Politics vs. Principles

Matthew Walther has an op-ed in today’s New York Times promoting Catholicism as an antidote to America’s toxic political culture. He argues that the way out of our political dysfunction demands a radical solution, namely: “setting aside the standard ideological divisions of coalition politics in an attempt to apply the full range of the church’s social teaching to the problems of modern life.” I am not a Catholic, and I do not want Catholicism to shape public life, but Walther’s underlying point—that a principled, values-based belief system is the way out of our political divisions—is worth considering. The fact is that there is little to admire in today’s Republican and Democratic parties, largely because they are so narrowly motivated by partisan self-interest. Maybe that has always been the case, but I find myself increasingly frustrated by how both parties have abandoned principle in favor of “gotcha” politics and narrowly-conceived party victories.

There are too many examples of this sort of idiocy to survey effectively, so one particularly irritating example will have to suffice: the gridlock over voting rights in Texas. Consider the morass of hypocrisy and flat-out deception at work in this conflict . . .

Due to the populist Right’s willfully dishonest claims of widespread voter fraud, Republicans in Texas have introduced a bill in the state legislature that seeks to prohibit drive-through and 24-hour voting, while also expanding the role of partisan pole watchers and imposing harsh penalties on those who vote in the wrong precinct or make errors in their voter registration, even when done so unintentionally. It is a ridiculous bill, and I oppose it on the grounds that a.) it addresses a non-existent problem and is thus needlessly divisive and a waste of public resources, and b.) it is motivated by and justifies a lie. But the bill is not what Democrats say it is. They say that it will “strip away” people’s right to vote, comparing it—unfavorably—to Jim Crow. This too is a lie. In Austin, where I currently live, there is no drive-through or 24-hour voting, and I had no difficulty whatsoever casting my ballot in the 2020 election. And to suggest that having to get out of your car to vote is worse than Jim Crow is absurdly hyperbolic and an insult to the people who gave their lives for the franchise.

So what do Texas Democrats do? They break quorum and flee the state. I do not have a problem with this tactic in itself, but it needs to be placed in the larger context of the national debate over voting rights. Congressional Democrats would like to pass a voting rights law, but they are being blocked by the Republicans’ use of the filibuster—a tactic that almost every Congressional Democrat condemns as anti-democratic. They argue that the minority party should not be able to hamstring the majority party by refusing to debate and vote on legislation. Yet that is precisely what the Texas Democrats are doing, and with the support of their counterparts in Washington. And the Republicans? Their response is equally hypocritical. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—a stalwart defender of the filibuster—has condemned the move as a publicity stunt. He thinks Democrats should go home so that the Texas legislature can do the will of the majority—so long as that majority is Republican. When Democrats are in the majority, as they are in Congress today, he has no problem blocking legislation, judicial appointments, or anything else that disadvantages his party.

Sadly, many millions of Americans fail to recognize the hypocrisy and dishonesty of these positions, and they enthusiastically align themselves with their respective parties and against each other. This is a symptom of how political parties corrode public discourse and independent thinking. It is nearly impossible to maintain clear principles and support the political maneuvers of the Republican and/or Democratic parties. It is almost always one or the other, and more often than not, principles and truth lose out.

Simone Weil argues that “political parties are organizations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and justice” (16). This is because they are focused, first and foremost, on their own survival and growth. Weil identifies three universal characteristics of political parties:

  1. A political party is a machine to generate collective passions.
  2. A political party is an organization designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members.
  3. The first objective and also the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit. (11)

The last of these is incompatible with holding consistent, principled positions. It is inconceivable that a political party would advance an agenda that threatens its own existence, even if that agenda was based on principles and truth. Principles and truth are beside the point when it comes to partisan politics. Winning is all that matters. Weil is brutally direct on this point:

Political parties are a marvellous mechanism which, on the national scale, ensures that not a single mind can attend to the effort of perceiving, in public affairs, what is good, what is just, what is true. As a result—except for a very small number of fortuitous coincidences—nothing is decided, nothing is executed, but measures that run contrary to the public interest, to justice and to truth.

If one were to entrust the organization of public life to the devil, he could not invent a more clever device.

I may not agree with Walther that the answer to America’s political dysfunction is Catholicism, but I do think that the answer for Catholics is Catholicism. For conservatives, it is conservatism. For liberals, liberalism. For Marxists, Marxism. For environmentalists, environmentalism. But none of these should be subject to the whims of the Republican and Democratic parties. The United States badly needs to reverse this dynamic by diminishing the power of the parties and promoting actual belief systems that are based on more than the self-interest of politicians and the superficial kicks people get from defeating their political opponents. The power to make this change is within every individual, if only we will exercise our independence and act in the interest of something greater than mere partisanship.

Published
Categorized as Essays

Back to Dubai

Two weeks from today, I will become a permanent resident of Dubai. It goes without saying that this will be a major change in my life, but it is something that I have done before, and I feel relaxed about moving back to one of the Middle East’s great cities. I have accepted a full-time academic post at the American University in Dubai (AUD), where I will serve as Assistant Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences and Assistant Professor of English. I will also perform an oversight role in the Department of Marketing & Communications. I am grateful to have this opportunity, especially at a time when so many people are struggling with the economic fallout from COVID-19. AUD has been good to me in the past, and I look forward to continuing the work of educating tomorrow’s leaders.

My first (and only) full-time academic job was at AUD, where I worked as Assistant Professor of English from 2014-2019. I taught courses in American Literature, the Graphic Novel, the Epic, World Cultures, Rhetoric & Composition, Public Speaking, and more, and I had the opportunity to serve on university-wide committees that addressed everything from curriculum to accreditation. I also co-founded the Reading Across Campus program, directed the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan, designed the English Bridge Program, and served as Head of English. It was a valuable and gratifying professional experience.

It was also an amazing personal experience. There are certainly cultural and political realities in the Middle East that take some getting used to, but the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a young nation with big ambitions, and there is a sense of energy and optimism there that I admire. Dubai is staggeringly diverse—a global hub, really—and it is geographical positioned for easy travel to Asia, Africa, and Europe, which is something that I miss. I also made wonderful friends when I lived there, both at the university and beyond. It is where my wife and I raised our children through some of their most formative years, and it is where I experienced my greatest sense of independence and freedom as global citizens.

My decision to return to the United States was a difficult one, and while many of the reasons for doing so remain valid today, the experience of living in American during 2020 and beyond has been disappointing, to say the least. This is largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which ruined so much for so many, but there are other troubling realities that make staying here less desirable than I had imagined. The academic job market has all but evaporated, especially in the humanities; housing prices have gone haywire, driving costs in Austin (where I currently live) to ridiculous heights; violent crime and gun violence is a constant concern; the political discourse is utterly toxic, to the point of straining close personal relationships; and there is a pervasive sense of pessimism and cultural malaise that makes living here feel pretty bleak.

That being said, I never intended to leave Austin, and I certainly did not imagined myself returning to Dubai. But when a good opportunity presents itself, wisdom demands a careful reevaluation of one’s plans and expectations. I think it is important to remain open to life’s unpredictability, and to be ready to take risks when fortunate enough to be presented with them. I have tried to live my life this way, which hasn’t always been easy, but the truth is that doing so has provided me with many enriching experiences. And so, when AUD asked me if I would return, I weighed my options and decided to take another leap abroad.

The university began reaching out to me with some wonderful opportunities only a couple of months after I returned to Austin. Unfortunately, we were not able to reach a contract agreement, largely due to my own anxiety about returning to Dubai so soon after having arrived back in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic was also a major complicating factor. When we initially discussed my return, both Austin and Dubai were under full lock down, and it was not clear that I would even be able to enter the UAE. Asking my wife to resign her position, and then preparing my family for another move abroad, was simply not realistic under those conditions. And so I backed out of the negotiation.

I eventually regretted declining their offer, which is something that I communicated to the university’s senior administration. They had already filled the position I had turned down, but they told me that I would be at the top of the list should another opportunity arise. My assumption at that point was that AUD was officially in my past. But they kept their word, and nearly a year later, they contacted me again, asking if I would consider returning as Assistant Dean of Arts & Sciences. It took some time to work out the details, but I am pleased to say that I accepted their offer with confidence, and I am at peace knowing that a life of meaningful work and adventure awaits me in Dubai.

There will be many things I miss about America, first and foremost my extended family, but having lived abroad for six years, I am eager to get back into the world. I am also eager to reunite with colleagues and friends. I know things in the UAE will be different due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, but there are many aspects of life in Dubai that I genuinely look forward to experiencing again—the intense cultural mix, the bright-eyed students, the desert vistas, the vibrant gulf coast, the feeling of belonging in the world. It will be good to be back, and just two short weeks from today!

Faith in the Present

Back in May, I posted some thoughts on Martin Hägglund’s book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. I took umbrage with how he draws a hard line between secular faith, which is concerned with the here and now, and religious faith, which he argues is always necessarily concerned with the hereafter. Hägglund is adamant that when religious people act in the interest of material life and/or social justice, they are practicing secular faith, even when they claim otherwise. This strikes me as an ungenerous, overly-rigid view that reproduces the sort of fundamentalism I find most objectionable in religious dogma, and I developed two examples—Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights activism and Pope Francis’s environmentalism—to illustrate how religious faith can promote authentic care for the life we share together on earth.

What I did not do was draw on the theology of progressive Christianity, though Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’ may be argued to fall in that category. This is largely because I do not have any real familiarity with the subject. Aside from Gary Wills’s What Jesus Meant, which I read on a colleague’s recommendation some years ago, I have not read any progressive (or even liberal) theology. I know that there are progressive Christians, and my sense is that they do care about life in the present, but aside from major world-historical figures like King and Francis, I cannot speak with any confidence about what they believe.

That is changing as I read Marcus J. Borg’s The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. Borg was a biblical scholar, theologian, and the author of more than twenty books, most of which deal with the historical Jesus. He was also a leading voice in progressive Christianity. The vision he articulates in The Heart of Christianity is wonderfully refreshing, especially for someone like me who was raised in a fundamentalist community. I am finding much of value in what he says about the simplicity and compassion of Christianity. But what I find most striking is how explicitly he rejects the notion that Christian faith is all about saving one’s soul—or otherwise stocking up rewards in the afterlife.

Borg draws a distinction between two forms of modern Christianity. He calls them the “earlier” form and the “emerging” form. The earlier form will be familiar to anyone who was raised in the American evangelical tradition. It emphasizes biblical literalism and infallibility, Christian exclusivity, faith as the belief in the impossible, and the centrality of the afterlife, which in turn generates a powerful system of requirement and rewards. This is the religious faith that Hägglund critiques in This Life. The emerging form, however, understands Christianity as historical, metaphorical, and sacramental, and it emphasizes relationships and transformation over requirements and rewards. Borg writes, “The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it’s about seeing what is already true—that God loves us already—and then beginning to live in this relationship” (85).

When Borg writes about relationships and transformation, he is writing about a faith that emphasizes life in the present, one that puts love and justice at the center of its practice. Contrasting how the earlier and emerging views of Christianity conceive of God, Borg writes:

These two ways of imagining the character of God lead to two very different versions of the Christian message. It can be heard as “bad news” or “good news.” The “bad news” version is that there will be a last judgement, either at the end of our lives or at the end of history, and you better be ready or you’ll be in deep trouble. This is Christianity as a religion of threat, anxiety, and self-preservation.

The “good news” version is the invitation into a new life here and now, one that transforms us personally and seeks to transform life in this world. The “bad news” version is the saving of some from the devouring fire that will consume the rest. The “good news” version is a vision of transformed people and a transformed earth filled with the glory of God. (85-86)

Borg’s emphasis on “a new life here and now” and a “transformed earth” counterdicts Hägglund’s hard-line insistence that religious faith is singularly focused on matters of eternity. If Borg was an obscure outlier, Hägglund may be forgiven for overlooking his contribution to contemporary theology. But he is not an obscure outlier. Mainline Protestantism has embraced progressive Christianity, as have many Catholics around the world, and as Borg repeatedly notes, the emerging view of Christianity has been around for approximately 100 years and is widely accepted among biblical scholars and in divinity schools.1

I point this out not only to take Hägglund further to task, but also to draw attention to a Christian faith that is not anti-intellectual, that does not subjugate the present to eternity, that does not fear and loathe the body, and that centers love and justice as its motivating ideals. It is a hopeful vision of religious faith that is in no way at odds with the sort of passion and care for this life that Hägglund rightly argues we should do more to cultivate in our communities. I wish that I had been exposed to this vision earlier in life, and my hope for the future is that critics of religion do not obscure its existence by characterizing all religious faith as irrational, dogmatic, and singularly focused on eternal rewards.

You can learn more about Marcus J. Borg and progressive Christianity by visiting the Marcus J. Borg Foundation.

Note:

1 Interestingly, Borg also notes that the earlier form of Christianity is itself modern, having its roots in the Enlightenment. Christian theology and practice before that time were very different than the version that many fundamentalists claim as original and unchanging.

Published
Categorized as Essays

Unemployed Fragments

The desire for so many things
so many desires . . .

no more difficult to understand 
than the grass growing from errant leaves
rotting against the curb.

In a room full of people
children waiting // sick
the boy, the elder
a fever & a cough
like a branch breaking underfoot---

Not one desk, but many
around corners
     watching
     perpendicular

passageways leading to the young
who may not survive
at home, or who may . . .

The problem is not
     knowing---

The smell of antiseptic
the sound of Spanish
the young // the old
     four hours wait
     coughing & crying

Rate your pain
on arrival
& now---
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Categorized as Poetry

Percy Shelley’s Translation of Plato’s *Ion*

I have been reading M.H. Abrams’s classic study The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition over the last couple of weeks. It is a wonderfully erudite and often surprising intellectual history of Romanticism. One surprising detail I encountered recently was a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium. I knew Shelley was influenced by Platonism, but I didn’t know he translated any of Plato’s works. I was interested to know more about this translation, so I turned to The Shelley-Godwin Archive, which has digitized a number of Shelley’s notebooks and manuscripts. Unfortunately, they have not yet digitized this particular translation.1 They have, however, digitized a partial draft manuscript of Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Ion. It is incomplete and a little messy to read, even with the encoded transcriptions that accompany each page, but it is nonetheless a fine specimen of Shelley’s engagement with Plato’s aesthetic theories.

What follows is an edited transcription of the partial draft manuscript available here. I made some minor editorial interventions for the sake of clarity and consistency, but I tried to allow Shelley’s translation to come through as purely as possible. I did, however, cut the transcript short by about a page, only because Plato draws a firm conclusion with the line, “You are then the interpreters of interpreters,” and I thought it best not to include the opening sentences of his next line of thought. I also added a paragraph break to Socrates’s final long statement.


Ion

Socrates— Hail to thee Ion, whence returnest thou amongst us; from thine own native Ephesus?

Ion— From Epidauras, o Socrates, of the Æsculapians.

Socrates— Had the Epidaurians instituted a contest of rhapsodists to the honor of the god — ?

Ion— And not that alone, but contests in every species of musical art.

Socrates— And into what contest did you enter, & what was the event of your efforts?

Ion— I carried the first prize, o Socrates.

Socrates— Well done, you have only to consider how you shall bear away the Panathenea.

Ion— That also may happen if the God should be propitious.

Socrates— I have often envied you rhapsodists, o Ion, on account of your art; for it imposes on you the nicest care of your persons & the most studied elegance of dress so that you must excel the beautiful in beauty; & secondly a familiarity with many & excellent poets & especially with Homer the most godlike & admirable among them, & your emulation is greater, not merely to remember the verses, but to fathom the deepest meaning of this king of melody: for he is no rhapsodist who does not understand the whole scope & intention of the poet, & is not capable of interpreting it to his audience. This he cannot do without a full comprehension of the meaning of his author; worthy indeed of envy are those who can fulfill these conditions!

Ion— You speak truly, o Socrates; and indeed I have expended my principal study upon this circumstance of the art; I flatter myself that no man living excels me in expounding Homer; neither Metrodorus of Lampsacas, nor Stesimbrotus the Thasian, nor Glaucon, nor any other rhapsodist of the present time, can so give so many various & beautiful meanings to the verses of Homer as I can.

Socrates— I am persuaded of your eminent skill, o Ion. You will not grudge me a proof & explanation?

Ion— It is worth while to hear the manner in which I have illustrated Homer: I deserve a gold crown from his descendants.

Socrates— And I will find sure some day or other to request you to give me a specimen; at present I will only trouble you with one question. Are you excellent in explaining Homer alone, or are you conscious of the same power with regard to Hesiod & Archilochus?

Ion— I possess this high degree of skill respecting Homer alone; and I consider that sufficient.

Socrates— Are there any topics concerning which Homer & Hesiod say the same?

Ion— Many, as it seems to me.

Socrates— Whether you illustrate these topics better as treated by Homer or Hesiod?

Ion— In the same manner doubtless inasmuch as they say the same words with respect to the same things.

Socrates— But with regard to those things in which they differ; divination for instance?

Ion— Certainly I feel that I could explain them.

Socrates— But whether or not you or a diviner would make the best exposition respecting all that those poets say of divination, both as they agree & as they differ?

Ion— A diviner certainly.

Socrates— If you were a diviner do you not think that you could explain their discrepancies on the subject of your profession, if you understood their agreements?

Ion— Manifestly.

Socrates— How then does it happen that you are possessed of skills to illustrate Homer & not Hesiod or the other poets in an equal degree? Are the topics of Homer dissimilar from those of all the other poets? Does he not treat the principle of war and the mutual intercourse of men, and the distinct functions & characters of the brave & the coward, the professional and the private person; the relations borne by men to the gods & the gods to men, and the mode of their communion; of the proceedings of heaven, of hell, of the origin of gods & heroes: are not these the materials from which Homer wrought his poem?

Ion— Assuredly, o Socrates.

Socrates— And the other Poets, do they not treat of the same matters?

Ion— Certainly: but not like Homer.

Socrates— How, worse?

Ion— Oh, far worse!

Socrates— And Homer better than they?

Ion— Oh Jupiter, how much better!

Socrates— Suppose, my dear friend Ion, several persons are solving a problem in arithmetic, and one alone does it correctly: a man might know who had given the true answer.

Ion— Certainly.

Socrates— The same as had been aware of those who had given the false one, or not?

Ion— The same clearly.

Socrates— That is, some one who understood arithmetic.

Ion— Certainly.

Socrates— Suppose among several people giving their opinions upon the wholesomeness of different foods whether would one person know the rectitude of the opinion of those who judged rightly, and another pass upon the erroneousness of those which were incorrect, or would the same person be competent to decide respecting both?

Ion— The same evidently.

Socrates— What should you call that person?

Ion— A physician.

Socrates— We may then assert universally, that the same person who is competent to judge of the truth is competent also to determine the falsehood of whatever is asserted on the same topic; and it is manifest that he who cannot judge respecting the falsehood or unfitness of what is said on a given subject, is incompetent to determine also on its truth or beauty.

Ion— Assuredly.

Socrates— The same person then is competent to both.

Ion— Yes.

Socrates— And yet you say that your power of explaining Homer & other poets, among them Hesiod & Archilochus, is unequal; & that you can illustrate this poet better & those worse.

Ion— And I speak truth.

Socrates— Yet if you would determine that which is excellent in one, you must also know that which is inferior in another, inasmuch as it is inferior.

Ion— So it should seem.

Socrates— Then my dear friend we should not err, if we asserted that Ion possessed a like power of illustration respecting Homer & all other poets; especially as he confesses that the same person must be esteemed a competent judge of all who speak of the same subjects, inasmuch as those subjects are understood by him, when spoken of by one; and the subject matter of almost all the poets is the same.

Ion— What then is the reason, Socrates, that when any other poet is the subject of conversation, I cannot compel my attention, and I feel utterly unable to improvise any thing worth speaking of,—& positively go to sleep; but when anyone reminds me of Homer, I awaken instantly as from a trance, I apply my mind without effort to the subject, & feel a throng & profusion of expressions suggest themselves involuntarily?

Socrates— It is not difficult to conjecture the cause. You are evidently unable to speak concerning Homer according to art or knowledge; for if you could speak according to art, you would be equally capable of illustrating any of the other poets; as the materials of their composition no less than the art of criticism which illustrates them, must be the same.

Ion— Assuredly.

Socrates— Yet of any other art the same mode of consideration must be admitted with respect to all arts; do you desire to hear what I understand by this, o Ion?

Ion— Yes, by Jupiter, o Socrates. I am delighted with listening to you wise men.

Socrates— To confess the truth, it is you who are wise, o Ion. The rhapsodists, the actors, & the authors of these poems which you recite. I, like an unprofessional & private man, can only say that which I know to be true. Observe how vulgar & common and level to the comprehension of any one is the question I now ask, relative to the same consideration belonging to one entire art. Is not the art of painting one whole system in itself?

Ion— Yes.

Socrates— Are there not & have there not been, many painters good and bad?

Ion— Certainly.

Socrates— Did you ever know a person competent to determine the merits of the paintings of Polygnotus the son of Aglaophon, and incompetent to judge the production of any other painter; who, on the compositions of other painters being exhibited to him felt wholly at a loss & very much inclined to go to sleep, and lost all faculty of reasoning upon the subject; but who, when his opinion was required of Polygnotus, or any one single painter you please, awoke, paid attention to the subject, & illustrated it with great eloquence?

Ion— Never, by Jupiter.

Socrates— Did you ever know any one very skillful in discussing the merits of Dædalus the son of Metion, one Epeius Panopeus, Theodorus the Samian or any other great sculptor, who immediately went to sleep & became at a loss the moment any other sculptor was mentioned?

Ion— I never met with such a person certainly.

Socrates— Nor do I think you ever saw a man who professing himself a judge of music, song & rhapsody, was competent to criticize Olympus Thamyris, Orpheus, or Phemius of Ithaca, the rhapsodist; but the moment he came to Ion the Ephesian felt himself quite at a loss, & utterly incompetent to determine whether he rhapsodized well or ill.

Ion— I cannot refute you Socrates; but of this I am conscious in myself that I excel all men in the profusion & eloquence of my illustrations of Homer; that all who hear me will confess it; & that with respect to other poets, I am deserted by this power; it is for you to consider what may be the cause of this.

Socrates— I can unfold to you, o Ion, my opinion. I will tell you, o Ion, what appears to me to be the cause of this inequality of power. It is not that you are possessed of any science for the illustration of Homer; but a divine influence moves you, a power like that which resides in the stone called magnet by Euripides & Heracleia by the people. For this stone not only attracts iron rings, but communicates to them power like that which itself possesses of attracting other rings, so that some times a long attached chain of rings & irons may be one to the other. To all these the power from that stone is communicated & attaches itself. In like manner the Muse, through those whom she has first inspired, communicating to others the influence of the first enthusiasm creates a chain & a succession; for all the excellent authors of poems not disciplined into excellence by art, but they utter beautiful melodies of verse in a state of inspired & possessed as it were by a spirit. And thus the composers of lyric poetry, like Corybants who dance having lost all control over their mind, compose admired songs of theirs in a state of insanity, & by this supernatural possession are excited to the rhythm & harmony which they invent; like the Bacchants, who when possessed by the God draw honey & milk from the streams in which & when they come to their senses find honey no more; for the souls of poets, as poets tell, have this peculiar ministration in the world; tell us, that flying like bees from flower to flower, & wandering over the gardens & the meadows & the honey flowing fountains of the Muses these souls return to us, laden with the sweetness of melody—arrayed close as they are they speak truth. For indeed a poet is a thing ætherially light winged & sacred, nor is he capable of composing poetry until he becomes inspired & as it were mad, or whilst any reason remains in him. For whilst man yet retain any portion of the thing called reason he is utterly incompetent to produce poetry or to vaticinate.

Thus, those who declaim various & beautiful poetry upon any subject as you upon Homer, are not enabled to do so by art or study: but every rhapsodist or poet, whether be he dythyrambic, encomiastic, choral, epic, or iambic is capable in proportion to his participation in the divine influence, & to the degree in which the Muse itself has descended upon him. In other respects poets may be sufficiently ignorant & incapable. They do not compose according to any art which they have acquired, but from the impulse of the divinity within them; for, did they know any system of criticism according to which they could compose beautiful versus upon one subject, they would be able to exert the same faculty with respect to all and any others. The God has purposely deprived all poets, prophets & soothsayers to adapt them for their employments as his ministers & interpreters, of every particle of reason & understanding; in order that we their auditors may acknowledge, that such absurd persons cannot possibly be the authors of the excellent & admirable things which they communicate; but that he the God himself is he who speaks & they are merely the organs of his voice. A proof of this may be found in Tynnichus the Chalchidean, who composed no other poem which any one thinks worth remembering except the famous pæan which is in every one’s mouth, perhaps without exception the most beautiful of all lyrical compositions and which he himself called ευρηματι μουσαν. I think you will agree with me, that the gods show us clearly by such examples that these beautiful poems are not human nor from men, but divine & from the gods; and that poets are nothing but the inspired interpreters of the gods, each excellent in proportion to the degree of his inspiration; and the examples of the most beautiful song having been composed by the worst poet in other respects, seems to have been purposely afforded as a divine evidence of the truth of this opinion. Do you think with me, o Ion?

Ion— By Jupiter, I do. You touch my soul with your words, o Socrates. The excellent poets appear to me to be divinely commissioned as interpreters between the gods & us.

Socrates— Do not you rhapsodists interpret the creations of the poets?

Ion— That also is true.

Socrates— You are then the interpreters of interpreters.


If you would like to read the unedited transcription, or to see the manuscript pages themselves, visit The Shelley-Godwin Archive. Not only do they have a selection of Percy Shelley’s manuscripts, but they also have strong holdings in Mary Shelley, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft. It is a wonderful resource.

Notes:

1 I did some basic internet research but was unable to discover where the manuscript of the translation is housed, or even if it is extant.

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The Bard Turns 80

American singer, songwriter, poet, and Nobel laureate Bob Dylan celebrates his 80th birthday today. There are a number of festivities to honor the occasion, including a three-day conference at the University of Tulsa’s Institute for Bob Dylan Studies and a special symposium hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, which will be live-streamed later this afternoon. I look forward to checking that out.

The Allen Ginsberg Project has also gathered a bunch of links to recent books and articles on Dylan, including a number of tributes to the bard on the occasion of his birthday. The amount of scholarly work being done on Dylan is amazing. It is a testament to the significant role his work has played in the development of contemporary American culture.

If you are unable to catch the special events being live-streamed today, you should definitely consider watching Martin Scorsese’s documentary film Rolling Thunder Review, which is available on Netflix. It is a remarkable film. And of course there is always Dylan’s music. I have his 1976 album Desire playing right now, and it is providing a perfect soundtrack to this rainy day in Austin.

It is difficult to overstate how accomplished Dylan is as a songwriter. The scope of his influence and his longevity as an artist are unparalleled, and American popular music and culture simply wouldn’t be the same without him. Hopefully, we haven’t heard the last from his singular voice.

A very happy birthday, Bob! And many more to come.