Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, July 27, 2015

Thoughts on Justice

Are happiness and justice incompatible?  Well, that depends a lot on how you define "happiness" and what kind of "justice" you have in mind. For most Americans, our ideas about justice are rooted in the Old Testament in which every injury or personal insult must be avenged. The idea of revenge was originally tied to the community's belief in divine law. The law which bound the community together came directly from the authority of God. Thus, justice, which is rooted in divine law, required that law breakers be punished. Over time, tribal laws became linked with a conception of justice derived from a belief in natural law. It was natural because it applied to every person in the world which itself was created by God.

In this way, the laws of the city are derived from the laws of the tribe, which were derived, in turn, from God whose laws governed all human behavior. Yet, prior to the growth of cities, the moral code of human behavior was known as the "eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" school of punishment. Thus, morality became linked to personal injury along with the need for revenge. Over time, the human desire for revenge  became indistinguishable from our idea of justice, which in turn became linked with one's idea of honor. Honor (or respect) is historically a form of public esteem., while the opposite of honor is shame. Shame is analogous to ridicule or loss of social status. Thus, when Job loses all his possessions and children, he becomes a man without honor. Yet his honor is restored when God favors him with new wealth. But a blinded Oedipus is compelled to leave Thebes and live out his days in disgrace.

In almost all ancient societies, cowardice was considered dishonorable, and so was lying and thievery. A man's word was his bond. For the Greeks in Homer, the idea of honor was directly linked to the idea of respect. Honor in battle required that a man be willing to die for his king (or his country). Honor also requires that personal insults be revenged.  Otherwise, one would lose respect. Honor requires that Hector fight Achilles, even though he knows he cannot win. Respect and honor are thus intertwined on the battlefield. In normal life, respect generally takes two forms: self-respect, and public (or social) respect. The difference between self-respect and public honor is tied to the idea of reputation. When Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton in a duel, their conflict is over a perceived insult to Burr's honor. Any public display of disrespect will always be perceived as a loss of reputation. This is what justifies revenge, and revenge is the most common means by which one's reputation is restored. Honor compels Orestes to murder Clytemnestra in revenge for his father's death. His duty to his father compels him to act. Yet his revenge against his mother invokes a kind of divine retribution. The Furies descend upon Orestes to avenge his mother's death. So where is justice in this chain of murder and revenge?

At some point in the development of cities, it becomes necessary to ban public dueling.  The idea of honor is now subordinate to the idea of public safety. And so the criminal justice system, with its courts and juries, becomes the arbiter of all personal disputes.
However, when it comes to disputes between nations, war remains the most frequent means of settling these disputes. It is not until the establishment of the United Nations will there be any other means of resolving these kinds of disagreements. After all, diplomacy is a rational enterprise and men rarely act rationally when honor is at stake. Patriotism, which is the form national honor takes, remains a vestige of the classical idea of honor.

With the Nuremberg trials of 1945, the principle of crimes against humanity becomes the moral equivalent to crimes against the state, and the violation of the immutable laws of God. The principles of justice on which the Nuremberg trials were conducted bring us back to the ancient principles which guided men in a tribal culture. Once again, natural law becomes the foundation for our contemporary understanding of justice.  This is what Socrates, in his inquiry into the principles of justice, is trying to establish-- a rational ground for the belief in the idea (and the possibility) of something which lies beyond our reach (what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."  In other words, bringing the immutable law of a divine order down to the level of ordinary fallible human beings.

Justice becomes the principle to which we aspire without knowing exactly what it is. We only arrive at it through a process of subtraction, by eliminating all the things which justice is not. Using the form of a dialogue, Plato will attempt to show that justice is the idea upon which all other virtues stand. Each speaker, starting with Cephalus, will try to identify what justice is, and each one, in turn, will be refuted by Socrates. It turns out that justice is not simply paying "what is owed" or "rendering good to your friends and evil to your enemies," or "the will of the stronger" or "avoiding injustice" or "fear of punishment". These are all inadequate explanations for why people desire justice.  It is the purpose of Plato's Republic to give a more adequate answer to this question, one which requires an examination of what "society" means and why justice is a requirement for the establishment and maintenance of a good society. It all starts with a thought experiment about what is the purpose of education. Education will lead to an examination of the best kind of city which can provide the right kind of education. Then will follow a discussion on what people ought to do with their education. All of this theory leads to a larger discussion about the purpose of society, of the state, and of how, as individuals, we ought to behave.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

PLATO: The Republic (Work and Justice)

What is justice?  Ask many people that question and you’ll get many different answers.  Some people say justice is following the law.  Others say justice is all about fairness.  Socrates says “justice is the minding of one’s own business and not being a busybody.”  What does that mean?   Socrates believes we can understand justice more easily by looking at relationships between people.  Robinson Crusoe living alone on an island can be neither a just man nor an unjust man.  That’s why Socrates wants us to consider justice within the context of living in community with others.  He says “a city, as I believe, comes into being because each of us isn’t self-sufficient but is in need of much.”  Aristotle says much the same thing but carries this idea a step further.  In On Happiness (GB1) he says “we define something as self-sufficient not by reference to the ‘self’ alone.  We do not mean a man who lives his life in isolation, but a man who also lives with parents, children, a wife and friends and fellow citizens generally, since man is by nature a social and political being…we define as ‘self-sufficient’ that which taken by itself makes life something desirable and deficient in nothing.”  By this definition Robinson Crusoe was surviving on his little island but it was a life that left much to be desired and was deficient in many things.

What do we need for a happy life?  Aristotle says “we have all but defined happiness as a kind of good life and well-being.”  We can get by (as Robinson Crusoe did) with only basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing.  But a good life needs many more things.  For this reason Socrates says “carpenters, smiths, and many other craftsmen of this sort become partners in our little city, making it into a throng.”  And “we’ll need merchants too…out of this we’ll get a market and an established currency as a token for exchange.”  City life is getting complicated.  No wonder Freud wrote a book called Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1).  The division of labor provides “craftsmen” to provide us with cars, kitchen tables, indoor plumbing, and many other amenities.  We don’t have to have these things to live.  But we need them if we want to live a civilized life.  Here’s the catch.  When we have division of labor and “established currency” (money) some people start getting richer than others.  Much richer.  Is this fair?  Is it “unjust”?  How is it that some people have so much and others so little?  Here’s one way.  In The Spirit of Capitalism (GB4) Max Weber tells us it was the Puritans who first “set the clean and solid comfort of the middle-class home as an ideal…the religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means to asceticism… we have here called the spirit of capitalism.  When the limitation of consumption is combined with this release of acquisitive activity, the inevitable practical result is obvious: accumulation of capital through ascetic compulsion to save.”  Weber is saying when people work hard, don’t spend much and save what they earn, after twenty or thirty years they get rich.  But not everyone wants money and “the clean and solid comfort of a middle-class home.” Some people get bored with that lifestyle and want adventure instead.  Other people like to be in charge.  Socrates thinks these three types of people form three natural “classes.”  Most people do in fact want comfort and a nice home.  These folks Socrates calls the money-making class.  Society is best served by letting them make money.  People who want adventure become policemen and soldiers and help protect the wealth created by money-makers.  The “guardian class” are people who manage society and keep things running smoothly.  In a healthy body all the organs work together to make it function properly.  Socrates thinks it’s the same in a healthy city.  Everyone has a job to do.  A healthy city functions properly when everyone does his own job.  A carpenter shouldn’t direct foreign policy and an army general shouldn’t be making shoes.  Everyone has his own work to do and a city is healthiest when everyone does their own job properly.  For Socrates that’s justice.           

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Idea of Justice

The problem of defining justice is the same problem which applies to any concept such as love, beauty, goodness, or truth. These words mean different things to different people. They belong in the category of "universals" which we assume means that the definition or idea is valid regardless of time or place. But the problem of language always comes down to finding some general agreement regarding the meaning and use of words. If mankind enjoyed the use of a universal language, then perhaps there would be perfect agreement on the use of these words. But no such universal language exists, and there is no definition which satisfies everyone regarding the use of words such as justice, love, beauty, goodness and truth. So we shall have to be satisfied with something less than perfect agreement.

Every noun in every language represents an idea or concept whose definition requires that it be placed within a larger social construct.
The idea of justice can only have meaning within this construct. A man living alone on a desert island has no need of a word for justice because the concept is empty. So, in order to arrive at some general agreement on the meaning of justice, Socrates needs to establish the domain in which the idea of justice can exist. For Socrates, the domain for justice can only be the city of Athens. There is no such thing as the justice of a single individual living apart from others.

What Socrates will attempt to establish for the benefit of Glaucon and others is the notion that justice belongs to the realm of politics.  But that does not mean that we take a poll or a vote of the citizens to arrive at an arbitrary notion of justice. That would imply that justice itself varies with the competence or integrity of the people. If justice depended upon the variability of the people, then it might stand for one thing on Monday, but something quite different on Friday. That will not do. The meaning of words like honor, beauty or truth cannot change from day to day. They must be anchored to something more solid than human emotion.

It will be the task of Socrates to demonstrate to Glaucon why justice itself does not vary from person to person.  What varies from person to person is our human understanding, our perception and our limited grasp of a larger picture. The larger picture is the idea of justice itself, not any single manifestation. the general idea of justice exists only as a possibility in the mind of man. Until it is actualized by the collective moral choice of individuals, justice is only an idea, and a vague one at that. Until justice is manifested by the deliberate (and free) action of individuals, its reality is only potential. But even though justice depends on the freedom and rational choice of individuals, the idea itself does not change from person to person. The idea of justice can only be examined in the behavior of individuals.

When Glaucon says that no man would voluntarily choose justice over pleasure, he is merely stating the fact that most people are motivated by personal gain or pleasure rather than abstract principles. This may be true. the principle of justice requires, from time to time, personal sacrifice. But the fact that justice has a price does not mean that justice is impossible or that it always loses out to self interest. Glaucon is merely describing the problem of human nature. People are fallible. They say one thing and do another. This is nothing new. Before laws were instituted, men lived in a constant state of lawlessness which we call the state of nature. According to Glaucon, men always choose their own private interest over the interests of others. Therefore, justice must be impossible. And yet, over time, societies did emerge from the chaos of war. People chose to sacrifice some of their freedom in exchange for the safety of living in communities. No society could long endure if a majority of people abandoned the idea of justice.  The fact is, as Hobbes noted, freedom from laws and social restrictions is just another way of describing chaos. (Or, as Janis Joplin put it, "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose")

The idea of Justice is larger than any idea of the individual pursuing his own interest. Whenever food is scarce, everyone's personal interest is in conflict with other people. But when Socrates speaks of justice, he has something larger in mind than mere survival. "Interest" is simply a way of describing what you want at any given moment. Justice exists on a larger scale. It describes how people mediate their behavior with other people.  You don't need justice if you can simply overpower everyone around you and force them to do what you want. But most people cannot get away with using brute force. You need arbitration, and justice is the means by which conflict is mediated. The values, principles, and laws of a society are the glue which holds it together. You can have a society without justice (North Korea), but you cannot have justice without a society. For Socrates, justice is something more than a prison colony. There has to be a community based on reason, order, honor, and sacrifice.  There is no such thing as the justice of a single individual. Justice is a description of how one person relates to another. So, it is a bi-lateral arrangement. Everyone in society has an investment in the preservation of justice. For without justice, you would merely have a society of pigs or criminals. A city lacking all virtue, which is nothing more than a herd of animals. But you would never have a city like Athens based on reason, dignity, and freedom.

Monday, July 20, 2015

PLATO: The Republic (Philosophy of Urban Living)

To better understand what justice is Socrates proposes enlarging the topic the way we would enlarge letters for large print books.  Socrates: “There is, we say, justice of one man, and there is, surely, justice of a whole city too?”  “Certainly,” Adeimantus said.  “Is a city bigger than one man?”  “Yes, it is bigger,” he said.  “So then perhaps there would be more justice in the bigger and it would be easier to observe closely.”  It would be nice if we could jump into the conversation and respond: perhaps it would; perhaps it would not.  We should pause and consider if private justice and public justice are the same thing.  Can we really understand justice for an individual by seeing what it is for a whole city?  Adeimantus agrees that we can.  “What you say seems fine to me,” he said.  So Socrates proceeds by saying “a city, as I believe, comes into being because each of us isn’t self-sufficient but is in need of much.”  This would be another great place to take a detour and consider more deeply the question why are human beings, the highest of all creatures, not self-sufficient?  Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we have to depend on other people?  Aristotle agrees with Socrates.  Man is a social creature.  He would argue that this is a good thing.  Social connections lead to civilization.  And no one can lead the good life separated from civilized amenities and relationships.  Socrates goes on.  “The first and greatest of needs is the provision of food…second is housing and third clothing and such.”  Food, shelter and clothing are the basic minimum needs for every human being.  All creatures need food.  Most creatures need shelter and many creatures (birds, bees, ants) build their own shelters.  But only Man wears clothing.  Why?  Socrates, Plato and Aristotle rejected this line of questioning.  It should have been a warning to later philosophers who wanted to base philosophy on Man in a State of Nature.  But speculating on the Nature of Man in a State of Nature is pointless.  For Socrates, Plato and Aristotle the real State of Nature for Man is best understood as living in cities and villages.  It’s more practical and we make better progress considering how real people actually live.  So Socrates asks “Who would do a finer job, one man practicing many arts, or one man one art?”  “One man, one art,” Adeimantus said.  What’s at stake here is what Adam Smith calls The Division of Labor (Intro GB1, Wealth of Nations GB2).  Specialization produces much more wealth than an economy in which everybody tries to do everything.  Socrates says “each thing becomes more plentiful, finer, and easier, when one man, exempt from other tasks, does one thing according to nature.”  Maybe so, says Karl Marx, but it also may lead to Alienated Labor (GB1).  Division of labor may in fact make things easier and more efficient but does specialization make us better men?  Or does factory work and office work actually stunt those capabilities which make us truly human?  Also, Plato and Aristotle had slaves to perform mundane tasks like cleaning out stables.  In modern societies, with slavery abolished, who will voluntarily do the unpleasant tasks that make civilized life possible?      

Socrates lived in Athens.  In his day Athens was a great city.  In our day it would be considered a middling size town.  But in this reading he anticipates the problems that occur in any large city.  He says “there will also be need of throngs of other men…we’ll get a market and an established currency as a token for exchange…tradesmen…and merchants…and wage earners.”  Aristotle objects at this point.  He says we started out to supply the simple needs of food, shelter and clothing.  Now we’ve introduced money.  And some people in our city aren’t really working at all.  They’re making interest on loans.  It’s unethical (and unnatural) to sit back and get rich by using money to make more money.  Socrates was a city boy, born and raised in Athens.  Clearly the problems of living in urban environments are different from those of a country shepherd.  Naturally the philosophy will be different too.  Socrates’ specialty is the philosophy of urban life. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

PLATO: The Republic (Justice, Socrates and Job)

Socrates and his young students are deep into a discussion about the nature of justice.  Naturally they also have to consider the nature of injustice.  One of the young students named Glaucon poses this dilemma for consideration: “the extreme of injustice is to seem to be just when one is not.”  In other words the worst situation is when a bad man seems to be good.  This is Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince (GB3).  A prince “must know how to take up evil, should it become necessary.  A prince, therefore, should take great care never to say a single thing that is not infused with these five qualities; he should appear (when seen and heard) to be all compassion, all faithfulness, all integrity, all kindness, all religion…men in general judge more according to their eyes than their hands…everyone sees what you appear to be, few touch what you are…” The reverse is also true; the extreme of injustice is when a good man seems to be bad.  We have such a situation in the book of Job (GB4): “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.”  And this wasn’t just a sham like Machiavelli’s prince who could put on a show of virtue and then take it off whenever he wanted.  Job was the real deal.  He was truly a “perfect and upright” man.  We know this because we read “the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?  Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought?  Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.  But put forth thine hand now and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.”

These are the two types of men Glaucon has in mind.  Machiavelli’s Prince is the man who may gain profit from injustice.  He can be evil and yet appears to be good and as a result he reaps the benefits of ruling a whole nation.  Job is the man who suffers because of his justice.  He really is good but even his friends believe he must have done some evil to have such misfortunes happen to him.  Another one of Socrates’ young students, Adeimantus, sums up these two examples with a question.  “Of what profit is justice in itself to the man who possesses it…you have spent your whole life considering nothing but this.  So, don’t only show us by the argument that justice is stronger than injustice, but show what each in itself does to the man who has it (whether it is noticed by gods and human beings or not) that makes the one good and the other bad.”  This is essentially the same argument Satan is using with the Lord.  What Adeimantus and Satan want to know is this.  What good does Job gain from being a just man?  He’s plagued by disaster and disease.  He’s lost his wealth, his health, and his children.  His closest friends insist he must have committed some terrible sin (or injustice in Greek terms).  Even his wife says to him “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die.”  But throughout the whole ordeal Job remains true to what he is: a truly just man.  His friends are no help.  What would Socrates say to Job?

We’ll never know and that’s a shame.  Socrates and Job are two of the wisest men in all of Western literature.  But their wisdom begins from different starting points.  So we shouldn’t be surprised if they come to different conclusions.  Socrates is a philosopher.  He wants to think for himself and come to rational conclusions.  Job is a religious man.  He looks to God for answers and builds his conclusions on a foundation of faith.  These are two very different men with very different approaches to wisdom.  But they have this much in common.  They both disapprove of men like Machiavelli who would use wisdom (or magic golden rings) to get earthly rewards.  Machiavelli, for his part, would respond that Socrates and Job would not make good princes.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

PLATO: The Republic (Lord of the Ring)

Once there was a fellow who was happy just staying home and minding his own business.  Then one day he found a gold ring and put it on his finger.  It was a special kind of ring.  When he turned it inward, he became invisible, when outward, visible.  This ring changed his whole life.  Does the story sound familiar?  It should.  But it’s not Bilbo Baggins from the recent Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It’s a story told by Plato 2500 years ago about a man named Gyges.  Socrates’ pupil Glaucon brings up this magic ring to help clarify the enduring appeal of both justice and injustice.  Having such a magic ring would give a man immense power.  Glaucon believes anyone who wore the ring would become “as an equal to a god among humans.”  He could do pretty much whatever he wanted.  Then Glaucon poses this dilemma.  “Now if there were two such rings, and the just man would put one on, and the unjust man the other, no one, as it would seem, would be so adamant as to stick by justice…”  Glaucon’s point is this.  “No one is willingly just but only when compelled to be so.  Men do not take justice to be a good for them in private, since wherever each supposes he can do injustice, he does it.  Indeed, all men suppose injustice is far more to their private profit than justice.  And what they suppose is true.”

This sounds like a pessimistic view of human nature.  Is it?  America’s response to Plato’s Republic was The Federalist Papers.  In Federalist Paper #1 (GB4) John Jay says “we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.”  Even men devoted to justice sometimes go wrong.  And in Federalist Paper #15 Alexander Hamilton asks “Why has government been instituted at all?  Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.”  These passages from our own Founding Fathers confirm Glaucon’s point.  Most of us are good only because of the benefits we get from being good.  If we could cut corners without getting caught many of us would do it.  A magic ring would give us ample opportunity to cut corners and get away with it.  How many of us could resist the temptation?  Bilbo Baggins couldn’t.  Glaucon thinks most of us couldn’t.  But Glaucon wants to push his theory further.  He wants to set up a situation where “We shall take away nothing from the injustice of the unjust man nor from the justice of the just man, but we shall take each as perfect in his own pursuit.” 

How can we set up such a situation?  Glaucon says “the extreme of injustice is to seem to be just when one is not… put beside him in the argument the just man in his turn, a man simple and noble, who, according to Aeschylus, does not wish to seem, but rather to be, good.  The seeming must be taken away.  For if he should seem just, there would be honors and gifts for him for seeming to be such.  Then it wouldn’t be plain whether he is such for the sake of the just or for the sake of the gifts and honors.  So he must be stripped of everything except justice.”  Here’s a test.  Let’s say I’m arrested, tried and convicted of a crime I did not commit.  Now I’m sitting in prison but I have a magic ring.  All I have to do is twist the ring and I can make my escape.  Remember I was wrongfully convicted.  And think of all the good I could do on the outside using the power of my magic ring.  Would I be justified using the ring to make my escape?  This isn’t exactly the situation Glaucon is driving at but it’s a good way to approach the question what is justice?  Who gets to define justice?  Is it the courts or is it me?  Socrates was in fact in a somewhat similar situation later in his life.  He was accused of a “crime” and (most readers believe) unjustly convicted and sentenced to death in the Apology (GB1).  In Crito (GB2) he could have escaped but chose to stay.  Why?  Socrates is one of the few truly just men in history who actually walked the walk.  He said: I don’t want that magic ring.  Take it away.

Friday, July 10, 2015

PLATO: The Republic (Three Kinds of Good)

Is reading Aristotle’s On Tragedy a waste of time for the modern reader or is it time well spent?  Like many Great Books selections the answer depends on who’s doing the reading and what we’re looking for.  If we’re looking for criteria to evaluate dramatic arts we can find it.  But Aristotle’s essay is more than a mere technical treatise on evaluating dramatic arts.  He says things like “A well-constructed (good) plot must not begin or end at any random point… a good man must not be shown as passing from happiness to misfortune… All the characters should be good.”  What is this “good” he keeps talking about?  Evidently Aristotle doesn’t just want to teach us about poetry.  He also wants to elevate our souls.  He wants us to consider the fundamental question concerning what is good and what is not good.  By clarifying this distinction in poetry we become habituated to making distinctions to apply in everyday life. 

Plato is doing something similar in this selection taken from The Republic.  Socrates is discussing the nature of justice with a group of young men.  He wants to persuade them that being good is better than being bad; that it’s better to be just than to be unjust.  But like many young men these guys are sharp and want to challenge authority.  They want Socrates to prove it.  Glaucon asks him “do you want to seem to have persuaded us, or truly to persuade us, that it is in every way better to be just than unjust?”  Being Socrates, he doesn’t want to steamroll boys with abstract arguments; he wants them to learn to think for themselves and in the process stretch and maybe even elevate their souls.  So Glaucon lays out what he sees as three forms of “good.” 

The first form of good is neutral.  Glaucon says “we delight in it for its own sake; such as enjoyment and all the pleasures which are harmless and leave no after effects other than the enjoyment in having them.”  What does he mean by “pleasures which are harmless”?  Listening to music?  Going to movies?  Are those harmless activities?  Socrates doesn’t think so.  In his opinion music and drama (and poetry) are far from harmless.  In some cases they do major damage to the soul.  Glaucon probably means things like watching a sunset, playing with a pet, or sitting in a rocking chair whittling on a stick.  These are things that don’t really accomplish much.  But we do them and take pleasure in them without suffering any bad side effects.  The second form of good includes all those things we do with specific ends or purpose in mind.  Glaucon claims that with this kind of good “we like it both for its own sake and for what comes out of it, such as thinking and seeing and being healthy.”  We think so we can understand better.  We see so we can know what’s out there.  We want to be healthy so we can do things like think clearly and look at art and read Great Books.  It’s interesting how often we take this class of good for granted.  Very few of us stop to think and say to ourselves, I’m thinking right now.  And unless we’ve had eye problems we rarely stop and say, wow, I can see.  And until we get sick we don’t normally appreciate what a good it is to be healthy.  Most of the time most of us just think and see and go around being healthy without really being aware we’re doing anything at all.  So it’s the third form of good which is really the most important.  These are things we consciously choose to do; not for their own sakes but in order to get something else in return.  Glaucon says “we would not voluntarily choose to have them for themselves except for the sake of the wages or whatever else results from them.”  Most of us wouldn’t work if we didn’t get paid.  Most of us wouldn’t exercise or go on a diet if it didn’t make us healthier.  This results in what Aristotle calls Character.  He says “Character is what makes us ascribe certain moral qualities to the agents.”  The decision to do one thing instead of another makes us who we are.  Without realizing it Glaucon is already thinking like a philosopher.  Socrates hopes it will also elevate his soul because the world desperately needs more good teachers and philosophers.

Monday, July 06, 2015

ARISTOTLE: On Tragedy (Entertainment and Education)

Why do we go to movies?  One GB participant said it keeps life from being blah.  In Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1) Freud said “Life is too hard for us.”  So according to Freud we go to movies for the same reason we drink booze, use mind-altering drugs, play video games or turn to religion.  These are all just various forms of psychological escapism.  We use any means we can find to escape from real life.  Modern Man is constantly seeking relief from the psychological stress and meaninglessness of modern civilization.  Freud put it this way: “The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one.”  Aristotle thinks that’s just plain nonsense.  According to him (On Happiness GB1) “the good which we have been seeking is a human good and the happiness a human happiness.”  Most people don’t go to movies to escape from real life.  We go because it’s a very human thing to do.  We go to be entertained and, in a looser sense of the term, to become educated.  We learn about the world around us by seeing life through the eyes of the director and rest of the film crew.

But as Hamlet (GB3) says “all the world’s a stage.”  So why can’t we just go get entertained and become educated by watching “real life” on a street corner somewhere?  Because we’re not Shakespeare or Aristotle or Sophocles or Euripides.  To rise to the level of art real life has to be filtered through carefully chosen words and images.  A total experience, what Aristotle calls “a complete whole,” must be condensed into a story lasting no more than two or three hours.  Condensing a story requires the precision of a good artist.  In this section Aristotle shows four ways the good artist portrays a well-defined Character.  First, “All the characters should be good.”  This sounds a little priggish.  There are lots of modern movies with bad guys.  There were lots of plays in his own day with bad guys.  So what can he mean by this?  Aristotle says “goodness is possible in every type of person.”  We don’t go to movies to become worse people.  We don’t necessarily go to movies to become better people either.  But Aristotle says “Tragedy is an imitation of persons better than the average man.”  We assume then that most people (average people) go to a movie to see performers acting better than they themselves could do (either literally on the stage or figuratively in the plot).  That’s the entertainment part.  And we learn by imitating (either consciously or subconsciously) the actors.  That’s the education part. 

Whether art (movies, music, painting, poetry, etc.) can make us better people is not Aristotle’s focus in this selection.  That would be the subject of Ethics.  He’s really just evaluating the technical details of Tragedy; what makes it either good or bad.  And that’s more in the realm of Aesthetics.  Aristotle thinks every subject can only be as precise as that subject allows.  Obviously Tragedy is not Mathematics but he still thinks we can deduce common characteristics from the many dramatic performances we’ve seen.  Here are the three other rules Aristotle would use in delineating Character.  “All the characters should be appropriate.”  “All the characters should be like the original.”  “All characters should remain consistent throughout the play.”  Each one of these rules takes some serious thinking to determine exactly what Aristotle means.  But they’re well worth the effort.  It’s all part of Aristotle’s method of educating the theater- (or movie-) goer about how to distinguish between good art and bad art.  Obviously our world is much different than the world Aristotle lived in.  Or is it?  The question is still the same.  What’s the difference between entertainment and education?  Aristotle thought those two activities could converge through art.  Good art can be entertaining even as it educates us to become better people.  Surely (despite Freud) this is a message that can still resonate in the modern world.