Platonic Guidelines #
Plato’s Republic outlined his views on good literature using the* * Epic Tales of Homer, The Odyssey and The Iliad as exemplary texts. Later classical works such as Vergil’s Aeneas, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Milton’s * Paradise Lost were* written in this tradition based on an objective approach, appealing to reason - the mind - satisfying our intellectual needs rather than our emotive desires. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and many other artifacts could be included.
The safest general characterisation of the European Philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. (1929) Alfred North Whitehead
“Three classes of men, lovers of wisdom, lovers of honor, and lovers of gain”.
Plato and Aristotle: What an accident of history that two suchcontrasting orientations toward the physical world, animated by two such different aesthetic sensibilities, should have been pedagogically entangled with each other. Plato espies beauty in the elegance of the mathematical proportions he is certain rules the cosmos, Aristotle, in the richness of sensed particularities he is certain can be functionally explained. Plato wanted to ban storytelling. He understood its power and its danger. Aristotle though, believed that one of the primaries uses of story was to make sense of our lives.
Plato emphasized the deceptiveness of appearances.
Neither Plato nor Aristotle had mastered the concept of experiment. While there was much to divide them, there was much to unite them.
One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil. And why, then, should you not pluck at my laurels? You respect me; but how if one day your respect should tumble? Take care that a falling statue does not strike you dead! You had not yet sought yourselves when you found me. Thus do all believers — Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you. (Nietzsche Quoted by Jung to Freud, 1912)
Epic Approaches to Literature #
Calliope is queen of Epic poetry.
For it is through the Muses and far-shooting Apollo that there are singers and harpers upon the earth; but princes are of Zeus, and happy is he whom the Muses love: sweet flows speech from his mouth. For although a man has sorrow and grief in his newly-troubled soul and lives in dread because his heart is distressed, yet, when a singer, the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all; but the gifts of the goddesses soon turn him away from these. Hesiod – The Theogeny - ll.95 – 103
The characteristics of epics include an oral tales told as entertainment after a feast, narratives about “extraordinary deeds”, famous, adventurous topics, in the style of the “traditional heroic mythology” so that the central character appears like a sum of super human heroic virtues.**
Epic means different things; larger than life, transcendence. Oral tales of super heroes: Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, King Arthur…..There is Epic literature; epic tales and epic theatre – the same and yet different.
Epic Poems are defined as long, narrative, on a serious subject written in a grand style, centred on a larger than life hero. Characteristics include a vast setting, superhuman and supernatural characters, elevated style written in an objective point of view to cultivate a cerebral response. Conventions include an invocation to the muse, opening statement of theme, beginning in “medias res”, formal speeches, and uses of Epic similes. While classic drama is confined to one day, epic poems have unlimited time. – The Odyssey extends to ten years, The Iliad** to about seven weeks of a ten year war.
Sumerian stories like The Epic of Gilgamesh to the five cycles of the Homeric tradition, Latin Aeneid, to Indian, Scandinavian, Beowulf, Germanic heroic epic and its late Renaissance echoes very likely influenced by the Mesopotamian one from the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. Beowulf, like Hamlet, is a pagan tale retold by a Christian Monk for a christian audience.
In a Platonic approach, we are distanced or alienated (estranged) from the action and critically evaluate it. Instead of getting emotionally involved we are detached and objective. We are made to feel emotionally disconnected to the action and detached from the characters. Instead of playing with our emotions,
It’s no surprise that when Arendt turns to literature, she sees it as rooted in the “disinterested pursuit of truth”: “The political function of the storyteller—historian or novelist—is to teach acceptance of things as they are. Out of this acceptance, which can also be called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgment.” Arendt does not mean “acceptance” as a form of political quietism. She means “truthfulness,” as opposed to propaganda, which is partial—biased, incomplete information.
She traces the tradition of literary political representation to “the moment when Homer chose to sing the deeds of the Trojans no less than those of the Achaeans, and to praise the glory of Hector, the foe and the defeated man, no less than the glory of Achilles, the hero of his kinfolk.
This had happened nowhere before; no other civilization, however splendid, had been able to look with equal eyes upon friend and foe, upon success and defeat.” This is not humanizing Hitler, but rather offering a broader view of humanity, while maintaining a keen awareness of who is friend and who is foe. This is what Keats praised in Shakespeare as “negative capability.” To be sure, authors often feel the need to imagine themselves into others. But that act of empathy is instrumental, not ethical as such—writers are not historically renowned for being good people—and ideally, it is in the name of a greater impartiality and equality.
Epic Literature*. affects the mind and moves us to action leading to social remedies. As the characters are singular, atypical or super heroic, we are not encouraged to identify with them.
Rather than focussing on individuals it looks at the broader scale and appeals to the masses, the collective psyche because it involves mass suffering. As Stalin put it: “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. However, by satirising mankind’s heartlessness, art can change a mindset.
Suffering is degrading and dehumanising, leading to desensitisation or brutalisation, promoting the instinct of self-preservation. Epic Literature can often move from cynicism and appear to be Nihilistic.
¹Nihilism is a 19^(th) C. Russian extreme revolutionary movement. A skeptic doubts, a cynic distrusts, while a nihilist rejects all traditions, beliefs, morals, values and aspirations. They are utterly negative, destructive and subversive, believing or valuing nothing. They appealed to disenchanted youths urging them to destroy a repressive society and rebuild it from scratch.
“Someone who does not bow to any authority or accept any principle or trust”.
Rather than emotionally empathising or identifying with the main characters we become critical observers and respond rationally and intellectually. We assume a universe governed by chance, randomness, or caprice. Chaos rides supreme in a discordant world where evil often triumphs over good. The literature of the Absurd often uses this approach with limited plots, disconnected scenes, a montage, lack of sequence or structure and minimalism in props
The plots are often well known so we are interested in the course of the action not the result because of a lack of suspense. We dwell in the present, not the past or the future.
Epic Literature is realism rather than illusion so lacks subtlety and nuance. It tends to be direct, explicit, overt, didactic.
Plato considered reason; cerebral faculties higher than emotions or the visceral. “Platonic Love” he defined:
“Neither family, nor privilege, nor wealth, nor anything but Love can light that beacon which a man must steer by when he sets out to live the better life.”
Ratherthan physical or emotional, it is rational.
According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, there are two different types of empathy.
‘“Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety.
“Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions.’
We empathize based on the reaction to others. What I’d also say is that empathy can be cultivated and learned through experiences. Store away in your memory those feelings that you feel both in reaction, and as you put things in perspective. Write these thoughts out, analyze them and determine how you want to treat others in the same way you’d want to be treated.
A good example would be Brechtian Epic Theatre which is different; dissident, divergent, variant, resistant, subversive. It is the Theatre of Realism and Intellectualism
Brecht’s techniques – Verfremdung – Estrangement
Bertolt Brecht – a German dramatist and poet 1898 – 19656
His definition: “to take from an event or character that which is predictable, self evident, obvious and to arouse surprise and curiosity”. Brecht regarded conventional theatres of illusion as soft thinking; a narcissistic romanticism, - a desire to use the theatre for escapism. The principle of Einfuhlung (empathy) was regarded as theatrical seduction which clouded the minds of the audience to the true issues. He tries to divorce the audience from sentimental involvement or engagement and detach, distance or alienate us from the characters on stage. We are not meant to identify or empathise with them, rather stand back and judge them critically.
The Epic devices in Mother Courage: #
Setting – the past. Removes us – no attempt at verisimilitude, rather it is a chronicle set 50 yrs ago.
Interrupted by Songs which destroy our sense of realism.
Loose episodic structure with inscriptions shown before each scene which inform the spectator of the events to come.
Long breaks between scenes -often years- interruptions, the war goes on for MANY years – war as natural as peace.
Stage set up minimally, realistically; no curtain, sets changed in full view of audience- sparseness of scenery.
Introduction of countless transient characters.
The characters are not only alienated from themselves but also from one another. Their words belie their feelings, their deeds their words – they bluff each other as well as the audience.
Comedy detaches audiences. Mixture of comic and tragic – that which appears comic, often laden with tragic implications. Black humour disengages and distances us from empathy.
Actors talking directly to the audience helps the break the spell or illusion of reality. Suddenly we become aware that we are not voyeurs perving through an invisible fourth wall sharing the intimate secrets of domestic strife.