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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, 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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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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One has the feeling that successful ——-yet now much more questioned —— President Santos, as well as newly elected ——-and now much more highly questioned—— Mayor Petro, should urgently and conscientiously be touched by the attitude and the words with which Churchill defeated Chamberlain. As he is said to have said. “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference”. For surely, as important as it is to be in the cover of Time Magazine for all of us, it is a thousand-fold more important to be in the time of one´s serious citizens; and surely, as important as it is to have great rhetorical skills for all of us, it is a thousand-fold more important to be with the words of one´s serious citizens. For it is truly not enough to say that terrorism will not triumph, for with each bomb terrorism does, IN FACT, kill. A citizenry must not be afraid of terrorists, though its leaders must be critical enough to understand that each bomb, and each future bomb —–specially given that there had not been bombs for what seemed to us bogotanos an eternity—- will remain with them forever. For it is one thing to be called upon to bring back the peace after almost ceaseless violence, and quite another to be called upon to preserve a peace already much secured. President Santos and Mayor Petro have been called upon, for the most part, to preserve the peace.

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NOTE: AGAINST THE ANALYSIS BY THE GOVERNMENT, BY THE OPPOSITION, BY JOURNALISTS AND BY PEOPLE LIKE MYSELF, one should simply read this and TRY to remain silent for a while, even become a bit embarrassed: link

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Review of:

Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words

(Taught by David Zarefsky, The Teaching Company)

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

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

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

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Reflections: Leo Strauss on moderation and the extremisms of Colombia

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

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

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

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

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

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