Aristotle says that our intellects are to truth as the eyes of bats are to the light of day—somehow we cannot really take it in. And yet, none of us completely miss it.
I’ve spent many weeks now puzzling over this and similar comments Aristotle makes about knowledge and truth at the beginning of his Metaphysics. I, in fact, blame Aristotle and his Metaphysics for my not having written on the blog in a while. Last month I embarked upon a project, an optional Master’s essay, on the text and have been reading and writing on it every week on top of my other assignments. It’s been challenging and fun, and hopefully I am not too far in over my head!
It has been a very good semester. In seminar, we’ve finished the Iliad, Odyssey, many of the Greek tragedies like Oedipus Rex and Antigone, and are about to read Aristotle’s Poetics, in which he explains the art of poetry (and playwriting and performance). In tutorial, we have enjoyed poems of all sorts, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to more recent 20th century poems like Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” Now we are reading Dante’s Inferno and then will read James Joyce’s short story, The Dead, and some stories by Flannery O’Connor. If you are wondering why the readings seem sort of scattered, that’s because the Literature tutorial leaves a lot of room for the discretion of the tutor and the class to select poems and short stories that they’d like to read. It’s the only subject where I think that is the case.
Meanwhile in my preceptorial, we just finished Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which I introduced a few posts back. Every week it seemed like we were coming back to the same questions: is rhetoric, because it appeals to emotion and the listeners’ desires and biases, manipulative or deceitful? Aristotle explains at the beginning of the text that rhetoric is good and useful because “things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites” so that if the wrong conclusions are reached by the audience (or judge or jury), it is the fault of the speaker, who did not argue well enough.
The first part of this claim was the object of much controversy in my class; people could not accept or understand how “truth prevails” if it seems clear that people disagree strongly on so many things. That gets back to my opening quote from the Metaphysics: how could we all recognize the truth and yet not be able to see it or not agree upon it? We kept returning to that over and over again. I think that we got caught up in raising objections from experience, like “Isn’t it clear that none of us agree on what’s true?”, rather than trying to understand how Aristotle could possibly say that so confidently, even according to his own philosophy. I pointed out that it is not as if political decisions or court cases have become more contentious now, or that people were simpler then—those are not good answers.
Well, I tend to think that rhetoric is good, and that it is not inherently untruthful or evil just because it uses moral feeling and emotion to help persuade people. As Aristotle points out, not everyone can be “taught” in a strict and purely logical sense, and not every situation calls for that or can be proven like that, anyway. Moreover, those who want to object to rhetoric by emphasizing all of the misuses of it are proving nothing about the art itself. Aristotle underscores that such is an objection that can be brought against all good things, especially useful ones: they can be used to do great good and also great harm.
This past weekend our friend Brother Henry, O.P., recommended that I accompany the posts with pictures of the boys acting out something from the texts on which I am commenting. Thus, yesterday I tried to wrap Joseph in a “toga” to be Aristotle, and Anselm, already in his knight costume, could have been Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s pupil. But Joseph refused and ran away to the farthest corner of the room shouting “no!”.
But, he would be a sheep.
Then, when I offered the role to Anselm, he broke down in weeping, exclaiming, “I don’t want to be Aristotle!!”. I guess Aristotle’s not much fun…Sorry Brother Henry! I tried!