Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Theban Plays - Sophocles

Fifth century bce Greece was, perhaps, one of the most important single centuries in the history of western civilization. In a scant one hundred years, Athens was transformed from little more than a trading town, to the power in the Mediterranean. While the city's might was constantly being challenged, what remains unquestioned was the extent to which thought - the progression of the western intellectual life - was to be set upon on a course that we can see around us every single day. As such, Athens, and the Greek world at large, was a place in transition. Gone would be the old kingdom and confederations of tribes. In their place would rise the polis, the Greek city-state, and with it, the first widespread experiments in democracy. Citizens saw the changes around them and many intuited that they were living in a world that was being drastically changed.

Few understood the resulting conflicts between old ways of being and new ways of living and organizing one's life than Sophocles. His Theban Plays (King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) are about precisely how people make sense of conflicting social and moral ideals of right and wrong, good and bad, duty and honor. How is Creon to treat the burial of Polydices? To whom does he primarily owe allegiance? What is his role as sovereign and as a family man?

At its core, of course, Sophocles' work is that of tragedy and, at this remove, we know that none of this will end well. For his characters are bound down by their circumstances and an inability to escape what the gods have decreed must come to pass. All that is certain is that man is fated to die. Other than that each can only put himself in the hands of the gods and to act right as the situation dictates. We cannot escape who we are: truly a timely message for a society going through epochal transformation. It is a testament to Sophocles' insight into the human condition that his message hardly seems dated.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

After Virtue - Alasdair MacIntyre

We are stuck in a world with no manner of reconciling competing moralities.  The work of Enlightenment philosophers, and the subsequent rise of liberal individualist society has transformed morality from a state of order to one of disorder. Alasdair MacIntyre identifies this shortcoming of the modern condition and seeks to explore both how we got here and how a fulsome appraisal of western philosophical /moral history can inform us on potential paths forward. For MacIntyre philosophy and sociology must go hand-in-hand. How can we adequately describe a social context without examining the tenets upon which it is founded? Conversely, how can we adequately investigate and/or criticize a moral or philosophical system without an awareness of what history and world it arose in response to? We do ourselves and the moralities we investigate a disservice in our attempts to sever them from the world.

Looking across the broader currents of the western philosophical tradition, MacIntyre contextualizes when, where, and in response to what our moralities have been founded, and how our modern logos is a palimpsest of our intellectual traditions. Venturing back to the Illiad and Homeric notions of the hero, MacIntyre clearly demonstrates the extent to which moral systems were inextricably entangled in relationships and duties of the social sphere. Moving through to the days of Athenian democracy, he shows how morality became extended beyond bonds of kinship, to the polis writ large. Of course, the fact that Attica contained numerous city-states meant that morality had to lose some of its absolute claims: for acting rightly in one city may mean something different than acting rightly in another. Here MacIntyre focuses in on the ethics of Aristotle (most thoroughly discussed are the ideas contained in the Nicomachean Ethics), claiming that it was largely an Aristotelian morality that would be carried through into the Middle Ages, only to be rejected by the Enlightenment. What is crucial to his Aristotelian sympathy is the notion of the telos, that man's life is both an enacted, and situated within, larger cohesive narrative(s). Whereas the liberal individualist account isolates each person into their own world, ostensibly claiming that our freedom also means being totally set-adrift from others, teleology places us along a path whereby our morality - as well as our struggles and efforts - are moving us toward something. For MacIntyre that something is the further development of what it means for each of us to be human. This is accomplished through, and in respect to, the exercise of the properly required virtue for any situation.

An inescapable conclusion of MacIntyre's is that any morality presupposes a sociology. No ethereal plane of Forms for this man. This also entails that a morality presupposes a history. MacIntyre thus has little use for the modern fact-moral distinction. Our morality cannot be separated from the world we inhabit. Likewise, our morality will shape our actions and thus the world around us. An awareness that these two spheres are not separate, that they feed into and co-create one another, opens up the possibility for a new way forward, whereby our moral concerns can be re-grounded in the world, and our lives can begin to embody the morality we never lost in the first place.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Five Senses - Michel Serres

"The soul resides at the point where the I is decided." 

Who we are, and how we understand the world, is intimately bound up in our experiences of it. While life moves forward, in the creative novelty of the moment, we try to make sense of such radical difference. To do so we create theories and labels, give names to things, impose rigid identities on all aspects of phenomena (at least the ones we accept in the first place). Our main form of communicating the world to one another, to make sense of changes over time, to reconcile differences into knowable, understandable, apt for analysis, entities, is through our language. This language, must, by-necessity, rely upon our created labels as the avenue of communication. Michel Serres has a problem with this, and thinks that, as we have become overcome with language, we are ignoring crucial aspects, not just of reality, but of ourselves.

For Serres, our world has become overrun with language. By prizing this type of knowing and communicating, at the expense of others, he believes that we have lost touch with so much human-ness. The Five Senses: a philosophy of mingled bodies (I) seeks to alert the reader to all the different ways we know through our body's unique and evolving interactions with the world around us. Serres posits that there is much of the world that we have forgotten to touch, taste, smell and feel, and, thus, our understanding of it is more limited than need be. Our reliance upon language means a focus on that which is knowable in the most conventional (read: western) sense. This relies upon a fixed definition of identity, and upon a parsing of the minutiae of experience. Science excels at such a parsing; this is not meant as a denigration. What is problematic is when we begin to assume one right way of knowing, thus remaining willfully ignorant of so much else. No matter how fine-tooth our comb, the world remains a tangled and uncertain place. Simplifying it yields a certain type of truth only.

Rather than being made up of discrete and easily isolated entities, the world is, Serres writes, a tangled multiplicity. And we are a part of it. Just as a system must be investigated to speak meaningfully of the interactions therein, we are both the result of our placement, and our actions and interactions within, and as a part of, the world around us. Understanding what that means - knowing how to paint a more fulsome picture of ourselves - requires that we do not simply approach the world through the medium of language. We constantly transcend ourselves and our definitions, so too does the world. Life at the edge of creative novelty requires that we employ all of our faculties to know. We have forgotten many of them, and, in the process, made ourselves and our world more static; more dominated by stagnant identity. The result, is death.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Little History of the World - E.H. Gombrich

A brisk affair, A Little History of the World traces the developments and crucial narratives of how the western world came to be. Seemingly written for a latter grade school audience, Gombrich's work is satisfying reading for anyone interested in the broader currents of history. Here the reader can see how the evolution of the Roman Empire impacted the settlement of feudal Europe, or why the Middle Ages can be accurately described as an interlude most analogous to a starry night. Though Gombrich does not shy away from making moral judgments (perhaps they are more like suggestions) about the actions of past actors, such commentary reads less as a modern imposition, and more as a way of drawing the reader in and making him or her think critically. Throughout Gombrich remains aware of the people and the time that he is writing for. Rather than marginalizing his history's power, it makes even the broadest scope that much more human.

By balancing a broad and sweeping scale with an attention to illuminating details, Gombrich has achieved a neat trick of pulling the reader into the minutiae of historical scenes while still retaining a fidelity to broader context. Though more broadly read historians could (rightly) criticize him for simplifying numerous complexities, Gombrich's emphasis is as crystal clear as it is necessary: to provide an overview of the palimpsest of the west, so that younger readers might take an interest in how their world has grown and changed. The young at heart, and flexible in mind of all ages will find much to recommend this work.