Archive for the ‘on ethics’ Category


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

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




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

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

This one is altogether best who himself understands all things


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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




The inquiry would be adequately made if it should attain the clarity that accords with the subject matter. For one should not seek out precision in all arguments alike, just as one should not do so in the products of craftsmanship either. The noble things and the just things, which the political art examines, admit of much dispute and variability, such that they are held to exist by law alone and not by nature. And even the good things admit of some such variability on account of the harm that befalls many people as a result of them: it has happened that some have been destroyed on account of their wealth, others on account of their courage.

It would certainly be desirable enough, then, if one who speaks about and on the basis of such things demonstrates the truth roughly and in outline, and if, in speaking about and on the basis of the things that are for the most part so, one draws conclusions of that sort as well. Indeed, in the same manner one must also accept each of the points being made. For it belongs to an educated person to seek out precision in each genus to the extent that the nature of the matter allows: to accept persuasive speech from a skilled mathematician appears comparable to demanding demonstrations from a skilled rhetorician. Each person judges nobly the things he knows, and of these he is the judge. He is a good judge of a particular thing, therefore if he has been educated with a view to it, but is a good judge simply if he has been educated about everything. Hence of the political art, a young person is not an appropriate student, for he is inexperienced in the actions pertaining to life, and the arguments are based on these actions and concern them.

Further, because he is disposed to follow the passions, he will listen pointlessly and unprofitably, since the involved end is not knowledge, but action. And it makes no difference at all whether he is young in age or immature in character: the deficiency is not related to time but instead arises on account of living in accord with passion and pursing each passion in turn. For to people of that sort, just as to those lacking self-restraint, knowledge is without benefit. But to those who fashion their longings in accord with reason and act accordingly, knowing about these things would be of great profit.

About the student, and how one ought to accept [what is being said], and what it is that we propose, let these things stand as a prelude.” (NE, 1094b12-1095a13; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)


1) Why does Ar. consider it necessary to proceed with his argument by digressing from the main idea of the architectonic good? He surely does not think this is necessary in the EE, does he? Is it because the EE requires a correction born out of Aristotle’s own maturation? Did Ar. apply the very words of this Subsection 3 of the NE to HIMSELF at some point in his life? And why is it that, in comparison, other ethical writers (specially, Kant), as well as other “ethical” books (specially, The Bible) do not see the need to proceed this way? Why does Aristotelianism REQUIRE this beginning? Is it because of ITS particular audience so that getting the audience RIGHT is half the task? Is it because of the central role of rhetoric we spoke of in our earlier commentaries?

2) Moreover, what to make of the craftsmanship example as an analogy for the kind of inquiry Ar. prepares us for? For instance, what does it mean that two craftsmen, 2 shoemakers for instance, make different shoes in terms of their “precision”? In other words, if one of the craftsmen´s product is “more precise” (presumably better), then why should we accept the lesser one’s products? Indeed, why should we accept an ethics on a “lesser” quality, so to speak, IF the craftsmanship analogy holds? In other words, how imprecise is imprecise? Why wouldn’t we seek the BEST inquirer as well? And isn´t that precisely the challenge Ar. gives himself, namely to provide THE model for ethical inquiry to be followed for all times while remaining as close as possible to the nature of its subject matter? Or put in another, much more problematic, way: if the analogy is to hold, who is the “craftsman”/”craftswoman” of souls? And who, FIRST crafted his/her soul to be such?

3) And isn´t this of crucial relevance with regards to what Ar. goes on to argue? Isn’t he saying that the lack of precision is DUE TO a certain relativism as regards the just and the noble, AND a certain relativism with regard to the goods themselves? But then how are we not to despair in terms of reaching the target Ar. has told us at the beginning will lead us beyond a pointless longing? How are we then not to fall into an eternal emptiness of dissatisfaction? Isn´t this the very critique by the early moderns (Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, The Federalists) to all classical republicanism and its defenders? Wouldn’t these early modern critiques argue: better not have some, even many, satisfaction(s) than aim too high and lose all human attempts at satisfaction? Will we get some of the answers, or perhaps THE answer as we read along the NE?

4) But much more importantly, what to do about the sudden and surprising reference to the crucial relation mentioned between nomos (law, custom) and physis (what is by nature) as regards the noble and the just things? If nomos is HELD TO BE variable —– for the just and the noble appear to change from one political society to another (so that Quebec’s law 101 would be considered unjust in other provinces in Canada, and Colombia’s obligatory military service would be seen as a encroachment upon individual rights in other countries)—– then how are we to guide our ethical and political lives beyond this relativity? Will it turn out that the NE will provide us with clear guidelines that refer to universal transhistorical physis? And if indeed the NE, in its discussion of natural justice in BOOK V can in fact come up with such practical/theoretical guidelines, how are we moderns —born out of a minimization of the good and of a historical relativization of the good— to actually see or make such guidelines part of OUR very own variable notions of nomos? Or put another way, does natural justice actually exist? And we moderns, born out of the discovery of history, can WE ever hear it? But if not, then are all political societies relative and consequently a hierarchical ordering between them an impossibility? Wouldn´t this run counter to Ar.´s belief that there does exist AN overarching good which allows for a careful yet clear judging amongst societal models? Or rather, should we try to grab hold on to the modern independence of states and the non-interference premise found in international affairs? But then, how does one explain THE FACT that we DO interfere? Is it because the “interveners” have read the NE?And very importantly, if the noble and the just are of the essence, why is it that Ar. will FIRST look at the moral virtues and take up the question of justice solely until BOOK V? Could it be that he is trying to see the moral virtues on their own terms, seeing whether the moral virtues sought for their own sake actually fit the bill of the argument he puts forth in outline from the start?

5) Besides, how are we to understand the example of certain goods as being harmful? Why didn’t Ar. mention this back in subsection 1, making US think of these problems in our very own puzzles; for instance, that war can be quite problematic? Is it because of the rhetorical premisses of the argument? But if so, can rhetoric then not be truly optimistic, but and in the political arena specially, truly endangering? Isn´t this why the good of peace Chamberlain sought, was merely an apparent good, though rhetorically it had a powerful appeal? For, who does not wish for peace? Wouldn’t “Machiavelli” argue something like this? But really how could a good harm one if it is good? Is it because the GOOD is not good always, or rather is it because the good in question IS good but WE are ignorant of its use? Or put another way, how could riches harm one? Is it, as Aquinas tells us, because the rich person can be robbed? But, why doesn’t Ar. say this? Why doesn’t he spell it out in the terms AQ. uses? Or is Ar. getting at something altogether different? Can riches damage YOU independently of being robbed? Can riches damage you because you are unprepared for riches? Isn’t this why Montesquieu defends Sumptuary Laws? For truly our Colombian drug-dealers are rich, aren’t they? And it would be odd to think that they, surrounded by protection, would be actually robbed? Isn´t there a greater chance of MY getting robbed? And if this is problematic, what to say about our commercially oriented modern societies which arise precisely as a CHALLENGE to Aristotelianism (see particularly Montesquieu and Locke)? And, furthermore, what to make of the example of courage? Why does Ar. here CHOOSE this example of a moral virtue and no other? First off, isn’t it the case that all societies ask of the individual not a variable/changeable thing but on the contrary the very SAME thing, namely , to be prepared to DIE for his/her society (be it democratic, theocratic, aristocratic …) if it is actually threatened by a foreign invader (one can recall the images of Stalingrad or read The Red Badge of Courage)? And what exactly is the good of courage? Is courage in fact a VIRTUE, can it be a virtue seen on its own? That is to say, how are we to understand courage independently of its being conceived as a CIVIC virtue, that is to say as focused on the common good? Isn’t Ar. preparing us for the dilemmas involving courage as the first moral virtue to be considered in BOOK III?


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


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

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

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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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Lincoln and Generals

Abraham Lincoln y la esclavitud, Response to “El Tiempo” columns 5: Comentario a Daniel Samper Pizano “Lincoln, un racista lleno de gloria”, enero 6 de 2009.

(Nota: Para otro texto sobre “Lincoln y su uso de la retórica  política” escrito en inglés ver aquí )

Sin duda el hecho de que su columna haya sido respondida a partir de citas textuales de la obra de Lincoln no es gratuito. Esa decisión revela en sí misma una posición radicalmente diferenciada de la suya. Se podría defender dicha posición de diferentes maneras. Una de ellas podría argumentar lo siguiente: “si Lincoln mismo con sus propias palabras no puede defenderse de sus acusaciones altamante incompletas y cuestionables, pues menos lo haremos aquellos que no hemos logrado la grandeza que Lincoln sí alcanzó no sólo en actos sino en su admirable manera de escribir sobre y enfrentar decididamente y con gran coraje los complejos dilemas políticos de su época.” Pero además, dicha postura puede invitar a una relectura mucho más cuidadosa y hermeneúticamente mucho más generosa de la obra de Lincoln que la suya; sobretodo teniendo en cuenta que su obra es admirada por su originalidad reflexiva, por su socrática capacidad de autocuestionamiento  —evidente en las citas que le envié—— y por su poderoso manejo retórico del lenguaje público siguiendo el modelo de los Griegos Antiguos. En este sentido es de absoluta importancia el que las citas que usted provee sean claramente identificadas en cuanto al punto preciso de su aparición dentro de la amplia obra de Lincoln (es decir, cuál discurso, qué  año, qué circunstancias, ante cuál audiencia, y otros.)

O podríamos poner la cuestión de una manera más personal. Si bien leo con frecuencia sus columnas, en verdad es raro que su dinámica logre penetrar los fundamentos político-filosóficos que están a la base de mi vida académica y práctica. En verdad en su caso debo decir que llegamos a implementar aquello a que la democracia invita,  a la tolerancia de la diferencia (¡y qué diferencia tan difícil de tolerar!) Y a diferencia de otras ocasiones, en esta oportunidad decidí responder y hacerlo de una manera específica, simplemente citando “como buen loro” las palabras de Lincoln referidas especificamente a los temas tratados en su columna, especialmente la problemática compleja de la esclavitud. Imagino su respuesta ante tal posición algo así como lo siguiente: “Bueno, si hermano, pero ahora dígame usted qué piensa, o es que acaso idolatra a Lincoln?” Si estoy —–así sea tan solo medianamente—– en lo correcto, entonces tal vez las citas hayan tenido el efecto deseado. ¿En qué sentido? En el sentido paralelo siguiente;  al leer la columna sobre Lincoln y su respuesta lo único que yo podía pensar era; “Bueno, hemano, pero ahora dígame que era lo que Lincoln decía, o es que acaso sólo caricaturiza a Lincoln?” Y claro ante un personaje como Lincoln prefiero pecar de idólatra antes que de caricaturizador.

Más positivamente, veo en su columna un deseo por darle una voz a las grandes y complejas comunidades negras que no sólo en la historia de los Estados Unidos sino en nuestra propia Colombia han sido tratadas de manera condenable, antes como propiedad sin alma, ahora como supuestos ciudadanos pero tan sólo de segunda clase. Su riqueza cultural, musical y  política silenciada por muchas décadas. Pueda ser que las leyes hayan prohibido la escalvitud, pero la dinámica racista perdura entre nosotros de manera preocupante. Basta pensar en Martin Luther King, y el caso de dramático de la realidad chocoana en nuestro país. No en vano las lágrimas de muchos afro-americanos al darse cuenta que Obama en realidad sí había sido elegido; era como si no lo creyeran. En este sentido su postura interpretativa, que busca un espacio real para la dignidad de la diferencia para ciertas minorías, es bienvenida y digna de defensa, aun cuando el tono y la argumentación en muchos casos deja muchas dudas acerca de la consecución de dicho objetivo. Y claro, realizar semejantes proezas en una corta columa periodística involucra ya de entrada una gran injusticia de mi parte.

Habiendo dejado eso en claro, surgen ——creo yo, y perdonará la excesiva extensión de esta respuesta—— al menos tres críticas de gran  importancia a los puntos de vista brevemente expuestos en su columna: 1) cuestiones generales metodológico-interpretativas a la base de su visión de mundo, 2) cuestiones más específicas, particularmente referidas al contraste realmente problemático entre lo que dice el propio  Lincoln, confrontado a su interpretación —basada en un grupo de historiadores, más no en el único grupo (piénsese en la obra de Jaffa sobre Lincoln)—– acerca de lo que se dice que dice Lincoln,  y 3) los dilemas práctico-políticos concretos frente a la cuestión de lo público en Colombia que generan su postura casi que orgullosa de destrozar todo mito político relevante, ingenuamente al mismo tiempo aparentando defender la posibilidad de una vida política en la que los mitos sean dejados de lado por completo.  A continuación cada una de estas críticas:

1) Lo cierto es que las diferencias metodológicas/interpretativas a la base de nuestras aproximaciones a la historia de lo político, y sobretodo de los grandes líderes políticos son abismales. Y estas diferencias metodológicas/interpretativas hacen inevitable que veamos dos mundos esencialmente opuestos. Envié la cita porque en cuanto a Lincoln y sus posturas frente a la igualdad racial es mejor leer lo que él mismo asevera.  Como hace mucho sigo sus columnas —es raro que este de acuerdo con alguna de ellas—- puedo decir que comprendo varios de sus puntos de partida como periodista. Interpretativamente existe la idea de que los llamados “hombres/mujeres de estado’ son: a) simples estrategas en búsqueda de aquello que conviene más a su deseo por poder que cualquier causa noble/honorable; b) sus palabras en general sólo reflejan aquellas motivaciones inconscientes que ellos no pueden nunca llegar a superar; c) recurren a cualquier medio para obtener su fin que esta lejos de la nobleza y honorabilidad de lo político. Ahora bien, un resumen de la postura radicalmente crítica de sus presuposiciones se  encuentra —entre otras—- en la obra de Thomas Pangle que argumenta que por el contrario hay una tradición que restaura el civismo ejemplar de los grandes “seres de estado” a su correcta posición. No en vano esta tradición mira atrás, a la filosofía politica clásica griega (sobretodo Aristóteles), como su guía. Disculpará que no la traduzca;

The rebirth of classical republican theory restores civic statesmanship to its princely throne as the highest subphilosophic human calling. And Strauss’s teaching instills a tempered appreciation for the nobility  of the political life within liberal democracy  as the best regime  possible in our epoch, in full awareness of this democracy’s and that epoch’s intensifying spiritual and civic conundrums. Strauss’s thought carries an implicit as well as explicit severe rebuke of those thoughtlessly egalitarian historians and social scientists who debunk, rather than make more intelligible and vivid, the greatness of statesmen. Strauss deplores and opposes the prevalent scholarly tendency to belittle or ignore political history  for the sake of subpolitical “social” history —to reduce the debates and deeds of active citizens and their leaders to merely “ideological” contests masking supposedly deeper economic or “social” forces. He argues that these fashionable scholarly and teaching trends not only undermine the already precarious respect for political debate and public spirit, but also falsify the empirical reality of man as the political animal.” (mi énfasis; Thomas Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to his Thought and Intellectual Legacy,  p. 82)

Tal vez reconociendo la diferencia –que es algo a lo que usted invita—- modere así sea un poco la manera en que se aproxima a los grandes líderes políticos que desde el ámbito de lo político son admirados por su nobleza y que desde el llamado “cuarto poder” (la prensa libre) son constantemente cuestionados utlizando un lenguaje foráneo, muchas veces indignado y sin duda interpretativamente limitado. ¿Acaso no está en el “cuarto poder”  el poder —–y sobretodo el DEBER—– de generar, o ayudar a generar las condiciones de estabilidad política y generación de líderes y de una ciudadanía fuerte que garantice que la democracia logre sus objetivos de la mejor manera posible?  O como lo dijo Bolívar, otro gran hombre de estado relevante para nuestra encrucijada colombiana:

“Un hombre como yo, es un ciudadano peligroso en un Gobierno popular; es una amenaza inmediata a la soberanía nacional. Yo quiero ser ciudadano, para ser libre y para que todos lo sean. Prefiero el título de ciudadano al de Libertador, porque este emana de la guerra, aquel emana de la leyes. Cambiadme, señor , todos mis dictados por el de buen ciudadano.
(Discurso al Juramentarse como Presidente de la República ante el Congreso, Cúcuta, 1821; Brevario del Libertador, Ramón de Zubiria p. 172)

Y por ende surgen muchas preguntas frente al sarcasmo de su columna, incluyendo: ¿cómo generar dichos ciudadanos si nos mofamos de los líderes que son precisamente los más ejemplares ciudadanos a nuestro alcance? (more…)

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Three biblical stories, two in the Old Testament ——specifically in Genesis—— and one in the New Testament, might aid us in trying to understand, however imperfectly and sketchily, the issue of brotherhood in the Bible. The first story is the well-known story of Cain and Abel; the second, the well-known story of Joseph; and finally, the third story, the well-known story of the parable by Jesus of the Lost Son. All three will be presented solely by way of puzzles and questions. In this regard we ask hesitantly: Could it be that the possibility of friendship according to the Bible is very limited in the case of brothers for some very precise reasons? But, why would this be so? Don’t citizen parents actually put all their conjoined strengths into bringing up their children to be good to each other, to love each other?

Story 1: Cain and Abel, Genesis 4

Why provide a second fall immediately following the most foundational of all falls by Adam and Eve? Why indeed are the primary models of brotherhood Cain and Abel? Why is the story so astonishingly short? Why did God not accept Cain’s offering even if it was the first? Why is Cain so wronged and upset by God’s not accepting his gift? Is it because he is the first born? But, what is it that the first born feels entitled to that feeds such angry responses? Moreover, why does he seek to kill his brother? Why not simply punch him a few times? What is the nature of such blinding rage? What is the fundamental importance of Abel’s being a “keeper of flocks” as against Cain’s being “a tiller of the ground”? Is there something about nomadic lives that is more akin to the nature of the divine? Would it be its greater independence from the earthly? Or is it that nomads are much more in need of the presence of the divine as they move around a “homeless” world? Does it have to do with the fact the Abel deals with animals and their care? But then again, why can’t Cain see that God himself actually speaks to him in the story and not to Abel? In the same vein, why is the story about Cain and much less about Abel? Why does it matter so little to know what Abel’s life was like? And furthermore, why does Cain lie to make things even worse? But if Cain knows he is a sinner, and the worst at that as a fratricidal kind of being, why continue to punish Cain with a permanent eternal sign that will mark him permanently to all on the earth? Why punish him beyond his own consciousness of his knowing he has done a terrible, spiritually self-destructive, deed? (See Appendix 1 below.) And dramatically for political philosophy as defended by Athens, why is Cain the one who actually founds the first city of the Bible, the city of Enoch? Why is the Bible so pessimistic about the political from the very start?

Story 2: Joseph, Genesis 37-50

Why is the love of Joseph by his father so connected to the varicolored tunic he gave him in his old age? Does this shed light into the relation of the beautiful and the divine? Why is it also so intimately connected to his actually accompanying his father in old age as the younger one? Does this shed some light into the commandment regarding the honoring of our parents? Is honoring our parents primarily being able to accompany and prepare them for death? But if so, wouldn’t believers also learn much from Socrates for whom philosophy is a constant preparation for dying? And, why does the Bible see it fit to show that now it is not only one brother, but many, who hate Joseph? Moreover, why does Joseph so naively express such complex dreams to his brothers? Didn’t he surmise he would be in trouble? Must faith be necessarily naive (see Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy)? And besides, what is so special about dreams and our connection to the divine in the Bible? How to contrast these presence with Aristotle’s own consideration in his prudential text on dreams? And his brothers, why can’t they appreciate Joseph’s honesty? Would they have rather Joseph not tell them anything at all, that is, not prepare them at all for God’s presence? And very polemically, does Joseph’s being selected by God shed some light on our modern democratic families? And still, why in this occasion do the brothers decide only to fake Joseph’s death? Is it because they are thinking of their father with a certain sympathy? Surely not, for their father would still think Joseph to be dead, wouldn’t he? What is so particularly appalling about Judah’s idea of selling and wreaking profit from his brother’s enslavement? What is it about our desire to have and posses material things than makes Judah lead his own family into utter dislike by God? His future generations, the creations of his creations, are somehow condemned by his avarice, aren’t they? Is this part of the basis as well for Aquinas’ powerful condemnation of usury which speaks little to us nowadays? And what precisely could anger brothers and sisters about one of their own actually being chosen by God? Why wouldn’t this be an occasion for joy? What are brothers particularly so much in competition about? Could it be that at the bottom of their hearts lies a desire to become god-like and to be recognized as such by their kin? Wouldn’t this be what Aristophanes tells us as well in the Symposium? And moving closer to our times, why did Thomas Mann rewrite the story of Joseph in so many pages in our modern context of war? And very importantly, perhaps most importantly, how to understand Joseph’s final words to his fearing brothers:

“But Joseph said to them, “do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. So therefore do not be afraid: I will provide for you and your little ones” So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis, 50: 20-21)

What exactly does Joseph mean by saying that God “meant it for good”? Was Joseph at all times aware that things would end so? Wouldn’t one apply the words “all ‘s well that ends well “ here? Is this last question simply a reflection of one’s pride? And why does he not suffer as much as Job does? What is it about Joseph that gives him such strength?

Story 3: Parable of the Lost Son, Luke 15: 11-32

Why does this parable follow the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin? Why are they so ordered? Why one must speak of losing oneself in parables? Is it because we are moving in a particular direction? And crucially, why does the lost son wish to become a migrant risking his own life? Is it because he is more like Abel than Cain, the tiller of the land? Why wish to get lost? For surely, we know what is at stake in leaving our families, don’t we? And once again, why does the brother get so angry? Why is the love of his own recognition so important to him if he has lived right beside his father all his life? Wasn’t that enough? What more could he be looking for? And again, who would be envious of one’s brother’s having suffered and despaired in solitude? Which of these two brothers would actually be better prepared to honor his parents, as is our duty according to the 10 Commandments? Would the adequate honoring of one’s parents be a compromise between the two? But wouldn’t such a compromise involve a certain strange kind of anger that is not to be seen in the noblest of honorings and loves?

Appendix 1:

For a much more developed puzzling presentation of the Bible, one can turn to Professor Thomas Pangle’s difficult, yet engaging and puzzle-creating, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham where he touches on the life of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Isaac. In particular, see pages 93-96 ‘The Puzzle of Divine Foreknowledge” which are three complete pages made up only of puzzles and questions. Or later on, in the chapter on “Guilt and Punishment” where Pangle writes in crucial relation to the above questions:

“But this last formulation brings close to us a final troubling question. However we are to understand criminal responsibility, what are the intelligible grounds for the overwhelming conviction that the guilty deserve to suffer for what they have done; and what are the intelligible grounds for the concomitant hope that they –that even we ourselves— will suffer the punishment that they, and we, deserve. For guilt betokens sin or vice; and sin or vice are either genuinely and severely harmful, in the most important respect, to the very soul of the criminal; or else they betoken an alienation of the criminal from the source of meaning for him as a being designed to devotion. Why, then, is it appropriate, why is it sensible, that such a crippled and or alienated being receive, in addition to and as a consequence of his corruption or alienation, further harm or suffering. Why is it so terribly important for us that to the suffering and mutilation of the spirit that is entailed in being unjust there be added extrinsic bad consequences for the perpetrator?” (PPGA, p. 101)

Pangle keeps alive, in critical contrast to modernity, the enriching yet tense debate between Athens and Jerusalem.

Appendix 2:

For a striking story of how Socrates views, at least minimally, the relation between brothers see Memorabilia 2.3 where one finds an astonishing conversation with Chaerecrates who has fought with his older brother. To begin to even try to understand this story, one would have to reconsider what Socrates considered to be a philosophical life and its relation to the citizens who inhabit the agora. Without such a perspective, the story seems merely to involve a strange naivety. And we know for certain that Xenophon, a general, was anything but naive.

But perhaps the true nature of brotherhood is best exemplified in The Republic where Glaucon and Adeimantus —both Plato’s brothers— encounter Socrates dialogically on the question of justice and reveal dramatically to the reader their unique and differing characteristics as regards the political and philosophical life. Perhaps it is by looking at the question of justice that at least some healthier brotherhoods may come about.

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T and Ω: a critical stance on our dangerous desire for overspecialization

I have written elsewhere on the deep need that our overspecialized western societies —–which find themselves in a serious ecological crisis, in confusion regarding the question of the divine and in the presence of multiple deep political tensions—– have for T-type kind of people. I myself am part of those few who try to consider themselves “T-minded” individuals. My resume is a “T-kind” of resume. Although this post intended to show both some of the obstacles for the actual generation of T-minded people, as well as some of the essential and more deeply clarified characteristics of such individuals and their complex narratives, the length itself of these reflections has limited me in this post to a more basic goal. This post will merely reflect and puzzle as to why the letter T might be both the best and the worst candidate to graphically represent what I have called “T-minded people” are all about. Subsequent posts will hopefully deal with the very important issues regarding the obstacles themselves which T-people face given their decision both to be seriously critical of overspecialization and its blind, powerful and utilitarian defenders, and also to fight the generalized and very real obstacles which make the creation of reflective-oriented T-people in our hyper-specialized societies almost, and tragically so, impossible. Our reflective path here will lead us from the letter T to the Greek letter omega (Ω). Both letters, as you will see, may provide the graphical basis for a serious critical stance on our dangerous desire for overspecialization.

Classical liberal education stands as a counterweight to such overspecialization. This can even be seen in the way we educate our bodies. Physical education has become an option for those who want to “specialize” in it. In contrast, the classical practice of a liberal education had a central physical component in the area of “physical education”; it was a very important part of a more holistic understanding of what it means to be fully human. Now, in several highly-specialized countries, this “education” appears as an optional goal given our radical tendency to over-specialize our children. This is a tendency for which we are paying the price in terms of our children’s very own physical and mental health. What is the over-specialized society’s solution? Well, seek a health specialist! And moving from specialization to specialization we move farther and farther from another type of understanding of things, a healthier and a happier (in the Aristotelian sense) mode of being. In contrast, a liberally educated society sees that a “physical education program is designed to cultivate physical fitness, basic athletic skills, and an appreciation of the value of recreational physical activity”. Link

What holistic “physical education” allows is an education in moderation as well as in the beauty of the whole. It also prepares the mind for play and the value of leisurely activity. Over-specialization is founded upon a certain immoderation and the partialized beauty of dissection. One could even go so far as to say that overspecialization rarely knows of leisure, for it must constantly seek further specialization in order to gain the upper hand. Its endless desires know of little rest. Many modern athletes, with their dramatic stories of excess pressure and unwise decisions, are a prime example of such differences. Professional cycling, as in the Tour de France,is only one of many such examples. Our athletes are, regrettably,no longer liberally educated.

In a similar vein, it is Aristotle ——a T-type philosopher—- who expresses beautifully this kind of awareness in the culminating reflections as they appear in the Politics. These reflections can be seen as the most developed words on what are the very foundations of a truly liberal education. For instance, there he writes concerning the best possible education regarding drawing as it relates to generating the conditions for a free and virtuous citizenry:

“Similarly they should be educated in drawing not so that they may not make errors in their private purchases and avoid being deceived in the buying and selling of wares, but rather because it makes them experts at studying the beauty connected with bodies. To seek everywhere the element of utility is least of all fitting for those who are magnanimous and free.” (Aristotle Politics VIII *3, 11138a40-1338b3)

For if there is to be specialization, as there must be, it must be of a very different kind. Drawing and learning to see the beauty of our bodily condition go hand-in-hand for Aristotle. Seeing beauty and becoming a nobler and freer type of citizen also go hand-in-hand. In contrast,for us overspecialization goes hand-in-hand with increased utility; the more you specialize the more “you’ll get out of it”. Just think of the way our athletes are recruited nowadays. Or just ask your family doctor. We have thus lost view of a different form of magnanimity and public freedom which stands as a powerful and necessary corrective. And to such type of Aristotelian drawing we shall try to return when looking at the way we draw in our minds the letter T, letter which stands against such dangerous and self-destructive tendencies towards overspecialization.

Or put another way. Shaw is said to have said: “More and more, we know more of less; until there will come a time when we will know much of nothing, and nothing of the whole.” Our informational age gathers and reproduces very specialized know-how endlessly; just think of the hundreds of blogs posted daily on the web. And one hears, first condition for your blog to be successful and be read by many, specialize it! Or think of the important yet endless publications on the most minute issues which are disconnected from all other types of understanding. Our age specializes in specialization. We are knowers indeed; and yet,paused reflection on the serious limitations surrounding this kind of specialized and self-reproductive knowing is mostly lacking. So much so, that of our age it is perhaps true to say that because it sees only the trees it fails to see the forest. In fact, to see the trees without seeing the forest is certainly what has endangered our dwelling in this our planet currently in critical ecological indeterminacy. In contrast, T-minded people seek to see the forest and traverse the changing paths of the forest to have a clearer grasp, if ever incomplete, of the whole. T-people are forest dwellers, rather than merely tree analyzers. Murdered nun Dorothy Stang, who sought to protect Brazil’s rainforest,was one such forest dweller. And if they in fact decide to “analyze” trees, which T-people can, then they do so with a different grounding, a grounding in the poetic. I have looked at one such form of analysis here: Link

But let us return to our privileged letter, the letter T. Why use this letter as a mode of self-understanding? Please look carefully at the letter itself:


Nothing special, right? We know it and know how to use it.

But I must stop. I am truly sorry for so many delays. We haven’t even started, and yet we already encounter our first puzzle. Why? Precisely because I believe only “T”-minded kind of people will actually seek to stop,see and reflect on the letter itself beyond its utility. I might be very wrong, but I think few ofus have actually looked at the letters we use in our daily lives as the pragmatic specialists that we are. We simply use such letters to write, to speak, to designate, to express. Such letters are not ends-in-themselves, they are simply means to other human things and goals. But, what if what is deeply required of us in our “never-ending progressivist age”, were reflection on the basics themselves? We have become so accustomed to using these letters that we have forgotten that once they did not play a central role in our self-understanding as humans. What I mean is, in part, something like this.

Anne Carson’s beautiful Eros the Bittersweet, a short and poetic study of the Greek alphabet in connection to the erotic poems of Sappho and the dialogues in which Socrates’ life is portrayed,recalls how an illiterate man reported seeing some strange figures which for the literate were obviously letters. But he himself could not recognize ——let alone understand—– them as they were foreign to his self-understanding. Here is what the illiterate man, that same one who abounds in our developing countries,reports:

“I am not skilled at letters but I will explain the shapes

and clear symbols to you.

There is a circle marked out as it were with a compass

And it has a clear sign in the middle.

The second one is first of all two strokes

And then another one keeping them apart in the


The third is curly like a lock of hair

And the fourth is one line going straight up

And three crosswise ones attached to it

The fifth is not easy to describe:

There are two strokes which run together from

separate points

To one support.

And the last one is like the third.“ (Carson, pp. 57-58)

And Carson goes on to “solve” the riddle which for us literate ones is no riddle at all: “The man has spelled out the six letters of the name Theseus: ΘΗΣΕΥΣ (note: letters in Greek)”.And that is not all, this is a fragment of a tragedy which Euripides himself entitled with the very same letters, the tragedy whose name is Theseus. (Have you ever thought about the letters of YOUR name? Do you remember how difficult it was to actually learn to write it down? How much satisfaction accompanied this act! Have you ever seen your name written down in another language and felt the overwhelming surprise?) Describing them so, we recall that each letter goes beyond its function, each has a form and a unique beauty. A letter hides a mystery, one such letter is “curly like a beautiful lock of hair”. Letters can be ends-in-themselves, even in their simplicity. (I have argued something similar for prepositions here , and for basic lines here )

And we come to realize as well, that uniqueness is not universally shared. So much so that we marvel at the form underpinning the drawing of this Arabic letter: ى .. Do you see its curvy beauty? Do you see its elongated bird-like being? Or else, I once tried to learn Hebrew (the things one does for love!), and I recall I had to see, among many others, this Hebrew letter: ש. I am indeed prejudiced as I have come to love lines given my decision to become a T-oriented person myself; but can you see the perceptual possibilities here? Can you see the musicality, the natural growth, the candle-like presence, the ascending spirituality? Can we for one moment be surprised as the illiterate man was? Can we still learn to draw as Aristotle bids, namely, in wonderment? Or are we immune to such surprises given that we cannot get hold of our own global ignorance given our radical knowledge in what are only individual, localized, self-enclosed and disconnected realms? (more…)

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Appendix to ‘On illness 13’: “The Yellow Wallpaper”: a short story for all caretakers.


(please read the former to see the context of this story)




Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1899)

(Printable version in PDF format)

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.
A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity–but that would be asking too much of fate!
Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.
Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?
John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.
John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.
John is a physician, and perhaps–(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)–perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?
If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency– what is one to do?
My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.
So I take phosphates or phosphites–whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?
I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal–having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.
I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus–but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.
So I will let it alone and talk about the house.
The most beautiful place! It is quite alone standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people.
There is a delicious garden! I never saw such a garden–large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them.
There were greenhouses, too, but they are all broken now.
There was some legal trouble, I believe, something about the heirs and coheirs; anyhow, the place has been empty for years.
That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid, but I don’t care–there is something strange about the house–I can feel it.
I even said so to John one moonlight evening but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window.
I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition.
But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself– before him, at least, and that makes me very tired.
I don’t like our room a bit. I wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings! but John would not hear of it.
He said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another.
He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.
I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.
He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get. “Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear,” said he, “and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time. ‘ So we took the nursery at the top of the house.
It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.
The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off–the paper in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.
One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide–plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. (more…)

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Why caretakers must reflect on the complex desires behind their care-taking.

One of the main reasons as to why reflective self-transformations among caretakers is so difficult lies in the deep need caretakers have of perceiving themselves as doing good to others. Each caretaker must seriously reflect on the nature of such a troubling human need. If no such reflection has been undertaken, the possibility of having a self-critical spirit as regards the caretaker’s own actions becomes more and more difficult to achieve.

It seems the main reason for this dilemma is as follows: the caretaker gives meaning to the narrative of her life through caretaking itself. In this same respect we all admire such individuals for what we (and they) perceive —though this is part of the problem— as their altruistic sacrifice for others. (see Aristotle, NE, Book I) However, this perception only solidifies in the caretaker the sense of their deserving recognition as regards their alleged sacrifice for the other, specially for the pains and troubles one has to undergo —supposedly— in the taking care of the ill. I say allegedly for it would surely be odd to choose a way of life in which one thought of one’s actions solely as a sacrifice! Such a choice would never allow for true happiness in either the caretaker, or the ill person herself! And once such a mental attitude is set firmly, the chances for such a person to reconsider the very foundations of their reasons for doing good become harder and harder to bring forth to the light of criticism. And if the person who seriously asks the caretaker to reflect on their own unquestioned desires and needs is the ill person herself, then sense of ingratitude seems to skyrocket!

This is in part one of the reasons why ill people must hear recognition demanding phrases such as “well, at least you are not in the street, at least you have me, …….”; one of the reasons why most doctors –though not all– will be disappointed when their patient asks for a second opinion; one of the reasons why traditional doctors will become very defensive when spoken of alternative possibilities, telling their patients that if they do so “it is their responsibility, ….”; one of the reasons why families/couples/parents will constantly argue how much sacrifice the ill are for them; one of the reasons why convincing others that illness is not a burden is almost impossible.

Under such conditions, which unfortunately are the norm and not the exception in our human condition, the ill must be careful and have the tools to counteract —even if they are in a condition of total physical disadvantage—- such tendencies which lie in the deepest, most troubling and most ambiguous human needs. The ill must never forget it is they who are at a disadvantage, not those who in their health do not have the courage to undergo a reflective critique of their needs.

In plain language, there is a saying in Spanish, constantly recovered by Doctor Payán, that says “El camino al infierno está hecho de buenas intenciones.” (The path to hell are made through good intentions.”) In literature a dramatic example of such a process lies in the short story entitled “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1899) link by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which tells the story of a husband and ill wife and which should be obligatory reading for ANYONE involved in the caring of the ill. Finally, and most importantly, it is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which shows the path towards an understanding of such deeply problematic needs, those needs associated with the goodness presupposed by those who hold the life of virtue as the crowning life for human beings. It is little wonder to find Aristotle arguing that true happiness can never be found in such a sphere (Book X). The life of total dedication to virtue leads only to a secondary kind of happiness.

In other words, the possibility of seeing such dilemmas is inaccessible to caretakers unless they happen to come into contact themselves, or through friendly others, with the critical spirit that guides the liberal arts education which follows the Socratic spirit of courageous, serious and continuous self-reflection on the dangers permeating our deepest, most unconscious, human needs.

(Note: Of course, another extremely powerful view of this dilemma is that of Nietzsche and his genealogical deconstruction of the good. I fear however, that such an approach is so dramatic that most caretakers will not be able even to perceive its importance.)

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