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James Joyce, ordered Aristotelian

Ireland’s greatest novelist affirmed the power of Aristotle’s timeless wisdom against the emergent materialism of his day

It is arguable that Aristotle – next to Homer – was James Joyce’s greatest master. Without the ‘Odyssey’, Joyce could never have conceived ‘Ulysses’; had he not written the book celebrating his first rendezvous with a beautiful girl from Galway, whatever he wrote would, however, have been profoundly marked by Aristotle. There is, I suggest, a profound affinity of mind between Joyce and Aristotle; perhaps part of this kinship may be explained by its Homeric parentage. Aristotle too was profoundly influenced by Homer; he cites him over one hundred times, second in frequency only to Plato.

One of the most moving documents which we possess from the entire corpus of ancient philosophy is the fragment of a letter written by Aristotle toward the end of his life: “The more solitary and isolated I am, the more I have come to love myths. One recalls Rembrandt’s famous painting of Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer.

That Joyce set out to emulate Homer and his success is beyond dispute. He was also a true and sympathetic follower of Aristotle. He regarded Aristotle as the greatest thinker of all times, declaring:

“In the last two hundred years we have had no great thinker. My assertion is bold, since Kant is included. All the great thinkers of recent centuries from Kant to Benedetto Croce have only recultivated the garden. The greatest thinker of all times, in my opinion, is Aristotle. He defines everything with wonderful clarity and simplicity. Later, volumes were written to define the same things”.

How did Joyce came to know Aristotle? Why such great esteem? For generations in Ireland, the name of Aristotle has been associated in the popular tradition with wisdom and erudition. The German travel writer Johann Georg Kohl, visiting Ireland in September 1842, reported that he twice heard Irish people “speak of Aristotle as a wise and mighty king of Greece, as if they had the same conception of him as of King Solomon”. Aristotle’s renown was alive i mbéal an phobail.

My own greatgrandmother from West Cork, born a generation later, spoke reverently of “Harry Stakle” [ie Aristotle]. The Irish, however, by no means regarded Aristotle as omniscient; Joyce copied in ‘Scribbledehobble’, his workbook for FW, the widespread traditional Irish triad, “3 things Aristotle didn’t know: labour of bees, flow of tide, mind of women”.

Joyce was unwittingly exposed to the categories of Aristotle throughout his Catholic education.

Catholic theology has for centuries made use of Aristotelian concepts and terminology. Consider the traditional vocabulary of the catechism. The sacraments are explained in terms of Aristotelian principles: each has its matter and form. The Eucharist is described in the vocabulary of substance and accident. Joyce, like many Irish youngsters before and since, imbibed the practicality of Aristotle’s metaphysics. There is less sympathy, it may be noted, in the Protestant tradition of Luther, who did not disguise his contempt for “that cursed heathen”: “What will they not believe who have credited that ridiculous and injurious blasphemer Aristotle? His propositions are so absurd that an ass or a stone would cry out at them… My soul longs for nothing so ardently as to expose and publicly shame that Greek buffoon, who like a spectre has befooled the Church”.

It may be fairly presumed that under the Jesuits Joyce was likewise exposed to the scholastic mode of deliberation, which owed much to the logic of Aristotle.

Joyce rejected much of his Jesuit education, but was in many ways grateful. Buck Mulligan remarks to Stephen: “[Y]ou have the cursed jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way”. Asked by the sculptor August Suter what he retained from his Jesuit education, he replied: “I have learnt to arrange things in such a way that they become easy to survey and to judge”.

Commenting on Aristotle, Aquinas defines wisdom as the discovery of order: Sapientis est ordinare. The opening words of a translation of Aquinas which Joyce himself later owned, and which could not have failed to attract his attention on publication in 1905, read:

“According to established popular usage, which the Philosopher [Aristotle] considers should be our guide in the naming of things, they are called ‘wise’ who put things in their right order and control them well”.

Curiously, AE remarked to the young Joyce: “I do not see in your beginnings enough chaos to make a world”. It was precisely this confrontation with chaos that spurred him on.

In ‘Stephen Hero’ we read: “And over all the chaos of history and legend, of fact and supposition, he strove to draw out a line of order, to reduce the abysses of the past to order by diagram”.

Order was the hallmark of Aristotle’s mind; his investigations were a comprehensive attempt not only to analyse and differentiate the full entirety of given reality, but more importantly to integrate and unify. This fixity upon order is formulated in the mind of Bloom: “The necessity of order, a place for everything and everything in its place”.

This is repeated in the essay title associated with Aristotle in ‘Night Lessons’ in ‘Finnegans Wake’: ‘A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place’. Joyce had occasionally, in Wallace Stevens’ phrase, a “blessed rage for order”. When Frank Budgen inquired of the progress of ‘Ulysses’, Joyce replied: “I have been working hard on it all day”. “Does that mean that you have written a great deal?”, Budgen asked. “Two sentences”, said Joyce, in all seriousness. “You have been seeking the mot juste?”. “No. I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentence. There is an order in every way appropriate. I think I have it”. The words in question referred to the seductive effect of women’s silk petticoats hanging in a shop window: “Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore”. “You can see for yourself”, said Joyce, “in how many different ways they might be arranged”. This is echoed in ‘Finnegans Wake’: “The ring man in the rong shop but the rite words by the rote order”.

Joyce began to discover the philosophy of Aristotle in a formal academic manner, if not before, then certainly from his early days at university. He graduated in English, French and Italian, taking courses also in Mathematics, Physics and Logic. His studies, however, took place within an atmosphere permeated by Aristotelian scholasticism. It is worth recalling that for the founder of the university, John Henry Newman, Aristotle was the “oracle of nature and of truth”; he declared: “to think correctly, is to think like Aristotle”.

Of the broader picture Felix E Hackett, another classmate of Joyce, writes as follows (playing on the original sense of the Greek word ‘peripatetic’, ‘to walk’, and its transferred meaning, referring to Aristotle who lectured as he strolled):

“Dublin at that time could well have been described as a city of peripatetic discourse. The university atmosphere around 86 St Stephen’s Green was indeed peripatetic also in the philosophic sense, as is evident from the description given by Joyce in ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man'”.

For Joyce’s commitment to Aristotle we have ample evidence. Stanislaus Joyce, James’s younger brother, informs us in his diary: “He upholds Aristotle against his friends, and boasts himself an Aristotelian”. In ‘Portrait of the Artist’, Stephen declares: “For my purpose I can work on at present by the light of one or two ideas of Aristotle and Aquinas”.

Shortly after his arrival in Paris Joyce abandoned plans to study medicine, on learning that fees were to be paid in advance. He turned his attention, as it were, from physic to metaphysic, applying himself seriously to the study of Aristotle. On 8 February 1903 he wrote to Stanislaus: “I am feeling very intellectual these times and up to my eyes in Aristotle’s Psychology”.

Joyce’s first published pronouncement on Aristotle was a review sent from Paris and published in the Daily Express on 3 September 1903 of John Burnet’s book ‘Aristotle on Education’, a compilation drawn from Aristotle’s ‘Ethics and Politics’.

What is revealing in an otherwise unenthusiastic review is the conclusion: “This book can hardly be considered a valuable addition to philosophical literature, but it has a contemporary value in view of recent developments in France, and at the present time, when the scientific specialists and the whole cohort of Materialists are cheapening the good name of philosophy, it is very useful to give heed to one who has been wisely named maestro di color che sanno. In a forceful declaration Joyce affirms the power of Aristotle’s timeless wisdom against the emergent materialism of his day”.

Aristotle also appears as an authority in ‘The Holy Office’, the famous satirical poem written by Joyce shortly before he left Dublin in 1904 lampooning Yeats and other leading figures of the Irish literary revival; he criticises in particular their spurious spirituality and false ethereal Celtic mysticism.

He asks: “Ruling one’s life by commonsense / How can one fail to be intense?”

In a literal interpretation of the doctrine of catharsis, Joyce sees it as his task to cleanse literary Ireland, appealing to Aristotle even in the most inauspicious surroundings:

Myself unto myself will give This name, Katharsis-Purgative. I, who dishevelled ways forsook To hold the poets’ grammar-book, Bringing to tavern and to brothel The mind of witty Aristotle, Lest bards in the attempt should err Must here be my interpreter: Wherefore receive now from my lip Peripatetic scholarship.

This piece has been extracted from Professor Fran O’Rourke’s recent book, ‘Aristotelian Interpretations’, published by Irish Academic Press