Brecht vs. Aristotle (Aristotle, Part II)

Next up is the second half of Aristotle's complete works: The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, Vol. 2(Bollingen Series LXXI-2). My previous entry describes my general thoughts on this particular edition. I will only add that the binding on my copy of volume twohas started to come apart. It survived a cover-to-cover reading but it will likely need some minor repair in the near future.

Since I don't need to spend much time talking about the edition itself this time, it may be worth using this time/space to provide a few book care tips. On the topic of repair, I highly recommend that any serious reader pick up some acid free linen tape like this stuff. I've managed to repair more than a few books with that tape. It works pretty well and looks great. If you buy some linen tape other than what I linked above, be absolutely sure that it is acid free or it will start slowly eating away at your books. You can see the effect of acidity in older books first by the yellowing of the pages and then eventually stiffness and finally crumbling. This can also be a problem with storing papers or books incardboard boxes. If you are going to store paper stuff in boxes, I also recommend picking up one of these PH testing pens. The pens basically turn a part of the target paper or cardboard into a little litmus strip and you can use it to test whether or not the material is acidic. With cardboard boxes, there's really a race to the bottom and certain manufacturers will falsely claim that their cardboard is acid free. Without this pen you wont find out until your books are already damaged.

Now, back to the matter at hand. This second volume has a lot more of Aristotle's truly essential works which I think everyone should read. I mean in particular: Politics, Rhetoric, and Poetics.

Politics outlines the different forms a government can take along with their various strengths and weaknesses. In this modern age, there is a common belief that democracy is the only truly legitimate form of government. Aristotle doesn't seem to think too highly of it because it has several predictable modes of failure. One in particular should seem rather familiar: the lower class, if it is abundant enough, will use its votes to start redistributing the property of the middle and upper class and it will continue to do so until either these classes revolt, flee, or are reduced to the point where there's nothing left to "redistribute". But as Aristotle shows, every form of government fails sooner or later when bad men inevitably end up in charge. The form of government does not prevent failure itself. The form only dictates the possible failure modes. Historically, the government of today is the one which addresses the failure mode of yesterday's government.

Rhetoric is a particularly interesting work in today's intellectual atmosphere. We don't really teach rhetoric as a subject anymore. We teach "writing" and weteach "critical thinking" or "logic". Our teaching on identifying bad logic in written arguments usually focuses on logical fallacies. Now, logical fallacies are a real problem that everyone should understand. But this approach alone has its limit. It focuses primarily on errors made on the production side, i.e. in the arguer's writing and thinking. Rhetoric is, in a way, the inverse of that. Rhetoric considers errors in thinking produced on the consumption side, i.e. in the listener or reader's own thoughts. Now, strictly speaking, rhetoric can involve the deliberate use of logical fallacies. However, that is not necessarily so and Aristotle tends to shy away from such tactics. But that doesn't leave the speaker without options for manipulation. To give one simple example, it's not really a failure of logic on the speaker's part to praise the virtues of the listener. It just has nothing to do with the argument at hand. And yet it still leaves the listener positively disposed toward everything that follows. The error is not the speaker's; the error is the listener's. This is the side we don't really teach anymore and that leaves our citizenry open to manipulation. We should fix it. The fact that education standards are created by those doing the manipulating means that we won't.

Poetics outlines a lot of what Aristotle thinks is essential to literature and what simply makes some works better than others. It is very focused on stage tragedies but a great deal of what he says is universal. And it's a lot more in-depth than the usual glib summary of "it's about how plays should have unity of place, time, and action". It's also a pretty short read in itself so I won't bore you with the details.

That said, there is one particular nugget in his Poetics which I think addresses a wide-spread modern misconception in the literary world. Among the things Aristotle says are essential to tragedy (by tragedy Aristotle means most plays which we today would not consider comedies), he lists "thought". And by "thought" he means, "proving or disproving some particular point, or enunciating some universal proposition." Now, the 20th-century German Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht has a related idea, and that is that "all art is political". This is similar to Aristotle's idea that a tragedy must fundamentally involve "proving or disproving".

What about Aristotle's other option, "enunciating some universal proposition"? One would think this would be one sticky wicket for Brecht and friends. However, according to Brecht, in the cases when a piece of art seems apolitical, it is because it is actually reinforcing the status quo. In other words, to Brecht, there are no universal propositions. This is a common theme in 20th-century thought: everything is relative, everything is a social construct, and perception determines reality.

Are there truly no universally human ideas? I, and Aristotle, would say that there certainly are. There are some ideas that aren't even limited to humans. For example, there is a notion that beauty is merely what society tells us it is. But there are certain elements, such as symmetry, which clearly influence the mating choices of not just humans but virtually every animal in existence. Likewise, all animals, including humans, have some drive toward self-preservation such that death, unless there are some other mitigating circumstances involved, is certainly a universal ill. The whole realm of science is based on the idea that there are things which exist and can be measured. Perception does not determine atomic weight. Perception does not create gravity. The Earth will orbit the sun even if a smart fellow such as Aristotle denies it. These things are certainly universally true and apolitical, not merely social constructs accepted because they are part of the status quo. The only way out of this argument is to insist what we take to be objectively real is merely "politics", i.e. an invention of the culture and time we live in. But insist all you like Brechtians; the universe won't care.