Posts Tagged ‘reflections’

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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IMPORTANT: All posts, pages, art and written work found in this blog are licensed through Creative Commons:
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.





December/January 2015


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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)


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

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




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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε

κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

“Stranger, announce to the Spartans that here

We lie, having fulfilled their orders.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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




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)


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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