Heracles to the Stars

Many these days bemoan the preponderance of false claims, e.g., linguists and runners complain of a poorly-informed public. Not everyone has qualms about presenting their passions, as opposed to professional training, authoritatively, and perhaps worse, devoting their words to matter they only partially care about, if at all, in a bid for self-promotion or gain. In the tragedy about Heracles attributed to Seneca, there is a passage that speaks to this problem. Seneca writes of the "overweening hopes" that "stalk abroad in cities" and "the mob more shifting than the sea uplift; this, trafficking in the mad wrangles of the noisy court, shamelessly lets out for hire his passions and his speech". In this marketplace of confused values, at its most extreme, "prosperous and successful crime goes by the name of virtue". There can be prestidigitation because sometimes we are fooled into easy 'solutions' or, at the other extreme, continue to apply what is virtuous in one situation to another situation where this same quality becomes vice.
Xenophon, in Memorabilia, relates one of Socrates' exchanges on this topic. Socrates (quoting Hesiod) speaks of the smooth and easy road to wickedness and the taxing, steep path to virtue, which becomes easy once it is reached. He then illustrates the difference between the two paths by recounting how when Heracles pondered whether to follow the path to virtue or vice in life, he had a vision of being approached by personifications of these paths. Vice, "my friends call me happiness", offers him a life free from toil, with plenty of delicacies to eat and much enjoyment, while virtue begins by saying she's going to tell him about things as they are - no sweet talking. Her speech ends with the advice: "if you ... want power to liberate your friends and subdue your foes, you must learn the arts of war from those who know them and must practise their right use: and if you want your body to be strong, you must accustom your body to be the servant of your mind, and train it with toil and sweat". Virtue accuses vice of being tedious, using tricks, and never winning words of praise. Virtue claims that food tastes better when one is hungry for it, enjoyment sweeter after travail, and old age pleasant when not tainted by shame.

Many of these themes come up in a documentary of one woman's days-long run across a trail, called Finding Traction. One of the things she says is that the tough really does get going but if one can endure it, moments of beauty, though short-lived, will be remembered forever. That story further shares the theme of friendhship with Euripides' tragedy of Heracles. Winning is presented as far less important than having a good support system and being a help to others.
The Euripides tragedy also addresses the problematic theme of the fluxuations of fate, hence the importance of true friends. Apart from family, Heracles' friend in the play is Theseus, who he brings back from Hades though his last labour only required that he bring Erebus the dog. Theseus' fate is similar to Heracles' (and also addressed by Euripides, addressed here). Repeated throughout the play is the idea that some stories are beyond all expectations (a timely read?)
This is also a trait of heroes - both in mythology and life, which we know is stranger than fiction: the hero being one whose life is suspenseful. While wicked lives may be similar in that they are bent on taking down (like Lycius' snide remarks in Seneca's tragedy), the virtuous incline towards creation, and by extension discovery, invention. It is also creative to be able to bear "as weapons what [one] once fought and overcame" - though the question remains as to whether or not we are ever fully in command of what we bear and whether duration of some labours wears us down.
Besides the numerous sententiae that can be extracted from Seneca's play, one can also take away a few clues about the discovery for a life, which centers around a clash of stellar metaphors. Great accomplishment is juxtaposed with vengeful hatred - both written in the stars, and the path that leads to exposure also leads to blindness. Just as vice is described in Memorabilia as being tricky, the paths in Hercules Furens are also tricky: we learn that the path to death is hardly felt and interestingly it is noted that along this path, shame comes too late (which also harkens back to Memorabilia where virtue makes her case through the illustration of old age that bears no shame and a present that is free of distress). Narrowness or narrow spaces seem to lead to trouble (quite opposite to magnanimity). Reaching for the stars, even promised ones, is risky. Maybe some things are better left hidden (like madness - though a less extreme example might be not dwelling on frustration). Virtue as we know from Seneca's other works is also about discerning between appearance and reality: preserving mind and what matters. Below are excerpts from Seneca's play that correspond to these themes.

1. Paths.
Juno says of Hercules' trip to the underworld on his last labour: "It is not enough merely to return; the law of the shade has been annulled, a way back has been opened ... and the mysteries of dread Death lie bared."
Theseus speaks of the path to death and notes, "not in utter darkness does the way first begin ... It is not toil to go; the road itself draws them down" and the course meanders so "there may be no power to retrace the path".
This path can be compared to madness. After Heracles goes mad, his father says, "let hs former mind regain its course".
Before Heracles had returned from Hades, the chorus said he would find a way to make his way back. Thus, at the end Heracles is instructed to be himself: "Now must thy be Heracles; bear thou this weight of trouble."
2. Space.
In Hades, once one has been drawn down the road, "from here, ample spaces spread out".
While that space is ample, earth is not space "enough for Juno's hate".
Juno had feared Heracles would attempt to overcome the highest realms now that he had overcome the lowest.
Heracles is also out of space: He wants to be hidden, "if any place is left"; "I have lost place for exile" he says.
Also, chaos needs to re-echo the outcries of his grief in order for it to reach all three kingdoms.

3. Stars.
The tragedy begins with Juno's lament over the harlots in heaven, i.e., the constellations marking Zeus' infidelity. She admits a star is promised to Heracles.
Juno, who orchestrates Heracles' demise, says ominously of him, "Nor will he come to the stars by a peaceful journey ... he will seek a path through ruin and will desire to rule in an empty universe." She "sets war in motion" on Heracles when "stars shine few" - at the darkest time of early morning.
The chorus, in contrast to all this shooting for the stars, praises the humble home content with what it has: "Let glory of others be sung level with stars but from lofty height ambitious courage falls".
When Heracles goes mad, he says: "Let me seek the skies; the stars are my father's promise" - and even the stars turn away from him in the end.
4. Darkness and madness.
Juno asks to go mad first so that she may enact her vengeance. She wants to drag out of Dis what Heracles left - like madness. Megara, though admitting her ignorance of "the fate in store for us", similarly entreats in her hope for Heracles' return: "whatever lies hid in the hold of murky night, let forth with thee".
There are three figures made with rage in the tragedy, the third being the dog Erebus.
5. Comments on virtue and vice.
Lycius observes that "Of war men ask the outcome, not the cause."
Fortune is accused of being "jealous of the brave" and unjust to the good in allotting its favours.
On trolling: Lycius makes snide remarks to Heracles' father and asks snarky questions of Heracles' wife. Examples of the latter include why she so staunchly supports someone "burried in the depths"; why Heracles is a slave to kings if he's so great; Heracles is no hero because it's not valourous to defeat beasts. Heracles' wife has some great comebacks, like, "Who can be forced has not learned how to die"; "Do away with harsh command - what then will valour be?"; "There is no easy way to the stars from the earth"; "He reaches the depths that he might reach the heights".

Image in background: Amy Butler's Midwest Modern
brush: Egg's favourite brushes at DeviantArt.

Lost or Hiding

By way of meandering introduction, it is odd to find after writing a blog post over a period of days how far it wanders from incipit coordinates. This post began in the alleyways of the slums of London, in Victorian journalist George Sims' depiction of it in How the Poor Live. I had planned to mention how names of old figured into the popular consciousness then, like how Dives, related also to Πλούτων in Cicero Nat. D. II.xxvi, marks for Sims the onus of the poor, and the periphery of commerce also the periphery of wealth's domain and interest. I wonder now about how the amnesia to those names today is oddly the realisation of some of Cicero's ironic stand towards Stoic etymology, which, aside from force of habit, he sought to transfigure, from names into essence.
The word transfigure I picked up not from the church fathers who mined Cicero's works in early years, but from Laurenz Lersch, whose passage on Cicero's etymology in Die Sprachphilosophie der alten led me through my own alleyways: I do not know German, so I tried to decipher the passage by reading about early understanding of irony (for Lersch claims Cicero is ironic in his etymologies) and the Stoic relation towards etymology. I entreat any interested readers to share a summary or translation of the three Lersch pages. I think Lersch - who seems to have influenced so much of what I read, but is hardly cited - explains that Cicero wanted to connect [his own reformulations of] Greek philosophy at a time when such was not interesting to the general reader. He hid his literary aspirations in irony, which means saying less than one thinks.
Speaking of alleyways: one is reminded that something will always be missing from sight, round the corner. While many scholars seem to maintain that the type of "Socratic irony," that seeks to teach via what may be viewed as provocation, was only recognised when Aristotle wrote about it, what do we do with pre-Socratic thinkers like Heraclitus whose famous fragment has to do with a nature that hides? To expect speech to be a faithful mirror to what may be observed might actually be conceived as a weakness if it is realised that what is reflected is never the whole story though it may appear to be. This mirror sends Narcissus to eternal sleep: the εἴρων is the ellipsis leading from troubled times to the subject, begging from the slums of confusion for creative resolution.

But I digress. And will add just one more point before turning more faithfully to Cicero: one book on etymology suggests that irony is cultural, referencing a Greek and Oriental habit of punning. I would add that irony is also a way of coping in cultures that stop making sense. There is no need for it where Dives is thriving, chomping away. But M. Tully Cicero lived in turbulent times.
That said, "the curious etymologies and generally forced allegorical explanations of the mythological fables" that he wrote were "not very well adapted to gain acceptance with the people". The irony in his etymologies seems to be that while he criticised Stoic etymology, he was often simultaneously upholding Stoic views (as noted by the Renaissance thinker Turnebi).
Some scholars (e.g.) argue that Cicero chose to make a deliberate split from antiquarians like Varro who, like the Stoics, continued to use etymology as a basis for their arguments. They observe that Tully only uses it ironically - aside from in De re publica.
Cicero seems to explain the liberty he takes with his interpretation of etymology in Academica I.vii: "But the dialecticians' ... use words of  their own ... either new names have to be  coined for new things, or names taken from other things have to be used metaphorically. This being the practise of the Greeks, who have now been engaged in these studies for so many generations, how much more ought it to be allowed to us, who are now attempting to handle these subjects for the first time!" He also discusses this in Topics viii. Below, I will list excerpts where Tully handles names - largely those mentioned by Lersch, but also a few more, so we can see for ourselves the ironic tone and broader approach. If I were to write a conclusion to this post, it would have something to do with Bakhtinian battleground of language and Sims' peripheries.

From De Officiis: I.6 "I shall, therefore, at this time and in this investigation follow chiefly the Stoics, not as a translator, but, as is my custom, I shall at my own option and discretion draw from those sources in such measure and in such manner as shall suit my purpose."
I.23: "We may follow the Stoics who diligently investigate the etymology of words; and we may accept their statement that 'good faith' is so called because what is promised is 'made good' although some may find this derivation rather far-fetched."
From De gloria: "to imitate the stupidity of the Stoics".
From De natura deorum: I.xxx: "Should not  the physical philosopher therefore, that is, the explorer and tracker-out of nature, be ashamed to go  to minds besotted with habit for evidence of truth?"
II. xxviii: "Do you see therefore how from a true and valuable philosophy of nature has been evolved this imaginary and fanciful pantheon? ... These stories and  these beliefs are utterly foolish; they are stuffed with nonsense and absurdity of all sorts. But though True repudiating these myths with contempt, we shall nevertheless be able to understand the personality and the nature of the divinities pervading the substance of the several elements"
II.xxvi: he gives the Stoic etymology but then gives his own interpretation (like Off. 1.6)
III.xvii he claims to have learnt more about how to worship the gods from the pots bequeathed by Numa than from the theories of the Stoics
III.xxiv he argues that etymology is stupid, that “there will be no name of which you could not make the derivation clear by altering one letter” and calls "strained etymologies" a "dangerous practise" (though through the character of Cotta; in book II, the comments are Balbus').

Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idees. Brush: smoke from DeviantART.


Keats, in one of his letters, writes, "even now I am perhaps not speaking from myself, but from some Character in whose soul I now live". While I will come back to this letter, the line seems particularly reflective of our romantically disoriented age, when people tattoo characters on their bodies hoping to embody that multiplicity that is still limited.
Characters also feature on "reality" shows (the jealous one, the peace-maker, the controlling one), which I can't help but compare to the types that are gods in myth - which came with accouterments of a full world vision, often with prefaces or passages of dedication to the gods, not only to capriciousness, but to where they stood for memory, or wisdom. In that vision, man is but a small actor.
To keep with antiquity, Theophrastus, a student of Plato's and Aristotle's, known largely for his study of plants, is also known for his work Jebb translated as Characters, about character types. He professes to be a "student of human nature" and claims his intention is to help "our sons" better navigate through character types, to know to fraternise with only the best.
A notion of "the finest" to save one from drowning in the ocean of characters; is it possible to suffer from too much "humanity"?

Norman Douglas in Old Calabria writes of racial character type (pp.126-7), and offers his solution to the short height or acrimonious bigotry of some races as being one of diet: proper nutrition makes men taller and more rational. The dilution of enviousness is a question of food. He advocates a more placid type: where placid does not mean something "dangerously akin to self-pity" but steadiness and self-containment. Lest one think this means something like stoicism, this is not what he meant for a page earlier he writes, "There are no stoics among well-fed people."
It is the line, "dangerously akin to self-pity" that brings associations, to my mind at least, of this ocean of humanity where humans can drown. There is a fine line between treating others as one wants to be treated and indulging them because one wants to be indulged and not do the learning that helps one make something where before there was nothing, through the golden effort.
Like the kind that exists on a physical and figurative plane: in physical training. Xenophon in Memorabilia, 3.12, has Socrates speak of its benefits - ranging from glory in war and the related reality of being less likely to be captured as a slave, to mental benefits, where exercise wards off illness and depression, for example. It may be added that self-pity is harder when one builds confidence through gaining increased strength.

A youtube trainer who is effective and full of gusto often speaks about the importance of setting goals, getting through the workouts day after day, and knowing that there will be no results if there is no pain: that physical "good pain" is a helpful daily reminder. Which is not to say that one remembers to exercise at all phases of life, like Aurelius writes in his Meditations, pp. 69, "Recall your true, your sober self, shake off the slumber". Aurelius writes much of mental exercise, which, like more advanced physical exercise, may be described by the Douglas phrase, "self-containment" where the word implies self-control and independence - also providing something of a blank slate.
Gerald Rendall, who translated Meditations, sums up this view by writing, xxxiiv emphasis added, "to assaults from without, whether from the unkindness of fortune or the malignity of man ... the freehold of the mind none other may contravene ... it stands fast ... the field ... into which man can ever at a moment withdraw himself ... and be clapped in perfect ease". Aurelius writes, 31 emphasis added, "remember to retire within that little field of self. Above all do not strain or strive, but be free". This is the figurative component of physical exercise. "Ever and anon grant yourself this retirement" he adds, just like the exercise needs to be done ever and anon. Fitness is not a laurel upon which to rest. It is work that is not tiring because of the benefits it brings.
Character in the context of these activities is very different from character Keats' letter (NB. written in a specific context). Character here is steady and self-contained. Which is not to discount the validity of what Keats describes, if reminiscent of the self-absorbed roller-coaster of youth: "When I am in a room with people, if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then, not myself goes home to myself, but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me, so that I am in a very little time annihilated." It seems to me that despite emphasis on others, the letter centres on self - "All I hope is, that I may not lose all interest in human affairs" he writes, in the youthful melodramatic language of extremes, before time has a chance to give ironing lessons.

Thence the feelings, the softness of discipline, as opposed to strictness, clarity, precision. Pastoral dispensations (οικονομια) as opposed to strict and literal interpretations of canons (ακρίβεια): the comparison to illustrate that while self-containment, for example, may be a noble goal, there is the real problem of how to get there, how to start from where one is without lying to oneself and becoming a well-intentioned zealot or crushing one's gifts through a fearful self-effacement unschooled in discernment.
A letter of emotions is a reminder of what we could be, were, can be. The terrain is real. A man goes foraging for mushrooms, cooks some up at dusk, eats them, and in the morning finds in the basket among the remaining fungi a poisonous red that had got in there somehow, which he luckily had not eaten. Despite the vigil, the strictness, the precision, reality creeps in our vessels, asking if we will let it crack, or figure out how to keep going, creatively. It happens. Yet where would we be without clarity, strictness, and precision?
Again and again, the field is returned to, where character is built. Like one of my journalist friend from back in the day telling the story of how her father had her go out in sub-zero weather and scrape the ice off the windshield as "character building." Because hope or the balm of time are not blind faith; they are apprehended on "that little field".
It is little and wanting, and so this post begins again.

Magazines in background: Marie Claire Maison. Brush: Gimp.
The coffee in the photo echoes the coffee mentioned in the Douglas passage cited.

Facts of Fiction

It struck me as strange the other day when I realised how much argument has to go in to defending certain modern works as specific genres, when in the past, much liberty was taken in applying Aristotle's work on dramatic theory, Poetics, to literary theory as a whole. After all, though, the work seems to privilege meaning, if we take 1451b into consideration, where Aristotle calls poetry more "scientific and serious than history" because it illustrates what could be, i.e. what is possible through types, rather than what merely was. Hadot, in "Physique et poésie dans le Timée de Platon", finds a connection between this later statement and the creation myth in Plato's Timaeus, which is also a could - of the Best - placed over the was - of Necessity. Vis-a-vis this problem of "genre", Gadamer writes in Truth and Method that the main distinction between poetic and scientific (i.e. scholarly) prose is "the distinctions between the claims to truth that each makes". He continues: "It is not mere chance that the concept of literature embraces not only works of literary art but everything passed down in writing."
To look at art in terms of truth claims makes genre merely one form of vessel chosen over another to reach another shore - providing they are popular enough to work, which I add because it seems to me myth, for example, is not particularly popular at this time (which is not to say they do not subscribe to them; also, the winds of culture have blown on different courses since David Strauss, once admired by Nietzsche, among others). John Herman Randall describes mythologies as the consideration that moral adventure, artistic activity, and participation in the class struggle are the most important things in the world. (It is noted, though, that he wrote this in connection with romantic idealism.) Myth, in this respect, is a serious genre, though playful for the make-believe, and so is perhaps too light for this heavily jaded age.

This evening, I watched the end of Three Faces of a Woman, starring the Persian Princess Soraya, which led me to watch the last interview with the Shah of Iran, briefly educated at a Swiss boarding school I once went to during summer, and remembered some things that suggested to me that a world can shrink, but never go away, entirely. As for me, these days I live in a relatively impoverished place, where some people would curiously spend their last money to dance the tango or merengue. And this latter point illustrates the penultimate point in this post: the wish, among some, to belong to something greater, maybe I could add, to something with flair, too. This sentiment is rather like what is suggested in the pop song, "Je veux pleurer comme Soraya". She had a rose named in her honour (a grimpant tea-rose, in 1955 or 1960). It seems the rose, grown for l'impératrice by Francois Meilland, is not trademarked. Could or was?
Ultimately, though, and moving on, whether a hero is written or lived, and whichever comes first if ever, it seems a lot of imagination or vision is required to dream up an alternative in the face of the harsh Necessity that is sometimes called reality. Hadot writes that one such vision is given to us, as a choice (between Best and Necessary) in the Timaeus. What I find fascinating about that dialogue compared with a generalisation of the work of romantic idealists (both serious about best possible visions) is that the former, while idealistic, is also critical.

Book in background: Boucher's 20,000 Years of Fashion;
brush: ewansim at DeviantART.


An album that has brought some respite of late is the Beach Boy's Pet Sounds, which, aside from being a notable record for its avant-garde rock song cycle and unusual sounds and instruments surprises me for its still somewhat pop-influenced harmonies juxtaposed against lyrics like, "I guess I just wasn't made for these times", "Sometimes I feel very sad", "I know there's an answer, I know now I have to figure it out for myself".
It is uncertain exactly how the album got its name, but the album cover features the Beach Boys at the zoo, feeding goats, and a likely explanation was that the sounds were Brian's favourites, i.e., "pet", at the time. The track notes explain the inclusion of circumstantial sounds: like the dog barking, or train whistle. And speaking of circumstance, Brian didn't navigate it very well: "This is the worst trip I've ever been on". How do we return safely from the beach, after that?
To begin with, animals. They come up in stoicism, and even in Plato's Timaeus. Second, the skill of sight, which possibly entails the feelings of "difference" intimated in Pet Sounds, even if, by way of shorthand, difference may be described as superficial. First, though, the pets-or animals.
Animals, which care for their offspring and have a preservation instinct, are used as illustrations of human behaviour in Stoicism (which may cause one to think that perhaps some humans act worse than animals). Humans, through οἰκείωσις, are then meant to then develop mental, not only bodily, preservation, through rationality, which affords affinity with cosmic reason: man can become at home in the world through the development of the rational soul, identifying with the entire human race, expressed through a virtuous relationship with others.
Similarly in the Timaeus, a "likely account", the person who has "devoted himself to learning and to true thoughts" and who exercises such (90), is contrasted to the beings who transformed into lower creatures through paying "no attention at all to philosophy" and not studying "at all the nature of the heavens because they ceased to make use of the revolutions within the head and followed the lead of those parts of the soul which are in the breast. Owing to these practices they have dragged their front limbs and their head down to the earth ... because of their kinship therewith" (91).

Our kinship is not something to be dealt with lightly, particularly because things are not what they seem. The opening passage of the Stoic handbook the Enchiridion advises about such φαντασίαι: "say to every unpleasing semblance, 'You are but a semblance and by no means the real thing.'"
Since appearances are seen, they require proper sight. In the Timaeus, sight is attributed with having given man the vision of days and years, i.e., a notion of time, and also a "means of research into the nature of the Universe" through which philosophy, "the greatest good of eyesight" was obtained (47). By contrast, we learn that those who are diseased through excess are unable "to see or to hear anything correctly", and go mad (86).
Here, we may return to the musical beginnings of this post, as man's goal is essentially to be in harmony with the cosmos, which (spoiler alert) we learn from the Timaeus does not mean being in harmony with that which is seen, but a likely idea of the Best. It is in this work that Plato, who shows all kinds of good and bad ideas and interlocutors in his works, has Timaeus, the authority in the work, say: "For what is good merits description more than what is evil" (87). 
As this is a likely account of genesis, a likely account of the Best, comment is made on a rival philosophy: that of the Atomists. "Now our view declares the Universe to be essentially one, in accordance with the probable account; but another man, considering other facts, will hold a different opinion. Him, however, we must let pass," Timaeus says, "the doctrine of an infinite diversity is that of a man unversed in matters wherein he ought to be versed" (55). The word "unversed", ἄπειρος, plays on the two meanings of that word Lamb, a translator of the work into English, writes: meaning both 'unlimited' and 'unskilled'.
How contrary this idea is to our contemporary culture of multiplicities. But it depends on which way we are looking: the essence of humanity will always be one, no?

One who attempts to look beyond the first appearance of things may be lonely. The Beach Boys sing: "I know so many people who think they can do it alone, They isolate their heads and stay in their safety zones. ... No one wants to help me look for places, Where new things might be found."
These words are hopefully just the beginning, to be followed by the moral progress of the προκόπτων (advancing student), and an outward manifestation of difference through self-imposed self-restraint attracting the ridicule of others. Epictetus in the Enchiridion writes: "The marks of a proficient are that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one; says nothing concerning himself as being anybody or knowing anything. When he is in any instance hindered or restrained, he accuses himself". He is not even to be bothered if he appears foolish.
Plato's Timaeus continues this thought: "But he who has seriously devoted himself to learning and to true thoughts... must necessarily and inevitably think thoughts that are immortal and divine ... in so far as it is possible for human nature to partake of immortality ... inasmuch as he is for ever tending his divine part and duly magnifying that daemon who dwells along with him, he must be supremely blessed", Timaeus (90b-c). (Eu-daemon-ia, εὐδαιμονία, means happiness.)
So what does all of this have to do with "Pet Sounds", and how might we find our way back to the beach after stormy nights? "Harmony ... was given by the Muses to him who makes intelligent use of the Muses, not as an aid to irrational pleasure, as is now supposed, but as an auxiliary to the inner revolution of the Soul, when it has lost its harmony, to assist in restoring it to order and concord with itself", Timaeus (47).

Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idees. Brush: Ewansim at DeviantART.
Creative Commons License