Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sum and Part

Daphnis ego in silvis hinc usque ad sidera notus
formonsi pecoris formonsior ipse.
–Vergil. Eclogue VI. 43-44

The connection between man and deed is a curious one, not nearly so obvious and finite as it seems. Philosophy asks if what we do is ethical, most often approach the question from the perspective of agency, focusing on ethics and effect. The natural sciences are concerned with cause and process. Similarly, psychology asks us why we do something and history asks who did what, when. There is between these pursuits, though, the strange phenomena of how deeds and ideas adhere to man, who exists as he fashions himself, as his deeds form him, and how he is perceived by others. None of these factors is predictable or permanent. What do we make of men, then, when each one is Proteus?

History hands down as it transforms. On the one hand, we inherit Heraclitus as the weeping philosophy and Haydn as the laughing composer. Cicero is the model republican, Pericles the model statesman. Like Cleobis and Biton, these figures are frozen in time and honor as epitomes of virtue. On the other hand, Julius Caesar varies from age to age. Is he the tyrant, the betrayed, or the commander? Why do some deeds seem to shake right off their perpetrators? Caesar doesn't take much flak for the Gallic War, Pericles for the Peloponnesian, Cicero for being pompous, Augustus or Napoleon for police states, and so on.

The famous, however, stand exceptions to the rule that it is man's fate to be forgotten by this world. Even we mortals style ourselves, though. Sometimes we identify with our profession, sometimes by our faith or ideas, sometimes by one virtue or other. We act one way with one person, and another with others. We wonder about or avoid our motivations. It is often noted that only the individual ever knows himself, but less so that there's an element of perpetual uncertainty even for that endeavor.

When I act, then, is it the intellectual, the Catholic, the teacher, the man, the friend? Do I act from principle or as some grand whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Strangely, that which escapes man attains a unique grandeur. I speak not of natural phenomena such as caverns, sunsets, and great trees, but works of man which seem not to have been authored but rather in anonymity gifted into nature's domain. Consider the nameless medieval cathedrals and the chants which echo through the ages. How different is it reading Aristotle than Plato, the latter's thoughts being bound up in the curious character of Socrates whom we come to know while Aristotle's colorless, humorless treatises seem sprung from logic itself. (All for that quirk of fate that his other writings were lost.) How different is it to read Vergil in the context of 1) Vergil's art, 2) the politics of the early Roman Empire, 3) Augustus, and 4) the influence of other authors, than it is to read Homer, who reaches out raw but pure from the darkness. There seems such a freedom in the figures on those Greek jars, created not in some academic paradigm for a museum, but for living.

Like the ambiguities about ourselves, those of nature often do not obscure but refract and reflect us in our attempts not at analysis, not at use, but at contemplation. They invite not study, but a, if not pure then primarily, aesthetic experience.

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