Aristotle on storytelling

The latest book in Princeton’s Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers is advice from Aristotle to poets and dramatists. Aristotle (384-322 BC) was Plato’s most brilliant student and tutor to Alexander the Great. He is one of the great ancient thinkers, whose ideas have permeated philosophy, science and art for two thousand years, although his ideas come down to us in fragmented and diluted form. This volume takes extracts from the Poetics, an important statement of ancient aesthetics. Aristotle described all literature (and storytelling) as based in mimesis. He set out the importance of appropriate length of a story and that stories must have a beginning, middle and end. Spectacle must be subordinate to plot. Plot takes precedence over character. Conflict between allies and inside family is more compelling than that between strangers. Tragedy comes from a great man undone by weakness.

Translator and editor of this volume, Philip Freeman of Pepperdine University, explains the difficulties with Aristotle’s texts. “The Greek text of the Poetics as Aristotle wrote it consists of unpolished lecture notes, not a finished literary work like the dialogues of his teacher Plato. The text also has missing words and sentences, with other parts annotated, rearranged, and in general jumbled by copyists over the centuries more than most manuscripts from the ancient world. The result is a book that will leave even the best classical scholars at times scratching their heads in confusion.”[i]  

Aristotle’s observations on fiction have been very influential and have become the rules that one must know, even if in order to subvert them. The idea that a story needs good and bad characters, acting to change a situation and a clear conclusion seems to be one thing that scriptwriters and financiers of Marvel and DC movies, and American television series, need to re-learn. The serial nature of high-budget cinematic and televisual drama has destroyed Aristotle’s recommendation and left us with a legacy of stories designed to be unended and ever ready for disappointing (but lucrative) prequels, sequels and reboots. In an age when scriptwriters do not believe in heroes and villains – except when they have politicians to champion or decry on Twitter – the power of essential elements of storytelling need to be reinforced. The terrible comic-book action-hero stories come from writers being ignorant (or defying) the advice to make a tragedy from “a serious error in a noble kind of person”[ii].

American comedy writers need reminding that “Comedy, as we have said, is an imitation of inferior people.”[iii] The most effective comedies explore the pitiful pathos and hubris of inferior people. Curb Your Enthusiasm presents the failings of a fictional Larry David character who cannot control his resentment, selfishness and worst instincts. The writers, directors and actors in that series are clear about the central character’s inferiority without sacrificing his humanity and relatability. In all failed comedies we find an unwillingness to expose weaknesses of character or to allow those characters to ultimately fail or remain disgraced. Aristotle warns us not to go too far. “Comic characters are not cruel or vicious, but laughable […] Being laughable is a shortcoming or disgrace that doesn’t involve serious pain or destruction.”

The comedy requires the incorporation of the morality tale and that means judging and being permitted to condemn flaws and types of person. In a mass-media world that fights shy of mocking oddity and absurdity – and refuses to accept traditional descriptions of sin and flaws as valid – the moral core of comedy becomes compromised or suppressed. It is regrettable that – contrary to his ideas on tragedy – Aristotle’s thoughts on comedy are mostly lost.

The tragedy is best when compact; the epic needs a greater space of time within the story. In some ways, Aristotle goes against the current fashion. Those brought up in an age of method acting will find foreign the observation, “[T]he goal of an actor on the stage is not to imitate character. Character is instead a by-product of action. Action and plot are what a tragedy is about.” We might differ on the need for characters to explicitly state their reasoning. This falls into the trap of exposition – telling not showing. It is often more stimulating and realistic for characters to conceal motivation or reveal it indirectly and against their will contra Aristotle’s assertion “speeches in a play in which the speaker doesn’t choose or make a clear choice do not express character”. The audience reading the subtext and inferring motivation is satisfying because it demands the audience use empathy, life experience and analysis rather than simply passively absorbing.

Other sections discussion language, grammar and speech and the Greek poetic metres. There is advise for writers and critics and comparisons between art and writing. The merits of epics and tragedies are weighed. The notes are thorough and informative. As usual in series, the introduction and notes are in English; the main text is in the original language (Greek) with parallel English translation. How to Tell a Story forms a worthy addition to Princeton’s classics library.

Aristotle, Philip Freeman (trans., introduction), How to Tell a Story, Princeton University Press, 2022, cloth spine hardback, 264pp, English/Greek text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 0 691 20527 4

(c) Alexander Adams 2022

To find links to my books and writings visit https://linktr.ee/alexanderadamsartist

Cicero: How to Win and Rule

IMGS024

Cicero (106-43 BC) was a Roman orator, lawyer, statesman and philosopher. His writings are a major source of information about the politics and history of the end of the Roman Republic. He had been a brilliant student and one of the ancient world’s greatest orators. He studied philosophy and argument in Greece, including Platonism in Athens. His political and legal manoeuvring in Rome endangered him under the reign of dictator Sulla and his time in Greece was partly self-imposed exile to escape the vengeance of Sulla. His later advocacy of a return to principles of republicanism meant that fell afoul of Mark Antony and was assassinated an influential enemy of the new Caesar.

Cicero is considered a leading progenitor of humanism and liberalism by later moral philosophers and political thinkers, although he was opposed democracy. Instead, he preferred a productive tension between aristocrats and Plebs, which checks the power of each and forces the opposing sides to accommodate the interests of their opponents. His advancement of restraint and republicanism align him with Stoicism, a philosophy he expressed as a personal position in Paradoxa Stoicorum. However, he has been accused of opportunism and hypocrisy, using his brilliant speech as a cloak for self-serving arguments. Cicero was never reluctant to offer advice to students, important figures and the public. Two volumes of Cicero’s distilled wisdom are How to Win an Argument and How to Run a Country. The first addresses rhetoric and oratory and the second addresses statesmanship. These are two attractive small volumes which include English translations, Latin original texts, introductions and notes, making them self-contained and approachable for non-specialist readers.

How to Win an Argument has advice for politicians, lawyers and public speakers of all types. He discusses the Aristotelian triad of logos, ethos and pathos in the art of speech. The book includes not only Cicero’s advice to speakers but examples from his own speeches, legal and political. This gives us a chance to see Cicero using his own ideas in practice. A central example is Cicero’s 52 BC defence of Titus Annius Milo against the charge of murder of Publius Clodius. It was a defence that was unsuccessful partly due to interference in the trial and the political manoeuvring that demanded the exiling of Milo.

Cicero exhorts the speaker not to use obscure language or to use excessive rhetorical devices. He likens this to the use of strong perfume, which can be overwhelming. “[…] I don’t mind hearing people say “great!” and “outstanding!” about us, however often, but I don’t like to hear “charming!” or “how pretty!” too often. Certainly, the popular exclamation, “couldn’t do better!” I would want to hear repeatedly.” Of all the aspects that Cicero believed key to good speaking was delivery. “[…] the most effective element in our delivery, next to the voice, is the expression on our face; and this controlled by our eyes.” He quotes Demosthenes, the Greek who was considered that greatest orator in the ancient world. “People generally agreed that, when delivering these words, [Demosthenes] used his eyes, voice, and gestures to such effect that even his enemies could not contain their tears. I am talking about this in some detail because the orators, who act in real life, have abandoned this entire field, while the actors, who are only imitators of reality, have appropriated it.” The great speaker learns to use his body like a musical instrument.

Editor James M. May has compiled a summary list of key points: 1. Nature, art, and practice, practice, practice; 2. Eloquence is a powerful weapon; 3. Identify, arrange, memorise; 4. Not by logic alone; 5. Know your audience; 6. Be clear, be correct; 7. Delivery matters; 8. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and more; 9. The pen is often mightier than the sword; 10, Words, without substance, are hollow things

Once you have won election, how should one govern? How to Run a Country contains Cicero’s comments on how to act as a ruler and politician, a subject he had expertise in. Cicero recalls how, upon returning from a successful governorship of a Sicilian province, he was thunderstruck to encounter some holidaying Romans who had never heard of him. He reminds us of the humility we should exercise to keep our achievements in perspective. “Why should I say more? At this point, I gave up and joined the crowd on the beach.”

His advice to orators is incisive and succinct. “An orator must be able to choose the right language and arrange his words carefully. He must also understand the full range of emotions that nature has given us, for the ability to rouse or calm a crowd is the greatest test of both the understanding and the practical ability of the speaker. An orator also needs a certain charm and wit, the cultured ways of a gentleman, and the ability to strike fiercely when attacking an opponent. In addition he needs a subtle grace and sophistication. Finally, an orator must have a keen mind capable of remembering a vast array of relevant precedents and examples from history, along with a thorough knowledge of the law and civil statutes.” In principle, Cicero is correct. However access to plentiful written sources has allowed the role of memory to diminish for anyone other than a participant in a spoken debate or private argument.  Feats of memory were considered a prerequisite of many roles in public life. Imitation of the masters is recommended to gain command of technique and to learn the application of theory in practice.

Generally, he warns against excessive taxation, corruption and unwise foreign adventures in war. He vaunts service and duty – on both ethical and pragmatic grounds. He warns against tyranny, stating “Whoever tries to govern a country through fear is quite mad. For no matter how much a tyrant might try to overturn the law and crush the spirit of freedom, sooner or later it will rise up again either through public outrage or the ballot box.” Ultimately, Cicero would pay with his life for his opposition to the tyranny of Antony.

Cicero’s insights are as valid as they were 2,000 years ago and his advice could be beneficially applied perennially by speakers and rulers today.

 

 

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Philip Freeman (ed., trans., introduction), How to Run a Country, Princeton University Press, 2013, 132pp, half-cloth hardback, Latin/English text, $12.95, ISBN 978 0 691 156576

Marcus Tullius Cicero, James M. May (ed., trans., introduction), How to Win an Argument, Princeton University Press, 2016, 263pp, half-cloth hardback, Latin/English text, $16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 164335

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

Stoicism: Antidote for Victimhood

img421

Two new books filled with ancient wisdom offer an alternative to the culture of victimhood which currently dominates public life.

In recent years the culture of offence, emotional lability and learned helplessness has encouraged people to be weak in order to gain social status. If we are upset we display our emotions for support; if we are hurt we show our wounds for sympathy; if we consider ourselves slighted we indulge our injury. By rewarding weakness we encourage it. We learn to make ourselves unable to accept valid criticism by rejecting it as a personal slight. We demand respect without displaying the qualities that might generate admiration. Whenever we encounter opposition we feel defeated because we have defeated ourselves peremptorily. Social and psychological data show that we are making ourselves, our children and our society ever more fragile in a descending spiral of blame, making anyone but ourselves responsible for suffering. The culture of victimhood can be seen in social-media outrage mobs, the prevalence of identity politics and the casual assumption that bigotry is endemic and condemns subjects to lives of intolerable failure.

The Stoics believed that suffering largely emanates from within each person and that each person, therefore, has the power to overcome suffering through conscious thought and learned habit. They believed that treating both failure and success with equanimity preserved the individual from the excesses of pride and despair. An interior search for meaning led to understanding of virtue and to dignified restrained conduct not to temptation to succumb to self-pity, vanity and selfishness. Stoicism’s cardinal virtues are wisdom, courage, justice and temperance.

Stoicism was a school of moral ethics originated by the ancient Greeks in Athens in the 3rd Century BC. Two of the most prominent writers were Epictetus (c. 55-135 AD) and Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-36 BC). Princeton University Press have produced two attractive small volumes of which publish the original texts (Cicero in Latin, Epictetus in Greek) with parallel English translations and brief introduction and endnotes.

How to Be a Friend (Laelius de Amicitia – literally “Laelius on Friendship”) was written by Cicero for his friend Atticus when they were both old. He was reflecting upon the importance and nature of friendship, using the general and orator Gaius Laelius not only to share Laelius’s thoughts but to reflect Cicero’s own understanding of friendship. In the translator’s introduction some of Cicero’s observations are summarised:

Only good people can be friends because trust, wisdom and good faith are essential to deep friendships; persons of low moral character cannot be trustworthy friends. Make new friends, but keep the old because your friendships of longstanding may change as your circumstances change; new friendships reflect new aspects of your life. A friend never asks another friend to do something wrong because moral distortion of a friendship is the result of moral flaws which should disqualify the friend from your trust. Friendship should never – ideally – be material or the result of dependence.

To the degree a person relies on himself and is made sturdy by virtue and wisdom so that he depends on no one and thus possesses all he needs within himself, to that extent he most excels at seeking out and cherishing friendships. Did my departed friend Africanus need me? By Hercules, not at all! And I had no need of him. But I loved him because of his goodness, just as he, if judged rightly, loved me because of the virtue he saw in me.

In one touching passage, Cicero talks of two friends becoming competitive in their attempts to help each other, trying to outdo each other with consideration and generosity. Elsewhere he writes, “Friends are the finest and most beautiful adornment of life.” This is tempered by moral seriousness. “True friends should give faithful advice to each other, not only with frankness but with sternness if necessary. And this advice should be heeded.” On the response to the death of a friend, Cicero writes “If you let your sorrow overwhelm you, you’re not showing how much you loved your friend, only how much you love yourself.”

One might quibble with a handful of points – including that one must never give consideration to negative comments made about your friends – but generally the book is full on sound insights into human nature.

How to Be Free (comprising extracts from Encheiridion (Ἐγχειρίδιον) (“Handbook”) and Diatribai (Διατριβαί) (“Discourses”)) is a parallel translation with the colloquial Greek, as spoken by Epictetus in his lectures. They were transcribed from memory by his pupil Arrian of Nicomedia. Epictetus was a freed Geek slave who became known as a thinker after he was granted his freedom. For Epictetus, freedom was a mental choice. One could examine one’s self and become aware of the virtues and vices and understand how different phenomena affect one’s outlet. After knowledge and self-knowledge comes the exercise of will. Epictetus does not, however, address the dangers of passivity in the acceptance of one’s fate. The philosopher enjoined persons to treat every situation as expected and necessary and to only respond by tempering one’s reactions. Mastery of oneself – through deciding how to respond – gives both serenity and stability.

Epictetus helps us view with equanimity things that most people care about: wealth, poverty, illness and so forth. If we treat such matters with distant appreciation and mindfulness we become not entirely indifferent but less swayed by passing states. Do not get carried away with your passions, for good or ill.

“In company don’t go on at length about your deeds or adventures. It may be pleasant for you to recount them, but others are less eager to hear about what has happened to you.” (That just about kills social media.) Refrain from luxuries, socially unacceptable sex, emotional excess and humour. Epictetus is capable of his own dry wit. “If you are told that someone is talking badly of you, don’t defend yourself against the story but reply: ‘Obviously he didn’t know my other faults, or he would have mentioned them as well.’”

If someone in the street were entrusted with your body, you would be furious. Yet you entrust your mind to anyone around who happens to insult you, and allow it to be troubled and confused. Aren’t you ashamed of that?

In an age of vanity, fear and self-absorption, Stoicism offers hard truths and curt truisms. These small tomes should appeal to readers with a desire to better themselves and a willingness to take on tough wisdom that has not aged in 2,000 years.

 

Epictetus, A. A. Long (trans.), How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, Princeton University Press, October 2018, hardback, 173pp + liii, £13.99/$16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 17771 7

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Philip Freeman (trans.), How to Be a Friend: An Ancient Guide to True Friendship, Princeton University Press, October 2018, hardback, 208pp, £13.99/$16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 17719 9

28 September 2018

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art