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Reflections: TWOOK — “A Reflective Educational Experiment (in times of illness)”: (click below)

TWOOK — “A Reflective Educational Experiment (in times of illness)”, 1-6.  (pdf file)

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 12

(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER TWELVE

“With these things defined, let us examine closely whether happiness is something praised or rather honored, for it is clear it does not belong among the capacities, at any rate. Now, everything praised appears to be praised for its being of a certain sort and for its condition relative to something: we praise the just person, the courageous person, and, in general, the good person as well as virtue itself, on account of the action and works involved; and we praise the strong man and the swift runner and each of the rest for their being, by nature, of a certain sort and for their condition in relation to something good and serious. This is also clear on the basis of the praises offered to the gods, since it is manifestly laughable for them to be compared to us; but this happens because praise arises through comparison, as we said.  And if praise is of things of that sort, it is clear that not praise, but something greater and better than praise applies to the best things, as in fact appears to be the case: the gods we deem blessed and happy, and the most divine of men we deem blessed.

The case is similar with the good things too, none praise happiness the way they praise justice; rather, people deem happiness a blessed thing, on the grounds that it is something more divine and better. And Eodoxus too seems to have nobly pleaded his case that the first prize belongs to pleasure. For the fact that it is not praised as being among the good things reveals, he supposed, that it is superior to the things praised; and such, he supposed, is the god and the good. For it is to these that all else is compared. Indeed, praise belongs to virtue: people are apt to do noble things as a result of virtue, whereas encomiums belong to the works of both body and soul alike. But perhaps being very precise about these things is more appropriate to those who have labored over encomiums; to us it is clear, on the basis of what has been said, that happiness belongs among the things that are honored and complete. This seems to be the case also on account of its being a principle: for it is for the sake of this that we all do everything else, and we posit the principle and the cause of the good things as being something honorable and divine. ” (NE, 1101b10-1102a4; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Aren’t we somewhat caught off guard by the sudden appearance of this extremely short and striking, not to say strange and foreign, subsection? But then again, should be really SO surprised by its appearance if we have listened carefully to what Ar. has said (and not said) in previous subsections? For isn’t this subsection a “recapitulation” of sorts? Doesn’t Ar. here once again mention the courageous man and the just man, the exemplars of political life in a sense? For, what is there to be of political life without its defenders in battle and its defenders in virtue? And, what is there to be of political life without the just and their healthy obedient submission to the law? But also, doesn’t Ar. mention once again the athletic humans who, we imagine, participate in the kind of competitions Ar. mentioned way back in subsection I, 8; namely, the swift runner/the strong man? Weren´t we there led to think, like Nietzsche has us believe about that Greeks, that Ar. too favored primarily this competitive politically inspired spirit (for the athlete, as in the Olympics, REPRESENTS his city/nation, doesn’t he?)? And, if happiness is related not to a capacity as Ar. himself puts it here (though he will question this at 2.1 and 2.5 (see section IV below)), but rather perhaps to a kind of activity (let us assume so for a moment), then —to our amazement— this ODD short section would certainly seem to point out that the highest form of activity is NOT that characteristic of those who consider themselves and are considered to be the just and the courageous and the sportive within society, wouldn’t it? But honestly speaking, who could be more active than, for instance, the courageous? Isn´t war THE action par excellence? “But what, more exactly, is so astounding?”, a reader might ask. Well, precisely that if we are looking for the architectonic science which “calls the shots” as regards the good and happiness, then even here, when we are just barely finishing ONLY BOOK I of the NE —–out of 10 difficult books all complex in their own right, and besides without ANY sustained argumentation having explicitly pointed in this direction—— Ar. CLEARLY gives the adherents to political life previously mentioned as “appearing” to be the architectonic good (I, 2) ONLY a SECONDARY position, doesn’t he? And if all this is at least half so, then we need ask why many interpreters are so SURPRISED, as we have argued in previous subsections, once Ar. reaches similar conclusions at the END of the NE in Book X? Put another way, what is it about OUR current paradigmatic forms of philosophical understanding that the overall direction of Ar. own thought cannot be seen, let alone properly appreciated? However, in the just and courageous defense of ourselves: haven’t OUR commentaries at least pointed —- however inadequately, of course—- in THIS direction? For instance, haven’t we painstakingly mentioned again and again the “conundrums of courage”? That is to say, how exactly will courage in defending one´s own come to line up with the happiness in being one´s own?

But let us move back a bit, and ask again: How exactly did we GET HERE? What if this passage held the KEY to the whole of the NE? Actually, one could argue that one could seriously dedicate one’s whole life to an understanding of this passage alone, couldn’t one? But also, isn’t what we learn from other commentators even more revealing and perplexing in this regard?  For isn’t it striking to see, for instance JOACHIM —in his very detailed, almost line-by-line commentary—- speaking of this passage in the following terms: “The passage has no philosophical interest, as indeed Aristotle himself recognizes … when he says that the topic is more appropriate (to those who have made a study of encomia) (Joachim, p. 61) But, why exactly does Joachim say it has “no philosophical interest”, as IF Ar. here ONLY, or even primarily, spoke of encomia? Perhaps, wouldn’t it be more precise to say that it is of no philosophical interest to JOACHIM? (!) For wouldn’t it be odd that Ar., who is so careful in all his philosophical endeavors, once again slipped up —do remember how we were once told there were three lives only to find out there were really, really four (!)——and added a subsection which was really, really, not relevant as Joachim claims? Wouldn’t that kind of interpretative attitude be in the same ballpark as those who say that the books on the virtues must be “skipped over as irrelevant”? But isn’t this a kind of a reflective surrender? For even if we cannot fully ANSWER a puzzle, shouldn’t we at least RECOGNIZE the puzzle for what it is in the first place? And what if our philosophical interests as MODERN philosophers were genuinely FOREIGN to those of Aristotle? Wouldn’t it then become OBVIOUS that we wouldn’t see them? For what if we could not even see the problematic nature of justice itself (one might think of the differing roles played by the Greek dikaiosune in Ar.,  in contrast to the concept of Recht in both Kant and Hegel: for a personal political example see here)? Moreover, aren´t we also struck by the fact that this subsection 12 of BOOK I is kind of a conclusion —–or very close to a conclusion, as Book I is composed of 13 subsections—– to the introductory BOOK I we are almost about to finish?

Let us be a bit bold before looking at the details: could this be making explicit Ar.‘s own hypothesis which will, following Plato’s dialectical reasoning in the Republic, truly be a steppingstone by means of which we will ascend to give the principle which at the start must be assumed, its real power, argumentative solidity and living strength? As Plato allows Socrates to say:

“Well, then, go on to understand that by the other segment of the intelligible I mean that which argument itself grasps with the power of dialectic, making the hypotheses not beginnings but really hypotheses—that is, steppingstones and springboards—in order to reach what is free from hypothesis at the beginning of the whole. When it has grasped this, argument now depends on that which depends on this beginning and in such fashion goes back down again to an end;”(my emphasis: Republic, 511b)

And thus we ask, conscious we are entering deep waters: will we (or better, some of Ar. listeners) by the end of the NE be much less puzzled and much more aware about why this passage reveals the direction of the whole: that is to say, the whole of the text, and even the whole of our lives?  Isn’t this why Ar. ends this extremely strange subsection by SUDDENLY making reference to THE principle (arche)? That is to say, doesn´t he write as regards happiness (eudaimonia):

This seems to be the case also on account of its being a principle: for it is for the sake of this that we all do everything else, and we posit the principle and the cause of the good things as being something honorable and divine.”

Or put yet another way, what we mean to ask dialectically is whether by the end of the NE this principle posited as a hypothesis (understood as a steppingstone) will have been rationally proven to be THE principle by which some of us choose to lead our lives (and perhaps aid a few interested others in at least trying to have a faint image of its presence)? Or put still another way, will this principle achieve life beyond mere formality, freeing the hypothesis “at the beginning of the whole”? Or will we, pace Ar., end up in a kind of Kantian formalism which remains quite aloof both from the way the best of statesmen/stateswomen actually do lead their political, as well as from the way the best of living philosophers live theirs?

2) But leaving aside such perplexing —perhaps even counterproductive (!)—- generalities,we must ask as regards the specifics of the subsection: why does Ar. ONCE again give us an either/or, namely happiness is EITHER praised OR honored? Why not leave it at its being USEFUL, as modern Utilitarianism has it? Or, why not take the AESTHETIC route as Nietzsche does in his reference to Stendhal?  Or, why not leave it at CIVILITY as in Locke? Why is Ar. so reticent to go DOWN these modern roads? Isn´t Ar., instead, rather keen on puzzling philosophically about utility, beauty and civility (nobility)? Why don´t WE seem to puzzle thus? Or, from a different point of view: don´t we find in the religious Spanish word “alabar”, for instance, BOTH a praising and an honoring of God? I mean, does THAT difference —between praising and honoring—  make ANY sense as we read the Bible (see section III below)? Is there really ANY difference between praising and honoring God in the Bible? What is Ar. getting at then? Why does he wish to separate them thus, and so poignantly? Where is the alleged “Aristotelian flexibility” so many interpreters seem to speak of, to be found here? Or, is it rather than when seeking rationally the TRUTH about the essential, tough choices are in order?

For truly Ar. says, happiness can be either something PRAISED (τῶν ἐπαινετῶν) OR something honored (τῶν τιμίων)? But doesn´t this assertion lead US to an even more EXTREME puzzle? For doesn’t Ar. seem to be going at the argument as if HE HAD NEVER said anything about honor in the first place? However, didn’t he tell us  —in what, it is true, seems a long time ago— that the life of honor is only SECONDARY to that of contemplation (the latter which of course, as we pointed out, Ar. mentioned ONLY to silence immediately!). But shouldn’t WE refresh our memory and recall the words Ar. had told us just some subsections before as regards the nature of “honor”, namely: but it appears to be more superficial than what is being sought, for honor seems to reside more with those who bestow it than with him who receives it; and we divine that the good is something of one’s own and a thing not easily taken away”? So, a bit dizzy we ask: do we understand clearly? According to subsection I, 5, the life of honor is NOT the highest in part because it depends on the recognition by others, right? But NOW Ar. asks us to consider the question as to whether happiness is PRAISED OR HONORED? But isn’t what we hear here about praise EXTREMELY akin to what we have heard about honor previously, specially as regards its being dependent on others? Let’s listen to what Ar. himself has to say regarding PRAISE in THIS subsection I, 12: “Now, everything praised appears to be praised for its being of a certain sort and for its condition relative to somethingbecause praise arises through comparison.” Now we need ask, what makes these two —-that is to say, the honor of previous subsections and the praise of this subsection—– SO different? And to make things even MORE confusing; isn’t Ar. asking us HERE to really see the radical difference between PRAISE and HONOR with regards to the best, most complete and self-sufficient principle which IS happiness? Unlike Joachim, we must persevere in our puzzle, mustn’t we? Isn’t this dramatic tension precisely why we say again that one could spend one’s entire life trying to understand this, usually found to be rather irrelevant passage? (more…)

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  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

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER ELEVEN

“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:

(more…)

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  COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 10

(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER TEN

“Should one, then, not deem happy any human being for so long as he is alive; but must one look instead, as Solon has it, to his end? But if it indeed it is necessary to posit such a thesis, then is in fact a person happy when he is dead? Or is this, at least, altogether strange, specially for us who say that happiness is a certain activity? But if we do not say that the dead person is happy —and this is not what Solon means either —- but say rather than someone might safely deem a human being blessed only once he is already removed from bad things and misfortunes, this too admits of some dispute. For it is held that both something bad and something good can befall the dead person, if in fact they can befall the living person who does not perceive it —-for example, honors and dishonors, and the faring well or the misfortunes of his offspring and descendants generally.

But these things too are perplexing; for someone who has lived blessedly until old age and come to this end accordingly, it is possible that many reversals may occur involving his descendants just as some of these descendants may be good and attain the life that accords with their merit, but others the contrary. Yet it is clear that it is possible for these descendants to be of varying degrees of remove from their ancestors. Indeed,  it would be strange if even the dead person should share in the reversals and become now happy, now wretched again. But it would be strange too if nothing of the affairs of the descendants should reach the ancestors, not even for a certain time.

But one must return to the perplexity previously mentioned, for perhaps what is now being sought might also be contemplated on the basis of it. If indeed one does have to see a person´s end and at that time deem each person blessed, not as being blessed [now] but as having been such previously —how is this not strange if, when he is happy, what belongs to him will not be truly attributed to him? [This strange consequence] arises on account of our wish not to call the living happy, given the reversals that may happen, and of our supposition that happiness is something lasting and by no means easily subject to reversals, while fortunes often revolve for the same people. For it is clear that if we should follow someone’s fortunes, we will often say that the same person is happy and then again wretched, declaring that the happy person is a sort of chameleon and on unsound footing.

Or is it not at all correct to follow someone’s fortunes? For it is not in these that doing well or badly consists. Rather, human life requires these fortunes in addition, just as we said; yet it is these activities in accord with virtue that have authoritative control over happiness, and the contrary activities on the contrary.

The perplexity just now raised also bears witness to the argument, since in none of the human works is anything so secure as what pertains to the activities that accord with virtue. For such activities seem to be more lasting than even the sciences; and the most honored of them seem to be more lasting, because those who are blessed live out their lives engaged, to the greatest degree and most continuously, in these activities. This seems to be the cause of our not forgetting such activities. Indeed, what is being sought will be available to the happy person, and he will be such throughout life. For he will always, or most of all act on and contemplate what accords with virtue, and he —- and least he who is truly good and “four-square, without blame” — he will bear fortunes altogether nobly and suitably in every way.

Now, many things occur by chance, and they differ in how great or small they are.  The small instances of good fortune, and similarly of its opposite, clearly do not tip the balance of one´s life, whereas the great and numerous ones that occur will, make life more blessed (since these naturally help adorn life, and dealing with them is noble and serious). But those fortunes that turn out in the contrary way restrict and even ruin one´s blessedness, for they both inflict pain and impede many activities. Nevertheless, even in the midst of these, nobility shines through, whenever someone bears up calmly under many misfortunes, not because of any insensitivity to pain but because he is well-born and great souled.

And if the activities have authoritative control over life, just as we said, then no one who is blessed would become wretched, since he will never do things that are hateful and base. For we suppose that someone who is truly good and sensible bears up under all fortunes in a becoming way and always does what is noblest given the circumstances, just as a good general makes use, with the greatest military skill, of the army he has and a shoemaker makes the most beautiful shoe out of leather given him. It holds in same manner with all the other experts as well. And if this is so, then the happy person would never become wretched —nor indeed would he be blessed, it is true, if he encounters the fortunes of Priam. He would not be unstable and subject to reversals either, for he will not be easily moved from happiness, and then not by any random misfortunes but only great and numerous ones. And as a result of such things he would not become happy again in a short time; but, if in fact he does, he will do so in the completion of some lengthy time during which he comes to attain great and noble things.

What, then, prevents one from calling happy someone who is active in accord with complete virtue and who is adequately equipped with external goods, not for any chance time but in a complete life? Or must one posit in addition that he will both live in this way and meet his end accordingly —- since the future is in immanifest to us, and we posit happiness, wholly and in every way, as an end and as complete? And if this is so, we will say that those among the living who have and will have available to them the things stated are blessed —-but blessed human beings.

Let what pertains to these things too be defined up to this point.”

(NE, 1100a10-1101a22; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES
1) What are we to make of this striking subsection? What is its argumentative “spirit”? Isn’t it in its ENTIRETY extremely odd and perplexing? For instance, isn’t it surprising to find Ar. begin AND end a subsection by asking so many questions himself? Is he pushing us in this direction, after having set the “rules of the game” by means of his three crucial previous digressions? Could he be starting to TEACH us to puzzle? For isn’t a QUESTION, rather more active than a STATEMENT? And isn’t Aristotelian happiness a kind of ACTIVITY? Doesn’t a QUESTION allow us the freedom to, in the end, think for ourselves? In similar fashion, didn’t Socrates question so that he did NOT have to write? Isn’t the QUESTION, the foundation of classical philosophical dialectics (and thus conceived in a crucially different sense than that found in the ontological structure of Heidegger’s Dasein and its capacity to question; Introduction to Being and Time)? But WHAT are we puzzling about here that makes this subsection so STRANGE? Isn’t it about the most difficult of topics, namely our temporal finitude and ultimate DEATH? Indeed, how CAN we be happy as humans if we are mortal and MUST die? In this respect, won’t this subsection turn out to be KEY for Aristotelians intent on challenging the APOLITICAL Heideggerian conception of finitude? And in this regard, why are we here SO concerned with the temporality (QUANTITY) of our lives (somehow reaching old age unscathed), rather than with the QUALITY of our lives? For, isn’t the WHOLE ethical point “HOW we live our lives”, rather then “HOW LONG we live our lives”? And, don’t TYRANTS live really really long (see below)? Is this part of the troubling political fact surrounding the question of temporality and finitude (pace Heidegger´s own dramatically apolitical notion of time in Being and Time)? Just recently, didn’t Mubarak outlast many? And, ethically speaking, surely HITLER outlived many much more righteous men, didn’t he? So, under this perplexing view, are we to count a life as worthwhile ONLY until we reach 40 or 50 or 60 or 90 (like Abraham who only until THAT advanced age was given forth his promise)? Or put yet another way, were previous cultures less happy because their average life expectancy was much less then ours? Are WE moderns happier because “we” —–well, really only those in developed countries—- DO in fact last much longer (even if connected to all sorts of medical machines)? Haven’t we, ironically, simply given greater chance to chance to act upon us as Ar. had pointed out in our previous commentary?

But returning to the tone/spirit of the subsection, isn’t it ALL kind of spooky? I mean, aren’t we sort of dealing with communications with, or at the very least, referring to the dead (albeit, close kin in particular) and similar issues? And that it IS so, is shown in the even STRANGER subsection XI (“Do the fortunes of the living affect the dead”) which follows immediately? Doesn’t Ostwald allow us to see how far he misses precisely the tone of the whole passage in his footnote 44 and his reference to Burnet´s interpretation of Aristotle? But, how are WE, specially we moderns born out of the secular transfiguration, to take this in (see quote Professor Taylor below)? For surely there seems to be not a single expression of irony or laughter in Ar.’s presentation, is there? Could we not say, that indeed it is HERE, more than anywhere else in the NE, that we actually find one of the most valuable and explicit examples of Ar.’s philosophical generosity towards the life of the noblest of citizens (as is clear by the example given here of Solon)? For isn’t Ar. truly going out of his way in his attentive respect for the beliefs held by traditional leading citizens and THEIR concerns about temporality and happiness? How so? Because isn’t the concern for temporality of great IMPORT to the serious citizens of a political community? Isn’t it the case that for THEM the family, specially, is the locus of an endurance and immortality beyond the ephemeral appearance of any of its individual members (contrast, Diotima´s “The Ladder of Love” speech in Plato’s Symposium)? For wouldn’t a Solon ask: what of a long life WITHOUT a family? What could that be FOR? Mustn’t the individual see beyond him/herself in order to truly achieve happiness?  And moreover, aren’t great leaders, the greatest of leaders, truly thus remembered by all for the SACRIFICES they make in dedicating themselves whole-heartedly to the PUBLIC good? Isn’t this PRECISELY why Solon, the lawgiver, is remembered till this day even beyond the boundaries of his native Athens?  And aren’t those who give up their lives for US in battle, in the crucial defense of our divergent REGIMES, thus remembered as well for exemplifying the virtue of courage by giving themselves for a greater cause than mere life? Isn’t this, in part, why Ar., as we shall see, also refers to Simonides the poet in this very subsection by referencing his appearance in Plato´s dialogue Protagoras (which deals precisely with the question of courage and sophistry; 339b)? For isn’t Simonides famous for his elegies to the fallen dead in the greatest of Greek battles, the most famous being that written as remembrance of the Battle at Thermopylae, and which reads:

 

Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε

κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

“Stranger, announce to the Spartans that here

We lie, having fulfilled their orders.”

(see below)? And we know quite well that elegies and eulogies are far from being the same, don’t we? Actually, in terms of eudaimonia, don’t they stand at extremes?

And so that we may be believed, isn’t the example of Solon here central in THIS regard? Don’t we find precisely THIS concern in Herodotus´s account of Solon —made reference to by Ar. himself? Doesn’t Herodotus allow us to share in the context of Solon’s words? For, we come to know how Solon, in one of his “voyages” outside Athens, came to be questioned/confronted by a tyrant named Croesus? And, doesn’t Croesus indeed know that Solon´s international fame was such as to be considered one of the Seven Sages of Antiquity? But, what does the Tyrant ask in relation to the topic of the NE? Isn’t the question precisely that of the NE as a whole? Doesn’t the TYRANT ask WHO is the happiest human known to be so by Solon himself? And, before dwelling more intimately in the dialogue that ensues between law-giver and TYRANT, mustn’t we mention also that we see in Plutarch’s “Life of Solon” the radically opposite un-Aristotelian tone and sense of fundamental respect by a philosopher towards traditional concerns and beliefs? Don’t we have to contrast here Ar.´s way of proceeding prudently, with Thales outright (effective, yes), but shocking (mocking?) “unveiling” of Solon’s beliefs as regards the possibility of a serious interconnection between one´s  having a family and reaching the highest human happiness available to us?  Isn’t Thales’s’ trick truly outrageous from a much more moderate Aristotelian perspective, namely telling Solon that one of his children has DIED, when in fact it is simply a TEST:

“Thus every answer heightened Solon’s fears, and at last, in great distress of soul, he told his name to the stranger and asked him if it was Solon’s son that was dead. The man said it was; whereupon Solon began to beat his head and to do and say everything else that betokens a transport of grief. But Thales took him by the hand and said, with a smile, “This it is, O Solon, which keeps me from marriage and the getting of children; it overwhelms even thee, who art the most stout-hearted of men. But be not dismayed at this story, for it is not true.”

(my emphasis; p. 419; http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Solon*.html; not to mention Thales’s own inconsistencies on the topic.)

Isn’t this example, in part, what makes us clear as to why Thales is considered a Pre-Socratic? For didn’t’ the Socratic revolution, as told to us by Cicero, BRING philosophy back to “earth” via its political concerns? And in parallel fashion, don’t we see Ar. living up to the presuppositions of the founder of Political Philosophy, Socrates, who already knew of his Second Voyage as the KEY to a certain departure from philosophers such as Thales and Anaxagoras? Moreover, leaving aside the fact that a similar “outrageous” test appears as well in the Bible (young Isaacs divinely commanded sacrifice by Abraham at the age of 90+!), don’t we sense as we read this subsection that is it specially the spoudaios who would find Thales’s un-Aristotelian attitude quite “distasteful”, to put it mildly? Or put yet another way, in striking relation to the beginning of Plato’s Republic, don’t we find here Ar.’s bowing to elder citizens such as Cephalus —whose name actually means “head”, as in the expression, “head of the family”—– rather than seeking their direct questioning? And in this regard, don’t we need also recall that THIS more prudential tone is precisely the tone set by the elder Plato in his much more mature, and politically realistic, dialogue, The Laws? For isn’t THAT political dialogue undertaken by a stranger (obviously Socrates, though it is striking that Plato feels the need to cover up such obviousness), and two elder citizens who are quite advanced in their lives and thus closer to death? And isn’t this TONE, that which characterizes the forgotten yet masterful work of Xenophon? Are we surprised then NOT to find Xenophon being read in current Academia?

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 9

(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER NINE

“This is also why the perplexity arises as to whether happiness is something that can be gained through learning or habituation or through some other practice, or whether it comes to be present in accord with a sort of divine allotment or even through chance.

Now, if there is in fact anything that is a gift of the gods to human beings, it is reasonable that happiness is god given, and it specially among the human concerns insofar as it is the best of them. But perhaps this would be more appropriate to another examination —yet it appears that even if happiness is not god sent but comes to be present through virtue and a certain learning or practice, it is among the most divine things. For the prize of virtue or its end appears to be best and to be something divine and blessed. It would also be something common to many people, for it is possible for it to be available, through a certain learning and care, to all who have not rendered defective in point of virtue. And if it is better to be happy in this way rather than through chance, it is reasonable that  this is how [happiness is acquired] — if in fact what accords with nature is naturally in the noblest possible state, and similar too is what accords with art and with cause as a whole, especially the best [art or cause]. To entrust the greatest and noblest thing to chance would be excessively discordant.

What is being sough is manifest also on the basis of the argument [or definition], for happiness was said to be a certain sort of activity of soul in accord with virtue. Now, of the resulting goods, some must necessarily be present, others are coworkers and by nature useful in an instrumental way. And this points would be in agreement also with those made at the beginning: we posited the end of the political art as best, and it exercises a very great care to make the citizens of a specific sort —namely, good and apt to do noble things. It is to be expected, then, that we do not say that either a cow or a horse or any other animal is at all happy, for none of them are able to share in such an activity. It is because of this too that a child is not happy either: he is not yet apt to do such things, on account of his age, though some children are spoken of as blessed on account of the expectation involved in their case. For, as we said, both complete virtue and a complete life are required: many reversals and all manner of fortune arise in the course of life, and it is possible for someone who is particularly thriving to encounter great disasters in old age, just as the myth is told about Priam in the Trojan tales. Nobody deems happy someone who deals with fortunes of that sort and comes to a wretched end. ” (NE, 1099b9-1100a9; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)
I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) To begin, why does Aristotle CLEARLY connect this subsection to the previous one, specially with the reappearance of the question of luck and ethical upbringing? For didn’t he end the previous subsection pointing in this direction? Put directly; why does Ar. —-towards the end of this subsection— tell us that leaving happiness to chance is EXCESSIVELY discordant, but NOT simply COMPLETELY discordant? Why is he SO open to this possibility, or at the very least, its influences? To contrast, haven’t we seen many OTHER subsections ending abruptly? And surely The Bible does not so argue, does it? How could it, given God’s omnipotence and foreknowledge? And surely Kant doesn’t either, does he? What is it about the Kantian categorical imperative that allows it to be blind to fortune? What are the political consequences of this Kantian blindness? Is Habermas aware? And, coming back to the passage, don’t WE take it for granted —and specially the spoudaios— that it is EDUCATION (habituation and learning), moral education in particular, that allegedly makes us in the end good and happy? Isn’t this why parents SEND their children to pre-school, school and university: to aid them in making them fulfilled and complete human beings? Doesn‘t the complex matrix of social education make, allegedly, ALL the difference? Put very succinctly, what is Ar.’s mentioned PERPLEXITY all about: “This is also why the perplexity arises”? What does he MEAN that HAPPINESS may NOT be up to us? Isn’t our modern mindset truly oblivious to THIS possibility? In other words, WHO is thus perplexed: evidently not parents, are they? Law-makers? Or, is it rather that Ar. has ANOTHER aim in mind? Could he be preparing the terrain to make us more OPEN to the complexities of life, more attuned to the myriad situations that may occur and that in FACT we do not, cannot and should not wish to control (see also Plato´s Phaedrus and the initial speeches related to erotic domination, and some of Nussbaum insights)? Won’t we see something like this in BOOK VI, and the crucial discussion of prudence (phronesis) as part of the correction of a certain blindness behind justice AND, more importantly, THE just? Or, in moral terms: isn´t Aristotle slowly opening a serious critique of the radical moralistic claims that underlie the life of the spoudaios? How so? Precisely because perhaps the spoudaios HAS TO believe in the utter responsibility for HIS and OUR own actions? Isn’t this the core element of his “seriousness”, of his noble justice? And don’t we hear it in our daily lives: “take responsibility for …” (specially, and STRIKINGLY, as regards illness)? But, if this were so, if learning the moral virtues by way of a certain serious habituation is the path, the HOW exactly are we to critically, philosophically, Socratically, question the very presuppositions of such seriousness which knows itself not only to have found THE answers, but furthermore, and more problematically, has found in THOSE answers the MEANING of its self-worth? Isn’t this PRECISELY why Plato’s Laws can be seen as setting the stage in which righteous indignation ——which KNOWS of its seriousness and its self-created responsibility— can be softened to EVEN include the philosophical critique of the gods? For, isn’t impiety perhaps the single most IRRESPONSIBLE crime committable by any human? And so that we may be understood, wasn’t Ar.´s departure from Athens the result of such accusations of impiety? Don’t we have to keep constantly in mind both Socratic Apologies in this respect? And, what if Ar. were heading in a similar direction? For isn´t it striking, for instance, that righteous indignation (which is one of the virtues Ar. lists initially), will in fact, NOT be analyzed by Ar. as he proceeds? What is it about nemesis in particular and its relation to justice as punitive retribution that Ar. finds, from the point of view of the philosopher concerned with the truth of the whole, SO deeply troubling? Furthermore isn’t this why Ar. is so adamant about pointing out that there is a BIG difference between voluntary and involuntary actions in BOOK II?  And even going further, could this be the very beginning of Ar.’s concern with Socrates’s famous idea that “no one does evil voluntarily”? But, what is THE POINT OF this idea as regards the greatest most complete and happiest life available to us humans? Won’t Ar. take up that challenge in BOOK VII dedicated to the phenomenon of akrasia (Book which strikingly begins criticizing a Socratic position, ONLY to agree with it in the end!)?

And so that we may be better understood as regards the importance of Ar.’s explicit reference to chance/fortune (tuche); what are we to make of MACHIAVELLI’S distinctively un-Aristotelian and un-biblical concern with chance (fortuna) both in the Prince and in his Discourses (see section IV below)? Shouldn’t we attentively hear Machiavelli’s words when he memorably says in this regard:

“When I have thought about this sometimes, I have been in some part inclined to their opinion. Nonetheless, so that our free will not be eliminated, I judge that it might be true that fortune is arbiter of half of our actions, but also that she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern. And I liken her to one of these violent rivers which, when they become enraged, flood the plains, ruin the trees and the buildings, lift earth from this part, drop in another; each person flees before them, everyone yields to their impetus without being able to hinder them in any regard. And although they are like this, it is not as if men, when times are quiet, could not provide for them with dikes and dams so that when they rise later, either they go by a canal or their impetus is neither so wanton nor so damaging.”

What, then, is the aim of the New Rational Political Science inaugurated by Machiavelli and developed by all early modern theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu; albeit in different forms)? Put more directly, how does SCIENCE and the reconsideration of NATURE as purely materialistic and interconnected solely in terms of efficient causality, define the WAY we moderns relate to political things (see Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws)?  Won’t we tend to believe, contrary to what Ar. is telling us is perplexing, that we can in fact control events —both natural and social—-  to such a degree that Ar.´s call for a serious concern with such PERPLEXITIES might be seen as rather naïve (see quote Hobbes section IV below)? But, hasn’t this idea of progressive control, within a materialistic universe founded upon discoverable casual laws, come into question via different angles? Politically speaking, didn’t THE political sphere of the 20th century show this collapse most dramatically of all? But then, if Ar. truly believes that it is the political which ORDERS the human ends towards happiness, how exactly are we to retrace our steps, or regain our footing, beyond the calamities of mere chance OR the calamities of radically directed and deadly political programs? Put another way, isn’t Ar.´s perplexity OUR deepest perplexity once again? In Straussian terminology, doesn’t chance invite a debate between a return and progress?

2) But leaving aside the question of chance, what exactly does Ar. mean by saying that happiness can be gained by learning OR habituation OR —–dramatically—– “some other practice”? First off, isn’t learning a kind of habituation; can they be so easily separated? And how will habituation in BOOKS 2 and 3 be related to the moral virtues in particular so that IT becomes the KEY element in the education of our virtuous character? And, if we are habituated INTO something, that is to say, some way of being, how exactly can we say that WE have made ourselves into such a being? And if so, once again one need ask, did not Ar. say just a few subsections before tell us that justice appears to be by nomos (custom/convention) rather than by physis (nature)? So, aren’t we really speaking of different sorts of habituation depending on the regimes we live under? But then, WHO decides which one is better than another? HOW does one so decide, specially if, as we moderns tend to believe, all cultures are relative and worthy of EQUAL respect? Aren´t all cultures, all habituations, simply historically “determined”? And, thinking of the very way we INTERPRET Ar. himself: isn’t this precisely the issue with those who see in Ar. a duped defense of the Greek virtues per se? Don’t THEY think that Ar. was simply habituated into thinking that philosophy cannot go beyond the limits of what is morally given at any given time by the society of which we are a part? But it is clear Ar. thinks otherwise, doesn’t he? In other words, if there is nothing BEYOND the claims of habituation to form us, how exactly can we even truly speak of LEARNING? Aren’t those who argue that Ar. simply defended the Greek virtues simply submitting to this VERY MODERN belief, rather than tackling Ar.’s realistic challenges to the limits of the moral/political sphere? For, wouldn’t it be extremely ODD that he who is called THE philosopher, were so easily duped in the ESSENTIALS? But if Ar. is not so duped, then what does that say about OUR modern relativistic and historicist self-deceptions? What would Ar. have to offer us THEN? Simply that we become Greek again? The answer is “certainly not”, isn’t it? Or is it we are to learn anew, precisely because a certain kind of HABITUATION has NOT allowed us to see beyond its spheres, respectable as they may be? Isn’t THIS why Ar. adds the striking words “or some other practice”? Couldn’t this OTHER practice be moving US in that direction? For we need ask, why does Ar. not simply say WHAT that other practice might be? Is it because he wishes to be seen as open-minded so that we can add WHAT we wish depending “on the historical times”? Or rather, he PRUDENTLY points to a path for the serious reader who —given the digressions of previous subsections— understands the dangers of philosophical inquiry to the practical political sphere, and consequently is willing to take up this highly critical task within the contours of a much more private educational setting, a setting which perhaps leads  towards the most complete and self-sufficient happiness?

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 6

(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER SIX

As for the universal [good], perhaps it is better to examine it and to go through the perplexities involved in the ways it is spoken of, although undertaking such an inquiry is arduous, because the men who introduced the forms are dear. But perhaps it might be held to be better, and in fact to be obligatory, at least for the sake of preserving the truth, to do away with even one’s own things, specially for those who are philosophers. For although both are dear, it is a pious thing to honor the truth first.

Now, those who conveyed this opinion did not make ideas pertain to those cases in which they spoke of the prior and posterior: hence they did not set up an idea of numbers either. But the good is spoken of in relation to what something is, and in relation to what sort of thing it is, and as regards its relation to something: but that which is the thing in itself –that is, the being —is prior by nature to any relation it has (for it is like an offshoot and accident of the being). As a result, there would not be any common idea pertaining to these things

And further, the good is spoken of in as many ways as is the term is —for the good is spoken of in relation to what something is (for example the god and intellect); as for what sort of thing something is, the good is spoken of as the virtues; as for how much something is, it is spoken of as the measured amount; in its relation to something, as what is useful; as regards time, as the opportune moment; as regards place, as the [right] location; and other things of this sort [Since all this is so,] it is clear that the good would not be something common, universal, and one. For if that were the case, it would not be spoken of in all the categories but in one alone.

And further, since there is a single science of things that pertain to a single idea, there would also be some single science of all the good things. But as things stand, there are many sciences even of the things that fall under a single category –for example, the opportune moment: in war, it is generalship, in illness, medicine; and in the case of the measured amount of nourishment, on the one hand it is medicine, but in that of physical exertions, on the other, it is gymnastic training.

But someone might be perplexed as to whatever they mean by the “thing-as-such”, if in fact the very same account of human being pertains both to “human being-as-such” and to a given human being. For in the respect in which each is a human being, they will not differ at all. And if this is so, [then neither the good as such nor a good thing will differ] in the respect in which each is good. Moreover, the good will not be good to a greater degree by being eternal either, if in fact whiteness that lasts a long time will not be whiter than that which lasts only a day.

The Pythagoreans seem to speak more persuasively about it by positing the One in the column of the goods, and it is indeed they whom Speusippus seems to follow. But about these things let there be another argument.

A certain dispute over the points stated begins to appear, because the arguments made [by the proponents of the forms] do not concern every good: things pursued and cherished by themselves are spoken of in reference to a single form, but what produces these (or in some way preserves them or prevents their contraries) is spoken of as being good on account of the former sorts of goods and in a different manner. It is clear, then, that the good things would be spoken of in two senses: those that are good in themselves, others that are good on account of these.

Separating the things good in themselves from those that are advantageous, then, let us examine whether the former are spoken of in reference to a single idea. What sort of things might one posit as being good in themselves? Is it so many things as are in fact pursued for themselves alone —-for example, exercising prudence and seeing, as well as certain pleasures and honor? For even if we pursue these on account of something else as well, nonetheless one might posit them as being among the things that are good in themselves. Or is nothing good in itself except the idea? The result will be that the form [abstracted from all individual things] is pointless. But if in fact these things [that is, exercising prudence, seeing and the like] are among the things good in themselves, the definition of the good will need to manifest itself as the same in all cases, just as the definition of whiteness is the same in the case of snow and in that of white lead. But the definitions of honor, prudence and pleasure are distinct and differ in the very respect in which they are goods. It is not the case, therefore, that the good is something common in reference to a single idea.

But how indeed are they spoken of [as good]? For they are not like things that share the same name by chance. It is by dint of their stemming from one thing or because they all contribute to one thing? Or is it more that they are such by analogy? For as there is sight in the body, so there is intellect in the soul, and indeed one thing in one thing, another in another. But perhaps we ought to leave these consideration be for now: to be very precise about them would be more appropriate to another philosophy. The case is similar with the idea as well: even if there is some one good thing that is predicated [of things] in common,, or there is some separate thing, itself in itself, it is clear that it would not be subject to action or capable of being possessed by a human being. But it is some such thing that is now being sought.

Perhaps someone might be of the opinion that it is better to be familiar with it, with a view to those goods that can be possessed and are subject to action. By having this [universal good] as a sort of model, we will to greater degree know also the things that are good for us; and if we know them, we will hit on them. Now, the argument has a certain persuasiveness, but it seems to be inconsistent with the sciences. For although all sciences aim at some good and seek out what is lacking, they pass over knowledge of the good itself. And yet it is not reasonable for all craftsmen to be ignorant of so great an aid and not even to seek it out.

A further perplexity too is what benefit the weaver or carpenter might gain, in relation to his own art, by known this same good, or how he who has contemplated the idea itself will be a more skilled physician or general. For it appears that the physician does not examine even health this way, but inquires rather into the health of a human being and even more, perhaps into that of this particular human being. For he treats patients individually.

And let what pertains to these things be stated up to this point.”

(NE, 1096a11-1097a14; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Why exactly can’t Ar. seem to get his argument going? Why does he lead us into a third and even more complex, not to say impossible (from the point of view of practical things), digression? Put bluntly, does one imagine a Pericles/Xenophon/Thucydides listening intently? Is a Pericles/Xenophon/Thucydides, so interested in THESE perplexities? But if not, then WHO are we speaking to in terms of the ETHICAL? To philosophy students? Wouldn’t that be utterly ODD, if we seek to respect the dignity of the practical (as that appears to be clearly the objective of the previous two digressions!)? Shouldn’t one, as well, ask more explicitly what is the actual relation between these three digressions (from the type of student, to the kind of methodology, to a discussion of the erroneous views of his friends on the absolute good)? Are we ascending in some sense to more and more impenetrable perplexities? Or do they stand at the same level of importance? Moreover, why does Ar. indeed connect the second and third digressions in the EE BOOK I, Ch. 8 1218a15-ff; “They ought in fact to demonstrate….”) and does NOT so proceed in the NE (see section IV below)? Is it because he wants us in the NE to assume a more active role in OUR coming to see the sources of our perplexities? And what are we to make of the very LENGTH of the digression? I mean, doesn’t AQ. actually divide his commentary into three sections, while our translators only deal with one very long and complex one? But leaving this aside, why is it SO important to get THIS one right? Why is our stance on the Forms/Ideas, the crux of the matter, so to speak? And, very importantly, why does Ar. go, as rarely he does in his Ethics, into his much less practical works, for instance, the Categories? Is he telling us that, in the end, we DO need some such vocabulary to get clear of our PRACTICAL perplexities? However, IF his audience has a dual character, then what are the less philosophically inclined to do with this section? For it is clear, notions like substance, predicates, the “thing-as-such” etc… are NOT the concern of the practical, and much less so –at least explicitly— of the political art? And putting it provocatively, isn’t this why one does NOT find any mention of the “Theory of the Forms” in the work of Xenophon (or Alfarabi, for that matter)? And isn’t this , in part, why modern philosophy and political science departments —with their modern procedural approaches—- find Xenophon, who knew of this Socratic tradition, rather irrelevant? Isn’t the overwhelming amount of academic writings of Plato´s “Theory of Ideas”, precisely, in part, what reveals the stance of OUR modern philosophy departments as regards the practical arena? But doesn’t this reveal a certain perplexing blindness which Ar. DOES see? Isn’t this why he explicitly tells us that these concerns are those of another kind of philosophy which can actually harm praxis as we saw in previous commentaries? Again, is this to safeguard the dignity and independence of the practical sphere in its own terms? But then, why even mention them, if they belong elsewhere? So, shouldn’t we conclude that Ar. is purposely confronting his audience with such complexities PRECISELY to get clear on how HE will, at least initially, move away from them? For it is clear, the idea of the ideas will NOT ever return to the argument in the NE, will they? And surely at the end of the NE we are not asked to go read the Categories or the Metaphysics, but rather to go read the Politics, aren´t we (with some exceptions, perhaps, dealing with the private education which BOOK X defends, so that SOME may read both)? In other words, is it perhaps that his audience, at least part of it, has already been misled by those who attended Plato’s Academy? Don’t they clearly still have in their minds all the Apology affair (which Ar. did not witness)? Isn’t Ar. rather troubled by the radical nature of the rhetorical skills used in the Republic, even if he might agree with its core dialectics? Doesn’t he see that such philosophical projects undermine the practical so that the relation between the practical and the speculative reach insolvable breakdowns of communication (to use modern language)? But if THIS is true, don’t we and Ar. also know that Plato wrote his more mature The Laws, where such critiques are better responded? Furthermore, as regards the Straussian interpretation of the so-called Platonic “Theory of the Forms” (for instance, Blooms famous reading of The Republic as a comic response to Aristophanes´s Clouds, or Strauss´s own unique conception; see section IV below) , then why exactly does one not find anything “comic” about Ar.’s presentation of these ideas? Doesn’t HE seem to think that Plato took them seriously? Or is it rather that he is criticizing a rather incomplete, not to say an erroneous interpretation of Plato’s thought (as one could easily see, for instance, also in the very purposely minimalistic critique of Plato’s communism in Politics Book II)? For surely Ar. seems to CONVENIENTLY forget that these theories appear in DIALOGUES with all the dramatic complexities that this entails ( and we know Ar. himself wrote many dialogues as well!)? So why does he find it “convenient” to leave these obvious, yet crucial, issues aside? For aren’t we to realize that, for instance, the presentation of the ideas in the Republic is given precisely within Socrates’ description of three incredible waves that Socrates himself tells us are so utterly incomprehensible they will hardly be believed? (see section IV below for references to the ideas in the Republic). Isn’t this perhaps THE key to this subsection? Isn’t it perhaps the key to the relationship between Plato and Aristotle as Alfarabi saw it (see beginning of The Philosophy of Aristotle: “Aristotle sees the perfection of man as Plato sees it and more.”; Mahdi p. 71, )

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 5

(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER FIVE

Let us speak from the point where we digressed. For on the basis of the lives they lead, the many and the crudest seem to suppose, not unreasonably, that the good and happiness are pleasure. And thus they cherish the life of enjoyment. For the specially prominent ways of life are three: the one just mentioned, the political, and, third, the contemplative.

Now, in choosing a life of fatted cattle, the many appear altogether slavish; but they attain a hearing, because many people in positions of authority experience passions like those of Sardanapalus. The refined and active, on the other hand, choose honour, for this is pretty much the end of the political life. But it appears to be more superficial than what is being sought, for honour seems to reside more with those who bestow it than with him who receives it; and we divine that the good is something of one´s own and a thing not easily taken away. Further, people seem to pursue honour so that they may be convinced that they themselves are good; at any rate, they seek to be honoured by the prudent, among those to whom they are known, and for their virtue. It is clear, then, that in the case of these people at least, virtue is superior.

And perhaps someone might in fact suppose that virtue is to a greater degree the end of political life. Yet it appears to be rather incomplete. For it seems to be possible to posses virtue even while asleep or while being inactive throughout life and, in addition to these, while suffering badly and undergoing the greatest misfortunes. But no one would deem happy somebody living in this way, unless he were defending a thesis. But enough about these things: they have been spoken adequately also in the circulated writings.

Third is the contemplative life, about which we will make an investigation in what will follow.

The money-making life is characterized by a certain constraint, and it is clear that wealth is not the good being sought, for it is a useful thing and for the sake of something else. Thus someone might suppose that the previously mentioned things are ends to a greater degree than money is, for at least they are cherished for their own sakes. But they do not appear to be ends either, and many arguments have been widely distributed in opposition to them. So let these things be dismissed.” (NE, 1095a15-1096a10; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) What are we to make of the sudden first appearance of pleasure (ἡδονήν) in the argument? What does becoming ethical have to do with pleasure? Don’t we find this, in a sense, counterintuitive? For surely, those of us brought up under monotheism see pleasure in a very particular transcendental kind of way, don’t we? Or is it that Ar. is, in some respects, more akin to OUR modern utilitarianism and ITS conception of pleasure, than to any transcendental view of things (J.S. Mill; see section IV below)? But, wouldn’t that be odd, since 2500 years separate OUR hedonistic utilitarianism from Ar.’s prudential presentation? And, will it turn out that the primary architectonic good is connected to pleasure in some way? Isn’t this the reason why, having barely touched upon the question of pleasure for MANY books (specially those dealing with the moral virtues) throughout the NE, we are again suddenly confronted by it in BOOK X and its stunning conclusions? And as concerns the question of pleasure, why is Ar. SO very careful in its initial presentation? Why does he FIRST mention the many and the CRUDEST in this regard? Why not mention the refined or the WISE first? Don’t THEY hit the target better as regards the pleasurable? Is it because PLEASURE might hold the key to many of the reflections in the NE (not to mention the whole of classical political thought)? Isn’t this why, though careful, Ar. ALSO says that the many and the crudest think thus, BUT pregnantly adds: and not unreasonably”? But if this is the general movement, then aren’t we moving in a direction in which another kind of life, that of a lovingly AND chosen self-sacrifice, will become unavailable? Specially so because Ar. reduces the variability of reasonably available lives to THREE lives: the life of pleasure, the political and the contemplative? Where exactly does a monk, a nun, or a hermit fit in? Or might it be that Ar. doubts whether true self-sacrifice makes sense for a human being once one dwells more into underlying considerations? And furthermore, where exactly does a CEO fit; under the later mentioned money-making life? Besides, before proceeding, haven´t we been told before that as regard the noble and the just, AND happiness, the variability is disconcerting? So, we need ask, don’t these lives TOO, vary according to the political regime in which they are lived? Won’t the pleasures of a democracy vary from those of an aristocracy, as Tocqueville CLEARLY shows in his Democracy in America? For it is evident that the pleasures of an aristocratic regime may actually be despised in a democracy; and the political life of the democratic seen in pejorative terms under an aristocracy? And, much more importantly, shouldn’t we be taken aback —– listening intently as we have regarding the architectonic end of the political art—— by SUDDENLY being brought up against a life which we HAVE not heard of before? And if it is true that the audience LISTENING to Ar. is varied, how are THEY to react to its appearance? Is it SO obvious that the “contemplative life” is one of THE lives to consider; then why exactly was Socrates condemned to death? And much more poignantly, why is it that WE moderns are not so taken aback by this third life? “The contemplative life, sure that is obviously familiar”, we say to ourselves, don’t we? Is it because we CONFUSE it with our very own ideas of what theory is, so that theory has become universally understood and unproblematically accepted? That is to say, what if for us theory signified an altogether different kind of life, one in which scientific reason, power and technology had created a dangerous theoretical fortress unbeknownst to Ar.? For isn’t it true that we easily speak of THEORY in modern times, a theory whose primary purpose it the guidance of our practical lives in the political arena? Actually, isn’t this THE CORE of the modern project? To exaggerate, don’t we think of theory more like a kind of “social engineering”? Isn’t this why OUR states are BUREAUCRATIC? For what would a theory be like that were not sought primarily to be IMPLEMENTED? Can we moderns conceive of this? What if Ar. had a VERY different conception of the relationship between theory and practice (cf. Kant’s Theory and Practice)? And what to make of the EXTREMELY pregnant silence that ensues regarding this life in the NE; for as Bartlett’s footnote attests to, ONLY until BOOK X will it come back, really, “to bite us”? What are we to make of this SILENCE if Ar. is asking us to be good listeners? What exactly are we supposed to listen to, so that in BOOK X we are not so shocked by the revelation of a surprising conclusion? And what to make of the fact that the very word for contemplation in Greek, namely theoria, is closely linked to being able “to see” (ὁρᾶν)? If there turns out to be something like the EYE OF THE SOUL; WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? And isn’t it obvious that Ar. considers this to be crucially relevant given that in the very next subsection (I, 6) , he goes on to get clearer on what some previous “theorists”, evidently Plato, have inadequately “theorized” about? How could THEIR eye of the soul, turn out to see not so well? Or did it? And, finally, doesn’t Ar. AGAIN “trick us”, and proceeds to tell us just a few lines below that, actually, there is a 4th kind of life, that of money-making? So which is it: 3 lives, or 4 (or 5?), or perhaps 1 and only 1? And if only 1, whence the reduction?

2) Moving along, why does Ar. HERE use such a censorious tone, such an “un-Aristotelian” tone, rarely used by him elsewhere? And why is this extremely censorious tone (the many = fatted cattle) so rarely picked up by modern commentators? Can one not see that Ar. is clearly defiant of radical democracy? Is it that commentaries on Ar. are much less defiantly so? Could they appeal to a “washed out” Aristotelianism? But then, are we democratic moderns more like fatted cattle all around, if ours are, in a sense, democracies of the “many”? Nietzsche seems to think something like this in his notion of the last man, doesn’t he (See “Prologue” Thus Spoke Zarathustra)? And doesn’t AQ. also completely agree with Ar., though he changes the animal to PIGS (!; section 60)? And, don’t WE say exactly the same when we observe certain bestial humans and say: “now, that is a pig”? Or should we just omit these Aristotelian words to make him more “relevant”? But then DOESN’T Ar. want us to listen to them? Could Ar. have come up with a better image to let us now how WE humans can fall to the most bestial of levels, specially with regards to pleasure? But, if so close the bestial, why does Ar. STILL say that they TOO attain a hearing? Why should they? And moreover, isn’t the reason extremely strange, even WEIRD? Aristotle says: one ought to hear the fatted cattle, because many of the powerful experience such feelings? Isn’t these like hearing the drunk because some drunks drink the most expensive liquor around and show it off? What might Ar. be driving at? Could it be that he SEES the political DANGERS of not confronting the relation between pleasure and power; that is, of showing how Sardanapalus and the like get it SO wrong and thus are truly dishonorable? Wouldn’t the refined, specially, despise being remembered thus? And don’t we then have to take much more seriously Xenophon’s On Tyranny in this regard; a conversation by a poet with a kind of Sardanapalus? And, being more inquisitive, is the pleasure of Sardanapalus found in the banquets, in the feasts, in the parades, OR RATHER IS IT NOT FOUND in the power that political power bestows upon its holder? For aren’t we speaking of the architectonic art, the political art as we have agreed in the course of the argument? Furthermore, why does Ar. go on to add that as regards the refined (and he sees the need to add, AND ACTIVE) that they choose honour? What would the refined, but inactive, look like? Is Ar. encouraging the refined to BECOME ennobled for they are the ones that truly have the means to do so? But, one would ask, isn’t Sardanapalus as part of the POLITICAL process, part of the struggle for honor, himself? So how is it that SOME who hold positions of power choose honor and others CHOOSE banquets and other less mentionable activities? Isn’t this WHY the many have a hearing, for wouldn’t it be utterly confusing to see some of the “refined” —or at least some of those who could have become refined—- becoming LIKE Sardanapalus? For surely Sardanapalus, one has a feeling, was perhaps once among the refined? And why does Ar. mention ONLY Sardanapalus in the NE, but in the EE he mentions many many more (EE, I, 5; and even goes into much greater detail, less prudently it seems, as to the content of the contemplative life (!): “They say that Anaxagoras …”, even mentioning the elder Socrates´ views on virtue)? Isn’t it because by mentioning ONLY ONE, we have a clear sense for what it is to be remembered for the wrong reasons? For surely now we all know, even 2500 years after, WHO Sardanapallus was? Who could wish to bestow such fame upon him/herself? Wouldn’t this be desiring a kind of inverted sickly end for eternity? But if so, then why would the many be confused about it?

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