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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 3

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

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

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER THREE

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)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

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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An Interview with Thomas Pangle 05/02 by Western Word Radio | Blog Talk Radio.

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

INTRODUCTION

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

A. NEGATIVE SETTING

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

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

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

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

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

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Educación,  interculturalidad y estudios del lenguaje.

(Breve ensayo para posible concurso académico.)

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

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

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

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

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

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Review of:

Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words

(Taught by David Zarefsky, The Teaching Company)

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

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

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

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Reflections: Response to “El Tiempo” columns 7: Comentario a Francisco Cajiao: “Educar para la Política”, febrero 17 de 2009.

Debo decir que es casi siempre un verdadero placer leer sus columnas. Su profundo conocimiento de las dinámicas educativas de Colombia es admirable.

Ahora bien, considero que en su columna sobre educación para la política hay varios elementos de gran importancia. Ante las actuales dificultades políticas que vive nuestro país —y las conectadas dificultades éticas y educativas—— usted invita al lector, en parte, a hacer un recorrido histórico hacia los griegos. En este sentido usted, muy prudente y acertadamente, indica que hay al menos dos elementos a considerar. Citándolo directamente dice usted:  1. “La política es el comportamiento fundamental del ciudadano. Política viene de polis (ciudad). Por eso, cuando se habla de competencias ciudadanas es necesario entender que ellas deben conducir a la formación política. …. el ciudadano debe aprender desde su infancia a discriminar lo que conviene para el bien común, de acuerdo con un orden ético y jurídico.”,  y 2. “Siempre, desde la antigua Grecia, se consideró la educación como el medio privilegiado para fortalecer la democracia, formando ciudadanos libres, capaces de discutir sus diferencias y propuestas mediante el ejercicio de la razón. Por esto, el ágora es el espacio privilegiado de la política.”

Al primer elemento le podemos dar el nombre famoso de republicanismo clásico en la medida en que el ser humano según Aristóteles es por naturaleza un ser político. El segundo elemento que usted enfatiza acertadamente es lo que podríamos llamar la importancia de una educación liberal para los griegos. Lo cierto es que en su conjunto estos dos elementos indican una parte de las bases fundamentales de la reflexión filosófica sobre la política que encontramos principalmente en la obra de Aristóteles, que a su vez está respondiendo de manera directa, y también indirecta, a las reflexiones políticas y filosóficas por parte de Platón y su maestro Sócrates. Pero como veremos, estos dos elementos no subsisten de manera tan armónica como podríamos pensar, y sobretodo como podríamos desear, en tanto modernos. Es decir, en tanto modernos nos parecería obvio que, si  logramos dar con el adecuado tipo de educación política, entonces lograríamos llevar o transferir a la realidad esas conclusiones, los resultados de dicha investigación, como base de un proyecto político definitivo de fundamentos universales y generalizables. De esta manera, entonces la práctica y la teoría se retroalimentarían de manera beneficiosa para ambas de tal manera que la justicia se encarnaría como nunca antes. Algo así sí creyó posible todo movimiento marxista/socialista/comunista (y más aún el leninista/stalinista que es modelo aún para las afiebradas FARC) con su consigna de transformación total de la realidad tal y como aparece formulada de manera dramática en las breves y famosas Tesis sobre Feuerbach del propio Marx: (“Tesis 11: Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.)

Pero me temo que semejante proyecto que cree que la educación política puede adquirir real vida y guiar decididamente “desde arriba” (e incluso militarmente) el quehacer político contrasta radicalmente con el verdadero realismo filosófico-político de los grandes pensadores políticos griegos Platón, Jenofonte y Aristóteles (posteriormente complementados por la obra de Cicerón para los romanos). No puedo entrar en detalle aquí, pero por ejemplo, el ejercicio dialógico que presenta La República de Platón, cuyo tema es la pregunta de su interés, es decir, la pregunta por la virtud de la justicia (virtud fundacional de lo político en tanto que nos remite al “bien común”),  invita no a que fundemos una ciudad realmente gobernada por aquellos filósofos políticos o líderes que supuestamente sí han logrado ver el verdadero esquema educativo a seguir, sino todo lo contrario, invita a ver en cierta medida el por qué de las limitaciones profundas y serias de creer que la teoría puede llegar a tener semejantes efectos sobre la realidad política de cualquier ciudad o de cualquier comunidad política. Es más, al comienzo del drama que es este diálogo fundacional entre Sócrates y dos interesantes jóvenes (Glaucón y Adimanto) con intereses políticos diversos, Sócrates mismo es forzado a permanecer en la discusión contra su propia voluntad. Posteriormente en el diálogo Las Leyes Platón retoma de nuevo las intrínsecas limitaciones de lo político comenzando esta vez su investigación desde el lenguaje propio  de lo político. Por ejemplo, los interlocutores son ahora hombres mucho mayores, ya no de Atenas sino de una ciudad extranjera debido a la peligrosa complejidad de las preguntas propuestas, hombres de la “tercera edad” que además deben beber un poco de licor (!) para poder incluso dar arranque al diálogo mismo acerca del complejo rol de las leyes y de lo divino en la fundación de una comunidad política.

Pero incluso, bajo cierta interpretación, también los últimos dos libros de la Política de Aristóteles revelan una posición similar; no hay allí un modelo que podamos simplemente copiar e instaurar en la realidad. Por el contrario, revela esta obra de manera magistral un cierto dualismo claramente jerarquizado indicando, a la vez, tanto la importancia del ámbito político como igualmente las limitaciones inherentes a dicho ámbito humano, limitaciones que sólo se vislumbran desde  la filosofía política  misma. Y una concepción similar ocurre en La República de Cicerón. Además, siglos después, Santo Tomás Moro siguiendo el mismo modelo escribió su Utopía que de nuevo es un ejercicio para percibir los límites de lo político desde el lenguaje de la filosofía política, no un manual de cómo llevar a cabo transformaciones definitivas en la “realidad”.

Esto es lo que se conoce, en el lenguaje de una corriente interpretativa que toma como base la obra de Leo Strauss, como el debate entre el “utopianismo clásico” que se enfrenta decididamente al “idealismo moderno”. Se resume dicho debate, y disculpe que no lo traduzca, de esta manera:

“classical political philosophy  conceives the “best regime” not as an ideal to be realized, nor even something to be approached and worked toward; the elaboration of the best regime is intended, rather, as a subtly playful thought-experiment meant to reveal the limitations of what we can expect from all actual political philosophy” (Pangle, Thomas, Leo Strauss: An  Introduction to his Thought and Intellectual Legacy, p. 46)

Es decir, sea lo que sea que aprendamos de los filósofos políticos griegos, resultará nocivo el no intentar ver sus escritos en sus propios términos. Es más, el pensamiento político clásico es la vacuna precisamente contra el  complejo deseo, por parte de cierto tipo de seres humanos,  de instauración de la justicia total y verdadera en el ámbito real de la política ciudadana. El siglo XX nos dio múltiples ejemplos de los desastres al intentar llevar a cabo cierto tipo de proyecto secular radical a como de lugar (Stalin, Mao, Khmer Rouge,  …. FARC). El periódo del terror bajo Robespierre que se desprende de la Revolución  Francesa de 1789 nos lo revela igualmente. Es decir, el deseo de encarnar un proyecto totalizante de justicia terrenal (piénsese en el resultado de “aplicar” el “Libro Rojo” de Mao para los ciudadanos chinos) , y un cierto deseo inmoderado, violento y hasta tiránico, parecen estar conectados de maneras que el racionalismo político griego nos permite entender mejor. Para estos últimos no puede haber una reconciliación final entre filosofía y política; es más, es gracias a esta fructífera tensión inevitable que garantizamos tanto cierta moderación real en la praxis política, como la creación de unos líderes/ciudadanos hasta cierto punto libres de falsas expectativas y deseos destructivos con respecto a un cierto ordenamiento legal que ellos encarnan y del cual descienden. Como usted lo pone: “el ciudadano debe aprender desde su infancia a discriminar lo que conviene para el bien común, de acuerdo con un orden ético y jurídico.” Pero además esta valiosa tensión “garantiza” la aparición en escena de aquellos individuos filosóficamente preparados en la tradición clásica que puedan generar interpretativamente dos proyectos diferentes, a saber,  la más profunda explicitación de las bases que fundamentan un proyecto político dado (piénsese por ejemplo en el valor que los straussianos le dan a los “Founding Fathers” de los Estados Unidos),  explicitación que a la vez  les permite de esta manera poder juzgar sana y prudencialmente —– al igual que criticar seriamente—— los progresos y/o retrocesos del ordenamiento mismo desde su fundación.  Un ejemplo de dicha postura dual sería el entrar a considerar críticamente la Constitución del 91 más allá de una simple defensa progresista. (more…)

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Reflections: Leo Strauss on moderation and the extremisms of Colombia

As one regards the politics of  extremism  ——–both in word and in action—– which guide the reality of our Colombia (whose most grotesque example is ANNCOL), one cannot but hold firm to the words with which Strauss brings to a close his “Liberal Education and Responsibility”:

“We must not expect that liberal education can ever become universal education. It will always remain the obligation and the privilege of a minority. Nor can we expect that the liberally educated will become a political power in their own right. For we cannot  expect that liberal education will lead all who benefit from it to understand their civic responsibility in the same way or to agree politically. Karl Marx, the father of Communism, and Friedrich Nietzsche, the stepgrandfather of fascism, were liberally educated on a level to which we cannot even hope to aspire. But perhaps one can say  that their grandiose failures makes it easier for us who have experienced those failures to understand again the old saying that wisdom cannot be separated from moderation and hence to understand that wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a descent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism. Moderation will protect us against the twin dangers of visionary expectations from politics and unmanly contempt for politics. Thus it may again become true that all liberally educated men will be politically moderate men. It is in this way that the  liberally  educated may again receive a hearing even in the market place (note: in the sense of ‘agora’).” (Liberalism Ancient and Modern,  p. 24)

Those extremists of the word who mock our president as if the presidency were simply a man and not one of  the foundational institutions of our democratic stability (for who will not feel entitled to mock the presidency now, no matter who holds it? no matter if for the right reasons?), those extremists who defend in silence and in word the practice of kidnapping of civilians by the corrupt and savage FARC who just this week killed aboriginals with total disregard for justice, decency, courage  and nobility (deaf as deaf can be to the, now very old,  news of Marx’s overwhelming failure), those extremists who because of their “sacrifices” claim that they alone are the ones who truly love their country, those extremists who might be tempted by the appeals of endless tyranny,  those extremists who have left Colombia and forsaken her to whatever future, those extremists of the intelligence that do not even know of the “market place” of which Strauss speaks above, those extremists who will find any way to defend and rationalize the growth and commercialization of narcotics (for legalizing an activity without a foundational long-standing education towards the common good seems utterly dangerous)  and specially those extremists —specifically those who have given the honor and privileges of being called “officers” of the nation—- that hold that recklessly using the force of the state against its own citizens by bypassing the laws of the country and bringing shame to the very foundations of our important military institutions is a possibility; all these extremists of the mind and of the heart  should take to heart Strauss’s words. For if not, Colombia’s chance for history, nay, Colombia’s chance for recognizable recovery and truthful admiration, might be lost to time.

Ironically, Colombia seems to need a new kind of politics; the politics of intelligent and firm moderation —–not to be confused with a politics of the extremism of  tolerance for we DO NOT TOLERATE, specially inhumane, senseless and cowardly kidnappings (as our courageous President Uribe does not tire of arguing), but also extra-judicial assassinations by those whose apparent self-righteousness is simply a disguise for their self-aggrandizement and recognition at whatever cost.

Such is the politics towards which  the reading of Strauss, and his contemporary student Thomas Pangle, leads. But such a reality can only come about through liberal education, and the above quote reveals some of the dilemmas inherent in this type of education. Be that as it may, our country lacks a liberal education which “may again receive a hearing even in the market place (note: in the sense of ‘agora’).

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Reflections: Socrates and Xenophon, the philosophic and the political life

At the very least, this is clear. The most fundamental difference between Socrates and Xenophon might be dangerously summarized by saying that Socrates, who rarely felt the need to physically leave Athens, never wished to rule over anyone under any circumstances, while Xenophon —–his questioning and nowadays seldom read student—– did in fact wish to rule over many under varying circumstances (see Buzzetti).

Or, to put it much more nobly and perhaps more truthfully: it would be best to say that the once unknown and adventure-loving Xenophon —–who had come into direct contact with Socrates—– suddenly came to recognize far outside the boundaries of his native Athens not only the unavoidability of ruling among humans, but also and perhaps much more importantly, his absolutely unique capacity for such ruling when true crisis touched upon his life and those surrounding him. However, later in life he seems to have given up this politically engaged desire for the desire to recollect in writing both tension-ridden forms of life: on the one hand recovering the life of Socrates in his Memorabilia and the other  truly amazing shorter Socratic texts, and on the other hand recovering the circumstances of his rise to fame and glory as a commander in his autobiographical The Anabasis of Cyrus. In contrast, Socrates also never felt the desire to write, not of himself or others.

Agoristic philosophy ——as the foundation of political philosophy—– begins in wonder (thaumazein) at such striking complex connections and deep tensions between the life of politics and the life of philosophy. Its path is that of an understanding of the dynamics of virtue(s); its guide remains Aristotle.


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Appendixes

Xenophon only appears in direct conversation with Socrates in two short sections, one in his Memorabilia where he listens to Socrates’ views on kissing(!), the other in his The Anabasis of Cyrus where he recalls the conversation with Socrates with which he began his voyage. These astonishing sections read as follows:

Appendix 1: (Memorabilia I, 4; Bonnette translation)

“These were the sort of things he used to say with playfulness accompanied by seriousness.  On the other hand, he advised that one steadfastly refrain from sex with those who are beautiful. For he said that it is not easy when one touches these sorts to be moderate. In fact, after he perceived once that Critobulus the son of Crito had kissed the beautiful son of Alcibiades, he asked Xenophon in Critobulus’ presence”

“Tell me, Xenophon,” he said, “ didn’t you hold Critobulus to be one of the moderate rather than the rash human beings, and one of these with forethought rather than senseless and reckless?”

“Certainly,” said Xenophon.

“Well, hold now that he is hotheaded and heedless in the extreme. He would even make somersaults into daggers and leap into fire.”

“And what did you see him doing,” said Xenophon, “that you have formed such judgments about him?”

“Did he not dare to kiss the son of Alcibiades, who is most fair and in his bloom?” he said.

“But if that is the reckless deed,” said Xenophon,”in my opinion, I, too, would endure this risk.”

“You wretch!” said Socrates. “And what do you think you would suffer after kissing  someone so beautiful? Would you not immediately be a slave rather than free, spend a lot of harmful pleasures, be in great want of leisure for attending to anything noble and good, and be compelled to take seriously what even madman would not take seriously?”

“Heracles!” said Xenophon. “What terrible power you ascribe to a kiss.”

“And do you wonder at this?” said Socrates. “Don’t you know that poisonous spiders not even half an obol in size crush human beings with pain and drive them from their senses  merely by touching them in their mouths?”

“Yes, by Zeus!” said Xenophon, “For spiders inject something through their sting.”

“You fool!” said Socrates. “Do you think that when those who are beautiful kiss they don’t inject anything, just because you don’t see it? Don’t you know that this beast that they call beautiful in bloom is so much more terrible than spiders that, while spiders inject  something when they touch, it (even when it does not touch, but if one just looks at it) injects even from quite far away something of the sort to drive one mad? And perhaps ‘lovers’ are called ‘archers’ because those who are beautiful inflict wounds even from afar. But I counsel you, Xenophon, whenever you see someone beautiful, to flee without looking back .”

Appendix 2: (The Anabasis of Cyrus III, 1, 4; Ambler translation )

“In the army there was a certain Xenophon, an Athenian, who followed along even though he was neither a general nor a captain nor a soldier; but Proxenus, a guest-friend of his from long ago, had sent for him to come home. He promised that if he came, he would make him a friend of Cyrus, whom Proxenus himself had said he believed to be the better for himself than his fatherland was. So Xenophon, on reading his letter, took common counsel with Socrates the Athenian about the journey. And Socrates, suspecting that becoming a friend of Cyrus might bring an accusation from the city, because Cyrus had seemed eager in joining the Lacedaemonians in making war against the Athenians, advised Xenophon to go to Delphi and take common counsel with the god about the journey. Xenophon went and asked Apollo to which one of the gods he should sacrifice and pray in order to make the journey he had in mind in the noblest and best way and, after faring well, to return safely. And Apollo indicated to him the gods to whom he needed to sacrifice.

When he came back again, he told the oracular response to Socrates. On hearing it, Socrates blamed him because  he did not first ask whether it was more advisable for him  to make the journey or to remain, but he himself had judged that he was to go and then inquired how he might go in the noblest way. “However, since you did ask it in this way,” he said, “you must do all that the god bade.”

So after sacrificing to the ones the god had indicated, Xenophon sailed off.”

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