A sacred duty to prefer the truth to one’s friends…


0001 | [On Matthew Pincus’s essay Propertius’s Gallus and the Erotics of Influence ]

Poetry is so rich. It’s charm is its depth, even as it lacks the breadth of philosophy.

Pincus shares snippets of Propertius, taken from his Monobiblos (in translation):

“O delicious night, when first I was at your side,
witness to your love, participant in your tears!
O the delicious pleasure in remembering that night.
O how often that night will be called on in my prayers,
when I saw you, Gallus, dying in the arms
of your beloved and murmuring long-drawn speeches.
Although sleep pressed down my wilting eyelids,
and the moon blushed, her horses in mid-sky,
I was not able to withdraw from your play,
so great was the passion in your alternating voices.” (1.10.1–10)

Then, Pincus cites Camps (another commentator) who asks,

“How would it come about that Propertius would be witness to his friend as he is having sex?” (p.173)

And then, Pincus answers the question. The author must be a “talking testicle.” (p.174) Isn’t that clever? This would make Gallus a kind of a “chess-piece,” and the testicle the mastermind pushing the pieces. (Perhaps this also means that Sappho is a speaking uterus.) Of course, later, Pincus suggests in a footnote that the word testis originally means “witness,” and only means “testicle” by metaphor. (p.179)

In any case, I found the poem lovely. The last two lines reminded me of how fragile a thing the world is, and how its existence is sustained entirely by the “passion” in the “alternating voices” between two distant stars.

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1604 | [On Cicero’s Pro Caelio ]

The world seems to be burning down around me, and here I am, reading Cicero…

In Pro Caelio, he writes:

“[40-41] For there are some who have asserted that the wise man does everything for the sake of pleasure, and learned men have not refrained from talking in this disgraceful way. Then there are others who have supposed that virtue can be combined with pleasure, thus joining by verbal cleverness two things that are entirely incompatible.”

Such is the rationale of Aristotelian oi-polloi, and Cicero panders to them, saying what’s familiar and pleasing to them. The oi-polloi tend to think that virtue ought not be enjoyable. But this kind of thinking is troublesome and antagonistic to philosophers like me — philosophers who subscribe to the Socratic definition of justice — which necessarily involves “pleasure” (I quote myself: “(iv) Per Republic 357b-358a, Socratic justice is both pleasant and beneficial.“).

And so Cicero is here addressing such oi-polloi (ie, the bourgeois rationale of the Aristotelian oi-polloi). It’s clear that he doesn’t himself hold these values, for immediately afterwards he contradicts himself and says,

“[42] Let some allowance be made for youth, some freedom given to the young. Let pleasure be not always denied, and true and unbending reason not always prevail. Let desire and pleasure sometimes triumph over reason, provided that in such cases the following rule and limitation be observed.” (Cicero, Pro Caelio) Now, this is more like it.

Still, he starts out by pandering to the ignorant masses in his audience — the oi-polloi for whom all pleasure is suspect and unhealthy. And while the masses generally tend to look to the learned men for leadership and confirmation, he caters to them instead of leading them. Instead of always speaking the truth as a good philosopher should, he speaks like an orator who manipulates the masses with cleverness and eloquence — bait and reel. And for what? Who was Caelius to him? What was his cause? Perhaps he sold himself away too cheaply.

Nevertheless, he wouldn’t have been the first orator to do this. Aristotle ends up contradicting himself, and saying lots of things that he doesn’t truly believe in because he also panders to his students. Of course, this is entirely ironic, given his self-proclaimed dedication to the truth:

“It would perhaps be quite a good idea to examine the notion of the universal and go through any problems there are in the way it is employed, despite the fact that such an inquiry turns out to be difficult going because those who introduced the Forms are friends. It will presumably be thought better, indeed one’s duty, to do away with even what is close to one’s heart in order to preserve the truth, especially when one is a philosopher. For one might love both, but it is nevertheless a sacred duty to prefer the truth to one’s friends.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1096a)

Socrates warns against this danger in the Gorgias. He says that orators end up contradicting themselves because they serve two masters — the god, but also their “beloved.” And so whenever the god and their beloved go separate ways, the politician ends up speaking contradictions. But I suppose that even this isn’t the politician’s fault, since love cannot be commanded and one cannot choose whom one cares for…