Whatever curious and interesting subject strikes my fancy, be it silly or serious, gets posted for your reading pleasure.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

What is that Question Again?


  (Post originally published May 3, 2012)
descriptionShakespeare: the very name strikes a deep chord. For 
four hundred and forty-eight years, the masterpieces penned by this paragon of playwrights has captivated the world. As someone once observed, Shakespeare no longer belongs to the British, he belongs to every nation.

In honour of his birthday, and to celebrate the 2012 Olympics, the Globe Theatre in London is presenting a marathon festival featuring a host of international drama companies presenting his plays in their native languages. Anyone up for The Merry Wives of Windsor in Swahili?

To highlight the event, BCC World News aired a news feature with actors from the numerous companies delivering in their own language one of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.”

As I watched the news clip, I was struck by that famous cogitation of Hamlet, the mad, melancholic Prince of Denmark as he ponders upon the philosophical conundrums of life, death, existence or non-existence, and how important a topic it was in the philosophical circles of Shakespeare's era. Many famous thinkers and playwrights grappled with the issue of how we perceive the very essence of existence, of being alive, and in the process invented their own famous one-liners. The French philosopher, writer and mathematician René Descartes concluded: Cogito ergo sum ~ “I think, therefore I am.” The author Kurt Vonnegut also reminds us of this philosophical conundrum albeit with humour by quoting Socrates, Sartre and Frank Sinatra in succession: “To be is to do,” “To do is to be,” “Do Be Do Be Do”.

Other playwrights of Shakespeare's time also dissected the issue, although their attempts at exploring “To be or not to be,” may not have become as well-known as their contemporaries' succinct phrases. In this instance, Christopher Marlowe and his drama,The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus . In lieu of describing the point of existence, Marlowe, through the doomed character of Faustus who sells his soul to Hell, mocks the entire system of philosophical disputation used to explore the question vis the academic policy in the universities of strict adherence to Aristotle's reasoning methods. The philosopher Aristotle was so highly regarded that students were forbidden to disagree with Analytics, his treatise on logic: students at Oxford were fined if they did! Thus the universities of Marlowe and Shakespeare's time paradoxically threw the whole point of open debate and disputation askew, the focal point of their esteemed philosophical and theological curriculum.

How does Marlowe satirize the issue?

With the enigmatic line: “Bid Oncaymaeon farewell.”

Below I have included a excerpt from Faust: My Soul Be Damned for the World Volume 1 unravelling the meaning of that cryptic statement:


“Act I opens with Faustus alone in his study restlessly contemplating the subjects he studied, initially focusing his attention on Aristotle and logic:

Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin
To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess.
Having commenced, be a divine in show,
Yet level at the end of every art,
And live and die in Aristotle’s works. […]

[I. i. 1–5]

Faustus has recently attained his MA degree. Although the Chorus relates Faustus earned the title of “Doctor”, in Act I he is deciding which of the subjects he will “profess” to continue his advanced studies. According to Harrison in Holinshed’s Chronicles, an English MA student could be referred to as “doctor” should they profess one or be generally skilled in all of the liberal sciences they previously studied during the BA and MA years. From thence, they could elect to study divinity, law or medicine for their Doctorate. Faustus sarcastically muses he may as well continue with the divinity studies he started, as a respectable front, while he decides to “level”, or find the purpose of each subject, to discover which is worthy of his time and effort, and yield substantial rewards. We detect here Marlowe’s resentment with the Parker Scholarship stipulation stating the prerequisite for recipients to express an interest in receiving Holy Orders before they could continue with their education.

Faustus declares he will “live” and “die” with Aristotle’s works, and then amusingly exclaims: “Sweet Analytics,‘tis thou hast ravished me!” [I. i. 6] (Analytics was the name applied to two of Aristotle’s works on the nature of proof in argument.) — Marlowe in his BA years may have submissively “lived” for nothing else and figuratively “died” with his extensive disputation course grounded on logic and rhetoric. In this instance “ravished” could also signify being “seized” and academically molested. Taking up Aristotle’s Analytics, a single sentence claims his attention and he ponders upon its significance:

[He reads] Bene disserere est finis logices.
(‘To dispute well is the end of logic’.)
Is to dispute well logic’s chiefest end?
Affords this art no greater miracle?
Then read no more; thou hast attained that end.
A greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit.
Bid Oncaymaeon farewell. […]

[I. i. 7–12]

Faustus discovers that logic simply prepared him to dispute and argue a topic, that is all. He then dismisses logic, which he terms “being and not being” (On kai me on), considering he has already become a master in this art. We also detect a phonetic sound-game with ‘Organon’, the logic treatise by Aristotle that Oxford students were not permitted to disagree with! Ironically, these two quotations are not from Aristotle. “Bene dissere” was Cicero’s definition of logic, later assumed by the French dialectician Petrus Ramus (1515–1572) whose attempt to reform Aristotelian logic was received with hostility, his detractors considered he had reduced Aristotle’s work to superficialities. “On kai me on” is a diminutive synopsis of Gorgias’ (c. 485–380 B.C.) tripartite nihilistic philosophy — nothing exists. If anything exists, it cannot be known; if it exists and can be known, it cannot be explained. Marlovian commentators are generally puzzled why Faustus, an intellectual, should quote his sources incorrectly. We might assume he is an inept scholar, but he is supposedly reading directly from university texts on the table in front of him. Is he actually comprehending the material he is reading? Marlowe may be stabbing at a paradox in the Elizabethan third-level course on logic. His lecturers failed to practise Aristotle’s reason for disputation, i.e. to question an issue in order to discover what is true or false in philosophy, not to simply dispute well for the sake of argument whereby error can be persuasive and accepted as truth. Faustus ‘fails’ to “sound logic to its depths” for he should have immediately raised the question: if disputing well is the end of logic, then what is the purpose of argument but to find or to conclude upon an answer? Disputing well with no tangible result but to dispute, is similar to making the pointless query whether we truly exist or not, rather than asking why we exist and attempt to discover the answer. To be, or not to be: what a question! Marlowe highlights the illogical nature of his lessons in dialectic through Faustus’ apparent ignorance. Having spent years mastering the art of incessant argument, Marlowe’s mind was truly “ravished”. (…)”


Examining each subject taught at the university and disillusioned with their shallow depths, Faustus is eventually swayed by the dark allure of occult studies and decides to sell his soul for the power and knowledge he craves. How does this come about? You will have to read Faust: My Soul Be Damned for the World Volume 1 to find out!

Faust  My Soul Be Damned for the World Volume 1 by E.A. Bucchianeri

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