Reflections on McKeon's edition of Aristotle. An excerpt from Ezra Pound.
Friday, 2004-09-24 | Classic Gin, Language, Literature, On Writing Well, Philosophy
So there's this phonebook-thick hardcover of the Rhetoric that I discovered by the laundry machines last week.
It starts with two footnotes. They are provided by the editor, Richard McKeon, who happens to be a pretty clever chap. The first footnote:
'Rhetoric' and 'Dialectic' may be roughly Englished (sic) as 'the art of public speaking' and 'the art of logical discussion'. Aristotle's philosophical definition of 'Rhetoric' is given at the beginning of c.2.Aristotle's own "philosophical definition" is a bit slippery1, of course, and I like this footnote because McKeon directly addresses a novice's potential leeriness about jargon/normative language with the kind of humbly authoritative British pedagogy that you can't help but find at least a little bit charming.
The second of McKeon's introductory footnotes follows this sentence of Aristotle: 'It is not right to pervert the judge by moving him to anger or envy or pity--one might as well warp a carpenter's rule before using it.'
The footnote goes like this:
Here, and in what follows, the English reader should understand 'judge' in a broad sense, including 'jurymen' and others who 'judge'.And just like that, right there, right up at the top we get these nice, colloquialized definitions of our primary terms. Great!
Our primary terms, as they are the objects of a philosophical treatise, have become normative language and need this sort of definition urgently. There's nothing worse than plunging into a philosophical or metaphysical discourse and having to figure out how the author has modified the definitions of words you thought you knew as you read.
Of course, anyone might have guessed from Aristotle's text that 'judges' merely meant interlocutors or those against whom we student rhetoricians find ourselves holding forth. I haven't got a lick of Greek myself so I can't confirm this, but it seems that whatever word became 'judges' in this translation was probably a word used for a man who acts as an arbiter ex officio--an arbiter who wears the arbiter's hat by virtue of office or position. As the text proceeds the word 'judge' is used repeatedly and, if we thought it merely meant 'any schmuck who happens to be listening to your words' we'd have the wrong idea.
For example, some more Aristotle: 'In general, then, the judge should, we say, be allowed to decide as few things as possible.' If we understood the word 'judge' to mean interlocutor or adversary, as the first instance in which Aristotle uses it implies, we'd have the way wrong idea.
Which reminds me that Philology is the foundation of technical instruction. McKeon's credentialed expertise in the form of jargon-decoding footnotes is invaluable to a student.
Which also reminds me of how Mad Ezra Pound went to grad school for a degree in 'Romance Philology.' He never finished the degree. I half-remember something about how he dropped out to pursue strong drink, fast girls and popular ballads: basically, he decided that his time would be better spent in more practical artistic/academic pursuits.
If dropping out was a mistake (or a waste of time), then, it was a mistake owing to the faulty logic that a degree in philology was the sort of thing that one simply could not use to make a name for oneself.
Pound was young like me when he made up his mind to quit the philology game, and I think he must have concluded that he didn't need the credential to do his thing. He never got the degree from Pennsylvania and yet he is still the expert to beat on Arnaut Daniel and also the motherfucker who basically put the roof on verse in his language for his century.2
Here, then, in celebration of a guy who didn't need a credential to be a great commentator, are the opening lines of his Cantos. None of my un-credentialed comments will be presented as footnotes:
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us onward with bellying canvas,
Crice's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
- Aristotle himself defines Rhetoric as '...the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion' at the beginning of c.2.
- Or maybe that was Eliot: depends who you ask.