“The Beautiful and the Good”

Just plucked Allan Bloom’s 1968 translation of The Republic off the shelf and read his introduction, where he explains that he has attempted a meticulous word for word translation of Plato’s text, without inclusion of modern words, which he believes can only be deviant from any meaning that Plato intended.

His prime example of this is that he does not replace Plato’s notion of “the beautiful and the good,” with something like “morality and values” or “discussing moral values,” or other such phrases popular in late 60s academia. Plato said “beauty” and he said “good,” and we should try to understand his meaning, Bloom argues.

Citing Nietzsche, Bloom argues that an attempt to do otherwise would turn our understanding of the Greek canon into a kind of archeological field where we have pre-populated the dig with artifacts of our own choosing.

What Bloom believes is controversial in 2020, but it strikes me as powerful: A careful reader with good intentions can understand the mind of somebody from a long ago culture with distinct social and economic conditions, even through the medium of a translator, if they commit themselves to the intellectual project.

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Seems like I’m here again…

There’s a lot that stands in the way of this kind of reading — the reader’s prejudices, the inability of the translator to overcome their own cultural biases and background no matter how hard they try, the inevitable gaps in our understanding about who Plato is, how he lived and what influenced him, would broadly define the chasm we must cross.

Bloom thinks it can be done and I think he has to be right, otherwise true scholarship and creative works that transcend autobiography would be impossible. This kind of careful, honest reading is a path towards empathy and a re-affirmation of the old, seemingly now abandoned belief that the old liberal arts education can serve as a pillar for the establishment of an open and civil society.

For some, this will seem a quaint notion at best and offensive at worst. People claiming objective and open study of canonical texts have intentionally or not, excluded entire cultures, diminished the roles of women and have called on the wisdom of ancients to justify the unjustifiable. For too many people, “civil society” has failed to function either civilly or socially.

But there are stakes here for human freedom. As Bloom points out, in The Republic described by Plato, society is protected by those who fight the wars. “There are no guardians above the guardians; the only guardian of the guardians is a proper education,” Bloom writes. Beyond just the guardians, Plato’s audience was a societal elite who would make decisions for everybody else. If you accept that such an elite cannot be eliminated, that it will always exist and propagate itself in one way or another, then the only way to control these people would be to educate them about the beautiful and the good and to hope that education will temper and inform their decision-making.

I wonder if our current crop of elites in the United States has been properly educated? It seems our President’s notion of “the beautiful and the good,” is banal, gaudy and self-interested but that its alternative is technocratic to a fault.

Deep reading with an open mind, along with the belief that we can understand the minds of others, seems more necessary now than ever.

Brian Greene’s Thermodynamic Miracles

I don’t read enough popular science, which is too bad because a few writers, like the late Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene elevate the form to art.  Greene has been a hero of mine since I wrote a feature about him for Forbes back in 2002.  Then, Greene told me of his admiration for Carl Sagan, one of America’s most important and effective public intellectuals.

In his latest book Until the End of Time, Greene charts the history of the universe from the Big Bang until today and then forecasts what might become of it all as the “entropic two step” that’s produced ordered forms like stars, planets, DNA and higher intelligence inevitably breaks down.  Now, Greene doesn’t share this conclusion, but along the way he’s almost convinced me that, since in an infinite universe all things are not only possible but will inevitably happen, that we’re all Boltzmann Brains anyway (kind of like Descartes’ brains in a vat).

In his latest book, Greene sets out to explain the fundamentals of physics, chemistry and biology to support a sophisticated materialist view of everything from intelligence to creativity and spirituality and along the way, hopes to give us a path to finding meaning and solace in a necessarily indifferent universe that will not only extinguish all of our lives, but will eventually extinguish all life and thought.

He very much succeeds but does so in the only way available – which is to celebrate the wonder of it all.   His conclusion is the same as Dr. Manhattan’s in The Watchmen – from all this chaos, chance and indifference, each of us has emerged as a thermodynamic miracle that makes it all worthwhile.

Get this book.  It’s ecstatically brilliant.

New Rules for Cultural Criticism

I don’t know what it was that had me reaching for my Voltaire a few months ago — probably something in the cultural air portending a dissolution of standards and, yes, a Closing of the American Mind that must be dealt with.

Forget Joe Biden, we need Voltaire.

New Rules for Cultural Criticism:

  1. Don’t speculate about real people’s personal lives, you’ll never get it right.
  2. Never wish a creative work out of existence. Criticize it all you want, denounce it if you must, but never seek to destroy it or isolate it from other people’s attention.
  3. “De-platforming,” or whatever the scolds are calling it these days, has more in common with red baiting, blacklisting, book burning and Victorian shaming than it does to liberation or empowerment.
  4. The first amendment is a subset, and a damned small one, of free speech and expression. It does not define the concept.
  5. It’s fine not to work on creative projects that offend you morally, but it’s bankrupt to try to hinder them if the creators wish to move on without you.
  6. While you can reassess works you liked in the past, you shouldn’t ignore what initially attracted you to the art.  While you don’t have to laugh at the same joke over and over, you can’t unlaugh at something.
  7. Everybody has standing to create anything and to comment on anything.  This is the essential human right from which all others derive.
  8. Don’t make lists of ten, they’re too predictable.

Marquez, Kafka and Original Sin

In Woody Allen’s Love & Death, Boris is awaiting execution for the murder of Napoleon, a crime he didn’t commit. “But isn’t that life?” he wonders. “Aren’t we all condemned to die for a crime we didn’t commit?”

I just read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1981 novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold and am so reminded of the sentiment. Our narrator returns to his home town to investigate the revenge killing of Santiago Nasar after a large wedding is ruined by the discovery that the bride, sister to the killers, is not a virgin. She names Nasar as the man she’d slept with before marriage. But it clearly never happened and so Nasar never suspects that anyone wants to kill him and when he finally realizes his danger, he has no idea why it’s happening. He dies, knived to death by butchers, holding his innards.

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Which reminds me of Franz Kafka’s novella The Trial in which Josef K. is informed that he has been charged with capital crimes and will be judged for them, though the accusations are never stated. Josef K. is also found guilty and sentenced to death. When he is butchered on a public street he can only think that they have killed him, “Like a dog!”

There’s a lot going on in both stories about the inhumane social and legal systems we subject ourselves to while living in a society. But the heart of it all is Woody Allen’s observation that we will all die, saints and sinners alike, as we were sentenced from the start for the crime of being born. This seems to put the search for some original sin into perspective, though the culprit is probably remorseless entropy.

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