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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 12

(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 TWELVE

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

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

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 9

(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 NINE

“This is also why the perplexity arises as to whether happiness is something that can be gained through learning or habituation or through some other practice, or whether it comes to be present in accord with a sort of divine allotment or even through chance.

Now, if there is in fact anything that is a gift of the gods to human beings, it is reasonable that happiness is god given, and it specially among the human concerns insofar as it is the best of them. But perhaps this would be more appropriate to another examination —yet it appears that even if happiness is not god sent but comes to be present through virtue and a certain learning or practice, it is among the most divine things. For the prize of virtue or its end appears to be best and to be something divine and blessed. It would also be something common to many people, for it is possible for it to be available, through a certain learning and care, to all who have not rendered defective in point of virtue. And if it is better to be happy in this way rather than through chance, it is reasonable that  this is how [happiness is acquired] — if in fact what accords with nature is naturally in the noblest possible state, and similar too is what accords with art and with cause as a whole, especially the best [art or cause]. To entrust the greatest and noblest thing to chance would be excessively discordant.

What is being sough is manifest also on the basis of the argument [or definition], for happiness was said to be a certain sort of activity of soul in accord with virtue. Now, of the resulting goods, some must necessarily be present, others are coworkers and by nature useful in an instrumental way. And this points would be in agreement also with those made at the beginning: we posited the end of the political art as best, and it exercises a very great care to make the citizens of a specific sort —namely, good and apt to do noble things. It is to be expected, then, that we do not say that either a cow or a horse or any other animal is at all happy, for none of them are able to share in such an activity. It is because of this too that a child is not happy either: he is not yet apt to do such things, on account of his age, though some children are spoken of as blessed on account of the expectation involved in their case. For, as we said, both complete virtue and a complete life are required: many reversals and all manner of fortune arise in the course of life, and it is possible for someone who is particularly thriving to encounter great disasters in old age, just as the myth is told about Priam in the Trojan tales. Nobody deems happy someone who deals with fortunes of that sort and comes to a wretched end. ” (NE, 1099b9-1100a9; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)
I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) To begin, why does Aristotle CLEARLY connect this subsection to the previous one, specially with the reappearance of the question of luck and ethical upbringing? For didn’t he end the previous subsection pointing in this direction? Put directly; why does Ar. —-towards the end of this subsection— tell us that leaving happiness to chance is EXCESSIVELY discordant, but NOT simply COMPLETELY discordant? Why is he SO open to this possibility, or at the very least, its influences? To contrast, haven’t we seen many OTHER subsections ending abruptly? And surely The Bible does not so argue, does it? How could it, given God’s omnipotence and foreknowledge? And surely Kant doesn’t either, does he? What is it about the Kantian categorical imperative that allows it to be blind to fortune? What are the political consequences of this Kantian blindness? Is Habermas aware? And, coming back to the passage, don’t WE take it for granted —and specially the spoudaios— that it is EDUCATION (habituation and learning), moral education in particular, that allegedly makes us in the end good and happy? Isn’t this why parents SEND their children to pre-school, school and university: to aid them in making them fulfilled and complete human beings? Doesn‘t the complex matrix of social education make, allegedly, ALL the difference? Put very succinctly, what is Ar.’s mentioned PERPLEXITY all about: “This is also why the perplexity arises”? What does he MEAN that HAPPINESS may NOT be up to us? Isn’t our modern mindset truly oblivious to THIS possibility? In other words, WHO is thus perplexed: evidently not parents, are they? Law-makers? Or, is it rather that Ar. has ANOTHER aim in mind? Could he be preparing the terrain to make us more OPEN to the complexities of life, more attuned to the myriad situations that may occur and that in FACT we do not, cannot and should not wish to control (see also Plato´s Phaedrus and the initial speeches related to erotic domination, and some of Nussbaum insights)? Won’t we see something like this in BOOK VI, and the crucial discussion of prudence (phronesis) as part of the correction of a certain blindness behind justice AND, more importantly, THE just? Or, in moral terms: isn´t Aristotle slowly opening a serious critique of the radical moralistic claims that underlie the life of the spoudaios? How so? Precisely because perhaps the spoudaios HAS TO believe in the utter responsibility for HIS and OUR own actions? Isn’t this the core element of his “seriousness”, of his noble justice? And don’t we hear it in our daily lives: “take responsibility for …” (specially, and STRIKINGLY, as regards illness)? But, if this were so, if learning the moral virtues by way of a certain serious habituation is the path, the HOW exactly are we to critically, philosophically, Socratically, question the very presuppositions of such seriousness which knows itself not only to have found THE answers, but furthermore, and more problematically, has found in THOSE answers the MEANING of its self-worth? Isn’t this PRECISELY why Plato’s Laws can be seen as setting the stage in which righteous indignation ——which KNOWS of its seriousness and its self-created responsibility— can be softened to EVEN include the philosophical critique of the gods? For, isn’t impiety perhaps the single most IRRESPONSIBLE crime committable by any human? And so that we may be understood, wasn’t Ar.´s departure from Athens the result of such accusations of impiety? Don’t we have to keep constantly in mind both Socratic Apologies in this respect? And, what if Ar. were heading in a similar direction? For isn´t it striking, for instance, that righteous indignation (which is one of the virtues Ar. lists initially), will in fact, NOT be analyzed by Ar. as he proceeds? What is it about nemesis in particular and its relation to justice as punitive retribution that Ar. finds, from the point of view of the philosopher concerned with the truth of the whole, SO deeply troubling? Furthermore isn’t this why Ar. is so adamant about pointing out that there is a BIG difference between voluntary and involuntary actions in BOOK II?  And even going further, could this be the very beginning of Ar.’s concern with Socrates’s famous idea that “no one does evil voluntarily”? But, what is THE POINT OF this idea as regards the greatest most complete and happiest life available to us humans? Won’t Ar. take up that challenge in BOOK VII dedicated to the phenomenon of akrasia (Book which strikingly begins criticizing a Socratic position, ONLY to agree with it in the end!)?

And so that we may be better understood as regards the importance of Ar.’s explicit reference to chance/fortune (tuche); what are we to make of MACHIAVELLI’S distinctively un-Aristotelian and un-biblical concern with chance (fortuna) both in the Prince and in his Discourses (see section IV below)? Shouldn’t we attentively hear Machiavelli’s words when he memorably says in this regard:

“When I have thought about this sometimes, I have been in some part inclined to their opinion. Nonetheless, so that our free will not be eliminated, I judge that it might be true that fortune is arbiter of half of our actions, but also that she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern. And I liken her to one of these violent rivers which, when they become enraged, flood the plains, ruin the trees and the buildings, lift earth from this part, drop in another; each person flees before them, everyone yields to their impetus without being able to hinder them in any regard. And although they are like this, it is not as if men, when times are quiet, could not provide for them with dikes and dams so that when they rise later, either they go by a canal or their impetus is neither so wanton nor so damaging.”

What, then, is the aim of the New Rational Political Science inaugurated by Machiavelli and developed by all early modern theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu; albeit in different forms)? Put more directly, how does SCIENCE and the reconsideration of NATURE as purely materialistic and interconnected solely in terms of efficient causality, define the WAY we moderns relate to political things (see Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws)?  Won’t we tend to believe, contrary to what Ar. is telling us is perplexing, that we can in fact control events —both natural and social—-  to such a degree that Ar.´s call for a serious concern with such PERPLEXITIES might be seen as rather naïve (see quote Hobbes section IV below)? But, hasn’t this idea of progressive control, within a materialistic universe founded upon discoverable casual laws, come into question via different angles? Politically speaking, didn’t THE political sphere of the 20th century show this collapse most dramatically of all? But then, if Ar. truly believes that it is the political which ORDERS the human ends towards happiness, how exactly are we to retrace our steps, or regain our footing, beyond the calamities of mere chance OR the calamities of radically directed and deadly political programs? Put another way, isn’t Ar.´s perplexity OUR deepest perplexity once again? In Straussian terminology, doesn’t chance invite a debate between a return and progress?

2) But leaving aside the question of chance, what exactly does Ar. mean by saying that happiness can be gained by learning OR habituation OR —–dramatically—– “some other practice”? First off, isn’t learning a kind of habituation; can they be so easily separated? And how will habituation in BOOKS 2 and 3 be related to the moral virtues in particular so that IT becomes the KEY element in the education of our virtuous character? And, if we are habituated INTO something, that is to say, some way of being, how exactly can we say that WE have made ourselves into such a being? And if so, once again one need ask, did not Ar. say just a few subsections before tell us that justice appears to be by nomos (custom/convention) rather than by physis (nature)? So, aren’t we really speaking of different sorts of habituation depending on the regimes we live under? But then, WHO decides which one is better than another? HOW does one so decide, specially if, as we moderns tend to believe, all cultures are relative and worthy of EQUAL respect? Aren´t all cultures, all habituations, simply historically “determined”? And, thinking of the very way we INTERPRET Ar. himself: isn’t this precisely the issue with those who see in Ar. a duped defense of the Greek virtues per se? Don’t THEY think that Ar. was simply habituated into thinking that philosophy cannot go beyond the limits of what is morally given at any given time by the society of which we are a part? But it is clear Ar. thinks otherwise, doesn’t he? In other words, if there is nothing BEYOND the claims of habituation to form us, how exactly can we even truly speak of LEARNING? Aren’t those who argue that Ar. simply defended the Greek virtues simply submitting to this VERY MODERN belief, rather than tackling Ar.’s realistic challenges to the limits of the moral/political sphere? For, wouldn’t it be extremely ODD that he who is called THE philosopher, were so easily duped in the ESSENTIALS? But if Ar. is not so duped, then what does that say about OUR modern relativistic and historicist self-deceptions? What would Ar. have to offer us THEN? Simply that we become Greek again? The answer is “certainly not”, isn’t it? Or is it we are to learn anew, precisely because a certain kind of HABITUATION has NOT allowed us to see beyond its spheres, respectable as they may be? Isn’t THIS why Ar. adds the striking words “or some other practice”? Couldn’t this OTHER practice be moving US in that direction? For we need ask, why does Ar. not simply say WHAT that other practice might be? Is it because he wishes to be seen as open-minded so that we can add WHAT we wish depending “on the historical times”? Or rather, he PRUDENTLY points to a path for the serious reader who —given the digressions of previous subsections— understands the dangers of philosophical inquiry to the practical political sphere, and consequently is willing to take up this highly critical task within the contours of a much more private educational setting, a setting which perhaps leads  towards the most complete and self-sufficient happiness?

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 5

(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 FIVE

Let us speak from the point where we digressed. For on the basis of the lives they lead, the many and the crudest seem to suppose, not unreasonably, that the good and happiness are pleasure. And thus they cherish the life of enjoyment. For the specially prominent ways of life are three: the one just mentioned, the political, and, third, the contemplative.

Now, in choosing a life of fatted cattle, the many appear altogether slavish; but they attain a hearing, because many people in positions of authority experience passions like those of Sardanapalus. The refined and active, on the other hand, choose honour, for this is pretty much the end of the political life. But it appears to be more superficial than what is being sought, for honour seems to reside more with those who bestow it than with him who receives it; and we divine that the good is something of one´s own and a thing not easily taken away. Further, people seem to pursue honour so that they may be convinced that they themselves are good; at any rate, they seek to be honoured by the prudent, among those to whom they are known, and for their virtue. It is clear, then, that in the case of these people at least, virtue is superior.

And perhaps someone might in fact suppose that virtue is to a greater degree the end of political life. Yet it appears to be rather incomplete. For it seems to be possible to posses virtue even while asleep or while being inactive throughout life and, in addition to these, while suffering badly and undergoing the greatest misfortunes. But no one would deem happy somebody living in this way, unless he were defending a thesis. But enough about these things: they have been spoken adequately also in the circulated writings.

Third is the contemplative life, about which we will make an investigation in what will follow.

The money-making life is characterized by a certain constraint, and it is clear that wealth is not the good being sought, for it is a useful thing and for the sake of something else. Thus someone might suppose that the previously mentioned things are ends to a greater degree than money is, for at least they are cherished for their own sakes. But they do not appear to be ends either, and many arguments have been widely distributed in opposition to them. So let these things be dismissed.” (NE, 1095a15-1096a10; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) What are we to make of the sudden first appearance of pleasure (ἡδονήν) in the argument? What does becoming ethical have to do with pleasure? Don’t we find this, in a sense, counterintuitive? For surely, those of us brought up under monotheism see pleasure in a very particular transcendental kind of way, don’t we? Or is it that Ar. is, in some respects, more akin to OUR modern utilitarianism and ITS conception of pleasure, than to any transcendental view of things (J.S. Mill; see section IV below)? But, wouldn’t that be odd, since 2500 years separate OUR hedonistic utilitarianism from Ar.’s prudential presentation? And, will it turn out that the primary architectonic good is connected to pleasure in some way? Isn’t this the reason why, having barely touched upon the question of pleasure for MANY books (specially those dealing with the moral virtues) throughout the NE, we are again suddenly confronted by it in BOOK X and its stunning conclusions? And as concerns the question of pleasure, why is Ar. SO very careful in its initial presentation? Why does he FIRST mention the many and the CRUDEST in this regard? Why not mention the refined or the WISE first? Don’t THEY hit the target better as regards the pleasurable? Is it because PLEASURE might hold the key to many of the reflections in the NE (not to mention the whole of classical political thought)? Isn’t this why, though careful, Ar. ALSO says that the many and the crudest think thus, BUT pregnantly adds: and not unreasonably”? But if this is the general movement, then aren’t we moving in a direction in which another kind of life, that of a lovingly AND chosen self-sacrifice, will become unavailable? Specially so because Ar. reduces the variability of reasonably available lives to THREE lives: the life of pleasure, the political and the contemplative? Where exactly does a monk, a nun, or a hermit fit in? Or might it be that Ar. doubts whether true self-sacrifice makes sense for a human being once one dwells more into underlying considerations? And furthermore, where exactly does a CEO fit; under the later mentioned money-making life? Besides, before proceeding, haven´t we been told before that as regard the noble and the just, AND happiness, the variability is disconcerting? So, we need ask, don’t these lives TOO, vary according to the political regime in which they are lived? Won’t the pleasures of a democracy vary from those of an aristocracy, as Tocqueville CLEARLY shows in his Democracy in America? For it is evident that the pleasures of an aristocratic regime may actually be despised in a democracy; and the political life of the democratic seen in pejorative terms under an aristocracy? And, much more importantly, shouldn’t we be taken aback —– listening intently as we have regarding the architectonic end of the political art—— by SUDDENLY being brought up against a life which we HAVE not heard of before? And if it is true that the audience LISTENING to Ar. is varied, how are THEY to react to its appearance? Is it SO obvious that the “contemplative life” is one of THE lives to consider; then why exactly was Socrates condemned to death? And much more poignantly, why is it that WE moderns are not so taken aback by this third life? “The contemplative life, sure that is obviously familiar”, we say to ourselves, don’t we? Is it because we CONFUSE it with our very own ideas of what theory is, so that theory has become universally understood and unproblematically accepted? That is to say, what if for us theory signified an altogether different kind of life, one in which scientific reason, power and technology had created a dangerous theoretical fortress unbeknownst to Ar.? For isn’t it true that we easily speak of THEORY in modern times, a theory whose primary purpose it the guidance of our practical lives in the political arena? Actually, isn’t this THE CORE of the modern project? To exaggerate, don’t we think of theory more like a kind of “social engineering”? Isn’t this why OUR states are BUREAUCRATIC? For what would a theory be like that were not sought primarily to be IMPLEMENTED? Can we moderns conceive of this? What if Ar. had a VERY different conception of the relationship between theory and practice (cf. Kant’s Theory and Practice)? And what to make of the EXTREMELY pregnant silence that ensues regarding this life in the NE; for as Bartlett’s footnote attests to, ONLY until BOOK X will it come back, really, “to bite us”? What are we to make of this SILENCE if Ar. is asking us to be good listeners? What exactly are we supposed to listen to, so that in BOOK X we are not so shocked by the revelation of a surprising conclusion? And what to make of the fact that the very word for contemplation in Greek, namely theoria, is closely linked to being able “to see” (ὁρᾶν)? If there turns out to be something like the EYE OF THE SOUL; WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? And isn’t it obvious that Ar. considers this to be crucially relevant given that in the very next subsection (I, 6) , he goes on to get clearer on what some previous “theorists”, evidently Plato, have inadequately “theorized” about? How could THEIR eye of the soul, turn out to see not so well? Or did it? And, finally, doesn’t Ar. AGAIN “trick us”, and proceeds to tell us just a few lines below that, actually, there is a 4th kind of life, that of money-making? So which is it: 3 lives, or 4 (or 5?), or perhaps 1 and only 1? And if only 1, whence the reduction?

2) Moving along, why does Ar. HERE use such a censorious tone, such an “un-Aristotelian” tone, rarely used by him elsewhere? And why is this extremely censorious tone (the many = fatted cattle) so rarely picked up by modern commentators? Can one not see that Ar. is clearly defiant of radical democracy? Is it that commentaries on Ar. are much less defiantly so? Could they appeal to a “washed out” Aristotelianism? But then, are we democratic moderns more like fatted cattle all around, if ours are, in a sense, democracies of the “many”? Nietzsche seems to think something like this in his notion of the last man, doesn’t he (See “Prologue” Thus Spoke Zarathustra)? And doesn’t AQ. also completely agree with Ar., though he changes the animal to PIGS (!; section 60)? And, don’t WE say exactly the same when we observe certain bestial humans and say: “now, that is a pig”? Or should we just omit these Aristotelian words to make him more “relevant”? But then DOESN’T Ar. want us to listen to them? Could Ar. have come up with a better image to let us now how WE humans can fall to the most bestial of levels, specially with regards to pleasure? But, if so close the bestial, why does Ar. STILL say that they TOO attain a hearing? Why should they? And moreover, isn’t the reason extremely strange, even WEIRD? Aristotle says: one ought to hear the fatted cattle, because many of the powerful experience such feelings? Isn’t these like hearing the drunk because some drunks drink the most expensive liquor around and show it off? What might Ar. be driving at? Could it be that he SEES the political DANGERS of not confronting the relation between pleasure and power; that is, of showing how Sardanapalus and the like get it SO wrong and thus are truly dishonorable? Wouldn’t the refined, specially, despise being remembered thus? And don’t we then have to take much more seriously Xenophon’s On Tyranny in this regard; a conversation by a poet with a kind of Sardanapalus? And, being more inquisitive, is the pleasure of Sardanapalus found in the banquets, in the feasts, in the parades, OR RATHER IS IT NOT FOUND in the power that political power bestows upon its holder? For aren’t we speaking of the architectonic art, the political art as we have agreed in the course of the argument? Furthermore, why does Ar. go on to add that as regards the refined (and he sees the need to add, AND ACTIVE) that they choose honour? What would the refined, but inactive, look like? Is Ar. encouraging the refined to BECOME ennobled for they are the ones that truly have the means to do so? But, one would ask, isn’t Sardanapalus as part of the POLITICAL process, part of the struggle for honor, himself? So how is it that SOME who hold positions of power choose honor and others CHOOSE banquets and other less mentionable activities? Isn’t this WHY the many have a hearing, for wouldn’t it be utterly confusing to see some of the “refined” —or at least some of those who could have become refined—- becoming LIKE Sardanapalus? For surely Sardanapalus, one has a feeling, was perhaps once among the refined? And why does Ar. mention ONLY Sardanapalus in the NE, but in the EE he mentions many many more (EE, I, 5; and even goes into much greater detail, less prudently it seems, as to the content of the contemplative life (!): “They say that Anaxagoras …”, even mentioning the elder Socrates´ views on virtue)? Isn’t it because by mentioning ONLY ONE, we have a clear sense for what it is to be remembered for the wrong reasons? For surely now we all know, even 2500 years after, WHO Sardanapallus was? Who could wish to bestow such fame upon him/herself? Wouldn’t this be desiring a kind of inverted sickly end for eternity? But if so, then why would the many be confused about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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