Friday, July 23, 2010

Rejoicing Correctly

One of the oddities of Aristotle's Politics--at least for the modern reader--is that it ends with a somewhat lengthy discussion of music, which would have been even lengthier if the complete work had come down to us. But when we remember that Aristotle was a student of Plato, who taught that "the ways of poetry and music are not changed anywhere without change in the most important laws of the city," we will begin to see why Aristotle placed so much importance on the role of music in the polis.

Aristotle, like his teacher, recognizes that music has a profound power. But what is this power good for? Aristotle rejects the idea that music should be a mere amusement like "sleep and deep drinking" (Bk. VIII.iv.3;1339a17), or even that it should be an intellectual entertainment for the cultured (1339a25). Instead, he emphasizes its formative influence on the soul, and its ability to help the young develop virtue.

But, virtue sounds boring, and it also sounds like hard work--which Aristotle admits, when he calls education in virtue a "painful process" (μετὰ λύπης γὰρ ἡ μάθησις). So, why regulate music in what is bound to be a painful process for the young?

Aristotle's answer is simple, but profound: Music must be regulated so that the young can learn to "rejoice correctly" (χαίρειν ὀρθῶς). Good music helps the young to govern their emotions, and to attain happiness. In a later part of the discussion, Aristotle repeats this very same phrase phrase, and then adds two more emotions that need to be learned correctly: love and hatred (1340a15).

So, why should we pay attention to what kind of music we listen to? So that we can love, hate, and rejoice correctly.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Top Five (slightly obscure) Sporting Events I'd Like to See

No. 5: The Eton Field Game. This is not a single event, but a highly specialized sport all its own. The Eton Field Game is two parts soccer, and one part rugby, with a huge dose of preppy. Played only at Eton College, the game has been going on since at least 1815 and is played by virtually all the boys at the school. But the Field Game comes in only at no. 5 both because it is not a single event and because better things await us at Eton...

No. 4: King's Cup Elephant Polo. Believe it or not, elephant polo is a real sport, complete with its own world governing body. Details of the international elephant polo scene are hard to come by, but the game is played in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the UK. If at times a little, um, lumbering... the game can also be quite dangerous. In any case, the King of Thailand hosts a tournament each year, which I need to see one of these days.

No. 3: The Boat Race. This is the least obscure of any of these. Watched by tens of millions of people around the world each year, the annual rowing competition between Oxford and Cambridge down the River Thames is arguably the biggest event for the sport, even bigger than the Olympics. The race was first held in 1829 and has been held every year - with the exception of the World Wars - since 1856. The race has been highly competitive over the years, with Oxford winning 75 and Cambridge 80. The course, 4 miles and 374 yards long, is quite lengthy (three times the length of the World Rowing Championship race), exhausting for the participants. Moreover, the race is carried out close enough to the mouth of the Thames that not only the current and wind but also the tide are factors; thus, teams compete for the best position on the river, often clashing blades before the umpire warns them apart. Lest you think this is just a boat race, let me recommend you watch True Blue, a film about the 1987 race. Oh, and the rowers: they're students too. Some of them even complete degrees including PhDs in Mathematics, or Bioinformatics or an MD in Clinical Neurology.

No. 2: The St. John's - Naval Academy Croquet Match. Yes, you read that right: St. John's College, that stronghold of classical education and extreme nerdery, plays the US Naval Academy in croquet each year. Apparently the students of St. John's once discovered that the midshipmen's code prevents them from turning down an official challenge to their honor. So the geeks of St. John's put their heads together and thought of a contest they might just win. The event - featuring outrageous clothing on the part of the St. John's team and fans - has continued for nearly three decades now.

No. 1: The Eton Wall Game. I promised more Eton, didn't I? Every year on St. Andrew's Day, the Collegers (students on scholarship) play the Oppidans (everyone else) in another unique game similar to rugby or soccer. The field is 5 meters wide and 110 meters long. And bordered on one side by a slightly curved wall. Which means the side of the scrum (called a 'Bully') is always brushing up against the wall, on top of which fans - in their coats and tails, of course - sit. To the uninitiated the game simply looks like a lot of pushing, but in fact it requires a high degree of skill and a great deal of stamina. In spite of there being only 70 Collegers and about 1250 Oppidans, the Collegers have managed to hold their own over the years. And there have been plenty of years, with the first recorded game coming in 1844. His Royal Highness Prince Henry participated in the Wall Game and did rather well for himself. Here is a little clip from the 1921 game, for your viewing pleasure:

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Still Remembering John Paul II

Below is the text of an email upon which I recently happened, regarding John Paul II's 1979 visit to Ireland and his address to the youth in Galway. Though more than a year old, the email still captures my sentiments:

I first saw this post a few days ago, but I returned to it again today, to listen to the clip and read a couple of the links. As I heard the crowd cheering for the Holy Father - not politely, but wildly - I started to cry. I miss that man, a lot. When attending my first World Youth Day in Rome, I remember telling people I was going to visit the pope, since he had invited me (and all the young people of the world) to come hang out at his place. It was a joke, of course, but there was a truth to it I didn't fully realize at the time. John Paul was a man whose love for humanity - and in particular for the youth - was palpable, even when he was but a speck on a distant stage. Even as we watched his health fail over the years, until he could barely move or speak when last I saw him in 2004. Even then, he was every inch a pope, and a genuine friend to millions of people he had never met. As I listened to the thunder of the crowd in Ireland, I remembered what it was like to live on the same planet with such a man. It truly was an ennobling thing. And I cried. Tears of joy and of loss. Big fat tears that splashed on the desk. And on the crowd cheered, knowing that they were loved, by God and by this Polish pope who had come to their little island.

Blessed be God! John Paul the Great, pray for us

Read the blog post about John Paul's visit to Ireland here, or simply go here to hear his homily to the youth in Galway on 30 September. The whole thing is worth listening to, but if you want to skip straight to the climax mentioned above, simply push forward to about 41:00.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Independence Day!

Though a participant in the revolutions of 1848 (about which I have my qualms), Carl Schurz strikes me as the embodiment of much that is great about America: An immigrant from Germany, Schurz settled in Wisconsin where he was admitted to the bar, lending his services to the anti-slavery movement. He joined the Republican Party, supported Abraham Lincoln, and led the Wisconsin delegation to the 1860 Republican National Convention. He served as Lincoln's ambassador to Spain and then as a general in the Union Army, commanding troops at Gettysburg, among other battles. After the war he became editor of the Detroit Post, before moving to St. Louis and the Westliche Post (Western Post). In 1869 he was elected to the US Senate, the first German-American in the chamber. He served as Secretary of the Interior in the Hayes administration, working hard to reform the Indian Office. After leaving the cabinet he moved to New York and resumed his newspaper work. He died in 1906.

In 1859, Schurz explained the nature of freedom to an audience in Massachusetts:

When the rights of one cannot be infringed without finding a ready defense in all others who defend their own rights in defending his, then and only then are the rights of all safe against the usurpations of governmental authority....

That there are slaves is bad, but almost worse is it that there are masters. Are not the masters freemen? No, sir! Where is their liberty of the press? Where is their liberty of speech? Where is the man among them who dares to advocate openly principles not in strict accordance with the ruling system? They speak of a republican form of government, they speak of democracy; but the despotic spirit of slavery and mastership combined pervades their whole political life like a liquid poison. They do not dare to be free lest the spirit of liberty become contagious. The system of slavery has enslaved them all, master as well as slave. What is the cause of all this? It is that you cannot deny one class of society the full measure of their natural rights without imposing restraints upon your own liberty. If you want to be free, there is but one way--it is to guarantee an equally full measure of liberty to all your neighbors. There is no other.

Forty years later in Chicago he gave an exposition on patriotism:

I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves... too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: "Our country, right or wrong!" They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: "Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right."

Today I tip my hat to our Founding Fathers, Charles Schurz and all the men and women who have made the United States of America the great place it is.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Danger of Leisure

In my last post about property and leisure, I praised Aristotle for incorporating leisure into his conception of property. Property, for Aristotle, is what assures a man leisure to pursue higher callings, especially politics. The idea was that once a man was assured of a living, he would not feel the need to amass wealth beyond measure.

That tells only one side of the story, though. Given the frailty of human nature, leisure not only opens the way for higher pursuits, but also for greed (pleonexia). To see why, we may as well begin exactly where we left off, with a passage from the Politics where Aristotle argues that the best type of democracy is a democracy composed primarily of small (yeoman) farmers. The reason for this is that
owing to their not having much property they are without leisure, so that they cannot often meet in the assembly, while owing to their having the necessities of life they pass their time attending to their farmwork and do not covet their neighbors' goods, but find more pleasure in working than in taking part in politics and holding office, where the profits to be made from the offices are not large; for the mass of mankind are more covetous of gain than of honor (Bk. VI.i.1; 1318b12-18).

This is obviously an attack on acquisitiveness (pleonexia), but it also is a frank acknowledgement that leisure (or at least too much leisure) is not good for everyone or necessarily for the political community as a whole.

A more detailed explanation of this conclusion comes in Bk. IV. There Aristotle discusses the problem that many people participate in politics to get hold of the public revenue for their own private ends. If the possibilities of the citizens to abuse the government in this way is limited, the result will be that "the laws govern" (1292b41). (For example, I have heard it said that Washington, D.C., was intentionally built in a swamp, so that legislators would not stay there too long and enact new laws all the time.)

Aristotle's critique of overly active citizens leads to an interesting conclusion: Being a citizen means having the leisure and the right to participate in the framing of the laws of one's country, but being a good citizen means actually letting those laws govern. Constantly enacting new laws is a cover for naked self-interest, and it is an excess of leisure that allows citizens the chance to enact too many laws, thereby destroying the authority of the laws.

How much leisure should a society enjoy, then?

Aristotle's solution, as far as I could tell from reading the Politics, seems to be to give most free men enough to live on, but keep them busy on their small farms, and allow leisure only for the few--the aristocrats--who are worthy of higher pursuits. Whether Aristotle's solution actually works is a question for another day. But, at least Aristotle can still inject into our political discussion today some awareness of the largely forgotten issue of leisure.