Monday, May 31, 2021

Evening Note for Monday, May 31

Thought for the Evening: An Aristotelian Account of Ceremonial Rites

I've previously noted that, while ritual is not as central to Aristotle's philosophy as it is to some others, and he certainly has no significant discussion of everyday rituals, Aristotle does have a fair amount to say about civic rituals, because this is the topic of the Poetics. Drama in the ancient Greek world wasn't primarily a kind of literature or even a work of art but a ritual in civic festivities; tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays were originally highly structured contributions to festal days dedicated to the gods, especially Dionysus. We have Aristotle's close analysis of tragedy; unfortunately, his analysis of comedy has not survived. But we do have enough to abstract a more general account of public ceremonial ritual in general?

Aristotle takes tragedy, comedy, dithyrambs, flute-playing, and the like, as imitative, differing only in their means, object, or modes of imitation. Human beings are naturally imitative, and these arts arise out of this aspect of human nature. On the basis of this, he argues for his influential definition of tragedy as imitation of actions serious and complete in itself using language with pleasurable accessories in distinct parts, taking dramatic rather than narrative form, with incidents arousing pity and fear so as to achieve purification (catharsis). He breaks this down into its essential elements: 

(1) Plot: the combination of incidents or things done

(2) Character: qualities of persons as found in the actions, revealing their moral purposes

(3) Thought: saying what is appropriate to the occasion

(4) Diction: expression of thoughts with words, composition of verses

(5) Melody:  the music of song

(6) Spectacle: the stage-appearance of the actors

Melody and Diction are the means by which tragedy accomplishes its effect; together they form the 'language with pleasurable accessories part of the definition. The action itself is imitated by three things: Plot, Character, and Thought. Plot, which is the end and most important element of tragedy, is what organizes the other two; Thought and Character get their importance in being causes of actions, and so are important insofar as they are necessary to the imitation of the action. And Spectacle is the least important and artful of the elements, although still an attraction of the whole work, contributing to its dramatic nature.

Since Aristotle says that the imitative arts differ according to means, object, and mode, and these are the elements contributing to the means (Melody, Diction), object (Plot, Character, Thought), and mode (Spectacle) of tragedy, we wouldn't expect them to be exactly the same for other arts, like comedy or dithyrambs or rhapsodies. But all imitations will have something to imitate (object), means of imitating, and a manner of imitating, and at the very general level, one would expect at least similar elements, with some variation (and considerable variation in relative importance), across them all.

So let's start with this. All ceremonial rituals are imitative, and public ceremonial rituals especially are either direct imitations or adaptations of other, customary rituals (which may or may not be ceremonies). Every public ceremonial ritual would need to have a structuring of incidents -- you can't have a ceremony if things are happening every which-way. As part of this structuring, you will have signs of moral purpose and thoughts appropriate to context. You will have to have means by which you can carry out this ceremony, which will be signs or forms of expression; these forms of expression may have accessories like music; and there will be the presented appearance.

In a typical commencement ceremony, for instance, we have a basic structuring of incidents -- march in, speeches, being called up, receiving diploma, march out; these are done from purpose and thought (advice, congratulations) . They are done by forms of expression (speech, symbolic handing of the diploma), and these are usually assisted by music. And, of course, we have the presented appearances of cap and gown and stage and banners and whatever else. Likewise, in a Western wedding, we have a movement of incidents from not-married to married, with the climax at the I Do stage, with actions expressive of purpose and thought, and done by forms of expression (the presider's speech, any speeches by others that are incorporated into the ceremony, the expression of consent by saying 'I do' and giving the ring, the kiss). We also have music to help time the ceremony and make it more pleasant, and we have the spectacle of wedding costumes. It's easy enough from these to parse out how the elements are involved in other ceremonies, like award ceremonies, inaugurations, liturgies, commemorations, and the like. The purposes of these ceremonies differ widely, of course, and this will shift around the relative importance of the elements, and also the exact range of forms they are allowed to take. But these elements do seem to recur across a quite wide range of public ceremonies.

Various Links of Interest

* Michael Kowalik, Phenomenology of Abortion (PDF)

* Scott Alexander on the Rise and Fall of Online Culture Wars

* Jessica J. Williams, Kant against the cult of genius (PDF)

* Natalia Carrillo & Sergio Martinez, The Metaphoric Sources of Scientific Innovation (PDF)

* Peter Kwasniewski, Notes on a Christian Seeker: Soren Kierkegaard, Father of Existentialism

* Karol Wojtyla, Participation or Alienation

* Graham Renz, Form as Structure: It's Not so Simple (PDF)

* Colin Chamberlain, The Most Dangerous Error: Malebranche on the Experience of Causation. I'm not sure I'm convinced by some of the load-bearing pillars of this argument, but it's an interesting one.

* Chad Engelland, Dispositive Causality and the Art of Medicine (PDF)

* John Hardwig, The Role of Trust in Knowledge (PDF)

* Yongyi Li, A New Incarnation of Latin in China

* Jana Mohr Lone, Philosophy with Children

Currently Reading

Frances Burney, Cecilia
Courant & Robbins, What Is Mathematics?
Peter Martyr Vermigli, Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics
Aristotle, Rhetoric