Monday, January 2, 2012

Izaak Walton in Aristotle's Light, Against Plato

The presumption of institutiional establishment tends to be that this world is under the dominion of academic credentials. In essence, The Academy, Plato's creation in 387 BCE, is widely assumed as the authority under which society is presumably ruled and the world's resources acquired. Niether President nor Pope attains position without.

This basic power structure of the West risen from medieval academic scholasticism is globalized now. The effect of academia on people's minds includes preferential treatment for those who have earned credentials within the complex network of institutions which answer finally to The Academy or academe. This is not simple entitlement; credentials are earned, and we all know school is difficult.

Plato's founding The Academy preceded that of a competitor's school in 335 BCE. The building which housed Aristotle's school, The Lyceum, first existed as a gymnasium opened by either Pericles or Pisistratus in the 5th or 6th century BCE. Evidence is that the head of the Greek army attended an office in the building. "Lyceum" is named after the god of the grove in which the building was constructed, Apollo Lyceus, Apollo as wolf-god. Thus Aristotle's famous statement, "To live outside the Polis one must be a beast or a god," and the commonly referenced meaning of the name of his school, the Wolf Den.

Although the Lyceum pre-dates Aristotle, I like to speculate on the word Lyceum's appropriateness to his character, and indeed he appropriated the meaning for that statement just quoted. We actually know fairly little from records about how Aristotle felt about his mentor, Plato, and his Academy, to which the Lyceum is juxtaposed. The tendency to take implications from records as the final word on the relationship is surely short sighted. Aristotle died with far more secrets than what his own and students' writing reveal, although he was not one of us moderns endlessly obsessing on our personal evaluations. However, the content of his character was not only in the words of his works left behind, although these works may disclose much of it through inferences. 

He would surely have known Plato's Academy was destined. After all, he trained there. As history worked out, The Academy became education's center, but with university departments basically modeled on Aristotle's separate disciplines of knowledge as disclosed in the writings left for posterity. He fled the Lyceum and Athens with his family in 322 BCE, leaving virtually everything. Having come out in published writing for Macedonian rule of Athens, his situation became dangerous. Alexander the Great had donated a very large sum of money to the Lyceum, and it happened soon after that Athenian leadership took a turn in reaction against the Macedonians. Much later, medieval scholars revered Aristotle as "The Philosopher." For all of Plato's otherworldliness, Aristotle gave these Christian scholars the means to study, Aristotle's disclosures of logic unsurpassed.

The difference between the gist of Aristotle's philosophy and that of Plato's is the distinction between freedom and power. Aristotle understood Plato; he was quite adept at ascending beyond the sky as was Plato, but Aristotle valued snakes, lizards, cuttlefish, and the like; he valued this earth. Plato came from wealth; his head stayed in the clouds. Aristotle had middle class origin in his favor. From what I've learned of the years of his youth, Aristotle peddled herbs to earn a living and led a life of outrageous partying. Taking the clue from herbs, I researched marijuana in Ancient Greece. It was present in that society. Evidence suggests, however, that Aristotle admired those of the wealthy he considered just, which implies that he had great aspirations to better himself. This seems to have led him to Plato, under whom he abandoned his riotous life, and studied for 20 years.

But Plato envisioned a society under the rule of a philosopher king of his own imaginning, outlined in his dialogue The Republic. In essence it promulgates a totalitarian state. Aristotle disagreed with Plato's basic philosophical premise that philosophy attains to knowledge beyond an earthly illusion of shadows, as described in Plato's Cave Allegory.

Again, Aristotle knew great elevation, as did Plato. His writings on contemplation as the highest form of happiness, and on the divine, indicate this is true. But he was too busy with an enormous range of discoveries right here on the planet's surface to be either preoccupied with heights or to disdain this earth as illusory. Aristotle enjoyed happiness here on earth; Plato dreamed of it in another realm, and possibly in fantasies of ruling power. After all, this is what he sought for his philosopher king, a king secured in his position by an army of "iron men." I think he nursed a profound resentment of established political orders after the execution of his beloved mentor Socrates.

Common sense and individualism have Aristotelian origin. Often referred to as the father of logic, Aristotle has also been called the forefather of the American nation. His philosophical principles led the way to those which explicate and defend individual liberty and modern political freedom, particularly through the work of British philosopher John Locke.

If knowledge is power, as so many gloatingly say, then the quest for knowledge is freedom and requires practical wisdom belonging to the free individual in a universe which can never be known entirely, not even by a philosopher king. Nor can others in high places know it all. Don't we recognize this so well.

The world we live in is not actually circumscribed by those with academic credentials. To the big picture, the demarcation lines of power are of small significance, as evil is of small significance. Ultimately, knowledge may be acquired only by the individual mind, and it must be continually renewed as a quest, whether through school or not. Some us learn best outside academic situations, and for good reason, since a singular power structure tends to recognize only what is on the power agenda. Albert Einstein wrote, for example, that we can't solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.

Why did Izaak Walton, author of the 17th century classic The Compleat Angler, a man without formal education, like to go away and fish? The obvious answer: he hated the British Civil War. But subtler still, he knew, as all who seek spiritual release and freedom know, that stepping aside from the trance-like run of ordinary affairs freshens awareness, and opens mind and body to a larger world than its packaging, fighting, and attempts to make it secure. For Walton, such recreation was not a mystic Zone, yet his contemplation was exquisite mystical sensitivity. He had no problem paying close, detailed attention to the feeding behavior of a trout in the river Test, then going to the ale house afterwards for convivial company.

We need our institutions; it would be obvious to anyone who has thoroughly read Aristotle that he abundantly concurs on this point. Institutions must be run in a certain way. But this also means those functioning in their trances of performance have blind sides. As contrary, confused, conflicting, chaotic, not to mention corrupted, as today's institutions are, they are a singular global power structure, which trains people to recognize realty, value, other people, and themselves in remarkably similar ways.

The man or woman who is free to think, value, and create in valid ways, with reality as the standard rather than institutional proscriptions taking proxy, has the best to offer. Such a person recognizes value in institutions where he grasps existing values, in fact, and deals as one man among others. But degreed or not, societies have always been in need of people who think outside the lines, with whom to trade value for value. For whatever reason an individual may have chosen not to earn a Bachelor's or Graduate degree, it's not easier to get on in this world without, although it may be better in the long run. Walton might have got along well with Steve Jobs, although Jobs's reputation seems much less compromised for his lack of college education. So much emphasis is placed upon Walton's humility by people with English degrees. Nevertheless, Walton and Jobs shared something essential.