Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Adopt the ‘Practice of the Pythagoreans’

In Cicero’s dialogue “On Old Age,” the great Roman statesman Cato tells us how he occupies his time once he is no longer able to take an active role in public life. First, he was busy on the seventh volume of his “Origins,” a book now lost. In it, he wanted to include all of his best speeches given in important legal cases. This was a treatise on the different kinds of law. At the same time, he was a “student of Greek literature,” no mean study.

Cato adds, “.In order to exercise my memory, I follow the practice of the Pythagoreans and run over in my mind every evening all that I have said, heard, or done during the day.”

Our memory, like our muscles, needs exercise. To be oblivious to the happenings of one’s day is to lead a shallow life. Schall does not recommend leading a shallow life.

What happens to us in our daily routine lives again in our memory. We are frequently able to see things in retrospect much better than we saw them as they were taking place. This is as true for what is painful or sinful as for what is noble and good. The active and passive contents of our memory tell us better than anything else, I think, what we are. Our memory includes our actions and our reasons for them.

Our memory of what we thought and did makes available to us the whole of ourselves as stretched over the time in which we have lived. It includes our experience of others and of what we have read or heard, including Greek literature. The man who was Marcus Porcius Cato, the censor, understood that his much delayed reading of Greek literature was itself indicative of his soul.

As I thought of this “practice of the Pythagoreans” in reflecting on the events of their day just passed, I also considered a not unrelated passage of Aristotle. Every so often, Aristotle will put into one of his works a brief piece of advice that, on reflection, is really a bit stunning.

In the “Categories,” for example, a short treatise that I am sure each Georgetown student reads every month, we come across this sentence: “The truth or falsity of a statement depends on facts, and not on any power on the part of the statement itself of admitting contrary qualities. In short, there is nothing which can alter the nature of statements and opinions.”

The verbal statement of a fact itself depends on the object about which it seeks to state. The mind depends both on itself and what there is to know.

This reflection brings me to a second consideration that we will find most obvious if we think about it.

“We must, however, not only state the true view, but also explain the false view, for an explanation of that [false view] promotes confidence,” Aristotle tells us when he teaches us what it really means to know something. “For when we have an apparently reasonable explanation of why a false view appears true, that [explanation] makes us more confident of the true view.”

As usual, when spelled out, Aristotle’s brief comments will contain a key to understanding the whole world. A good place to begin to see what Aristotle is up to here is to ask the following question: “Is it a good thing to know what evil, sin and error consists in?” The answer to this question, of course, following the earlier statement we just cited, is, in principle, “yes.” One must be prudent here. Many forms of knowing evil and sin are rather attractive at first sight at least, some also at second sight.

Yet, Aristotle rightly said that if we can state the reason why a false view is false but seems true, or an evil deed evil but seemingly good, we are more likely to understand the whole range of a good thing’s sphere, as it were. For knowing what is good or evil indicates that we understand its whole genus. We simply cannot do something evil that does not contain some good. It is this good that allows us to justify our action that, taken as a whole, is really wrong because it also leaves out the whole scope of the action.

Like it or not, as the daily practice of the Pythagoreans will teach us, we are caught in a swirl of true and false, good and evil. We are enmeshed in the false. We are tempted by the evil. We seek to sort it all out. This very “sorting out” is what Aristotle had in mind when he advises us to know the evil reasons that might be construed as good.

This Pythagorean practice is not a vain or arrogant exercise, but rather a necessary one if we are to negotiate our way through life in which such issues confront us daily. The modern temptation in the light of this swirl is to relativism or skepticism. No one can figure it out, so all is permitted. Yet, if we act on such a flimsy premise, we still have the practice of the Pythagoreans to confront us. Perhaps this too is why the elderly Cato read precisely “Greek literature.”

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a professor of government. He can be reached at AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT . appears every other Friday, with Fr. Maher and Fr. Schall alternating as writers.

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