I am a little more than one week in to teaching my ancient survey. This is my second time starting with Aristotle’s Metaphysics. I know that sounds wild, but I think Aristotle sets up principles that make it easier for students to see what the Pre-Socratics and Hesiod are doing, and he gives us a lot of vocabulary for thinking about what counts as knowledge. My theme for the course as a whole as a search for a good measure. I like to frame the beginnings of Greek thinking as the opening up of and taking seriously of the question of whether we have or need proper measures for living and knowing. I teach Plato’s Euthyphro and Protagoras after Aristotle, the Pre-Socratics and Hesiod and then I come back to the Nicomachean Ethics at the end. I think it works well, but I’ve been trying to find ways to get students to engage more actively with the texts earlier on in the semester, especially since the Metaphysics is hard.
I’ve also been recently inspired by colleagues at Ball State whose workshops I attended when I gave the keynote at the Conference for Pre-College Philosophical Engagement in April. Matthew Hotham and Jen Howland both ran workshops where they had students do an active exercise in order to think through some complicated concepts. Jen set up a capitalist regime where only she owned the means of production and the rest of us had to fight with one another, organize against her, get co-opted as law enforcement and snitches — what started as just a simple claim she made at the beginning articulating the terms ballooned into an intricate representation of how capital works including how it draws on principles of competition and insecurity in the community. It was very cool. I was not able to pull something like that off in the discussion of the law of non-contradiction. What I did was more like what Matt did in his group. First he asked students to define a religion. Then he gave out packets that included a slip of paper that described a religion and asked people to decide whether it really was a religion and to think about what standards they used to make that judgment. It forced students to think about why they used the standards they did and whether they should always apply.
I did something a little bit like that. I printed out ten slips of paper with various claims from the second half of Aristotle’s Metaphysics IV. These were claims that Aristotle uses as examples to say either that the person was violating the ban on contradiction or was invoking it even if they claimed to deny the need for such a ban. For example, the first one was, say something that is meaningful to you and to someone else. Aristotle says to do this and thus to differentiate oneself from a plant is to invoke the law of non-contradiction. Another one said, to avoid tripping in the well, an action that implies that you are stating that tripping in the well is bad, not not-bad. I divided students into groups and asked them to explain how the claim on their paper either violated the ban or invoked it. We started the exercise on Wednesday when they had only read the first several chapters of IV where Aristotle sets up the need for the starting-point of theoretical knowledge and then articulates it. Then students had to read the rest of the book where Aristotle says he can’t demonstrate the truth of the claim but he can refute anyone who denies it. Students then had to reference the reading to explain how their claim would violate or invoke the ban on contradiction. Read more
Heidegger famously said of Aristotle’s biography, “He lived, he worked, he died.” While many scholars take that to mean that Heidegger was dismissing the significance of biography in considering a philosopher’s work, Iain Thompson has convincingly argued that Heidegger takes for granted the significance of biography, so in the air was Werner Jaeger’s work on Aristotle’s biography, that he means not to dismiss it but to say it is not sufficient for understanding Aristotle. As when people resort to psychologizing a particular thinker instead of dealing with their work, it would be dismissive to say that we can entirely understand a thinker on the basis of things that happened to them or the whims of fortune that characterized their lives.
And yet. Perhaps we have swung too far away from caring about the specific details of the lives of those we study. I hesitate to say that the details can wholly frame our reading, but I also think it behooves us to see these thinkers as human beings: they didn’t just live, work and die; they struggled to find work they enjoyed, they loved, they fought, they studied and were disappointed; they struck out on their own. Examining the details we know and the gossip we can gather about a philosopher who has become more a marble bust than a human thinker can bring down to earth a towering colossus. Read more
I had to fly back to Athens from Rome last night after my week at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum. I had arranged to stay at a place I found at hotels.com that turned out to be the guest house of a residence in the town adjacent to the airport. Soon after I booked the place I received an email informing me that I would have to pay another €20 for a cleaning fee when I arrived. Since I was unable to cancel and had not been aware of this fee before I booked I requested that it be waived. The owner agreed. He kindly arranged an “airport shuttle,” which he said would be cheaper than a regular taxi at €15 each way. At the airport a man was waiting for me holding a sign with my name on it. He told me that the police had hassled him for stopping right outside the airport and so he had to park in the pay parking lot, which he told me cost €4. I was skeptical because I had been dropped off by a Greek colleague and I saw signs saying the first 20 minutes were free. We got to his cab and drove off. On the way he told me that he was old and tired. He also told me that the recent fires were in the area about 10-20 kilometers away.
Last Wednesday, we went with friends for a fifteen-course traditional Slovenian meal in the small town of Skaručna outside of Ljubljana. Gostilna Skaručna has been run for forty years by the same family, one brother runs the restaurant and the other the attached inn, Klub Gurmanov, where we had an amazing breakfast (if you go, the restaurant takes credit cards but the inn only takes cash).
We were in Ljubljana for a friend’s art exhibition and for a lecture on the theme of the exhibition, “Heavenly Beings: Neither Human Nor Animal.” The opening was Tuesday. We went to the lecture on Wednesday, which happily for me referenced some of the work on Aristotle’s work on animals, and then when the lecture was over we trekked out to Skaručna. After settling in at the inn, we walked to the restaurant which is in the front part of the property. We sat outside for an appertif and the first course of a cucumber and yogurt dish. The appertif was gendered — women were given a short glass of a red pulpy drink and men a beaker full of a strong liquor. We decided not to raise any questions. But the proprietor did explain that the men’s drinker was much stronger. After the appertif a pitcher of honey beer was brought to the table. I’m gluten-free, and they were accommodating (they brought me gluten-free bread and wine in the place of the honey beer).
After a leisurely beginning, we were invited inside. Our party of seven–three Slovenians, one Canadian and three Americans–was big enough to be able to enjoy this meal which requires a decent-sized party for it to be worth it, but small enough to share one conversation. The wait staff brought wine with each course — the wine changed after the soup courses. And a traditional lemonade and a water, which the server called, “decoration.” Read more
Today we walked from our place in The Mets to Plato’s Academy, about five kilometers – it’s about 1.5 miles from the Agora. My colleague Lew Cassity is working on a book on Plato’s Laws and wanted to get a sense of how the walk from the Agora to the Academy would feel. We stopped off at the Kerameikos, where the Sacred Road that led to the Academy begins, and then we walked up Platonos all the way to the Academy.
When I was here in 2014, we took the bus out there and it seemed to take forever. I think it probably took as long as our walking it this time. In 2014, I remarked how unmemorial like the site is, less so even that Aristotle’s Lyceum. Like I said then, I guess, as Thucydides wrote, famous men have the whole world as their memorial; they don’t need statues. Read more
Yesterday at breakfast I proposed a thesis about the structure of Socratic questioning that my friend John Bova once put to me as we were reading the Charmides together in Greek. His thesis that I have found useful is that Socrates’s interlocutors often begin with a definition that is a particular, like quietness in the Charmides, whose problem is that it lacks a sense of the good. But then when the good is offered as a definition of the virtue, as Critias does in the Charmides, it lacks any concrete meaning. Socrates is then dialectically trying to pull together the concrete sense with the good, or my way of understanding this is to concretize the good. Bova talks about this in terms of a Badiouian kind of diagonalization, but I think it could be understood as manifesting the good in the production of the self.
My colleague Kevin Miles responded to my claim rather forcefully. He said, what could that possibly mean? Like me, Kevin doesn’t think that the good has a metaphysical reality in Plato’s dialogues. What could I have meant by the good? We spent an hour or so over breakfast working it out. My colleague Lew Cassity thinks of the dialectical interplay in terms of weighing pleasures and pains. We tried to get to the point, not where we agreed with one another as much as where we understood what we each were saying. It looks awhile. Along the way there were moments of real tension, maybe even frustration, but in working it out, I found the disagreements themselves helped illuminate and clarify what we were thinking. Without the disagreement, the specificity would not have been reached. Read more
Jetlagged and underslept, I went out early this morning into Athens and ran from our flat around the Acropolis and back. The Acropolis was empty, just the way I always think of it as a ruin, standing by itself, the lack of tourists giving the suggestion that the gods might still hover around. Four years ago when I was here I wondered about whether the religious sense of the space could be experienced if one were alone. It certainly does not feel as if it can be when overwhelmed by selfie-stick wielding tourists.
As we were approaching the top of the Acropolis, my colleague from Antioch Lew Cassity pointed out that the Greek Doric columns were asymmetrical, for two reasons. One reason was that they looked more energetic that way. The second was that if they were asymmetrical they would look uneven from a distance. My other co-traveler and colleague at Earlham College Kevin Miles raised the Protagoraean question about the reality of the appearance. Why suppose the appearance from a distance is less real, less how it appears, than the up close appearance of the asymmetry of the columns? Why think the columns really are asymmetrical than think they really are symmetrical because they appear so from farther? Read more
Tomorrow I leave for a month in Europe. I feel bad because everything seems to be going poorly and I’m leaving. Maybe I just need to be on the road, not checking the news and social media all the time, to come back for a better fight. I am spending the first week thinking and talking about ancient pedagogy in Athens with my GLCA ancient philosophy collaborators and a colleague at the American College of Greece, then a couple weeks bouncing around southern Europe with some friends, and then a week at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum in Italy, talking about Aristotle.
In the midst of everything going on, I’ve been thinking about why Plato and Aristotle matter right now, or ever. Miranda Pilipchuk recently wrote about the need to decolonize the canon where she talks about studying Plato and Aristotle for the sake of understanding the tradition without denying their contribution to marginalizing women and people of color in the field. She’s right. But I’m also interested in reading these philosophers against the way the tradition has read them to marginalize these folks, reading Plato in conversation with Baldwin, for example, or Aristotle against various traditions that use references to nature to exclude or oppress those deemed more natural than rational.
But lately I’ve also been thinking about the practices of reading as a practice for just community. Given the various aporiae Plato investigates and articulates concerning teaching and learning virtue, it would seem almost impossible to learn virtue from another. Virtue is learned not as a set of propositions. One cannot know before she knows what virtue is whether the person teaching virtue and justice knows it. The solution seems to be that each person needs to investigate for themselves and not take anyone else’s view without examining it and themselves carefully. Reading Plato’s dialogues themselves seems like a practice in this kind of learning. Jill Frank argues in Poetic Justice that reading Plato is a democratic practice, that Plato doesn’t present his city or its education or his critique of poets in order for the reader to take them in hand as truth. This makes sense given the difficulties he raises across the corpus about learning virtue. Instead, Plato has Socrates present these accounts for the reader to grapple with, to discern and investigate context and connections and to be changed by the investigation. It seems that the engagement with the text also prepares us to really listen to the calls of justice from others, and to see the difference between the account that looks good and the account that is good, between the desire for power for power’s sake and the desire for power to improve the world.
So yes, that’s me, again with Plato and Aristotle.
I have been listening to Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (the book website gives a pretty good overview of the book). Desmond followed I think 11 different people around Milwaukee in 2011 as they were evicted and tried to make do with very little money and an eviction on their record. The most striking revelation of the book is the perverse incentives that housing policies and laws create for landlords as well as tenants. For example, federal housing vouchers enable their holder to pay only a third of the rent, encouraging landlords to evict current occupants and jack up the rent to what is a good deal for the voucher holder but way above market value for the property, in effect making federal housing vouchers good for individuals but bad for poor people (public housing turns out to be much better than this privatizing move).
At the same time, I’ve been reading a number of things that have been written about the direction of the #metoo movement. Alecia Simmonds reviewed Linda Martín Alcoff’s book, Rape and Resistance, in the Australian Review of Books. Simmonds calls attention to questions Alcoff raises of the colonial history of juridical concepts of consent and property as they pertain to sexual violation and rape to ask how far they get us. Also this week I came across Ann Snitow’s piece, “Talking Back to the Patriarchy” in Dissent Magazine. She begins by averring that the #metoo movement is “simply marvelous.” But she goes on to articulate some worries. Generally, I find that the worries people raise (what about due process?!) tell us more about their investment in the status quo than real concerns about justice. But one line struck me in Snitow’s list of pressing worries: “fear of a misdirection of the eye toward individual “monsters” and away from the need for systemic change.” Indeed, this point seems most important.
The focus on individuals instead of systems is part of what allows #metoo to be for better off women. Even the systems that the women of Hollywood are trying to change seem far away from the systems of power non-celebrities work within and even further away from the systems of power that affect the poor. Read more
It’s Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, which frankly seems like a scheme to make the appreciation come in the form of useless cards and treats rather than cost of living raises and the securing of pensions. Apparently, it began in 1980 sanctioned by Congress originally as one day in March, but then in 1985 the AFT rallied to move it to a full week–the first full week of May. Today, May 8 is Teacher Appreciation Day.
A couple things have got me feeling particularly sympathetic to K-12 teachers this year. For one, I spent a lot of time in the last several weeks expending some effort on behalf of a student that finally came to a good result and I’m very happy about it. But this work took a considerable amount of my time at a very busy part of the semester, and up until the very end when the happy result was achieved it felt like it was going nowhere. Good teachers at underfinanced schools do this kind of thing all the time. The extent to which it was emotionally exhausting to me gave me renewed appreciation and empathy for public school teachers.
Yesterday I was going through some old papers, looking for my autograph from Ollie North on the occasion of his ascendancy to the presidency of the National Rifle Association. And I found a note that my ninth grade English teacher wrote to me when I graduated from high school (see photo above). Mr. Bender had a sign over the chalkboard in his classroom that read “Homer Nods.” Homer nods, Mr. Bender would explain to every new class of girls at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, means that even great geniuses, literary and otherwise, make mistakes. My senior year I was selected as one of the graduates to speak at graduation on the basis of my submitted speech I called “Homer nods.” I can’t even remember what it was about now. Probably something about humility amidst our capacity for greatness.
Mr. Bender would argue with me in the hallway even after I was no longer his student about the finer points of grammar. He thought I was wrong to pronounce “harassment” with the emphasis on the middle syllable. He joked about HARassing me to pronounce it correctly. I was happy to show him that the dictionary included both pronunciations. Even Homer nods.
Neither he nor I had any way of knowing that I would become a specialist in ancient Greek thinking, that whether Homer really nodded would become a live question for me, that I would become a student of those for whom Homer had been the teacher. I didn’t know then the poetry of the teacher telling the student that even the great educator of the Greeks fell short. I didn’t know how provocative the notion that the Greeks might have been educated by a nodding teacher could be, or perhaps the notion that all teachers nod.
I found this note in which Mr. Bender inverts the meaning of nod from making a mistake to signaling approval and I thought, how very Greek this poetic recasting would be. The teacher nods and nods. And this I appreciate.