Plato, Aristotle and nun

The pipes deep beneath the ground in Flint quietly disseminated poison into the bodies of its residents. As we dig into the history of Western thought, we find a similar leeching. Ideas, deep beneath the language and culture of the West, continue to poison the future before us.

In this section, I excavate the Greek philosophical idea of time as it relates to shame. One of the easiest ways to distinguish between guilt and shame is the way they relate to the passage of time. Guilt tends to refer to a passing emotion, or an infraction with a possible resolution, even if the road to restoration is difficult. Shame, on the other hand, points toward a more permanent state. Time and restitution can ameliorate the impact of guilt; shame defies the passage of time. The line between guilt and shame can be blurry, so these generalizations may have limited use. Still, the difference between guilt and shame matters philosophically. Guilt, for the most part, refers to redeemable infractions, sins and mistakes. In his essay on guilt and shame in Plato’s work, philosopher Dan Lyons (2011, pp. 353-374) writes:

In any culture, shame is more fearful than guilt, at least for energetic natural leaders. For instance, if you had to choose, would you rather be resented and hated, or despised and ridiculed? Guilt connotes punishment within the group; shame connotes abandonment, exclusion. Guilt can find excuses; shame is increased by any reference to weakness. Guilt can be forgiven; shame can be expunged only by some difficult change or triumph.

Shame aims, however, not at what a person has done but at who a person w; this means that in its purest form, shame is timeless. This already hints at both the value and the devastation of shame; this is a concept that requires delicate treatment if we arc to retain the shame that heals and reject the shame that oppresses. This journey begins with an investigation of time.

Plato had some difficulty disentangling guilt from shame; the line between these two categories is often hard to draw. For simplicity’s sake, consider an amusing example of guilt offered by Lyons, a letter to the Internal Revenue Service from a taxpayer: “Dear Sir: I cheated on my taxes last year; now I can’t sleep. Here’s a cheque for half the amount I stole. If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send the rest” (p. 354). Guilty persons find themselves with a road to at least some restoration, however difficult.2 Guilt points to a restoration of balance. Shame, on the other hand, gets between a person and their image in the mirror; it is not alleviated by payment or punishment but cause for ostracization and utter exclusion. Shame is inflexible, permanent, unbending. People hiding “shameful” aspects of themselves are chiefly afraid of the abandonment associated with what is unforgivable.

If the ideas of guilt and shame are built on different approaches to time, then thinking carefully about time will be required to make progress. If “time” does not seem like a philosophically interesting subject matter, or doesn’t seem to relate to shame at first glance, that might be a testament to the success of Plato and Aristotle in their work on time. They have, with help from many others, succeeded in shaping the way Western culture thinkers contemplate the passage of time. Time is a concept that is used to synchronize, to pull together the diverse experiences of our lives. It is with “time” that we set appointments, celebrate holidays, remember the passage of loved ones and coordinate our lives. This mechanism oftime is synchronizing, for it pulls diverse lives into the same chronology. In his critique of Western thinking about time, philosopher Emmanuel Levinas compares this force to the written word. Whereas a spoken word reverberates with unknowable depth and history, a written word is ossified, present, posscss-ablc, and at least pretends to offer itself to the internal field of knowledge. The other modality of time Levinas calls diachrony, and it refers to the time of the other person, from a time outside of the self. A spoken word - the Saying, as Levinas puts it - is encountered outside of data, knowledge, integration and totalization (2016, pp. 134-135). It summons not to knowledge, but to response, to action, to responsibility. Synchrony is necessary and important, for it allows us to coordinate our language, schedules and labours. But it is also a betrayal of other elements of our lives together; diachrony refers to the otherness of time, the more primal and human function of speech, gesture and care. Before expanding on Lcvinas’s use of diachrony, and using it to point to good shame, I first need to further excavate the significant problems and benefits of synchronic time as we inherit it from the depths of Greek philosophy.

The concept of time, and the consequent assumptions about its primary meaning as synchronizing, arc so thoroughly ingrained in modem life that rethinking them requires significant excavation. In one of Plato’s later dialogues, The Timaeus, the ageing philosopher provides some of his most striking insights into his own metaphysical system.3 The discussion in Timaeus, amongst Socrates and several friends, is sweeping and cosmological in nature. The conversation is posed as a response to comments Socrates had made the “previous day,”4 perhaps challenging them to explore the mysterious origins of the tremendous beauty and order in the universe. Much of the heavy lifting in the dialogue is provided by the title character, Timaeus, who attempts to provide what he deems a likely account for the formation of the universe (cosmos; koouoq). Timaeus suggests that some rational, consistent, mathematical and intentional handiwork must lay behind the world we perceive, a divine hand (demiurge; that has crafted the

material world. This divine craftsperson, according to Timaeus, is intentional and purposeful in this organization of the world, intending especially that an organized world would emerge from the labour. The hand that shapes the world docs so all at once, seeing the whole view, shaping it is an outsider, the other to the chaotic world it shapes. And this God shapes and moves the world from a timeless, motionless, singular perch.

The merits or demerits of Plato’s metaphysical cosmology and its theological implications - of much interest to early Christian theologians - have been the subject of much debate. Aristotle distances himself from his teacher in many ways, perhaps most acutely on the basis of time. By Aristotle’s reckoning, Plato has too easily dispensed with the important function of time to bind and unite all motion and movement. The core of Aristotle’s critique of his teacher, Plato, can be framed theologically: Plato’s God is outside of time, creating time and pushing the created order from the outside. Aristotle docs not deny the teleological movement of change, but he thinks the concept of time is nonsense, “unthinkable,” if considered outside of the “now.” Plato, sounding consistent with contemporary Big Bang theory, suggests that time originates “simultaneous with the world.”5 Aristotle is reluctant to think about time as anything other than a way to interpret change, an “affection of motion.”6 Aristotle, therefore, frames the meaning of time in terms of its relationship to change rather than the reverse (Coopc, 2005, p. 31). Change is happening always; past nows looked different from this current now, and future nows will look different as well. But time for Aristotle is an endeavour to quantify or count the episodes of change. This makes time dependent upon the mind capable of counting.7 Time, for Aristotle, is not something made by God but a by-product of the human experience of change. For God, all things are present and timeless. As Aristotle frames the discipline, a philosopher seeks this same positioning, posture and divine perspective. In this philosophy of time there is a surreptitious philosophy of power, and no wonder that both of these patriarchs dreamt of a world controlled by philosopher kings. These, the wisest and most civilized of men, gather time and history into their all-seeing purview and administer justice according to their nearly divine wisdom.

In both of these titans of Western thinking, Plato and Aristotle, the key to think about time is found in the synchronizing power of the “now.” They diverge here, however. Plato’s “now” is the time-of-thc-prcscnt, with past and future moments representing aspects of the present. The only time, for Plato, is “now.” In such a view of temporality, time is merely a condition of the world that is in becoming. There is no such thing as a past time or future time. There is only a “present” - moving along, always flanked by past “nows” and future “nows.” Plato has Timaeus call the present the “moving image of eternity” (Plato, ca. 360 B.C.E./2000, p. 24). The medieval philosopher Boethius famously called this the “Eternal Now.”8 It falls to philosophy to create a broad and inclusive metaphysics of presence which explain all things past and future according to the powerful vision of what things now arc.

Aristotle offers more nuance. He claims that “in time we can take nothing but nows,” but by that he means that it is in the present that we contemplate the complexities of time. In fact, for Aristotle, the “now” is not part of time at all. He writes (2014, p. 420):

If any composite thing is to be, it is necessary that while it is, all or some of its parts must be; but though time is composite, part of it has happened and part of it is going to be, while none of it is. The now is no part of it. For the part measures the whole, and the whole must be composed of the parts, but time docs not seem to be composed of nows.

This does not mean, for Aristotle, that there is no existence of the “now,” but he does want to emphasize that the now is the vantage point from which we perceive time, not part of it. This innovation allows Aristotle to take more seriously than Plato the complex role of causation in the way the present is shaped by time, by the layers of causation from the past that create possibilities for the future.

Despite some bickering among Western philosophers, the power of now, in Greek nun - the root of the English word noon - goes unchallenged. Both Aristotle and Plato privilege the “now” in their understanding of time. They agree that time is to be understood via the present as a by-product of our analysis of nun; most of Western philosophy has repeated and extended this insight. Time seems neutral and indifferent, but an unseen power lurks in the way time is gathered and organized into a synchrony. From the perch of their ivory towers, the philosopher kings establish linguistic, cultural, religious and academic normalcy. All things fall into the chronology of the powerful: holidays, festivals, work schedules, tax days, clothing, pronunciations, food, habits and ethnic practices. That which deviates from these temporally synchronized norms is a cause for shame, as we will explore in the next section. Whoever rules the interpretation of nun rules the world.

This excavation of the roots of thinking about time exposes a fundamental problem with the organizational forces of human society. In other words, this is how power and truth work, by way of the force of synchrony. Furthermore, these ways of thinking about time directly relate to the ethical dispositions created by these thinkers. The powerful - whether or not they realize it - make the clock, the calendar, determining the flow of resources and power. In Flint, this meant that the people in power synchronized - far beneath the earth and outside of Flint’s borders - the How of water. Those who flipped the switch, and ignored the steady complaints of residents, act without being acted upon. The waters of Flint move; white supremacy holds still.

In fact, this follows the model laid out by Plato in his dialogue The Timeaus, in which a blueprint for the world is laid out by the demiurge, the divine craftspcrson who shapes chaos into order in the universe. At the pinnacle of Timaeus’s speech he argues that humans devote themselves to cultivating their souls toward the original purposes of the demiurge. The process of being bom confuses and disorients us, and it is through the restoration of a rational understanding of the universe that we arc guided to realignment. Timaeus turns his metaphysical deliberations into ethical ones when he declares (Plato, ca. 360 B.C.E./2000, p. 86):

We should redirect the revolutions in our heads that were thrown off course at our birth, by coming to learn the harmonies and revolutions of the universe, and so bring into conformity with its objects our faculty of understanding, as it was in the original condition. And when this conformity is complete, we shall have achieved our goal: that most excellent life offered to humankind by the gods, both now and forevermore.

For Timaeus, the moral person is the one whose vision for everyday decisions is determined by a grand metaphysical vision for synchronous order. The decisions made by people in power arc guided by an assimilating vision.9 Ethics that is formed from the leanings of Plato will lean toward assimilation to a common vision of behaviours that conform to a universal and rational vision of how chaos can be organized into harmony. This vision is essentially timeless, unchanging and fixed. One might detect something decidedly Platonic in ethical systems like the ones proposed by Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, who seek to apply overarching visions and universal principles to everyday moral decisions. Time and ethics, here, run in parallel; both are best understood as that which organizes and synchronizes apparently divergent interpretations of the world and how we should live in it. Shame is a powerful tool of synchrony, deployed through overt and covert means; shame provides powerful and mostly effective boundaries to enforce moral synchronization. This manifestation of shame I call “synchronic shame.” This manifestation of shame is often a good phenomenon, particularly when laws and customs arise to protect the vulnerable, to synchronize the abolition of slavery, cruelty, exploitation, oppression and more. But synchrony is a dangerous ally; it quickly and easily turns poisonous. Persons and systems of power determine the structure of the world to which all things arc pressured to conform. With the flick of a pen, thousands of dollars arc ‘saved’ on water. Nobody, to date, has been prosecuted for the mayhem that ensued (Ahmad, 2020). The synchronizer is the centre that holds still.

Once the grand vision for the universe has been established, whether from Plato’s “outside being” to Aristotle’s analysis of being itself, the force of nun moves powerfully. Perhaps Plato offers us a road out of the trap of synchrony, albeit one that European philosophy has often failed to exercise. All of Plato’s writings descend to us as dialogues and deliver their messages dialectically. Socrates himself seldom stakes a position that is not open to questioning. Hans-Georg Gadamer, a twentieth-century philosopher of history and hermeneutics, found in Plato the blueprint for a tireless dialectic that never allows itself to arrive at a perspective that is independent of the particular context of the viewer. Gadamer pointed out that no matter what philosophy seeks to contemplate, we can never attain objectivity. Even the goal of seeing things objectively misleads philosophy. Human rationality, Gadamer teaches, is always situated and bound by context and perspective. These are not the enemy of philosophy but its context. Gadamer learned this restless dialectic from Plato.10 Surely Plato, and Aristotle, would be chagrined that their deliberations on time hardened into tools of power and assimilation and pointed to new configurations of time.

What has been delivered by Western, European philosophy is a colonial philosophy of truth; the whole world has been asked to conform to the time of Europe. Things other than this experience of the “now” are to be conformed to that vision; otherness is subject to the logic of sameness. In the midst of this philosophy of time is an infrastructure of power; the persons, or system, that organize the nun arrange not just resources but time to their advantage. This is the political force of a metaphysics of presence, and it works as effectively without as it does with intentionality. Synchronic shame is a tool of control; those who arc far from the centre, from the norm, arc abnormal, untimely and shameful. Synchronic shame is sometimes helpful and sometimes devastating. Systemic racism, sexism, ableism and more are carried forward by a metaphysics of the nun, of presence. This is perhaps the primary movement of colonialism, constantly forcing the “norm” of the centre to everyone and everything on the periphery. To better understand the operation of shame, and before returning to the role of shame in American white supremacy, it is important to explore the role it was already playing in the philosophers of ancient Greece.

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