Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Week in Review: Aristotle and The Godfather

There were a couple of fun extra-curricular activities this week. What do philosophy and theology students do in their spare time, when they aren’t in class or doing homework for their philosophy and theology classes? Why, get together at discuss philosophy and theology, of course! This last Tuesday featured the first in a series of student-led seminars discussing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. (The work’s title is derived from Aristotle’s son, Nicomachus, to whom it was dedicated.) It was a highly engaging and entertaining evening. I got to witness a bunch of smart people discussing an important text, and mix it up a bit when they disagreed. I think, though, that rather than going into the details of the discussion, since most of you haven’t read the text before (neither, I confess, have I), I’ll just tell you a bit about this fellow Aristotle, since his name is going to be coming up quite a bit in this blog over the coming months.

Aristotle was born in 384 BC and died in 322 BC. (Yeah, those backward-moving BC dates always get me, too; remember, BC is a countdown to the birth of Christ, and AD are counting forward from that time [AD = Anno Domini, “The Year of Our Lord”].) His father was the physician to the King of Macedon, and Aristotle ending up being the tutor to a future king of Macedon: Alexander the Great. You may have heard of him. Aristotle himself was a student of Plato. Yeah, you may have heard of him, too. Aristotle wrote texts on many different subjects, including logic, rhetoric, physics, metaphysics, ethics, politics, beauty, and even zoology. Aristotle perhaps is best remembered, in one sense, for two things: in his own time, he was the most systematic of the ancient Greek philosophers, categorizing his thought in a way unlike others had before; centuries later, as the Christian West began to become familiar with his writings again after they had been all but lost, Aristotle’s thought had a HUGE influence on theology. This has come to us most remarkably in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy and theology followed an Aristotelian framework; when you read St. Thomas, he refers to Aristotle simply as “The Philosopher.” High praise. And since St. Thomas is considered to be THE theologian in the Church’s history, Aristotle has indirectly had a huge influence on the development of Catholic theology. And since St. Thomas was a Dominican, and I’m at a Dominican school, I’m going to be reading a lot of Aquinas, and a lot of Aristotle. It’ll be good times.

The second extra-curricular event was a “philosophy movie night” viewing of The Godfather, hosted by one of the DSPT students. [I am continuing my practice of not naming people without their consent. I was going to ask him, but forgot.] This student studied film and worked in the movie industry for a few years before coming to DSPT, so watching a movie with him is quite the informative experience. At times he would pause the movie and simply ask, “What are we feeling right now? Why are we feeling it? What do you think the filmmaker is doing that is making you feel that way?” At other times he would point out various tricks and methods that movie makers use to convey their points. A few examples: “sound design,” the sounds happening within the movie, are a HUGE part of producing emotions in the audience. Think of when Michael Corleone is in the cafĂ© with The Turk and the police captain, and the L-train is going by, getting louder and louder, making the tension build during that already-tense scene. Think of how often in a scene of loneliness or helplessness you hear a dog barking or a baby crying—standard movie-making technique. Also, next time you watch The Godfather, keep this in mind: when you see fire, it’s a bad omen. It’s a subtle theme they use throughout the movie. Apart from that, we talked about larger themes: about the dark side of the American dream, about doing whatever it takes to protect your family, and perhaps in the process losing them and yourself. (I think only now of Christ’s question: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”) It was an awesome experience. I’m looking forward to the next one!

Highlights from classes during the week:

Intro to New Testament: We’ve been talking about the historical critical method, and some of the ways in which it can be useful in helping us to understand the Bible. The historical critical method pays close attention to the history surrounding the times of the biblical events so as to give the reader a context for the things written in the text. One place where this method is a big help is in the Book of Revelation. Consider Revelation 13, which describes the beast with seven heads, “blasphemous names” written on its heads. What is this beast a symbol of? Consider: the Roman emperor, by the end of the first century AD, had taken to giving himself titles like (get ready for it) “Son of God” and “Savior of the World”—blasphemous names, indeed, to one who acknowledges Jesus Christ with those titles. Knowing that makes you read that passage a little differently, no?

Aristotelian Logic: You know that there are four ways you can oppose things to each other, logically? Contradictory opposition is the simplest and most complete, this opposes a thing to everything else in existence that’s not that thing, e.g. rational and non-rational. Don’t confuse this with privative opposition, which opposes a thing to a lack of that thing when it ought to be present, e.g. rational and irrational. (People can be irrational; a bear is non-rational. It’s not supposed to be rational. It’s a bear. It’s supposed to spear salmon out of the stream and scratch its back on trees, not engage in logical argumentation.) There’s also contrary opposition, which opposes two extremes of the same genus, e.g. black and white. The last is relative opposition, where two things are opposed only in reference to one another, e.g. right and left, whole and part. If nothing else, keep that distinction between non-rational and irrational in mind.

History of Ancient Philosophy: Our professor has said this several times, and it’s worth repeating: “Plato’s dialogues were written in the genre of Greek comedy. If you read Plato too seriously, you’re reading him wrong.”

Philosophy of Nature: We’ve been learning about Aristotle’s theory of change. See, the big problem for the ancient philosophers was to explain how a thing could change. Parmenides put the problem well: if a new thing came to be (i.e. if there was change), then it would either have to come from nothing or non-being, which is impossible, or from being, in which case it would already exist; so, nothing changes. Yeah, read that a couple of times. It might make sense. Aristotle addressed this problem by proposing a different way of looking at it. A thing is what it is, but it also has the potential to be other things. That potential is part of the thing itself. A table is a table, but it has the potential to be a pile of wood if it were to be broken up, or a pile of ashes if it were to be burned. That potential is part of the thing. This avoids Parmenides’ paradox: the new thing, e.g. the pile of ashes, doesn’t already exist, nor does it come from nothing, but rather from the potential of the thing already existing. This will lead you right into all of Aristotle’s distinctions between act and potency, substance and accidents, matter and form, but I’ll let you chew on that for now.

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