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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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DIPLOMA COURSERA

Reflections: Political Thoughts on Sustainable Development (A Commentary on Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs’s Coursera course: “The Age of Sustainable Development”)

Having had the opportunity to start to undertake Professor Sachs´s quite informative and extremely educational course on Sustainable Development (SD) –now going into its 6th week— I would like to briefly express some of my concerns and questions regarding SD. Of course, as I read the Discussion Forums, many point to issues regarding the many factors involved in the implementation of the policies which SD allows us to better see and hopefully, to implement, specially in those cases of “poverty trap” in which the conditions are more troubling and recurring. No one wishes to live in inhuman hardship all his/her life; extreme poverty must be eradicated via a concerted effort, and by all ethical means available. In this regard, many of the now famous “TED talks” allow us to try to imagine the hardships and thus feel the importance of connecting lovingly for serious practical improvement: for example, TED talks by: 1) Bono, 2) Jacqueline Novogratz (specially the one regarding prostitution), and my two favorite, 3) Jessica Jackley, founder of KIVA  here , and 4) Bunker Roy founder of the Barefoot Movement here . Also, non-academic books such as The International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris, which tells the story of microfinancing success KIVA whose motto is tellingly “loans that change lives”, humble us and transform us in ways we could not even foresee. In brief, many are concerned, and rightly so, with practical issues. Many forum posts in this course come to mind in this regard. Let us just recall a simple one:

“Hello all peers,  My name is Abdikadir Daud from Ethiopian Somali region, I’m forwarding my thanks to the course   facilitator because I got extended knowledge from this course and I will transfer this skill to my communities .
Thanks
Abdikadir” ( here )

Abdikadir from Ethiopia, like many of us from around the world, wants to make a difference.

However, my questions proceed from a very different area. They pertain to philosophical questions, that is to say, they deal with the core concepts, formulations and assumptions which must be put forward in the case of any given approach to the complex political and economic reality in which we live. P. Sachs himself does not tire of saying that SD is not merely a PRACTICAL path to CHANGE the world, but also –and more importantly— a THEORETICAL path to UNDERSTAND the world (Lecture 1, Week 1; and beginning of 1st Google Hangout, here ). He even goes so far as to say that it is a NORMATIVE framework which means it involves certain moral presuppositions. These convey the limits, for instance, for all business practices; not everything that is legal should be done. (see, for instance, 2nd Google Hangout: Question No. 4, “On the role of regulation of business.”) Consequently, my main concern regarding the EXCELLENT lectures we have been fortunate to partake in, is to signal –however embryonically– to some of the more puzzling philosophical underpinnings underlying the Sustainable Development Movement. This means that, according to such a critique, it becomes extremely important to undergo a rational critique of the core concepts which guide the interpretative self-understanding of SD. I believe that training in the humanities (specially, political philosophy) alone provides the impulse to see the real importance of such a critique, a political/philosophical critique. I also believe that, given this theoretical inclination, few of our fellow Coursera virtual classmates will proceed to consider the rest of this –much longer than normal– post!

Obviously –though I have lived half of my life in Colombia (which exemplifies many of the problems P. Sachs speaks of, and MORE!) and the other half in Canada (which exemplifies many of the benefits of which P. Sachs speaks of, and MORE!)— we must immediately confess that we do not possess the intellectual capacity nor the global comprehension that somebody like P. Sachs allows us to perceive in each of his engaging video-lectures for the Coursera course. We are but learners, poor in understanding. Be this as it may, nonetheless we will venture to point to what I consider to be some extremely troubling silences and/or omissions which may make us –should make us– question SD forcefully.

Now, although I have already tweeted  to #susdev some general short questions, for instance: 1) “ #susdev Suppose we ALL were middle-income citizens of the world. Is that enough? Would our spirit not lose sight of what is MOST important?”, or 2) “ #susdev Isn´t there a rhetorical identification between “extreme poverty” and “poverty” which does not allow for a real critique of SD goals?”, still –as mentioned above– our concern in this post is somewhat more detailed or profound.

We could say that SD, in general —and Clinical Economics, in particular— could be giving us a “differential diagnosis” that may SEEM to point to the root cause of things, variable as they may be, but which may end up REALLY missing the CORE causes of the general “disease” with which some thinkers believe we are currently afflicted as moderns and post-moderns. And by missing some of the CORE causes, it might not be providing the best “medicine(s)” available/desirable. In the philosophical arena, the most radical critics in this regard would be those who follow Heidegger´s powerful critique of technology. Though extremely important, we shall not go into that camp here in detail.

Rather, using P. Sachs own clinical analogy, we can say that it is common nowadays to see traditional Western medicine incapable of treating complex diseases which do not have to deal with physical trauma or life-death situations. Chronic illness, such as different forms of arthritis/fibromyalgia, are a case in point. Of course, P. Sachs´s views seem to us to be much more akin to alternative medicine, in this respect. For one of the basic tenets of alternative medicine is that each patient is UNIQUE. So, each country, according to “Differential Clinical Economics” is likewise, quite UNIQUE. P. Sachs does not tire of saying that a holistic approach to the healing of poverty cannot be founded on a single linear conception of cause. Failing to understand this uniqueness may in fact worsen the situation beyond recovery. In medicine, one need only bring to mind the controversy over the drug Celebrex which not only did not actually cure your arthritis (it simply alleviated the pain), but actually –with certainty– damaged your heart! The history of many other drugs follows this pattern, unfortunately. In political life, the current political turmoil of countries such as our feverish neighbor Venezuela, may be thought to be something akin. As you will see, given the spirit of this post, one truly wonders what P. Sachs´s thoughts are on the current crisis in Venezuela, precisely because its regime claims to hold power for the poor. However that may be, P. Sachs —who also helped Bolivia during its feverish times— summarizes this view well:

“The modern doctor is expected to diagnose the specific causes of a specific patient’s illness and to offer a specific prescription that is accurately honed to that patient’s conditions and needs. The modern economist should do the same in diagnosing the persistence of poverty.” (our emphasis; Chapter 4: “Why Some Countries Developed While Others Stayed Poor, I. The Idea of Clinical Economics”)

 

Thus, one imagines that if P. Sachs himself were to fall ill, he would most likely search for an alternative medicine center rather than a traditional monolithic hospital built on unquestioned homogeneous forms of understanding, (or better yet, both if possible, for not all traditional doctors are self-enclosed and not all alternative doctors are truly open). The drama of the latest candidate for the Oscar Awards which deals with HIV/Aids –the compelling movie, Dallas Buyers Club—exemplifies all these tensions perfectly. For we, who have been sick, know well that the sick are among the poorest, mind you.

But, as you will see below, our critique could be said to involve a much more intense and alternative diagnosis than the one which P. Sachs offers. It would be an alternative to the alternative; but much more troubling. It would be an alternative that would show –if someday made fully explicit– that the alternative provided by SD is, in the end, really, really, not so much of an alternative except in the imagination, albeit with some crucial exceptions, among them, that of the eradication of extreme poverty itself. The idealistic overtones of SD would be seen thus to be constantly destabilized by the realistic peculiarities of localities, by a kind of non-Machiavellian political realism (i.e., much closer to Thucydides´s) and by certain “intractables” of human nature. Or to be less severe and less cranky (!) —for we know, as its students, that SD has partially succeeded IN REALITY through exciting models such as those of the Millennium Villages– one could say that the goals of SD, for instance, the Eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG´S), must be corrected with recourse to another tradition which not only sets the hierarchy of these goals aright, but also may add some which may have been altogether forgotten in SD differential diagnosis, however complete it claims to be. ( here )

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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, 4

(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 FOUR

Now, let us pick up again and —since all knowledge and every choice have some good as the object of their longing —let us state what it is that we say the political art aims at and what the highest of all the goods related to action is. As for its name, then, it is pretty much agreed on by most people; for both the many and the refined say that it is happiness, and they suppose that living well and acting well are the same thing as being happy. But as for what happiness is, they disagree, and the many do not give a response similar to that of the wise. The former respond that it is something obvious and manifest, such as pleasure or wealth or honour, some saying it is one thing, others another. Often one and the same person responds differently, for when he is sick, it is health; when poor, wealth. And when they are aware of their ignorance, they wonder at those who say something that is great and beyond them. Certain others, in addition, used to suppose that the good is something else, by itself, apart from these many good things, which is also the cause of their all being good.

Now, to examine thoroughly all these opinions is perhaps rather pointless; those opinions that are specially prevalent or are held to have a certain reason to them will suffice. But let it not escape our notice that there is a difference between the arguments that proceed from principles and those that proceed to the principles. For Plato too used to raise this perplexity well and investigated, whether the path is going from the principles or to the principles, just as on a racecourse one can proceed from the judges to the finish line or back again. One must begin from what is known, but this has a twofold meaning: there are things known to us, on the one hand, and things known simply, on the other. Perhaps it is necessary for us, at least, to begin from the things known to us. Hence he who will listen adequately to the noble things and the just things, and to the political things generally, must be brought up nobly by means of habituation. For the “that” is the principle, and if this should be sufficiently apparent, there will be no need of the “why” in addition, and a person of the sort indicated has or would easily get hold of the principles. As for him to whom neither of these is available, let him listen to the words of Hesiod:

This one is altogether best who himself understands all things

……………………………………………………………………………………..

But good in his turn too is he who obeys one who speaks well.

But he who neither himself understands nor, in listening to another,

takes this to heart, he is a useless man. ” (NE, 1095a14-1095b13; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Why does Ar. proceed in such a STRANGE manner, first telling us that after the previous digression he will get back on track with his own argument regarding the architectonic good of the political art, only to, a few lines later, digress once again (!) (at, “but let it not escape our notice”)? Why is he going about things as he is? Why is he so very hesitant to get to the point, so to speak? What is so crucial about getting things right from the beginning? For surely it seems a sign of prudence and sensitivity towards the actual independence, specially from the philosophical, of the practical sphere, doesn’t it? And isn’t this precisely WHY Ar. has become so relevant to us moderns, children of the Copernican revolution who attempted for centuries to side-step these initial Aristotelian “preludes” or digressions? Because, aren’t WE children of the scientific/technological grid, virtually unaware of such beginnings? Isn’t this why we find in the writings of Husserl the clear example of this procedural history? For, Husserl first wrote a very strange defence of philosophy IN TERMS OF the natural sciences themselves in his weirdly named “Philosophy as Rigourous Science”, only in his later years to back off from such a “kneeling” posture to a defence of a more Aristotelian notion, that of the “life-world” in his last book revealingly entitled The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Philosophy? Isn’t it, then, precisely out of respect for the independence of the practical that Ar. digresses anew, before going back to the argument presented? Doesn’t he have us LISTEN to a defence of the practical political life as AGAINST a certain kind of IMPRUDENT scientific/philosophical undermining of the realm of serious practical human things? Or put yet another way in terms of the history of philosophy, isn’t the young Wittgenstein of the Tractacus also guilty of not having begun in such a prudent way? For, doesn’t his logical attempt give way to the language as a way of life in his much more mature Philosophical Investigations? And much more importantly, in the early history of this constant tension, did not Socrates himself tell us that there came a point in his life in which he too had to undertake a “second sailing” (see, Phaedo), one in which philosophy was brought down from the Heavens to Earth for the very first time in time in philosophical inquiry (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations)? Don´t we see this clearly in Aristophanes´ comic presentation of the early Socrates in his Clouds? And don´t we see it MUCH MORE clearly in Xenophon´s Economics where we are told Socrates saw the need for a radical shift in HIS philosophical undertaking while simply LISTENING to the best of gentlemen, Ischomachus? Isn’t this respect for the dignity of the practical what redefines Socratism —and the whole of classical political philosophy— as against the pre-Socratics and their apolitical concern with the whole? But if so, what are the impending dangers of Heidegger´s and Nietzsche´s urging US to “return” to the PRE-Socratics who themselves did not know of this initial starting point for ethical inquiry? Isn’t this, in part, why Heidegger could not take back his troubling past? Musn’t THIS destabilizing danger, this mocking of logos within the practical sphere, be the one to be confronted HEAD ON (see Pangle ‘s poignant and ironical remarks on Rorty in The Ennobling of Democracy)? And, in Aristotelian terms, isn’t his different attitude from the EE to the NE precisely a similar expression of such a change in procedural outlook as well? Isn’t this THE key to understanding how the EE must be regarded as an earlier, less mature, work (vs. Kenny)?

2) Furthermore, what to make of the appearance of the central term happiness (eudaimonia)? How are we to get clear on the fundamental differences between the ancients´ concern for eudaimonia —which evidently goes beyond a feeling of temporary joy—- and OUR very own notion of the constitutionally defended “pursuit of happiness” (e.g., Constitution of the United States)? Won’t we make a MASSIVE mistake by not seeing the tension in which they stand? For instance, what are we to make of Kant’s very secondary, not so say, dismissive use of the term in his own ethical foundations (see section IV below)? Or, what to make of Locke’s reduction of the term and, crucially, its liberation (by way of redefinition and exclusion) from the Aristotelian moral virtues which will become the core of Ar.´s own argument (difference which is pregnantly developed by Pangle in his The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Visions of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke, see section IV below)? And isn’t this equally true of the difference between Ar.’s eudaimonia and Hobbes’s little inspiring felicity (see section IV below)? Isn’t the modern connection quite Anti-Aristotelian in that it DOES NOT believe there is an actual END to our longings? Doesn’t then modern desire –—-and particularly the desire for a certain kind of power that guarantees self-preservation—- lead the way, while reason deforms into mere utilitarianism? Similarly, can one not easily find in the Federalist vs. Anti-federalists debates over the US Constitution, precisely this very same debate on the appearance/delineation of happiness as THE END of the political (see section IV below)? Isn’t this why Brutus is so crucially upset by the unheard of proposals of Hamilton/Madison/Jay (proposals which “won the day”)? And, looking at Ar. more specifically; what exactly does it mean that happiness involves a living well and an acting well? Is living merely the substratum for acting? I mean, do we live simply to act, and specially in a moral sense? Or, in other MUCH more problematic terms, is life simply/exclusively the occasion for the presentation of the moral virtues in their alleged splendour? And if so, how are the moral virtues as the core of acting well, to be related to happiness which is BOTH acting AND living well? For surely, as we have said in our previous commentaries, sometimes the actual performance of certain virtues, such as courage, seems to GO AGAINST living itself as Ar. HIMSELF has pointed out in previous subsections? And, how is this consideration of happiness to be related to the context of the quote we find from Hesiod at the very end of this subsection (see puzzle No. 11 below)?

3) Moreover, why exactly does Ar. first mention two groups, the many (oi polloi, usually used in pejorative terms in Aristotle, see e.g., discusses of democracy in the Politics) and the refined (χαρίεντες; with the connotations of the beautiful, the graceful, the elegant, the courteous and the educated), only lines later to go on to mention a VERY different second pair, namely, the many and the wise? Are we to understand that the refined are to be passed over in silence? Or rather, that the refined are precisely THE most problematic in that they are already to a large extent educated by their society as such? What is one to learn about ethics if one is, to a large extent, ALREADY educated and courteous and graceful and …? And very importantly, what makes one part of the refined: good looks? Elegance? Or more likely, education; but WHICH education? I mean, why would the refined NEED the NE? And, are the refined variable as the just and the noble seem to be? Besides, put in modern terms, wouldn’t Ar. see the refined more in terms of Locke’s virtue of civility? And therefore, being refined —seeing oneself as one of the refined—- doesn’t THAT mean that one must appear to be refined to SOMEONE? Specially to those who are refined as well? But then, IF Ar.´s digressions are precisely to RESPECT some such education, how are we to MOVE beyond its already set parameters of what is beautiful and noble and just? In other words, aren’t we here speaking of the Ischomachus’s –the best of gentlemen (kalos kágathos)—- of our lives (see Xenophon’s crucial Economics)? For, don´t we see in Xenophon’s compelling (though little studied) text how SOCRATES is TRULY SILENT and merely listens to one of the most refined of Athens? Wouldn’t THAT be the respect of the practical sphere that Ar. seeks? But then, how to get the conversation going, so to speak, if Ar. goes on to say that the WHY should not be asked? And as regards the many, what are we to make of those thinkers who see in Ar. the beginning of radical social democracy (Nussbaum)? Aren’t they caught irredeemably in a MODERN LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC framework which has little to learn from Ar. himself? For surely Ar., in quoting Hesiod´s words in this very subsection seems little democratic in spirit, doesn’t he? But more problematic still, Ar. CLEARLY tells us that it is the many who mistakenly hold eudaimonia to be leisure, wealth or honour? But then again, who are these “many”: for surely one would tend to think that the many are the poor and therefore, in political terms, the ones least like to have the potential for honour in political office in particular? Or could it be, but this would be rather problematic given the type of digressions Ar. has made, that the many and the refined, when it comes to the CORE issues, to what truly defines happiness as the end of this “kind of political inquiry”, and more importantly to what truly defines happiness as THE END of the best human life possible simply, are very close to each other? Could it be that the refined and the many turn out to be, in their essence, almost indistinguishable; particularly when compared to/confronted by the wise? And, wouldn’t this allow us to NOT be so surprised once we reach the stunning conclusions of BOOK X? But then again, WHO are the wise? Are our professors the wise as Ar. uses the term? If not, then WHO?

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

INTRODUCTION

It seems now the time has arrived to put forth, as best as possible, some of the reflections —reflections which have guided me throughout the last few years of my life—– with regards to  Aristotle’s all-important views on the question of happiness as presented in his Nicomachean Ethics. For I take it that it has in fact been this encounter which has sent me on a path which I would have otherwise never encountered.

A. NEGATIVE SETTING

Which path is this? Negatively speaking, it is a path which stands in stark contrast to the traditions that have made up the horizon of my/our conceptual possibilities and practical lives. On the one hand, the horizon of our modern liberal democracies grounded precisely on the very critique of Aristotelian political philosophy; particularly as set out in the works of Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke and Montesquieu, all of whom to different degrees see Aristotle as THE rival to face and even, literally, to conquer. The realization of this inherent animosity must clearly point to us students how ALIEN the work of Aristotle must actually be to us children of such an anti-Aristotelian modern tradition. For if we ARE as modern democrats defined partly against Aristotelianism, it would be extremely odd that we would easily delude ourselves into believing that Aristotelianism is primarily akin to our own, that is to say, that it is somehow readily accessible and altogether familiar.  We must fight the easy consolation, the very troubling consolation, of assuming that Aristotle is simply “one of us”. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than precisely in the CORE Aristotelian investigation of virtue (areté), and of happiness (eudaimonía); and even more importantly of the complex and perhaps tense relationship which might come to slowly unfold as Aristotle guides us into seeing the puzzling relationships between said virtue(s) and happiness. By way of an example of how easily we disregard Aristotle’s challenge,  we can focus on the fact that many academics STILL continue to hold on to the erroneous view that Aristotle simply enumerated ——because he agreed with implicitly and explicitly—– the Greek virtues set out in Books 3 and 4; an intellectual magical disappearing act which overlooks these books which are PRECISELY the very key to understanding the dynamic and the general course of the Aristotelian argument at its most fundamental! So, we could in fact say that for us modern western democrats  Aristotle is —–at least initially, perhaps even indefinitely—- an Other that challenges our presuppositions, and does so like no Other can or ever will. Obviously then, this commentary objects to the generalized view that Aristotle is somehow solely the founder of a tradition, namely civic republicanism, that can still be seen in much later modern authors which even include Machiavelli. For surely, there is as much oxygen in gaseous form on the moon, as there is Aristotle in Machiavelli. And to make this clear, Machiavelli is certainly very proud of this.

And on the other hand, this is a path which stands in stark contrast to the traditions that have made up the horizon of revealed religion, fundamentally the tradition of the Bible in both its Judaic and Christian traditions, but also that of the Koran in Islam. Such a horizon finds its grounding not ——-as it does for Aristotle—— in the spirit of free and rational philosophical inquiry on the nature of the political and the ethical, but rather on the persistent obedience due to God in whose all encompassing and mysterious justice, merciful loving grace and creative omnipotence we alone can find THE sole anchoring required for our constantly tepid and all-too-debased sinful humanity. Again, it is the realization of this inherent tension which clearly points to us how ALIEN the work of Aristotle must be to us children of the rise and triumph of revealed monotheism (even if, of course, modern western democracies have in fact, via Locke and Montesquieu, redefined the very framework within which we have come to understand such divine revelation in our days). Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the peak which is the virtue of magnanimity (megalopsuchia), virtue which has as its most deficient extreme, the religious virtue par excellence of humility; for let us be clear, humility is, for Aristotle, a vice simply. Or further, it can be clearly seen in the very fact that the virtue of faith (pistis) is, dramatically —–and to our astonishment as part of a monotheistic tradition—– not even considered one of the virtues to be analyzed in the list of eleven virtues found in the Nicomachean Ethics itself (Evidently, this is NOT to say that Aristotle does not take up the question of the divine continuously in the text, as we shall have occasion to witness). But one could also mention, so that we again come to be taken aback by the very strangeness of Aristotle’s arguments, the inexistence of any serious development of the notion of friendship  (philia) within the Bible; or the initial unflattering status of the political within Genesis itself, Cain being the founder of the first political city which will lead directly, and not metaphorically, to the just destruction of the pretensions of the kind of “magnanimous” arrogance found in  the technological project of Babel. So we must again repeat, as we attempt to follow this new path —–and perhaps to our initial dismay—– that Aristotle once again stands as a kind of Other who questions fundamentally the presuppositions of our thought, or more truthfully and with greater relevance,  the presuppositions of our lives. And that this is so, is extremely fortunate, for realizing his otherness we can thankfully ask: how then could we still remain the same by reading and dwelling upon his strange remarks? Aristotle liberates, and it would seem, some of us are in need of a great liberal education by such dialectically challenging type of friends.
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Review of:

Masters of Greek Thought: Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle

(Taught by Robert C. Bartlett, The Teaching Company)

We surely must be grateful to Professor Bartlett’s incisive reflections on the nature of Socratic political philosophy as representing a modern viable alternative to our political and philosophical self-understanding. This alternative takes its path upon a close determination of what the “Socratic revolution” ——-which moved Socrates towards a perspective closer to the self-understanding of the citizens themselves——- might mean. And it is surely extremely helpful to have a more public on-line presentation of the ideas developed by Professor Strauss and his students for those of us interested in their interpretation of Aristophanes, Xenophon (virtually forgotten in academia for very specific reasons), Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

As an insider’s comment/joke, one could definitively say that this course —and going back to my mother tongue—– can be easily regarded as “el número uno”! The presentation is clear, concise, humorous and generally thought-provoking (particularly if one considers the accompanying guide as well). Professor Bartlett takes great pains to reconsider in each of his lectures the previous arguments and paths developed; and he usually ends his timely lectures with certain puzzles for the listener to continue exploring the problems revealed in the text themselves, rather than by providing a set doctrines (e.g., the “platonic doctrine of the ideas”) that could be just repeated endlessly. In this respect, the recovery of Plato’s work as a consisting of DIALOGUES with a specific audience in mind, with specific characters in play and under specific situations aids us IMMENSELY in trying to understand what at the start might be tedious, bad and irrelevant lines of argument. Something similar must be said for Bartlett’s interpretation of Aristotle’s “manner of writing”. Besides, he constantly provides examples taken from everyday life which may allow the listener to move from their simplicity to the depths of the questions addressed to us by the Classical Political Philosophy tradition. As a matter of fact and to go back to one of his favorite examples, I actually found a wallet on the street during the time I spent going through this course. I must confess the course immediately made me want to give the wallet back wholeheartedly as I had become more just, just by listening!

Of course, questions remain, and given the breadth of the course, important gaps also remain which just could not be filled (a serious one being the “jumping over” the virtue of moderation in the Nicomachean Ethics) . But perhaps the fundamental question for the course remains the Straussian interpretation which might be seen to try to “square the circle”. If ——-as we are pointed to again and again——- the Socratic revolution stems from a reconsideration of the political nature of our praxis and our reflections (particularly as regards the question of the divine and the search for a “scientific” explanation of the order of the universe as in the pre-Socratics), then this means that the political sphere is once again given its due dignity. That is to say, one cannot philosophize without encountering in dialogue the Ischomachus of our lives as Xenophon recounts arguing that it is in this very precise conversation that Socrates SAW the philosophical need for such a revolution. But this impulse to bring forth back the dignity of the political is not always easily set along the more fundamental axis of the arguments presented by the Straussians, namely, that even though the political has the aforementioned dignity, it truly remains FAR below the possibilities which the life of reflection, the life of philosophy, opens up to the citizen who starts to move towards a self-critical stance of such dignity-ridden (but perhaps self-enclosing) elements. In other words, one could ask whether to say that there is much dignity in ‘x’, but that really the dignity of ‘x’ is only visible once it sees beyond its confines, ends up throwing a massive question as to the real dignity of ‘x’ itself. Of course, this is much more evident in Plato’s Republic than in his LAWS given the metaphor of the cave and its constant allusion to the SHADOWS which make up our political reality. But this could also be seen to be true in Aristotle in the following way: though Aristotle indeed leaves behind such complex equations as the third wave of the Republic which identifies philosopher and ruler (see for example Book II of the Politics), still in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics he apparently seems to run into the same difficulties of trying to “square the circle” by showing that the life dedicated to the moral virtues, life which has a certain dignity of its own, is truly only worthy of a very secondary notion of happiness. I believe this places a massive question as regards the fundamental argument of the course, namely, that it is the Socratic revolution —his “Second sailing”—– which makes possible the very work of Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle.

And also in a similar respect, the course fails to place its interpretation among other competing interpretations which seem to fundamentally disagree with the political nature of Socratic thought. Straussian interpretations are many a time “outside the academic norm” and perhaps this course does not do enough to emphasize this crucial differentiation. In this respect, one seems not to see much of Aristophanes’ humor amongst academics nowadays. In a similar light, one need ask why it is that so few “philosophical dialogues” are actually written to day by those who are considered the “philosophers” of our time. In other words, shouldn’t reading Plato move US to write dialogues as he did?

A final massive difficulty that is pointed to, worked upon and reworked endlessly by the always helpful and rhetorically talented professor Bartlett is the choice made by Socrates to actually drink the hemlock. Although Bartlett considerations of the Crito, the Phaedo and the Apology are absolutely enlightening and profound, one has the feeling that this foundational act which determines the very memory of Socrates has to be further developed by all readers on their own.

Finally as regards what one can only wish for; THE TEACHING COMPANY would do very well in asking Professor Barlett (or Professor Pangle) to provide us with a course which FOCUSES solely on THE LAWS of Plato and the NICOMACHEAN ETHICS of Aristotle. It is my belief that we are in much need of a more public defense of the arguments presented in THE LAWS as the basis for a critical questioning and defense of our liberal democracies. In terms of the NICOMACHEAN ETHICS (from the Straussian perspective) the public could have a better understanding of the diverse moral virtues and the inherent dilemmas they present, as well as a consideration of why Aristotle was moved to write 2 ETHICS rather than only one, if one includes the Eudemian Ethics as one should. Moreover, THE TEACHING COMPANY should consider translating some of its courses so as to reach a wider audience interested in these fundamental topics.

All in all, an absolutely impressive course for which we ought to be very grateful indeed.

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