Amadeus Reading/Watching Recommendation

-Reading/Watching Recommendation-

Amadeus

-What Is It?-

Amadeus is a 1979 play by Peter Shaffer and a 1984 film by Milos Forman, both based on the 1830 play Mozart and Salieri, written by the Russian Romantic Alexander Pushkin. Because the story is relatively the same across all three forms—exempting expansions/embellishments on the original 1830 piece by the other two—Amadeus from this point on will be used to refer to all forms as one combined tripartite story, rather than any singular version.

The story follows Antonio Salieri, the esteemed and pious Court Composer for the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, and his introduction to a young upstart composer named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a precocious, divinely talented, and in Salieri’s opinion, insipid and childish man whose gift for music is wasted in such an infantine form. Salieri develops a deep hatred for Mozart, who is able to compose beautiful, transcendent music that the Italian cannot help but fall in love with, thus revealing Salieri’s own mediocrity as a man and a musician. Over the course of the story, Salieri becomes more and more convinced that God is mocking him, with Mozart as his instrument, and makes it his mission to destroy the man at any cost.

-Why Is It Important?-

Amadeus, taken as a holistic story across its three variations, is a fascinating examination of one of the most fundamental relationships in art, and perhaps in nature: that of form and impulse. This is not solely, or at times even remotely, what the story is about, but it serves as a decent distillation through which greater themes can be extrapolated.

Salieri represents what some would call the Apollonian, or form. He is morally erect, studious, and has pursued art with a fervent discipline for his entire life. His main motivation for all this is that he wishes to experience a kind of Absolute—he wants to honor, and find, God in music, and hopes that through the path of his art, and his devotion to his faith and his craft, he will accomplish both. Of course, Salieri is shown to be somewhat duplicitous to himself and others in what he says. He may believe himself to be a man of God, but is shown across all three stories to be gluttonous, lustful, murderous, and often interested solely in high appointments of status and the maintenance of a respectable reputation. He is more fixed on what his faith and art can bring him, rather than performing it for love, for its own sake, to begin with. The man is innocent, to a degree, in his awareness of how his baser urges govern him—he even feels guilty, and says so many times, for the thoughts he has, though he carries out sinful actions regardless. Salieri, in all his attempts to become divine, is arguably the most human—for better and for worse—figure in any variation of Amadeus.

Mozart, on the other hand, is immediately shown, and in some cases flat-out stated, to be godless. He is vulgar, impetuous, childish, spoiled, erratic, and short of patience, though never short of appetite. The man is always in motion, always drinking, always talking, always laughing—he never stops, and any time he is confronted with having to stop, or wait, he becomes instantly and embarrassingly upset. However, despite these many shortcomings, he is also gifted with what could only be called sublime talent and insight. The music he makes often centers around places of ill repute—like brothels and boudoirs—but is graceful, elevated, even legendary in scope and design. He is capable of taking ordinary and uncouth situations, and revealing the humanity within them. Because of this, Mozart is illustrated as a kind of impish, Pan-type figure, a playful eternal rascal who has come down from Heaven to play songs that will shape humankind forever, only to return a few short decades later. He represents what some would call the Dionysian—the chaos, the wild drive, inherent within art and human beings.

Ultimately, Salieri is a student of discipline, and Mozart is a child of impulse. And it is in their opposition that they reveal much about each other and the various conditions they stand for. Salieri is, again, the human being—he believes himself to understand God, and therefore his own person, and is thrown into total disarray when confronted with what is taken to be a true instrument of God. Without Salieri, the story is not human.

Conversely, Mozart represents eternity—he is a vessel for divine creation, precisely because he does not care, and is therefore unaware, of the more lofty trappings, pretenses, and beliefs that men like Salieri hold. Without him, the story loses its Absolute.Salieri is fixed on what should be; Mozart is what is.

There is a moment, revealed in Peter Shaffer’s play, where Salieri is attending Mozart’s showing of The Marriage of Figaro. Near the end of the First Act, the song “Non Piu Andrai” begins. This song, Salieri realizes, is a variation on his own “March of Welcome” a piece he composed for Mozart’s initial arrival to the Court of Vienna. Mozart even performed the variation now in the opera in front of Salieri on that day, experimenting with the composer’s march and changing and crafting it in real time. In the play, Mozart departs afterwards, saying, “Thanks for the march!”

Salieri, for all his assumed mediocrity, has had his own piece immortalized through one of the greatest composers to have ever lived, in one of the greatest operas yet written. For a moment, he has become God, and Mozart has become his instrument; but it is because of his devotion to presupposed form, and his rivalry with Mozart, that he is unable to see the opportunity for what it is. And Mozart, because he is all impulse, and has no sense of self-awareness or concern for anything greater than the immediate moment, is unable to make a greater connection with Salieri over this adaptation. It is in this little scene that the story takes on, in this author’s opinion, a truly tragic form. Here was a potential opportunity—granted, in fiction alone, but that doesn’t make it any less an opportunity—for two great men to form a bond that could have immortalized one, and saved the other from an early death. But because both are bound by their own impulses and forms, they miss each other.

-Conclusion-

Amadeus, like many great stories, has much to say, and the above analysis is one piece in a greater mosaic of theme and color that the piece in its disparate parts has to offer.

If anything, at all and finally, there is a part of the story that implores its readers and watchers to be able to recognize the eternal in each other, while accepting the human in themselves. To be able to grapple with, synthesize, and perhaps one day understand those truths is what could one day lead to a kind of Absolute humanity, and an effortless sort of eternity.

-Bibliography-

Pushkin, Aleksandr Sergeyevich. Mozart and Salieri: The Little Tragedies. Angel, 2002.

Shaffer, Peter. Amadeus: A Play. New American Library, 1984.

Forman, Milos, director. Amadeus. 1985.

Breakfast of Champions Reading Recommendation

-Reading Recommendation-

Breakfast of Champions

-What Is It?-

Breakfast of Champions is a 1973 novel written and partially illustrated by Kurt Vonnegut. It is centered mainly in the abject and plain Midwestern town of Midland, and follows the exploits of a variety of characters, with the most notable—or at least stylistically influential and interesting—being Kilgore Trout, a dirt-poor and unsuccessful science fiction writer. The book follows Trout and other characters through disjointed and scantily-sketched scenes as they discuss everything from football to the rights of miners.

-Why Should You Care?-

While that sparse introduction and summary may not make this statement ring with any veracity, Breakfast of Champions is one of my favorite books. Looking back on it, there’s certainly a nostalgia for the time in my life I read it just a couple years ago; but alongside that, I was genuinely surprised and happier than I thought I’d be to encounter Kurt Vonnegut again. I’d read a short story from him in high school, but that’s all our acquaintance had really amounted to up until I read Breakfast of Champions.

Now, I actually haven’t read this book since I picked it up the first time—hence the skeleton quality of this recommendation. But I saw it lying on my desk and I wanted to at least get something down and out about it, in some way.

And after going back through the book briefly, there are three quotes I’d like to highlight specifically. I will list them below, and then provide context and thoughts for each.

Here they are:

“The rights of the people on top of the ground don’t amount to nothing compared to the rights of the man who owns what’s underneath.” (Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut, pg. 126).

This passage deals with Kilgore Trout talking to an old miner who’s giving him a lift. The miner, a tired and thoughtful, if at times short, man laments how the company he worked for could tear through houses, farms, and fields all across the local county because they technically owned all the land in the area. It didn’t matter what was on top of the land—whoever owned what was underneath was king.

“The ordinance was junked later on to allow radio towers to go up.” (Vonnegut, pg. 140).

This is the ending quote to a passage describing a small American town’s reverence for a seventeen year-old high school football player George Hickman Bannister, who was killed during a Thanksgiving football game. To honor his memory, the town built a big sixty-two-foot stone obelisk with a marble football on top. They even passed a law, the George Hickman Bannister Law, commemorating George and making it illegal for anything taller to be put up in town.

The above quote is the last line in the section talking specifically about George Bannister and the honor given to him by the town.

“As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books…. Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as the other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.

It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.” (Vonnegut, 209 – 210).

Like countless writers before him, Vonnegut no doubt has many, many sections, lines, sentences, and bits and pieces of his books that could be named as his “definitive” sections. Not all of them life or work-defining necessarily, but most of them rather the moments in his writing where he really, honestly expressed himself, mask-off, and what he thought. For a man who could be as cynical and sarcastic as Vonnegut, even the tone or authenticity of the highest of those “honest” sections could be called into question. But there are some, like the one above, I genuinely believe speak for themselves, and help lend a small window, an idea, into why Vonnegut wrote and what was—if it could ever be fathomed or deduced—in some small part a tiny core piece of his writing.

What I find important and also so engaging about the book, and Kurt Vonnegut as a whole, is how disjointed everything is. Vonnegut’s books read something more like half-finished long-form essays with small pockets of narrative development and explanation, all mixed together in the rough shape of a book. This makes them, in my opinion, at the very least interesting—though certainly not always palatable—to read. They become pretty nimble little works that are able to discuss in a point-blank and naked fashion a whole carousel of ideas and thoughts in quick succession.

His style does have its detracting qualities. It’s what could be called “postmodern” through-and-through, though I’d personally rather just call it dry and mostly cynical, with occasional buoys of sentiment floating through. There’s a moroseness to the detachment, and it means that Vonnegut’s books and characters can oftentimes end up feeling more like rough agglomerations of thought and impulse, crude sketches—in every sense of each word—rather than anything actual or real. To a degree, this crudeness and unreality seems to be the point of Vonnegut’s work, and it’s a point well-taken… though, in this author’s opinion, it could also have been, in some small ways, a point better made.

This does not, at all, take away from his work and what it means, at least not in a capacity that is significantly damaging, in my opinion. Vonnegut is a singularly American writer, and his voice can be felt in quite a few of his contemporaries, and many of those who followed after clearly trace his footsteps, in some way or another, with their own. And despite his arid wit, compulsive detachment, and spooling sort of cynicism, there is a heart I believe underneath all of it. A very tender, beating heart that felt for the time it was in and the people it saw suffering. Vonnegut’s characters are never too smart, nor are they too stupid. They are never really satires, or tragedies, or heroes, or villains. Rather, they are people, of some kind or another, who are moving through the worlds of his books much in the same way we move through our own. They are confused, more often than not. Funny, though they don’t in the moment understand why, and may perhaps never be able to. More than anything, they are simple, and honest in many different, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes affirming, sometimes purely alienating, ways. How much of this was on purpose, and how much of it was on accident, will be, as with any work of art, always a question left behind and unanswered. At least by the artist himself.

I do believe, in some way, Vonnegut succeeded in giving “equal weightiness” to all he wrote. Is it always successful? No. But it was never really meant to all be. And that’s what makes Kurt Vonnegut worth reading.

Ernest Cline and Missed Opportunities

-Intro-

I was scrolling through Twitter recently, and as much as typing that sentence makes me shudder, I have to admit it yielded something interesting.

Someone had posted a short clip from the Ryan Reynolds action-comedy film Free Guy, a movie about one of the thousands of background A.I. characters in an open-world video game who realizes that he can become something more than just a stock figure in his world, and is catapulted into a quest of individual revelation at what it means to be capable of shaping one’s own story. I may be over-intellectualizing the plot, but I’m assuming that’s what the film was going for. I should say now that I have not seen it, though it’s being released on all major digital platforms in three days, so I may just have a chance.

The clip was of Ryan Reynolds fighting a bigger, ripped version of Ryan Reynolds during what I’m going to guess is either the final or the penultimate fight of the movie with the main character’s antagonist doppelganger. I’ll leave a link here for anyone who’d like to quick watch it, though I will summarize the clip for textual purposes as well.

At one point in the fight, Reynolds is able to access some in-game ability, and blocks a death blow from the doppelganger by suddenly manifesting Captain America’s shield. The Avengers’ Theme swells, and there’s a quick cut to Chris Evans sitting in a coffee shop, watching the fight on his phone—apparently the conflict is that day’s media-level event people are tuning into—and Chris exclaims, “What the fuck!” before the film cuts back to the fight. Reynolds, now gaining confidence and steam, turns his right hand into a Hulk hand and beats the doppelganger halfway down the street with a punch. The bad guy recovers, and him and Reynolds square off from a distance. Reynolds looks down at something out of frame, and all of the sudden, a blue lightsaber extends up. He has manifested this as well. The Star Wars opening crawl music blasts through the film, and Reynolds and his doppelganger charge at each other and begin to fight again. At about this point, the selected clip I found in the Tweet ends.

Below in the comments, there were two camps of people—one who was lamenting the death of cinema with another example of gross referential overuse; and the other who was indignantly proclaiming that the scene was harmless, and Free Guy should be enjoyed as a brainless and corny piece of entertainment to satisfy an escapist sweet tooth.

I find both of these arguments, in this example and others, to hold and lose water at about equal paces, just in different places. I’m not saying this to play a centrist role, and I’m aware of how that sounds, but it is really just my honest read on this situation and others like it.

Personally, because I haven’t seen the film, I don’t exactly know what the entire tone of Free Guy is. Judging from the clip, I would have to guess that it’s more likely than not a boilerplate, colorful, loud, quirky-but-still-appealing-to-mass-markets style Summer blockbuster that no doubt has zipping and quippy dialogue and a lot of pretty people running around and re-enacting the same patterns and stories human beings have been telling for thousands of years, pretending like they’re new. There is nothing wrong with this. I understand the enjoyment people receive from these types of works, and I in no means make any of this criticism or description out of contempt. This is simply my personal diagnosis.

In stumbling into this clip and the resulting conversation, though, I was reminded of another book/film—Ready Player One, and the same feeling I had both reading the book and watching the film was the same feeling that resurfaced watching the clip from Free Guy—the sense of a missed opportunity.

-A Pitch-

I genuinely feel, and will defend the statement, that Ready Player One had the potential to be a Verhoovian-level pop culture satire that could have come up against the likes of RoboCop or something like Fahrenheit 451. These are not necessarily works of high art, but they are certainly notable creations that managed to capture something of the flavor of their times in styles that shaped the aesthetic tastes and forms of either sphere they inhabited. And I really do believe that Ready Player One could have joined their ranks.

Here’s how I would have pitched the story. This will include a general synopsis of the existing story, with some added tweaks from myself:

Ready Player One is a blockbuster social satire about a young kid who lives in a world where people play together, go to school, work, and essentially live via an all-encompassing virtual reality game. Buried within this game are clues that, if uncovered and pieced together, will bestow the discoverer not only the vast wealth of the long-deceased game-creator’s estate, but full control over the game in perpetuity and forever. This young kid goes off on an adventure with some friends he’s met online to uncover the clues and save the game from the vast army of a tech conglomerate who wants the wealth of the estate and the control of the game for themselves.

Now, within this game, people manifest themselves as avatars that are usually repurposed pop culture icons, characters, figures, and personas. This is not incidental—the clues and ultimate key to uncovering the game-creator’s puzzle is based entirely in one’s knowledge of pop culture, specifically from the 1980s to the present day. How someone does in this game, and the only real factor that arguably surpasses luck, skill, and dedication in the search for the game’s ultimate puzzle—and therefore the fate of the world—rests entirely in an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from Mobile Suit Gundam to the video game Quest and beyond.

This world, this story, is one of people who aren’t only obsessed with pop-culture—they are, literally, forced to subsist on it. Pop cultural knowledge is the chains that bind, and can free, anyone in the world of Ready Player One. This is the central dilemma our main character must contend with as the story goes on, the fact that the stories he loves are being used to keep the world spiritually and materially destitute.

Now, in my opinion, that is a great starting point for what could be a fantastic quasi-satirical book or movie about modern day culture and its over-reliance on pop culture referentialism. One of the true curses of the present era is our hyper sense of self-awareness has made us bored and restless, and one of the easiest ways to sate that need is quick and simple pacification. This can come from substances, work, school, relationships, really any number of passions or habits pursued in a kind of manic and/or unexamined way.

Another way to sate that need is the constructive and measured exercise of making meaning in our lives, which we can do with simple actions and pursuits every day—but that’s much harder.

The pacification in question can particularly come from, or at least be very well observed in, art that is made purely to tickle a kind of pyschological/mythic sweet tooth human beings possess, one that craves reassurance and a captivation of attention away from the present moment and ourselves. Books and films like Ready Player One or Free Guy are drops in the bucket of examples for this kind of art, as it is proliferate and immane. This art is by design colorful, superficially resonant, and often has packages of information that relate to modern-day issues, but have been streamlined or watered down to make them palatable for an audience, or even to subtly shift an audience’s perspective on those issues altogether. By stringing together familiar and very old forms of storytelling while also sprinkling in little references to current events or moods, it’s very easy to make a blockbuster movie or book with wide appeal that captures the attention of a cultural moment.

Free Guy hasn’t really captured the moment—but Ready Player One did.

-Ernest Cline, You’re My Hero-

Ready Player One is one of the biggest missed opportunities I have borne witness to in the realm of pop-cultural art in my life so far.

Neither the book nor the film attempt to make any commentary on their extremely heavy use of pop culture, at all. There is no consideration by any of the characters, nor by the story itself, for what it means to live in a world where most people are interacting with each other as phantoms of nostalgic characters and figures in a virtual space. Multiple, severe layers of unreality permeate every level of those interactions in incredibly disconcerting and fascinating ways—and yet again, neither the book nor the film ever make a single noteworthy effort to incorporate that idea into their stories. The characters simply accept that this is how the world works, and the story itself reinforces that by offering no commentary, insight, or other perspective on the state of the world.

Ernest Cline, the author of the book and co-author of the film’s screenplay, drives a Back To The Future replica DeLorean and once wrote a poem called “Nerd Porn Auteur” where he describes his frustration that porn is only filled with “monosyllabic cock-hungry nymphos” and assures any prospective women that “If you’re an intelligent woman who is interested in breaking into the adult film industry,/and if you can tell me the name of Luke Skywalker’s home planet,/then you are hired.” It is unsurprising, progressive as he is, that Cline did not find the time to incorporate greater themes of the vast inhumanity inherent within a world where people interact with each other as digital versions of the Iron Giant and Sailor Moon moreso than they interact with each other in real life. Perhaps he doesn’t see or would understand why this would be a theme, or a problem, of interest at all.

This is criticism, and it is harsh. I am aware of that. I am also cognizant of the possibility that Ernest Cline is a good person whose greatest crime is writing a book. But if I am being brutally honest, I found his book to be absolutely sub-par work that was barely worthy of being uploaded to an internet fandom forum, much less major publication, and much much less a sudden and intense cultural fixation his story that lasted for quite some time. And a movie deal.

Put another way, Ready Player One’s mortal sin is that it became popular for all the wrong reasons, the same reasons fast food and opiates are popular. The story was picked up, like many stories before it, because the very world Ernest writes about is the one we live in. People enjoy seeing something, or a lot, of themselves in the art they gravitate towards. And I am sure that’s what they found with Ready Player One.

I know that Ready Player One was not intended to be a deep-level social satire on the inherent conflicts between reality and unreality in a culture that over-values one only so it can ignore the other through art that is increasingly becoming, or has always been in some way, artificial, mass-produced, and thoroughly inhuman. The book and film were written on the whim of a man who enjoys science fiction, superhero films, fantasy novels, and so on. Clearly, they make up nearly the entirety of his artistic diet. And there’s nothing wrong with that. He likes to write about what he likes—many writers do.

But I cannot personally ignore the total lack of self-awareness, and in my opinion, the complete failure of Ready Player One in what it could have been, mainly because it was so close to being something genuinely great. With a few minor tweaks and adjustments—a slightly sharper tone, some dialogue/description/framing in the world to show how inherently ridiculous reality has become now that it’s centered around something entirely unreal, even just one moment to show that the book or film possesses some idea of what it’s actually saying, of what it is—Ready Player One could have truly been a wonderful book and film with depth, with something to say, that was still capable of popular appeal. If RoboCop and Fahrenheit 451 could do it, I don’t see why Ready Player One was any different. There’s an answer to that statement, but it is obvious for anyone who knows it, and for that reason it will go without saying.

-Lost Time and Lessons Learned-

I do not know if Free Guy makes the same mistakes as Ready Player One. From the clip discussed in the beginning, it appears to do so, but in my opinion, this is negligible. Free Guy’s premise is interesting, but it does not hold as much potential weight as Ready Player One’s did, and the lack of cultural attention on it as opposed to Ready Player One at least makes the film’s presence in the media cycle tolerable, even sympathetic.

If anything, Free Guy is a symptom of the problem that Ready Player One so readily encapsulates. It is incredibly easy to put together a story, either accidentally or on purpose, that appeals to a mass audience. People like what they like, and those attractions rarely change. And many people do not, by the nature of who they are and what they’re interested in, find movies or books anything more than chocolates in an entertainment box. They will pick and leave at whim, and if they don’t like what they get, most oftentimes they spit it out immediately.

This is fine, because everyone’s tastes are different in some way or another. But just because someone doesn’t have the requisite knowledge about a particular craft does not mean any craftsmen or craftswomen should feel as though they’re able to get away with sloppy, or even voluntarily sub-standard, work. Our food is checked over by regulatory inspection agencies, and there are laws in place to protect people from fraudulent financial deals by those who’d take advantage of them. Do these agencies or laws work? Not as well as anyone would like them to. But at least there’s some sense of quality control in those fields to help people who wouldn’t know how to check their own food, or have a sense as to when they’re being lured into a predatory business dealing.

Because the thing about art is that it is possible because it has been done before to make a work of art, a book, a film, whatever, that both appeals to popular sensibilities and also has something to say. In fact, those are the works that, more often than not, are far more adored and remembered than something like Ready Player One or Free Guy.

By not going the extra mile, either out of a willful laziness or a blindspot in one’s knowledge of the craft, artists like Ernest Cline guarantee short-term success and short-term memory. Granted, the goal of any artist should not be to simply be remembered—the goal should be to make something good that you’d like to give to people because you enjoyed making it and you’d like to see what they think of it. Arguably, there should almost be no real goal at all. One could make the case that art should be created almost accidentally or naturally, either because of the maker’s enjoyment or the habits that bring it into form.

Point being, the fate of works like Free Guy or Ready Player One aren’t cause for great heartache or lamentation. Something else will come along that will capture the people’s attention tomorrow, or next month, or next year, and so on and so on, so it goes. That’s fine. That’s life. However, I do find the situations of works of art like the ones discussed in this paper to be sad. Seeing what happens to those books or films is like watching or knowing a kid who has to deal with bad parents and takes on their habits—something full of life and potential that, because of an accident of fate, is often lost to waste.

Pride and Pulp: A Comparative Analysis of the Character Construction in Pride and Prejudice and Pulp Fiction

-Introduction-

1813 Meets 1994

Had Jane Austen ever gotten the chance to meet Quentin Tarantino, I have no doubt he would have appeared in one of her stories. Not only because Ms. Austen was well-known for placing people she had met or knew in her own life into the characters—wholly, partially, or otherwise—of her novels, but also because I believe she would have found him a wholly engrossing, if a crude and at times both shocking and banal, popular personality.

Likewise, if Mr. Tarantino had ever the opportunity to encounter Ms. Austen in person, most ideally at the height of her youth and artistry, though no less ideally at any other time in her adult life, I am equally convinced to perhaps an even greater degree than the other example before that he would have cast her into a role that would have cemented her, immediately and eternally, into the cinematic annals of American pop culture.

These two figures will never meet, and that makes me quietly sad.

For as oppositional as they may appear to be, after engaging with their respective works, I am moved, and more than that, I am convinced that they—one currently, another soon to be in time—have, do, and will for years to come, occupy an important cultural office. Maybe not one of total and shining reverence, or of celebrated, unbridled genius, or of honored technical commitment to craft—though an argument can certainly be made that both Austen and Tarantino possess these qualities and more in spades.

No, rather, their occupation is one of fun and humble work. It is that of the Author, a character as much as they are a person, a totalizing force as much as they are an atomic subject, a master and servant to their world and ours—ultimately, an artist of unparalleled range, scope, separation, and humanity, true, fun, light-of-touch and yet affirmational humanity, that few artists ever truly achieve in their work, much less their life.

Are Austen and Tarantino the greatest artists to ever live?

No. They are not.

But their relationship and their type, as illustrated in their work, bears examination, as they do not approach it with the mind or heart of an artist, but of a person first, and a craftsman and craftswoman second.

In this essay, I will examine two scenes, one from Pride and Prejudice, the other from Pulp Fiction, and through a comparison of the scenes, the characters, the patterns, and the authors themselves—with help from a simple theoretical model I have thrown together—I will make to demonstrate not only how and why Jane Austen and Quentin Tarantino are similar figures, but why they are important, or at least simply worthy figures to take note of in the realm, past, present, and future, of our culture.

-The Model-

Before either story is examined and compared, it is necessary to detail the technique both employ that makes them each so memorable and, in the case of one and perhaps one day in the case of the other, timeless.

Both Pride and Prejudice and Pulp Fiction tell their stories on multiple levels at the same time, though in different ways. Despite the difference in use, the technique is still the same.

A note before continuing: most stories, good and bad, are told on multiple levels, often at least two—text and subtext. This analysis is not a proclamation of discovery nor an attempt to assert Jane Austen or Quentin Tarantino as visionary heralds in a new era of storytelling. Rather, it is meant first to demonstrate an interesting, observed connection in craftsmanship between an older work and a younger work; and second, using such a demonstrated connection, sketch out a sort of rough cartographic key that may find use as an asset/tool for later audiences, critics, and artists alike. Again, none of this is really new, and most all of it is obvious—but the author has not yet seen a piece or writing anywhere that discusses this subject, and would like to add what he can to the conversation, as banal as it may reveal itself in time to be.

The technique found in the Pride and Prejudice and Pulp Fiction emerges, when distilled into one form, as such:

Base

Story

Authoreal

The terms “Base,” and “Story,” and, “Authoreal” are general by nature, as they’re meant to encapsulate recurring storytelling phenomena the modern viewer/reader/listener may be well familiar with, even if they don’t immediately recognize them. Therefore, other than the specific/contextual elements that individuate stories, it bears no severe or at least sinful analytical significance if the Base/Story/Authoreal framework is applied to the story, to the characters, to both, to some third piece, or to a combination of them and others. In the author’s opinion, this framework is a basic pattern that is repeated across—perhaps not all—but certainly many stories. And though others before have described similar patterns, he finds it necessary to detail one that is simple and easy to determine for the modern person.

Note: the presence or knowledge of this technique does not connote a good story, and awareness of it does not at all grant one an all-access at-ease pass and ability to tell a good story. Much in the same way knowing a recipe does not grant one knowledge or ability to cook a meal that will taste good.

It is instead and again an observed framework, and an unestablished one at that. It is not meant to be taken singularly, and any good reader/watcher/listener/artist should possess a multitude of other works and theories with which they can compare and contrast this framework against.

Below is a condensed summary of each step in the framework:

  • Base
    • The archetypal mold, the grounding for the story or character or other.
      • Ex: In Back to the Future, Marty McFly, before we see much of him, is immediately recognizable by his evident youth and how the camera—the story—follows him, as the prototypical teen and the archetypal protagonist. This much is obvious before we’ve seen less than a minute of him.
  • Story
    • The contextual shape of the story or character or other—namely, who or what they are and who or what we come to know them as an individual, as the story progresses.
      • Ex: Marty McFly, as we come to know him, isn’t exactly “cool”. He’s fidgety, sort of a dope, and very much in many ways still a kid. We learn he likes rock ‘n roll, plays guitar, has a girlfriend, and rides a skateboard. Despite some of his cruder qualities, he’s a good kid at heart, and we sympathize with him because he seems honest and well-intentioned.
  • Authoreal
    • The part/element of the author and their life—hence the portmanteau of author and real—that is put into the fictive body of the story. This can be the most difficult to identify, as it’s the most variable and at times indeterminate of the three, though one could make the argument it’s the most important. Because of this, it is also and unfortunately, and often all at once, the most ignored, and the most ill-used element of the framework.
      • Michael J. Fox developed Parkinson’s Disease, a genetic illness known for manifesting early on as stuttering speech and what appears to be fidgeting behavior or simple unconscious tics—both small but noticeable aspects of Marty McFly’s character and Fox’s performance. Re-watching the film with this knowledge lends it, oddly, somewhat of a melancholic quality to both Marty McFly’s character and the overarching story of a young man growing up. There is, arguably, in one sense or another, an almost tragic but endearing quality to the film and Fox’s performance as such an archetypal figure of youth when we know what is going/perhaps was happening to him, and such knowledge makes us root for Marty/Michael even more.

These three steps constitute a basic framework for storytelling and an objectively observable pattern that makes itself, if not visible, at least known in one manner or another, across many, many stories, regardless of age, narrator, or even quality.

Again and finally, this is only an observation, and while observations can be critical and crucial points in any analytic process, they are in some way, ultimately subjective and therefore flawed and limited.

The author wants the reader to know he is well aware of this, and he asks for forgiveness if the propositioned framework appears provincial and really nothing more than the formulation of an obsessive personal fervor.

The author will now analyze Pride and Prejudice.

-Elizabeth and the Field-

To demonstrate the application of this model further, and to also perform the first part of this essay’s comparative textual analysis, a scene from Pride and Prejudice will be examined and analyzed.

But first, a brief summary.

Pride and Prejudice was a novel written and published by Jane Austen in 1813. The book follows Elizabeth Bennett, the eldest sister of five others, who all live with their parents of above-average, though—relative to their class—modest, means in a small English country estate. Most of the book focuses on Elizabeth’s relationship with Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, a young gentleman of great means and severe character, and the questions, problems, and insights the two of them and their clash of personalities arise and create throughout their knowing each other. Throughout the novel, themes of class, the social and personal relationships between men and women, and what it means to truly care for and love someone, are explored in Austen’s trademark subtle and illustrative prose. It should be noted that, at the time, it would have been viewed as indecent for a woman to pursue writing as a serious interest, much less publication. For this reason, Austen’s name did not appear on the first print of the novel, and her only source of feedback and critique were the members of her family, to whom she read her writing every night after dinner.

The subject matter of Austen’s books is heavily and unsurprisingly inspired by the events and contents of her own life. Like Elizabeth, she was born to an upper class family of modest means; she was pursued and did pursue a variety of young gentlemen from different stations in life; and she—in some way or another—most likely felt alienated and isolated at times by the restrictions and expectations placed upon her by the contemporary culture of the time.

All these factors make Austen a fantastic subject for this comparative analysis and, in this author’s opinion, a wonderful counterpart to Tarantino, and there is a particular scene early in Pride and Prejudice that serves to demonstrate as much.

In this scene, one of Elizabeth’s sisters has fallen ill while visiting the estate of a man who has been calling on her. Elizabeth, hearing the news, is resolved to go at once to see to her sister’s care. Her mother insists she wait for the family carriage—the Regency era equivalent of a beat-up, passed-around family car—to be prepared for her, as the walk is nearly over three miles of grass and muddy fields.

Elizabeth refuses and sets out for her sister.

“… Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.” (Austen, pg. 33).

Now, beyond anything, the image alone of this small fragment is, in a way, wonderful; a young woman, most likely in full Regency dress, walking across miles of soggy green fields on a grey overcast day after a rain, all to see and be with her sick sister—beautiful. Beautifully written, beautifully imagined, and even if Austen herself never did something exactly like this, beautifully lived.

And it shows, in a small, crystallized form, both the ethos of Austen’s work, and perhaps Austen herself.

Here is where the model becomes useful.

Base: A young, wealthy—relatively—noblewoman confined by structures beyond her control, and who seeks something further beyond what she knows. The archetypal princess.

Story: Elizabeth Bennett is witty, sensitive, thoughtful, at times both naive and cold, and extremely devoted and loving to and of her family.

Authoreal: Jane Austen grew up in a country estate, had to handle the strictures, achievements, and absurdities of Regency life, and was known to be both quiet at sometimes, and at others, witty and outspoken. Her life tracks much like Elizabeth’s, and though her work may not mirror her life in a full and autobiographical sense, without some inclusion of some of herself, her work would lose some of its depth, and perhaps even her life would have suffered as well.

So, why is this important at all? Yes, of course Austen, like many writers, artists, and people, puts herself into her work. Why does that matter? What difference does it make?

To use what some may think is a crude and basic symbol—though this author finds to hold great utility and significance—let’s use the idea of a plumbing company.

This company, just starting out, has learned from others past, and is seeking to make its way in the world and in its own industry. Now, this company is adept at what it does, honest, knowledgeable, trustworthy, professional—all the sterling qualities you could want for in a company, this one possesses. When it comes to their craft, they aren’t just workmen, they are practically artists.

And yet, beyond the basic and local range of services they offer, they can do one more.

So they do. They make their own part.

This could be a new type of drain, or valve, or sewer rodding equipment, or kitchen faucet—whatever it is, they make it.

And it works.

Now, this can seem small—so what? It’s just a piece of piping, or a tool that’s used to clean sewer lines.

And this plain observation holds truth. In a way, that’s all it is. Just another tool.

But underneath its trivial utility is a part of the people, and all they know, have learned, and experienced, all in that one part. And it works because of that and them. That part, which may one day keep a basement flood from wiping out family photo albums; that part, which will help keep city streets clean and nice for years to come, for everyone, anyone, who walks down them; that part, which may one day end up being where countless family dinners are scrubbed out under, a silent observer to the ceaseless flow of memories and time and people in a place—that part, like it or not, know it or not, see it or not, becomes, truly, a part of someone’s life. All because a couple guys who liked playing with pipes and thought people could use something better got together, drew it up, and made it.

Austen’s authoreal quality is her part. That’s what she gives the story and her readers. Without her taking what she’s known, experienced, and thought, and putting it, fashioning it, into some part of her story, Pride and Prejudice—one could perhaps make the argument that any great work of art—simply would not be.

And it is the recognition, and the ability to discern this part, that elevates stories like Austen’s, and authors/artists/people like her who are able to accomplish this task, to something above the simply qualified and professional. It is her capacity for invention that distinguishes Austen and others like her from all the rest.

-From One to Another-

It may not seem like it initially, but Austen and her work share a number of similarities—if not aesthetic, then formal—with another author, well-known to many in the 21st Century: Quentin Tarantino.

Admittedly, and this must be said, the analysis between these two specific figures is only occurring in one part because of the author’s familiarity and enjoyment—both as a reader/viewer and an author—of the two. In another part, however, there is a strong belief that these two people, despite apparent disparities, share quite a bit in terms of their approach to craft, and these shared qualities, which the author hopes to demonstrate on multiple levels across this comparison, are not simply confined to Ms. Austen and Mr. Tarantino, but instead and observably course throughout the work and lives of many others, both known, and not.

A scene from Pulp Fiction will now be analyzed.

-Vincent and the Restaurant-

For the sake of both clarity and an attempt of symmetry, there will be a brief description of both Pulp Fiction and Mr. Tarantino, followed by analysis.

Pulp Fiction is a 1994 crime film—this is the easiest label to use, though it does not at all do much justice in describing the movie in any real sense, much like calling Pride and Prejudice a romance novel does the book so little justice it need not be used for any reason other than utility—written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. The film follows several stories and the characters within them who weave in and out of each other’s lives, and the entire film itself is more a collection of short, loosely-related stories than a totally unified and chronologically consistent plot.

One of the stories, what could be argued to be the—relative—main focus of the plot, follows two black-suited gangsters—Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega, played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, respectively—as they run around Los Angeles performing various favors and errands for their boss, Marsellus Wallace, the mythic kingpin of the L.A. underworld. Throughout their vignettes, Jules and Vincent discuss and encounter many situations that are emblematic of the film’s major themes—love, fate, and faith, and how these all appear in our lives, often from wildly unexpected places.

Before the discussion continues, it is worth mentioning that Tarantino, much like Austen or any other author, approaches filmmaking with an incredibly specific and detailed point of view. His scenes, while many are vulgar and many more may seem sloppy—and a few of them most certainly are—are rarely unmotivated in their composition, whether in the writing of a scene, the framing of a single reaction shot, or the choice of casting a specific actor. With Tarantino, these decisions play towards and reflect a larger thematic goal or idea—they are not merely fun or entertaining window dressings on a movie, not that they can’t be, but are instead deliberate and intentional actions laid out and executed in what could only be called an authorial—an auteur, for others—style.

This is one of the reasons Tarantino and Pulp Fiction have been chosen for an analysis against Austen and Pride and Prejudice. His style, like hers, is noticeable, yet subtle, self-aware, yet immersive, and perhaps most importantly, has serious things to say, but still finds a means to present them in the light yet realistic way known as fun. He is a popular author with deeper sensibilities and sentiments than his detractors or his fans give him credit for, and also like Austen, Tarantino’s artistic impulses, whether he knows it or not, have led him to explore ancient and sacred territory in a few of his stories, and he even manages, once or twice, to bring back something that often feels forgotten or formerly lost, and frame it in his own way as something new, that puts him—again, alongside Austen—in a select pantheon of artists who achieved the very same.

There is a scene and sequence in Pulp Fiction that demonstrates this ability quite clearly—when Vincent Vega, John Travolta, takes Mia Wallace, Uma Thurman, the twenty-three year-old tired and adolescent wife of Marsellus Wallace, out to dinner.

Vincent is taking Mia out as a favor to the boss. She is younger than him, and it could be assumed from a quick and glancing perspective that all the young woman intends for her slouching underworld escort is nothing more than a night of jumping through various hoops for her amusement, all on the pain of her potentially making a bad report to her husband and Vince’s boss that the hitman did not, in fact, show Mia a good time.

She has Vincent bring them to a 50s novelty restaurant called Jack Rabbit Slim’s. He initially balks, and says he’d rather just go get a steak somewhere instead, but eventually gives in and follows Mia inside after some prodding.

Once inside, Mia and Vince head to the Maitre’D, a well-made-up Ed Sullivan impersonator, who takes Mia to their table.

Vince is rooted to his spot, though. He’s looking around, taking the restaurant, what little we can see, all in.

He begins to walk.

The restaurant is part patchwork themepark, part technicolor cinescopic heaven, part hustling bustling burger joint. The camera follows Vince, tagging along and behind with the distance of a quiet friend, as he walks past a 30-foot curving, swirling remote racecar track, groups of people—we can’t tell if they’re patrons who dressed up to come and eat, or waiters/waitresses who are so in-character and bear such a likeness to Mamie Van Doren or Buddy Holly they deserve their own byline in the credits—and multivariate sections neighborhooded with each other: outdoor tables with pastel umbrellas, booths that are full-on 1956 Thunderbirds, a dark blue-lit bar occupied by customers being crooned to, or at, by a gaggle of Rat Pack-ers. On the walls, posters for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Machine Gun Kelly, Motorcycle Gang, Rock All Night. Vince walks past a Marilyn Monroe carrying a tray of milkshakes who gives him a look over with half-lidded dark eyes and a wink.

Mia eventually succeeds in getting Vincent’s attention, and still in a bit of a stupor, he sidles over to their booth—one of the Thunderbirds—and takes a seat.

Mia asks him what he thinks.

“What do I think?” Vince looks around one more time. He turns back to her. “I think it’s like a wax museum, with a pulse.”

The rest of the scene is Vince and Mia talking, at first a little stiff, then slowly, but surely, bit by bit, more familiarly. At one point, even, Mia goes to “powder her nose.” Vincent watches her go, and his gaze after she disappears behind the bathroom door wanders to the Marilyn Monroe waitress, of whom we get a shot recreating her iconic pushing-the-white-dress-down-over-a-vent scene from The Seven Year Itch. Following film grammar and treating the perspective of the camera and what it’s showing us of Vince in this moment as a kind of narrator, it’s no stretch at all to assume that, perhaps, his feelings towards Mia are not as deferential, simple, or cold as they once were or have appeared to be.

There is more to the scene and sequence, but enough has been substantiated, in the author’s opinion, to support the subsequent analysis.

A quick point: it is apparent enough already, but one of the benefits of film is also one of its largest and heaviest detriments when it comes to analysis. Unlike a novel, as was seen with Austen, films—because of their unique production process—must pack whole chapters worth of plot, character, emotional, and thematic development into as compact and yet still artistically functional and palatable a space as possible. Whereas Elizabeth Bennett’s character has more time and more scenes to develop, allowing for more gradual, frequent, succinct steps, Vincent and Mia do not possess such luxuries. Their time and presence is present and fleeting, and has much left unsaid because of it, which lends to and almost requires a longer—though do not mistake length with a value-assertion of importance—analysis.

The previous model becomes useful again here, though it will be applied slightly differently because of the change in medium, and therefore, some context is required.

Vincent Vega will be the subject of analysis—so who is Vincent Vega?

Well, he’s a character, like any other in fiction, no different really from Elizabeth Bennett or any others in that sense. But unlike Elizabeth Bennett and like many film characters, Vincent is a creation of two people—the writer and the actor. Because of this, Vincent’s model will be broken down at the authoreal level into two distinct sub-categories.

Base Character: A hitman, a mobster, the archetypal criminal.

Story Character: Vincent Vega is a slouching, almost adolescent, but also tender hitman working for a Los Angeles crime boss. He likes heroin and loves his car. He kills as purposefully as he does accidentally.

Authoreal Character: This manifests in two parts.

  • Tarantino.
    • Vincent, like Tarantino at the time of the film’s release, is just returning from Amsterdam, is assumed to possess—even for a man of his time—a pretty categoric knowledge of past pop-culture, enjoys quasi-Socratic conversations about nothing, and has a predisposition and niche, to be light, attraction to feet.
  • Travolta.
    • Like Travolta, Vince is somewhat past his prime, something of an eternal teenager and, now older, belongs to, or feels like he does, an era that’s gone by. And he’s a pretty good dancer too.

Much like Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, had these elements of Vincent’s character not been included, both the film and the character would have been stripped of something vital, the metaphorical pulse in the wax museum.

This is also why the location—and Travolta playing the character who is the focus of its scene—is so important. Keep in mind, at the time of release, Travolta was the biggest name in the film; he’s even the first to appear in the title credits.

However, the man was in a near-fifteen year career slump. After starring in late-70s popular period hits like Saturday Night Fever and Grease, John Travolta effectively fell off the map for most audiences. At the very least, it is easy to say and to see that he never again attained the critical or public high ground and attention he had held with those two films in that era.

Except when he starred in Pulp Fiction.

This is important for two reasons:

  1. It is another early example, Reservoir Dogs being the most popular first, of Tarantino’s marked inclination to cast actors and actresses whose stars had either fallen—Travolta, Keitel, Grier, Carradine—or never had a chance to really shine in the first place—Waltz, Gulager, Forster, Foxx. These actors often play characters who are, in some way, down on their luck, obscure figures, save for one revealing scene, or in a unique case like Christoph Waltz, totally capture the film despite being unknown from the get-go. The point is, as Austen used the members of her family and parts of their lives and personal histories in her own work, Tarantino too incorporates both the professional and personal stories and personae/characters of the actors he casts on some thematic level into the movies themselves. Tarantino’s actors don’t simply play his characters—instead, he seems to cast them because in some way, they already are his characters.
  2. Which is why us watching Travolta, the fallen star of period hits like Saturday Night Fever and Grease, wander around a novelty fifties theme restaurant as a man fifteen years out of time, resonates on some level with an incredibly personal melancholy and tenderness. In the scene, we’re not just watching Vincent stumble through a place of by-gone memory and time that he was once a part of—we’re watching Travolta stumble through it too.

Much of this is no doubt obvious, certainly to the critic, student, and enthusiast, and perhaps even to the casual observer.

But the point of this analysis was not necessarily to prove anything new, but rather to sketch out what was already there, to show in some way how and why it works and why this piece and others like it are the things they are.

-Conclusion-

You’ll Be An Artist Soon….

In the landmark treatise on political philosophy and the human soul The Republic, Plato says that poetry—narrative writing of any kind, and by extension, art—can be divided into two categories: imitation and narration. Narration being the most common form, when a writer or artist is simply telling the story through the conventions of their craft; and imitation being when a writer or artist attempts to mimic something they’ve seen, done, heard about, felt, or been, in their art.

Plato details later a belief that such imitation is dishonest, even dangerous, if the artist is not of a virtuous nature—and he’s correct. There are plenty of artists who have used their innate talents for less-than-honorable intentions and aims, consciously or not.

But Plato does not address the possibility that, under skilled—or perhaps simply authentic, genuine, honest—hands, imitation can, at times, transcend mere form and lend, for a brief moment, a glimpse at a part of beating, breathing, living, real humanity.

This is not always, and in fact it is rarely, the case. And there are degrees to this transcendent quality—but it can be found and observed, if only in traces, in certain works that so move, or so stay, with us.

Much of this paper and discussion may sound paradoxically vague, and frustratingly so. Isn’t the point of analysis to return specific, concrete results that can be used to craft actionable and practical steps towards solving a problem or addressing a question?

The simple and honest answer is yes, and in some or many ways, this paper has failed.

But remember—one of the key points all throughout has been examining the personal factors which so attract us to certain works of art, or in a broader sense, certain parts of life, and why, perhaps, one may be drawn to them, and how one may be able, in art and life, to identify them.

These answers are, by nature, and unalterably so, highly personal. The roads, paths, journeys, and lives we often take to find them are relatively uniform for most, if not all, people. But what we find at the end of them and what we do afterwards is something only we—you, me, and others, all the rest—on our own, can discover.

This has been said already in this paper, but it will be said again: Jane Austen and Quentin Tarantino are doing nothing new. Their use of personal histories and qualities in their work, extrapolated and expanded into a fictional paradigm, is arguably at the core of what many, many artists have done and are doing across time. In a sense, such a method is the only way that art of any kind gets made.

Rather, they have been selected because of their salience and influence in contemporary culture and the ease with which one can identify the basic artistic elements within their respective works.

These two artists have made work that has profoundly affected the cultures and perspectives that have so encountered them. People, day-to-day Regular Joes and Janes, have been affected by Jane Austen and Quentin Tarantino whether they know it or not, and more than that, those same people—whether they’ve read Pride and Prejudice, or not, or seen Pulp Fiction, or not—live parts and rhythms of those stories nearly every day, or at least at one point or another, of and in their lives.

This is not to say that people are imitating Austen and Tarantino—rather quite the opposite, and in some cases, not at all comparable.

Instead, such a phenomena, so demonstrated in both authors, is arguably a resounding example of what makes art invaluable: all art, from a child’s fist-drawn sketch on the fridge to the Renaissance Paintings that people have spent their whole lives, entire generations, retouching, contains a fragment of the person and the time who made it. There is something to be learned from that piece of a person and their singular experience, preserved in an amber of their own design, that bears at affords at least some study, if not for the sake of art, then for the sake of ourselves.

And this doesn’t necessarily just apply to art. Any kind of personal endeavor—cooking, brick-laying, auto-body repair and mechanics, listening to music, plumbing, sports, gaming, study of any one of the scientific disciplines, even politics, or simply the ability and desire to build a home—that one finds oneself drawn to, is a practice that, much like an artist’s own process and their work, can be examined, studied, and refined.

In doing so, in finding the parts of ourselves in the things we enjoy and practice, often for reasons of pursuit of which we have no real rational or idea, simply a feeling, we can begin to understand, on multiple and many—one hesitates, but could in, some way, say universal—levels not only each other and ourselves, but what we’re being told in our own stories, and, if there is such a way to grasp, for each of us, what they might just mean.

-Bibliography-

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Penguin Books, 2014.

Tarantino, Quentin, and Lawrence Bender. Pulp Fiction. 1994.

Plato. The Republic. Black & White Classics, 2019.

The Phaedo Reading Recommendation

-What is it?-

The Phaedo is a Platonic Dialogue and the last of what I’ll call the “Core Four” Dialogues—Euthyphro, The Apology, Crito, and Phaedo—which feature Socrates as a central figure and detail the final days of his life before his execution.

This particular Dialogue, which takes place in the final hours of Socrates’ execution, centers around a discussion he has with a group of friends and students in his prison cell. The group has come to ask him questions on what he thinks about the nature of death, the soul, immortality, and the afterlife.

A few key points are as follows:

  1. Socrates is adamant in his belief on the immortality of the soul and gives several defenses of his rationalizations.
  2. These examples are numerous, and tether into each other. Not all will be explained in this summary—instead two specifically will be supplied as an example of Socrates’ thinking.
    1. Socrates believes that human beings appear to have an innate knowledge or recognition of certain principles—the ability to recognize beauty; a general sense of proportion, more specifically, the notion of equality; and a talent for recalling information of a fundamental nature they, seemingly and otherwise, would not have appeared to know. He calls this ability Recollection, and says that it points to evidence that human beings draw on knowledge they inherited from past lives—or from some place beyond the purely physical existence. This position is used to support his argument that the soul is the origin of this knowledge, as such knowledge could only come from somewhere that had previously learned it—for example, an immortal vessel that is put into human form.
    2. To contend that Recollection does indeed mean that the soul is immortal—eternal, not just prone to long life—Socrates says that such an element of life and knowledge cannot be afflicted by death, no more than something that is cold be hot, or something that is odd be even. And while it’s true that something cold—such as snow—can be melted by fire, or five can be added to itself and make ten, those examples show that opposites can exist alongside each other, but never truly assume the other’s place. Snow that is melted by fire is no longer snow; five is always odd, even if it’s added to make ten. So the soul, being the source of life in a human being, cannot die—its core nature repels death of any kind, as oddness repels evenness and cold repels heat.

Socrates goes on to further explain his conception of the afterlife—where souls who freed themselves from mortal desires in their earthly life will commune at the highest levels, while others will undergo a sort of trial period, waiting to be called to a higher purpose when the time is right.

After several hours, the old man finishes, says goodbye to his friends, and the prison guard brings him the hemlock mixture. Socrates drinks, and as he’s laying down, realizes he has a debt he has forgotten to settle. He needs to give a chicken to one of his friends in repayment for a loan, and asks Crito to carry out the settlement in his stead. Crito agrees, and asks Socrates if there’s anything else he needs. Socrates is silent—he dies minutes later.

-Why is this important?-

Phaedo is usually regarded as the closest Western Philosophy, or at least the practice of Rationalism, will ever get to logically explaining the unexplainable particulars of human life—the soul, death, the afterlife, and the qualities therein.

Because the subject material is more focused on what could be called supernatural elements, this Dialogue in particular reads more as a somewhat wistful treatise than a concrete or actionable set of ideas that can be followed and practiced. There are suggestions—such as living as honestly as possible, devoting oneself to philosophy, and trying to, throughout life, seek the highest good and not the quickest pleasure—but again, these read as more religious platitudes in retrospect than specific rational or logical guidelines.

There is also the innate issue at the core of the Dialogue—the presupposition of the soul. In the modern age, with its heavy bent towards empirical study based in physical observation and material correspondence, many may disregard Phaedo purely on the basis that the Dialogue never really attempts to prove that anything like a soul, much less an immortal one, exists at all. Instead, such an assertion is taken as natural fact—and this makes sense, given the time that the Dialogue was written. But this doesn’t necessarily excuse the oversight that the very idea human beings may or may not have a soul, or anything like it, isn’t called into explicit question.

In all honesty, the author acknowledges, understands, and even empathizes with such claims; but ultimately, he finds them as baseless as the position they are calling into question.

The idea of a soul is not founded on empirical study, but rather intuition, belief, and faith. Such impulses are not to be taken at face-value—their worth is immense, but this doesn’t invalidate opposing claims that such worth is only valuable thanks to suggested phenomena that is, as far as is known, impossible to observe or evaluate. Some might even argue that such assertions of the “soul” in the name of something as fiat as “faith” is nothing more than a shallow attempt by the human psyche to prove, by name alone and little evidence to the contrary, a kind of deified exceptionalism that exempts the human being from their relationship to all other nature and the larger creation, placing them at the head of the order, or even outside of it, rather than within it. The human being may be advanced and successful—but not so much that they are separate from the natural order, as time and history do so often remind the unfortunate who forget.

These ideas hold weight, and it would do well for many, regardless of belief, to remember the intimacy with which human beings are bound to nature and its processes, both within and without, for good and for bad.

But the idea of faith cannot be evaluated empirically, no more than an odd can be even; these two forms oppose each other, one relating to the unseen, unknown, and immaterial; the other relating to the seen, the known, and the material. Whether the impulses of religion—faith, the soul, the belief of divinity—are the muses of active minds, or in actuality some sense towards a genuine higher order of things, has no bearing on the faithful in the slightest. Faith creates and fuels the ideas, feelings, pursuits, and gods it lends itself to; it is a means and an end in itself.

Therefore, instead of evaluating Phaedo and its contents along empirical lines, a more illustrative approach is perhaps necessary. Socrates, in this text, could be regarded not only as a philosopher, but a man whose death is no longer years, but hours away. And confronted with the end, he endeavors to give his friends, his students, and maybe himself, not a comfort, but a faith. He clearly, in some capacity, feels he will be fine; at the very least, he is content with his life, and is ready to die. What thoughts come out of a mind like his, in a moment such as that, is an event that could, without this text, only be confined to the realm of speculation—and with the Phaedo, that speculation transcends and becomes something much more than what the Dialogue, its central figure, and its own ideas, began as. What that “more” is, and to a degree what it becomes beyond its time, as with the previous three Dialogues, depends entirely on the readers who so choose to encounter and carry it.

-Where can you find it?-

Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1658/1658-h/1658-h.htm

The Crito Reading Recommendation

-What is it?-

The Crito is a Platonic Dialogue concerning the individual’s relationship to their state, and it is the penultimate Dialogue centering around Socrates before he is put to death.

In the Dialogue, Socrates has been imprisoned in the jail beneath the Court of Athens and is awaiting his execution, which will take place in a few days. One of his friends, both a student and a father to one of Socrates’ pupils, Crito, comes to visit Socrates with apparently good news—he’s going to help the old man escape.

Socrates doesn’t exactly jump at the offer—instead, he comes off as more bemused, and asks his friend why he should try and run.

Crito responds by saying that Socrates has been sentenced to death unjustly, an act many Athenians do not at all agree with; because of this, Crito also fears the public backlash he might receive if Socrates is killed. The man is wealthy and has many connections, and he says he feels both friends and strangers alike in Athens will blame him and him alone for the death of Socrates, and hold him in contempt for the remainder of his life he is unable to help the old man escape.

This begins the Dialogue, where Socrates, to Crito’s surprise, argues against his own escape and instead makes a case for the Laws of Athens that put him in the cell to begin with. To make this point, Socrates personifies the Laws of Athens, in order to separate them from the men who issue them, and presents the argument that for him to go against the will of the Laws would be a supreme injustice that would transcend even the current injustice being done to him by his wrongful death sentence.

The argument Socrates makes is manifold. Below are key points:

  1. First of all, Crito shouldn’t worry about what the opinion of the many is of him. The mass public and their opinions can do no harm to the man who is dedicated to justice, no more than they can do him good.
  2. Because of this, the man dedicated to justice must also acknowledge that this commitment means he cannot engage in evil or injurious acts when he himself has been injured. To do wrong to another person, even if they have done wrong to you, is still doing wrong. Evil action in the name of good does not make the whole act good; instead, the man of justice must, as difficult and painful as it can be, act justly in all circumstances.
  3. This means that, even if one is imprisoned on dubious charges, if they consider themselves dedicated to justice, they will receive their punishment in silence—for it is not the Laws that do them harm, but the men who so abuse them. A State cannot function if its citizens don’t take the Laws seriously, and if the man of justice is truly what he claims to be, he will not simply abandon the Laws when they first injure him. To do so would be an unjust action in totality.
  4. And why would the man of justice want to do harm to the Laws in the first place? Without the State and its Laws, his parents would never have gotten married; he never would have received the education that serves as the foundation of his present knowledge; and by remaining within the State, he has agreed to follow its Laws.
  5. This is especially true for one such as Socrates, who has lived in the Athenian State for over seventy years. He has fathered his children in Athens, he has rarely ever left the State, and he has served it in many capacities. So, clearly, he has never encountered anything that so put him off he was compelled to leave Athens altogether. Which would mean that if he left now, now that he is threatened with injury, he is merely running at the first time the Laws did not work in his favor or benefit him. He would be shown then to have followed the Laws, not because he believes in them, but because they have never done him harm; this is a subtle difference, but a notable one.
  6. If he were to leave, other city-states would no doubt take him in—but at what cost to his own person? Socrates himself, as a defined man of justice, would have to live with the knowledge that he violated his core principles in order to spare himself a few more years of life. And the city-states would know this. They’d no doubt accept him, but public trust wouldn’t be on his side, because he would garner the reputation of a man who pretends to believe in one thing, but when difficulty arises, abandons it for another.
  7. So, Socrates concludes that he has no choice, and he doesn’t need one. Again, it’s not the Laws who are at fault for his injury—it is the men who have so misused them. And as it stands now, Socrates will be put to death as an innocent man; if he escaped, he would live the rest of his life as a man guilty of betraying his State and his principles.

The Dialogue ends with Socrates saying he has made up his mind, though he appreciates the sentiment behind Crito’s impulse to help free him. He will remain in his cell of his own volition and see what the day of execution brings.

-Why is it important?-

To those in the modern day, many of us having grown up in a liberal democracy, where disobedience to the state and its laws is often encouraged, Socrates’ point of view is one that could seem at the very least alien and outdated, and at the most brainwashed and suicidal.

Really, what Socrates is advocating for isn’t necessarily a blind devotion to the laws of one’s own state, but the Laws of the State—the ideal forms of both, which can really only manifest in the current structure of whatever laws and whatever state one happens to find themselves in at their given present.

One of the biggest take-aways from the Crito is the idea of devoting oneself to principles that lay beyond and above both the self and the world that self finds itself within. Socrates believes that there is a potential for a just and genuine system of laws—all it would take is the right people to bring them about.

-Where to find it-

The Internet Classics Archive: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/crito.html

The Apology Reading Recommendation

Art by Morgan Blair

-Reading Recommendation-

The Apology

Art Credit: Morgan Blair, http://www.morganblair.com/seinfelds.html

-What is it?-

The Apology is a Socratic Dialogue, written by Plato, and one of the most famous accounts of Western Philosophy in history. In The Apology—whose name stems from the Latin apologia, a translation of the Greek ἀπολογία, meaning, “speaking in defense,”—Socrates faces the court of Athens and his three primary accusers, the Judges Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon. He has been brought to trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, and proceeds to give a complex defense of his actions to the court.

There are several key points of Socrates’ defense. They are as follows:

-Motivation-

Socrates begins by explaining the motivation for his actions which could have been framed by the three accusers as impious. He says that his life’s purpose is to find a man wiser than himself—this has been a quest of sorts ever since a friend of his visited the Oracle at Delphi, one of the most famous messengers of the Gods in Ancient Greece. Socrates’ friend asked the Oracle who the wisest man was, and the Oracle responded that, “there is none wiser than Socrates.” Socrates did not believe this, and set out to find a man wiser than himself.

In doing so, he came across many different types of people and ended up offending most of them. He says that he visited politicians, who were held to be wise by themselves and the public opinion; poets, who praised their own poetry more than even their most devoted fans, but could not adequately explain their own imagery and pieces; and artisans, who believed because they were skilled workmen, they understood most other things.

With each example, Socrates points out that these men, and many like them, have been blinded by their own professions and the dogmatism that results from their experience within them, and comments that while these may be knowledgeable, at times to a great extent, in their own work, they know little about anything else. But instead of acknowledging this fact, they instead insist, or at least appear to believe, that their hyper-specific knowledge of their own fields of study or practice is translatable to a larger understanding of most everything else. This is where Socrates draws a line between himself and these supposed men of wisdom, and it’s the source of a famous quote of his: “What I know, is that I know nothing.” He says that because he at least understands that he knows little, or nothing—or, in one way or another, it’s an incredible possibility that he knows nothing at all—he has a slight advantage over the men who know nothing, but believe instead that they know everything. This is, in his own conception, what makes him wise. He is not tied to an orthodoxy or dogma relating specifically to one field or another—rather, because of his admission of ignorance, he is free to examine and interrogate the ideas of many men without having to pay tribute or limit himself to any one specific school of thought, profession, or practice.

-Cross-Examination of Meletus-

Meletus is one of the main accusers of Socrates, and though he isn’t the source of the accusation, he is arguably the most prominent and vocal, and is the only one other than Socrates to have any kind of dialogue in The Apology.

The charges Meletus has laid on Socrates are that he engages in impious action and corrupts the youth. Meletus elaborates these accusations by, after being questioned by Socrates, that he believes the old man to be nothing more than an atheist, and the sole corrupter of the youth of Athens.

Socrates easily obliterates these charges by pointing out that he cannot be an atheist, firstly because he sees himself on a divine mission inspired by the Oracle at Delphi. If he was a true atheist, he wouldn’t have believed the Oracle in the first place, and he wouldn’t even be in the court to begin with. And secondly, he does believe in gods—he just believes in other demi-gods and spirits alongside the original gods, which can’t exist without the original gods in the first place. A belief in one implies a belief in the other. And these demonstrated beliefs do not at all match with Meletus’ primary charge that he is an atheist.

As for the charge of corrupting the youth, Socrates says that it’s better to live among good neighbors than bad ones, and Meletus agrees. And Socrates says then that a man will not willingly seek out self-injury, and Meletus agrees. Socrates points out that corrupting his own neighbors would do nothing but bring him injury, and therefore, he can’t have been corrupting people because he would not willingly seek out his own self-injury. What’s more, the youth have influences other than Socrates—when Meletus makes the point that his teachings lead the youth to think differently about the gods and the Athenian relation to them, Socrates points out that kids can go watch plays and speeches at the local theater that do the exact same thing.

In presenting the case as such, Socrates makes the point that Meletus has convened this court in haste and poor judgment, which proves, quite ironically, he is more of a potential corrupter of the youth than Socrates, because he does not take the time to adequately prepare serious charges. Simply put, he makes the whole trial, and the legal system, look like a joke, exercised not in the capacity of justice, but of personal vendetta.

-Statement of Purpose-

One of the last parts of Socrates’ defense before the jury convenes to discuss his sentence is his his explanation as to how he views himself, and his function in relation to the state and its people, in the present day.

The old man says, simply, that he sees himself as the “gadfly of Athens,” meaning that he believes it’s his responsibility to perform actions that, while they may make the Court of Athens and other higher members of society uncomfortable, are necessary to stir the great and lumbering beast of the polis back into action and towards a more virtuous path. It’s necessary to point out that Socrates is not an anarchist or an ambling agent of chaos or Eristic discord and discourse—he does not engage in the rhetoric he practices because he wants to throw everyone off-balance and disrupt the order of the state and the lives of its people, simply to satisfy some desire for agitation.

Rather, he sees his perceived agitation as a sign that the state of Athens may be in need of a kind of jolt or wake-up call. In other Dialogues, Socrates pays tribute to the state and says he would not be the man he is without it; but that doesn’t mean that he can’t criticize, not the structure of the state, but the behavior of the people who inhabit its organs that so govern, regulate, and deliberate its functions. Socrates is engaging in this behavior because he appears to believe that the men who inhabit these positions are leading themselves astray by refusing to acknowledge their own ignorance, which in turn bleeds into a kind of frustration and unconscious, state-sanctioned abuse, an example of which can be found in the very trial Socrates is now being subject to.

Put another way, Socrates does not want to see others brought to court on the same pathological vindictive charges that have landed him in the trial. He believes the state and its various departments must operate in the highest virtue, and if the men who are installed in these positions are unable to do so, then they themselves, not the state, are unfit for their titles and the power that goes with them.

-Death Sentence-

The jury condemns Socrates to die, upon which he has a few poignant remarks.

He says that such a sentence was not unexpected, and wonders if it’s not because he lacked virtue in what he said, but rather “proper” delivery in how he said it—meaning he wonders if it’s because he didn’t suck up to them and grovel, like many others often do, begging for their lives when they come to the court.

Socrates points out as well that a death sentence holds nothing severe over him as the court may think, for two reasons:

1. Condemning someone to death is not a solution to a problem, but rather an escape from accusation. He says:

“For if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.” (Plato, pg. 13).

In saying this, he means to convey an inclination of his own that some of the jurors who condemned him to death may have been coerced to do so. He seems to believes that more than a few of the men who voted to condemn him to death were doing so, not out of a sense of justice, but out of a sense of self-preservation. They passed the sentence in order to placate hostile parties present within the court, and perhaps outside of it, that may have accused any juror who did not vote in favor of the death penalty of impiety, or corruption, or any other charge that would in turn warrant a death sentence or at least exile.

Socrates understands the impulse of these jurors, if there were any who were so coerced, but says this is in direct opposition to true justice, and even more, to their own self-preservation. He goes on to say that such a sentence passed by these kinds of men—both the ones who coerce by threat of force, and those whose person and principles are pliant under this threat—is reflective of a cowardice endemic to men who know they could improve but choose not to, and release this frustration onto other by exaggerated displays of force.

2. Socrates is not afraid of death. He says that he believes it is one of two things: an endless sleep, in which case all eternity will be but one night, and who knows, he might wake up sooner rather than later. Or his soul will live on and move to another place, a higher realm where he will be able to converse with all the greatest heroes and legends of history, forever. Either way, he’s not worried.

The Dialogue ends with this line:

“The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.”

-Why is this important-

If the preceding Dialogue the Euthyphro is a somewhat paternal and gentle investigation between an old man and a precocious youth into the foundation of truth and meaning in any given social structure, The Apology is that old man’s vehement exhortation towards his colleagues of their consistent abuse and manipulation of the systems that owe their very existence to that foundation of truth and meaning which they so blatantly disregard and re-appropriate for their own selfish purposes.

In the opinion of this author, Socrates very much so comes across as a George Costanza-esque figure in this Dialogue. He is irate, passionate, perhaps somewhat misguided and a bit vulgar in his delivery and explanation of these sentiments, but he is, in some deeper emotional way—and certainly a rational one—intelligible. He is frustrated, first and foremost, that the men of the Court of Athens have lost sight of their duty to not just the law, but to virtue, truth, and righteous action, the components that are not supposed to be subordinated to the mechanics of law, but influence and guide them.

There is a definite sense, and Socrates comments on this in the latter part of the Dialogue, that the old man is fighting a losing battle. The opinions of the accusers have already been made up, and either by rumor, fear, bribery, or implied violent coercion, so have the opinions of enough jurors so as to condemn him to death. But in this, there is an example Socrates sets that is both admirable and, admittedly, suicidal: he speaks his mind.

This Dialogue is the Ancient Greek equivalent of every scene in a work of art—whether it’s literature, cinema, music, whatever—where the protagonist quits their job and tells their boss, or bosses, exactly what they think. As much as it is a logical deconstruction of the absurdity of the charges laid as Socrates’ feet, it is also an emotional appeal to all those who have been falsely accused, not just by a mere technical accident of improper evidence or poor testimony, but by a much larger, and far more severe, fault in the system of justice itself—the very people who are supposed to run it justly. Socrates’ frustration is seeing these men, who have sworn to uphold the law through virtue and true justice, become enamored with their own stations and subsequently blinded so much that they will do anything to protect them. He is, at the end of the day, a citizen of Athens who is fed up, not with the structure of the state itself, but how it is being abused by those who are supposed to be its caretakers. And despite his death sentence, or perhaps because of it, there is a certain catharsis to be found in this fifteen-page scene of an old man telling the Judges of the Court of Athens, one of the most influential and eminent legal bodies in all recorded history, that they’re full of shit.

-Where can you find it-

The Apology can be found on the Internet Classics Archive or Project Gutenberg, both of which I have provided links for here:

Internet Classics Archive: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html

Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1656/1656-h/1656-h.htm

-Thanks-

Thank you for taking the time to read this recommendation. There will be another put out around this time next week on the Platonic Dialogue the Crito, which centers around a discussion between Socrates and a close friend, had in the jail beneath the Court of the Athens as Socrates awaits his impending execution, and which concerns the true value of the state and the loyalty of a citizen to their state.

If you have any suggestions or ideas for future recommendations, or critiques of past recommendations, message me through the website, or my personal Facebook, and I’ll take them into consideration. Or come visit me at my home in the scaffolding of Marquette’s Lower Harbor Ore Dock. I enjoy face-to-face criticism. Even if it’s mean.

See you next week.

Live! From the Porch of the King Archon!

-A Critical Analysis of Postmodern Similarities Between The Euthyphro and Network

Socrates was a man in his time famous for stirring the pot of public opinion. The self-appointed “gadfly” of Athens, he spent most of his time—according to both historical records and the Dialogues written by Plato—wandering from place to place, proving people wrong in his—again, self-appointed—quest to find the one man in the world smarter than he was. Had he lived today, he would have made for excellent television—one could easily see him as a man-on-the-street cable news anchor, pulling aside random itinerant passersby and asking them if they truly understood what “justice” meant.

Luckily, while there hasn’t been a movie or show about Socrates made quite like that, there is a parallel to the old man that can be found in the 1976 film Network, in the character of Howard Beale—a down-and-out newsman who finds himself “preaching against the hypocrisies of our times” when either a psychotic break or spiritual revelation sends him on a quest of sorts to evangelize a modern gospel against the mass mania he sees in the world as a product of television.

These two, separated by only a couple thousand years, share more than advanced age, a proclivity for curmudgeon-ism, and a guided spiritual/and/or psychotic quest—Socrates, like Howard, believed he was in consistent contact with an ethereal voice, a daimon, that provided him at times with impetus for philosophical inquiry.

Rather, both bring forward—Socrates in the Dialogue Euthyphro, and Howard Beale in Network—a similar call to action: for their audiences to investigate the roots of meaning in their respective societies, and decide how much sway these meanings have, and whether they’re owed the weight of social currency that’s been so given to them. Both calls could be viewed almost as being oddly—in the case of Socrates—or understandably—in the case of Howard—postmodern, though the similarity in messaging may belie a greater connection than just the labeling of a mid-19th century thought movement.

The postmodern condition is illustrated by the social critic and author of Simulacra and Simulation Jean Baudrillard:

“…a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.” (Baudrillard, pg. 2).

What Baudrillard and many other postmodernists mean by statements like this one is that, in the postmodern conception of the world, everything is called into question, and nothing is safe from deconstruction. Whether it’s the belief in a God, the stature of the State, or even communal or individual relations, postmodernism sets out to investigate the foundations of systems of meaning, oftentimes uprooting the same systems it’s studying in pursuit of its goal. Many critics of postmodernism levy the charge that the system of thought is utterly meaningless and does not provide anything other than a cynical framework with which both radical and sloppy academics use to prove their own conclusions, and devalue the conclusions of others on a fundamental basis, with little-to-no extant evidence that confirms them.

This criticism is certainly warranted, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude the effectiveness of the methods of deconstruction that postmodernists use, nor does it abolish any apparent similarity—cosmetic, coincidental, or otherwise—between its methods of investigation, or at least its pursuits, and much older records of similar patterns of thought.

One place where such a “postmodern” strain of thought can be found is in the Socratic Dialogue Euthyphro.

The Euthyphro is a Socratic Dialogue, written by Plato, dated to have been written roughly between 399 and 395 B.C.E. The Dialogue—which reads much like a play—centers around a discussion between Socrates, who is awaiting trial on the front steps, the porch, of the King Archon of Athens, and a young lawyer—the eponymous Euthyphro—emerges, himself having just exited a trial he brought to court.

Socrates has been accused of impiety by the Athenian Court—namely, he’s been charged with corrupting the youth and teaching false gods. Luckily for him, Euthyphro is an expert on the matter, as the young lawyer proclaims, having just brought his father to court on the charge of murder, another impious action.

For a moment, Socrates is taken aback—he asks how Euthyphro could have been so sure as to bring his father to trial for murder.

Euthyphro explains the situation—his father found a worker on the family estate who had beaten a slave to death. Euthyphro’s father beat the worker, bound him, and sent a messenger to contact the local authorities. Unfortunately, by the time the authorities arrived, the worker had died from exposure, and Euthyphro’s father was in-turn—by Euthyphro himself—brought to court on the charges of impiety through murder, a capital crime.

This is an intricate table-setting for the central discussion of the Dialogue—Socrates begins an investigation, through his conversation with Euthyphro, on the nature of piety and impiety. More specifically, he wants to know whether an action is pious because it is loved by the gods, or if it is loved by the gods because it is pious.

Piety, or proper respect/worship of the gods, was a cornerstone of ancient Greek society. Cities like Athens and Sparta and many others had designated patron gods that were believed to have a special connection with the polis, the city. The observation of religious festivals was intertwined with Greek civic life, and as such, proper veneration, piety, made for a good citizen.

In the context of the Euthyphro, the wedding of religious sentiment and legal framework is more than evident—Euthyphro, as a young lawyer, not just expected to understand the basics of law, but also the basics of religious observation. He can’t just understand why a law should be followed for the sake of the common citizen—he needs to be able to interpret the will of the gods, as articulated through the laws of the city.

There is a problem, however—Euthyphro is unable to give Socrates a clear-cut definition of what “piety” is. Throughout the Dialogue, the two bounce between a number of conceits: is piety what is loved by the gods? Is it what is beneficial to them? Is it what improves them? And in each example, Socrates points out, continually, that Euthyphro doesn’t seem to be able to offer an actual definition of what a pious action would be.

For example:

“…you may very likely be doing what is agreeable to Zeus but disagreeable to Cronos or Uranus, and what is acceptable to Hephaestus but unacceptable to Here, and there may be other gods who have similar differences of opinion.” (Plato, pg. 9).

The idea would be that piety, true piety, much like true justice or true good, would be pious through-and-through—there cannot be any variation in what makes a pious action truly pious, otherwise it must not be truly pious.

And funnily enough, Euthyphro’s very first defense of piety is as follows:


“Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting any one who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime—whether he be your father or mother, or whoever he may be —that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is impiety.” (Plato, pg. 7).

This idea—that the proposed definition of a principle is the name of the principle itself, or any action that anyone who invokes the principle performs—would rankle any postmodernist of slight degree. It certainly rankled Socrates at the time, mainly because it avoids a kind of deeper investigation as to what is actually being discussed. Such a broad and shallow obfuscation leads true principles into becoming conventions—articles of speech accepted on the merit of their name alone. In a more religious context, where faith must be invoked, this sentiment is permissible, and even necessary; but in the context of the law, where proof of an idea must be provided in order to substantiate claims, any kind of moral or legal convention that can be invoked and readily accepted at a moment’s notice is a deadly article easily abused. And it is deadly—Socrates was sentenced to death after his trial, and forced to drink a hemlock mixture.

Two thousand-odd years later, Howard Beale is killed in Network, gunned down on live television by hitmen hired by network executives, for the same crime of investigation against the pious convention of his time—television.

Network is a film concerned with the slow, corrosive effects a medium such as television can have on its audience and how they interact with the world, and Howard Beale is the primary vehicle for much of the film’s criticism regarding this relationship. After ascending from the lowly station of a network news anchor to the much higher calling of hosting his own show—The Howard Beale Show, with the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, Howard Beale!—he delivers several monologues over the course of the movie, many of which chastise the audience themselves for simply sitting in front of their television sets and absorbing whatever comes out as truth.

“We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds…. We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you eventhink like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing!WEare the illusion!” (Lumet, Network, 1976).

As aggressive as his diatribes can be, Howard’s primary motivation does not appear to be one of actual anger or rage—as much as the executives try to bill him and his show as such—but rather of a genuine recognition of a crisis he and the people he broadcasts to are facing in their time: the slow erosion of any kind of meaning, any kind of reality, any kind of humanity, that such a devotion to television can engender.

Television acts, in Network, as a kind Euthyphro-ian figure—a delivery mechanism for the conventional wisdom of the time, packaged in entertainment and advertisement—that Howard’s Socratic character remains in constant dialogue with. And, even between both pieces, the audience is essentially the same—anyone who will listen, to either Socrates or Howard, and attempt to understand what it is they’re exactly saying.

And that dual call-to-action for investigating the roots of meaning, or at least what is being taken as meaningful by pure convention alone, is a motif that is echoed by postmodernism and its practitioners continually.

However.

It is at this point that the postmodern connection between the Euthyphro and Network must itself be investigated and perhaps deconstructed—no convention must be left unturned. While one could, at a cursory glance, label Socrates’ methods as postmodern in the context of the present, it’s perhaps of worth to pose the question: are his arguments and person are themselves postmodern, or do they simply resemble postmodern thought?

From a pure historical basis, claiming Socrates to be a postmodernist isn’t just haphazard, it’s unintelligible—the man lived thousands of years before the emergence of the movement, and even if he had been alive at the time of its development around the mid-20th century, there’s no conclusive way to prove whether or not he would have summarily agreed with the assertions of the postmodernists as they developed and evolved.

At the same time, Network and Howard Beale, taken perhaps as echoes of a Socratic nature, are incredibly postmodern—not only were they produced within the middle of the postmodern movement’s development, they are resounding monuments to attitudes and investigations by various postmodern thinkers such as Debord and Baudrillard into the language of image and what happens when mass media is taken on a conventional basis to disperse truth.

So, the synthesis could arguably be made that postmodernism itself is not necessarily a novel movement—rather, as anti-establishment as it positions itself, it appears to possess roots of a potentially perennial nature, going back as far as the Classical Period and some of the most famous and infamous philosophers, not just of the Period, but in the history of Western Civilization.

This is not meant to be a proven assertion, but rather an observation of an interesting connection between what would appear to be two incredibly different time periods, societies, and works of art. And, in a kind of tongue-in-cheek fashion, it is more than a bit humorous to conceive the idea that one of the most fervent, deconstructionist, anti-establishment movements of thought and skepticism to so far evolve in the realms of philosophy, literature, and art may very well share the exact same foundations with the exact same establishments, in one way or another, that it is ritualistically attempting to re-purpose, revise, and reconstruct.

All in all, the parallels between The Euthyphro and Network may be tenuous at best, but such an examination provides a wealth of interesting similarities between the two that feel relevant in the modern day regardless. The interrogation of what truly makes meaning mean something in a society, whether it comes from a Greek, a newsman, a postmodernist, or just a member of the audience, will no doubt always possess some quality of importance in relation to both those individuals and the societies or structures they inhabit. Whether it’s the concept of piety or truth in advertising, it never seems to be bad idea—in fact, given the two pieces, it often seems encouraged by top artists and thinkers alike—to ask the question, politely: what do you mean by that?

-Bibliography-

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

“EUTHYPHRO.” Euthyphro, by Plato, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1642/1642-h/1642-h.htm.

Lumet, Sidney, Director. Network. United Artists, 1976.

The Euthyphro Reading Recommendation

-Reading Recommendation-

The Euthyphro

By Plato

-What is it-

The Euthyphro is a Socratic dialogue written by the Athenian Philosopher and Statesman Plato around the years 399-395 B.C. . The short dialogue describes a meeting between Socrates, the famous Athenian Philosopher, who is waiting to be called into his trial on the porch—the steps of the courthouse—of the King Archon, what amounted to in Classical Greece as the Supreme Justice of Athens. He’s been brought up on charges of corrupting the youth by teaching false gods, or at the very least, by teaching that the gods of Athens are not the only gods that should be worshiped. This was notable in the time of Ancient Greece because the worship of the gods, taken as piety—honoring them through sacrifice and good actions—was the foundation of not only the religious and cultural lives of the Greeks, but also their system of laws as well. In essence, criticizing the gods, or saying there were different ones that could be observed, was akin to digging at the very roots that fed the Athenian society with truth and virtue and divine blessings.

Socrates, while waiting, encounters a young, promising, and precocious lawyer, the eponymous Euthyphro, who has just gotten out from a trial where he persecuted his own father for murder on the grounds of gross negligence. Several days before, his father found a worker who beat a slave to death, bound the worker, and left him in a ditch while sending for a messenger to contact the local authorities. In the time it took the messenger to find the authorities and bring them to the culprit, the man had died of exposure, and Euthyphro’s father himself was instead arrested on the charges of the capital crime.

Socrates is both curious and perturbed, and asks Euthyphro why he would think it proper or noble to prosecute his own father personally, regardless of the crime, in public court. Euthyphro responds that, being a lawyer, and a good one at that, he is bound by both the law and more importantly, the duty of piety towards the gods, to pursue a righteous action—even against his own father.

This opens the dialogue to its central discussion: Socrates begins an investigation on what constitutes piety, and being that, in his own words, Euthyphro is an excellent and intelligent lawyer, most certainly wise beyond his years, he can no doubt help Socrates with this quandary, and perhaps even assist the old Athenian in preparing his own defense for his coming trial.

“Piety”, in the world of the Ancient Greeks, was their equivalent of politically and socially accepted truth; in today’s world, we may even call it “fact”. It was something that, to many Greek citizens, was self-evident, not because they fully understood what it was, but they simply knew that it was—its own existence and function in society proved its veracity and its necessity. To criticize or question what was pious was an effort for many beyond their scope, and for even more, one deemed heretical, as it interrogated the founding myth of their culture, the universal principles of their institutions, the mechanics of their social customs, and even the more intimate facets and practices of their personal lives.

The dialogue bounces between Socrates questioning Euthyphro on what he believes piety is, and Euthyphro in turn answering what he believes – what he states he knows – it to be.

The central question that emerges is this one: is piety what is loved by the gods, or is what is loved by the gods pious?

The question is inherently convoluted and confusing, because it’s dealing with, in a way, the subatomic structure of meaning in a society. Do we believe in truths because they are in themselves true, or are truths valued and considered true because they are loved by institutions or principles which we deem to grant truth? And what is the difference, and how, if there is a way, can we tell which is which?

Ultimately, Euthyphro is unable to answer the question and leaves Socrates on the steps, hurrying away to some other engagement. Socrates waves goodbye and awaits his trial, which will lead to one of the most famous accounts in Western Philosophy—The Apology—and Socrates’ own execution, the old man being sentenced to death by the court forcing him to feed himself a mixture of hemlock, a fatally toxic berry.

-What’s the value today?-

It should be noted that the Socratic Dialogues are often considered both quasi-literary and quasi-historical accounts of actual events. Socrates was a historical figure, but the details of his life, and his most famous speeches such as the Euthyphro or the Apology, were written down by his student, Plato, who went on to teach Aristotle.

Though the text is over two thousand years old, the issues it addresses are perennial ones that every great society must eventually face at a certain point of maturity. The questions of what values a society holds, how they’ve been expressed, and where they come from—and what that means—is one that has played out in the modern era in notable escalation for almost three centuries, after the Enlightenment of the 18th century and its advancements began to categorically erode the universal trust of and belief in institutions such as religion and the dominance and first-begotten loyalty of the citizen to the State and the Nation.

As such, the challenges this text describes are ones we can see playing out in real time, right in front of our very eyes, in the modern day–the problem and/or presupposition of “alternative facts” is one such demonstration of this challenging and persistent phenomena.

And though it may be disheartening to learn that, in a way, our modern problems are neither novel nor specific to our own time as we may wish or believe them to be, it may be, in some way, at least refreshing and a bit relieving perhaps to know that other great societies have eventually come upon these challenges before, and it is at times a sign of perhaps maturity and the possibility of higher development that they mark by their entrance into the public discourse. As much as academics and thinkers and popular online personalities may decry the excesses of modernity, brought on by phenomena such as post-modernism and the fundamental challenges to the nature of truth and being that anchor our current society they bring with them, neither modernity, nor its excesses, nor even post-modernism, are truly original problems that have not had to be faced by anyone else in the history of our civilization, or the histories of others.

We so often claim to know the obvious, that we are well aware that nothing is new and nearly everything is borrowed, stolen, or inherited from the past that precedes us, but it also seems that we, just as often, use the “obvious” as a mere convention—a truth or point of piety—to avoid addressing the perennial change or acknowledgment that clearly needs to be made, and as history has shown, will eventually be made, by either man or nature, in order to move beyond arrested states of development.

Within the Euthyphro is a lesson as humbling as it is pedantic: until we face what we don’t know, we’ll never know what we can know, what we do know, or what more we could know, had we never faced the great unknown to begin with.

-Where to find it-

Luckily, because it’s thousands of years old and the Disney corporation has yet to excavate and refine ancient Greek stories in the way it has medieval European Folklore under the Iron Curtain of Copyright, you can find the Euthyphro for free on Project Gutenberg. I also recorded a podcast where I discuss the points of this reading recommendation and elaborate on some parts I thought were interesting. I will provide links for both at the bottom of this document.

Thank you for reading. There will be another Reading Recommendation on Plato’s Apology coming next week. Let me know what you think below, or message me on Facebook, or come visit me at my home in the scaffolding of the Lower Harbor Ore Dock in Marquette, Michigan.

Euthyphro Project Gutenberg Link: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1642/1642-h/1642-h.htm

Euthyphro Podcast Link:

The Prince Book Review

The Prince is a seminal work of Western political thought, written in the early 16th century by notorious pouty political bad-boy and advisor to the Florentine Republic, Niccolò Machiavelli.  The book was controversial in its time – and remains so, to a degree, in ours – for its central thesis, which is that a ruler, a prince, must approach their station of power with a shrewd, cynical, and non-moralistic eye and appetite.

The book was originally dedicated to the Medici Family, and Machiavelli intended it as a kind of new-age handbook for up-and-coming, or even present, rulers of the time.

There are plenty of juicy ideas in The Prince, but the one I found coming up more and more, either in name or reference, was this this one:

There’s no overarching “good” way to rule, but there are smart ways.

Machiavelli lived in a time where princes and other rulers were ostensibly bound by a code of morality and ethics, usually and unsurprisingly originating from Catholic doctrine, or at least influence.  It was implicitly understood that all rulers would do what was right in the eyes of a higher power, as well as in the eyes of the people they ruled.  Clearly, as history may show, this wasn’t often the case, and there are many examples of princes and other rulers who either abused this morality and manipulated it as a trojan horse for their own aims and ends, or ignored it altogether, apparently and completely content to forsake themselves in the eyes of God and history to achieve whatever they set out to do.  Because of these loopholes—it’s difficult to govern on the honor system, because who watches the watcher?—it becomes pretty clear in The Prince that Machiavelli saw this kind of moral stipulation as a hindrance to political thought – the prince ought to take things as they are, not as they ought to be.  To obey a set of abstract moral principles that viewed the world and its people idealistically was a clear path to ruin.  The only way to govern effectively was realistically, which meant, at times, undertaking immoral action to begin, further, or codify one’s rule.

This immoral action was variable in its forms, but not limited to: wiping out noble families who pose a threat to the prince’s rule; using fear and shock as a means to keep the public in line; allying yourself with that same public, not out of common charity, but necessity in case you need to use them against the noble class; joining wars on whatever side is clear to win; and perhaps most famously and Machiavellian at all, making absolutely certain that if you have an enemy, you completely and totally obliterate them:

“Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.” (Machiavelli, pg. 9).

All of this, at face value, is incredibly cruel, and could even, through certain contexts, be called evil.  But what I think you have to keep in mind, and what it seems Machiavelli knew as well, is that even if you behave morally, you should not expect your enemies, or even your friends, to do the same.  In this way, Machiavelli’s thought is incredibly modern—whether that’s because of The Prince’s influence even today, or because human nature can be both self-effacing and yet so fundamentally naked is up for debate.  But in our present day, which is markedly absent of any overarching moral dictum that is universally followed, it’s well understood that there are people, both in government and in the common and everyday, who will manipulate a system’s rules to gain wealth, or fame, or most important of all, power, regardless of how it affects others – and they often do this while flying the same moral banner as everyone else.

What’s notable, for me, at least in reading The Prince, was how it clashed against the view of Machiavelli as I’d heard/seen of him through cultural osmosis.  I’d always heard his name spoken in a kind of hush, or at least disdain, like he’d written against all the good and upstanding cultural values of the modern world and invariably turned politics into what it is today – a fierce and cold grab for power between individuals and entities who want nothing more than to dominate their people and obliterate their opponents.  When people hear the term Machiavellian, it connotes a sinister, shadowy figure, plotting in the background against friends and enemies alike, wringing their hands in the dark until their day in the sun comes and they’re allowed to exercise tyrannical power disguised as intelligent politics.

It doesn’t help that one of the more infamous political celebrities in European history – Henry VIII – cited The Prince in his decision to form the Anglican Church.  Later thinkers, like Rousseau, even classified The Prince as a satire, because in no way could anyone write such a work and not intend it to be a kind of exaggerated joke played on the upper classes for sport.

If there’s anything necessarily critical I can say of Machiavelli’s book, it’s that most of his examples are relatively obscure to someone not versed in 16th century Italian geopolitics.  Of course, he wrote The Prince as a handbook for the Italian nobility of the day, so it makes sense that his references and examples of what to do and what not to do would be as specific as possible, so they’d be highly comprehensible and tangible to his audience.  Nowadays, though, that specificity is a bit difficult to weed through, though I found if you try and take in the names, but focus more on what is being said, the examples become a bit more lucid. 

I’m going to end with a few ideas that I came to me while I was reading.  Whenever I’m reading any kind of book, I like to try and keep track of any ideas that come up, and either are totally separate from the content of the book, or could be, what I think, new additions to it, new ideas to add.  So, with The Prince, here are some modern addendums that can be made by porting over the concepts he uses. 

One idea is The Rule of the Bargaining Law.  Briefly stated, this means:

It is more often beneficial than not for a leader to go against their own people, without the people knowing, and under the guise of extraordinary circumstances, leverage a massive amount of power that will inevitably rankle the people to such an extent, open revolt is the only visible alternative.  At this point, the leader will begin to roll back the extreme measures they installed – to the applause of his people.  

This is a classic bargaining technique – introduce a figure so ridiculous that the other person will, by instinct, immediately recoil and demand a lower figure.  But a lower figure from something ridiculous is still expensive, and the first man, the introducer, comes off richer from this engagement.

Another is that of Singular Powers:

You should view your government as a monarch, with its own persona, and interests.  If democracies were truly dynamic, they would be prone to large-scale fluctuations and rendered nearly inoperable.

And the final is the Longrun Theory:

Political parties/movements can’t just be viewed in their present day incarnations – they must be taken on a holistic, temporal basis that allows for an evaluation of their long-term arcs.

All in all, for anyone who’s interested in political philosophy, or even just politics and its influences in general, I’d recommend The Prince.  It might be a bit obscure at times, but it’s shaped the modern political landscape for better, or for worse, and that makes it worth a read.

-Bibliography-

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Antonio Blado d’Asola, 1532.