Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Life of the Mind

In his new book, Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, James Miller reexamines one of philosophy's original prerogatives: to teach by example.  The Greeks, and later the Romans, saw the conduct of a thinker as every bit as important as their thought.  For this reason we find biographical compilations, such as Diogenes Laertius or Plutarch from antiquity, praising or faulting those who should be the exemplars of wisdom.

This idea, that the validity of a philosophy should be judged by the life of the philosopher, is out of fashion in current academic talk.  In fact, as the author notes in regards to the final subject of the book, Friedrich Nietzsche:

"...it is one consequence of Nietzsche's own criticism of Christian morality that anyone who takes it seriously find it hard, if not impossible, to credit any one code of conduct as good for everyone, and therefore worth emulating." 

Nevertheless, if a philosophy should not be judged by its philosopher, the life is not necessarily of no value.  Hero worship is likewise considered old hat these days, but surely something can be salvaged in the example of those who came before us.  Miller seems to think so:

"...each of these men prized the pursuit of wisdom.  Each one struggled to live his life according to a deliberately chosen set of precepts and beliefs, discerned in part through a practice of self-examination...The life of each one can therefore teach us something about the quest for self-knowledge and its limits."

I have often thought of philosophy as a substitute for religion, and have found in the examples of mortal men greater hope than the deeds of gods or the promises of heaven.  Life is a constant striving but, it is in what we strive for that makes the difference.  If we seek truth, our reach may often exceed our grasp, but in the reaching we may just find our better selves.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Is Poetry Dead?

Apotheosis of Homer


For most of its history poetry was an oral phenomenon.  Even after the advent of literacy it continued to retain this oral quality, and this immediate accessibility maintained it as a popular medium for rich and poor alike.  With few other forms of media to compete, verse continued to rise as a vehicle for reform and protest which was taken seriously.  Who now would consider a cutting epigram against the current administration to be a threat to the social order?  Yet Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre, was quickly hid away by the censors.  Likewise, in tandem with the novel, poets could earn fortunes by penning epics.  Byron's Childe Harold and Tennyson's Idylls of the King were both bestsellers in their day.

In the Twentieth Century we begin to see the decline of verse.  It will be argued that poetry is more popular than ever, but popular to whom?  Among educated lovers of language it has never lost its place, but I of course mean popularity in its broader sense.  To the average person it has degenerated into little more than advertising jingles, and the lyrics to popular songs appear to be meant as mere accompaniment to the music, often requiring little or no meaning at all. 

Would the great protest songs of the Sixties have had half their effectiveness if recited rather than sung?