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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, 7

(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 SEVEN

Let us go back again to the good being sought, whatever it might be. For it appears to be one thing in one action or art, another in another: it is different in medicine and in generalship, and so on with the rest. What, then, is the good in each of these? Or is it for the sake of which everything is done? In medicine, this is health; in generalship, victory; in house building, a house; and in another, it would be something else. But in every action and choice, it is the end involved, since it is for the sake of this that all people do everything else. As a result, if there is some end of all actions, this would be the good related to action; and if there are several, then it would be these. So as the argument proceeds, it arrives at the same point. But one ought to make this clearer still.

Since the end appears to be several, and some of these we choose on account of something else –for example, wealth, an autos, and the instrumental things generally– it is clear that not all ends are complete, but what is the best appears to be something complete. As a result, if there is some one thing that is complete in itself, this would be what is being sought, and if there are several, then the most complete of these. We say that what is sought for itself is more complete than what is sought out on account of something else, and that what is never chosen on account of something else is more complete than those things chosen both for themselves and on account of this [further end]. The simply complete thing, then, is that which is always chosen for itself and never on account of something else.

Happiness above all seems to be of this character,  for we always choose it on account of itself and never on account of something else. Yet honor, pleasure, intellect and every virtue we choose on their own account —for even if nothing resulted from them, we would choose each of them —- but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, because we suppose that, through them, we will be happy. But nobody chooses happiness for the sake of these things or, more generally, on account of anything else.

The same thing appears to result also on the basis of self-sufficiency, for the complete good is held to be self-sufficient. We do not mean by self-sufficient what suffices for someone by himself, living a solitary life, but what is sufficient also with respect to parents, offspring, a wife, and, in general, one´s friends and fellow citizens, since by nature a human being is political. But it is necessary to grasp a certain limit to these; for if one extends these to include the parents [of parents], and descendants, and the friends of friends, it will go in infinitely. But this must be examined further later on. As for the self-sufficient, we posit it as that which by itself makes life choiceworthy and in need of nothing, and such is what we suppose happiness to be.

Further, happiness is the most choiceworthy of all things because it is not just one among them —and it is clear that, were it included as one among many things, it would be more choiceworthy with the least addition of the good things; for the good that is added to it results in a superabundance of goods, and the greater number of goods is always more choiceworthy. So happiness appears to be something complete and self-sufficient, it being an end of our actions.

But perhaps saying that “happiness is best” is something manifestly agreed on, whereas what it is still needs to be said more distinctly. Now, perhaps this would come to pass if the work of the human being should be grasped. For just as in the case of the aulos player, sculptor and every expert, and in general with those who have a certain work and action, the relevant good and the doings of something well seem to reside in the work, so too the same might be held to be the case with a human being, if in fact there is a certain work that is a human being’s. Are there, then, certain works and actions of a carpenter but none of a human being: would he, by contrast, be naturally “without a work”? Or just as there appears to be a certain work of the eye, hand and foot, and in fact of each of these parts in general, so also might one posit a certain work of a human being apart from all of these?

So whatever, then, would this work be? For living appears to be something common even to plants, but what is peculiar to human beings is being sought. One must set aside, then, the life characterized by nutrition as well as growth. A certain life characterized by sense perception would be next, but it too appears to be common to a horse and cow and in fact to every animal. So there remains a certain active life of that which possesses reason, and what possess reason includes what is obedience to reason, on the one hand, and what possess it and thinks, on the other. But since this [life of reason in the second sense] also is spoken of in a twofold way, one must posit the life [of that which possess reason] in accord with an activity, for this seems to be its more authoritative meaning. And if the work of a human being is an activity of the soul in accord with reason, or not without reason, and we assert that the work of a given person is the same kind as that of a serious person, just as it would be in the case of a cithara player and a serious cithara player, and this would be so in a all cases simply when the superiority in accord with virtue is added to the work; for it belongs to a cithara player to play the cithara, but to a serious one to do so well. But if this is so —and we posit the work of a human being as a certain life, and this is an activity of the soul and actions accompanied by reason, the work of a serious man being to do these things well and nobly, and each thing is brought to completion well in accord with he virtue proper to it —if this is so, then the human good becomes an activity of the soul in accord with virtue, and if there are several virtues, then in accord with the best and most complete.

But, in addition, in a complete life. For one swallow does not make a spring, nor does on day. And in this way, one day or a short time does not make someone blessed and happy either.

Let the good have been sketched in this way, then, for perhaps one ought to outline it first and then fill it in later. It might seem to belong to everyone to advance and fully articulate things whose sketch is in a noble condition, and time is a good discoverer of or contributor to such things: from these have arisen the advances in the arts too, for it belongs to everyone to add what is lacking.

But we must remember the points mentioned previously as well, to the effect that one must not seek out precision in all matters alike but rather in each thing in turn as accords with the subject matter in question and insofar as is appropriate to the inquiry. For both carpenter and geometer seek out the right angle but in different ways; the former seeks it insofar as it is useful to his work; the latter seeks out what it is or what sort of a thing it is, for he is one who contemplates the truth. One ought to act in the same manner also in other cases to have nobly pointed out the “that” —such is the case in what concerns the principles— and the “that” is the first thing and a principle. Some principles are observed by means of induction, some by perception, some by a certain habituation, and other in other ways. One ought not to go in search of each in turn in the manner natural to them and to be serious about their being nobly defined. For they are of great weight in what follows from them: the beginning seem to be more than half the whole, and many of the points being sought seem to become manifest on account of it. ” (NE, 1097a15-1098b8; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Why does one have the feeling in this subsection that Ar. can FINALLY get into the real argument itself? Aren’t the digressions sort of the “hard work” prior to actually engaging in the much more rewarding, even joyful process itself? However, generally speaking, what is the point of an argument that is so strikingly formal in nature? For, aren’t we continuously speaking of happiness WITHOUT actually knowing what Ar. understands by it concretely? How are we to “fill in” this initial formalism; as Ar. himself acknowledges: “But perhaps saying that “happiness is best” is something manifestly agreed on, whereas what it is still needs to be said more distinctly”? Presumably when we finish READING the whole of the NE we will be much better prepared to fill it out? As a matter of fact, Ar. points out that ANYONE can fill it out? Isn’t this another example of clear Aristotelian humor? But then, wouldn’t this filling out suffer immensely if one simply SKIPPED parts of the text, as is generally the case with Books III (end) and IV on the moral virtues (seen as a simple apologetics of Greek virtues by a “duped” Aristotle)? And, generally, as well, why does Ar. once again REMIND us of methodological issues at the end of this subsection, and more perplexing still, now NOT calling them a digression? But most importantly, didn’t we already say that the end which hierarchically orders all others, IS that of THE political art? But then why does Ar. have us repeat: “But in every action and choice, it is the end involved, since it is for the sake of this that all people do everything else.”? Didn’t we already agree that it was the political art in subsection 3? But if so, why proceed in ways which, at the very least, seriously modify this initial political assumption? Isn’t this why Ar. says that this is a KIND of political inquiry? And further, how exactly are we going to square the public political art and the issue of individual human happiness? Will this question simply be relegated, rather, to the very end of BOOK VIII of the Politics, which ironically deals with a complex discussion of the ideal regime (almost in Platonic terms!)? Nonetheless, doesn’t Ar. want to KEEP quite distinct the investigation into the political and the investigation into the ethical? Isn’t his why he wrote SEPARATE books on these issues?  But, if the general movement is towards a demonstration of the limits of the political life, then: why does Ar. repeat once again here, that in terms of self-sufficiency we must not forget that we are NOT speaking of a solitary human, but rather —and the list is impressive— “what is sufficient also with respect to parents, offspring, a wife, and, in general, one´s friends and fellow citizens, since by nature a human being is political” (repeating for us here the famous preliminary claim found in the Politics? However, how does one KNOW that this is so BY NATURE? Didn’t Ar., just a few subsections before, say that the legal appears to be by nomos, rather than by physis? Does he think he need not back up argumentatively this assertion? But isn´t this what philosophy is all about? And further, don’t modern early political theorists REALLY think Ar.  does in fact  need some such backing up? Isn’t this why they BEGIN their political analysis from a radically different starting point, namely, that of the Social Contract? Isn’t THIS the debate which characterizes the American Founding, or more generally the confrontation between Ancient and Modern liberalism/republicanism? Moreover, wouldn’t this be THE key to our misunderstanding Aristotle as moderns? But be this as it may, if Ar. is in fact putting forth a realm beyond the political, how will it come to appear as we proceed along in the argument? And if so, how can one reveal the limits of the political, while simultaneously not destabilizing it? For, isn’t the destabilization of the political THE core point of the previous Aristotelian procedural digressions? And yet, isn’t Ar. pointing towards the possibility that there may appear a tension between the life of personal fulfillment, and the life of the political, of recognition, and of the adamant concern for justice and the power of law? Isn’t this why, in the discussion of friendship in BOOKS VIII and IX, Ar. will point out that the best of true friends do not require justice? Won’t this show up clearly also in the tension between the two peaks of the NE, namely that of the Magnanimous human (megalophuchos) and that of all the virtues covered under justice as akin to the North Star? And besides, surely we know too that Plato never married, and we need only read Xenophon´s humorous Symposium  to hear about Socrates´s ideas regarding “a wife and offspring”, don´t we? (not to mention the discussion of Ischomachus´s wife in the Economics!) Put another way, what finally is the human work (“ergon”) principally about: i) the fulfillment of individual happiness, the city being but a stage for THAT personal fulfillment, or ii) rather, understanding oneself fundamentally as part of a larger whole to which one owes a duty of self-sacrifice (be it the city, or perhaps even beyond, as part of the whole cosmic/divine order)? As assassinated (which is revealing in itself) President Kennedy famously put it; “Ask not, what your country can do for you. Ask what, you can do for your country.”?But, if ——as Ar. has argued—— law seems to be by nomos and not by physis, then how is one to critically see oneself as part of a regime that may turn out badly? How exactly will we differentiate between the good citizen and the good human? And to conclude, why does Ar. waiver back and forth, as we have seen, between these two possibilities? Is he allowing us to think for ourselves the implications either way?

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Almost everyone knows Socrates did not write anything. But knowing this fact makes it even more difficult to be surprised by it, and much less to seek, however partially, to understand its implications for us. For what does not surprise, rarely forces us to open ourselves to its unexpected appearance. This is primarily so in our culture where writing has become the hallmark of recognition. To be illiterate —— a form of quantifiable statistics of crucial importance in measuring the educational state of a nation———– is defined as being unable to read and write. Take for instance the shame of those who do not learn to write, it is so overwhelming that they prefer to live secluded lives. Take as well the assumed superiority of our culture to that of oral traditions (Rousseau saw this early on in his precious Essay on the Origin of Language).

In a similar vein, it is particularly in academia —–specially but not exclusively in the Humanities—- that the requirement to publish is not only the hallmark of assured creativity and proof of continued reflection, but also the avenue for institutional success. To rise academically one must publish. Nothing seems more obvious and normal to us than this. I remember once a professor speaking mockingly of some PhD candidates who had not published anything yet. Although I was rather young, I still remember even then being a bit surprised by the whole thing.

This is why I think Socrates’ decision not to write might be considered, at the very least, as a necessary corrective and counter-balancing presence. Does this mean we can do without publishing? Of course not, it just simply means that we might look at what Socrates did. That is all, or mostly all. And this is why for those of us who see in Socrates the model of the philosophic life, it makes sense to ask: Why would Socrates not write anything? Would he not be seriously considered as an odd figure among us because of this, exactly as he was seen in his very own time? (See Alcibiades’ description in the Symposium.) Socrates seems to remain a stinging ray! And moreover, and please bear with me, did Plato and Xenophon not commit a terrible injustice to Socrates in writing about him? But then again, who would have Socrates written about if HE was the one worth recording? For surely the whole thing was not simply because Socrates did not have the time to write; he himself confesses he only dedicated himself to oral dialectics, so he could have found the time! He chose not to do so, in contradistinction to our contemporaries who choose to do so. And of course, if Plato and Xenophon did commit an injustice, we are thankful for it, and understand that some such injustices must be pardoned for our very own sake and well-being. To this idea we shall return.

Why then would Socrates proceed in this strange way? The single most important aspect of Socrates’ refusal to write is his constant reminder that philosophy is primarily a way of life. A way of life can be written about, but the person living it, well, she just lives it! Socrates at one point in Xenophon’s writing, simply dances alone. The only exception would be if such a person decided to write his own autobiography; and Socrates, contrary to, for instance Churchill, chose not to. Our modern way of philosophizing, in contrast, sees writing as precisely THE way of life for the humanist; writing is of the essence. Of course, we teach courses, but once again the courses are primarily on written material themselves. In this respect, it is clear that what Plato and Xenophon and Aristophanes saw in the Socratic experience was fundamentally an ergon (that is, an activity; deeds or action) AND a logos (a discursive account carried out in dialogue with other diverse interlocutors). (more…)

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