David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: July 2011 (page 2 of 2)

Thersites, the Iliad, and Not Knowing Your Place

The scene with Thersites in Book II of the Iliad is one of the most famous in the whole epic, and with good reason. Not only is it very peculiar, but it also gives voice to what any young person reading the Iliad for the first time must be thinking: why on earth are all these people getting killed for Menelaus just because someone stole his wife?

Thersites more or less asks what the point of the whole Trojan War is and gets beaten and humiliated for his trouble. Here is the scene, abridged a bit, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation:

But [Thersites], crying the words aloud, scolded Agamemnon:
‘Son of Atreus, what thing further do you want, or find fault with
now? Your shelters are filled with bronze, there are plenty of the choicest
women for you within your shelter, whom we Achaians
give to you first of all whenever we capture some stronghold.
Or is it still more gold you will be wanting, that some son
of the Trojans, breakers of horses, brings as ransom out of Ilion,
one that I, or some other Achaian, capture and bring in?…
My good fools, poor abuses, you women, not men, of Achaia,
let us go back home in our ships, and leave this man here
by himself in Troy to mull his prizes of honour
that he may find out whether or not we others are helping him.
And now he has dishonoured Achilleus, a man much better
than he is. He has taken his prize by force and keeps her….’

So he spoke, Thersites, abusing Agamemnon
the shepherd of the people. But brilliant Odysseus swiftly
came beside him scowling and laid a harsh word upon him:
‘Fluent orator though you be, Thersites, your words are
ill-considered. Stop, nor stand up alone against princes.
Out of all those who came beneath Ilion with Atreides
I assert there is no worse man than you are. Therefore
you shall not lift up your mouth to argue with princes,
cast reproaches into their teeth, nor sustain the homegoing….’

So he spoke and dashed the sceptre against his back and
shoulders, and he doubled over, and a round tear dropped from him,
and a bloody welt stood up between his shoulders under
the golden sceptre’s stroke, and he sat down again, frightened,
in pain, and looking helplessly about wiped off the tear-drops.
Sorry though the men were they laughed over him happily,
and thus they would speak to each other, each looking at the man next him:
‘Come now: Odysseus has done excellent things by thousands,
bringing forward good counsels and ordering armed encounters;
but now this is far the best thing he ever has accomplished
among the Argives, to keep this thrower of words, this braggart
out of assembly. Never again will his proud heart stir him
up, to wrangle with the princes in words of revilement.’

So spoke the multitude….

Moses Finley, in his powerful little book The World of Odysseus, says:

Those final words, “so spoke the multitude,” protest too much. It is as if the poet himself felt that he had overdrawn the contrast. [Homer says that] even the commoners among the Hellenes stood aghast at Thersites’ defective sense of fitness, and though they pitied him as one of their own, they concurred with full heart in the rebuke administered by Odysseus and in the methods he employed. “This is by far the best thing he has done among the Argives” indeed, for Thersites had gnawed at the foundations on which the world of Odysseus was erected.

And indeed, it’s pushing it to have the other commoners praise Odysseus and ridicule one of their own. Another odd note is sounded by having it be Odysseus, easily the slimiest of the aristocratic warriors, administer the rebuke. Odysseus got a lot slimier after Homer, with the introduction of stories about him framing Palamedes for treason and getting him stoned to death. Still, he’s about the last person you’d expect the commoners to cheer for, especially compared to the far more appealing Achilles.

On the other hand, this might well be what you’d expect the multitude to say if they were completely cowed by a social system privileging an aristocratic upper class of princes, either out of fear or false consciousness. “Good work, Odysseus! Put us in our place!”

Hegel and Nietzsche picked up on this to some extent, and Nietzsche, as usual, had a good line about it: “Socrates is the revenge for Thersites…the ugly plebeian Socrates killed the authority of the wonderful myth in Greece.”

Simone Weil, siding of course with Thersites, had a good line too: “Reasonable words fall into the void.

But to go back to the scene itself, the most painful part does not seem to be the beating but the jeering, coming from the very people Thersites seemed to be speaking for. Every time you are shot down from a position of greater authority, every time you are chastised for speaking out of turn, each time you meet the ridicule of your own peers for questioning your superiors, each time you are put in your place, you are Thersites. And if you have never experienced this feeling, you should look closely at your life.

Hans Blumenberg and His Myth Science Arkestra

I have an new article out at ReadySteadyBook: Hans Blumenberg and His Myth Science Arkestra.

I tried to give a reasonably concise introduction to his work. There are many nuances and complications that I left out, but I think I had a good go at describing why is work is significant and relevant.


Hans Blumenberg and His Myth Science Arkestra

Hans Blumenberg was one of the most searching, omnivorous scholars and philosophers of the 20th century. His fundamental inquiry was simple and universal: “How do we come to terms with reality?” In attempting to answer this question, his books on myth, metaphor, science, and culture invoke an intimidating breadth of knowledge, plucking obscure quotes from obscure figures in multiple disciplines through the whole history of western civilization. Obscure theologians and astronomers brush up against James Joyce, Plato, Vico, and Goethe.

Blumenberg was one of those rare figures, like Robert Burton or Goethe himself, who was able to read widely across disciplines and time periods while maintaining a detailed sense of the internal conflicts and complexities of each particular domain….

Blumenberg’s departure point is what he terms “the absolutism of reality.” In his magnum opus Work on Myth, he defines the moment at which humanity faced absolute reality as the point at which humanity could no longer run away from the threats that it posed:

If we have to seek man’s origin in the category of animals that ‘flee,’ then we can comprehend that before the change of biotope [from jungle to savanna] all signals that set off flight reactions would indeed have the power of fear but would not have to reach the level of a dominating condition of anxiety, as long as mere movement was available as a means of clarifying the situation. But if one imagines that this solution was no longer, or no longer constantly, successful, then from that point onward the situations that enforced flight either had to be dealt with by standing one’s ground or had to be avoided by means of anticipation.

[continued at ReadySteadyBook]

Ernst Cassirer and the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: A Teaser

Ernst Cassirer was rather evidently a genius, and Michael Friedman’s summary of his magnum opus The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms makes me want to go through his work comprehensively, as soon as I have a large chunk of time. Part of the reason being just so that I can determine whether or not I agree with Friedman’s assessment. Also to do: compare and contrast with C.S. Peirce and Wilfrid Sellars, as well as his most obvious philosophical successor Hans Blumenberg.

Just as the genetic conception of knowledge is primarily oriented towards the “fact of science” and, accordingly, takes the historical development of scientific knowledge as its ultimate given datum, the philosophy of symbolic forms is oriented towards the much more general “fact of culture” and thus takes the history of human culture as a whole as its ultimate given datum.

The conception of human beings as most fundamentally “symbolic animals,” interposing systems of signs or systems of expression between themselves and the world, then becomes the guiding philosophical motif for elucidating the corresponding conditions of possibility for the “fact of culture” in all of its richness and diversity.

Characteristic of the philosophy of symbolic forms is a concern for the more “primitive” forms of world-presentation underlying the “higher” and more sophisticated cultural forms — a concern for the ordinary perceptual awareness of the world expressed primarily in natural language, and, above all, for the mythical view of the world lying at the most primitive level of all.

For Cassirer, these more primitive manifestations of “symbolic meaning” now have an independent status and foundational role that is quite incompatible with both Marburg neo-Kantianism and Kant’s original philosophical conception. In particular, they lie at a deeper, autonomous level of spiritual life which then gives rise to the more sophisticated forms by a dialectical developmental process.

From mythical thought, religion and art develop; from natural language, theoretical science develops. It is precisely here that Cassirer appeals to “romantic” philosophical tendencies lying outside the Kantian and neo-Kantian tradition, deploys an historical dialectic self-consciously derived from Hegel, and comes to terms with the contemporary Lebensphilosophie of Wilhelm Dilthey, Henri Bergson, Max Scheler, and Georg Simmel — as well as with the closely related philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The most basic and primitive type of symbolic meaning is expressive meaning, the product of what Cassirer calls the expressive function (Ausdrucksfunktion) of thought, which is concerned with the experience of events in the world around us as charged with affective and emotional significance, as desirable or hateful, comforting or threatening. It is this type of meaning that underlies mythical consciousness, for Cassirer, and which explains its most distinctive feature, namely, its total disregard for the distinction between appearance and reality. …

What Cassirer calls representative symbolic meaning, a product of the representative function (Darstellungsfunktion) of thought, then has the task of precipitating out of the original mythical flux of “physiognomic” characters a world of stable and enduring substances, distinguishable and reidentifiable as such. …

We are now able to distinguish the enduring thing-substance, on the one side, from its variable manifestations from different points of view and on different occasions, on the other, and we thereby arrive at a new fundamental distinction between appearance and reality. This distinction is then expressed in its most developed form, for Cassirer, in the linguistic notion of propositional truth and thus in the propositional copula. Here the Kantian “categories” of space, time, substance, and causality take on a distinctively intuitive or “presentational” configuration.

The collapse of appearance and reality at the primitive level also echoes some schools of Buddhist philosophy that take a quasi-skeptical attitude toward ontology, e.g. Madhyamaka. Can the Kantian a priori and general categorical structure bear this sort of weight?

King Lear, Nihilism, and Mostly Inevitable Hope

I suppose talking about Shakespeare and about King Lear in particular is like talking about the Bible, as far as the conclusiveness of any interpretation goes. But these were a few thoughts I spun out off the cuff, which is probably an easier way to approach criticism of cultural icons than engaged, direct thought, the associations long having permeated collective consciousness in ways that would take a lifetime just to quantify.

Gloucester and Edgar at Dover Cliff

I’m responding to this passage at Big Thought, Only a Monster Never Gives Up Hope:

Among the appalling sights Primo Levi witnessed at Auschwitz was the fervent prayer of a prisoner grateful to be spared the ovens. “I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud,” Levi wrote, “with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.” Levi was as baffled as he was angry: “Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again? If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.”

It’s Edgar who believes always that “the gods are just,” and Edgar who says the famous lines “Men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither./ Ripeness is all.” We must, he says, have faith, and trust in good. He never seems to grasp that some abominations shouldn’t be endured—that there is a point where respect for the gods becomes contempt for people. Such true believers may be necessary to see communities through the worst times. But they are, in their indifference to suffering, monsters.

Edgar is problematic in so many ways that this criticism can be easily derailed, but it’s also something to be taken seriously.

The original post cites A.D. Nuttall, who said that Stephen Medcalf convinced him that the play was indeed Christian and non-nihilistic, if not exactly a tale of salvation. Nuttall writes, “An ethically nihilist play would leave one thinking that good and evil have no meaning. King Lear lives us  with a sharpened sense of the difference between good and evil, and, lying behind that, of the difference between goodness and nothingness.”

The original post overlooks a more problematic act by Edgar, worse than “Look up!”, which is his trick with Gloucester on Dover Cliff to make Gloucester think he’s been saved by God. The trick works, and Gloucester is “redeemed”–he wins new resolve. And he never finds out about the trick and dies at least partly happy in that ignorance.

But neither Edgar’s hope nor Gloucester’s hope are the hope of the play.

Now, things are very ambiguous here, but I’ll go on what I take to be general audience reaction to the play. Hope remains as an integral part of Lear, not through Edgar. Quite the opposite, since Edgar prescribes anything but hope. Hope is in most everyone in the audience who cannot bring themselves to stop giving a damn about this world. Under this view, the death of Cordelia serves as a test, because if the world truly is Nothing Nothing Nothing and we are all Saved in the next world (or even if we’re not), her death should be of no consequence. But it’s of great consequence to most anyone who watches the play, particularly if there is a sense of outrage over the pointlessness and gratuitousness of it. And that inability to maintain apathy is inextinguishable hope, through attunement to suffering.

I’m thinking here of something Stephen Booth said about Cordelia’s death being significant precisely because of its unexpected placement in the denouement: “Shakespeare presents the culminating events of his story after his play is over.”

This interpretation emphasizes the bleeding of the tragedy out of the realm of the theatrical and into a spectator’s very corrupted sense of narrative, having been given a story that’s in excess of the narrative structure of the play, and very depressingly so. King Lear would be an encouragement not to give up on this world, not to succumb to Gnostic temptation and its peculiar theodicy that would have us give up on this world as hopelessly evil and seek salvation in some unearthly realm of God.

Now, the Church most certainly did not want people to give up on this world, hence their need to squash Gnostics as heretics. In this sense Lear can be seen as not only Christian, but even rather Catholic. But I take no position on this issue.

But to return to the original point: I say “most everyone” can’t stop giving a damn about Cordelia. The issue for someone like Jean Amery, when he talks about his experiences in Auschwitz in World War II, is whether someone in Auschwitz can still be moved by Cordelia’s death in the absence of some theodicy, Gnostic or not. Amery, thinking along the lines of Primo Levi but even more darkly, says no. He cites Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, and Marxism as some of the telelogical theodicies that kept their believers hopeful in the camps, kept them believing in the possibility or even the inevitability of meaning. The secularists, intellectuals, poets, and sensitive cultured types, however, were not able to sustain themselves.

Crispin Wright’s Philosophical Ramblings

As a fund-raising benefit for the Northern Institute for Philosophy at Aberdeen, heavy-duty analytical philosopher Crispin Wright is going to walk 268 miles in 20 days and respond to questions from a list selected by benefactors. I’m not sure how the candidate questions themselves were chosen in the first place. I was expecting to see intricate, bizarre questions about semantics and mathematics and Frege and Dummett and Wittgenstein, but they’re actually very general. Here are a few I liked for a variety of reasons:

  1. Are you thinking what I am thinking?
  2. Does god exist? Why/why not?
  3. What are numbers?
  4. Cicero said: “There is nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it.” Do you think that there is some absurdity still left to be put forward?
  5. “There was never yet a philosopher that could endure toothache patiently”. (Shakespeare, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’). Discuss.
  6. Wittgenstein said: “The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question.” One of your philosophical enemies has always been quietism; do you think that intellectual torment is a strong motivation for philosophising?
  7. Do you think that getting something from nothing is a key guiding principle for your philosophy?
  8. What is the most philosophical sport?

The question for me was which philosophers I’d be most curious to hear answers from. Not necessarily people I agree with, more people who would be likely to have interesting or peculiar answers. Wittgenstein is dead, or else he’d be at the top of the list, probably. But I’d like to hear from Michael Thompson, Robert Brandom, Derek Parfit, Jurgen Habermas, Galen Strawson, Karl-Otto Apel, Timothy Williamson, Beatrice Longuenesse, Saul Kripke, and probably a bunch of others whom I can’t think of right now. I don’t think I agree with any position Kripke or Williamson have taken, but I bet they would have some entertaining answers.

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