15 October 2009

The Love of Wisdom, or, The Love of Books

While it is not because of any deliberate neglect, philosophy has unfortunately received little attention on this blog. This is a shame, because it’s certainly a topic that interests me, and in the past I have devoted at least as much personal attention to it as I have to poetry. Well, I shall try to make some amends by pointing out a few recent philosophical acquisitions, and, perhaps, offering a nugget of wisdom from each of them.

1) I had the tremendous good fortune at Half Price Books to stumble across Penelope Murray’s Plato on Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2003), in the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series. Featuring Murray’s editions of the texts of Ion and Republic 376e-398b & 595-608b, a helpful introduction, and her extensive commentary on the texts. The text of Ion and the first two pages of the Republic selections are heavily glossed in pencil by a previous owner. I am of course very interested in Plato’s views on poetry, and am hoping to work on my ancient Greek a good deal over the next year or two. Murray sums up two of the issues that interest me most in ancient views on poetry:

The Greeks had no word to denote those activities that we now subsume under the term ‘art’. Techne covered anything from poetry, painting and sculpture to shoemaking, carpentry and shipbuilding, there being no linguistic or conceptual distinction in the Greek world, or in antiquity generally, between crafts and the ‘fine arts’. Moreover, art was not thought of as something that could be separated from morality. (p. 1)

2) I finally got around to buying The Cambridge Companion to Plato, ed. Richard Kraut (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2005), also at Half Price. I’ve always been hesitant to purchase the Cambridge Companion volumes, for fear that rather than a reliable reference volume, I’ll find the idiosyncratic views of a number of modern academics colouring my perceptions of writers I’m trying to read on my own. Well, lulled by the price as well as the promise of ‘a conspectus of recent developments in the interpretation of Plato’, not to mention such articles as Michael L. Morgan’s on ‘Plato and Greek religion’, G.R.F. Ferrari’s on ‘Platonic love’, and especially, Elizabeth Amis’s on ‘Plato on poetic creativity’, I took the plunge. The book is mostly like new, though there are five or six pages of extensive notes and underlining—apparently by the same hand that marked up Murray’s book—in the article on ‘Plato’s metaphysical epistemology’ by Nicholas P. White. Here is a sample from Amis’s article:

This subordination of poetry to politics has offended many readers of Plato from antiquity to the present. Plato sees the poet primarily as a maker of ethics, and this concern appears strangely one-sided. What makes his position especially jarring is that, like another famous literary moralist, Tolstoy [whom, incidentally, Murray quotes on the first page of her introduction to Plato on Poetry], he was himself a consummate literary artist. Yet Plato has a much more complex view of poetry than his strict morality suggests. Along with his censorship goes a far-ranging exploration of poetic creativity. Trying out various approaches in different dialogues, Plato enter into a dialogue with himself; and the tensions and variations in his own thinking illuminate many aspects of the aesthetics of poetry. Plato’s discussions are worth taking seriously, even though some of his conclusions are repugnant—to himself in part, as well as to his readers. (pp. 338-9)

3) Although there’s a good chance I would never have gotten round to buying the next book, I was spared the trouble when my friend Justin recently gave me a copy of I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates (NY: Anchor, 1989). Stone describes his purpose as follows:

But the more I fell in love with the Greeks, the more agonizing grew the spectacle of Socrates before his judges. It horrified me as a civil libertarian. It shook my Jeffersonian faith in the common man. It was a black mark for Athens and the freedom it symbolized. How could the trial of Socrates have happened in so free a society? How could Athens have been so untrue to itself?

This book is the fruit of that torment. I set out to discover how it could have happened. I could not defend the verdict when I started and I cannot defend it now. But I wanted to find out what Plato does not give us, to give the Athenian side of the story, to mitigate the city’s crime and thereby remove some of the stigma the trial left on democracy and on Athens. (p. xi)

4) Another Half Price find was The Golden Chain: An Anthology of Pythagorean and Platonic Philosophy, ed. Algis Uždavinys (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2004). Although I already had all of the Pythagorean materials in Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, trans., The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, ed. David Fideler (Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes, 1988), and all of the stuff from Plato in The Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianopolis: Hackett, 1997), with very few exceptions (notably, Plotinus—I have Stephen MacKenna’s translation of the complete Enneads) I had none of the so-called ‘Neoplatonists’, who are well represented here, mostly in older translations. The book contains passages from Porphyry, Iamblichus, Hierocles, Hermeias, Marinus, Proclus, and Damascius: all writers who are rather hard to come by. Here is a passage from Proclus’s Commentary on Plato’s Alcibiades I, trans. William O’Neil:

Hence we should reckon this to be the most valid starting-point both for all philosophy and for the system of Plato, namely, as we said, the clear and unadulterated knowledge of ourselves determined in scientific terms and ‘securely established by causal reasoning’ (cf. Meno 98a3). From what other source indeed, should one begin one’s own purification and perfection than from where the god at Delphi exhorted us? For as the public notice warned those entering the precincts of the Eleusinian mysteries not to pass within the inner shrine if they were profane and uninitiated, so also the inscription ‘Know Thyself’ on the front of the Delphi sanctuary indicated the manner, I presume, of ascent to the divine and the most effective path towards purification, practically stating clearly to those able to understand, that he who has attained the knowledge of himself, by beginning at the beginning, can be united with the god who is the revealer of the whole truth and guide of the purgative life; but he who does not know who he is, being uninitiated and profane (cf. Phaedo 69c) is unfit to partake of the providence of Apollo. (p. 202)

5) This one was the hardest to justify. I’m not sure when or if I will ever get round to using it, and even at Half Price it cost—for me—a pretty penny. The book is a translation of commentaries by Aspasius, an anonymous writer (variously identified as one ‘Heliodorus’, Andronicus of Rhodes, or Olympiodorus), and Michael of Ephesus, On Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 8 and 9, trans. David Konstan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U, 2001). It is part of Cornell’s Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series, edited by Richard Sorabji, of which the OKC Half Price Books currently has two more volumes—Ammonius’s and Boethius’s commentaries on On Interpretation 9, and one by Simplicius on some text I’ve forgotten. I had thought about purchasing it on one other occasion, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I think what finally provided the necessary inspiration was listening to Bryan Smith’s delightful audio lecture, Reading Homer in Byzantium, which I heard about at the wonderful blog, Scholium. It managed sufficiently to spark my interest in Late Antique and Byzantine commentaries, no matter how dry these may turn out to be! Here is one of the more interesting passages in the commentary of Michael of Ephesus on Nichomachean Ethics 1164a3:

The love of worthy men, which is on account of their virtue, is inalterable, because the virtue on account of which they are friends of one another is a most firm and most enduring thing. And as long as they are pleasing to one another they are friends, because each [day] their beauty of soul, which is what they are passionate for, flourishes anew and grows young again and becomes more youthful. And they are not only pleasing but also useful, because virtue is among the most useful things: for virtue is the most beautiful and most pleasing and most uself thing.

Having said that the loves on account of the pleasing and the useful are not enduring, [Aristotle] added, ‘but the [love] of character [does endure], being [love] in itself’ (1164a12). He calls the virtues ‘character’; the [love] on account of chracter, being [love] in itself and properly so called, is enduring. The [words], ‘being [love] in itself, may have been meant in the sense of ‘on account of [the loves] themselves and not on account of their [properties]’. (p. 138)

Finally, and on another note, I do not wish entirely to neglect the Holy Martyrs Cyprian and Justina, the ‘philosopher and renowned sorcerer’ and the holy virgin who led him to Christ, today, on their feast, but I don’t have time to prepare a proper post for them. I urge readers to avail themselves of the Life of the Saints at the Orthodox Christian Information Center and that of Alban Butler at p. 304 here, on Google Books. It is interesting to reflect that St Cyprian had much in common with Platonists like Iamblichus and Proclus, who are included in The Golden Chain anthology mentioned above. I have an attachment to these Saints thanks to a memorable two weeks spent at the Old Calendarist monastery dedicated to them in Fili, Greece, where apart from the weekly Paraklesis in honour of them, I have attended their feastday celebrations two or three times and witnessed an exorcism through their intercessions. Here, in conclusion, is the Kontakion for Ss Cyprian and Justina in Tone I (The Great Horologion, trans. HTM [Boston: HTM, 19], p. 267):

When thou, O godly-minded one, hadst been converted * from magic art to knowledge of God, thou becamest * a most skilful healer for the whole world, O wise Cyprian, * granting cures to them that honour thee with Justina; * with her, pray the man-befriending Master to save us, * thy servants who sing thy praise.

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