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Reflections:  Aboriginals in Canada and Two Possible Meanings of “Discrimination” 

“So there is certainly no lack of activity in our little boat, but is there any purpose? Is the tall figure who may or may not be the Spirit of Haida Gwaii leading us, for we are all in the same boat, to a sheltered beach beyond the rim of the world as he seems to be, or is he lost in a dream of his own dreamings? The boat moves on, forever anchored in the same place.” (my emphasis: words of Bill Reid on his own sculpture, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii)

And there was always the wind ….. and sometimes …… sometimes ….. the wind brought good news, and sometimes …… sometimes ….. the wind brought evil.” (my emphasis: Taken from the first of Inuit Legends, CBC Aboriginal, “Inuit Journey”: link)

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 Spirit of the Haida Gwai

The verb “to discriminate” has come to have a primary negative definition. Basically, very roughly, it means “to unfairly treat a person or group of people differently from the rest.“ Of course, for the negative definition to succeed, the emphasis must be placed in the “unfairly” or “unjustly”. This is the reason why we speak of “anti-discrimination”; we wish to correct a wrong. But, for sure, there is no negative discrimination simply by the fact of there being mere difference: that Canadians see themselves as radically different from Americans does not imply discrimination in the negative sense. Thus, difference does not always lead to discrimination; but difference which is the result of a certain grave and prolonged injustice, surely does. Slavery in the USA is one blatant example, the treatment of Aboriginals in Canada a parallel one.

The history of Canada´s First Nations is surely the result of an unjust and forced differentiation. It is not just based on the now oft-repeated problematic phrase “we are all different”; it is more based on the idea that “we are so different, that you and yours must cease to be.” If lucky enough to be spared death, the “other” must still be so assimilated that this “other” becomes nothing but a crippled “us”. Such historical triumphs are truly essential defeats. In this regard, educating ourselves about the history, the nature and the consequences of the current discriminatory relationship we have with Aboriginals is but the first step in ameliorating the pervasive and noxious effects multiple non-Aboriginal policies have had  over their destiny, their sense of self-worth, their linguistic identity, their territorial self-sufficiency and their potential for political empowerment (see latest interview by Judge John Reilly in CBC’s The Current: link, and very important previous interview as well). This includes, as we shall see, most poignantly the ESL setting. Why so? Because the language issue is perhaps at the core of the mode of forced assimilation, even annihilation which Aboriginals in Canada have had to face. Now, before proceeding and in order to be clear as to what we mean by Aboriginals, it is important to note that in 2011, 1,400,685 people in Canada identified themselves as Aboriginal: “4.3 percent of the total population of Canada: 851,560 were First Nations, 451,790 were Métis, 59,440 were Inuit. (p. 8 of the excellent First People’s Guide for Newcomers created by the City of Vancouver and which should be replicated in each Province and downloaded by all ESL teachers and students: link .)

Fortunately though, “to discriminate” does not possess this negative meaning alone. To discriminate CAN in fact be liberated from a sense of injustice, from the permanent presence of the pain –an absolutely understandable, yet unimaginable, pain– that accompanies prolonged suffering from wrong-doing. Why is this positive definition so important? For an identity built on an injury seems to us to remain unable to move; a healthy identity necessarily must somehow move beyond mere negation of itself and the injurer. An identity founded solely on the hatred of the occupier seems to us destined to fail. In this sense, it is of great importance to emphasize that “to discriminate” is also defined as the mark of someone who can “perceive the distinguishing or peculiar features of a given thing/topic”. A dictionary provides the following example: “the human eye can discriminate between very slight gradations of color”. Such a skill is truly unique, it may perhaps be among the highest. For it takes great sensitivity, imagination and most importantly, intelligence, to be able to see the whole of reality in all its color gradations. In photographic terms, few can see the shades of gray; few are like Ansel Adams.

Unfortunately, in the case of our relation to Aboriginals, this more positive sense of discrimination is for the most part lacking. We non-Aboriginals fail to see even what appears most evident. In the case of Canada’s First Nations, and Aboriginals generally, our eyes continue to be blind to a kind of devastating differentiation which we ourselves (the non-Aboriginals) have initiated and of which we continue to be part of. In these brief pages we seek to begin to shake ourselves free –so far as possible– from such damaging presuppositions, specially as they appear in the field of ESL. (more…)

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 1

(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 ONE

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action as well as choice, is held to aim at some good. Hence people have nobly declared that the good is that at which all things aim. But there appears to be a certain difference among the ends: some ends are activities, others are certain works apart from the activities themselves, and in those cases in which there are certain ends apart from the actions, the works are naturally better than the activities.

Now, since there are many actions, arts and sciences, the ends too are many: of medicine, the end is health; of shipbuilding, a ship; of generalship, victory; of household management, wealth. And in all things of this sort that fall under some one capacity —for just as bridle making and such other arts as concern equestrian gear fall under horsemanship, while this art and every action related to warfare fall under generalship, so in the same manner, some arts fall under one capacity, others under another —–in all of them, the ends of the architectonic ones are more choiceworthy than all those that fall under them, for these latter are pursued for the sake of the former. And it makes no difference at all whether the ends of the actions are the activities themselves or something else apart from these, as in the sciences mentioned.” (NE, 1094a1-18; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Why does Aristotle begin his text by using such complicated, even technical, vocabulary (technē, methodos, praxis, proairesis, kalos, telos, energeia, ergon, dynamis, epistēmē..)? For surely this is not your everyday terminology, is it? I mean, one just needs to read the contrast between epistēmē and technē in Book VI to see the comprehension requirements of such a beginning, doesn’t one? Or, alternatively, one just needs to survey the complex commentaries which such a beginning has spawned in academia! But then, WHO precisely is Ar. addressing as his audience by proceeding thus? Does he wish to point to the fact that his audience must be prepared to engage a vocabulary that is not simply given in everyday experience? Will everyday experience have to somehow be “clarified” as we proceed along his path? So, wouldn’t Aristotle be seeking from the very start an audience friendly —or better, that could potentially become friendly—– to philosophical jargon, its complexities and its detailed characterizations? But, how can he guarantee this? And MUCH more importantly, doesn’t Ar. begin AS WELL by signalling to the fact that he will bow in his ethical investigations to what is “held to be” (dokein) the case? And surely “what is held to be” is precisely what thinks itself in no need whatsoever of investigation, isn’t it? So, isn´t the audience that hears Ar. comprised as well by those morally sound citizens whose opinions are seen to be noble (kalos) from the very beginning? And, aren’t the examples actually given in subsection 1 taken from the very everyday activities known to any educated citizen of the polis? For it would be odd to think that shipbuilding/war goes on in the Lyceum, wouldn’t it? Consequently, wouldn’t Ar. be pointing to the fact that this audience has a kind of dual nature? Aren’t we moved to understand that philosophers must confront a mixed kind of audience, namely, those who have been properly educated in moral things, and those —-much much fewer, one surmises—– who being properly educated in these noble things, have a underlying longing to understand whence such education? Thus, wouldn’t such an audience be conformed both by serious citizens as well as would be individuals keen in understanding the foundation of such moral education, and because GOOD, absolutely clear on the dangers of philosophy to practical life? (Warning made explicit in EE, 1216b39-1217a6)

2) But then again, why does Aristotle wish to point to the relationship between the noble and the good? Why exactly should this be THE beginning? What is it about the noble that gives it such weight that IT allows for the beginning of THE serious ethical inquiry? Who could be the audience such that the noble would be an object of admiration and desire? Who would actually be moved by such initial assumptions? All humans? Surely not. All the citizens? Perhaps only those ALREADY capable of hearing the noble? But then, what are THEY to learn? Or, is it would-be philosophers in the Lyceum? But aren’t they supposed to question “assumptions” such as this? And, crucially, what is the nature of this kind of relationship between the noble and the good that the means of communication by the philosopher is by way of rhetorical argumentation and the use of enthymeme (Rh, 1355a)? Why does rhetoric in the investigation of the ethical take precedence over the scientific and logically syllogistic? Is the enthymeme simply a truncated syllogism? Or is it the other way around, the truncated syllogism being that syllogism which is SIMPLY scientific? Don’t many modern discussion around the ethics suffer, precisely, from this illness of inversion? But then again, what if modernity has actually subverted such rhetorical skills? How then are we to prepare ourselves to be able to listen to such beginnings? Can we moderns, in fact, even listen to the noble in its true magnitude?

3) In what perhaps has to be one of the complex puzzles: Why does Aristotle introduce the issue of teleology from the start? “By nature” (physis); what does that exactly mean? Does it mean what it means for Montesquieu at the beginning of The Spirit of the Laws? Does it mean what it means for us post-Galileans? Don’t we obviously know that Aristotle deluded himself into thinking that the universe had an intrinsic teleology which can no longer be accounted for? Or rather, aren’t WE deluding ourselves into thinking we in fact understand Aristotle so that we have little or nothing to learn from him in terms of the understanding of the whole (in this regard Bolotin’s An Approach to Aristotle’s Physics: With Particular Attention to the Role of His Manner of Writing, is of the essence)? Is “nature” merely a concatenation of natural effects and causes following certain “natural” laws (see Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, Chapter V. “Of Reason and Science”? Or rather, does it refer to a certain intelligibility of the whole? But then again, what in humans makes them capable of understanding such a whole? And how is the understanding of the whole made accessible SOLELY by way of an understanding of the ethical/political things? And if this were true, wouldn’t then the NE be THE entrance point par excellence?

4) And why the initial reference to choice? Is Aristotle prudently, gently, preparing some of us for a choice which involves getting to understand the noble and its dynamics? Why so? Because in the EE, Aristotle in contrast has NO qualms whatsoever about making it LOUD AND CLEAR to the reader that the question is, in fact, one of CHOICE (EE, 1214b6-13: “everyone who can live according to his own choice should adopt some goal for a the fine life … “) ? But then again, why is Ar. so reticent about being as LOUD in the NE? Is it because of his better understanding of the nature of the mixed audience attending his lectures? Isn’t part of the audience, the noble part, less akin to the loudness of philosophical inquiry? Wouldn’t that audience rarely —if ever—- visit the Lyceum where the activity of dialogical questioning is taken for granted? And, very importantly for students of Ar., wouldn’t this signal to the greater maturity present in the NE in contrast to the EE? Or put another way, wouldn’t the EE stand to Plato’s Republic, as the NE stands to the elder Plato’s Laws?

5) And, why does Aristotle seem to struggle with the hierarchical relation between different ends, those that are activities for their own sake, and those which have an end (a work) apart from the activities themselves? Why does he FIRST say that the those with works apart are naturally better (again, in what sense of “nature”?)? But then at the end of this very same Subsection 1, he goes on to, seemingly, contradict himself by saying that actually “it makes no difference at all whether the ends of the actions are the activities themselves or something else apart form these”? Didn’t he just a few lines before argue the exact opposite? Why exactly is Aristotle trying to “confuse” us? Is he trying to get us to see that the relation between ethical activity and its “products” is one that will be shown to be problematic? For shouldn’t one be ethical for the sake of the activity itself and not for any results stemming from these noble actions? Or put another way, what is the product of being ethical apart from being ethical? Wouldn’t that alone be the greatest pleasure? Is the product for another, or rather the product becoming oneself a certain kind of person? Or put another way, can the moral virtues be seen solely for their own sake, and not for any ulterior product which they may obtain? And we know, as well, that Ar. will go on to claim that eudaimonia, which is in fact THE end of our human activity, is in fact not a state but an ACTIVITY? So once again, Ar. seems to make us puzzle precisely as to which type of ends take precedence over the others. Or, rather, may there not be instances in which the activity undergone IS the “product”? Isn’t the relation between logos (speech) and ergon (deed) a bit like this? Because, following Ar. and the Socratic legacy, isn’t the core question HOW we should lead our lives? And, isn’t Ar. starting to signal, perhaps, that understanding is some such kind of activity?

6) And as regards the famous expression “hence people have nobly declared that the good is that at which all things aim”, why once again is Aristotle so reticent to distinguish between the “good simply” and the merely “apparent good”? For surely we may believe of our arts, inquiries, actions and choices that they may be directed towards the/our good, but be totally wrong about this! Evidently too many are not (drug trafficking, lock-picking, bullying, smoking, stealing, murdering, prostituting ….) Why is Aristotle so resistant about giving us any of the too well-known bad examples? Isn’t it, of course, because of the connection to the puzzles put forward in 2)? Or to provide an example, why would Ar. simply see with amazement —or better, disgust—- the fact that Colombian TV networks, and MANY citizens, find it unproblematic to produce a series on the life of Pablo Escobar? And what is it about our anti-Aristotelianism that allows such actions to generate HUGE ratings and economic benefits? And, beyond this, if “the good is that at which all things aim”, surely what this superior end is, must be further dealt with? For Ar. knows quite well —as he will let us CLEARLY know as he proceeds in Book I—- that there is a philosophical tradition stemming from “Plato” that seems to claim that THE Good, and most probably also those who claim to know IT, are “not even of this world”! Doesn’t Ar. know all-too-well Aristophanes Clouds?

  (more…)

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Filosofía política clásica; el modelo socrático y aristotélico como respuesta a las encrucijadas modernas.

El interés principal para esta propuesta de investigación ——como aspirante a su departamento——- es la de hacer una defensa profunda de lo que representa la filosofía política clásica como posible respuesta a la actual crisis del liberalismo moderno occidental. Dicha investigación se enfrentaría conceptualmente a los defensores del proyecto de la modernidad que buscan las condiciones universales para la defensa de nuestras democracias en una teoría comunicativa (Habermas), y a aquellas posturas que buscan hacer explícitas las condiciones fundacionales imaginarias e hipotéticas para una teoría de la justicia (Rawls). Por otra parte, aunque esta investigación ve la importancia del serio y profundo cuestionamiento radical a la razón moderna que plantean las obras de Nietzsche/Heidegger ——–que en su conjunto incluso llegan a cuestionar el proyecto occidental de racionalidad política fundado originariamente por Sócrates—– esta considera que la falta de una reflexión política sostenida permite a los neo-nietzscheanos post-modernistas (Foucault, Derrida) una ilusoria victoria conceptual que permanece incompleta, que es imprudente (en el sentido Aristotélico de phronesis), y que por ende es altamente peligrosa para la salud general de la comunidad política. En contraposición, afirmamos que es en la obra ético-política de Aristóteles que se da la máxima expresión de lo que representa la filosofía política clásica como contrapropuesta. (1)

Dejando de lado las múltiples interpretaciones que puedan haber surgido de Aristóteles, lo cierto es que al centro de la argumentación detrás de esta investigación radica una lectura que se funda en el pensamiento de Leo Strauss (y en particular, de su estudiante Thomas Pangle). En general el reto neo-aristotélico se ve enmarcado dentro de una tradición aún más amplia que se puede comprender hoy en día como la del “movimiento socrático”. Este movimiento de retorno retoma con seriedad el evento socrático ejemplar, a saber, el de la fundación de la reflexión filosófica de lo político por parte de Sócrates. Comprenden ellos que en efecto hay un segundo Sócrates que se ha distanciado de las presuposiciones apolíticas de los pre-socráticos, presuposiciones que llegaron a conformar la postura conceptual del primer Sócrates interesado exclusivamente en la pregunta por la naturaleza (physis). Esto es lo que es conocido como la “segunda navegación” de Sócrates (Fedón, 99c). Strauss lo resume así: “Socrates was the first philosopher who concerned himself chiefly or exclusively, not with the heavenly or divine things, but with the human things”; Strauss (TCaM, 13).  Es por ello que para lograr una real recuperación del reto del pensamiento político clásico se debe recurrir a la ya mencionada perspectiva que ve el debate antiguos-modernos como el conflicto fundamental para las aspiraciones de una verdadera filosofía política que tenga respuestas concretas, prudentes y sabias a nuestras crisis. (2) Sin embargo este retorno comprometido y serio al racionalismo de la filosofía política clásica tiene ya desde su comienzo diversas variantes interpretativas. Esto se puede ver claramente en la triple comprensión que se da de Sócrates por parte de Platón el filósofo dialéctico, por parte de Jenofonte el escritor militar y por parte de Aristófanes el comediante. La evidente tensión entre estas apropiaciones socráticas se ve claramente hoy en día en el contexto filosófico universitario en la medida en que Jenofonte no es considerado, como sí lo era en la antigüedad (por los romanos, por Maquiavelo, por Hobbes y por Shaftesbury), como un pensador digno de un estudio serio, profundo y continuado; sobretodo por la recuperación del valor de la retórica como lenguaje privilegiado de lo político. (3)

Ahora bien, la excepción a esta regla de exclusión silenciosa, es precisamente la propia tradición straussiana. Al recuperar la multiplicidad de lenguajes socráticos, y muy especialmente la obra de Jenofonte, la tradición straussiana gana una interpretación enriquecida de los clásicos, y en particular, de la obra aristotélica. El retorno recuperativo de la filosofía política clásica por parte de la tradición straussiana por lo tanto permite el planteamiento de preguntas olvidadas. Por ello a la base de esta interpretación surge la pregunta fundamental que el discurso filosófico moderno ha relegado al olvido, a saber, la pregunta misma de ¿por qué la filosofía? A la importancia de las preguntas heideggerianas tanto por el sentido del ser como por el “¿qué es la filosofía?”, se enfrenta una pregunta aún más fundamental y originaria en términos políticos. Es decir, el “qué es” de la filosofía sólo se puede comprender cabalmente una vez hayamos realizado una investigación prudente del “por qué” de la necesidad del filosofar dentro de la comunidad política. Leo Strauss ofrece cierta claridad acerca de esta pregunta que funda las posibilidades del saber filosófico una vez se ha liberado de su “amnesia” frente a la filosofía política clásica: “The philosophers, as well as other men who have become aware of the possibility of philosophy, are sooner or later driven to wonder, Why philosophy? Why does human life need philosophy? … To justify philosophy before the tribunal of the political community means to justify it in terms of the political community, that is to say, by means of a kind of argument which appeals, not to philosophers as such, but to citizens as such.” (mi énfasis) (4) Sin duda la academia, en gran medida, no ha escuchado este llamado. (more…)

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Educación,  interculturalidad y estudios del lenguaje.

(Breve ensayo para posible concurso académico.)

Aunque son múltiples los senderos que podemos seguir para intentar esclarecer, así sea tan sólo inicialmente, la complejísima relación entre educación, interculturalidad y los estudios de lenguaje, escogeré enfocarme en aquellos senderos que he recorrido en mi proceso de aprendizaje investigativo. Pero antes de entrar de lleno en ellos deseo enfatizar que, dada mi experiencia vital integral, resulta claro que cualquier investigación de la tríada educación-cultura-lenguaje se verá infinitamente enriquecida  —y cobrará un sentido de realidad y veracidad particulares—- si se ha tenido la fortuna y la dedicación para integrar en la vida propia los siguientes cuatro elementos que giran en torno a la temática del lenguaje,  y que inevitablemente van más allá de la simple experiencia académica.

Estos cuatros aspectos que considero claves para una real comprensión de las dinámicas lingüísticas son: 1) el hecho mismo de aprender varios idiomas, lo que nos enfrenta directamente con las dinámicas del aprendizaje y sus particularidades individuales (en mi caso, aprendizaje del inglés, francés y griego antiguo; para no mencionar los desarrollos artísticos paralelos), 2) vivir por largos periodos de tiempo en la cultura misma dentro de la cual el lenguaje cobra su dinámica vital en tanto ”forma de vida” (en mi caso, ciudadano colombo-canadiense con títulos en ambos países y largos periodos de vida en sus diversas culturas, la latina, la anglosajona y la francesa de Québec), 3) el haber podido realizar una multiplicidad de lecturas académicas correspondientes a la temática en cuestión (en mi caso, i) la concepción de la dinámica lingüística a partir de la obra de Charles Taylor, y ii) la concepción —altamente crítica de la filosofía tayloriana— de lo que es una educación liberal fundada en la filosofía política clásica a partir de la reinterpretación de la vida socrática realizada por Leo Strauss y su estudiante Thomas Pangle),  y  finalmente, 4) la posibilidad diaria de enseñar/traducir  el idioma que buscamos comprender en su real y cambiante complejidad (en mi caso, enseñanza del idioma inglés por más de una década, y traductor oficial tanto en Colombia como en Canadá).

A mi modo de ver, al poder incorporar estos cuatros elementos vitales y conceptuales, logramos tener mejores herramientas ——herramientas más humildes y autocríticas——- para intentar siquiera entrar a considerar el enigma que es el lenguaje humano y su relación con la educación. Sobretodo, con respecto a la educación en el sentido griego liberal de las cosas y su postura crítica frente a la dominante, constantemente aplaudida y siempre solicitada sobre-especialización; sobresegura sí, pero muchas veces irrelevante y vacua. Porque parece que cada vez sabemos más en detalle, pero de lo menos relevante. Y porque es claro que la comprensión del lenguaje es inevitablemente, particularmente, el camino privilegiado para la auto-comprensión.

Dados los anteriores elementos quisiera simplemente enfocar la líneas de investigación que de hecho he realizado con respecto al lenguaje hasta estos momentos (¡interrumpidos por la aparición de la enfermedad y su particular lenguaje!), lineamientos sobretodo fundamentados ——a la manera de Aristóteles—— en la idea de que el ser humano es un ser, en parte, por naturaleza político. Es lo político lo que abre, sin lugar a duda, y de manera privilegiada, la particular triada educación-interculturalidad-lenguaje. O como lo dice el programa mismo de su facultad: “lo anterior nace del convencimiento de que solo a través del lenguaje se ejercen los derechos civiles y sin su manejo adecuado el ciudadano estará siempre sometido a la exclusión. “

¿Qué ejemplos dinámicos de interculturalidad podríamos mencionar, hablando concretamente de las investigaciones ya realizadas? Al menos, y de manera muy sumaria, los siguientes cuatro: (more…)

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Review of: Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution, here

(Taught by Professor Thomas L. Pangle  here , The Teaching Company)

________

I. INTRODUCTION

Perhaps one way to express the extraordinary debt we owe Professor Thomas Pangle for the many gifts his teaching generously provides us, is by recalling one of the specific difficult issues taken up in the deeply and intelligently contested debates held between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists over the very meaning of the American Founding and the foundational requirements of the new American Constitution. Thus, in dealing with the very complex question over the separation of powers ——partly following Montesquieu, the Oracle for all those involved in the debate—– Hamilton goes on to defend the idea that for the very stability of a sound modern commercially-oriented Republic, the executive must possess, embody and publicly be made clear to possess, what he calls ENERGY. Hamilton writes: “Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government” (FP, No. 70, p. 421).

And surely one part of the goodness of the gift that Professor Pangle offers us in these 12 (yes, only 12!), very short, very dynamic, very powerful and very concise lectures, is precisely his ENERGY-rich presentation of the Founding Debate itself, an energetic presentation which should in fact allow for a better sense of the dynamics of government and of governing by better prepared citizens, that is to say, ennobled citizens better educated for the intricacies of learning to rule and to be ruled as the dignified self-governing beings that they can become. In other words, these lectures, at the very least, allow for the creation of the requisite spaces for a better UNDERSTANDING of the  conditions underpinning the political sphere on its own terms, that is to say, of the struggles undergone to gain the privilege of ruling and of the intense struggles over the hierarchical ordering of the ends of good government as seen by diverse practically-minded statesmen/stateswomen. The course does so via an understanding of the conceptually and practically privileged origin, irrepeatable historical origin, which IS the unique and momentous Founding of any given political community. Such prioritization of the Founding notably defended as particularly enlightening by all of classical political philosophy, but nowhere more clearly brought to light for us to see than in the dramatic presentation which is Plato’s Laws. Within the American civic heritage such privileged moment is precisely that of the Confederation Debates held between 1787 and 1790 when the post-revolutionary “Articles of Confederation” came under serious questioning during and after the Convention of 1787. It is the Federalists (Madison, Hamilton, Jay; using the pen name “Publius”) —–in response to highly critical newspaper articles published anonymously by brilliant Anti-Federalists (Brutus, Federal Farmer, Centinel), some of whom had left the Convention filled with intense indignation—— who, because of said challenge, are “put on the spotlight” and made to defend their radical, previously unheard of, innovations.

And, it is made transparently clear to us, in the urgency of the tone of the delivery, and through certain republican rhetorical abilities used (!), that such a return ——which stands in serious contrast to a simple shallow “progressive” reading of history as economically/ideologically driven——- is by no means an exercise in luxurious time consumption. Rather, such a return bespeaks of the crisis of the American political system, if not of the very crisis of the democratic west itself as exemplified in ONE of its member nations (albeit a very powerful, one could even say, a kind of model one; of this, more later). Or, as Professor Pangle’s Professor wrote:

It is not self-forgetting and pain-loving antiquarianism nor self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism which induces us to turn with passionate interest, with unqualified willingness to learn, toward the political thought of antiquity. We are impelled to do so by the crisis of our time.” (Strauss, The City and Man, 1).

This uniquely energetic presentation, then, is all the more comprehensible as a kind of response to such a crisis. Such a vigorous presentation is a philosophically-inspired reflexive attempt at UNDERSTANDING the core elements that may be considered, in part, and primarily by those interested in the political life itself, in order to become the types of public leaders ——in their souls, so to speak—– who can ultimately generate sound, decisive and prudent educational practices amongst their liberally-educated citizens. Such leaders, the dignity of whose moral virtuous and intellectual skills is repeatedly recovered by Professor Pangle, would then be better capable of generating a certain kind of political healing of our complex modern democratic condition, which ——–because not seen in its complexity—– can be worsened furthermore by a false sense of security that is derived always from all convenient uncritical “ideological” oversimplifications. Such medical therapeutics, in an important sense, deals with origins, not merely with a multiplicity of simplified and disconnected symptoms. Undoubtedly, Aristotelically speaking, the course is partly a courageous attempt at a therapeutics of critical recovery. And to know that this unique experience is available to us all via the internet through The Teaching Company bespeaks of the energetic generosity of shared thought and of thoughtful American enterprise.

 

II. BETWEEN THE LINES

But prior to going into the CONTENT of the course itself, it might be wise to look at some of the features which make the course such an exemplary one for us all, academics and non-academics alike; specially for those of us interested in recovering the dignity of political life, of public service and of the complex sacrifices and dilemmas involved in the pursuance of our highest most virtuous moral and intellectual ideals.

(more…)

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Review of:

Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words

(Taught by David Zarefsky, The Teaching Company)

Professor Zarefsky’s course provides us with an incredible opportunity. He opens the doors to an in-depth encounter, not with what others thought about Lincoln, but rather a much more powerful and intimate encounter with what Lincoln himself actually said and, through his words, with what he did. He gives us the gold, not merely the bronze. Lincoln, “in his own words”; such is the adventure. And, if it is true that the greatest leaders in speechcraft are perhaps the greatest leaders in statecraft, then Professor Zarefsky provides an entrance into the nature of political greatness, of political insight and of political decision-making themselves. In this respect, to be able to follow the paths which bring forth the birth, development and death of a great leader, is precisely what is made available by the course to us. Professor Zarefsky’s detailed and erudite knowledge of Lincoln’s life and his famous speeches ——-as well as Zarefsky’s own personal rhetorical abilities (!)—— enhance the encounter in such a way that  the very silent words of the pages come into the proper realms of both dialogical argumentation and constrained action from whence they arose. We face the dilemmas Lincoln faced, we search for the possible solutions which Lincoln sought, we come to humbly appreciate his limitations, we can see much more clearly the decisions which Lincoln actually had to ponder and make in the solitude of the chambers of power. And to know that this unique experience is available to all of us via the internet is absolutely a welcome possibility.

More specifically; perhaps what is of the utmost value in the course is the very conscious recovery by Zarefsky  of the art of rhetoric which has come under very severe attack by “Modernity” (Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke) given its desire to contrast itself as far superior to the ideals of the classical Greek and Roman political philosophy and political practice in which the art of rhetoric itself was born, critically analyzed, and made an integral part of the political education of the best of citizens. Or to put it more fairly, by way of  this kind of course one could actually come to understand the very basis of what distinguishes modern from classical rhetoric in both its means and ends; for instance, the rise of a type of “revolutionary” rhetoric in modernity which knows of little-to-no moderation in its practice. In allowing us to better understand the value and political relevance of this art, Zarefsky allows us to gain a greater respect for the call of the statesmen and stateswomen of our time. To learn to develop the capacity to rightly persuade diverse audiences at diverse times and under varying circumstances, such an art has rarely been more developed by any leader than Lincoln. For surely the capacity to write transforms, clarifies and prepares the writer himself for the practical complexities of political life filled with a multiplicity of constraints which a potential, but careless leader, will instead eliminate as cumbersome and irrelevant. Such a path may lead not to greatness, but to the worst of tyrannies and their terrifying defense of silence. This difference between our modern relation to the art of rhetoric and that of previous times perhaps is nowhere better exemplified than in the recounting of the nature of the audience which heard the Lincoln-Douglas debates which lasted for hours on end. It seems nobody was bothered, but rather cheered along as if cognizant in some way of the very basis of our nature as political animals who seek to be actively involved in the discussion of those matters of great importance. Perhaps the debates in the presidential campaign Obama-McCain have brought back this desire in some citizens of the USA, but the return of the value of rhetoric in the political arena in modernity still has to be defended by courses such as this  which clearly show that the greatness of a leader is in part due to his love of argumentative language and style, in part due to the desire to be able to go into dialogical argumentation in defense of certain —in some cases—- flexible positions, and in part due to the nature of the type of self-understanding which the written words allows not only for the author himself but, even more importantly for us, centuries later. For the words left to us by Lincoln bespeak of the permanent transhistorical questions, not merely of this and that dilemma, in this or that epoch. Herein lies, as Zarefsky points out masterfully, the overwhelming permanence of Lincoln’s stunningly short “Gettysburg Address”: “it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us”.

And, moreover, if this rhetoric is connected directly to a supervaluation of the virtue of political moderation   —seen very early on in Lincoln’s “Temperance Speech”—- then truly in his work  and life  one finds perhaps the avenue for an understanding of the dangers of “rhetorical” radicalism in its diverse immoderate-ridden, demagogic and incendiary  versions. Perhaps allowing myself a personal remark, it is this immoderation that characterizes the president of the neighboring country to my troubled Colombia and his continuous calls for war. For surely listening to the monologue of a leader for  hours, cannot be seen as comparable fundamentally to listening to Lincoln for 2 minutes. And it is without a doubt such moderation ——and particular the  desire to be moderate particularly after Victory (as Churchill likewise said, “In Victory: Magnanimity”) —— that makes Lincoln stand so high above us and above so many leaders of our age. The praise and cultivation of such a virtue in the political sphere under specific circumstances, stands as a permanent contrast with the punitive approaches developed in recent history. A crucial example is that of the excessive retributory decisions made in Paris 1919 against Germany which, in part, further developed the seeds for an even more tragic World War years later. (more…)

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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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