Friday, June 21, 2013

For Whom Is This Written?

I'm enrolled in a four week seminar on Rhetoric.  We've read Thucydides and Homer and Sappho.  Plato's Gorgias and Apology, dialogues I've read before and will read again; as always, I learned something new from a new teacher.  I kept up with the conversations.  I followed the thread of the arguments. I understood the words written on the page and I was able to deduce a meaning.  It might not be "the right" meaning, but at least the words all made sense, strung together in a pleasing whole.

This week we read Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. Look at how beautiful it is in Greek:
Book 1
πᾶσα τέχνη καὶ πᾶσα μέθοδοςὁμοίως δὲ πρᾶξίς τε καὶπροαίρεσιςἀγαθοῦ τινὸς ἐφίεσθαι δοκεῖδιὸ καλῶςἀπεφήναντο τἀγαθόνοὗ πάντ᾽ ἐφίεταιδιαφορὰ δέ τιςφαίνεται τῶν τελῶντὰ μὲν γάρ εἰσιν ἐνέργειαιτὰ δὲ παρ᾽αὐτὰς ἔργα τινάὧν δ᾽ εἰσὶ τέλη τινὰ παρὰ τὰς πράξειςἐντούτοις βελτίω πέφυκε τῶν ἐνεργειῶν τὰ ἔργαπολλῶν δὲπράξεων οὐσῶν καὶ τεχνῶν καὶ ἐπιστημῶν πολλὰ γίνεταικαὶ τὰ τέληἰατρικῆς μὲν γὰρ ὑγίειαναυπηγικῆς δὲ πλοῖον,στρατηγικῆς δὲ νίκηοἰκονομικῆς δὲ πλοῦτοςὅσαι δ᾽ εἰσὶτῶν τοιούτων ὑπὸ μίαν τινὰ δύναμινκαθάπερ ὑπὸ τὴνἱππικὴν χαλινοποιικὴ καὶ ὅσαι ἄλλαι τῶν ἱππικῶνὀργάνων εἰσίναὕτη δὲ καὶ πᾶσα πολεμικὴ πρᾶξις ὑπὸ τὴνστρατηγικήνκατὰ τὸν αὐτὸν δὴ τρόπον ἄλλαι ὑφ᾽ ἑτέρας:
That's about as much sense as it made to me.  This is the third time I've approached Aristotle.  This is the third time I have been rebuffed.  My guides have been young and gifted graduate students, a chemical-engineer-turned-local-mayor octogenarian Great Books Leader, and a scholar-gone-over-to-the-dark-side (an administrator).  Different styles, different approaches, same result.  I haven't a clue.

I could barely tell you what his thesis is, what he's getting at, or how he's travelling.  I'm befuddled and bemused and bathetic. It is truly from the sublime to the ridiculous. The work has been extant for millenia.  It is studied as a pillar of the Western Canon, those old, dead, white, men who influenced my education.  I ought to be able to read it and be given a glimpse of what it's all about.

Perhaps, I ask too many question.  Perhaps, I'm allowing my fears to interfere.  But really, what is this all about?
Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts.
Is this a wordsmith telling me that the words don't matter?  Is adequate as mealy a term as I find it to be?  Since when did precision become optional?  This is beginning to sound like Marin County, circa 1993.  It's cool.... whatever works for you. Close-enough-for-government-work was a favorite phrase of a Cooperative Extension Home Economist who'd spent decades abroad, teaching and living as a civil servant.  Is that what Aristotle is getting at?

Or how about this:
Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities.
Says who?  What happened to It's not the destination, it's the journey? And what does "nature of the products" really mean?  One's nature seems as natural a topic to explore as justice or virtue.  It's a potent term to be throwing around.

And that, perhaps, is the crux of my issue.  Aristotle's original prose was translated into English.  Translation is a tricky business.  There's literal translation, a word for word, barely adjusted for idiom, business.  The version of Beowulf you read in high school was probably translated that way.  Then, there's the Seamus Heaney treatment, keeping the meter and the intent but making the words accessible to the modern ear. Listen to this:
The fact is, Unferth, that if you were truly
as keen or courageous as you claim to be,
Grendel would never have got away with
such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king,
havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere.
This was a poem designed to be read aloud.  It's a long and scary bedtime story designed to while away the long northern nights.  What does it hurt to make it more 21st century friendly? Compare and contrast:

I tell thee in truth, son of Ecglaf,
That never had Grendel wrought so many horrors,
The terrible monster, to thine own prince,
Shame in Heorot, if thy mind were,

Thy temper, so fierce, as thou thyself reckonest
The same tale is in there.  It's just hidden away behind unnecessary verbiage.  Archaic grammar and sentence structure serve to confuse the issue.  I'm not seeking a bowlderized version of anything.  In fact, I'm searching for the opposite.  Since I'm not reading it in the original ancient language, why not figure out what the words mean know... and use them.

After all, when's the last time you heard someone referred to as Thee? 


  1. I actually really liked Nichomachean Ethics when I read it in college. It is one of the books I blame for my B.Phil. His theory of self-improvement is a cynical but honest way of changing your own character. If you want to be charitable, give charity until it becomes a habit, and you no longer need to think about it. If you wish to be an honest person, behave honestly.
    I think I may have a slightly more readable translation than you have . . .
    "Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts."
    Our discussion will be good if we are as clear as possible given the subject matter. Sometimes the amount of clarity and precision is limited by the matter at hand, information is lacking or impossible to access, so do the best you can with what you have. The nature of reality is such that not everything can be, and not everything needs to be, perfect.

    1. And so, Intrepid Cat, you have proven that the translation is everything! If Aristotle contributed to making you the fine woman you are today, then I will reevaluate my opinion of him.

  2. Reading your sidebar, not a comment on today's post: I like our Bose speaker for using my iPhone as a radio. The sound quality is excellent, I can hear it in the kitchen and adjacent rooms. Not cheap but I have tried other speakers and they proved to be sorely inadequate. They will demonstrate two models for you--go for the better one. Happy listening!

    1. And so I will, Berta! I wish I had a way to leave comments on the sidebar.... thanks for noticing my plea <3 I'm off to the Bose store for a treat for me this weekend.

  3. And that is why I did not major in English, only minored. The Olde English defeated me, I bailed and changed majors.

    1. They make it soooo hard... and lose potential scholars..... grrrrrrrr


Talk back to me! Word Verification is gone!