A Dialogue in Three Parts

Plato, Aristotle, and MiltonThis is part one of a three-part dialogue I’m currently working on for a class entitled, “Poetics and Historiography.” Four cheers to anyone who can name the interlocutors in the comment section of my blog. And be sure to look for parts two and three in the coming weeks. Enjoy!

“So what, you’re just going to sit there and take notes?”

“Yep,” I said. “Is that a problem?”

“No. Not at all.” He turned his shining head to the man sitting across from him. “Where were we?”

“You were saying something about imitation. How art is three steps removed from the type.”

“That’s right. I agree with myself.”

“Shocking. Well, I don’t.”

“I’m not surprised,” the first man sighed. “You never did.”

“No. No, I didn’t. You’re concerned with that which is changeless, because, according to you, one must construct their epistemology from permanence. But what’s permanent? How do we access it? You speak of two worlds—a heaven of forms—one of which imitates the other. You say we live in a shadowed land, a false space of sights and sounds and that there is no knowledge apart from the form. Is that right? Well what about Heraclitus? You know as well as I do that you can’t step into the same river twice. Change is fundamental. It’s who we are. In fact, it’s the creative force that births knowledge.”

“No, dammit! Talk to me—me! Not me through Porphyry. He skewered my insights. And then that bastard Lewis introduced entire generations to Plotinus’ ideas and called them mine. ‘Further up and further in,’ he said. ‘This world pales in comparison to that,’ he said. And everyone is running around claiming this and that about the great Athenian philosopher. Because, wouldn’t you know it: ‘I learned Plato in a children’s book about a goddamn wardrobe.’ Listen,” the first man said, thrusting his elbows on the table and leaning forward, “I never said any of that. Don’t read Paul through Luther.”

“Oh, right. Socrates then?”

“No! All either of us tried to show was that Heraclitus and Protagoras were wrong. The claim that one can know something—anything—from perception and change is a lie. Knowledge is contingent upon the ontological reality of abstract ideas. From this, and only from this, can one begin to construct an epistemology—any epistemology for that matter—that’s worth a damn.”

“Abstract ideas, huh?”

“Yes, the abstract. Call them forms, ideas, types, or abstractions. I don’t care what, but allow for them in your ontology.”

“Give me an example,” the second man said, before sucking down his cigarette.

“Okay, well—”

“Because it seems to me,” he interrupted, “that if you allow for these forms, then they have to be somewhere else in a world set apart—outside of the cave, so to speak—and accessible to humanity.”

“Where’s the square root of two?” the first man asked. “Where’s red? Can you point to justice? No. You can’t. And yet you take both for granted. They’re in our world to be sure, but where? You point to Mandela and say, ‘Look, there’s justice.’ And then someone else points to ISIS and says, ‘Yep, and there it is, too.’ And without a measuring stick, who’s to say that anyone else is wrong? I don’t have the foggiest idea where justice itself resides, but I do know that you have to allow for the form, ontologically, in order to say anything about something. And, for the record, the cave was never about a primary world, no matter what Orual claims. It’s a pedagogical parable. It’s about the responsibility of education and the burden that the educated bear on behalf of the plebeians. If you don’t believe me, then ask Glaucon. He’ll tell you.”

“But to say that art is three levels—”

The door, swinging open, clanged its entry bell, and interrupted the interlocutors. A man, wizened and bent, shuffled into the pub while clacking his white cane. “Mind if I join you?”

“No,” I said. “By my guest. Can I get you anything? Beer? Wine?”

“A bourbon, if you don’t mind. I only just discovered it. Wonderful stuff.”

“Sure thing.”

“But to say that art is three levels removed,” the second man repeated, “is to push aesthetics to the periphery of culture. And then what happens? Well, I’ll tell you: society becomes a conglomeration of sights and sounds, of digital whirls and conduits, and of surface meanings and, the gods forbid, meaningless simulacra. That’s what happens. Science, math, medicine—the rational mind—can only ever answer what, but never why. It’s the aesthetic that orders reality, that makes sense from chaos, and that provides access to whatever truth there is. He hasn’t said this yet, but in the near future a man, an Italian, will say that the only thing we can ever really know is the aesthetic. Why? Because, though dynamic, it’s permanent. For the gods’ sake, you and I both know that as problematized as language, perception, and culture have become, there is only one certainty upon which to build one’s foundation: Dr. John H. Watson was Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick. You can’t argue that. It’s as timeless as truth gets.”

“Ha! And this from the great systematician.”

“Well done,” the blind man said, sipping his Woodford Reserve. “Well done. This,” he pointed to the three of us, “this is going to be a splendid conversation.”

To be continued…

On the Death of Influences

JournalismWhen you’re someone who writes for a living, you take your influences seriously. I graduated from a small high school in the woods of Washington State. There were thirty-six students in my graduating class, and I wanted nothing more than to graduate and play professional football for the Dallas Cowboys. In fact, I was convinced that was my destiny. And then I read Beowulf in English, had a teacher tell me Napavine wasn’t the world, and encountered writing for the first time in my sophomore journalism class. Our teacher and principal, Mr. Skinner, had worked as a journalist in Idaho before transitioning into education. With great precision and a loyalty to words, he taught us—he taught me—how to write. Through him, I encountered new ideas and abilities, but also new worlds and expansive horizons. I didn’t have to use either my body or athleticism to succeed. He taught me that my mind worked and, with a focused effort, anyone could write. Influence is a strange thing though and sometimes we don’t see it until it’s too late. Mr. Skinner passed away last weekend. He won’t see this, and I don’t know how aware he was of the many lives that he influenced throughout his years at Napavine. But to my recollection, he was a good principal, an even better teacher, and an invaluable influence.