CCR 634: Cicero, Part 2

Reading Cicero this week, with the emphasis on arrangement, memory, style, and delivery, I found a few threads that struck me.

First, particularly with Crassus’ interlude, I noticed the return of philosophy. Again, Crassus’ ideal orator feels like a polymath who can also vary their delivery depending on their situation. They have the knowledge of the philosopher, but can also convey that knowledge in ways that philosophers cannot. As Crassus concludes:

“if we are looking for the one thing that surpasses all others, the palm must go to the orator. If they [philosophers] allow that he is also a philosopher, then the quarrel is over. If, however, they keep the two distinct, they will be inferior  in that their knowledge is present in the perfect orator, while the knowledge of the philosophers does not automatically imply eloquence” (266).

While Crassus does seem to treat the ideal orator as somewhat Platonic, a goal we can strive toward more than attain, the role of knowledge feels particularly significant. His tracing of philosophical schools tries to tie his own (rhetorical) craft into these deeper traditions. The space his seeming “digression” takes up is substantial. And, this theme comes up regularly in the overall text. So, I want to focus on the role of knowledge.

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Return (for now)

Hey all, it’s been a while. Though I’ve kept blogging on a school-based site, the nature of the blogging has been more academic, mostly reaction to readings or conferences. It wasn’t the sort of writing I was doing here.

But I think I’ve come to miss this space. Primarily for three reasons. First, it’s a chance to voice my thoughts in a public setting that is a more involved than most social media. It’s uncanny, for example, that my last post before the hiatus was about gun control, since the news of the Orlando shooting has left me blank and sort of shell shocked without a space to vocalize anything. The echo of the news is sort of reverberating in my body and thoughts but not really going anywhere. I’m not ready to talk about it, but I need a space to just sort of say that. That I am literally sickened and dazed at the news and can’t seem to figure out next steps or previous steps or any steps at all. This blog used to be that space, and I guess it is today.

Second, while I’ve been doing a lot of writing, I’ve been writing in a vacuum. True, I’ve been writing to peers and professors, occasional strangers, and fellow academics at conferences, but I miss a public place interface with an audience on a semi-regular basis outside of academia. Not a big one. Or a constant one, likely. But someone. Because I miss the sense that now and then my writing was doing something. It was a small something, but the occasional thank you message or thought was more nourishing than I gave it credit.

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Humdrum aesthetics, ambiance, and everyday affect

I’ve been off lately. Like a typist with baseball mitts on or a table with uneven legs. Finishing up coursework, graduating, moving back to my parents to prep for the next phase of life, I’ve been recalibrating my humdrum “average everydayness,” to use Heidegger’s term.

Doing so has left me lurching, back peddling, and out of sorts. Fortunately, I’ve been riding it out well, even thinking about my daily driftings, dustings, and feelings as they fit the humdrum aesthetics of everyday life.

I like looking at life aesthetically, as this view implies the ever messy, artful, and personal position we have. While we often talk about “building” a life or going on “journeys,” I’ve always pictured life like a canvas, gradually accruing layers of paint as we rub away and redraw our life into becoming. Talking in terms of poetry, Nietzsche puts it well in The Gay Science: “we want to be the poets of our life–first of all in the smallest, most everyday matters” (240).

So we paint our lives through “daily fidelity,” as Camus puts it, through little etches and big thoughts, baby steps and bounds, each day passing as we glide, slip, and work within our daily world.

But we aren’t alone in this process. We also have other people in our lives, immediate and present or steering from a distance. But other things, like weather, geography, and the objects that allow our habits, compose our canvas as well. To use a term I’ve been thinking about lately, our lives have “ambiance,” situated, embedded, and present in a broader cradle of being. I tend to side with Thomas Rickert on this perspective: that traditional self/world or subject/object dichotomies are flimsy and over simplifying, even wrong in a way. We are worldly and bodily, not simply a self in a body in a world.

Moreover, many of these things recede from our immediate perspective, but still exert an influence. For example, I ran out of tea recently. Normally an everyday object taken for granted, its absence skewed my routine, affecting my whole day. And through the move, my placement of everyday objects has changed, from my wallet and keys to my pants and socks. All these little differences from things long-since receded change my humdrum aesthetics. They change my life.

In Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, she maps and probes many of these “ordinary affects” and the largely diffuse and unconscious effect they exert. As she writes, worth quoting at length:

Ordinary affects are public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation but they’re also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life. They can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation. They can be funny, perturbing, or traumatic. Rooted not in fixed conditions of possibility but in the actual lines of potential that a something coming together calls to mind and sets in motion, they can be seen as both the pressure points of events or banalities suffered and the trajectories that forces might take if they were to go unchecked. (5)

Difficult to pin down, analyze, articulate, or even notice, these ordinary affects steer our lives. Stuff happens that we can’t fully articulate or trace, but we know that something is happening. Something is throwing itself together. Assembling. Doing. Changing. Being. And, often, this something catches us up in its folds. We resonate in mutual ambiance, distilled into becoming.

As Stewart describes, a biker couple enters a restaurant and mentions an accident, creating a conversation, creating a “we.” The greenery of a city increases well being. A collection of affect leaves me waking up at noon instead of 6:15, blinking at my clock, in a sprawl of blankets, dazed thoughts grasping at the wakefulness that gradually pools into a day, gathered up into a life.

“Grain upon grain, one by one,” writes Beckett, “and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.”

What does it mean to be happy?

Walking to the library recently, morning tea in hand, I paused a moment and watched snowflakes powder the branches of a nearby stand of pines. The air was quiet–that vacuum-sealed hush that pervades winter dawns–and the sun glowed through the cloudy sky like flashlight through a fogged window.happiness

“I’m happy,” I said suddenly.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what happiness means, but it’s a slippery word. Images and expressions clutter its meaning, twisting and warping the word beyond recognition in some cases. There’s the tranquil happiness of a retiree feeding pigeons to pass time on a warm Sunday morning. Then, there’s the hedonistic thrill of a teenager, beer in hand, slipping into a throng of dancers in some dim, crowded corner of a house party. Then there’s Stoic and Buddhist joy, a sort of peaceful equanimity.

Fortunately, they do have a few things in common, I think.

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Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk

Yesterday, while sitting in the cafeteria, sipping the last of my tea, I scanned the seething mob of students around me. Pockets collected around tables, laughing. Some weaved through the rows of chairs, balancing plates. Most were focused, making beelines through the groups, mumbling excuses and smiling as they dodged bodies and carts, slipping into their own chair. Others took their time, stopping at tables, picking out apples like a chef at a farmer’s market.

Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library
Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library

Each person had a way of being. Some wore exercise clothes, others had prim button-down Oxfords, most shuffled through lines in pajamas. They had places to go, things to do–or an absence of things to do that they filled with conversations and distractions.

Having spent the morning reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century, I recalled one of the more famous lines. The narrator, a mysterious figure named Will, falls asleep and finds himself in the midst of a strange country. He describes it:

I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built; 
A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein, 
With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight 
A fair field full of folk · found I in between, 
Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor, 
Working and wandering · as the world asketh. 

Will then goes on to describe these “fair folk.” Some toil in fields, while “Wasters” devour their products in gluttony. Some seek after salvation, becoming monks and anchorites; others wear the habit as a means to a escape poverty and cheat others. Merchants sell wares. Pilgrims travel. Kings rule, judges judge.

The poem describes a diverse spectrum of life, from highborn to low, and sandwiched them between these two towers: the one on a hill, the other in a ditch. We later discover that the tower on the hill is the tower of Truth, a symbol for God and salvation. The tower in the ditch belongs to Wrong, providing a symbol for a wasted life and a doomed afterlife. As the poem progresses through it’s many “steps,” visions chronicle Will’s search for salvation through Truth.

In the cafeteria, I considered Will’s vision, particularly this “fair field full of folk,” buzzing, weaving, laughing, and living around me. Where are they all going? I thought. What are they doing? Why are they here? A surge of compassion welled up in me as these questions turned over in my head, rolling one to the other. I felt connected to everyone and detached at the same time, an outside observer with a unique stake in the observation.

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Aphorisms

Call this a sequel to my last post. I graduated yesterday, and have been busy moving, nietzsche-377x500unpacking, and processing my final weeks. So I haven’t had much time to research or write anything new.

Still, in the midst of it, I’ve been reading Nietzsche. Along with his break with Wagner in 1876, Nietzsche took leave from his post at the University of Basel. With his freedom, Nietzsche wrote a series of aphoristic works, beginning with Human, All too Human and ending with The Gay Science.

I just finished reading excerpts from the set of them.

Before these works, Nietzsche wrote essays or reflections, The Birth of Tragedy being the main example. After, his work retained this aphoristic bent, even when he resumed a more traditional essay style, as in Beyond Good and Evil. The style may owe much to the German philosopher Schopenhauer and the French tradition that predated Nietzsche, which influenced his work a great deal, but he made it his own with his sharp wit, dynamic language, and unique philosophy.

Influenced by Nietzsche, I figured I’d share a few aphorisms I’ve gathered during college. I’ve heard some, borrowed others from books, and made up a number. In no particular order, here are a few:

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So another year’s gone by…

David Copperfield and Co. celebrate the New Year
David Copperfield and Co. celebrate the New Year

Two summers ago, my high school friends and I hit the road through New Hampshire, climbing a mountain, going to a theme park, ghost hunting, and staying in sketchy hotels and campsites in the White Mountains.

The state motto for New Hampshire is “Live free or die,” taken from a toast Revolutionary War hero John Stark wrote for the 1809 anniversary to the Battle of Bennington. Poor health prevented his attendance to the anniversary, but his words penned and mailed have endured:

Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.

I saw the words on the roads in front of us, emblazoned on license plates and signs, and they’ve stuck, always on the hazy edge of consciousness. Live free or die. They’ve become my own motto.

I leave this year laden with memories. Despite difficulties, it’s been the best one of my life so far, because it’s the first year when I’ve felt fully alive.

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Crinkled, old books

The school library gives away excess books, usually obscure philosophy titles that have lingered on shelves for years, dusted with age and the prints of wizened grad students. Wednesday, they had a table full. I survey the jumbled piles on a table by the main entrance, pluck and shuffle them as I scan the titles.

Now and then, I open one. The binding crinkles, as if glued into place, and the yellowed pages exhale their pale aroma, a warm, dusty tang that has always reminded me of cigars and cedar wardrobes.

I can’t help but steal a few: some Heidegger, Dostoevsky, a Kaufmann anthology of Existentialist writings. I slip the delicate volumes into my backpack and continue.

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Update: Finding an Honors Project

With school and all that comes with it, I can’t put the same time I’d otherwise like to into my blog. I apologize. However, I’d still like to continue it in a series of “updates,” petit posts to fill the interim as I write my thesis, lead clubs, and cram classwork via tea and naps.

That said, I can’t put the same level of polish and professionalism that I’d otherwise like to, but hopefully a few phrases still ring and a few ideas linger after that final punctuation point.

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The nearness of the distant

I’ve done a bad job updating this blog so far, so I’m going for a shift of focus: I’m going to make it more personal. I apologize for the gaps in posts so far. Scouts honor–and I was a Boy Scout–I’m going to post more regularly from now on. So to get to business…

I’m nearing my final weeks of junior year. Clouds cover the sky like a rumpled old blanket, sapping color from the St. Bonaventure campus. I imagine Heidegger walking by the nearby river on such days, his steel gray hair matching the clouds, his footsteps lagging as a new thought turns over in his head. He was a heavy guy. Even his name. Heidegger.

I’m writing a paper, drawing from an essay he wrote: “Who is Zarathurstra?” He analyzes the unity he sees between Nietzsche’s concepts of “overman” and “eternal recurrence,” doctrines threaded through Nietzsche’s works. The ideas are heavy, sunken cathedrals built on traditions of metaphysics dating back to Plato.

Through the dry but brilliant essay, a line stands out: “Longing is the agony of the nearness of the distant.”

Sometimes philosophy has poetry wedged between the arguments; the line captures my mood during these final weeks.

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