There be dragons!

Sunday, June 28, 2009


...or why reading is better than watching tv or (gasp) internet.

For some time I've debated the efficacy of reading versus watching movies, tv, or browsing the internet. Most of the argument has been against the nature of the medium, not just the content. But it occurred to me today that there is a difference in freedom. With movies there are certainly many and you can choose what you wish to view; but you are always subject to the interpretation of the movie maker. There is little to counter the viewpoint put forth by the movie so if Jose Cameron suggests that the Titanic sank in such and such a way - it's truth; unless you check it. Moreover, with things like tv you watch what they want you to watch. You may have a gabillion channels on your satellitecabledirectinternet tv, but seriously, are you going to find something original and unique? Not likely. Most of it will be canned by someone else's opinion of what you want to watch; Ted Turner colorizing the old black and whites for instance. Ditto with internet - you see the profile others want you to see. With books, it is true that you are reading the opinion or view of the author (that's inevitable) but you can pick up another book and cross reference things, find out things that others might not know, browse through a bookstore and find gems overlooked by the hoi poloi... sort of like using a dictionary instead of those new-fangled dictionaryinakeyboard thingummies. In the former while browsing for zebra I might discover a hundred other words exciting and unknown. One might argue that while browsing blockbuster you might do the same - true, but the medium still is limited to what the director offers. Moreover, book people are normally the types to move from one to the next to the next book instead of reading one and considering it the gospel uber alles. There is a certain freedom of thought provided by such agility which seems lacking in tv only, or movie only, or internet only people. Indeed, one can't always believe what they read, but then most of what is on tv or internet is mere pablatum.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

thaumatapoioi after grading essays.

While grading essays I read an article by Asli Gocer "The Puppet Theater in Plato's Parable of the Cave" which intrigued me. Gocer points out the use of the word "thaumatopoioi" for the puppets in the cave.

Plato writes in Republic Bk 7:

"Picture further the light from a fire burning higher up and at a distance behind them, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them a road along which a low wall has been built, as the exhibitors of puppet-shows have partitions before the men themselves, above which they show the puppets.”
“See also, then, men carrying past the wall implements of all kinds that rise above the wall, and human images and shapes of animals as well, wrought in stone and wood and every material, some of these bearers presumably speaking and others silent.”

In Greek, the first part of the passage reads:

φῶς δὲ αὐτοῖς πυρὸς ἄνωθεν καὶ πόρρωθεν καόμενον ὄπισθεν αὐτῶν, μεταξὺ δὲ τοῦ πυρὸς καὶτῶν δεσμωτῶν ἐπάνω ὁδόν, παρ᾽ ἣν ἰδὲ τειχίον παρῳκοδομημένον, ὥσπερ τοῖς θαυματοποιοῖςπρὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων πρόκειται τὰ παραφράγματα, ὑπὲρ ὧν τὰ θαύματα δεικνύασιν

The word used thaumatapoiois (θαυματοποιοῖς) for the shadow puppets seems the same as the thaumasta (θαυμαστὰ)that draws Gyges into the crevice back in Bk 2;

"after a great deluge of rain and an earthquake the ground opened and a chasm appeared in the place where he was pasturing; and they say that he saw and wondered and went down into the chasm; and the story goes that he beheld other marvels there"

in Greek

ὄμβρου δὲ πολλοῦ γενομένου καὶ σεισμοῦ ῥαγῆναί τι τῆςγῆς καὶ γενέσθαι χάσμα κατὰ τὸν τόπον ἔνεμεν. ἰδόνταδὲ καὶ θαυμάσαντα καταβῆναι καὶ ἰδεῖν ἄλλα τε δὴ μυθολογοῦσιν θαυμαστὰ

This also seems the same as the later thaumata that Er describes.

Gyges, the Prisoner/pilgrim, Er are the same man in three stages of the alchemical transmogrification effected by the dialectic process.

"All Philosophy begins in wonder" (θαυμαστὰ) Plato states. "All love of wisdom begins in wonder." Whereas the Scriptures proclaim that "Fear of the Lord is the root of all wisdom." Are wonder and fear of the Lord the same thing? Who is the Lord? The Good? Darkness? The Abyss? All of the above?

Wonders draw the man into the darkness; the darkness makes him a prisoner; wonders draw the man up from his state as prisoner into the light of the real; wonders are revealed after passing out of the "cave" through death.

Pythagoreans believed that the soul was merely a balance of perfectly tuned harmonies. With such balance comes the soul and life; loss of such balance kills. The balance of the dialogue (Republic) seems to exist in order to create or "give birth to" (genesis) a soul in the reader/interlocutor; it is a genesis (becoming) towards to on (being).

Yet this is a monologue. Plato assumes the role of Socrates, who is actually remembering his words and the interlocutors' in discussion. This creates several layers of "masking" (thaumatapoiois). Why? To whom? Does he believe it or just use it? Is it real or is it just shadow puppets.

There is, consequently, a balance in the dialogue between the "sleeping" man (Thrasymachus; the minotaur) and the "awakened" man (Odysseus; the sun hero, who chooses the life of the ordinary man in the myth of Er); between the unborn man (Cephalus; the head) and the born man (Er; the man of the air - man of earth);
between doxa and gnosis; eikoni and eidoi; the cave and the world of forms.

Yet neither cave, nor world of forms is the really real. The world of forms is no more "real" than the cave as both are in the myth in the narrative in the monologue in the Platonic work itself. The real is in the middle; on the ground outside the cave; in the here, now, and present. Both worlds, (sleeping/waking, prenatal life/adulthood, doxa/gnosis, eikoni/eidoi, shadows/forms) are connected together in the here and now; that's the point. It is the hypostatic union, the philosopher-king, man fully alive is man suffering (the central phrase in the Gospel of John is "Jesus wept"; Jn 11:35) - stretched on the cross of existence that unites horizontal and vertical.

All metaphors must at some point be abandoned, all guiding stars at some point must be relinquished, all ships at some point must be burned if we are to see the new world. The point is, therefore, beyond the point. Not simply to scrutinize the thaumatapoioi that comprise any work of literature, but to see the literature in part and in whole simultaneously and thus to "live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remaining here and when, like conquerors in the games who go round to gather gifts, we receive our reward." Or to borrow from Dante a more poetical way of saying this,

Io ritornai da la santissima onda
rifatto sì come piante novelle
rinnovellate di novella fronda,

puro e disposto a salire alle stelle

From the most holy water I returned
Regenerate, in the manner of new trees
That are renewed with a new foliage,

Pure and disposed to mount unto the stars.

Monday, June 1, 2009

About civilization

Captain Awesome wrote this comment on a blog:

Why does history show again and again people making conscious references to the ancient Greeks and Romans? I tried tapping that in my end of the year lecture at Chesterton Academy. There are many reasons, and in five years my opinion may change, but right now I think the driving force is that Greece and Rome are synonymous with "civilization" (however uncivilized civilization can be).


It's a good theory. But civilization has been around long before Greece and Rome - Babylon, Persia, the Golden Horde, Aztecia & Cahokia - to name a few. Also civilization has existed simultaneous yet isolated from Greece and Rome: the Han, the Chin, the Chou, the Shogunate, the Ethiopians, the Incas. These all can be considered "civilizations" if the word is taken to mean buildings, government, art and roads and all that. If that is civilization then the Persians greatly surpassed the Greeks and the Golden Horde overwhelmed both Western Rome and Byzantium. I think that Kenneth Clarke had it right that Civilization is more than that.

We have a current posh to think that civilizations are merely whatever "our people" developed; so we prefer Western Civilization b/c... well, we're Westerners. If we were Easterners we'd prefer the great elegance and inventions and governmental certainty of the powerful dynasties in the Orient. Moreover, our preference for Western Civilization, it is said, causes us myopia and prejudice for which we must make constant expiation; apologizing for our white male guilt and innate imperialism.

I think that's all rot.

What makes the preference for Western Civilization is not just that we are Westerners (why, after all, would Easterners prefer WC, after all) but b/c there is something inherently superior proposed by WC that doesn't exist in any other culture.

I would suggest that it is twofold:
1. a vision that law descends not from man but from an unchanging order of the universe (Logos) established by A God and comprehensible to the rational intellect.
2. a supreme emphasis on the importance and rights of the individual person, manifested in an unshakable sense of freedom instead of conformity.
a. corollary that women are considered not chattel but equals or superiors to men & that sexuality, or the control/focus thereof through chivalric courtesy is crucial to our vision of this culture.

This manifesto seems to have come from Jewish/Greek/Roman sources - and has been perpetuated primarily through the Christian Church. It is for this reason that I greatly lament the decline of the Church into the small, petty, feel good ridiculousness it seems to exhibit now and simultaneously lament the decline and continued flogging of Western Culture and values in so many of our institutions. Not b/c of prudery - but b/c humans cannot live without culture. "If God did not exist man would have to invent him" says Nietzsche. W/o the institutions of greatness in Western Culture, values, government & law, and the Church we don't just live care free lives of honesty, we actually tend to descend into something much worse, darker, sadder, and more slavish; the tribalism of the neolithic age, the slavery of the satrapies and Persian tyrants, the abysmal internecine warfare and universal conformity of Eastern civilization, the caste system of India.
IF the grand story of Christian salvation, with its complex balance of triumph and humility, divine fatherhood and human brotherhood, is declared dead, it is at once succeeded by less ambiguous, more ruthless andmore easily abused narratives of glorious human progress, social "Darwinism," self-fulfillment, existentialist whim, socialist utopia or nationalist personality cult.
- Frederick Turner, "Epic Arts" in the winter addition 2009 of American Arts Quarterly

An exchange with a student

Recently an anonymous student asked me a few questions about the noblest profession. Professing to know something about it, here are my answers.

-What did you specialize in, in your field?
A: English Literature. I got my BA in English and went on to get a Masters of English at University of Dallas. They offered a Master of Arts but that required a language component and a longer essay but I lack the chops for doing a language and was tired of writing at the time. I worked on William Butler Yeats for my junior poet and went on to study Arthurian literature for my BA. My Masters of English concentrated on the work of Charles Williams for which I gave a public reading (like a dissertation w/o as much pressure)

-What made you want to become a teacher?
A: I’ve always wanted to do so. Perhaps it was at first ego – I like talking and hearing myself talk. I also like leading other people to see things and found that what I had to say really was unique (apparently) and valuable (ostensibly). My father was a teacher and the teaching business was somewhat in my blood, but the more I read the more I found that the knowledge had to be transferred to others; the skill sets, the content, and the interpretation. To me it seemed the most honorable course of action to give myself to the education of other people. When first I began teaching I thought that the mere revelation of my great ideas would be enough to sway people (pure ego that, what what?) but as I have progressed in the field I find it is less about me and more about my students – the works presented remain great maugre their ignorance and stupefaction – about getting them to be able to see something more than the world in front of them. Ultimately, too, I like the thrill. There is a certain thrill in engaging in the world of ideas and in getting other people to look at life more deeply. So perhaps I’m just a thrill addict, I don’t know.

-And if you weren't teaching, what could you see yourself doing?
Collecting moss behind my ears and pushing 400 pounds. No, I’d probably be in the publishing business, maybe politics (if I didn’t have such a feeling of dyspepsia and revulsion every time I think about it), or the priesthood; though my wife might object to that last one.