Aristotle and Moral Education in Art

silhouette of three performers on stage
Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

I spent a large chunk of my weekend grading essays from my students. Their task was to watch the movie The Road, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy and write a paper based on themes and ideas presented in the course. Based on the course content presented so far, I encourage students to examine the story’s protagonist and argue whether he is a good candidate to be considered a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle.

While grading papers, I mused about Aristotle’s strict criteria for what makes for a tragic hero. The tragic hero must be noble and good (though not a paragon of virtue), but possesses a minor flaw of character or error in judgment (hamartia), which when applied to circumstances brings about some sort of downfall or negative consequence (an inevitable reversal of circumstances, or peripeteia). It’s not that the character is vicious, but merely that their minor flaw is the cause of the negative outcome. However, the negative outcome must be caused by the character (and not, for instance, by the gods), and the consequences of outcome must be in excess of the original cause. The character must also see that they are the reason for their suffering (anagnorisis – the move from ignorance to knowledge). In the context of a narrative or telling of the story, this would elicit pity and fear, a purification of emotions (catharsis) for the audience.

On the one hand, Aristotle is spelling this all out as a way of formalizing and categorizing types of art (Aristotle was a philosopher and biologist by vocation). He might have even considered writing this down as a way of formalizing a set of guidelines to critique plays, finding a way to point out what makes some plays good and others not.

But I had another thought. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, took a dim view of the arts. In his Republic, Plato was comfortable with banishing the poets from his ideal city, and only allow art that held up the moral authority. I’m wondering if Aristotle had something like this in mind – that art could be used as a moral education tool.

Maybe, the best examples of art are ones that teach the audience lessons, albeit in a less direct route (than, say, fables). If this were true, then we could interpret Aristotle’s criteria the following way. A piece of art is valuable as a moral training tool when the audience can build an emotional connection with the suffering of others. Rather than it being a spectacle for them to lose themselves in, the art gives the audience a moral framework to judge themselves against. The tragic figure is like them: not a god or immortal, but an example of a good person trying to do good things. The tragic figure might even be a little aspirational, something the audience can work towards. They aren’t depraved in the soul, but they are responsible for their actions, even if those actions have negative consequences.

Instead of blaming their suffering on an external cause, the tragic figure realizes that they are the cause of their own suffering. The audience sees this, sees that they could be this person, and through their emotional connection, learns to empathize with the tragic figure. In a sense, they could be the same person, were the circumstances be different. The audience feels the pain, takes pity upon the otherwise good person, and maybe even fears this happening to them.

Given that Aristotle’s ethics was predicated on relative moral excellence, it’s possible that he intended art to be educative, though I don’t have the scholarship background to confirm whether this is true (or plausible). To be clear, I don’t think art must function in this capacity. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have art for its own sake, or for the creative expression of what’s inside the artist.

Still, the thought of morally educative art is interesting. I’ve often thought of what kinds of art I’d want to expose my own children to in the development of their moral character. What kinds of lesson would I want them to absorb and learn from as they develop an internal sense of ethics and morality?

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Reflection: T1J – On Riots

My Monday post this week is late. Instead of trying to cobble something together, I will share this video from T1J’s YouTube channel published last week. It gave me a lot to think about.

“Now these stories are very complex and nuanced, and American schools generally do a bad job of teaching Black history. But the point I’m making is, it’s not true that Martin Luther King Jr. did some peaceful protests and gave some speeches and then single-handedly changed everyone’s minds. The progress we’ve seen is due to the combined efforts of Black leaders and activists throughout history, some of whom disagreed on the best path forward, but all of whom contributed towards shaping the world and making the world a little better for people of color. Another thing people fail to realize is that Martin Luther King Jr. was very unpopular during his time. So, whether or not something is palatable to the white masses is not a good measure of whether it is the right thing to do.”

“On Riots” 7:24-8:07

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Lost in Translation – Sophrosune

In preparation for my upcoming book club meeting, I’ve been reading through our current selection, Plato’s Symposium. While on Friday I chuckled at a little dialogue I’ve started with myself as a reader over time, I stumbled across a very interesting footnote that I wanted to share.

23. The word can be translated also as “temperance” and, most literally, “sound-mindedness.” (Plato and Aristotle generally contrast sophrosune as a virtue with self-control: the person with sophrosune is naturally well-tempered in every way and so does not need to control himself, or hold himself back.) From: Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper (Hackett) p479.

I love learning about words in foreign languages that don’t have an exact translation into English. The great thing about these words is that is serves as a worldview expanding device that adds to the filters we use to engage with the world. Sophrosune (or sophrosyne as I later learned from Wikipedia) is often translated to mean temperance or self-control. But as this footnote discusses, the world has an added element that sets it apart from self-control.

It carries an added moral character dimension that describes a certain kind of disposition. Implied in the idea of self-control is an element of instability – the self-control is needed to push against some felt desire or want. Were the desire absent, there would be no need for self-control. We don’t think of a person who is not thirsty as exercising self-control because they are not drinking water. Self-control would instead apply to the person who is actively thirsty but must resist imbibing for some reason. There is a force of will that is being applied against a desire to tamp it down.

Thirst for water might be a poor example here since water is necessary for life. Instead, we can think of the addict who is fighting an impulse to consume something they seek to abstain from. When they fight against the impulse, they can be said to be exercising self-control.

By contrast, sophrosune describes a moral quality of a person who is, in some sense, harmonious in their inner life. They don’t have the cravings that create impulses that require self-control. Instead of fighting cravings, as in the case of the addict, they may choose to engage or not engage in an activity without any internal pull towards it.

Whether this is a quality that is possible to attain, I cannot say. But it was an interesting word to learn about as separate from what one typically thinks about when pondering self-control and temperance.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

History Snippets – Demagoguery

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay 

It is sometimes amazing how cyclical social and political problems can be.  While I am not pessimistic in our ability to move forward in something that can be recognized as “progress,” I do have some cynical attitudes towards our collective habit to backslide.  I realized some time ago that while we espouse enlightened positions, such as “never again,” people as a whole tend to by historically myopic and prone to letting fear get the best of them – or to quote Agent Kay “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

As of writing, I’m working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.  Around ten-hours into the audiobook, Chernow is discussing the political maneuvering between Hamilton and New York Governor George Clinton over trying to get the newly-drafted Constitution ratified in 10 States in order to bring it into force.  The two sat on opposite sides of the federal government question, with Hamilton believing a strong central federal government was the key to sustaining the American experiment, while Clinton was distrustful of a central government superseding the power of the States.  Hamilton had a poor opinion of Clinton, believing Clinton to be only concerned with consolidating his own wealth and power, and only pandering to the populace when elections rolled around.

Chernow gives a striking description of what Hamilton feared, and in a single line spells out a looming threat we are seeing anew in our own modern political discourse.  Hamilton worried that “American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populace shibboleths to conceal their despotism.”

Chernow penned those words some fifteen years ago.  Whether it’s 1788, 2004, or the dawning of the neo-20’s, the fears expressed in those words caution us that we must remain vigilant against those who seek to exploit our fears to manifest their vision in reality.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan