Skip to content
Home » Archive » Fearful Imitations of Life, Higher Truths within Reason and Emotion

Fearful Imitations of Life, Higher Truths within Reason and Emotion

From everything changes to nothing changes. From impermanence to permanence. Let us continue our plunge into the rabbit hole of change and our Hegelian style analysis of Plato’s model of change for a better world with Aristotle’s version. Perhaps we shall come out on the other side with a better understanding of what change is as well as how we could try to define it. On the other hand, we could end up losing our minds. Proceed with caution:).

Natural Fear

Let us start with the fear. In Hegelian terms, before even considering an antithesis to the current cultural status quo thesis of Athens during the Golden Age, Aristotle wants us to remember that there is a powerful force that lay beneath even the thesis. It is a force that has the power to change the landscape of our lives in the blink of an eye. It could wipe out an entire city-state polis with one fell swoop. And we have no real way of fighting back. No real way to prevent these things from happening. And it is always changing… regardless of the changes we may or may not make to try to fix any issues, most especially corruption, within the structure of our human society. 

Underneath it all, that constantly changing force is nature. And we need to remember to appreciate it. To respect it. And most importantly, to fear it. For at any given moment. A fire, a cold storm, a thunderstorm, a flood, a hurricane, a tornado, a monsoon, a volcano, a plague, a disease, a sickness, etc. could come and completely change our lives. Even erase our very notion of truth. Of what we think or believe we know. And it would also do us well to remember that all things within the great chain of natural causes from humans on through to all other animals and plants, exist within it. And are dependent upon it for their very survival.  

Hence, Aristotle does not agree that change can be reconciled as Plato had suggested. That in a sense, nothing changes within the idea of the world of forms and everything changes here on this earth. Aristotle stays grounded. And instead of looking beyond for something that he believes he cannot know for certain, he tries to dig deeper. Searching for, as we’ve previously stated in prior blog posts, the deepest possible truth. Which he ultimately believes will yield the most ideal life possible for humans on this earth.   

Disillusioned Equality and Competition

One of the other ideas that Aristotle dismisses at the onset is equality. For in nature and its associated constant changes, we are also, by default, constantly in a state of competition. We cannot evade it. And we cannot create a system to control it as Plato had so valiantly attempted via equality. 

Firstly, although humans may belong to the same species, when we are further dissected, each individual human is distinct from one another based on certain features, characteristics, and capabilities. And those that evolve to become leaders do so not only out of the individual’s capability to thrive and flourish, but also out of the privilege that one derives from their biological makeup. Hence, the uncontrollable individual biological factors of sex and race give rise to Aristotle’s perceived capability of an individual to be able to attain virtue and flourish through increased opportunities for wealth, education, and leisure time as we have also previously discussed. 

Further, for Aristotle, reinforcing the motif of binaries, it is better to be good looking than not (ugly), better to be Greek than not (barbarian), better to be free than not (slave), better to be male than not (female), better to be healthy than not (sick), and ultimately, better to be wealthy than not (poor) as these attributes will provide one with natural privilege, and thus the greatest potential for reaching success, leadership, and happiness. In thinking about this, in Aristotle’s perspective, an individual lacks control over the constantly changing environment, both natural and cultural, that they are born into, including any natural privileges associated with them at birth.

Given this, for Aristotle, equality only really seems to exist as another general idea. Not a reality. Instead, competition is the reality as competition occurs naturally, as a part of nature, within both the whole of the great chain of natural order as well as within each individual level of it.

Individual Golden Means of Progress

With competition as the reality then, what Aristotle ultimately wants in his most ideal vision of resolving the issues associated with his time and making an impactful change for the better, is progress. Slow, gradual progress to represent change. Not major seismic shifts. We already have those in the form of earthquakes and floods. Instead, he wants steady progress via the individual demonstrating consistent virtuous behaviors amidst the natural competition that we live in. And he wants this to then flow like an endless spring into the city-state polis. 

Hence, both his initial antithesis and eventual synthesis of change with regards to the issues of his thesis / current status quo, if ever, is a slow gradual one rooted in nature. It’s making steady progress. For in this particular way, we seem to have the highest probability of overcoming major societal issues and flourishing. 

Additionally, it is not something that exists outside of us in the form of a universal idea such as Plato’s conception of justice and how it entails everyone doing the thing that they are naturally suited to be doing in perfect harmony. This is limiting in that the individual becomes stagnant in whichever supposedly natural job function and corresponding way of life they’ve been assigned to. Further, it renders the individual less capable of being able to reconcile the constant change and infinite possibilities that underline life.  

Demonstrating consistent virtuous behavior, throughout every stage of life, then becomes linked with having the best possible chance of reconciling the constant change that exists for all of us, within nature. For, via Aristotle’s logic, if nature is constantly changing, and man is dependent upon nature for survival, then the environment in which man as well as all other animals exist within, is constantly changing. And what we have to then reconcile is our responses to these changes. Our individual internal responses to constantly changing circumstances and the many varieties of emotions associated with them. So that our existence is balanced. So that we can make progress individually via the pursuit of virtue. That will inevitably become interwoven within the fabric of society. 

What Exactly is Corruption Anyway?

Plato, as we recall, primarily wanted to censor the arts to reduce corruption. From here we need to better define what type of corruption he meant as it was not just corruption itself. Yes, ideally, I’m sure Plato would’ve liked nothing more than to have rid the world of corruption. But, just as the ancient Greeks think of aims when referring to the optimal best usage of a thing or being, so shall we consider this when thinking of his definition of corruption. 

We know full well by now that Plato’s chief aim is the efficiency of his utopian system. The philosopher king led society that epitomizes Plato’s ultimate definition within The Republic regarding the question of what is justice. Wherein we previously summarized justice for Plato as everyone within a polis, “doing the one thing they are most naturally inclined to do and sticking to it without any deviations.” Essentially and most ideally, no multitasking and no overlapping of work. Harmonious balance. His aim regarding the reduction of corruption is secondary in that it flows into his primary aim of ensuring that the efficiency and justice of his utopian system remains intact. 

Hence, this means that the specific type of corruption that Plato is concerned with is that which will act as a destabilizing force against his utopian system. Anything that he believes could cause an irreparable fissure to its foundation. This is where we start to come closer to the full circle regarding the distinction that was made in the previous blog post about general vs. individual. As Plato wishes to uphold the general and suppress the individual out of fear that a supremely spirited individual could lead to a rebellion and the downfall of his utopia. Wherein, by spirited individual, we mean someone that has the capability to persuasively evoke extreme emotions out of others. Someone that challenges the ideas of the system and makes other people question the current status quo. 

The irony here, of course, is that Plato is doing just that himself. He is leveraging the power of his individual writing and philosophical skill through the powerful conduit of Socrates to challenge the current status quo. He is himself a spirited individual challenging the status quo, possessing the power to elicit extreme emotions out of others. 

Finally, we talked about the role of religion regarding this via Plato’s myth of the metals. But, as we’ve alluded to, this also extends into the arts and rhetoric. Hence we finally arrive at our working definition of what Plato deems to be corruptive activities as those that concern a spirited individual with the power to evoke extreme emotional responses out of others, primarily through the mediums of the arts and rhetoric. 

Homeric Freedom and the Power of Lamentation

It’s good to revisit this as it reinforces our direction. Our compass. We don’t want to get lost here:). Remember we need to keep our sanity, not lose it. 

So, given all of this, why exactly did he fear the supposed corruptive forces that lie within the arts? What about them exactly was too risky? And how will this supposedly help to reduce corruption?

Let us begin with Homer. Yet another immortalized and enigmatic ancient Greek figure to add to the list of vastly influential people that may have never even existed (recall the Spartan Lycurgus and the pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras). The mythic author of arguably two of the greatest pieces of literature ever written, “The Odyssey,” and “The Iliad,” depicted the Heroic Age of Greece in stunning fashion. If you’ve never read these two books, I’d recommend them. Because, whether Homer was a real person or if he was just a mythical figurehead used by various writers, his influence is vast and undeniable in the grand scope of all world literature. 

The Heroic Age of Greece essentially revolved around the legendary Trojan Wars, and took place between ~13th – 10th century B.C. Needless to say, within these two pieces of literature lies a vast amount of ancient Greek culture. What is the most ideal, or virtuous man (the answer during Plato’s time would have been unequivocally Odysseus from The Odyssey)? Who is the greatest warrior that ever existed (again, undoubtedly Achilles from The Iliad)? And how many feasts can one man eat in a three day period (just kidding, hahaha:). 

Yet Plato, within The Republic, goes so far as to essentially ask, “who is this Homer guy anyways?” In essence, “should we really be basing our current society’s values on his poetry and the dated beliefs of the older, more traditional ways? Isn’t it too violent for our kids? Won’t it jeopardize the purity of their souls? Doesn’t it teach the people to believe that the Gods can be responsible for bad fortune as well as good fortune? Don’t we want all of our citizens to believe that the Gods are genuinely good, and that although bad things happen, these bad things should not be attributed to the Gods? For only the good, not the bad, should be attributed to the Gods.”

Plato does respect the talent of Homer as a poet. He even thinks Homer got a few things right such as celebrating the lives of the Greek people that served with honor and valor in glorious fashion upon their death (The Iliad). Poetically, Plato reflects on Homer’s words when he attempts to create the ideal philosopher guardian, as they would be in the divine form and image of the ideal polis, or Plato’s utopia (The Iliad). Homer’s words again seem to help compel Plato’s vision of the philosopher guardian going from darkness within the cave to seeing the light outside the cave and the preference to undergo any associated suffering associated with seeing the light as opposed to having to return to the cave and continue to live as they previously did (The Odyssey). And yet, he thinks that his utopian guardians should ban any talent like Homer’s from even entering his polis of purity. Recall the Spartan influence upon Plato and their emphasis on ensuring that outsiders do not live with them for extended periods of time so as to affect their culture and their people’s commitment to it.

So Plato is trying to ban talent like Homer from entering his utopia because he sees it as a corruptive force. But, more specifically, what about it is so corrupting? To me, banning talent like Homer seems pretty extreme in itself. 

One word. Lamentation. Or the expression of extreme sorrow. The power of it can be transcendental. It can alter the course of a person’s life. Surely, in both The Iliad and The Odyssey it acts as a vehicle to help characters reach within themselves, along with the help of the Gods, to overcome otherwise impossible odds. So much so that it both motivates and frightens Plato. 

Aristotle, conversely, honors and praises the works of Homer in his Poetics as the pinnacle of poetry. And although Aristotle does seek conformity in other areas of culture, of which we will eventually delve into in more detail, it is the freedom of expression within the arts that he believes is the backbone of human society. He even refers to the arts, most especially poetry, as a living organism. A living organism that is capable of triggering change and ultimately represents an imitation of our lives as humans. Further, he sees the ability to lament within the arts as something that, when properly harnessed, can be amongst the most potent forms of therapy. 

Constant Catharsis

For me, in reading, researching, and trying to interpret Aristotle regarding his assessment of change for individual humans within the landscape of human culture, I am struck by one major idea. That, if things are constantly changing on this earth (tornadoes, floods, droughts, etc.), and if our lives as individual humans are also constantly changing on this earth (we are always either growing or devolving physically and mentally throughout our individual lives), then so too is the imitation of our lives. Meaning everything is in flux. Even the culture that we create. It too is a living organism. One that Aristotle believes we can learn to harness as a powerful form of therapy. What he refers to as catharsis. 

But what is catharsis (katharsis)? Apparently in ancient Greece it was a common word that was often associated with a type of cleaning. Far from the meaning it carries today, as is the case with the constant cycle of hermeneutics and words losing their originally intended meanings as well as gaining new meanings. For today it carries the connotation of a deep reconciliation of one’s emotions (circa Sigmund Freud as well as others before and even after). But this meaning was in a way that helps someone to flush the emotions from their system, to purge the emotions (especially those associated with repressed memories) and thus purify themselves. 

For Aristotle, juxtaposed to this, the intention of catharsis was to combine the use of reason with emotion to ensure optimal usage of both. And, in doing so, simultaneously elevating our level of humanity. Achieving a type of golden self-virtue. 

And he believed that this could be done through the arts. Through music as well as poetry. That the most eloquent sequence of notes and words could help to stimulate both the emotions and reason to act in unison to help release any excess emotions that may be burdensome or excessive. To return the emotions back to their most virtuous level, as opposed to purging them. Because he thought that, as humans, we consist of both emotion and reason and need optimal amounts of both in order to operate and function at our most virtuous level of humanity. And he believed that Homer’s poetry represented the highest form of this in terms of the deepest, most profoundly powerful mechanism for achieving catharsis. 

So instead of designing a grand utopian system of great change, Aristotle thinks that each moment in itself, both within the reality of living on this earth as well as within the creative imitation of life via human culture, represents change. And that we must be constantly reconciling each of these moments via the process of catharsis. And if we cannot reconcile them on our own, which occurs all too often, then perhaps the arts can be used as a vehicle to help us to do so. But how does this look? How does the process of catharsis get played out? 

Constant Catharsis Redux

Let us reiterate the above in a slightly different way so as to really hammer home its importance. 

In essence, for Aristotle, we as individuals need to be able to reconcile every constantly changing moment of our existences. We need to learn how to rebalance our souls by utilizing the harmony of our most significant human elements, our reason and emotion. 

This seems to beg the following question. What exactly is this reconciliation that the individual needs to be able to make that is so fundamental in enabling the individual to live a virtuous life and society to make progress? Is there an exact process? A science, even?

For Aristotle, the answer lies within the depths of the question of what are we as humans as he also does not agree with Plato in that we, as humans, can be defined into three separate reasons for existence. For if we possess the ability to flourish, then we, as individuals, must also have the ability to change. And, in order to change effectively, so that progress is being made, we need to be adept in our abilities to reconcile.

In flourishing then, we possess a certain freedom that we can use to grow and evolve. And we can improve ourselves by striving for virtue. We are not simply men of desire, emotion, or knowledge. We can be more. Through the combination of these elements and a deeper understanding of the world we live in as opposed to censoring it. Most especially, human culture. 

For this has been the extent of man’s contributions to the world, and he believes that all of the progress that has been made thus far throughout the existence of humanity must be good, else why would it be here. We will delve further into this shortly as perhaps Aristotle has a motivation to presume. Perhaps his own life being in jeopardy due to the constant state of turbulence surrounding him, especially once Alexander the Great passes, but also when Philip the Great was out conquering the other Greeks. As we know he was an outsider to the world of the Athenian citizen, he was a metic. 

Aristotle also believes that, in addition to reason, we need emotion in order to be able to truly live virtuously. Not just emotion in terms of our core psychological drives as humans as Plato eluded to, but emotion in terms of feelings. Yes, feelings. Sad, mad, happy, etc. 

For, in addition to using our reason to try to understand the world around us, we are also affected in some way by the constant changes taking place around us. Affected in that we have a connection to both what is happening outside of us and how we then, in turn, process it internally, as individuals. 

Finally, in order for this process to function optimally, we need to be able to utilize both reason and emotion in unison. Along with our senses, they combine to make up the human experience of the world around us. And, our chances of living a virtuous life are severely limited if we do not utilize them both. Further, in terms of the world around us, the most important things that we need to reconcile lie within human culture. For it is within human culture that we can see the depiction of human progress. And if we want to continue to change for the better, as humans, we need to continue to develop our understanding of ourselves as individuals existing within a world of human culture.

Reconciling Complexities of Tragedy

What is it then, within human culture, that we need to reconcile? Perhaps it’s all too obvious. For as individuals, we are constantly exposed to various forms of tragedy. War. Famine. Pandemics. Zombie Outbreaks (maybe one day, hahaha). Loved ones getting sick, injured, and ultimately dying. Or things just simply not going our way, or the way we want them to, or the way in which we envision them going. Through art there is a possibility of transcending these adversities. Most especially, for Aristotle, within the constructs of poetry and its ability to gloriously imitate life, wherein the greatest form of tragedy for Aristotle is that in which complexity evokes fear and pity. 

But what type of complexity? Just the complexity of life itself? Not quite. 

More specifically, the complexity of life for the everyday person that is held in generally good-esteem by their peers and undergoes deep pain due to an error that was outside of their control, which then brings about a profound change in their core psyche. An unexpected change that brings their state of being from one of good fortune to bad fortune, in a tragic way.

Outside of our control. Just like with Aristotle’s fears regarding the power of nature. However, with tragedy, the errors he’s referring to are primarily human in origin. 

The audience then interprets this poetically expressed change as a closely related event that either could or has occurred in their own individual lives. This then fills the audience with a potent combination of fear and/or pity. Fear that it could happen to them. And pity for the person imitating this painful event within the story itself. Perhaps even fear and pity for others, depending on their level of empathy, that are or could potentially be going through some type of similar pain and suffering. 

But there is a deeper fear. One that Aristotle praises above all others within the arts and specifically poetry. This can be found within Aristotle’s terms “recognition and reversal” wherein character(s) within a story are not fully aware of their forthcoming pain until the very last minute. Only for it to finally be revealed, recognized, and their fortunes reversed as a result. 

Hierarchies of Artistic Tragedy

As is consistent with ancient Greek thought, there is a hierarchy in terms of what is best within the definition of each specific term. Via Aristotle’s Poetics, the characters / actors within a tragedy should be better looking than we are. And have a general goodness that is reflected in their character through the decisions they make. There should also be consistency regarding the actions and general disposition of the character. Proper decorum, or an appropriateness is also included in what is best regarding the characters in a tragedy. All of this seems to combine, for Aristotle, into a character that is generally virtuous and thus carries with them, good fortune. 

Then there are the different types of recognition. In terms of how the character comes to a realization within the poem / story of tragedy. The first is through the use of a token, such as a watch or a necklace. The character recognizes that the mother in law pretending to be kind is actually conniving as they catch a glimpse of their purse and make a deeper connection with their immorality. Next is memory, wherein a character comes to a realization through a memory that occurs within the story. They might, for example, hear a song or see a picture that then triggers their recollection of an important piece of information that they might have otherwise overlooked.

Additional modes of recognition include inference and false inference wherein, in the latter case the audience may be led to believe something about the story up until a certain point where it is revealed not to be true. And, in the former, the characters are able to successfully deduce at a key point in the story the inevitability of what is to come. But, highest of all for Aristotle is recognition that simply plays itself out through the actual course of events within the story. Wherein each moment within the story either builds up to or peels back layers of what is to be eventually revealed. It also seems that all of these elements could be interwoven together. 

Additionally, there are the depths of suffering to consider. Wherein the deepest darkest forms of suffering result within the closest of relationships. Brothers, sisters, father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, mother-daughter, husband-wife, and lovers. For the closer the relationship, the more profound the level of betrayal that one can feel. And within it, the more extreme the reversal, or change, of fortune is from good to bad. All is good until the people you hold dearest betray you. It simultaneously rips apart your soul and breaks your heart. Perhaps others experience it differently, but based on my personal encounters with it, this seems fairly accurate. 

Poetic Lightning Strikes of Recognition and Reversal

For us, all of this tragic imitation not only seems to reflect real possibilities, but ones that we would not like to entertain too deeply. For if we did, we might just lose ourselves. This fear. This exact fear of losing oneself seems to be why people would rather live in a state of ignorance. They would rather escape into anything else. Alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, traveling, fashion, sports, exercise, work, your kids, TV shows, movies, religion, and even video games. Because if they truly acknowledge the possibility of these types of tragic events occurring to them, rather than just through an imitation of them through the medium of the arts, then they might just lose their minds. 

Further, if a person were to actually have tragedy occur in their lives. If say their parents were to both die in a plane crash, and then one of their siblings were to commit suicide, and one of their children got really sick, and they couldn’t focus any longer at work because they had to now also had to take care of their child so they eventually lose their job. The compounding effect of these lightning strikes of tragedy could also cause that person to lose their minds. To be faced with the ultimate reversal of fortune, and the agonizing recognition of its reality. When the story becomes reality, people instantly become fearful. And when it does happen, a lot of people want to disassociate themselves from it and the people experiencing it. Some want to help, but don’t know how. 

This seems to be a sign of the times, wherein people have experienced compounding tragedies. Losing jobs. Getting sick. Loved ones dying. Becoming estranged with family and friends. Seeing corruption rot out the civilization that you were raised in. I’m no different. My search to find a way out is intense. It is not for everybody. But at least I’m trying. And I haven’t been 100% dedicated either. At times it has been fucking overwhelming. I keep asking myself, how can we try to push forward given the heartbreak that everyone has experienced? To see beyond the heartbreak, beyond the betrayal of humanity by humanity itself. Yet, this is more than a mere sign of the times. For tragedy has been with us since the dawn of human civilization. 

Epic Tides of Tragedy

Our trio of Greek philosophers, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato each witnessed tragedy. War. Death. Betrayal. Suffering. In the case of Aristotle and Plato, we know that each felt the immeasurable pain associated with these tragedies. And both tried to respond with their best version of an epic. One via a utopian future. One via a virtuously golden present. Wherein those particularly transcendent moments of recognition and reversal don’t always have to be a change of fortune from good to bad. And wherein corruption doesn’t always have to rule the day. 

The epic could also pull through under the right circumstances. The epic, for Aristotle, essentially contains all of the same elements as were found within a tragedy. Except for one major piece. Namely, the piece about a character’s reversal and recognition, or their change in fortune from good to bad. There is bad in the world during an epic, but that pivotal moment when the character recognizes that their good fortune has run out is missing. Hence, in a way, an epic portrays us on a seemingly ceaseless grand quest. Where we are aware of the ongoing problems and issues that surround us in the world, and yet we intrepidly stand face-to-face with these potential perils right up until one of those truly pivotal tragic moments in our lives. Where our good fortune turns, the narrative shifts from an epic to a tragedy, and we are hence forced to reconcile the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves.

When I think about the dichotomy between the epic and tragedy, I think about those pivotal moments. And how, when you are in one, it’s almost as if you become paralyzed, in awe, unsure of whether or not this moment will shift the tides of your epic quest in life. For me, this thrill is somewhat related to a later philosopher’s ideas, Edmund Burke, of the sublime. For Burke, the sublime is something that is breathtakingly beautiful, but equally if not more so life threatening. For some reason, the sway between the epic, or what we perceive to be the epic, and the tragedy seem to resemble this polarity. Wherein, our systems shut down and we freeze up due to some tragedy in our lives. That is until we witness something so captivatingly beautiful, perhaps some perceived truth about the world, that we become liberated from this state of paralysis. 

Another example of the ceaseless tide between epic and tragedy would be via the philosopher Frederich Nietzsche’s idea of the more extreme the low points in our lives are, the more extreme the high points in our lives have the capability of reaching. Almost as if the depth of the tragedies that we experience in life reflect the potential magnitude of our epic narrative in life. 

Returning to Aristotle, he sees the tragedy, in terms of poetry, as the superior form because it tends to contain greater power, force, depth, and overall quality than the epic. Essentially, he believes that the form of tragedy reflects a greater truth. For it more accurately imitates human life as human life is inevitably filled with these tragic moments. We cannot escape them. We cannot create a utopian society that will enable us to preserve the purity of our soul’s forever. And if we do cross this threshold and seem to lose this” purity of our soul,” or lose our minds for that matter, we are not stuck in this state. 

Undoubtedly, each person will have to endure through the pains associated with life. And they will need to learn the art of catharsis, they will need to learn how to re-balance the soul. More specifically, they will need to learn to take the power of emotion and reason, both of which are significant in contributing to making us human for Aristotle, so that we can cross that very same threshold and enter into a new status quo. They need to learn to evolve.

Reflections – Orange Picks and a Purple Guitar

I have undergone several epic tides throughout my life. Swaying back and forth between the throngs of the epic and the tragedy. Growing up I had the privilege to view my life in epic style up until the point of that very first tragedy. Wherein my perspective of myself as a person of good fortune changed to that of someone who had succumbed to bad fortune through human error, outside of my control. This then changed my core psyche. And with each new epic tide of tragedy, a new profound change would inevitably occur within my psyche. 

And I was fortunate. There are many others who are far worse off than I. Yet, even knowing this, I have struggled mightily along the way. For just as Aristotle and Plato have experienced tragedy, so to have I (and perhaps, so to have you). Death, betrayal, estrangement. And not just with other people, but also with myself. For I feel as though I have already died several times throughout my life in terms of having to recreate myself completely after experiencing one form of tragedy or another. I also feel as though, at times, I have betrayed myself in not forgiving myself for tragic experiences that I both could and could not control. And I have felt estranged from myself in that I have also tried to escape these tragedies rather than try to face them head on, so that I can continue to live in the present moment instead of getting stuck worrying about the future or longing for the past. 

After my Mom passed, I started learning to play guitar. Teaching myself, then making a few friends who also loved playing that became like mentors to me. I remember right after she passed I would walk around campus at UC Berkeley and hold my orange guitar pick in between my fingers (I always carry one still to this day, in the little pocket at the top of my jeans) and hum / pretend to strum the songs I was learning. Wish You Were Here, Plush, Stairway to Heaven, Under the Milky Way. I would stroll around the hills of Berkeley, through the many hidden paths that lay between houses, parks, schools, and even temples and churches and I would look at all the beautiful oak trees, at the views of the ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and think of her. All while simultaneously holding my pick and envisioning myself playing songs that reminded me of her on my purple haze acoustic guitar. But also, that reminded me of the person that I used to be before her death, and the person I used to be before the other tragic events that took place throughout my life. 

I still play my purple haze acoustic guitar. But now I also have an ocean sea green colored electric guitar as well as another acoustic, and I have learned to play many more songs. With each shift in the tides, I inevitably returned to the healing power of playing guitar. But each time it’s been slightly different. First it was just learning chords and how to strum for certain songs. Then it became learning barre chords, fingerpicking, and how to solo. Then learning to sing songs while playing the guitar simultaneously, this one was the hardest for me as I still need to learn how to sing better. Then I learned theory and how to play chords multiple different ways and where individual notes were located on the fretboard. Now I’m learning to play the piano and how to transpose music between multiple instruments. 

Tortured Creativity

Each of these epic leaps forward in learning to play guitar seemed to piggyback off of a subsequent tragedy in my life. It’s almost as if, in order for me to continue seeing my life as having the continued possibility of existing within the sphere of the epic, I needed to push through and overcome various different forms of tragedies. This is a phenomenon that needs no introduction. For in virtually every field of creativity, there are “tortured artists.” Those that have struggled with the state of the world and their place within it. Those that have managed to channel this struggle into their mode of creativity and make a profound impact on the world.  These artists have been monumentally important in their respective fields. Each seeming to risk their sanities for the opportunity to touch upon even a shred of that elusive purity of truth, perhaps hidden somewhere underneath the veil of beauty. 

To name but a few of these influential people: In painting; Van Gogh, Gaugin, Goya, Munch, Degas, and even Michelangelo (my favorite Ninja Turtle, hahaha). In writing; F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Phillip K. Dick, Edgar Allen Poe, and Virginia Woolf. In music; Beethoven, Brian Wilson, Chris Cornell, Scott Weiland, Syd Barrett, Jim Morrison, Phil Spectre, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, and Chester Bennington. Even in Philosophy; Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Foucalt, Schopenhauer, and Heidegger.   

If we recall, Plato saw man in the universal sense, as ongoing and unchanging. Given this, and his definition of corruption, his priority was to ensure justice and protect the purity of the polis and the souls of all those that live within it. Banning tortured artists such as these would’ve hence been a priority for Plato as they tend to shine the brightest of lights on the darkest of issues within both society and the individual that lives within it. 

But, what if the tortured artist doesn’t have a tortured or impure soul. What if their soul is actually more pure than that of the average person… and quite possibly even more than that of the perceived “good” person who conforms with most of the societal norms. And maybe, this is why they suffer. Perhaps they see the many injustices in the world and want to do something about them. They want to reveal deeper truths. But their only viable option, their only voice or way of being heard, is to do so through the utilization of their skills. Through their works of art.

The aim for Aristotle, on the other hand, was to find truth, not to stop at justice. And he supposedly believed that within every genius there was a “touch of madness.” Perhaps it takes a hint of madness, a profound courage that could include losing one’s mind, in order to get as close as we can to truth. 

Maybe this is what drove Aristotle. He never lost his mind, but it would’ve been understandable given the tremendous depth and breadth of his works and the constant turbulence that surrounded him. He must’ve felt immense pressure to continuously produce and teach, for at any given moment, tragedy could strike. In addition to just nature and its power, the political power in Athens was nowhere close to 100% solidified. The native Athenians could try to retake control of their city from Macedonian rule at any time while Alexander was far away on his endless conquests to the east, and, as a metic, they could then boot Aristotle out at any time.  So, perhaps Aristotle empathized with the genius and the madness, because he himself realized that in order to get as much done as he did, he had to remain in this turbulent environment, and he had to have a touch of madness himself.  

Plotting the Course

I know that others have experienced tragedies in life, whether directly or indirectly. My wife and best friends are among them. No matter what, I know tragedy is a part of life. I understand that we will try to imitate it via culture in an attempt to numb the inevitable pain. 

But can’t we sometimes get lost in the translation of what is real tragedy and what is imitation? And do we further confuse ourselves in our response to these tragedies? More specifically, in processing these tragedies internally, do we question if our responses are in fact authentic, or if they too are an imitation? 

Further, with the constant shifts from epic to tragic, as well as confusion within our interpretations of and responses to tragedy itself… can’t the tragic, the greatest of tragedies, somehow motivate us into seeking the greatest of epics. To find whatever embers of our soul remain, and rekindle them into a forest fire of passion. This single concept helps me to forgive. Helps my heart not to hurt so fucking bad all the time. That even if my heart can be fucking shattered… I can pick up the pieces and put them back together. There is something more out there. Worth fighting for. Worth living for. Even in the midst of our most tragic moments. Other people. As long as there are other people existing in this world, there is a reason to live. To help them. For just as every single human being suffers… every single human being, at some point in their life, needs help. 

For Aristotle, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to the plot of all good stories. Everyone’s life follows a different path. Some experience tragedy sooner than others. Some are born right into it. Others live life carefree right up until the point that it strikes them down with vicious force. Some people that experience tragedy are able to bounce right back, and others fall… and keep falling until they slip into a black hole and sadly never find their way out. Why? Why do these things happen? And how are some people able to bounce back and others not?  

Can poetry and the power of lamentation along with an eventual acceptance that one may die numerous times in life via various tragedies, before they are ever truly dead, help one to continue persevering in life? Or should we ban these types of artists from society as they pose a risk to not only our souls, but the souls of our children?  If we do have souls, can they be re-purified if they are tainted by tragedy? Or, are they forever stained as Plato seems to believe? Or maybe, as Aristotle seemed to believe, emotion and logic can function together via art and its beauty to help humans achieve a higher virtue and effectively lift that stain from our soul, to help us change, progress, and even evolve. Perhaps even enabling us to believe that we can live in an epic fashion once again.

Thank you for joining me on this philosophic journey!

Next blog post: Nostalgic Memories Entwined with the Soul

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *