Harmony and Bad Ideas

Plotinus, Ennead 1.6 On beauty

“How can theories be well-measured in respect to one another? If they do in fact agree, there can be agreement and harmony even between bad ideas. The assertion that “prudence is silliness” is in agreement and harmony with the notion that “justice is a noble stupidity”, these ideas agree with one another.

Every kind of virtue is a beauty of the soul and this beauty is truer than those previously mentioned. But how is it well-measured? Not in terms of size or number. Since the soul has many parts, what is the recipe or mixture for minds and their theories? By what notion would the beauty of the mind stand alone?”

Θεωρήματα γὰρ σύμμετρα πρὸς ἄλληλα πῶς ἂν εἴη; Εἰ δ᾿ ὅτι σύμφωνά ἐστι, καὶ κακῶν ἔσται ὁμολογία τε καὶ συμφωνία. Τῷ γὰρ τὴν σωφροσύνην ἠλιθιότητα εἶναι τὸ τὴν δικαιοσύνην γενναίαν εἶναι εὐήθειαν σύμφωνον καὶ συνῳδὸν καὶ ὁμολογεῖ πρὸς ἄλληλα. Κάλλος μὲν οὖν ψυχῆς ἀρετὴ πᾶσα καὶ κάλλος ἀληθινώτερον ἢ τὰ πρόσθεν· ἀλλὰ πῶς σύμμετρα; Οὔτε γὰρ ὡς μεγέθη οὔτε ὡς ἀριθμὸς σύμμετρα· καὶ πλειόνων μερῶν τῆς ψυχῆς ὄντων, ἐν ποίῳ γὰρ λόγῳ ἡ σύνθεσις ἢ ἡ κρᾶσις τῶν μερῶν ἢ τῶν θεωρημάτων; Τὸ δὲ τοῦ νοῦ κάλλος μονουμένου τί ἂν εἴη;

Hell panel from The Garden of Earthly Delights. It is alleged that Bosch’s self-portrait is in the upper centre at right under the “table”.

Can’t Decide on a Resolution? Do it Drunk.

Herodotus, Histories 1.133.3-4

“The [Persians] are really fond of wine. It is not permissable to puke or to piss in front of another—these things are guarded against. And they are in the custom of taking counsel about the most important matters while they are drunk. Whatever seems fit to them while they are deliberating, the housemaster of the place where they deliberate proposes to them on the next day when they are sober. If the idea is pleasing to them when they are sober too, then they adopt it. If it is not, they waive it. When they have debated an issue while sober, they make a final decision while drunk.”

οἴνῳ δὲ κάρτα προσκέαται, καί σφι οὐκ ἐμέσαι ἔξεστι, οὐκὶ οὐρῆσαι ἀντίον ἄλλου. ταῦτα μέν νυν οὕτω φυλάσσεται, μεθυσκόμενοι δὲ ἐώθασι βουλεύεσθαι τὰ σπουδαιέστατα τῶν πρηγμάτων:

[4] τὸ δ᾽ ἂν ἅδῃ σφι βουλευομένοισι, τοῦτο τῇ ὑστεραίῃ νήφουσι προτιθεῖ ὁ στέγαρχος, ἐν τοῦ ἂν ἐόντες βουλεύωνται, καὶ ἢν μὲν ἅδῃ καὶ νήφουσι, χρέωνται αὐτῷ, ἢν δὲ μὴ ἅδῃ, μετιεῖσι. τὰ δ᾽ ἂν νήφοντες προβουλεύσωνται, μεθυσκόμενοι ἐπιδιαγινώσκουσι.

Tacitus ascribes a similar process to the northern barbarians, concluding (Germ. 22):

“therefore, the mindset of everyone has been exposed and made clear and on the next day the issue is discussed again, and for each opportunity a resolution and accounting is reached. They deliberate when they are incapable of lying; they make a plan when incapable of messing it up.”

ergo detecta et nuda omnium mens. postera die retractatur, et salva utriusque temporis ratio est. Deliberant dum fingere nesciunt, constituunt dum errare non possunt.

 

Image result for ancient greek and roman drinking

 

[Credit to Perseus for having the How and Wells Commentary online]

Statues and Canons

“You’re the carpenter’s square ” A proverb instead of a straight-rule [kanôn] and precise weight.”

Γνώμων εἶ: ἀντὶ τοῦ κανὼν καὶ ἀκριβὴς σταθμή.  Arsenius, 5.56f

 

What do we mean when we talk about a canon?

Over the past few years we have seen a return in public discourse to a question of “the canon”. To be honest, calling this a return is a bit dishonest because the issue has been central to discussions about public and university education, the rise and fall of the humanities, and the problematic (re)-construction of “western civilization” since the culture wars of the 1980s. Each iteration is a reactive reassertion in response to justified pressure to question the canon, to open it up, to break it down, and to make space for the majority of people some canons exclude.

One of the most frustrating things about this conversation is that reactions to disassembling or even questioning the canon are basically recycled spasms with different words. Today we hear panic about “cancel culture” and attacks on Aristotle or Homer. Such complaints present the canon as part history, part DNA, but almost always something which unites and forms us. Earlier conversations (e.g. the first period of Bloom) at least debated what belonged in this canon; the recent commentariat is mostly just enraged at the hubris of women and BIPOC students and scholars daring to ask serious questions instead of just imitating and emulating white scholars of old.

This post is already another tired rehearsal, but here’s where we can still do some work. Our discussions rarely ever follow some of the basic tenets of this so-called canon and start with definitions. What is a canon? How long have we had the canon.

In ancient Greek a kanôn is an instrument of measurement. It seems to have non-Greek origins.

Beekes canon

As fans of Robert Beekes will undoubtedly report, he often says that unclear roots are non-Greek in origin. The Mycenaean reflex demonstrates that the word—and perhaps the concept—was available in Greece long before the Classical period, so there’s an extent to which the ultimate etymological origins really don’t matter.

From the Archaic period on, we find the kanôn as a tool for measuring, a standard for building, and then, following the broader cultural discourse around the cognitive metaphor of crooked and straight, symbolic uses for right/just behavior and other kinds of rectitude. A clear and potentially ‘canonized version of this appears in Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, 1113a 29-1113b):

“The good person judges everything rightly, both how things seem and are in truth. For in each thing in particular there are noble and pleasing aspects and a good person differs most in being able to observe what is true for each thing, as if they are a kanôn and measure of these things. It seems that most people are deceived by pleasure. For even though it is not good, it seems to be so and they choose what is pleasing as good and they avoid what causes pain as an evil.”

ὁ σπουδαῖος γὰρ ἕκαστα κρίνει ὀρθῶς, καὶ ἐν ἑκάστοις τἀληθὲς αὐτῷ φαίνεται· καθ᾿ ἑκάστην γὰρ ἕξιν ἴδιά ἐστι καλὰ καὶ ἡδέα, καὶ διαφέρει πλεῖστον ἴσως ὁ σπουδαῖος τῷ τἀληθὲς ἐν ἑκάστοις ὁρᾶν, ὥσπερ κανὼν καὶ μέτρον αὐτῶν ὤν. τοῖς πολλοῖς δὲ ἡ ἀπάτη διὰ τὴν ἡδονὴν ἔοικε γίνεσθαι· οὐ γὰρ οὖσα ἀγαθὸν φαίνεται·αἱροῦνται οὖν τὸ ἡδὺ ὡς ἀγαθόν, τὴν δὲ λύπην ὡς κακὸν φεύγουσιν.

Here a philosophically informed person demonstrates the intelligence and wisdom—what some today might rephrase as taste or good sense—to judge a thing for its worth and to guide their behavior based on this. Of course, one might make the mistake of imagining that different folks might have different takes on what is pleasing and good. Aristotle addresses this elsewhere (On the Soul  411a):

“If the soul must be made out of the elements, it doesn’t need to be from all of them! It is enough for only one pair of opposites to judge itself and its counterpart. Thus we understand the straight and the crooked by the same method: the kanon is the test for them both—but neither the crooked nor the straight provides its own proof. Some might think that the soul is mixed up in everything, which is perhaps why Thales believed that everything was full of gods.”

εἴ τε δεῖ τὴν ψυχὴν ἐκ τῶν στοιχείων ποιεῖν, οὐθὲν δεῖ ἐξ ἁπάντων· ἱκανὸν γὰρ θάτερον μέρος τῆς ἐναντιώσεως ἑαυτό τε κρίνειν καὶ τὸ ἀντικείμενον. καὶ γὰρ τῷ εὐθεῖ καὶ αὐτὸ καὶ τὸ καμπύλον γινώσκομεν· κριτὴς γὰρ ἀμφοῖν ὁ κανών, τὸ δὲ καμπύλον οὔθ᾿ ἑαυτοῦ οὔτε τοῦ εὐθέος. καὶ ἐν τῷ ὅλῳ δέ τινες αὐτὴν μεμῖχθαί φασιν, ὅθεν ἴσως καὶ Θαλῆς ᾠήθη πάντα πλήρη θεῶν εἶναι. τοῦτο δ᾿ ἔχει τινὰς ἀπορίας

Here, he uses kanôn as a metaphor. As any amateur carpenter knows, just because something looks straight or level, does not mean that it is. This passage seems to imply that our soul or mind has the ability to judge things outside of it. But Aristotle makes how these kinds of judgments might work more interesting in a different passage (Nicomachean Ethics 1138a26-35):

“This is the nature of equity itself: it is a correction of the law where it is deficient because it is too general. This is the reason that not all things exist according to law: there are some cases in which it is impossible to establish a law so that we need some kind of vote. For the kanôn of the undefined can only be undefined itself. This is how it is with the lead kanôn used by builders in Lesbos. Just as that kanôn does not stay the same but is reshaped to the curve of a stone, so too a vote/ordinance is made to fit the affairs at hand.  This makes it clear what equitable is, that it is just, and that it is better than certain kinds of justice.”

καὶ ἔστιν αὕτη ἡ φύσις ἡ τοῦ ἐπιεικοῦς, ἐπανόρθωμα νόμου ᾗ ἐλλείπει διὰ τὸ καθόλου. τοῦτο γὰρ αἴτιον καὶ τοῦ μὴ πάντα κατὰ νόμον εἶναι, ὅτι περὶ ἐνίων ἀδύνατον θέσθαι νόμον, ὥστε ψηφίσματος δεῖ. τοῦ γὰρ ἀορίστου ἀόριστος καὶ ὁ κανών ἐστιν, ὥσπερ καὶ τῆς Λεσβίας οἰκοδομῆς ὁ μολίβδινος κανών· πρὸς γὰρ τὸ σχῆμα τοῦ λίθου μετακινεῖται καὶ οὐ μένει ὁ κανών, καὶ τὸ ψήφισμα πρὸς τὰ πράγματα. τί μὲν οὖν ἐστὶ τὸ ἐπιεικές, καὶ ὅτι δίκαιον, καὶ τινὸς βέλτιον δικαίου, δῆλον.

In a passage one could argue is potentially revolutionary, Aristotle notes the slippage between descriptive measures and prescriptive measures and that standards of judgment will need to be changed for different circumstances, especially in search of what is equitable.

During the Roman imperial period, Dio Chrystosom calls law “a straight-edge [kanôn] for affairs, against which we must each align our own manner. Otherwise, we will be crooked and wrong.” (Ἔστι δὲ ὁ νόμος τοῦ βίου μὲν ἡγεμών, τῶν πόλεων δὲ ἐπιστάτης κοινός, τῶν δὲ πραγμάτων κανὼν δίκαιος, πρὸς ὃν ἕκαστον ἀπευθύνειν δεῖ τὸν αὑτοῦ τρόπον· εἰ δὲ μή, σκολιὸς ἔσται καὶ πονηρός, Discourse 75: On Law). Longinus echoes a similar use when he quotes Demosthenes’ On the Crown as complaining that those who betrayed their countries to Philip and then Alexander transgressed “the boundaries and measures [kanones] of all that the Greeks used to hold as good” (, ἃ τοῖς πρότερον Ἕλλησιν ὅροι τῶν ἀγαθῶν ἦσαν καὶ κανόνες, ἀνατετροφότες, Longinus, On the Sublime 1 32, quoting De Corona 96).

The idea of the kanôn as a thing we measure ourselves against overlaps with the philosophical notion of a kanôn as presenting rudimentary basics necessary for a discipline: Epicurus is said to have composed a Kanôn where he “says that our perceptions, preconceptions and feelings provide the criteria for truth. So, Epicureans also make perceptions of imagined ideas function in the same way” (ἐν τοίνυν τῷ Κανόνι λέγων ἐστὶν ὁ Ἐπίκουρος κριτήρια τῆς ἀληθείας εἶναι τὰς αἰσθήσεις καὶ προλήψεις καὶ τὰ πάθη, οἱ δ᾿ Ἐπικούρειοι καὶ τὰς φανταστικὰς ἐπιβολὰς τῆς διανοίας, Diogenes Laertius, Life of Epicurus 30). Such definitions are questioned by Sextus Empiricus as the “Kanon of the verifiable truth” (κανόνος τῆς κατ᾿ ἀλήθειαν τῶν πραγμάτων ὑπάρξεως,) which underlies the positions of Dogmatists and the subtraction of would undermine their belief system (Against the Logicians 1 27).

In philosophy, canonical principles of a discipline can also be extended to principles of canonical behavior, satirized by Lucian (Hermotimus 76):

“If you ever met the kind of Stoic who is at the peak, that kind who neither feels pain nor is attracted by pleasure and never feels anger, but is stronger than envy, looks down on wealth and is completely happy, we need some straight-edge and square for a life of virtue from this sort of person. If this stoic is imperfect in even the smallest way, even though possessing more of everything else, well then they’re not yet happy.”

εἴ τινι ἐντετύχηκας τοιούτῳ Στωϊκῷ τῶν ἄκρων, οἵῳ μήτε λυπεῖσθαι μήθ᾿ ὑφ᾿ ἡδονῆς κατασπᾶσθαι μήτε ὀργίζεσθαι, φθόνου δὲ κρείττονι καὶ πλούτου καταφρονοῦντι καὶ συνόλως εὐδαίμονι. ὁποῖον χρὴ τὸν κανόνα εἶναι καὶ γνώμονα τοῦ κατὰ τὴν ἀρετὴν βίου—ὁ γὰρ καὶ κατὰ μικρότατον ἐνδέων ἀτελής, κἂν πάντα πλείω ἔχῃ—εἰ δὲ τοῦτο οὐχί, οὐδέπω εὐδαίμων.

The applications of canonical standards move easily from description to prescription and are not merely philosophical and ethical, but they also move into the aesthetic. Do just a little searching and you will find reference to the kanôn of Polyclitus, a description about the “proper” proportions of a human body described by Lucian (The Dance, 75)

“I am planning to show the body which is aligned with the kanon of Polycltius. Let it be neither too tall and long now short and dwarfish in shape, but a precisely correct proportion, not being fat, which makes the dance unbelievable, or too thin, which would be skeletal or corpse-like.”

τὸ δὲ σῶμα κατὰ τὸν Πολυκλείτου κανόνα ἤδη ἐπιδείξειν μοι δοκῶ· μήτε γὰρ ὑψηλὸς ἄγαν ἔστω καὶ πέρα τοῦ μετρίου ἐπιμήκης μήτε ταπεινὸς καὶ νανώδης τὴν φύσιν, ἀλλ᾿ ἔμμετρος ἀκριβῶς, οὔτε πολύσαρκος, ἀπίθανον γάρ, οὔτε λεπτὸς ἐς ὑπερβολήν· σκελετῶδες τοῦτο καὶ νεκρικόν.

A tool for measuring, metaphorically or literally, can function to describe the qualities of a thing but can also prescribe the boundaries of a thing itself. A measuring tape can be used to find the length of a thing but a measuring rod can also be used to indicate that something fails to adhere to some externally imposed model. In the example of Polyclitus’ kanôn the ‘ideal’ body is used to mark other bodies as deformed. In the Greek tradition of Aristotle we could say that the male body functions as a kanôn against which the female body is judged monstrous or sub-standard. In the same way, an aesthetic and intellectual canon demarcates space around it outside of which other forms, contents, and peoples are found lacking.

An additional problem comes from the dangers of exemplification: learning from representative models must be done with care. If they are haphazardly offered as “great” and admirable, audiences can be led astray. Plutarch notes this in his How to Study Poetry (25e):

“And so, the young should understand when we urge them to read poems not to have such high beliefs about them and their impressive names because they believe that they are wise and just men, the best kinds and models [kanones] of virtue and rightness.”

Οὕτως οὖν τούτων ἐχόντων ἐπάγωμεν τοῖς Eποιήμασι τὸν νέον μὴ τοιαύτας ἔχοντα δόξας περὶ τῶν καλῶν ἐκείνων καὶ μεγάλων ὀνομάτων, ὡς ἄρα σοφοὶ καὶ δίκαιοι οἱ ἄνδρες ἦσαν, ἄκροι τε βασιλεῖς καὶ κανόνες ἀρετῆς ἁπάσης καὶ ὀρθότητος

Oftentimes, the process of canonization tends to level with an upgrade: people who do big things (in fiction or real life) are never simply one thing or another.

Implicit then in the metaphorical use of the canon is the meaning we have in the modern world, but before we get to these meanings, it is worth considering some more recent history. Following the rise of Christianity, canon came to mean that which was authorized as legitimate by the Church (which Biblical books were divinely inspired; and these are some of the first definitions in the OED) and, eventually, laws and judgments issues by Ecclesiastical authorities. Our first use of the term canon to denote a group of authors seems to be by David Ruhnken in 1768 (Historia Critica Oratorum Graecorum see Montanari in Brill’s New Pauly, s.v. Canon and Easterling in the OCD3 and this blogpost).

Ruhnken uses the term to refer to the groups of lyric poets, orators, and tragedians who were handed down from antiquity. His use seems to have been prescriptive: if we follow his career in Sandys or Rudolph Pfeiffer, he seemed to have been dedicated to working with texts that were not in these groups. As Pat Easterling notes, however, the prescriptive meaning was long latent in scholarly circles: Photios uses it to denote the earlier model on which a later author based his work. As an authoritative, evenly divinely inspired model, the use of canon which emerges in the 19th century probably has more to do with Biblical studies than Aristotelian ethics.

How does any of this matter today? If you search google books or other sources there are very few uses of the term Canon to refer to a collection of ‘Western Great Books’ prior to the 1980s. So let’s be clear about what a canon is and what it does in this post-Biblical tradition: it provides a model with the hope of directing behavior, including ethics and aesthetics. This canon works by excluding one thing from another, by de-authorizing some traditions and burying them, and by rendering the selected object as sacred.

This, I suspect, is central to Harold Bloom’s use of the word canon in 1994’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages which functions almost entirely to exclude certain kinds of things from the halls of good taste (most often meaning any works not by European men). Regular mentions of the Western Canon at All prior to the culture wars of the 1980s/90s are further evidence of a very reactionary stance: in 1870, the Western Canon is used to refer to the imposition of the selection of New Testament Books on African Bishops. And it seems that century’s use of the phrase focused on the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church to the exclusion of others. (Although, to be honest, I would really prefer a church historian to confirm some of these assertions.)

If we can, we need to think about the other phrases people seem to use to mean something similar: in the early 20th century there was an effort to great curricula based on Great Books motivated by the overall concern that education had become too specialized and that students were missing out on the broader interdisciplinary tradition of the liberal arts and “western civilization”.

Both this movement and the subsequent culture wars of the humanities in the 1980s are reactions to higher education being opened up to new audiences: the middle classes of growing universities in the west before and after WW2 and the increasingly class, gender, and race diverse classrooms of the 1960s-1980s. Great books, Western Civilization, and The Western Canon are reactive creations, attempts to impose strict measures and rules on a world in flux.

The problem with the prescriptive canon is it obscures, I think, the aesthetic rule, responsibility of judgment, and any acknowledgment that both aesthetics and judgment are subject to experience and context.

The bigger problem is that our public discussions about canons do not acknowledge the religious and authoritative history of the term and that earlier debates about the canon—even the attempt to establish a singular one—are intentional attempts to create an authoritative culture that privileges a 19th century, Eurocentric, white supremacist, colonialist world view

A few weeks ago, I started asking myself how a canon is like a statue. Both are purportedly erected to honor something which has been lost. But both are much more about the present than they are about the past: they are raised to project a certain view of the world. And while some memorials of this kind are certainly aspirational, even these can be constrictive: those who don’t fit into that view are excluded. The implicit and explicit aesthetic and normative rules of a canon of literature of art has the same impact on expression, belief, and belonging.

A canon is unlike a statue because it cannot be brought down easily and parts of it are so thoroughly knit into our culture that it would be impossible. But we can talk about what it is, we can acknowledge the disproportionate impact canons can have, and we can broaden them understanding, following Aristotle, that to achieve equity, sometimes you need to change the measures you use.

 

Unknown Roman after Polykleitos Pentelic marble, Minneapolis Museum of Art

Against Plato: The Doctrine of Ideas Is Ridiculous

Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 78

“It is therefore appropriate that Homer’s message is the life of heroes and Plato’s dialogues are the loves of young men. Everything in Homer overflows with noble virtue; Odysseus is prudent; Ajax is brave; Penelope is chaste; Nestor is just in all things; and Telemachus is reverent towards his father while Achilles is most loyal in his friendships. What of these things remain in Plato, the philosopher? Unless we were to claim that there was some useful honor in the sacred chirpings of his ‘ideas’, mocked even by his student Aristotle! For this reason, I imagine he suffered worthy punishment for his words about Homer, that man “who has an unhindered tongue, the most shameful sickness” [Eur. Or. 10] just like Tantalos or Kapaneus, who suffered endless misfortunes because of their grievous tongue.

Plato often wore himself out going to the doors of tyrants and he submitted a free body to a slave’s fortune, even being sold. No one is ignorant about Pollis the Spartan* or how Plato was saved by a Libyan’s deed when his price had been set at twenty minae, cheap for a slave. These events were the punishment he owed for his slandering of Homer and for his ungoverned and unguarded tongue. Even though I could say more still against Plato, I’ll let it be because I respect the name of Socratic wisdom.”

*Dionysius the Tyrant of Syracuse gave Plato to Pollis as a slave

 

         Τοιγαροῦν εἰκότως ὁ μὲν ῾Ομήρου λόγος ἡρώων ἐστὶ βίος, οἱ δὲ Πλάτωνος διάλογοι μειρακίων ἔρωτες.  Καὶ πάντα τὰ παρ’ ῾Ομήρῳ γεννικῆς ἀρετῆς γέμει· φρόνιμος ᾿Οδυσσεύς, ἀνδρεῖος Αἴας, σώφρων Πηνελόπη, δίκαιος ἐν ἅπασι Νέστωρ, εὐσεβὴς εἰς πατέρα Τηλέμαχος, ἐν φιλίαις πιστότατος ᾿Αχιλλεύς·  ὧν <τί> παρὰ Πλάτωνι  τῷ φιλοσόφῳ; πλὴν εἰ μὴ νὴ Δία τιμὴν <καὶ> ὠφέλ<ειαν φ>ήσομεν εἶναι τὰ σεμνὰ τῶν ἰδεῶν τερετίσματα καὶ παρ’ ᾿Αριστοτέλει τῷ μαθητῇ γελώμενα.  Διὰ τοῦτ’ ἀξίας οἶμαι τῶν καθ’ ῾Ομήρου λόγων δίκας ὑπέσχεν,

          “ἀκόλαστον ἔχων γλῶσσαν, αἰσχίστην νόσον,

ὡς Τάνταλος, ὡς Καπανεύς, ὡς οἱ διὰ γλωσσαλγίαν μυρίαις κεχρημένοι συμφοραῖς.     Πολλάκις ἐπὶ τὰς τυραννικὰς ἐφθείρετο θύρας, ἐν ἐλευθέρῳ δὲ σώματι δουλικὴν τύχην ἠνέσχετο καὶ μέχρι πράσεως·  οὐδὲ εἷς γὰρ ἀγνοεῖ τὸν Σπαρτιάτην Πόλλιν, [ᾧ] οὐδ’ ὡς Λιβυκοῦ χάριν ἐλέου σέσωσται, καὶ μνῶν εἴκοσι καθάπερ ἀνδράποδον εὐτελὲς ἐτιμήθη.  τῶν εἰς ῞Ομηρον ἀσεβημάτων ὀφειλομένην τιμωρίαν τῆς ἀχαλίνου καὶ ἀπυλώτου γλώττης.  Πρὸς μὲν οὖν Πλάτωνα καὶ πλείω λέγειν δυνάμενος ἐῶ, τοὔνομα τῆς Σωκρατικῆς σοφίας αἰδούμενος.

Image result for Plato ancient greek

 

 

How Many Pieces for the Soul?

Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus [=Diogenes Laertius 10.65]

“For this reason, because the soul is embodied, it never loses perception even if some part of it is removed. So, even if parts of the soul perish along with the container when it is destroyed completely or partially, should the soul in fact persist it retains perception. But the rest of the body that remains either whole or in parts does not have perception when this thing has been removed, that number of atoms requisite for the nature of the soul.

So, really, when the whole mass is destroyed, the soul scatters and no longer has the same abilities and can no longer move, just as if it never even obtained perception.”

“Διὸ δὴ καὶ ἐνυπάρχουσα ἡ ψυχὴ οὐδέποτε ἄλλου τινὸς μέρους ἀπηλλαγμένου ἀναισθητεῖ· ἀλλ᾿ ἃ ἂν καὶ ταύτης ξυναπόληται τοῦ στεγάζοντος λυθέντος εἴθ᾿ ὅλου εἴτε καὶ μέρους τινός, ἐάν περ διαμένῃ, ἕξει τὴν αἴσθησιν. τὸ δὲ λοιπὸν ἄθροισμα διαμένον καὶ ὅλον καὶ κατὰ μέρος οὐκ ἔχει τὴν αἴσθησιν κείνου ἀπηλλαγμένου, ὅσον ποτέ ἐστι τὸ συντεῖνον τῶν ἀτόμων πλῆθος εἰς τὴν τῆς ψυχῆς φύσιν. καὶ μὴν καὶ λυομένου τοῦ ὅλου ἀθροίσματος ἡ ψυχὴ διασπείρεται καὶ οὐκέτι ἔχει τὰς αὐτὰς δυνάμεις οὐδὲ κινεῖται, ὥσπερ οὐδ᾿ αἴσθησιν κέκτηται.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail | Return to the 80s

Hearing Color, Seeing Words

Aristotle, On Gorgias 980b

“For how can someone express in words what they have seen? Or how is it possible for a thing to be clear to someone who has only heard it but has not seen it? For just as sight cannot recognize sounds, so too hearing cannot sense colors. So, the speaker speaks but not a color or a thing. How can someone communicate what is not actually in their mind in speech or in any other sign which is different from the thing itself other than through a color, if a thing is seen, or a sound if something is heard?

To start, no one speaks sound or color, but words. For this reason, it is not possible to think a color but only to see it nor a sound but only to hear it. Since we accept that we know and read words, how then does someone who hears the same thing conceptualize it?”

ὃ γὰρ εἶδε, πῶς ἄν τις, φησί, τοῦτο εἴποι λόγῳ; ἢ πῶς ἂν ἐκεῖνο δῆλον ἀκούσαντι γίγνοιτο, μὴ ἰδόντι; ὥσπερ γὰρ οὐδὲ ἡ ὄψις τοὺς φθόγγους γιγνώσκει, οὕτως οὐδὲ ἡ ἀκοὴ τὰ χρώματα ἀκούει, ἀλλὰ φθόγγους· καὶ λέγει ὁ λέγων, ἀλλ᾿ οὐ χρῶμα οὐδὲ πρᾶγμα. ὃ οὖν τις μὴ ἐννοεῖ, πῶς ἂν αὐτὸ παρ᾿ ἄλλου λόγῳ ἢ σημείῳ τινί, ἑτέρῳ τοῦ πράγματος, ἐννοήσειεν, ἀλλ᾿ ἢ ἐὰν μὲν χρῶμα, ἰδών, ἐὰν δὲ <φθόγγος, ἀκροώ> μενος; ἀρχὴν γὰρ οὐ<δεὶς> λέγει <φθόγ>γον οὐδὲ χρῶμα, ἀλλὰ λόγον· ὥστ᾿ οὐδὲ διανοεῖσθαι χρῶμα ἔστιν, ἀλλ᾿ ὁρᾶν, οὐδὲ ψόφον, ἀλλ᾿ ἀκούειν. εἰ δὲ καὶ ἐνδέχεται γιγνώσκειν τε καὶ ἀναγιγνώσκειν λόγον, ἀλλὰ πῶς ὁ ἀκούων τὸ αὐτὸ ἐννοήσει;

File:Modern Tropical Art-Window of Perception.jpg
Window of Perception 

Against Plato for Homer: The Doctrine of Ideas Is Ridiculous

Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 78

“It is therefore appropriate that Homer’s message is the life of heroes and Plato’s dialogues are the loves of young men. Everything in Homer overflows with noble virtue; Odysseus is prudent; Ajax is brave; Penelope is chaste; Nestor is just in all things; and Telemachus is reverent towards his father while Achilles is most loyal in his friendships. What of these things remain in Plato, the philosopher? Unless we were to claim that there was some useful honor in the sacred chirpings of his ‘ideas’, mocked even by his student Aristotle! For this reason, I imagine he suffered worthy punishment for his words about Homer, that man “who has an unhindered tongue, the most shameful sickness” [Eur. Or. 10] just like Tantalos or Kapaneus, who suffered endless misfortunes because of their grievous tongue.

Plato often wore himself out going to the doors of tyrants and he submitted a free body to a slave’s fortune, even being sold. No one is ignorant about Pollis the Spartan* or how Plato was saved by a Libyan’s deed when his price had been set at twenty minae, cheap for a slave. These events were the punishment he owed for his slandering of Homer and for his ungoverned and unguarded tongue. Even though I could say more still against Plato, I’ll let it be because I respect the name of Socratic wisdom.”

*Dionysius the Tyrant of Syracuse gave Plato to Pollis as a slave

 

         Τοιγαροῦν εἰκότως ὁ μὲν ῾Ομήρου λόγος ἡρώων ἐστὶ βίος, οἱ δὲ Πλάτωνος διάλογοι μειρακίων ἔρωτες.  Καὶ πάντα τὰ παρ’ ῾Ομήρῳ γεννικῆς ἀρετῆς γέμει· φρόνιμος ᾿Οδυσσεύς, ἀνδρεῖος Αἴας, σώφρων Πηνελόπη, δίκαιος ἐν ἅπασι Νέστωρ, εὐσεβὴς εἰς πατέρα Τηλέμαχος, ἐν φιλίαις πιστότατος ᾿Αχιλλεύς·  ὧν <τί> παρὰ Πλάτωνι  τῷ φιλοσόφῳ; πλὴν εἰ μὴ νὴ Δία τιμὴν <καὶ> ὠφέλ<ειαν φ>ήσομεν εἶναι τὰ σεμνὰ τῶν ἰδεῶν τερετίσματα καὶ παρ’ ᾿Αριστοτέλει τῷ μαθητῇ γελώμενα.  Διὰ τοῦτ’ ἀξίας οἶμαι τῶν καθ’ ῾Ομήρου λόγων δίκας ὑπέσχεν,

          “ἀκόλαστον ἔχων γλῶσσαν, αἰσχίστην νόσον,

ὡς Τάνταλος, ὡς Καπανεύς, ὡς οἱ διὰ γλωσσαλγίαν μυρίαις κεχρημένοι συμφοραῖς.     Πολλάκις ἐπὶ τὰς τυραννικὰς ἐφθείρετο θύρας, ἐν ἐλευθέρῳ δὲ σώματι δουλικὴν τύχην ἠνέσχετο καὶ μέχρι πράσεως·  οὐδὲ εἷς γὰρ ἀγνοεῖ τὸν Σπαρτιάτην Πόλλιν, [ᾧ] οὐδ’ ὡς Λιβυκοῦ χάριν ἐλέου σέσωσται, καὶ μνῶν εἴκοσι καθάπερ ἀνδράποδον εὐτελὲς ἐτιμήθη.  τῶν εἰς ῞Ομηρον ἀσεβημάτων ὀφειλομένην τιμωρίαν τῆς ἀχαλίνου καὶ ἀπυλώτου γλώττης.  Πρὸς μὲν οὖν Πλάτωνα καὶ πλείω λέγειν δυνάμενος ἐῶ, τοὔνομα τῆς Σωκρατικῆς σοφίας αἰδούμενος.

Image result for Plato ancient greek

 

 

Homer, Divine Not Human

Yesterday I made the mistake of playing along with a twitter game and I submitted;

This wasn’t a big mistake–I was just surprised how many people don’t agree. But the upside was that a twitter correspondent W. Graham Claytor (@graham_claytor ) let me know about this:

Homer Theios

This is a a writing exercise on an ostrakon listing some names and words (from the website: “Stranger; Dios; Stranger; Herodes; Ptolemaios; Herodes;;Homer is a god, not a man.”. Note the absence of diacritical marks.

Homer theios close up

Here is the Greek as printed:

θειοςουκανθρω
ποςΟμηρος

Here’s the Greek with the accents and breathings:

θεῖος οὐκ ἄνθρωπος Ὅμηρος

“Homer is divine not a human being”

I can’t tell if there is a ligature for -ος after θει or if it is a ligature of -ος after θε- (so, “divine” vs. noun “god”). But to break with the published translation, Greek anthrôpos is less gendered than anêr (“man”, sometimes “husband”) and is here opposed to “divine”. So, the contrast and meaning here is mortal/immortal. “Human being” is a better translation.

ὁ θεῖος ῞Ομηρος (“divine Homer”) is not an uncommon phrase in Ancient Greek (appearing in Classical Greece and then becoming increasingly common from the poems of the Greek Anthology through to letters of Julian the Apostate).

Here’s a dedicatory inscription from the Appendix of the Greek Anthology (Epigram 61)

“This is the divine Homer, who adorned all of boastful Greece
With wisdom of the beautiful word.
But especially the Argives who took down
The god-walled Troy, as payback for well-tressed Helen.
For his sake a great-citied people have set this up
And they apportion to him the honors of the gods.”

Θεῖος ῞Ομηρος ὅδ’ ἐστίν, ὃς ῾Ελλάδα τὴν μεγάλαυχον
πᾶσαν ἐκόσμησεν καλλιεπεῖ σοφίῃ,
ἔξοχα δ’ ᾿Αργείους, οἳ τὴν θεοτείχεα Τροίην
ἤρειψαν, ποινὴν ἠυκόμου ῾Ελένης·
οὗ χάριν ἔστησεν δῆμος μεγαλόπτολις αὐτὸν
ἐνθάδε, καὶ τιμαῖς ἀμφέπει ἀθανάτων.

Here is a nice bit too….

Dio Chrysostom, On Homer (Discourse 53)

Democritus says this about Homer: “Homer, who was granted a divine nature, crafted a universe of verses of every kind.” This means it is not possible for him to have created poems so beautiful and wise without divine and immortal nature. Many others have also written about this—some who directly praise the poet and also select for illustration some of his sayings while others attempt to interpret his very manner of thinking…”

Ὁ μὲν Δημόκριτος περὶ Ὁμήρου φησὶν οὕτως· Ὅμηρος φύσεως λαχὼν θεαζούσης ἐπέων κόσμον ἐτεκτήνατο παντοίων· ὡς οὐκ ἐνὸν ἄνευ θείας καὶ δαιμονίας φύσεως οὕτως καλὰ καὶ σοφὰ ἔπη ἐργάσασθαι. πολλοὶ δὲ καὶ ἄλλοι γεγράφασιν οἱ μὲν ἄντικρυς ἐγκωμιάζοντες τὸν ποιητὴν ἅμα καὶ δηλοῦντες ἔνια τῶν ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ λεγομένων, οἱ δὲ αὐτὸ τοῦτο τὴν διάνοιαν ἐξηγούμενοι

The Homeric poems as part of an oral tradition is not new in Post-enlightenment scholarship–F. A. Wolf was probably the first ‘modern’ author to get really into it. But the persistence of the insistence that because the Homeric poems are complex and meaningful, they must have been designed by an author to be that way is both a reflection of our own views about genius a creation and a misapprehension of the deep and complexity possible from oral traditions.

The work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord helps in part to explain how oral poetry may works compositionally, but this does little to address the larger issue which is the confirmation bias that shapes what we think ‘art’ is and how we think it is made (the works of John Miles Foley and Egbert J. Bakker are really helpful too; for the creation of the idea of Homer, I know of no better text than Barbara Graziosi’s The Invention of Homer).

I do think it is entirely possible for different modern interpreters to believe radically different things about the creation of the texts we possess and still come to similar conclusions about their meanings. Elton Barker and I cover this rather ecumenically in our introductory book to Homer. In our book Homer’s Thebes, out with the Center for Hellenic Studies next spring we are going to be a bit less so.)

Agnosticism on the issue is likely the wisest route. Ultimately, what we have are poems that have been treated as texts with a unifying authority behind them for two thousand years. Yet, I must confess a frustration that we so reflexively insist that the genius of any work is due to the genius of an individual and not a cultural context and its inheritance. Because we see the world as individuals and are culturally and biologically conditioned to imagine ourselves as agents acting individually within it, we assume a view of causality that reinforces our view of self. (And this is culturally reinforced by religious beliefs.)

What I teach, I approach the issue the way Elton and I do in the introductory book–I tell the full story and transparently say what I believe (without expecting followers). But I also ask students to consider why it is important that we have a Homer behind the Homeric poems. Why do we feel so strongly we need an author? What does it do for us? What do we lose without it?

[But it is fine if we disagree! I actually do treat this the way I do religion. Who can rightly judge what no mortal can ever truly know? Although an atheist, my spouse is Muslim, I was raised Lutheran and I have known as many religious people clearly smarter than I am as I have known atheists to be fools.]

Here is a full citation: “O.Mich.inv. 9353; Recto.” http://quod.lib.umich.edu/a/apis/x-784/9353o.tif. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed: July 05, 2018.

Addendum [3 hours after original post]:

When I was visiting graduate schools as a precocious soon-to-be college graduate, I got in an argument with a 3rd year graduate student about “Homer” which ended with me suggesting that he only wanted to believe in a singular, monumental genius because he wanted to believe that he was a genius too. (The story has a happy ending, we are now friends.)

My comments on twitter about the non-existence of Homer drew more ire and rejection than I expected. I am in part grateful for this because it reminds me that I write and work and teach in a rather closed circle. I have for too long taken the tenets of my belief about Homer to be standard, when it seems that they are not.

From my experience, the Homeric poems are qualitatively and quantitatively different from anything else I have ever read. This knowledge emerged with the belief that their origins in an oral-performance culture help to explain this. When I first read Homer in Greek after years of reading Latin epic and a lifetime of reading English poetry and prose widely, I was floored by how different it was. It was so different that I despised Homer in translation before I read the Iliad in Greek and would only have imagined myself dedicating the next decades of my life to the study of Homer as a nightmare or joke.

The explanation for the genius was unfolded for me slowly. My Greek teacher, mentor, and eventually friend, Leonard Muellner, handed me a concordance of Homer and told me to take any ten lines and look for repetitions and similarity elsewhere (e.g. formulae). Only after seeing the building blocks of Homeric language up close, did I then read Milman Parry, Albert Lord, and Lenny’s own brilliant work on Homeric eukhomai and mênis.

(There are other authors whose work should be added here: the work of John Miles Foley on oral poetry, the linguistic informed books of Egbert Bakker, the work of Casey Dué, Olga Levaniouk, Sheila Murnaghan, and dozens of others too.)

I’m not exactly a dilettante when it comes to Homer (as I am with most Greek and Roman authors). But I do realize that I probably seem to be the member of a hardline approach. I must emphasize again that I think the problem of authorship is ultimately without a solution.

What is not without a solution is a careful reflection on why we believe what we believe about (1) Homer, (2) the nature of creative production, (3) authorship, and (4) the relationship between the individual and collective culture. The reason I bring this up is that some of the most strident responses to my comments about the non-existence of Homer come from the same voices who have objected to my assertions that the Homeric poems are misogynistic or that they don’t necessarily reflect the same assumptions about race and ethnicities as our own.

It is not surprising that some of the same people who have a knee-jerk reaction that Homer is only about European people and cannot be taken to task for being part of a misogynistic culture are those who so desperately cleave to a notion of Homer as genius. These beliefs are rooted in an essential conservatism, a patriarchal view of culture, and a rigidly individualistic view of cultural production.

[As an anecdotal aside, in addition to similar voices complaining about Homer as misogyny, etc. I got antisemitic hate tweets for the twitter thread associated with this post. The poster was a follower of one of the original culture haters.]

I do not mean that everyone who thinks there was a Homer is a racist of misogynist or that they hold their beliefs about Homer because they are conservative and close-minded. Indeed, I know and know of many well-educated, progressive, and intensely kind people who believe there was a Homer who wrote one or both of the epics.

But I did want to point out the curious overlap between cultural chauvinists and the cult of genius. My apologies to the good people who believe in Homer but do not fall into this group. Whatever we believe about the origin of the Homeric poems, we must rigorously examine why we believe it. What assumptions do we make about personhood and the relationship between individual and community in the human species? Why do we need an author for the Iliad or the Odyssey? Why do we need to identify a designer if we sense beauty and design? Do we see design because we are part of an aesthetic continuum that has been shaped by the Iliad and the Odyssey and by later cultural reflections on those poems?

 

For flavor, a conventional of Homer:

Number 6, part 1part 2

Also, I made a poll, this will solve everything.

Can’t Decide on a Resolution? Do it Drunk.

Herodotus, Histories 1.133.3-4

“The [Persians] are really fond of wine. It is not permissable to puke or to piss in front of another—these things are guarded against. And they are in the custom of taking counsel about the most important matters while they are drunk. Whatever seems fit to them while they are deliberating, the housemaster of the place where they deliberate proposes to them on the next day when they are sober. If the idea is pleasing to them when they are sober too, then they adopt it. If it is not, they waive it. When they have debated an issue while sober, they make a final decision while drunk.”

οἴνῳ δὲ κάρτα προσκέαται, καί σφι οὐκ ἐμέσαι ἔξεστι, οὐκὶ οὐρῆσαι ἀντίον ἄλλου. ταῦτα μέν νυν οὕτω φυλάσσεται, μεθυσκόμενοι δὲ ἐώθασι βουλεύεσθαι τὰ σπουδαιέστατα τῶν πρηγμάτων:

[4] τὸ δ᾽ ἂν ἅδῃ σφι βουλευομένοισι, τοῦτο τῇ ὑστεραίῃ νήφουσι προτιθεῖ ὁ στέγαρχος, ἐν τοῦ ἂν ἐόντες βουλεύωνται, καὶ ἢν μὲν ἅδῃ καὶ νήφουσι, χρέωνται αὐτῷ, ἢν δὲ μὴ ἅδῃ, μετιεῖσι. τὰ δ᾽ ἂν νήφοντες προβουλεύσωνται, μεθυσκόμενοι ἐπιδιαγινώσκουσι.

Tacitus ascribes a similar process to the northern barbarians, concluding (Germ. 22):

“therefore, the mindset of everyone has been exposed and made clear and on the next day the issue is discussed again, and for each opportunity a resolution and accounting is reached. They deliberate when they are incapable of lying; they make a plan when incapable of messing it up.”

ergo detecta et nuda omnium mens. postera die retractatur, et salva utriusque temporis ratio est. Deliberant dum fingere nesciunt, constituunt dum errare non possunt.

 

Image result for ancient greek and roman drinking

 

[Credit to Perseus for having the How and Wells Commentary online]

Against Plato for Homer: The Doctrine of Ideas Is Ridiculous

Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 78

“It is therefore appropriate that Homer’s message is the life of heroes and Plato’s dialogues are the loves of young men. Everything in Homer overflows with noble virtue; Odysseus is prudent; Ajax is brave; Penelope is chaste; Nestor is just in all things; and Telemachus is reverent towards his father while Achilles is most loyal in his friendships. What of these things remain in Plato, the philosopher? Unless we were to claim that there was some useful honor in the sacred chirpings of his ‘ideas’, mocked even by his student Aristotle! For this reason, I imagine he suffered worthy punishment for his words about Homer, that man “who has an unhindered tongue, the most shameful sickness” [Eur. Or. 10] just like Tantalos or Kapaneus, who suffered endless misfortunes because of their grievous tongue.

Plato often wore himself out going to the doors of tyrants and he submitted a free body to a slave’s fortune, even being sold. No one is ignorant about Pollis the Spartan* or how Plato was saved by a Libyan’s deed when his price had been set at twenty minae, cheap for a slave. These events were the punishment he owed for his slandering of Homer and for his ungoverned and unguarded tongue. Even though I could say more still against Plato, I’ll let it be because I respect the name of Socratic wisdom.”

*Dionysius the Tyrant of Syracuse gave Plato to Pollis as a slave

 

         Τοιγαροῦν εἰκότως ὁ μὲν ῾Ομήρου λόγος ἡρώων ἐστὶ βίος, οἱ δὲ Πλάτωνος διάλογοι μειρακίων ἔρωτες.  Καὶ πάντα τὰ παρ’ ῾Ομήρῳ γεννικῆς ἀρετῆς γέμει· φρόνιμος ᾿Οδυσσεύς, ἀνδρεῖος Αἴας, σώφρων Πηνελόπη, δίκαιος ἐν ἅπασι Νέστωρ, εὐσεβὴς εἰς πατέρα Τηλέμαχος, ἐν φιλίαις πιστότατος ᾿Αχιλλεύς·  ὧν <τί> παρὰ Πλάτωνι  τῷ φιλοσόφῳ; πλὴν εἰ μὴ νὴ Δία τιμὴν <καὶ> ὠφέλ<ειαν φ>ήσομεν εἶναι τὰ σεμνὰ τῶν ἰδεῶν τερετίσματα καὶ παρ’ ᾿Αριστοτέλει τῷ μαθητῇ γελώμενα.  Διὰ τοῦτ’ ἀξίας οἶμαι τῶν καθ’ ῾Ομήρου λόγων δίκας ὑπέσχεν,

          “ἀκόλαστον ἔχων γλῶσσαν, αἰσχίστην νόσον,

ὡς Τάνταλος, ὡς Καπανεύς, ὡς οἱ διὰ γλωσσαλγίαν μυρίαις κεχρημένοι συμφοραῖς.     Πολλάκις ἐπὶ τὰς τυραννικὰς ἐφθείρετο θύρας, ἐν ἐλευθέρῳ δὲ σώματι δουλικὴν τύχην ἠνέσχετο καὶ μέχρι πράσεως·  οὐδὲ εἷς γὰρ ἀγνοεῖ τὸν Σπαρτιάτην Πόλλιν, [ᾧ] οὐδ’ ὡς Λιβυκοῦ χάριν ἐλέου σέσωσται, καὶ μνῶν εἴκοσι καθάπερ ἀνδράποδον εὐτελὲς ἐτιμήθη.  τῶν εἰς ῞Ομηρον ἀσεβημάτων ὀφειλομένην τιμωρίαν τῆς ἀχαλίνου καὶ ἀπυλώτου γλώττης.  Πρὸς μὲν οὖν Πλάτωνα καὶ πλείω λέγειν δυνάμενος ἐῶ, τοὔνομα τῆς Σωκρατικῆς σοφίας αἰδούμενος.

Image result for Plato ancient greek