Sep 22 2016

Hunting for the Well-Read Book

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Hunting for the Well-Read Book

I confess, I was awfully pleased with that schoolboyish explanation. I was strangely anxious to present the story in as absurd a light as possible.

––Dostoevsky[1]

As Signore Machiavelli puts it, a successful politician requires the optics of religious sincerity. That is, princes, if they are to possess any longevity, must appear to be religious…. [2]

Could this mean that in order for a book to become well-read, nothing is more crucial than for it to appear to be virtuous? Wouldn’t that mean books which appear virtuous must not be (or must not appear to be) self-published? A virtuous book should also at least appear to be written by the person claiming to be the author, no matter who actually wrote it….

Sons and daughters of royalty may wander to and fro about the earth as prodigal progeny, but true regents do not drift. Real rulers hunt for game; for unlike wandering children, regents have definite goals in mind. They pursue a prize. If books can be sought and found by regents, a virtuous regent will find a well-read book. But servants and royal children worm through words and thumb through pages looking for things that interest themselves in the moment, never for things that might gain interest over time….[3]

For every coupling of author and reader, one must look through Lenin’s eyes and Tully’s logic and ask: who benefits from this relationship? Who wields the most power? Deep may call unto deep, but the depths are apparent even on the surface—for the answers abide in the way the questions are constructed….[4]

’Tis neither original nor profound to observe that some of the least helpful books sit on shelves marked “self-help.” But I want to read (or dare I say write?) a book whose virtue is its selfless-helpfulness….

There’s a reason why the Bible calls it the Book of Acts, not the Book of Audiences. A century ago, Americans wanted a deity who acted, not one who simply listened. But today I want a book that acts upon me as a reader. I’m tired of being a reader who acts against authors.[5]

NOTES

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[1] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) 1867. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. NY: Bantam Classics. 1964. VI, p. 59.

[2] Machiavelli, Niccolò. Il Principe. (The Prince.) in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica. Translated by Robert M. Adams. NY: W. W. Norton. 1977:

Nothing is more necessary than to seem to have this [religious] virtue. Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but only a few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion, supported by the majesty of the government. In the actions of all men, and especially of princes who are not subject to a court of appeal, we must always look to the end….. (“Ch. XVIII. The Way Princes Should Keep Their Word,” p. 51)

But when these afterwards began to speak only in accordance with the wishes of the princes, and their falsity was discovered by the people, then men became incredulous, and disposed to disturb all good institutions. It is therefore the duty of princes and heads of republics to uphold the foundations of the religion of their countries, for then it is easy to keep their people religious, and consequently well conducted and united. And therefore everything that tends to favor religion (even though it were believed to be false) should be received and availed of to strengthen it; and this should be done the more, the wiser the rulers are, and the better they understand the natural course of things. Such was, in fact, the practice observed by sagacious men; which has given rise to the belief in the miracles that are celebrated in religions, however false they may be….

With the line—“everything that tends to favor religion (even though it were believed to be false)”—can this apply to all lies, superstitions, propaganda, bullshit? But see also Machiavelli’s maxim on Rome:

Nor can there be a greater proof of its decadence than to witness the fact that the nearer people are to the Church of Rome, which is the head of our religion, the less religious are they…. (Discourses on The First Ten Books of Titus Livius in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica, “Book I – Chapter 12” p. 103)

Compare Poggio:

The worst men in the world live in Rome, and worse than the others are the priests, and the worst of the priests they make cardinals, and the worst of all the cardinals is made Pope. (Braccidini, Poggio. Facetiae [Demenichi] in The Facetiae of Poggio: and other Medieval StoryTellers. Edited and translated by Edward Storer. London: Dutton. 1928. V, p. 37)

But comport Ben Jonson who says, opposite of Machiavelli, that we tend to trust our ears over our eyes:

We praise the things we hear with much more willingness than those we see, because we envy the present and reverence the past; thinking ourselves instructed by the one, and overlaid by the other. (Timber: or Discoveries (1640))

Now compare Jonson to Oscar Wilde, for whom “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.  What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.” For Wilde, our eyes have priority over our ears, though our ears are quite discriminating:

When people talk to us about others they are usually dull. When they talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown wearied, they would be perfect absolutely. (“The Critic as Artist” (1891))

A prince will appear religious by not talking about how religious he is; therefore, a well-read book will appear virtuous by not referencing its own virtue.

[3] Job 1:07, 2:02; Proverbs 2:04, 25:02, 25:11; Matthew 7:07, Luke 11:09 and 15:11–32; Pirkei Avot V, xxvii.

[4] Psalms 42:07; “The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.” Strauss, Leo. “Introduction.” Thoughts on Machiavelli. 1958. Quoted in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica p. 183.

[5] See James Bissett Pratt who found that Americans weren’t interested in any affirmative knowledge about a deity, but only in what a deity can do:

But one result of the answers as a whole that seems fairly clear is that God’s “attributes” play a comparatively unimportant part in the minds of religious people, and that His relation to individuals is the really important factor in the concept. People are chiefly interested not in what God is, but in what He can do. Two thirds of my respondents describe Him as “Father,” “Friend,” “Companion,” “the ally of my ideals,” or by some equivalent expression; while only 12 thought it worthwhile to mention the fact that He is omnipotent, 9 called Him Creator, 3 mentioned Him as the Trinity, and one as the “Great First Cause.” Doubtless most of my respondents, if asked whether God were all these latter things, would respond Yes; the significant fact is that these attributes play so unimportant a part in their conception of Him that when asked to define that conception these attributes never enter their minds. Professor Leuba seems to be right in the main when he says that God is used rather than understood….

While the concept of God is, however, in one sense decidedly pragmatic, it would be a mistake to suppose that the ends for which the religious consciousness wishes to use God are chiefly ordinary utilitarian ends—such as protector, “meat purveyor,” etc. Unless my respondents are very unusual people, the chief use for which God is desired is distinctly social rather than material. God is valued as an end in Himself rather than as a means to other ends. Most people want God for the same reason for which they want friends, and His relation to them is exactly that of a very dear and very lovable and very sympathizing friend. It is quite naive, no doubt, but perfectly simple. Thus 53 out of 73 of my respondents affirm that God is as real to them as an earthly friend. Doubtless some of the 53 answered as they did in a purely conventional spirit, but that this was not the case with more than a small proportion is shown by the general tone of the answers to the other questions. The God whom most people want and whom many people have is a very real and sympathizing friend. Like other friends he is, to be sure, not only an end in Himself, but a means to other ends; He can help one to many things that one wants. These things, however, are as a rule not material benefits. They are chiefly of three kinds: comfort in trouble, hope for the future, and assistance in striving after righteousness. (The Psychology of Religious Belief. NY: Macmillan. 1908. pp. 263–64)

Compare Pratt’s line––“A very real and sympathizing friend”—to Walter Jackson Bate on Coleridge for whom the former asks:

What was wrong with occasionally prizing literature when it was simply a “friend”––a friend that could comfort while it informed and uplifted? The great English poets could not be viewed (at least not yet) in exactly that way. Only the best were studied—and the best part written by that best. Around them was an inevitable association of demand. In this respect they offered no essential contrast to his other reading—the reading in Greek literature and philosophy, the Neoplatonists, the metaphysical writers generally, the skeptics, the modern writers on science and epistemology. (Coleridge. NY: Macmillan. 1968. pp. 9–10)

That is to say: Coleridge hunted for virtuous books in the same spirit one does when searching across a lifetime for a true friend.


Mar 2 2016

Plato and Dante: Scattered Thoughts on Spinning Tops

bookbread pencil shavings

This is a scattered post I’ve been working on for the past three weeks…. Is it pastiche, goulash, a patchwork quilt perhaps? ….

Some old books, such as Plato’s Republic and Dante’s Commedia, act on the reader like spinning tops,[1] where each page can be read both centrifugally and centripetally. The centrifugal reading seeks the essence, the thesis, of Plato and Dante—it asks how those authors relate to themselves within their works. On the other hand, centripetal reading seeks to connect the Commedia and Republic to any and every other kind of knowledge—it asks how their works relate to everyone else’s works and knowledge.

I’m thinking about things centrifugal and centripetal because after Texas’ Super Tuesday 2016 my head keeps spinning. So weary of hearing a conservative political-follower say America has lost its faith in a god––so weary of hearing a liberal political-follower say America has lost its faith in a government.[2] Have we lost faith in political leadership and believe only in our own political followership?

I do not expect our poets to be politicians, nor do I expect our politicians to be poets. Yes, in the days of Plato and Dante a poet and politician could be one in the same, but why now does that dual-role sound like a contradiction? What is the clash ringing in our ears? ….

Both Plato and Dante were politician-poets. But Plato gave up politics, while politics gave up Dante. The Florence comune exiled Dante with threat of death while the Athenian jury sentenced Socrates to self-execution….

Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth. Plato was a corrupted youth who forswore politics. Dante was accused of being an incorruptible politician. Socrates is offered exile, but death, for him and unlike Dante, is a better choice….

In the Commedia, Dante is the representative of the living. In the eyes of the dead he is poet-politician-leader. Neither Plato nor Socrates speaks to the dead. But Plato does bring Socrates back to life, for by the grace of Plato’s pen, Socrates is resurrected into the everlasting life of dialogue….

When Plato has Socrates speak of contradictions, he writes things like:

[Someone] might say of a spinning top that the whole thing stands still and turns at the same time, when it fixes the peg in one spot and goes round and round upon it, and so also anything else does this that goes round in a circle in the same place, but we should not accept that. We should say that such things are not resting and revolving in the same parts of themselves, but they have a straight part (the axis) and a circling part (the periphery); in the straight part it moves round; and when it leans the perpendicular to right or left or front or back while it revolves, then it does not stand still anymore…. So such a saying will not dismay us, and it will never convince us that the same thing in the same place towards the same thing could sometimes be or do or suffer two opposites.[3]

So contradictions for Plato are like spinning tops where two things––a centripetal-axis from which the top spins and a centrifugal tangent of the outermost edge of the top’s surface––almost appear as one. (Yet here it might be apt to recall a dictum from Gregory Bateson: “it takes two to know one.”)[4] We know that the two things really aren’t one but aren’t quite sure where to mark the divide between them.

Wittgenstein says that when you encounter a contradiction, instead of worrying about whether it exists or not, you must repent from the way of thinking that originally led you to the contradiction––

to get a clear view of the state of affairs before the contradiction is resolved.  (And this does not mean that one is sidestepping a difficulty).[5]

For Wittgenstein, comprehending a contradiction is all about backpedaling, retrenching, repenting of present sins (mistakes in one’s thinking) and returning to prior piety. In other words, one must turn around and retread over the previous course, just as YHVH repents to Moses…. [6]

Now when Dante speaks of contradictions, he writes things like:

dal quale in qua stato li sono a’ crini;
ch’assolver non si può chi non si pente,
né pentere e volere insieme puossi

 [one can’t absolve a man who’s not repented,
and no one can repent and will at once;
the law of contradiction won’t allow it.][7]

The Italian humanist Poggio Braccidini, who lived a generation after Dante, provides a perplexing twist to Dante’s take on contradictions:

A certain man, either seriously or to play a trick on the priest, went to him saying that he wished to confess his sins. Invited to say what he remembered of his wickedness, he related that he had stolen something from another, but added that this other had stolen more from him.

Said the confessor: “One thing cancels out another, so you are quits now.”

Then the man added that he had beaten a certain fellow with a stick, but that he had received several blows in return from this person.

And the priest said that here, too, one thing cancelled out another, and that all was well.

At last the penitent said that there remained a sin for which he was much ashamed, and blushed before the priest to have to tell it.

The confessor exhorted him to forget his shame and reveal the sin. Yielding at last to the persistence of the friar, the man said: “I once had your sister.”

“And I”, replied the priest, “on several occasions had your mother, and here, as in the other cases, one thing cancels out another.”

And for this equality in sin, he absolved him.[8]

Does Poggio’s facetiae, his bawdy, brief tale, lead to contradictions, or does it absolve contradictions?

I leave as I came: with my head spinning.

 

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NOTES

[1] See Northrop Frye’s remarks in The Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton UP (1957):

Whenever we read anything, we find our attention moving in two directions at once. One direction is outward or centrifugal, in which we keep going outside our reading, from the individual words to the things they mean, or, in practice, to our memory of the conventional association between them. The other direction is inward or centripetal, in which we try to develop from the words a sense of the larger verbal pattern they make. (p. 73)

Compare, George Steiner in The Death of Tragedy, NY: Knopf (1961), for whom Dante is more centrifugal than Shakespeare, while the latter is vice versa:

Whereas Dante’s vision bends all light rays toward a controlling centre, Shakespeare’s sense of the world appears to move outward. (p. 21)

[2] For examples, see: Johnson, Byron. “The good news about evangelicalism.” February 2011. First Things. (http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/02/the-good-news-about-evangelicalism); “Trust in Government” Gallup. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/5392/trust-government.aspx); “Confidence in U.S. Branches of Government Remains Low” Gallup. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/183605/confidence-branches-government-remains-low.aspx).

[3] Plato, Republic, IV 436A–436D. In Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6. Translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1969.

[4] Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 113.

[5] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. 1953. I, § 125.

[6] Exodus 32:9–14; Kaufmann, Walter. “Prologue to I and Thou,” In Martin Buber’s Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Kaufmann. NY: Scribner. 1970. pp. 34–37.

[7] Alighieri, Dante. Inferno XXVII, 117–19. In Divine Comedy. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Notes by Peter Armour. NY: Everyman’s Library. 1995.

[8] Braccidini, Poggio. In The Facetiae of Poggio: and other Medieval StoryTellers. London, UK: Dutton. 1927. LXXX 106–07.