Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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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Review of:

Masters of Greek Thought: Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle

(Taught by Robert C. Bartlett, The Teaching Company)

We surely must be grateful to Professor Bartlett’s incisive reflections on the nature of Socratic political philosophy as representing a modern viable alternative to our political and philosophical self-understanding. This alternative takes its path upon a close determination of what the “Socratic revolution” ——-which moved Socrates towards a perspective closer to the self-understanding of the citizens themselves——- might mean. And it is surely extremely helpful to have a more public on-line presentation of the ideas developed by Professor Strauss and his students for those of us interested in their interpretation of Aristophanes, Xenophon (virtually forgotten in academia for very specific reasons), Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

As an insider’s comment/joke, one could definitively say that this course —and going back to my mother tongue—– can be easily regarded as “el número uno”! The presentation is clear, concise, humorous and generally thought-provoking (particularly if one considers the accompanying guide as well). Professor Bartlett takes great pains to reconsider in each of his lectures the previous arguments and paths developed; and he usually ends his timely lectures with certain puzzles for the listener to continue exploring the problems revealed in the text themselves, rather than by providing a set doctrines (e.g., the “platonic doctrine of the ideas”) that could be just repeated endlessly. In this respect, the recovery of Plato’s work as a consisting of DIALOGUES with a specific audience in mind, with specific characters in play and under specific situations aids us IMMENSELY in trying to understand what at the start might be tedious, bad and irrelevant lines of argument. Something similar must be said for Bartlett’s interpretation of Aristotle’s “manner of writing”. Besides, he constantly provides examples taken from everyday life which may allow the listener to move from their simplicity to the depths of the questions addressed to us by the Classical Political Philosophy tradition. As a matter of fact and to go back to one of his favorite examples, I actually found a wallet on the street during the time I spent going through this course. I must confess the course immediately made me want to give the wallet back wholeheartedly as I had become more just, just by listening!

Of course, questions remain, and given the breadth of the course, important gaps also remain which just could not be filled (a serious one being the “jumping over” the virtue of moderation in the Nicomachean Ethics) . But perhaps the fundamental question for the course remains the Straussian interpretation which might be seen to try to “square the circle”. If ——-as we are pointed to again and again——- the Socratic revolution stems from a reconsideration of the political nature of our praxis and our reflections (particularly as regards the question of the divine and the search for a “scientific” explanation of the order of the universe as in the pre-Socratics), then this means that the political sphere is once again given its due dignity. That is to say, one cannot philosophize without encountering in dialogue the Ischomachus of our lives as Xenophon recounts arguing that it is in this very precise conversation that Socrates SAW the philosophical need for such a revolution. But this impulse to bring forth back the dignity of the political is not always easily set along the more fundamental axis of the arguments presented by the Straussians, namely, that even though the political has the aforementioned dignity, it truly remains FAR below the possibilities which the life of reflection, the life of philosophy, opens up to the citizen who starts to move towards a self-critical stance of such dignity-ridden (but perhaps self-enclosing) elements. In other words, one could ask whether to say that there is much dignity in ‘x’, but that really the dignity of ‘x’ is only visible once it sees beyond its confines, ends up throwing a massive question as to the real dignity of ‘x’ itself. Of course, this is much more evident in Plato’s Republic than in his LAWS given the metaphor of the cave and its constant allusion to the SHADOWS which make up our political reality. But this could also be seen to be true in Aristotle in the following way: though Aristotle indeed leaves behind such complex equations as the third wave of the Republic which identifies philosopher and ruler (see for example Book II of the Politics), still in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics he apparently seems to run into the same difficulties of trying to “square the circle” by showing that the life dedicated to the moral virtues, life which has a certain dignity of its own, is truly only worthy of a very secondary notion of happiness. I believe this places a massive question as regards the fundamental argument of the course, namely, that it is the Socratic revolution —his “Second sailing”—– which makes possible the very work of Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle.

And also in a similar respect, the course fails to place its interpretation among other competing interpretations which seem to fundamentally disagree with the political nature of Socratic thought. Straussian interpretations are many a time “outside the academic norm” and perhaps this course does not do enough to emphasize this crucial differentiation. In this respect, one seems not to see much of Aristophanes’ humor amongst academics nowadays. In a similar light, one need ask why it is that so few “philosophical dialogues” are actually written to day by those who are considered the “philosophers” of our time. In other words, shouldn’t reading Plato move US to write dialogues as he did?

A final massive difficulty that is pointed to, worked upon and reworked endlessly by the always helpful and rhetorically talented professor Bartlett is the choice made by Socrates to actually drink the hemlock. Although Bartlett considerations of the Crito, the Phaedo and the Apology are absolutely enlightening and profound, one has the feeling that this foundational act which determines the very memory of Socrates has to be further developed by all readers on their own.

Finally as regards what one can only wish for; THE TEACHING COMPANY would do very well in asking Professor Barlett (or Professor Pangle) to provide us with a course which FOCUSES solely on THE LAWS of Plato and the NICOMACHEAN ETHICS of Aristotle. It is my belief that we are in much need of a more public defense of the arguments presented in THE LAWS as the basis for a critical questioning and defense of our liberal democracies. In terms of the NICOMACHEAN ETHICS (from the Straussian perspective) the public could have a better understanding of the diverse moral virtues and the inherent dilemmas they present, as well as a consideration of why Aristotle was moved to write 2 ETHICS rather than only one, if one includes the Eudemian Ethics as one should. Moreover, THE TEACHING COMPANY should consider translating some of its courses so as to reach a wider audience interested in these fundamental topics.

All in all, an absolutely impressive course for which we ought to be very grateful indeed.

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