Tag Archives: Aristotle

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Unlikely Friendships

aristotle
Bust of Aristotle

I remember my childhood friends well, and, when I do, I get nostalgic, as I suspect many of us do. I do so because when I was a child I never thought by category. I still try very hard not to, but as one grows up, the inclination to tidy up our thoughts naturally occurs, whether or not we’ve ever read Aristotle, I suppose.

Yet I doubt that very many of us take the time or have the inclination to categorize our friendships. Rather, we just do so without thinking about it. Yet were we to stay childlike in this regard and not think in categories, we may be the better off for it. There is, however, at least one good reason to categorize our friendships. That reason is, I think, to remind ourselves to try very hard not to do so. But I get ahead of myself in telling you the “moral,” as it were, to this story, before we hear the story itself.

That story begins even before Elaine settled down in New Hope. She had moved around Pennsylvania so often when I was a small child—from Kingston (Wilkes-Barre) to two areas of Philadelphia (center city and Oxford Circle) to Shermans Dale (near Harrisburg) and finally to New Hope—that by the time I reached the second grade, I had not been anywhere long enough to forge a friendship, except one, even before we began our convoluted trek. That friendship was with David Goldstein, whose family name still adorns Rutter Avenue’ Goldstein’s Delicatessengoldstein-deli-logo, though to my knowledge his family no longer owns the business. In any case, at age four, I was David’s friend, though it was long ago, before the endless vitriol of our progressive modern era, before such stark political divisions, before ancient dead white males were despised and their ideas discarded. Before micro-aggressions, before frivolous lawsuits were common, I remember well David Goldstein, my friend, and myself simply riding our bicycles together in the small parking lots on either side of 414 Rutter. We were simply friends. We did not categorize our friendship. We were just glad to have been allowed to play outside together.

Thinking in terms of friendship categories can remind us of friendships like that one, before we thought in categories at all (which are ultimately Aristotelian) and are, in a sense, themselves indication of a deep flaw in our nature, what some call humankind’s wretched fallen estate. That ancient but not antiquated philosopher long ago divided friendships up into categories. One, Aristotle said, was a friendship of pleasure, in the case of which the friends simply take delight in one another. This can, of course, be seen in young couples or friends who share like interests in which they both delight. Another, of a lesser hue, would be friendships of utility, in the course of which each party (or at least one, certainly) sees some benefit to be gained by becoming the friend of the other. The finest category of friendship that Aristotle posits is one based on goodness.

Now in our era, of course, one would have to begin any consideration of this last category by proving (if one could do so, which I doubt, to the satisfaction of the disingenuously quizzical interlocutor) that there is such a thing as goodness. But leaving that aside for the moment, let us indulge, if not me, at least Aristotle, by admitting that there is such a thing as goodness. If so, these kinds of friendships are forged based on shared virtues. Such friendship lasts as long as both parties maintain their virtue and pursue the good. These friendships, Aristotle says in his Nicomachean Ethics,[1] are the best, finest, purest, even rarified. They are, at any rate, certainly rare.

Let us be aware of these categories and let us also beware of them. While the unlikely friendship that we may develop with Aristotle by reading him afresh can help to clarify our thoughts, the friendships we formed in childhood, particularly in our very early years are, perhaps, at a farther remove from the taint of the fall. Yet even if this is not true (and certainly not provable), we didn’t, as small children, think in the categorical terms that may both help us but also have the potential to drag us down. Perhaps, in the end, Aristotle’s useful terms might best serve as apotropaic symbols—maybe there is a danger in our thinking in terms of utility, pleasure, or even shared virtue.

good_samaritan_after_delacroix
Vincent van Gogh’s The Good Samaritan, Kröller-Müller museum

I want to posit as a different kind of model for friendship the most startling idea that I’ve ever encountered. It’s the moral of another story, not quite the one I alluded to at the outset. There once was a man, a social outcast religiously, who happened to be going between Jerusalem and Jericho and came upon another man, naked and bleeding, nearly dead, according to the tale. That religious outcast, known as a Samaritan, bandaged up the nearly dead man’s wounds, brought him to shelter and paid his bills. You likely know the rest of the story. That man’s action supersedes in every way the friendship based on goodness or virtue, for it is another kind of virtue yet. It is unqualified love for one’s neighbor that produces an unlikely friendship, one that quietly gives and seeks nothing in return. In closing, I propose a toast to dead white males—those dead and those nearly dead—whom only the gift of an unlikely friendship can revive.

[1] http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html

9781480814738_COVER.indd

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cartoonish World

For Philadelphians, sometimes it seems like sports is the day’s top story. Sports are to many Philadelphians what politics or the arts, to some degree, are to New Yorkers. For this reason, perhaps, one of the more common features of the Philadelphia Inquirer or Daily News, and for that matter any newspaper, are caricatures, cartoon distortions of well-known figures.

Leonardo di Vinci, An Old Woman The Ugly Duchess 1490
Leonardo di Vinci,
An Old Woman The Ugly Duchess 1490

The idea is not new. The Romans would regularly depict political figures in cartoonish ways and even Leonardo Da Vinci playfully rendered such distorted pictures. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, some of the cartoons are aimed at coaches—Chip Kelly was a favorite, and I am certain that the primary cartoonist of the Inquirer is lamenting the coaching change for that city’s football team (Eagles), even as the San Franciscans rejoice.

But why do we enjoy these satirical portraits? Because cartoons can take the edge off a situation as easily as they can, with clever social wit, put an edge on one. For example, a political cartoon, such as James Gillray’s portrait of William Pitt and Napoleon carving up a plum pudding meant to represent the world highlights playfully the pressing issues of the early nineteenth century. Pitt uses both a knife and a trident-shaped fork to suggest England’s maritime prowess, while the feather-chapeaued Napoleon cuts off a substantial portion of the globe representing Western Europe. Napolean and world cartoonThis picture, in a way, simply stated the obvious—taking the edge off a moment of great concern globally. It is one of Gillay’s best-known pieces, and widely recognized as one of the best and most thoughtful caricatures ever made. Those of the coach in the Philadelphia Inquirer, not so much, at least not outside of Philadelphia proper.Chip kelley cartoon

But the point of this blog is not to review the history of caricatures or even to offer a few examples of them. Rather, it is simply this: I want to suggest that we now live in a world of distortions. Caricatures, once just funny pictures, now seem have jumped off the page into the real world. American politicians (and Americans in general) seem to me distorted, oversized, cartoonish. Either they are so cautious about what they say that they won’t dare use a word that could be in the least deemed offensive, or they will avail themselves of any word at all, even those that might have made George Carlin blush, if that were possible. They are either at the furthest limit of one side of the politically correct spectrum, or just the opposite, so far in the other direction that they could care less whom they might offend. The old-fashioned notion of decorum is gone, it is dead (or at least it seems so now) and it is no longer even talked about.

I imagine that even sophisticated college students may not know the word any more, unless they happen to take Latin. Yet infrequently nowadays do college students take the time to learn Latin, for it requires an inordinate amount of time. It forces you to slow down and think; it forces you to be thoughtful. And, well, I suppose with no Latin, there is no knowledge of what decus, decoris (n.) means; and then, no English derivative, decorum, or its deeper meaning. And without decorum you’re left with either extreme political correctness on the one side, or a complete dearth of it on the other.

Is it just me, or does that not seem to ring true to you, too? Now I’m not suggesting that there should be a “middle ground,” for there is no true middle ground between one kind of ridiculous mind game and another. But mightn’t there be something like moderation? There is a difference between these two ideas. Middle ground, at least the way that some folks construe it, is quite often seen as mere fence sitting, an attempt to hedge one’s bets or, worse yet, apathy. But moderation is something like decorum. I won’t have that extra piece of pie because it would be immoderate, indecorous. I won’t have that extra drink because by indulging in immoderate behavior I might say something unseemly. In other words, the notion of decorum, which must be undergirded with a healthy sense of shame, has been driven out precisely because people seem to feel no shame. Yet I leave aside the question as to whether we feel no shame because we are indecorous or whether we are indecorous because we feel no shame. Simply put, we do, and we are.

An example of what I mean can be seen in two different types of eating disorders. The anorexic will consume very little, so little that that person can but barely survive, and, in some very sad cases, die. They have put food out of their life as they are starving themselves. These I would liken to those who are extremely politically correct. They have a disorder: they believe that they have a right to put words or ideas out of their lives. They demand “safe spaces” because they are so easily offended. They must control their environment, and like the anorexic, they have very inadequate and distorted mental picture of themselves.

The indecorously opinionated person, who deliberately seeks to be crass and rude, is to my mind, something like the morbidly obese person. Such folks will respond aggressively to those who offend them. They will just keep heaping it on, like a person too heavy who takes an extra helping or two even when they know, deep down inside, that they should not. Yet even these comparisons are not fair, for neither the anorexic nor the morbidly obese person can be held accountable for their decisions, as they suffer from a mental disorder that had driven them to one of two extremes.

Pixee Fox
Pixee Fox

Rather the people of today’s cartoonish world, who are merely reflected in our politicians, are actually more like Pixee Fox, who has undergone surgeries to become cartoonishly slender or Homer Simpson (“literally” a cartoon character), who apparently in one of this most popular episodes of that television show purposely gains weight to achieve disability status.

Such, it seems to me, are we these days, and perhaps we should not be surprised if our politicians merely reflect us. Either we heap it on indecorously or, worse yet, we are offended on behalf of just about anyone in the world, especially those on behalf of whom it is politically expedient to be offended. Both are distortions of the real thing. That real thing, practically invisible these days, is the decorous, balanced, sensible and honorable person, who is simply polite and kind because it is the right thing to do, not because they want to curry favor or seem holier-than-thou (or more-PC-than-thou). They do not natter negatively on Twitter or prate provocatively on Pinterest. They do not seek merely to be confrontational or endlessly try to find something to be offended about in the name of social change. They do not conveniently revise history, judge those who have served our country courageously, or officiously attend upon the words of others hoping to find a way to pronounce condemnation and to vaunt their own moral superiority.

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

We find examples of decorous individuals described in great detail in Cicero’s On Friendship, in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (book 8), or Seneca’s Moral Epistles (9). But who reads these folks anymore?

So few do precisely because we live in a cartoonish world. We even prefer movies rendered from comic books: stories set to the silver screen that have real actors behaving cartoonishly. We have self-distorted; we have become too thin with political correctness or too fat with crassness.Joker in batman

Decorum. That’s what we need now more than ever. And that is what we have always needed. What ever happened to the idea of two people from two different political parties actually respecting each other? Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, how I hope you cannot see from heaven what a cartoonish mess we’ve made of all this. As things are now, perhaps we should “beg for … a discreet patience / Of death, or of worse life.”[1]Ronald-Reagan-Thomas-ONeill

And now it is time for me to go back to the book I’m writing, and you to your morning coffee or walking your dog. If you’re reading your paper, do grin a bit at the caricatures of the coaches of sports teams, whether in the Inquirer or the Daily News. But be wary of the cover of the NY Daily News, that simply takes too much liberty in the name of freedom of the press, for you needn’t look too closely at such distortions, if you live in the same cartoonish world that I do. Distortion, cartoons, caricatures are not just in the papers anymore. They’re walking about everywhere. And they are everywhere because it seems that no one takes decorum seriously. For my part, I am setting out on this new year not worrying about micro-aggressions, or what the politically correct flavor of the day might be; conversely, I shan’t seek to be crass, crude or wanton simply to provoke. Rather I am taking the boring path, one that seeks moderation, decency, and old-fashioned decorum. “Yet never knows what course that light doth run; / So let me study that mine actions be / Worthy…”[2] I don’t have to go to Rome or Greece or England to walk where Cicero, Aristotle, or even John Donne once trod. I can do it in my own neighborhood, my own home, with my own family and friends. That is the way of the old Latin word decus, decoris, which means “dignity.” Care to join me?

[1] John Donne, A Litany, X. The Martyrs

[2] John Donne, A Litany, VI. The Angels

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Lost Art of …

Ah, the infamous “lost art.” One could fill in a number of notions after the three dots in the above title. A few phrases or words come to mind: kindness, gentility, non-electronic friendship. Less serious, too: tea brewing, whittling, even for many of us, gardening. Yet here I would submit for your consideration, letter writing.

Sprowles letterThis week I had a very unique experience. I received in the mail a single packet of four letters; one of which was a thank-you note written to Elaine Jakes by my beloved high school teacher, Zinaida Sprowles, whose first name means “belonging to Zeus.” And godlike she was, for Mrs. Sprowles, who is mentioned in the Curious Autobiography (p.101), was the under-appreciated gem of the New Hope-Solebury High SchoolNHS High School faculty. Originally a Latin teacher, Zinny (for so she was called) was, by the time I had her in school, nearing the end of her career. By then they had phased out Latin (so was the trend then, as the administration could see no use for it) and relegated the tenured, and therefore not able-to-be-fired erstwhile Latin teacher to teaching English courses, though they allowed her to retain the honors students’ section of what amounted to the best college preparatory courses at New Hope-Solebury, classes that were essentially Great Texts (or what is sometimes called Western World Literature). I was not an honors student, and thus I had no access to that track or to Mrs. Sprowles, unless she happened to teach a regular English elective.

Fortunately for me, she did just that, but it was the second term of my junior year. Hitherto I had known Mrs. Sprowles only from the school hallways. Yet, having met with Mr. Karl Richter, the school’s guidance counselor, with his help I constructed a schedule that included a strange elective—strange for me, that is, because I was a numbers kid, excelling in Physics and mathematics and a member of the geekily (but sadly all too fittingly)  “Mathletic Team.” The elective in question was “Detective Literature,” and it focused almost entirely on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and the figure of Sherlock Holmes. It was taught by none other than my hallway-only acquaintance, Mrs. Sprowles.

Class by class Mrs. Sprowles vivaciously led discussions on the characterization of Holmes or Watson, Doyle’s craft in writing, tension, climax and resolution of each work, construction of plausibility, and the list goes on. I had never encountered a teacher of this caliber. Why, I wondered, was she the only teacher in New Hope-Solebury who had no desk, no classroom? Was it some kind of less than subliminal message from the administration? In any case, she was the self-styled peripatetic pedagogue, though she was far more academic and Platonic than she was categorical and Aristotelian. In fact, that is what made Mrs. Sprowles so profoundly delightful: she was not someone who observed and put things into boxes but she was utterly academic, someone who sought the highest origins and deepest forms.

Aristotle
Aristotle

And that is what must have frightened the administration of New Hope-Solebury High School in those days, the fear that students would become so enamored of learning that they would follow this peripatetic pedagogue just anywhere she might happen to meander in her academic wandering. Indeed, some of us did. Having used whatever influence she had left with Mr. Richter, she managed to squeeze me into her honors class (even though I had been, outside of math and physics a grade-wise dishonorable student), she led me and the rest of that senior seminar to the theater of Dionysus where we witnessed by reading the Oresteia and came to understand the importance of justice and democracy. We would follow her to the ancient agora, where we could overhear Socrates speaking with the young all too self-righteous and overconfident Euthyphro in front of the Stoa Basileios. And, like all the truly great educators such as Socrates, she was misunderstood by the higher-ups.

Plato
Plato

This is the area, I think, in which Elaine Jakes and Mrs. Sprowles would have fundamentally connected, for both were educators of a similar ilk, all too often misunderstood by all but their students. Yet that letter that Mrs. Sprowles wrote was never sent, presumably because it fell into a crack in the desk or was covered over by two days’ worth of mail and, by the time Zinny found it, it was too late to send. Yet why did she keep it all those years? That I cannot ever know. But I am glad that her daughter took the time to send it to me, along with three other letters written by a very young version of myself—a first-year college student at Dickinson—to his former high school teacher and inspiration, Mrs. Sprowles.

I’m not writing to say that I thought, when I read them, that my own three letters were well written or conveyed anything more than sincere appreciation to a wonderful teacher, or even that Mrs. Sprowles’ note to Elaine Jakes is anything to write home about. Rather, these four letters collectively reflect something bigger, something that is actually worth writing home about: the lost art of letter writing. It is truly a lost art, for art is an aspect of letter writing, as it involves several artistic choices.

First, one must find the right stationery. If one chooses a note format, as Mrs. Sprowles did in her unsent note to Elaine, one must ensure that the card befits the occasion, even if it is blank inside. Then there is the issue of penmanship. Here I’m afraid I fail miserably. Even my finest penmanship is shoddy at best, and I blame my fourth-grade self for snickering and treating as trivial the lessons of Mrs. Hendrickson, my teacher that year, who labored relentlessly to get me and one or two others in the class (was it Mickey? Todd?) to write more legibly. Then there is content, which of course is the most important bit. Yet even that comes out differently with a pen on paper than it does in a computer. It is not correctable on paper: one must get it right the first time.

And this is an art, an art that I was confronted with from a former generational iteration of myself. In case you’re wondering, other than the penmanship and poor choice of stationery, I did okay. But Mrs. Sprowles’ note was far more meaningful. How good it was to see her handwriting again after so many years. How rich and thrilling to know that she had cared enough to write my mother a note—a note I would never have known about had Mrs. Sprowles actually ever have sent it. And that is the key part of the art, the production of the artifact of the epistle itself.

Augustine writing
Fresco of St. Augustine

Memory is such a funny thing: it allows us to record in some deep recess of the brain a meaningful event, and never let go. It is something like hope, but backwards. In his Confessions, Augustine demonstrates the power of memory by going back in time to his childhood and his life as a young adult and rendering it all in seven lovely and quite memorable books. But then in the eighth book he begins to shift the notion of memory around so that with the final five books he has reoriented his own and the reader’s mind as he engages ideas that are otherworldly, heavenly. The way he does this is to anchor himself and the reader in the past by memories, one upon another. Mrs. Sprowles’ short note did that for me this week, and my mind looks forward to an otherworldly hope of sitting for tea with her again in a place far away that some of us call Home. I hope she has some of her delightful cinnamon buns with that tea, for I recall the last time we met we enjoyed them together, yet another sweet memory; but a sweeter hope.

pen

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Unexpected Surprises and il Commune

view of Hermann, MO
Hermann, MO

It is often said, “Life is full of …,” and then after a pause, suited to the given situation or conversation, comes another word, more often than not, plural, sometimes preceded by an adjective, sometimes an adjective adverb combination. Among the possibilities are, “widespread suffering,” “stark natural wonders,” “very tragic events” or a combination of antitheses, “ups and downs,” “joy and sorrow” or the like. Now I admit that from time to time it happens that someone simply says, “pain.” But that person would likely be speaking from some kind of personal experience; something difficult might have happened in his or her life to prompt such a pronouncement. And it befits the interlocutor to listen to that person’s account of the pain, as he or she shows empathy. Pathos, indeed, is at the core of human existence.

Yet so is joy. One can, in Aristotelian fashion, divide joy into a great number of categories. One such category could be the mutual sense of it in unexpected pleasures. These communal experiences might consist of surprises, those delicate shavings of time in which one can participate in a different kind of empathy than commiseration. This kind of empathy—where the word’s root pathos connotes experience rather than suffering—is the very kind we shared with Martha somewhere between Mt. Sterling, Owensville, and Hermann, Missouri, the burial place of George Bayer, whose grave I quasi-reverently (thoughtfully, at least) visited while jogging. Martha’s cheese shop is auspiciously named “Cool Cow,” one of whose “girls” was the covercow for an issue of the (perhaps not widely circulated) Sauce magazine. cheese magazine coverThat lovely most certainly off-the-beaten-track cheesery enjoys a contiguous and equally aptly named Bed and Breakfast, “M(artha) and T(om) Farm, LLC.” Tom, the principal cheesemaker, was away from his post, but Diane and I were happy to sample his tasty production at the hands of his wife, Martha, whose smile and piety can fill any room—it certainly did the cheesery whose smell and ambience we enjoyed for a few minutes that afternoon.

Martha of M&T Farms
Martha of M&T Farms

“Looks like a storm is coming,” Martha observed, making conversation as she glanced out the window between explanations and samples of Tom’s cheese production, adding “This one is a Havarti.”

“A real type-O cheese,” I observed, of course surreptitiously citing one of the funniest episodes in the Curious Autobiography (“Tea with the Professor,” 120–138).

“This one is a mild Irish-style cheddar,” she added oxymoronically, moving on to the next sample. To these she added several others, all quite nice. Alas, there was no Hên Sîr, but I did not expect as much. I told her that the Hên Sîr had been in our family an unusual symbol of authentic spiritual renewal (Curious Autobiography, 198–205). To this statement, I am glad to say, she did not look as puzzled as I would have expected; but she is married to a cheesemaker, so she might just understand.

Martha and Tom's "cheese cave"
Martha and Tom’s “cheese cave”

Finally, she revealed a cheese developed by an international congress that had met in Greece. I was assuming it would taste sharp and salty, like feta. Yet it did not; it was something more like a combination of Swiss and Gouda. I’d never heard of (what might be called) a diplomacy cheese, but as I ate it I thought, “If there were a cheese that could effect world peace, or at least a long-needed ceasefire, this would be that cheese,” for it was superb. Then I thought, using Welsh logic, “No wonder diplomacy has largely been effective on the European continent ever since the Second Great War.”

Hermann mapThe unexpected surprises that Diane and I shared not only with each other but also with those whom we met didn’t end there—there was Kathy at the White Mule Winery whose family had lived near that bend of Highway 50 in Owensville for generations, and the aptly named (if you fancy Mel Gibson films) William Wallace at the Hermannhof Winery and Sausage Shop, the name of which establishment is itself a mouthful. He had connected again with a girl whom he had adored in junior high school and married here—the stuff of a romantic film—and now, as he described his life in Gasconade County along the banks of the gently flowing Missouri River, he lived in paradise. Finally, there was the lovely mead winemaking family consisting of Esther and her son Patrick, chief winemaker of the Martin Brothers Winery, whose concoctions are carefully wrought—quite tasty, worth the drive. His brother Jonathan, founder of the business, was not present, as he was presumably traversing nearby meadows in search of just the right miel for the next mead making.

Patrick of Martin Bros. Winery
Patrick of Martin Bros. Winery

What I am getting at is this: contrary to the ideas inherent in the preferred means of communication (and of photography) these days, unexpected joys are by and large not “self” things. They require sharing, and sharing builds something that the Italians call il commune. I might have better chosen a German word, inasmuch as Hermann is a thoroughly German burgh; but the German Gemeinschaft does not quite render the Italian. The Italian does not mean “community” per se; it means, rather, a shared cultural experience that might include a sense of Gemeinschaft, and even a shared municipality, but includes something else, as well. It is (of course) less formal than the German, and more fluid. In any case, we shared a moment of il commune with Martha, Esther, William and Kathy.

William Wallace at Hermannhof Winery
William Wallace at Hermannhof Winery

Yet someone will point out that it is much easier to live life as it comes, just to take things as they are and not bother to go snooping about for such a sense of shared experiences. And, of course, that is possible. It is equally possible to see life as mired in difficulty and thus take a rather gloomy view of things—and here I speak as a residual Welshman who has from time to time himself taken the gloomier view. But when we do that, we can quite easily miss the joy that is there for the discovering, and we shall certainly miss the sense of il commune.

And then there’s marriage, for the reason we took this long trip was to go to a wedding. Now the wedding itself is likely not to have too many unexpected surprises; when a wedding does, it is normally a bad thing. But the life of two people together should be one of that very thing: il commune and with it, the concomitant opportunity for the discovery of unexpected joys. And that is what I wish for that couple as I close this blog: a life of il commune, which one must be intentional about building, and of unexpected delights. I suspect they will do this, for they are special because their very names suggest an apostle and a vine—perhaps they will choose John 15 for their ceremony—and have had their own cheese moments, at least insofar as cheese might serve as a symbol of spiritual renewal. I wish them, too, a perpetual sense of shared discovery.

I have the same hope for a not-so-recently wed Welsh couple, also close friends, who seem to have taken the gloomier view lately. For them, it may be time again to look for the joy in the simple discoveries of life, such as can be found in a young family like their own. That couple must build il commune again. Perhaps cheese can be, for them, too, a symbol of shared spiritual renewal.

May both of these couples, Welsh and un-Welsh alike, share and delight in il commune, and may you, too, dear reader, have the opportunity to do so, as well, as you enjoy a bite of cheese from a perhaps unexpected quarter, remembering that cheese has been known to build domestic and international bridges and, surprisingly, from time to time even effect continental peace.