COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 11
(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)
Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics
“But that the fortunes of a person’s descendants and all his friends contribute nothing whatsoever [to his happiness] appears to be excessively opposed to what is dear and contrary to the opinion held. And because the things that may befall us are many and differ in various respects — some hitting closer to home, others less so— thoroughly distinguishing each appears to be a long and even endless task. But perhaps for the matter to be stated generally and in outline would be adequate.
Just as some of the misfortunes that concerns a person himself have a certain gravity, and weight as regards his life but others seems lighter, so also the misfortunes that concern all his friends are similar; and if, concerning each thing suffered, it makes a difference whether the friends are alive or have met their end, far more than if the unlawful and terrible things in tragic plays occur before the action of the play or during it, then one must indeed take this difference into account —and even more, perhaps, when it comes to the perplexity raised concerning those who have passed away, that is, whether they share in something good or in the opposite. For it seems, on the basis of these points, that even if anything at all does get through to them, whether good or its contrary, it is something faint and small, either simply or to them. And if this is not so, then what gets through to them is, at any rate, of such a degree and kind that it does not make happy those who are not such or deprive those who are happy of their blessedness. The friends faring well, then, appears to make some contribution to the condition of those who have passed away, as does, similarly, their faring ill — but a contribution of such a kind and degree as not to make the happy unhappy or anything else of that sort.”
(NE, 1101a22-1101b9; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)
I. PRIVATE PUZZLES
1) Isn’t the most fundamental puzzle for this subsection hard to see at first sight? For shouldn’t we ask, why does Ar. dedicate ANOTHER, a totally separate subsection, to the already addressed question of the relation between happiness, the vulnerability of those we love (particularly family relatives up to a certain “reasonable” degree), and the end of our own temporal finitude in death? However, doesn´t Ar. now in this new subsection place the emphasis clearly on the effects that such fortunes/misfortunes may have on the happiness of the ALREADY dead? And to be honest, doesn’t he really stress the myriad misfortunes rather than the fortunes in keeping with the tenor of subsection 10? For, who would complain about too many good fortunes in one’s life (!)? And , aren´t we MORTALS? Is it that life has a tendency towards the tragic and thus we are not surprised to actually see the very first mention of tragedy in THIS subsection? Is there something about our view of life as tragic that runs counter to an ethics of eudaimonia? Will/Can the NE transform this initial contrast as it proceeds deploying its argument (see below)? Moreover, isn’t it odd that Ar. apparently “repeats” the topics of a subsection precisely at the point in which we are reaching the END of the first and Introductory book to the whole NE? Now, isn’t any “Introduction” of absolute relevance to the whole of what it is an “introduction” to? Didn’t Ar. himself tell us in a previous subsection that the beginning is half the whole? So, why lead us in THIS strange direction and no other? And even more dramatically, we know that in the EE, there exists NO parallel passage dealing with these topics, don’t we? What are we to make of this? Wouldn’t this omission clearly aid us in identifying better the different TONES found in both ethics? And wouldn’t this tonality be part of an argument for the maturity of the NE over the EE (pace Kenny)? Wouldn’t the tone of the EE, with what could be called its overconfidence in understanding, be rather more akin to OUR overconfident modern/current “philosophical” approach to life and its perplexities? In this regard, as we shall see below, wouldn’t OUR looking to the NE —–as moderns living a secular age in which the spirit has radically stifled— become even more fundamental to awaken us from the troubling slumber we have fallen into as modern Western democracies? Or put in the words of professor Taylor, who in some regards is a kind of neo-Aristotelian: “we have read so many goods out of our official story, we have buried their power so deep beneath layers of philosophical rationale, that they are in danger of stiffing. Or rather, since they are our goods, human goods, WE are stifling….“(Sources of the Self, Conclusion, p. 520) Doesn’t Ar.’s striking reference to these kinds of issues in subsection 10 and 11 move us, thus moderating us, in the opposite direction?
But leaving these issues aside, what more concretely are the differences revealed between the similar subsections 10 and 11? For, don’t we see how SHORT subsection 11 is, in contrast to 10? Why not just simply add one to the other? I mean, the resulting subsection would NOT end up being that much longer, right? How to even begin to try to account for this puzzle? Could it be that Ar. is letting us know how LITTLE philosophical argumentation can actually be developed in the more speculative areas touched upon by this much shorter subsection? Besides, isn’t the need for brevity emphasized by Ar. himself when we listen to him saying, as he had already done in another subsection: “But perhaps for the matter to be stated generally and in outline would be adequate”? Put bluntly, doesn’t Ar. lead us to wonder whether philosophy kind of “dies” when it reaches these more “speculative” horizons dealing with “life after death” and the “immortality of the soul”? And yet, why does Ar. still emphasize the need NOT to remain wholly silent about such topics? In contrast, don’t neo-Aristotelians —specially of the analytical tradition—- have a tough time squaring Ar.’s concerns in THESE topics with theirs? Isn’t the whole thing kind of embarrassing, from a modern philosopher’s perspective? Or can you imagine presenting your PhD thesis director with the topic “Life after death in Ar.”? Or is it, that Ar. is here reminding us of the rhetorical arguments presented previously which distinguished the mathematician and the rhetorician? Is Ar. HERE being a rhetorician? To what avail? Is he simply teaching us to bow to tradition once again? Is it so that —using terminology from previous subsections already commented— we can save the THAT by not asking too much of the WHY, so that the independence of the practical sphere and ITS beliefs, and ITS concerns with the nature of the soul, are left unperturbed to a large extent? But then, what of philosophy and those of us intent on THAT kind of life which cannot simply let it go at the THAT, but must inquire, even if prudently, about the WHY’s of the way we actually lead our lives AS philosophers? For isn’t the whole point of the NE not to be self-deceived in the essentials; to learn about the truest self-love (see below)? But, aren’t we here confronting the CENTRAL animating human aspects that MAY lead one to deceive oneself most decisively? Isn’t the LONGING, specially given the abundant misfortunes of life, that which may animate us to guide our lives beyond our rational capacities? Doesn’t fortune lead us to misology like few other “human” realities can? And, if Ar.’s presentation is indeed purely rhetorical in character, then, wouldn’t WE —-in order to get the real REVELATORY power of these types of “otherworldly” concerns—– just rather read the passages of the Bible that allow us to really FEEL such, in the end, non-philosophical connections? For instance, isn’t the whole story of Lazarus, really much more striking and less filled with rhetorical indecisions? Doesn´t resurrection really hit the heart of these kind of concerns like Ar.´s ambivalences cannot? For, according to the text, Lazarus DID come back, didn’t he (pace Hobbes/Locke, for instance)? But, of course, Ar. obviously sees the need NOT to proceed in THAT direction, does he?
In addition, don’t we find it striking that the previous subsection, which deals with similar issues —albeit in this world—- BEGINS and ENDS with puzzling questions, while in contrast we find not even the smallest reference to any direct questioning by Ar. in this new subsection? Besides, what about the answers provided? Don’t they truly seem aporetic in the Socratic sense of the word? For don’t the answers sound a bit like “well, yes, but really no, but we´ll say yes, but actually it is very small, but we can’t say that it isn’t for that would be too rude, though we really really think that it is not, but …”? Is Ar. trying to “confuse” us once again? Don’t we tend to forget, precisely because of this intentional rhetorical ambivalence, that Ar. is THE originator of philosophical logic and the discoverer even of the famous principle of non-contradiction? I mean, doesn’t Ar. seem rather clumsily to be contradicting himself with every line he adds to this subsection? Just go ahead and listen:
“For it seems, on the basis of these points, that even if anything at all does get through to them, whether good or its contrary, it is something faint and small, either simply or to them. And if this is not so, then what gets through to them is, at any rate, of such a degree and kind that it does not make happy those who are not such or deprive those who are happy of their blessedness. The friends faring well, then, appears …” (my emphasis)
To put it bluntly, has Ar. lost his rational mind (!)? Absurdly we ask: was it that he wrote the logical treatises only after he wrote the NE as a kind of cure(!)? More seriously, isn’t the whole thing not only ODD in the subject matter, but perhaps even weirder in Ar.’s selected approach? But, is he truly self-contradicting himself? Doesn’t our looking elsewhere aid us in understanding such Aristotelian maneuvers? Because we know that this is not the only place in his corpus that Ar. proceeds thus, is it? For if we read the introduction to the ALSO strange and also kind of “spooky” On Divination and Sleep (once again, if you do not believe it is a spooky topic, just try selling it as a philosophical PhD thesis!), we find Ar. arguing that:
“As to the divination which takes place in sleep, and it is said to be based on dreams, we cannot lightly either dismiss it with contempt or give it confidence. The fact that all persons, or many suppose dreams to possess a special significance, tends to inspire us with belief in it, as founded on the testimony of experience; and indeed that divination in dreams should, as regards some subjects be genuine, is not incredible, for it has a show of reason; from which one might form a like opinion also respecting other dreams. Yet the fact of our seeing no reasonable cause to account for such divination tends to inspire us with distrust….” (my emphasis: On Divination and Sleep; 462b13-462b18; on other “spooky” writings of a non-modern character by Plato, see the Thaeges and the Euthyphro)
Is Ar.´s initial ambivalent tone simply preparing the ground for our taking sides once the argument develops further along truly philosophical, that is to say, classical rational lines? But then, by thus proceeding, won’t the beginning be so transformed so that what was considered to be, can no longer be as it was; at least for those serious intent on understanding the way we lead our lives as human beings who long for a certain kind of truthful completion before death? As we said, won’t we inevitably end up upsetting the THAT by asking for its WHY? What then, is the point of delaying the “inevitable” through these rhetorical “tricks”? Wouldn’t this strategy of, do forgive me, “hide-and-seek”, rather than safeguard the philosophers and their questions, truly not make them even more suspicious as they would seem to actually be two-faced (I mean, “well, yes you have a point, but really your point is really a bad one, but we´ll suppose it is a little valid, but …”)? Or is it that the desire to BELIEVE is of such a nature, that against it rational inquiry truly cannot but from the start appear ambivalent NO MATTER what strategy the philosopher takes recourse to? Isn’t this why there IS a need to understand the permanent and persistent relation between persecution and writing? And of ALL the possibilities, isn’t Ar.´s the single MOST prudent available to us? But then, if this is true, wouldn’t this radically transform the way we see the relationship that can arise between philosophy and society at large? Didn’t we mention precisely this debate in alluding to the references silently made by Ar. in subsection 10 in our previous commentary? Put directly, what is the philosopher to DO, if these longings are of such a nature that they override understanding, specially if they end up actually conforming the CORE structure/the HEART of the law and our appeals to justice (even divine)? And, moving even further beyond, wouldn’t this realization, in particular, actually transform the nature of the modern University to its core in the direction of liberal education? But how would one implement such foundational change if the University turned out to be essentially misguided in its role as a socially transforming entity? But reaching back, isn’t it altogether striking that in his other text On Dreams, Ar. has no qualms whatsoever to speak about the REAL considerations regarding dreams as the biologist and philosopher that he is? For instance, don’t we read in THAT text, things that sound utterly “modern”, for instance; “What happens in these cases may be compared with what happens in the case of projectiles moving in space…. (Princeton,OD; 459a28, p. 730) Exaggerating: I mean, one would swear it was Galileo speaking (!), wouldn’t one?
How then to account for such striking differences between these two TYPES of texts and approaches, namely those found in this subsection as well as in On Divination and Sleep, and other texts such as the EE and On Dreams? ? Shouldn’t we truly take to heart the hypothesis that Ar. clearly differentiates between the kinds of writings that are more public in nature, and those that are more private because more upsetting of the traditions of a social life form? Isn’t this, at least in part, what Straussians have come to call the difference between exoteric and esoteric writings in Aristotle (albeit, not only in him; see Pangle on Montesquieu and Locke)? And, furthermore, doesn’t Professor Bolotin help us immensely in seeing more clearly how these rhetorical strategies come to life in Ar.’s own Physics? Or to put it yet another way, as we argued in our previous subsection, isn’t Ar. here as well bowing to tradition continuing to provide certain bridges that connect the political and the philosophical in order to restore the dignity of the former and provide a certain kind of security for the latter? Isn’t this why Ar. has told us that the whole aim of the NE, whose “Introductory” book we are ending, is a KIND of —but not exactly— political inquiry? Isn’t this why POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, just as we mentioned regarding Solon in our previous subsection, stands as a leading yet middling power that grants a certain healthy political moderation to the socio-historical network/context in which it appears? For don’t we know also that Ar. lived at a time in which Athens had suffered intensely and immensely because of war and the negative role played in this regard by some of Socrates’s worst “disciples”? But still, even if all this turns out to have a certain plausibility, then, what are we to make of Ar.’s having to leave Athens in SPITE of such cares? Should we follow his rhetorical example, which appears to be in many respects truly unsuccessful? Isn’t an ethical inquiry guided by the question of happiness, truly to be assessed by its ACTUAL ability to generate said happiness for the inquirer? Or is it that, in the end, happiness may flourish even beyond the boundaries of the city? And finally, in OUR current age in which the question of the spirit has truly become secondary —so much so that we kind of kind of roll our eyes at this Aristotelian subsection— what is the POINT of our being so drastically careful if OUR spiritual “THAT” has already been so eroded away by way of its materialism, so that it is harder to see the “protective” necessity of such prudential approaches? Put another way, in an age of rampant materialism, mustn’t Aristotelianism focus much less on its moderating rhetorical position in defense of a spiritual tradition, and instead really “turn up the heat” (in the mind) and come on the offensive against the leveling and deadening materialistic excesses that surround us (specially in universities(!)? Are we perhaps more in need of Socratic irony and its effects, rather than Ar.’s prudence and its effects? Or must we try to restrain ourselves, recall Ar.’s moderating wisdom and his prudential political advise, and serenely yet realistically ask whether Ar. could have foreseen such lowering of the spirit as early moderns theorists achieved and whether —–because he could not foresee such troubling conditions—– his Ethics can, in the end, indeed help us pull ourselves out of the abysses in which we have made our abode? For wouldn’t the early modern political thinkers (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu) counterargue: aren’t these abysses ONLY abysses if seen from the perspective of Aristotelianism itself and its convoluted, even dangerous, high-flown and unreachable goals/ends? Wouldn’t we rather, such early modern thinkers might argue, a little secure happiness for all (or most, allegedly), rather than no happiness, or worse yet, just the happiness of a few elitists?
2) But besides the brevity and the lack of direct questions, don’t we come to see that THE single most important difference between both subsections 10 and 11, is the fact that that now we have added to the question of the relation between descendants and the happiness pertaining to the family, the issue of the happiness pertaining to friendship and the death of our friends? But why would THAT make a difference in terms of the way we remember those who are gone, and the way we connect to those who are gone? For couldn’t it perhaps be that, in contrast to the issues of longing and immortality presented in our previous commentary, friends generate a permanence that moves beyond mere desire for recognition in public memory (Montaigne thought so)? For didn´t Ar. truly come down hard on the life of honor and recognition just a few subsections ago? And that Ar. HIMSELF signals to puzzles of this kind further on in his NE, can be seen if we recall here that Ar. ALSO divides the question of friendship into two separate books, Books VIII and IX? And strikingly, don’t we find a parallel relation in THEIR separation as well: Ar. primarily treating the concerns of the family and of political concord and philia in the diverse political regimes mainly in BOOK VIII; and leaving the issue of personal and perhaps even philosophical friendship to BOOK IX? Moreover, won’t we come to see then how Ar. brings to light the question of self-love, which is only faintly alluded to here? As a matter of fact, is Ar. not truly seeking to safeguard the happiness of the best of humans by not letting it become so dependant (or at all) on what happens to those who conform their immediate circle of family and/or friends? For, in the worst case scenario, why should/would the “best” suffer because of the “worst”? But, why on earth would we be moving so ahead of ourselves in the argument if we are simply looking at subsection 11 and its special strangeness? Well, fundamentally in part because won’t the tragic and dramatic (not to say deadly) TONE of subsections 10 and 11 actually be transformed drastically in those specific sections of the arguments regarding self-love that ASTONISHINGLY read thus:
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