Aristotle, Mistakes, Friendship, and Conversation

Backstory: written for my students in the Tulane Scholars Colloquium, Section 04, after class, where I realized I’d said something kind of weird and maybe indefensible; it made me start thinking about whether this temptation-ridden medium is still good for something.

Ok, so, discussions, conversations, that thing you do where you interact with other human beings in speech—is nearly always unsatisfying, I’ll opine. Is this shocking? I sort of hope so. To me, it’s a heady medium—that’s why I like teaching in that style so much, I do like heady things—but anything that has the potential to turn your head, to give you a rush—well, it can also end abysmally. To learn to expect the abysmal, in constant hope of the sublime—such is conversation.

After making it home, collecting children from various parts of the city, scraping dinner, overseeing bathtime, thinking about how to teach a work of Aristotle—I’m just beginning to teach his Ethics for the third time—to stand on the back of his extraordinary pedagogy and make his arguments at the tempo he made them, in the order he made them, is to see for a moment from the eyes of godlike human being. Love that man.

But–

The slight reddening of the cheeks you recall, when you recall just how far out on a conversational limb you were when you made some particular claim. Today it was my hesitation at the happy image of academics all working together in friendship, which made me hesitate, and decide to opine that on the whole, friendship between members of different professions and even departments—you may as well be told that Aristotle has thoughts on friendship—did not often result in friendly meetings. Or friendship. You know, in general.

I’m thinking over whether I want to take that back or not.

First of all, it’s immediately contradicted by my experience: there’s a particular couple I have in mind, early sixties, who I won’t name by name so as not to gossip—but I’ve been very gratified to be invited to their parties, where I’ve talked to biologists, Latin studies folks, musicians and musical people, and so forth. (The crowd wasn’t heavily STEM—there were no lawyers—I think I told a few philosophy pet peeves/jokes/bad jokes? that seemed to please the assembled company, which pleased me.)

Now, to me this couple seems to be something of an extraordinary case; they’re united by the common cause of classical music in New Orleans, which is something of niche group—but the fact is, I’ve met and conversed with a range of people from a range of professions there, and found some real satisfaction in the meeting of minds, and whatnot. In fact, there may have been a point during Mardi Gras where I was talking with this fellow adjunct, an anthropologist, in a bar, and we swore together as blood brothers we’d get together and teach a class, for the honor and glory of philosophy and anthropology working together in the goddamn modern university.

Part of my interest in teaching is to see what a group of people with different temperaments, with different professions in mind, has to say: having different professions present makes all the difference for a potentially really interesting and not lame conversation.

But the trouble is we wanted to know about friendship, actual friendship, because that’s what we actually want, the real kind, that makes life worth living—and Aristotle, he says these things about friendship, and I’m obliged to pay heed; both from natural love and respect for the man do I pay heed, as well as a wish for this friendship thing itself, myself.

This came up in my other section of Colloquium, the beautiful ideal, the academics in their black gowns all having dinner together in harmony, the chemist, the physicist, maybe some poet, who knows, perhaps a philosophy guy is there. To use a popular or demotic example, think about that moment in the West Wing where Martin Sheen the President is having dinner with his wife’s doctor friends, and suddenly they are all going to cure cancer in ten years, and the president gets really excited about this, and all is golden at the dinner party, and Martin Sheen is going to have some presidential task force thing that will really make this happen. If this were real, I guess it would be awesome?

A more classical analogue is when Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own gets to visit the building where the dons, the men ones, are all having dinner together and shooting the shit in an elegant, refined, academic sort of way, and “the glasses blush white, and blush red” which indicates that much wine was drunk, and that the conversation was very much helped by this institution. (And the money it took to provide that.) (Also Herodotus notes the value of deliberating once while sober, then while drunk—but that’s a story for another day.)

Anyway, the idea is, we’ve got this image of academic life, where the people who are clever and thoughtful and witty, who study all sorts of neat different things, get together and party. This gives me pause. A lot of parties suck. Less often than conversations, but enough of them suck that I would contend we need to think more about what constitutes an excellent party.

The truth is, though, that this does occasionally happen. Virginia Woolf herself was part of such a group, the Bloomsbury group, where poets and musicians and writers and maybe some scientists all got together and really actually talked and partied, and really actually influenced each other, and the results were awesome: check out VW’s novels and essays, her husband’s books, their publishing company, VW’s lady lover Vita Sackville West’s work, the photos of all this, GE Moore, my favorite EM Forster, John Maynard Keynes—watch out for VW’s eventual suicide because that happened and it’s part of the story.

So that’s our gold standard, except for the suicide, and it is right it should be so. A Bloomsbury group looks to me something like the pinnacle of human intellectual happiness; maybe something like this was going on in those glory days, the days Socrates taught Plato, his brothers, and a lot of their friends, and Plato taught Aristotle in the garden of the Academy, where you would just show up to garden and converse with whomever you came across that you wanted to speak to, like a cocktail party without the liquor. That was your schedule for classes: come to the garden and talk.

But what I want to know about, what keeps me up at night, is that most of the time this doesn’t happen. Most of the time people fight. Most of the time we can keep a thin, public, veneer-like peace, and speak well together about our common aims; and this tenuous peace—god bless it—is what keeps the tenuous project of civil society alive to fight another day. Without this peace we’d be nowhere. But the trouble is, yes, people get together at parties and tell jokes or pet peeves about their discipline, but this is not real collaboration. The people you write grants with on collaborative projects aren’t necessarily your friends. You’re lucky if you can get through a group email without frustration. A trusted colleague, one whom you consider an ally in negotiation and deliberation, is a diamond, but hardly common even in the confines of one department. Real friendship is different, difficult, and rare. So sayeth Aristotle in the Ethics: most of us are lucky if we have one or two or three actual friends: how much the less are we likely to find not only friends but intellectual collaborators? People who are profoundly different from us in temperament and interests, but that we’re willing to trust in their own distinct virtue, such that it would change our own mind about our own dear thoughts? Not too likely: but such is the sublime that we continue to cast about for, even if it’s only in the back of our minds.

So are people in the modern university friends? Do they get together and do interdisciplinary projects together? You know they do. They do this all the time. In fact you can get a lot of money for this kind of thing; and I myself am hoping to be part of a grant where my friend writes some music, our poet friend writes the words, our landscape artist/architect builds a venue, our painter friend fills the walls with pictures, and I will sing as I do on occasion. But do we meet the gold standard, are we a Bloomsbury group? Absolutely not. Not yet, anyway. The interstices of our mutual loves are all too infinite; and self, dear self forever intrudes even with the best of intentions. But what would it take to change the ordinary give-and-take transaction of the world, the ordinary alliances of utility—what Aristotle calls friendships of utility and we call making connections, professional networking—into something like a friendship that spins pure artistic and intellectual gold?

Ok, it’s conversation! Talking! Shooting the shit! That thing that is constantly annoying, and usually pretty damn frustrating, and absolutely necessary to all human interaction not based on eros or authoritative force. A willingness, an openness, to meet human beings in profoundly casual, playful conversation; in utter leisure, divorced from the pressures of getting things done, of completing a task, of checking a box or unlocking an achievement, to sit back and—in a way, give up on the immediacy of your own damn thoughts. To follow an argument out, even a strange or repugnant one; to have patience for the tangents of others (everyone has patience for their own, that’s easy alas); to note with pleasure the idiosyncratic turn of phrase of some stranger; to notice when you’re merely telling some old hacksaw of a joke rather than a pressingly prescient one; the ideal, to have the very weather or your thoughts thawed or fevered by the insight of another; but to record the abysmal as abysmal without despair. To live to converse another day, at another bar, another party, another room with awkward desks.

I think I’m right to blush at the kind of wrong thing I said; but I wasn’t wrong to say it. In the rush of conversation we are led on to headily say more than we want—but maybe not less than we mean. The grace of conversation is threatened by our regrets, and inevitable fears, but conversation itself is enlivened by our willingness to risk the faux pas. Should we be brave enough to consider taking up the mantle again after all our missteps, all good things await us—even the possibility of bliss, and the sublimity of mutual recognition and mutual thought.

Art does not deliberate.

Flashback to flashback to philosophy school in Fall 2008–for Mr. Esterheld.

Physics, Book 2, Chapter 8, last paragraph—my dear friend, Aristotle.

Last week, on our date at the Argonaut after my barbaric Friday evening make-up class, H.B. was kind enough to listen to me talking out my disdain with Neo-Platonists, who will use debaters’ arguments to cover their refusal to see distinctions of kind. Specifically, I had come from a class on the Physics which had held a decent conversation, for CUA, but a rather typically insane one, in what it showed up about philosophy students who are not sensitive to the small but killer differences between one kind of thing and another, especially when it comes down to honestly looking at their own experience. (You don’t want to know what they were saying about love the other day, or rather not saying.)

You will catch Aristotle comparing nature to art, to distinguish the powerful ways in which they are the same and different. (Art, my friends, is a poor translation of the Greek word TEXNH, or technê with a long ‘a’ sound at the end, which is the word for all making, knitting, cooking, poem-making, shoe-making all included. This is why the Greek language is cool, because you don’t have to search to notice that shoe-making has more in common with poem-making, than with birds singing or children being gestated.) Art and Nature are for once the same, in that that neither deliberates–– Now, of course we clearly see the artisan deliberating in art, as Aristotle points out, but Skill as such–Lady Technê in all her perfections–does not. The professor (a lady) was saying that art-not-deliberating was like a downhill skier, who’s not thinking about what to do next, because he’s in the moment. Real art, she says, doesn’t think about it.

Now, this example is fine, if you can feel around the language she used to describe it, as the way she explained it was extremely problematic–but of course the talkative Neo-Platonist had to go there. Not thinking? Automatically bad! (But there’s thinking and thinking, my friend…) Particulars, he said, are always particulate, and some kind of discursivity is always necessary to deal with them, and discursivity must equal the thinking-it-through of deliberation. Having no real sense of what being in the moment was like, or why it is so necessary to cultivate athleticism, the virtue of the debased body, he had to attach some kind of abstract little moments to the skier, based on abstract understandings of what discursivity and action are.

Plotinus

So then the Thomist was like, but discursivity in thought is not the same as discursivity in action! And that was enough for him, which is fine. But the Neo-Platonist, with his prior conviction that the Realm of Becoming is nothing compared to the Hypostases of Soul, Mind, and One, had to keep going, because action can’t be allowed to be whole. It’s always partial, he said–dealing with becoming, the only way it can be done, is with Thought (by which he really means, abstract thought, in his way). Now the Thomist has it right–that he’s confounding discursivity in thought with how we deal with particulars in action–but while Thomas could have gotten more particular and restructured the example to make it clear, this Thomist could not. He was willing to allow the truth of the phenomenon, and could tell that one of Thomas’ peace-making distinctions was needed, but couldn’t bring it home. The professor in turn tried to restate her initial example, using the same words, hoping that by stressing the terms, the meaning she was pointing to would be clear, but it wasn’t. (And that’s why Friday evening make-up classes are barbaric.)

So, I tried to point out that deliberation is a very specific kind of thinking, that leads to choice, from which there is no turning back–you know you’ve made a choice when you’re actually acting. ‘Second thoughts’ mean, you didn’t really Choose yet. (One has really got to let the Ethics give off the occasional ontological light, after all.) The athlete is a good paradigm for this moment, because he’s already chosen. He knows how he’s going to do it, and he can be calm until the right particular rolls around to him. He sees it–what to do–he uses intuitional, nous-thinking, the fifth intellectual virtue in this aforementioned Ethics–without needing to take a discursive step back and count on his thumbs. If he counts, then he’s probably not going to cut much of a figure in the Majors. Art can’t afford to deliberate; in order to achieve this, even art has to have some kind of share in the highest, non-discursive kind of understanding. Art doesn’t deliberate, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t think.

But most do not look to the Ethics for ontological light, and my attempt to make peace between the Thomist and the Neo-Platonist fell to the dust. Such is graduate school, and the factions of thought.

But fortunately afterwards there was the Argonaut, and in the jumble of hipster talk and television around us, old HB brought it back home. HB immediately recognized the real force of the Sport example, good observer as he is, and also provided some helpful manly advice on Baseball to confound my enemies, or my friends, for that matter. (His experience in re Sport has been invaluable, because while I’m generally up for viewing a noble contest of victory, I have a far better shot at epistêmê, for what goes on in the more womanly TEXNAI of messing with string and needles. I may still not understand, for instance, the reasoning behind the feint, how it’s made, when to use it, how to ever, ever recognize that someone’s making it. That’s why I absolutely suck at basketball.) There’s a superstition surrounding this /In the Moment/ we all hear of, because in sports, it’s notoriously difficult to find and especially to keep; witness the baseball player’s so-called “slump.” Thus it is often courted as a non-rational, fully animal moment: yet this will make it forever elusive. No, HB is right: being in the zone is inhabiting the essence of skill, essentially reasonable skill. Not discursive skill: skill that is reasonable like nous is: skill that sees. Our trouble with getting into the moment, is not that we think too much simply, but that we don’t know what kind of thinking to use.

Hence the calm of the true athlete comes from already having chosen, from knowing precisely what to do with his body in order to catch the ball, provided of course it is humanly catchable; he waits cannily in that timeless space for the baseball to declare its direction so that he may pounce. The thought is the deed, the deed the thought; this is why athleticism is beautiful.

Laminaria begun

What of the more homely example of, say, knitting? Practically speaking, as any knitter knows, deliberation is perhaps one of the most important and hard-to-learn parts of the making process. What size should I make, what color should I make it–the smallest cross-section of the tip the iceberg. In my early days of making, I used to see a few materials before me and leap into the pleasure of action, without considering if what I made would be useful or beautiful; or if my choices would lead to the utility or beauty I allowed my imagination to project. In the last few years, by contrast, I’ve struggled with an over-abundance of deliberative scruples, enough often to paralyze me before I begin. But if art does not deliberate, then we have to say that these things take place before that choice, before we’ve entered the heart of the activity of skill.

Think of the action of knitting an entire row–once you learn to do this most simple of activities, pick your yarn and needles and get casting on out of the way, all need for discursion and deliberation vanish into the calm of knit stitch after knit stitch. While I’ve learned that my pleasure increases the more beauty and utility I aim at, the integral pleasure is why I continue or indeed bother at all with the craft. That’s the true pleasure of being truly skilled, I think, that every decision is ready to hand without fuss or worry; you know enough, roughly and in outline, to be confident that when you meet that onrushing particular you’ll know what to do directly. You could say that Skill does not Hesitate. (Which in turn gives rise to its peculiar hubris, but that’s a story for another day.)

Action is whole, neo-platonist pipsqueaks! It does participate in timelessness; if it doesn’t, we’re all in trouble, artist or no: the exact quotation is more like, “surely *even* art does not deliberate.” (It must be seen, that there is thinking that deliberates not.) There can be an immediate harmony between the highest mode of knowing, and action–and art, lowly art, provides a serendipitous way to notice this. Thank goodness HB is around, who knows this without having to deliberate about it. And takes one out for drinks.

 

Herodotus Bringing It All Back Home

You know, I just had a thought that gave me a lot of pleasure: not this fall, but next fall, it’ll be ten years since I first read Herodotus. Ten years! Since reading Herodotus! Since getting to know that peculiarly idiosyncratic, lovable, spoudaios man. Maybe getting older is worth it; a decade of knowing Herodotus. Surely not being 19, or 21, or 24, or even 25 anymore is worth that.

Herodotus, the Naked Man Edition

This is my first copy. Bought seconds after Beth snatched up the last non-naked-man edition. I now own four versions:this one, the brokenness of which the picture doesn’t, of course, do justice to; the same translation in hard back sans naked man, bought used from Olsson’s downtown; the Landmark version (which you can see the edge of in the picture, on the left) which I just received from Gill and Ian for my January birthday–you know, I’m beyond excited about the maps, but the translation isn’t as good as Grene’s; and a well beloved audio version, with some random old translation and a equally random crackly old man reading it. (This last claims H. named each of his nine books after the nine Muses, which I still don’t know is true or not.)

I finished my paper on Aquinas and the passions today–it turns out that pleasure is the closest passion, ontologically speaking, to a habit, as it’s an energeia of its own, but whatever– and I couldn’t think of anything better to do to calm down and celebrate than to walk five blocks to Dr. Granville’s, a mussels-fries-and-Belgian beer place on H St., pictured above. (It’s the one with the tallest spire.)

Then, drinking, I had my thought, but then I had to think about why it was so peculiarly pleasing. It’ll also be, for instance, ten years since reading the Republic, the Iliad and the Odyssey; the anniversary of the plays will come a little earlier, since I read them the summer before school began. I had read, basically, genre novels, novels, and plays, and the Apology, and I knew I might do better reading similar things before than anything else. (I also read Middlemarch that summer, and understood not perhaps a word of it.)

As much as everything was profound, affecting, life-turning, life-messing-up that I read that year, back in 1999, why is it a decade of Herodotus that gives so much simple, easy, calming pleasure? Consider this: my dad and I share two beloved writers in common: Bob Dylan and Plato. Really, that’s us. Oedipus and his dad both get pretty angry at dishonor pretty quickly; me and my dad, we listen to Blood on the Tracks and dream about the Soul, and all the images one might well make about it. We like thinking ironic poetry and poetical ironic philosophy. So it’s not as though Herodotus were me, were simply a part of my soul. I don’t think I read him easily. Yet there was something striking about him: his voice was a voice I knew I could hear, in its characteristic self, more easily than other voices through the muddle of translation; he was a Character, like an Oxford don or something, a weirdo, but one you could love for the right reasons.

I even wrote my Freshman essay on the man. (It was not well received.) The title of my document in the computer, though not the official title of the essay, was the same as this post, a Bob Dylan album title. Herodotus does bring it all back home; tonight, I read how when the Persian fleet was wrecked, one man became rich from simply picking up gold cups from the shore, although he later came to grief from other reasons. I also read, that with the 5,283, 220 troops of Xerxes, there were numbered-less numbers of women, eunuchs, baggage animals, and dogs. And that, of these many ten thousands of men, for handsomeness and size there was none worthier than Xerxes to hold that power.

The New yorker notes H. was right about the etruscans.

(I like that one woman, third from the right. She knows what she’s doing.)

I guess it was at least obvious to me that Herodotus was telling important stories, stories like people I knew from the South told, and that it was vital to tell them, and that the telling brought it home to you–even if I didn’t know what any of them meant. Miss Brann used to ask me, I guess in seminar, and in my paper proposal, and also in my oral on the paper, whether there was some underlying unity, some reason why one story came willy-nilly after the next–or none, she said, at all. I guess, I imagine she was wondering whether he was another Plato, or Aristophanes, a poet with a clear, even harsh eye towards the ultimate meaning of his text. I think I can now say, his eye isn’t harsh; he has so many reservations about what real poetic unity would look like–think of his criticisms and re-tellings of Homer, for instance–and he wants to tell you what’s true about broken truth, about anecdotal truth. He’s not bringing it back home in a fully conscious, pointed, sharp, wordy way, but he does have a profound poetic sense of what stories are important and which aren’t, and as a serious reader, it’s your own human job, he thinks, to figure out why. Ms. B. pointed out my essay was really about what an anecdote is: now I know that’s not bad.

I have a year and four months before the ten years is up. When I finish reading, really reading, Books 7, 8, and 9, I’ll have read it all. And that will be something. Something better than me reading some book and instantly having a theory about it.

Again–ten years is a long time. But it is a light burden when I think of my long story of getting to know Herodotus–even a burden I would gladly make heavier, with further age to come.

 

The Dialectic of Sesame Street

You asked for it: Hegelian dialectic.

Sesame Street has deep poetic unity. Each character has a paradigmatic vice: Cookie Monster has, obviously, greed for cookies, Super Grover is vainly convinced of the efficacy of his powers, Oscar delights in the ugly, and Big Bird wrings his hands in emergencies. Yet each vice, or indeed, hubris, springs from an underlying unity which contains the vice’s negation: in each character, some strong particularity of soul is responsible both for their vices and virtues. Oscar’s desire for the ugly proves to contain a secret sense that beauty while difficult, is the most important thing; Super Grover’s vanity often results in actual aid to others; Big Bird’s difficulty in action comes from perceptual sensitivity, for he has true kindness and pity for suffering; while Cookie Monster’s eros, in its very expansiveness, proves to include a deep generosity of spirit and willingness to be refuted (No, Cookie Monster, it’s an “O”, not a cookie!—Yes, you right, me wrong).

Sesame Street’s ultimate teaching about democratic plurality has a basis in human nature that many democracies try to ignore, or gloss over. The temptation is to ignore deep human differences so that the democracy can be more equal, but this is short-lived, because eros, hubris, all of it, will out. The better solution is to acknowledge difference: not difference in degree, as some oligarchists will claim, but difference in kind, real kind. When trying to categorize human error, there’s a modern sense that we all have the same basic inclinations, desires, and the same solution will be appropriate for us all. Ah, not so. Super Grover needs a different education from Cookie Monster: the problems that arise from the latter’s greed are Not the Same as those from the former’s vanity. Each’s vice is hardly understandable to the other. Yet presented to us, as characters who all have to live together in the same city, we can all find their trial and error truly funny.

Thus, in portraying the Hegelian comedy of human nature, Sesame Street educates children in the geometrically-moderate understanding of how life in a community is possible: one must not expel the vices of people, lest one expel their virtues as well. Instead, these vices–or more precisely, inclinations which have vicious and virtuous tendencies–must be educated, the very thing Sesame Street is explicitly trying to do. And comedically, we can’t expect that the vices–these true expressions of human striving–will ever disappear; rather, our best friends will continue to display them. But our knowledge of what they mean takes the sting out of them, and lets the friendship continue; our very sense of this comedy harmonizes our relation to the city, and to our own powers.

Watching Sesame Street is good for the soul.