Monday, June 17, 2013

Academic Theory: Western Themes and Philosophy

Last week was a whirlwind that I'm still trying to recover from. I saw Man of Steel, that bullshit, and feel more betrayed and outraged than I have ever felt before. Nothing lasts in postmodern climates, kiddos. Lesson learned. Stay tuned for Friday's post, where I'll have my full review of the movie up. There will be spoilers.

I did last week's post more or less on a whim. It's been like trying to pull teeth to figure out what I can write about, but I thought last week was a winner. It's important to know certain aspects about philosophy, because, like history, so much of literary cannon is caught up in the ideals that have spanned the Age of Men. This week is about the western heavy hitters.

I would say that the two most influential, monolithic branches of Western Philosophy are Platonic and Aristotelian. Each comes from two philosophers (Plato and Aristotle, respectively) that were back to back. Aristotle learned from Plato all he had to know and, of course, completely disagreed. This is common in philosophy. People rarely agree with their former cohorts in this game. That being said...

Platonic Philosophy

Plato's primary idea is based on understanding the absolute. This idea, the absolute, dominated his thinking, and endured into the future as the lens by which many theologians would frame their words, most famously expressed through St Augustan. The divine, the perfected reality that exists beyond, directs our thinking, that by understanding first that this perfect reality hangs over us we can then move forward and understand the world. For example Plato might understand it this way:
"I understand God (the Divine), therefore I can understand the world."
How this translates into literature, would be in how a character expresses their idealism. If you were writing a superhero book, or a book about a "good" man, they would conceive of and live in their world not in light of how they experience the world but they would perform basic actions rooted in some principal. Perhaps you have a character who is a lawyer, who knows that Justice is absolute. Everything encompassing that ideology is formative in his/her thinking. If someone stole from them in the book, this lawyer would pursue right justice. Big or small, the crime would be punished, and the punishment would fit the crime. You can even play with this theme by having the lawyer character break out of his/her philosophical limits by not punishing to the full weight of the crime.  It's up to you how you want to play with that theme.

Aristotelian Philosophy

Conversely, the opposite of Platonism finds itself in Aristotle's words. He was the student of Plato but had vast disagreements on the subject of the Divine, and how to understand it. The risk of seeing the world through the lens of an absolute divine is that it risks generalizing and speculation. Nothing then is truly grounded in reality. Like our lawyer character introduced before, anyone adhering to or taking this ideology seriously would never be able to relate to anyone because there is no point in grounding oneself in the physical, when it is all about the spiritual. The divine should then be understood in the forms of matter. Aristotle would understand the world in this way:
"I understand the world, therefore I can understand the quality of God (the Divine)."
In literature, this philosophy can be expressed in a multitude of ways. This is because the character, can posses a large range of dynamic attitudes towards the world. He can be naive, or realistic, rich or poor. He is not limited to idealism, but can be flawed. (Perhaps this is why this philosophy became the foundation (ironically) for the Enlightenment in Europe.) The philosophy can produce a character who sees the poverty and crime of his/her world, which produces his/her cynicism. The world looks so drab and poor and awful, therefore, if there even is a god, he must be capricious, unkind, and murderous. The converse can also be true. You could have a very wealthy character that construes the world isn't that bad because of the comfort their wealth ensures them. Play with these expectations and there will be lots to work with. These kinds of characters will let the world change the way they perceive it by the consequences of circumstance. They are very human and fragile.

That is the gist though of what I'm saying. Take it into account the next time you read a story. Ask yourself, "what kind of character is this?" Make it your exercise this week. Let me know how it goes!


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