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  COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 11

 (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 ELEVEN

“But that the fortunes of a person’s descendants and all his friends contribute nothing whatsoever [to his happiness] appears to be excessively opposed to what is dear and contrary to the opinion held. And because the things that may befall us are many and differ in various respects — some hitting closer to home, others less so— thoroughly distinguishing each appears to be a long and even endless task. But perhaps for the matter to be stated generally and in outline would be adequate.

Just as some of the misfortunes that concerns a person himself have a certain gravity, and weight as regards his life but others seems lighter, so also the misfortunes that concern all his friends are similar; and if, concerning each thing suffered, it makes a difference whether the friends are alive or have met their end, far more than if the unlawful and terrible things in tragic plays occur before the action of the play or during it, then one must indeed take this difference into account —and even more, perhaps, when it comes to the perplexity raised concerning those who have passed away, that is, whether they share in something good or in the opposite. For it seems, on the basis of these points, that even if anything at all does get through to them, whether good or its contrary, it is something faint and small, either simply or to them. And if this is not so, then what gets through to them is, at any rate, of such a degree and kind that it does not make happy those who are not such or deprive those who are happy of their blessedness. The friends faring well, then, appears to make some contribution to the condition of those who have passed away, as does, similarly, their faring ill — but a contribution of such a kind and degree as not to make the happy unhappy or anything else of that sort.”

 (NE, 1101a22-1101b9; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Isn’t the most fundamental puzzle for this subsection hard to see at first sight? For shouldn’t we ask, why does Ar. dedicate ANOTHER, a totally separate subsection, to the already addressed question of the relation between happiness, the vulnerability of those we love (particularly family relatives up to a certain “reasonable” degree), and the end of our own temporal finitude in death? However, doesn´t Ar. now in this new subsection place the emphasis clearly on the effects that such fortunes/misfortunes may have on the happiness of the ALREADY dead? And to be honest, doesn’t he really stress the myriad misfortunes rather than the fortunes in keeping with the tenor of subsection 10? For, who would complain about too many good fortunes in one’s life (!)? And , aren´t we MORTALS? Is it that life has a tendency towards the tragic and thus we are not surprised to actually see the very first mention of tragedy in THIS subsection? Is there something about our view of life as tragic that runs counter to an ethics of eudaimonia? Will/Can the NE transform this initial contrast as it proceeds deploying its argument (see below)? Moreover, isn’t it odd that Ar. apparently “repeats” the topics of a subsection precisely at the point in which we are reaching the END of the first and Introductory book to the whole NE? Now, isn’t any “Introduction” of absolute relevance to the whole of what it is an “introduction” to? Didn’t Ar. himself tell us in a previous subsection that the beginning is half the whole? So, why lead us in THIS strange direction and no other? And even more dramatically, we know that in the EE, there exists NO parallel passage dealing with these topics, don’t we? What are we to make of this? Wouldn’t this omission clearly aid us in identifying better the different TONES found in both ethics? And wouldn’t this tonality be part of an argument for the maturity of the NE over the EE (pace Kenny)? Wouldn’t the tone of the EE, with what could be called its overconfidence in understanding, be rather more akin to OUR overconfident modern/current “philosophical” approach to life and its perplexities? In this regard, as we shall see below, wouldn’t OUR looking to the NE —–as moderns living a secular age in which the spirit has radically stifled— become even more fundamental to awaken us from the troubling slumber we have fallen into as modern Western democracies? Or put in the words of professor Taylor, who in some regards is a kind of neo-Aristotelian: “we have read so many goods out of our official story, we have buried their power so deep beneath layers of philosophical rationale, that they are in danger of stiffing. Or rather, since they are our goods, human goods, WE are stifling….“(Sources of the Self, Conclusion, p. 520) Doesn’t Ar.’s striking reference to these kinds of issues in subsection 10 and 11 move us, thus moderating us, in the opposite direction?

But leaving these issues aside, what more concretely are the differences revealed between the similar subsections 10 and 11? For, don’t we see how SHORT subsection 11 is, in contrast to 10? Why not just simply add one to the other? I mean, the resulting subsection would NOT end up being that much longer, right? How to even begin to try to account for this puzzle? Could it be that Ar. is letting us know how LITTLE philosophical argumentation can actually be developed in the more speculative areas touched upon by this much shorter subsection? Besides, isn’t the need for brevity emphasized by Ar. himself when we listen to him saying, as he had already done in another subsection: “But perhaps for the matter to be stated generally and in outline would be adequate”? Put bluntly, doesn’t Ar. lead us to wonder whether philosophy kind of “dies” when it reaches these more “speculative” horizons dealing with “life after death” and the “immortality of the soul”? And yet, why does Ar. still emphasize the need NOT to remain wholly silent about such topics? In contrast, don’t neo-Aristotelians —specially of the analytical tradition—- have a tough time squaring Ar.’s concerns in THESE topics with theirs? Isn’t the whole thing kind of embarrassing, from a modern philosopher’s perspective? Or can you imagine presenting your PhD thesis director with the topic “Life after death in Ar.”? Or is it, that Ar. is here reminding us of the rhetorical arguments presented previously which distinguished the mathematician and the rhetorician? Is Ar. HERE being a rhetorician? To what avail? Is he simply teaching us to bow to tradition once again? Is it so that —using terminology from previous subsections already commented—  we can save the THAT by not asking too much of the WHY, so that the independence of the practical sphere and ITS beliefs, and ITS concerns with the nature of the soul, are left unperturbed to a large extent? But then, what of philosophy and those of us intent on THAT kind of life which cannot simply let it go at the THAT, but must inquire, even if prudently, about the WHY’s of the way we actually lead our lives AS philosophers? For isn’t the whole point of the NE not to be self-deceived in the essentials; to learn about the truest self-love (see below)? But, aren’t we here confronting the CENTRAL animating human aspects that MAY lead one to deceive oneself most decisively? Isn’t the LONGING, specially given the abundant misfortunes of life, that which may animate us to guide our lives beyond our rational capacities? Doesn’t fortune lead us to misology like few other “human” realities can? And, if Ar.’s presentation is indeed purely rhetorical in character, then, wouldn’t WE —-in order to get the real REVELATORY power of these types of “otherworldly” concerns—– just rather read the passages of the Bible that allow us to really FEEL such, in the end, non-philosophical connections? For instance, isn’t the whole story of Lazarus, really much more striking and less filled with rhetorical indecisions? Doesn´t resurrection really hit the heart of these kind of concerns like Ar.´s ambivalences cannot? For, according to the text, Lazarus DID come back, didn’t he (pace Hobbes/Locke, for instance)? But, of course, Ar. obviously sees the need NOT to proceed in THAT direction, does he?

In addition, don’t we find it striking that the previous subsection, which deals with similar issues —albeit in this world—- BEGINS and ENDS with puzzling questions, while in contrast we find not even the smallest reference to any direct questioning by Ar. in this new subsection? Besides, what about the answers provided? Don’t they truly seem aporetic in the Socratic sense of the word? For don’t the answers sound a bit like “well, yes, but really no, but we´ll say yes, but actually it is very small, but we can’t say that it isn’t for that would be too rude, though we really really think that it is not, but …”? Is Ar. trying to “confuse” us once again? Don’t we tend to forget, precisely because of this intentional rhetorical ambivalence, that Ar. is THE originator of philosophical logic and the discoverer even of the famous principle of non-contradiction? I mean, doesn’t Ar. seem rather clumsily to be contradicting himself with every line he adds to this subsection? Just go ahead and listen:

“For it seems, on the basis of these points, that even if anything at all does get through to them, whether good or its contrary, it is something faint and small, either simply or to them. And if this is not so, then what gets through to them is, at any rate, of such a degree and kind that it does not make happy those who are not such or deprive those who are happy of their blessedness. The friends faring well, then, appears …” (my emphasis)

To put it bluntly, has Ar. lost his rational mind (!)? Absurdly we ask: was it that he wrote the logical treatises only after he wrote the NE  as a kind of cure(!)? More seriously, isn’t the whole thing not only ODD in the subject matter, but perhaps even weirder in Ar.’s selected approach? But, is he truly self-contradicting himself? Doesn’t our looking elsewhere aid us in understanding such Aristotelian maneuvers? Because we know that this is not the only place in his corpus that Ar. proceeds thus, is it? For if we read the introduction to the ALSO strange and also kind of “spooky” On Divination and Sleep (once again, if you do not believe it is a spooky topic, just try selling it as a philosophical PhD thesis!), we find Ar. arguing  that:

“As to the divination which takes place in sleep, and it is said to be based on dreams, we cannot lightly either dismiss it with contempt or give it confidence. The fact that all persons, or many suppose dreams to possess a special significance, tends to inspire us with belief in it, as founded on the testimony of experience; and indeed that divination in dreams should, as regards some subjects be genuine, is not incredible, for it has a show of reason; from which one might form a like opinion also respecting other dreams. Yet the fact of our seeing no reasonable cause to account for such divination tends to inspire us with distrust….” (my emphasis: On Divination and Sleep; 462b13-462b18; on other “spooky” writings of a non-modern character by Plato, see the Thaeges and the Euthyphro)

Is Ar.´s initial ambivalent tone simply preparing the ground for our taking sides once the argument develops further along truly philosophical, that is to say, classical rational lines? But then, by thus proceeding, won’t the beginning be so transformed so that what was considered to be, can no longer be as it was; at least for those serious intent on understanding the way we lead our lives as human beings who long for a certain kind of truthful completion before death? As we said, won’t we inevitably end up upsetting the THAT by asking for its WHY? What then, is the point of delaying the “inevitable” through these rhetorical “tricks”? Wouldn’t this strategy of, do forgive me,  “hide-and-seek”, rather than safeguard the philosophers and their questions, truly not make them even more suspicious as they would seem to actually be two-faced (I mean, “well, yes you have a point, but really your point is really a bad one, but we´ll suppose it is a little valid, but …”)? Or is it that the desire to BELIEVE is of such a nature, that against it rational inquiry truly cannot but from the start appear ambivalent NO MATTER what strategy the philosopher takes recourse to? Isn’t this why there IS a need to understand the permanent and persistent relation between persecution and writing? And of ALL the possibilities, isn’t Ar.´s the single MOST prudent available to us? But then, if this is true, wouldn’t this radically transform the way we see the relationship that can arise between philosophy and society at large? Didn’t we mention precisely this debate in alluding to the references silently made by Ar. in subsection 10 in our previous commentary? Put directly, what is the philosopher to DO, if these longings are of such a nature that they override understanding, specially if they end up actually conforming the CORE structure/the HEART of the law and our appeals to justice (even divine)? And, moving even further beyond, wouldn’t this realization, in particular, actually transform the nature of the modern University to its core in the direction of liberal education? But how would one implement such foundational change if the University turned out to be essentially misguided in its role as a socially transforming entity? But reaching back, isn’t it altogether striking that in his other text On Dreams, Ar. has no qualms whatsoever to speak about the REAL considerations regarding dreams as the biologist and philosopher that he is? For instance, don’t we read in THAT text, things that sound utterly “modern”, for instance; “What happens in these cases may be compared with what happens in the case of projectiles moving in space…. (Princeton,OD; 459a28, p. 730) Exaggerating: I mean, one would swear it was Galileo speaking (!), wouldn’t one?

How then to account for such striking differences between these two TYPES of texts and approaches, namely those found in this subsection as well as in On Divination and Sleep, and other texts such as the EE and On Dreams? ? Shouldn’t we truly take to heart the hypothesis that Ar. clearly differentiates between the kinds of writings that are more public in nature, and those that are more private because more upsetting of the traditions of a social life form? Isn’t this, at least in part, what Straussians have come to call the difference between exoteric and esoteric writings in Aristotle (albeit, not only in him; see Pangle on Montesquieu and Locke)? And, furthermore, doesn’t Professor Bolotin help us immensely in seeing more clearly how these rhetorical strategies come to life in Ar.’s own Physics? Or to put it yet another way, as we argued in our previous subsection, isn’t Ar. here as well bowing to tradition continuing to provide certain bridges that connect the political and the philosophical in order to restore the dignity of the former and provide a certain kind of security for the latter? Isn’t this why Ar. has told us that the whole aim of the NE, whose “Introductory” book we are ending, is a KIND of —but not exactly— political inquiry? Isn’t this why POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, just as we mentioned regarding Solon in our previous subsection, stands as a leading yet middling power that grants a certain healthy political moderation to the socio-historical network/context in which it appears? For don’t we know also that Ar. lived at a time in which Athens had suffered intensely and immensely because of war and the negative role played in this regard by some of  Socrates’s worst “disciples”? But still, even if all this turns out to have a certain plausibility, then, what are we to make of Ar.’s having to leave Athens in SPITE of such cares? Should we follow his rhetorical example, which appears to be in many respects truly unsuccessful? Isn’t an ethical inquiry guided by the question of happiness, truly to be assessed by its ACTUAL ability to generate said happiness for the inquirer? Or is it that, in the end, happiness may flourish even beyond the boundaries of the city?  And finally, in OUR current age in which the question of the spirit has truly become secondary —so much so that we kind of kind of roll our eyes at this Aristotelian subsection— what is the POINT of our being so drastically careful if OUR spiritual “THAT” has already been so eroded away by way of its materialism, so that it is harder to see the “protective” necessity of such prudential approaches? Put another way, in an age of rampant materialism, mustn’t Aristotelianism focus much less on its moderating rhetorical position in defense of a spiritual tradition, and instead really “turn up the heat” (in the mind) and come on the offensive against the leveling and deadening materialistic excesses that surround us (specially in universities(!)? Are we perhaps more in need of Socratic irony and its effects, rather than Ar.’s prudence and its effects? Or must we try to restrain ourselves, recall Ar.’s moderating wisdom and his prudential political advise, and serenely yet realistically ask whether Ar. could have foreseen such lowering of the spirit as early moderns theorists achieved and whether —–because he could not foresee such troubling conditions—– his Ethics can, in the end, indeed help us pull ourselves out of the abysses in which we have made our abode? For wouldn’t the early modern political thinkers (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu) counterargue: aren’t these abysses ONLY abysses if seen from the perspective of Aristotelianism itself and its convoluted, even dangerous, high-flown and unreachable goals/ends? Wouldn’t we rather, such early modern thinkers might argue,  a little secure happiness for all (or most, allegedly), rather than no happiness, or worse yet, just the happiness of a few elitists?

2) But besides the brevity and the lack of direct questions, don’t we come to see that THE single most important difference between both subsections 10 and 11, is the fact that that now we have added to the question of the relation between descendants and the happiness pertaining to the family, the issue of the happiness pertaining to friendship and the death of our friends? But why would THAT make a difference in terms of the way we remember those who are gone, and the way we connect to those who are gone? For couldn’t it perhaps be that, in contrast to the issues of longing and immortality presented in our previous commentary, friends generate a permanence that moves beyond mere desire for recognition in public memory (Montaigne thought so)? For didn´t Ar. truly come down hard on the life of honor and recognition just a few subsections ago?  And that Ar. HIMSELF signals to puzzles of this kind further on in his NE, can be seen if we recall here that Ar. ALSO divides the question of friendship into two separate books, Books VIII and IX? And strikingly, don’t we find a parallel relation in THEIR separation as well: Ar. primarily treating the concerns of the family and of political concord and philia in the diverse political regimes mainly in BOOK VIII; and leaving the issue of personal and perhaps even philosophical friendship to BOOK IX? Moreover, won’t we come to see then how Ar. brings to light the question of self-love, which is only faintly alluded to here? As a matter of fact, is Ar. not truly seeking to safeguard the happiness of the best of humans by not letting it become so dependant (or at all) on what happens to those who conform their immediate circle of family and/or friends? For, in the worst case scenario, why should/would the “best” suffer because of the “worst”? But, why on earth would we be moving so ahead of ourselves in the argument if we are simply looking at subsection 11 and its special strangeness? Well, fundamentally in part because won’t the tragic and dramatic (not to say deadly) TONE of subsections 10 and 11 actually be transformed drastically in those specific sections of the arguments regarding self-love that ASTONISHINGLY read thus:

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  COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 10

(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 TEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε

κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

“Stranger, announce to the Spartans that here

We lie, having fulfilled their orders.”

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

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

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

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

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

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 8

(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 EIGHT

“One must examine what concerns it, not only on the basis of the conclusion and the premises on which the argument rests, but also on the basis of things said about it. For with the truth, all the given facts harmonize; but with what is false, the truth soon hits a wrong note.

 

Now, although the good things have been distributed in a threefold manner  ——both those goods said to be external, on the one hand, and those pertaining to the soul and to the body, on the other —— we say that those pertaining to the souls should be the most authoritative and especially good. And we posit as those “goods pertaining to the soul”, the soul’s actions and activities. As a result, the argument would be stated nobly, at least according to this opinion, which is ancient and agreed to by those who philosophize. It would be correct to say that certain actions and activities are the end, for in this way the end belongs among the goods related to soul, not among the external ones.

 

And that the happy person both lives well and acts well harmonize with the argument, for [happiness] was pretty much said to be a certain kind of living well and good action. It also appears that all the things being sought pertaining to happiness are included in what was said: in the opinion of some, happiness is virtue; of others, prudence; of others, a certain wisdom; in the opinion of still others, it is these or some of these things, together with pleasure or not without pleasure. And others include alongside these the prosperity related to external goods as well. Many of the ancients say some of these things, a few men of high repute say others of them: and it is reasonable that neither of this two group be wholly in error, but rather that they be correct in so respect, at least, or even in some respects.

 

The argument, then, is in harmony with those who say that [happiness] is virtue or a certain virtue, for an activity in accord with virtue belongs to virtue. But perhaps it makes no small difference whether one supposes the best thing to reside in possession or use, that is, in a characteristic or an activity. For it is possible that, although the characteristic is present, it accomplishes nothing good — for example, in the case of someone who is asleep or has been otherwise hindered. But this is not possible when it comes to the activity: of necessity a person will act, and he will act well.  For just as it is not the noblest and strongest who are crowned with the victory wreath in the Olympic games but rather the competitors (for it is certain of these who win), so also it is those who act correctly who attain the noble and the good things in life.

 

But their life is also pleasant in itself, for feeling pleasure is among the things related to the soul, and there is pleasure for each person in connection with whatever he is said to be a lover of — for example, a horse is pleasant to the horse lover, a play to the theater lover. In the same manner too the just things are pleasant to the lover of justice, and in general, things in accord with virtue are pleasant to the lover of virtue. Now, things pleasant to the many do battle with one another, because such things are not pleasant by nature; but to the lovers of what is noble, the things pleasant by nature are pleasant. Such are too are the actions in accord with virtue, with the result that they are pleasant both to such people and in themselves. Indeed, the life [of those who love what is noble] has no need of additional pleasure, like a sort of added charm, but possess pleasure in itself. For, in addition, to the point mentioned, he who takes no delight in noble actions is not good either; for no one would say that somebody who does not delight in acting justly is just or who does not delight in liberal actions is liberal, and morally in the other cases as well.  And if this is so, then the actions in accord with virtue would, in themselves, be pleasant. But certainly these actions are good as well as noble; and they will be each of these specially, if in fact the serious person judges nobly about them —and he judges as we said.

 

Happiness, therefore, is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing; and these are not separated, as the inscription at Delos has it:

 

Noblest is what is most just, but best is to be healthy;

And most pleasant by nature is for someone to attain what he passionately desires.

 

For all these are present in the best activities, and we assert that happiness is these activities – or the best among them.

 

Nonetheless, it manifestly requires external goods in addition, just as we said. For it is impossible or not easy for someone without equipment to do what is noble: many things are done through instruments, as it were —through friends, wealth and political power. Those who are bereft of these (for example, good birth, good children, or beauty) disfigure their blessedness, for a person who is altogether ugly in appearance or of poor birth, or solitary and childless cannot really be characterized as happy; and he is perhaps still less happy, if he should have altogether bad children or friends or, though he did have good ones, they are dead. Just as we said, then, [happiness] seems to require some such external prosperity in addition. This is why some make good fortune equivalent to happiness, and others, virtue. ”

(NE, 1098b9-1099b8; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

 

1) Doesn’t modern philosophy have truly much to learn from the procedural points Ar. makes in this, apparently less interesting —“philosophically” speaking—- subsection? Isn’t the modern philosophical outlook, procedural ethics a la Kant in particular, fundamentally biased towards the formal considerations of ethics rather than towards Ar.´s emphasis “on the basis of what is said about it”? Surely what Ar. means is far from Habermas´s Communicative Ethics, isn’t it? Generally speaking, isn’t our philosophical and scientific bias prone to being unable to consider seriously this second element? And particularly, isn’t Political Science, affected most profoundly and dangerously? But then again, WHO is Ar. thinking about when he adds this element? In other words, WHO, more concretely are those who ”say things about it”? Surely he has told us already that the starting point has to involve, to a certain degree, the spoudaios (the serious citizen)? But WHO are the spoudaios, we do not tire of asking: is it primarily the student of the Lyceum? But wouldn’t that be odd? Won’t it most likely be the serious citizen who lives up to the demands of the noble (kalos) and the dutiful respect for the law (nomos)? Isn’t the speaker rather Pericles, or the impressive Diodotus, or Laches, or Nicias, or Ischomachus  (even Thrasymachus already befriended) rather than the student of practical philosophy? But why continue to push this point further? For isn’t it true that we find ourselves involved in a vicious circle nowadays: serious speakers not being taken seriously by the young, and the young not taking serious speakers seriously because academy rarely invites them towards such a respectful prudent recognition? Bluntly, is it any wonder that Lincoln is seen as a racist? But leaving this point aside, what exactly does Ar. mean by telling us that “the truth harmonizes with the given facts, but hits a wrong note with the false”? What truth is he speaking of here, if he does not add ANY details; further, sees NO need to add further details? For surely, that the truth harmonizes seems  to imply some linkage to what is beautifully so, doesn’t it? But how can a relativistic academy in particular even begin to consider this “simple” statement? Isn´t the truth of modern academic theory the one which dictates what in fact harmonizes, or not, with the practical sphere (see quotes by Strauss, Section IV below)? Isn’t Ar., then, ONCE again providing ANY kind of philosophical/theoretical endeavor, with its most original and inescapable limitations? However, isn’t modern academia’s self-understanding quite different? Isn’t the modern university THE leader in the implementation of political perspectives, so that the political leaders in many cases cannot but be seen suspiciously by those who attend these learning settings? But be that as it may; really, don’t we just have to listen to Ar. to SEE which truth he is speaking of, namely, that there are 3 types of hierarchically ordered goods? Isn’t part of this truth, the one that harmonizes with “  the way things are said”,  that among those goods “those pertaining to the soul should be the most authoritative and especially good”? But, then, wouldn’t one have to INVESTIGATE what soul is as Ar. does in the De Anima? But surely he does not even ask us to refer to THAT work here, does he? Besides, what does it mean for Ar. that just simply the WAY we speak of the soul is SUFFICIENT as providing the bedrock of an investigation into the ethical? And by way of contrast, what if we have come to see ourselves as truly soulless, as truly nothing more than complex biological beings? Can a materialistic society, that perceives itself as matter in constant motion, not but see with radical irony such “high-flown” Aristotelian affirmations? Aren’t  WE Aristotelians swimming upstream in this regard? For truly one rarely, if ever, finds the word “soul” being used in philosophical discussions as Ar. uses it, doesn’t one? Isn’t this part of the shock of reading Straussian interpretations for the first time with their constant reference to the soul WITHOUT going into a epistemological/ontological debate of its core importance? And even more dramatically: doesn’t Ar. in one and the same sentence let us see his prudent initial conciliatory note by affirming that this argument is not simply any kind of argument but rather a NOBLE type of argument? Aren’t we faced once again with the intimate relation between ethics, rhetoric and pragmatics? And most dramatically still, does not Ar. HERE seem to equate the ancient WITH those who philosophize? I mean, how further from radical skepticism can one go here? But who exactly are those who have so philosophized? For didn’t just 2 subsection ago Ar. tells us how misguided the presuppositions of Plato were in core themes (against Broadie and Rowe’s  as well as Ostwald’s interpretations that EASILY provide an answer that includes Plato (!)? But then, is he speaking of Anaxagoras? Surely not, for Xenophon speaks of Anaxagoras´s fate, doesn’t he? So WHO then exactly? Hermeneutically letting go almost imprudently of ourselves: isn’t Ar. quietly hinting here to Cicero’s claim that it was Socrates who brought philosophy “back down to the earth”? And finally, don’t we better understand here Strauss´s stunning reference to Plato as being TOO LOUD, in contrast to the masterful rhetorical skills developed by Xenophon? And, thus, isn’t it obvious why Xenophon is not read in academic circles; circles not attuned to the very words of Ar.´s claim at the beginning of this MUCH “less important” subsection?

2)  Besides what is the connection of THIS procedural reference to the very possibility of happiness in humans? If what we have said above is true, then wouldn’t the lack of such procedural understanding imply to a high degree that academy is not perhaps the greatest site for human happiness itself? But wouldn’t this go against the way academics speak of themselves? But leaving this thorny point aside,  how do we KNOW that the person who is happy HARMONIZES with the argument, if we do not know WHO the happy person is, WHAT she does and HOW she lives? And why does Ar., once again, not simply AFFIRM a point but rather pregnantly adds  that happiness is not SUCH and SUCH, but rather, PRETTY MUCH said to be so and so? And what to make about the ensuing list of differing opinions as regards the core element of happiness itself? Is it virtue, or prudence or, wisdom, or an eclectic mix? And why is Ar. again so tentative with regards to the still not developed question of wisdom, qualifying it as he does by saying that it is a “CERTAIN wisdom”? So are there different kinds of wisdom? But then,  which one accords and harmonizes with  the truth? Which one hierarchically orders the whole, so to speak? And those that do not, can we reasonably call them wisdom?  But, how are we to know? How are we to lead our lives without knowing? And fundamentally, how do those that believe it is virtue, get along with those who believe it is wisdom? And those who turn to wisdom, how exactly do they relate to the prudent (primarily remembering Plato’s Third wave of the Republic)? And if the political art as we were told (but later omitted) is the ruling art, then doesn’t it make all the difference if prudence is the ORDERING political virtue par excellence? Moreover, what exactly is the relationship of pleasure to each of these? What is the pleasure of the virtuous, of the prudent, of the wise? And crucially, why clarify the argument by adding “or not without pleasure”? Why exactly is the question of pleasure SO utterly  problematic in relation to the inquiry into the ethical virtues? Briefly, how are altruism and hedonism to get along? CAN they get along? And finally, doesn’t Ar. again seek to provide SOME common ground for the ancient, those who philosophize and those bestowed with high repute? But if those who hold fast to ancient tradition and those who have come to be considered as highly reputable see THEMSELVES as being partially correct, won’t a CRTICAL inquiry into the basis of their most fundamental longings via a rational reconsideration of their primordial framework (to use Taylor’s vocabulary) become ever more difficult? Or, again, is Ar. simply healing a relationship that has gone array between the philosophers of old, and the old who lead the political space in which philosophy alone can be carried out? Doesn´t one have to constantly keep Plato’s Laws in mind here?

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 6

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

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

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER SIX

As for the universal [good], perhaps it is better to examine it and to go through the perplexities involved in the ways it is spoken of, although undertaking such an inquiry is arduous, because the men who introduced the forms are dear. But perhaps it might be held to be better, and in fact to be obligatory, at least for the sake of preserving the truth, to do away with even one’s own things, specially for those who are philosophers. For although both are dear, it is a pious thing to honor the truth first.

Now, those who conveyed this opinion did not make ideas pertain to those cases in which they spoke of the prior and posterior: hence they did not set up an idea of numbers either. But the good is spoken of in relation to what something is, and in relation to what sort of thing it is, and as regards its relation to something: but that which is the thing in itself –that is, the being —is prior by nature to any relation it has (for it is like an offshoot and accident of the being). As a result, there would not be any common idea pertaining to these things

And further, the good is spoken of in as many ways as is the term is —for the good is spoken of in relation to what something is (for example the god and intellect); as for what sort of thing something is, the good is spoken of as the virtues; as for how much something is, it is spoken of as the measured amount; in its relation to something, as what is useful; as regards time, as the opportune moment; as regards place, as the [right] location; and other things of this sort [Since all this is so,] it is clear that the good would not be something common, universal, and one. For if that were the case, it would not be spoken of in all the categories but in one alone.

And further, since there is a single science of things that pertain to a single idea, there would also be some single science of all the good things. But as things stand, there are many sciences even of the things that fall under a single category –for example, the opportune moment: in war, it is generalship, in illness, medicine; and in the case of the measured amount of nourishment, on the one hand it is medicine, but in that of physical exertions, on the other, it is gymnastic training.

But someone might be perplexed as to whatever they mean by the “thing-as-such”, if in fact the very same account of human being pertains both to “human being-as-such” and to a given human being. For in the respect in which each is a human being, they will not differ at all. And if this is so, [then neither the good as such nor a good thing will differ] in the respect in which each is good. Moreover, the good will not be good to a greater degree by being eternal either, if in fact whiteness that lasts a long time will not be whiter than that which lasts only a day.

The Pythagoreans seem to speak more persuasively about it by positing the One in the column of the goods, and it is indeed they whom Speusippus seems to follow. But about these things let there be another argument.

A certain dispute over the points stated begins to appear, because the arguments made [by the proponents of the forms] do not concern every good: things pursued and cherished by themselves are spoken of in reference to a single form, but what produces these (or in some way preserves them or prevents their contraries) is spoken of as being good on account of the former sorts of goods and in a different manner. It is clear, then, that the good things would be spoken of in two senses: those that are good in themselves, others that are good on account of these.

Separating the things good in themselves from those that are advantageous, then, let us examine whether the former are spoken of in reference to a single idea. What sort of things might one posit as being good in themselves? Is it so many things as are in fact pursued for themselves alone —-for example, exercising prudence and seeing, as well as certain pleasures and honor? For even if we pursue these on account of something else as well, nonetheless one might posit them as being among the things that are good in themselves. Or is nothing good in itself except the idea? The result will be that the form [abstracted from all individual things] is pointless. But if in fact these things [that is, exercising prudence, seeing and the like] are among the things good in themselves, the definition of the good will need to manifest itself as the same in all cases, just as the definition of whiteness is the same in the case of snow and in that of white lead. But the definitions of honor, prudence and pleasure are distinct and differ in the very respect in which they are goods. It is not the case, therefore, that the good is something common in reference to a single idea.

But how indeed are they spoken of [as good]? For they are not like things that share the same name by chance. It is by dint of their stemming from one thing or because they all contribute to one thing? Or is it more that they are such by analogy? For as there is sight in the body, so there is intellect in the soul, and indeed one thing in one thing, another in another. But perhaps we ought to leave these consideration be for now: to be very precise about them would be more appropriate to another philosophy. The case is similar with the idea as well: even if there is some one good thing that is predicated [of things] in common,, or there is some separate thing, itself in itself, it is clear that it would not be subject to action or capable of being possessed by a human being. But it is some such thing that is now being sought.

Perhaps someone might be of the opinion that it is better to be familiar with it, with a view to those goods that can be possessed and are subject to action. By having this [universal good] as a sort of model, we will to greater degree know also the things that are good for us; and if we know them, we will hit on them. Now, the argument has a certain persuasiveness, but it seems to be inconsistent with the sciences. For although all sciences aim at some good and seek out what is lacking, they pass over knowledge of the good itself. And yet it is not reasonable for all craftsmen to be ignorant of so great an aid and not even to seek it out.

A further perplexity too is what benefit the weaver or carpenter might gain, in relation to his own art, by known this same good, or how he who has contemplated the idea itself will be a more skilled physician or general. For it appears that the physician does not examine even health this way, but inquires rather into the health of a human being and even more, perhaps into that of this particular human being. For he treats patients individually.

And let what pertains to these things be stated up to this point.”

(NE, 1096a11-1097a14; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Why exactly can’t Ar. seem to get his argument going? Why does he lead us into a third and even more complex, not to say impossible (from the point of view of practical things), digression? Put bluntly, does one imagine a Pericles/Xenophon/Thucydides listening intently? Is a Pericles/Xenophon/Thucydides, so interested in THESE perplexities? But if not, then WHO are we speaking to in terms of the ETHICAL? To philosophy students? Wouldn’t that be utterly ODD, if we seek to respect the dignity of the practical (as that appears to be clearly the objective of the previous two digressions!)? Shouldn’t one, as well, ask more explicitly what is the actual relation between these three digressions (from the type of student, to the kind of methodology, to a discussion of the erroneous views of his friends on the absolute good)? Are we ascending in some sense to more and more impenetrable perplexities? Or do they stand at the same level of importance? Moreover, why does Ar. indeed connect the second and third digressions in the EE BOOK I, Ch. 8 1218a15-ff; “They ought in fact to demonstrate….”) and does NOT so proceed in the NE (see section IV below)? Is it because he wants us in the NE to assume a more active role in OUR coming to see the sources of our perplexities? And what are we to make of the very LENGTH of the digression? I mean, doesn’t AQ. actually divide his commentary into three sections, while our translators only deal with one very long and complex one? But leaving this aside, why is it SO important to get THIS one right? Why is our stance on the Forms/Ideas, the crux of the matter, so to speak? And, very importantly, why does Ar. go, as rarely he does in his Ethics, into his much less practical works, for instance, the Categories? Is he telling us that, in the end, we DO need some such vocabulary to get clear of our PRACTICAL perplexities? However, IF his audience has a dual character, then what are the less philosophically inclined to do with this section? For it is clear, notions like substance, predicates, the “thing-as-such” etc… are NOT the concern of the practical, and much less so –at least explicitly— of the political art? And putting it provocatively, isn’t this why one does NOT find any mention of the “Theory of the Forms” in the work of Xenophon (or Alfarabi, for that matter)? And isn’t this , in part, why modern philosophy and political science departments —with their modern procedural approaches—- find Xenophon, who knew of this Socratic tradition, rather irrelevant? Isn’t the overwhelming amount of academic writings of Plato´s “Theory of Ideas”, precisely, in part, what reveals the stance of OUR modern philosophy departments as regards the practical arena? But doesn’t this reveal a certain perplexing blindness which Ar. DOES see? Isn’t this why he explicitly tells us that these concerns are those of another kind of philosophy which can actually harm praxis as we saw in previous commentaries? Again, is this to safeguard the dignity and independence of the practical sphere in its own terms? But then, why even mention them, if they belong elsewhere? So, shouldn’t we conclude that Ar. is purposely confronting his audience with such complexities PRECISELY to get clear on how HE will, at least initially, move away from them? For it is clear, the idea of the ideas will NOT ever return to the argument in the NE, will they? And surely at the end of the NE we are not asked to go read the Categories or the Metaphysics, but rather to go read the Politics, aren´t we (with some exceptions, perhaps, dealing with the private education which BOOK X defends, so that SOME may read both)? In other words, is it perhaps that his audience, at least part of it, has already been misled by those who attended Plato’s Academy? Don’t they clearly still have in their minds all the Apology affair (which Ar. did not witness)? Isn’t Ar. rather troubled by the radical nature of the rhetorical skills used in the Republic, even if he might agree with its core dialectics? Doesn’t he see that such philosophical projects undermine the practical so that the relation between the practical and the speculative reach insolvable breakdowns of communication (to use modern language)? But if THIS is true, don’t we and Ar. also know that Plato wrote his more mature The Laws, where such critiques are better responded? Furthermore, as regards the Straussian interpretation of the so-called Platonic “Theory of the Forms” (for instance, Blooms famous reading of The Republic as a comic response to Aristophanes´s Clouds, or Strauss´s own unique conception; see section IV below) , then why exactly does one not find anything “comic” about Ar.’s presentation of these ideas? Doesn’t HE seem to think that Plato took them seriously? Or is it rather that he is criticizing a rather incomplete, not to say an erroneous interpretation of Plato’s thought (as one could easily see, for instance, also in the very purposely minimalistic critique of Plato’s communism in Politics Book II)? For surely Ar. seems to CONVENIENTLY forget that these theories appear in DIALOGUES with all the dramatic complexities that this entails ( and we know Ar. himself wrote many dialogues as well!)? So why does he find it “convenient” to leave these obvious, yet crucial, issues aside? For aren’t we to realize that, for instance, the presentation of the ideas in the Republic is given precisely within Socrates’ description of three incredible waves that Socrates himself tells us are so utterly incomprehensible they will hardly be believed? (see section IV below for references to the ideas in the Republic). Isn’t this perhaps THE key to this subsection? Isn’t it perhaps the key to the relationship between Plato and Aristotle as Alfarabi saw it (see beginning of The Philosophy of Aristotle: “Aristotle sees the perfection of man as Plato sees it and more.”; Mahdi p. 71, )

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 4

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

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

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER FOUR

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

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

This one is altogether best who himself understands all things

……………………………………………………………………………………..

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

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

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

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

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

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

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

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

INTRODUCTION

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

A. NEGATIVE SETTING

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

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