Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Plato versus Aristotle

Ladies and Gentleman, It's The Throwdown Of The Ages. The One Size Fits All Battle Of Minds In Which Everyone Must Take A Side. We Have Seen Them Fight Over Theology, The Ideal State, The Nature of The Ideal And Just About Every Other Topic That Would Define Western Civilisation: The Individual Blows Of Their Fights Have Become The Paths Of Western Philosophy. Against These Two Men's Epic Ruckus, Aquinas's Entire Corpus Is Merely A Kick In The Balls Of Monism. Betrand Russell's Complete Works Become a Sneaky Punch In The Ribs.

In this specially arranged amphitheatre, modelled on Herod Atticus' patch up job on the one at the bottom of the Athenian Acropolis, these titans of though meet to sort it all out for all time.

In the red corner, carrying the weight of Abstract Ideals and a City State of Philosopher Kings on those broad shoulders, heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee's PLATO.

And in the blue corner, dragging along the categorisation of everything he could get his hands on, the late tutor to the Great Alexander: iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiitttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt's ARISTOTLE.

Plato saunters to the centre of the ring, nonchalant yet determined. He fixes his eyes upon his opponent and begins to speak, slowly and carefully.

"Why is it exactly that we are fighting?"

Aristotle looks at his feet. "In The Republic, you make the claim that the actor is a dangerous character. In your ideal society, a man who changes his roles at will upsets the balance of the state, in which everyone has their predetermined place. However, you do say that you'd be happy to hear a counter argument, since theatre remains pretty popular. I've got your answer."

Plato is nonplussed, but keeps his tone even. "It could be that," he drawls. "Or maybe Vile is messing about again, reluctant to actually do his essay."

"Interesting split infinitive there," Aristotle counters. "From the man who is acclaimed for his prose elegance."

"I split my infinitives far less than you split the entire Universe into categories."

"And it is just like you to get metaphysical about the battle, rather than look at the cold, hard material facts."

"Here's another characteristic of my thought." Plato chuckles. "I'll ask the questions. Why did you slip The Poetics onto the end of your Politics?"

"You started it. Your condemnation of theatre comes as part of a description of the perfect society. I am following your lead, and examining the social impact of theatre. Neither of us has a particular interest in pure aesthetics."

"Probably because the discipline doesn't turn up until Kant has a crack at it. His idea of the sublime - perhaps followed by Heideigger's interest in the uncanny - goes some way to account for the popularity of theatre that neither of us could acknowledge."

"You claim that the theatre has two weaknesses, two dangers. One is that it presents the gods as doing bad stuff, the other the problem of the actor's art. The first applies as much to Homer, Epic Poetry: you rememdy that by making up your own myths whenever you need them. That suggests a rather pragmatic attitude to religious narrative, especially for a philosopher who frequently invokes the divine."

"Neither of us had much time for the state religion. I was burned when they killed Socrates for 'corrupting the young' and encouraging belief in strange gods. You ended up running away from Athens to tutor a barbarian prince."

"Abstractions, again. Back to the fight. Where you argue that drama is a form of mimesis, an imitation, you make it bad by definition. Since you are already claiming that the physical universe is a mimesis of a pure form, an artistic copy is a further remove from the truth. I make a few strikes against that."

"So, the man who loves biology so much makes a stand for lies?"

"Not lies. Drama - and this goes for poetry in general - can use the myth to get away from the specifics of history, the detail, and look for more general patterns: the universal. A good play -  and I mean Sophocles' Oedipus Rex  - doesn't tell the history of a particular mother-loving monarch, but suggests how such a matter could play out."

"For most of us, contrary to a line in the play itself, sleeping with mummy isn't a concern. Are you making these mythological stories some kind of psychological drama?"

"I am not that interested in the content of the stories: it is more the structure that intrigues me. The way that Sophocles works through the process of revelation. That is universal."

"Let's hear about the complex plot, then."

"That's when two ingredients are added to the catastrophe - which every tragedy needs. The 'reversal of intention' (peripeteia) and the recognition (anagnorisis)."

"If we stick with Oedipus, I guess  the peripeteia is when Oedipus tries to get information about his past: he thinks it will clear his name, but it goes a little wrong... then he recognises who he is. That's why the play is so good: it is essential a horror story, and the climax is when the hero looks in the mirror, and realises that he was the villain all along."


"And this is the best way of doing it? The protagonist - the hero - experiences reversal and recognition? Where does that fit into Medea?"

"Er... well, Theseus intends to reconcile with his ex-wife and it goes wrong?"

"He's the antagonist. What about The Oresteia?"

"It's a trilogy."

"Yet it has something at the end that fits your description.It resolves various plot threads in a coherent manner."

End of Round One. A victory on points to Plato.

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