  Some bad things were their own doing, some were not.  But either way there’s a lesson here for all of us.  In Civilization and Its Discontents (GB 1) Freud says, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks.  In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.”  Dealing with adversity is something we all have to do.  How would the Great Books advise us to do it?  As usual they don’t give a clear answer.  They give several answers.  Then it’s up to us to choose the best one for ourselves.  So what are our options?

One way to deal with adversity is to simply do nothing.  Ignore it.  Maybe it will go away.  In Rothschild’s Fiddle (Chekhov GB1) that’s what a poor coffin maker chooses to do.  He spends his whole cranky life worrying about money.  Not until the very end does he see he wasted his time and could have become rich by doing something different.  A meek office clerk in Gogol’s The Overcoat (GB4) knows his old coat is wearing out but he does nothing about it until it’s absolutely necessary.  Then he’s forced to choose a new coat and he chooses badly.  Doing nothing is a strategy.  But it’s not a very good one. All of the main characters in King Lear are doers.  They all want to do something.  One thing we can always do is commit suicide.  That’s what Gloucester tries to do in Act IV.  And that’s what Faust (GB5) is considering doing at the start of Goethe’s play.  Faust didn’t actually go through with it but in another Shakespeare play Antony and Cleopatra both did (GB2).  Is that a good option?  Absolutely not says Dante in his Inferno (GB5).  All you’ve done is jumped from the frying pan into the fire.  You leave behind the problems of this world only to find worse ones in the next.  And a variation on this theme is: don’t kill yourself.  Let someone else do it for you.  That’s what the early Christians did in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (GB4).  And that’s what the three hundred Spartans under Leonidas did in The Persian Wars (Herodotus, GB2).  Lear takes a different route.  He retreats from reality into a fantasy world of his own.  Hamlet also retreated into madness in another Shakespeare play (GB3).  But Hamlet’s madness was a strategic retreat.  He put it on and took it off whenever it suited him.  That wasn’t the case with Ophelia, who loved Hamlet until he literally drove her crazy.  Her madness was real and overwhelmed her.  Lear’s madness is also genuine.  In Act IV he rambles.  His thoughts are disconnected and make no sense except to him alone: “There’s your press-money.  That fellow handles his bow like a crow-keeper; draw me a clothier’s yard.  Look, look, a mouse!”  This strategy is not recommended.  A different strategy for dealing with adversity is patience.  It’s different from the do-nothing strategy.  It’s more the “life is a hot bowl of soup” strategy.  It will cool off.  You just have to wait it out.  Job (GB4) used this strategy.  His situation wasn’t too much different from King Lear’s and Gloucester’s.  Job lost almost everything; his wealth, his health, his children.  But he didn’t lose his mind like Lear and he didn’t contemplate suicide like Gloucester.  He went out and sat on a dunghill in silence for seven days with three of his closest friends.  It worked for Job but this strategy is not recommended either.

Freud said life is too hard for us.  Maybe so.  And maybe Gloucester had the best strategy after his failed suicide attempt: “Henceforth I’ll bear affliction till it do cry out itself, ‘Enough, enough,’ and die.”  Shakespeare would have made a good psychiatrist.