Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Working with Background Texts and Prepping for Class

This essay is geared toward an audience of readers treating source or background texts. By these texts I mean those readings designed to provide background knowledge or definitions when asked to prepare for future work. Students in composition or literature courses might be very much interested in this.

Let’s say the reader is asked to read Aristotle’s Politics. This can be complicated because the first thing the reader should note is where they’re reading the work by Aristotle. In the latest version of the Modern Language Association, the MLA wants the reader to note the place where they’re encountering the work. This is known as the “container.” The container can be a book or a website or an Anthology. In our case the work will be contained in a container called a website. The website might be the Internet Classics Archive. Fine. We, as readers, can understand this. The Archive is a place where lots of writings will be stored or contained. We could search the archive for numerous other works to read, but in this case the goal would be to read Aristotle’s Politics.

As you’ll note the work is broken up into Parts and Books. We’re only dealing with Book I and Parts 1 through 5. Within that Book and it’s parts we can examine the way Aristotle chooses to begin his study, which is pretty long and complicated. Politics is complicated; it’s more than just what we may or may not watch on TV, on the Web, or in the newspaper. That may be the first thing to understand, and I repeat: Aristotle’s Politics is long and complicated. But since we’re only covering the first 5 parts, we can avoid some of that complexity and length. We still, however, have to strive for competency of those parts.

Understanding the Whole

For any reading of this kind we want to ask some generic questions.

  1. What is the subject of the text?
  2. How can we figure what the subject of the text is? (In other words, what if someone asked: “Well how do you know that thing is about birds?” or “Common Sense?”, what evidence would you bring to an answer? Paraphrase? Quotation? Examples?)
  3. What are the terms of the text or how should we go about understanding its vocabulary? Should we search for the meaning of a word or set of words or terms? How does this help? For example: the word good.
  4. What questions or assertions does the text pose given the subject and the vocabulary? Can we isolate these and think about them in terms of our own or learned experience?
  5. What ideas does the text pursue given the subject, the assertions, or the questions? How do we distinguish an idea from a question from a conjecture from a guess?
  6. What’s the logic of the text’s parts and compositional structure? How does the author want us to parse their meaning? To follow their reasoning through to some idea or conclusion?
  7. What’s your intellectual response to the text? How would you use it in a conversation on politics, good or bad behavior or habits, virtue?

A few more thoughts

Can you demonstrate understanding of the text by describing its subject verbally or on paper? Can you summarize the text’s subject for an audience by quoting from the text or putting an overall summary of it into your own words?

Aristotle begins the Politics by making an assertion of fact. He writes: “Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good . . .” We should or could stop here and ask some questions. What does the philosopher mean by the word “state”? What does he mean by “community”? It would seem to me that “established with a view to some good” is somewhat vague. Does the author explain what he means? How do we figure this out?

The work, in addition to the above, is broken into Parts. We should read the work, therefore, according to its parts, and thinking of these parts as somehow linked together. For example, Part 1 begins like so

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.

and ends like so:

We must therefore look at the elements of which the state is composed, in order that we may see in what the different kinds of rule differ from one another, and whether any scientific result can be attained about each one of them.

How did Aristotle get from the First to the Last?