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

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

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

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER TEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε

κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

“Stranger, announce to the Spartans that here

We lie, having fulfilled their orders.”

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

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

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

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

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

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 3

(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 THREE

The inquiry would be adequately made if it should attain the clarity that accords with the subject matter. For one should not seek out precision in all arguments alike, just as one should not do so in the products of craftsmanship either. The noble things and the just things, which the political art examines, admit of much dispute and variability, such that they are held to exist by law alone and not by nature. And even the good things admit of some such variability on account of the harm that befalls many people as a result of them: it has happened that some have been destroyed on account of their wealth, others on account of their courage.

It would certainly be desirable enough, then, if one who speaks about and on the basis of such things demonstrates the truth roughly and in outline, and if, in speaking about and on the basis of the things that are for the most part so, one draws conclusions of that sort as well. Indeed, in the same manner one must also accept each of the points being made. For it belongs to an educated person to seek out precision in each genus to the extent that the nature of the matter allows: to accept persuasive speech from a skilled mathematician appears comparable to demanding demonstrations from a skilled rhetorician. Each person judges nobly the things he knows, and of these he is the judge. He is a good judge of a particular thing, therefore if he has been educated with a view to it, but is a good judge simply if he has been educated about everything. Hence of the political art, a young person is not an appropriate student, for he is inexperienced in the actions pertaining to life, and the arguments are based on these actions and concern them.

Further, because he is disposed to follow the passions, he will listen pointlessly and unprofitably, since the involved end is not knowledge, but action. And it makes no difference at all whether he is young in age or immature in character: the deficiency is not related to time but instead arises on account of living in accord with passion and pursing each passion in turn. For to people of that sort, just as to those lacking self-restraint, knowledge is without benefit. But to those who fashion their longings in accord with reason and act accordingly, knowing about these things would be of great profit.

About the student, and how one ought to accept [what is being said], and what it is that we propose, let these things stand as a prelude.” (NE, 1094b12-1095a13; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Why does Ar. consider it necessary to proceed with his argument by digressing from the main idea of the architectonic good? He surely does not think this is necessary in the EE, does he? Is it because the EE requires a correction born out of Aristotle’s own maturation? Did Ar. apply the very words of this Subsection 3 of the NE to HIMSELF at some point in his life? And why is it that, in comparison, other ethical writers (specially, Kant), as well as other “ethical” books (specially, The Bible) do not see the need to proceed this way? Why does Aristotelianism REQUIRE this beginning? Is it because of ITS particular audience so that getting the audience RIGHT is half the task? Is it because of the central role of rhetoric we spoke of in our earlier commentaries?

2) Moreover, what to make of the craftsmanship example as an analogy for the kind of inquiry Ar. prepares us for? For instance, what does it mean that two craftsmen, 2 shoemakers for instance, make different shoes in terms of their “precision”? In other words, if one of the craftsmen´s product is “more precise” (presumably better), then why should we accept the lesser one’s products? Indeed, why should we accept an ethics on a “lesser” quality, so to speak, IF the craftsmanship analogy holds? In other words, how imprecise is imprecise? Why wouldn’t we seek the BEST inquirer as well? And isn´t that precisely the challenge Ar. gives himself, namely to provide THE model for ethical inquiry to be followed for all times while remaining as close as possible to the nature of its subject matter? Or put in another, much more problematic, way: if the analogy is to hold, who is the “craftsman”/”craftswoman” of souls? And who, FIRST crafted his/her soul to be such?

3) And isn´t this of crucial relevance with regards to what Ar. goes on to argue? Isn’t he saying that the lack of precision is DUE TO a certain relativism as regards the just and the noble, AND a certain relativism with regard to the goods themselves? But then how are we not to despair in terms of reaching the target Ar. has told us at the beginning will lead us beyond a pointless longing? How are we then not to fall into an eternal emptiness of dissatisfaction? Isn´t this the very critique by the early moderns (Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, The Federalists) to all classical republicanism and its defenders? Wouldn’t these early modern critiques argue: better not have some, even many, satisfaction(s) than aim too high and lose all human attempts at satisfaction? Will we get some of the answers, or perhaps THE answer as we read along the NE?

4) But much more importantly, what to do about the sudden and surprising reference to the crucial relation mentioned between nomos (law, custom) and physis (what is by nature) as regards the noble and the just things? If nomos is HELD TO BE variable —– for the just and the noble appear to change from one political society to another (so that Quebec’s law 101 would be considered unjust in other provinces in Canada, and Colombia’s obligatory military service would be seen as a encroachment upon individual rights in other countries)—– then how are we to guide our ethical and political lives beyond this relativity? Will it turn out that the NE will provide us with clear guidelines that refer to universal transhistorical physis? And if indeed the NE, in its discussion of natural justice in BOOK V can in fact come up with such practical/theoretical guidelines, how are we moderns —born out of a minimization of the good and of a historical relativization of the good— to actually see or make such guidelines part of OUR very own variable notions of nomos? Or put another way, does natural justice actually exist? And we moderns, born out of the discovery of history, can WE ever hear it? But if not, then are all political societies relative and consequently a hierarchical ordering between them an impossibility? Wouldn´t this run counter to Ar.´s belief that there does exist AN overarching good which allows for a careful yet clear judging amongst societal models? Or rather, should we try to grab hold on to the modern independence of states and the non-interference premise found in international affairs? But then, how does one explain THE FACT that we DO interfere? Is it because the “interveners” have read the NE?And very importantly, if the noble and the just are of the essence, why is it that Ar. will FIRST look at the moral virtues and take up the question of justice solely until BOOK V? Could it be that he is trying to see the moral virtues on their own terms, seeing whether the moral virtues sought for their own sake actually fit the bill of the argument he puts forth in outline from the start?

5) Besides, how are we to understand the example of certain goods as being harmful? Why didn’t Ar. mention this back in subsection 1, making US think of these problems in our very own puzzles; for instance, that war can be quite problematic? Is it because of the rhetorical premisses of the argument? But if so, can rhetoric then not be truly optimistic, but and in the political arena specially, truly endangering? Isn´t this why the good of peace Chamberlain sought, was merely an apparent good, though rhetorically it had a powerful appeal? For, who does not wish for peace? Wouldn’t “Machiavelli” argue something like this? But really how could a good harm one if it is good? Is it because the GOOD is not good always, or rather is it because the good in question IS good but WE are ignorant of its use? Or put another way, how could riches harm one? Is it, as Aquinas tells us, because the rich person can be robbed? But, why doesn’t Ar. say this? Why doesn’t he spell it out in the terms AQ. uses? Or is Ar. getting at something altogether different? Can riches damage YOU independently of being robbed? Can riches damage you because you are unprepared for riches? Isn’t this why Montesquieu defends Sumptuary Laws? For truly our Colombian drug-dealers are rich, aren’t they? And it would be odd to think that they, surrounded by protection, would be actually robbed? Isn´t there a greater chance of MY getting robbed? And if this is problematic, what to say about our commercially oriented modern societies which arise precisely as a CHALLENGE to Aristotelianism (see particularly Montesquieu and Locke)? And, furthermore, what to make of the example of courage? Why does Ar. here CHOOSE this example of a moral virtue and no other? First off, isn’t it the case that all societies ask of the individual not a variable/changeable thing but on the contrary the very SAME thing, namely , to be prepared to DIE for his/her society (be it democratic, theocratic, aristocratic …) if it is actually threatened by a foreign invader (one can recall the images of Stalingrad or read The Red Badge of Courage)? And what exactly is the good of courage? Is courage in fact a VIRTUE, can it be a virtue seen on its own? That is to say, how are we to understand courage independently of its being conceived as a CIVIC virtue, that is to say as focused on the common good? Isn’t Ar. preparing us for the dilemmas involving courage as the first moral virtue to be considered in BOOK III?

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 1

(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 ONE

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action as well as choice, is held to aim at some good. Hence people have nobly declared that the good is that at which all things aim. But there appears to be a certain difference among the ends: some ends are activities, others are certain works apart from the activities themselves, and in those cases in which there are certain ends apart from the actions, the works are naturally better than the activities.

Now, since there are many actions, arts and sciences, the ends too are many: of medicine, the end is health; of shipbuilding, a ship; of generalship, victory; of household management, wealth. And in all things of this sort that fall under some one capacity —for just as bridle making and such other arts as concern equestrian gear fall under horsemanship, while this art and every action related to warfare fall under generalship, so in the same manner, some arts fall under one capacity, others under another —–in all of them, the ends of the architectonic ones are more choiceworthy than all those that fall under them, for these latter are pursued for the sake of the former. And it makes no difference at all whether the ends of the actions are the activities themselves or something else apart from these, as in the sciences mentioned.” (NE, 1094a1-18; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Why does Aristotle begin his text by using such complicated, even technical, vocabulary (technē, methodos, praxis, proairesis, kalos, telos, energeia, ergon, dynamis, epistēmē..)? For surely this is not your everyday terminology, is it? I mean, one just needs to read the contrast between epistēmē and technē in Book VI to see the comprehension requirements of such a beginning, doesn’t one? Or, alternatively, one just needs to survey the complex commentaries which such a beginning has spawned in academia! But then, WHO precisely is Ar. addressing as his audience by proceeding thus? Does he wish to point to the fact that his audience must be prepared to engage a vocabulary that is not simply given in everyday experience? Will everyday experience have to somehow be “clarified” as we proceed along his path? So, wouldn’t Aristotle be seeking from the very start an audience friendly —or better, that could potentially become friendly—– to philosophical jargon, its complexities and its detailed characterizations? But, how can he guarantee this? And MUCH more importantly, doesn’t Ar. begin AS WELL by signalling to the fact that he will bow in his ethical investigations to what is “held to be” (dokein) the case? And surely “what is held to be” is precisely what thinks itself in no need whatsoever of investigation, isn’t it? So, isn´t the audience that hears Ar. comprised as well by those morally sound citizens whose opinions are seen to be noble (kalos) from the very beginning? And, aren’t the examples actually given in subsection 1 taken from the very everyday activities known to any educated citizen of the polis? For it would be odd to think that shipbuilding/war goes on in the Lyceum, wouldn’t it? Consequently, wouldn’t Ar. be pointing to the fact that this audience has a kind of dual nature? Aren’t we moved to understand that philosophers must confront a mixed kind of audience, namely, those who have been properly educated in moral things, and those —-much much fewer, one surmises—– who being properly educated in these noble things, have a underlying longing to understand whence such education? Thus, wouldn’t such an audience be conformed both by serious citizens as well as would be individuals keen in understanding the foundation of such moral education, and because GOOD, absolutely clear on the dangers of philosophy to practical life? (Warning made explicit in EE, 1216b39-1217a6)

2) But then again, why does Aristotle wish to point to the relationship between the noble and the good? Why exactly should this be THE beginning? What is it about the noble that gives it such weight that IT allows for the beginning of THE serious ethical inquiry? Who could be the audience such that the noble would be an object of admiration and desire? Who would actually be moved by such initial assumptions? All humans? Surely not. All the citizens? Perhaps only those ALREADY capable of hearing the noble? But then, what are THEY to learn? Or, is it would-be philosophers in the Lyceum? But aren’t they supposed to question “assumptions” such as this? And, crucially, what is the nature of this kind of relationship between the noble and the good that the means of communication by the philosopher is by way of rhetorical argumentation and the use of enthymeme (Rh, 1355a)? Why does rhetoric in the investigation of the ethical take precedence over the scientific and logically syllogistic? Is the enthymeme simply a truncated syllogism? Or is it the other way around, the truncated syllogism being that syllogism which is SIMPLY scientific? Don’t many modern discussion around the ethics suffer, precisely, from this illness of inversion? But then again, what if modernity has actually subverted such rhetorical skills? How then are we to prepare ourselves to be able to listen to such beginnings? Can we moderns, in fact, even listen to the noble in its true magnitude?

3) In what perhaps has to be one of the complex puzzles: Why does Aristotle introduce the issue of teleology from the start? “By nature” (physis); what does that exactly mean? Does it mean what it means for Montesquieu at the beginning of The Spirit of the Laws? Does it mean what it means for us post-Galileans? Don’t we obviously know that Aristotle deluded himself into thinking that the universe had an intrinsic teleology which can no longer be accounted for? Or rather, aren’t WE deluding ourselves into thinking we in fact understand Aristotle so that we have little or nothing to learn from him in terms of the understanding of the whole (in this regard Bolotin’s An Approach to Aristotle’s Physics: With Particular Attention to the Role of His Manner of Writing, is of the essence)? Is “nature” merely a concatenation of natural effects and causes following certain “natural” laws (see Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, Chapter V. “Of Reason and Science”? Or rather, does it refer to a certain intelligibility of the whole? But then again, what in humans makes them capable of understanding such a whole? And how is the understanding of the whole made accessible SOLELY by way of an understanding of the ethical/political things? And if this were true, wouldn’t then the NE be THE entrance point par excellence?

4) And why the initial reference to choice? Is Aristotle prudently, gently, preparing some of us for a choice which involves getting to understand the noble and its dynamics? Why so? Because in the EE, Aristotle in contrast has NO qualms whatsoever about making it LOUD AND CLEAR to the reader that the question is, in fact, one of CHOICE (EE, 1214b6-13: “everyone who can live according to his own choice should adopt some goal for a the fine life … “) ? But then again, why is Ar. so reticent about being as LOUD in the NE? Is it because of his better understanding of the nature of the mixed audience attending his lectures? Isn’t part of the audience, the noble part, less akin to the loudness of philosophical inquiry? Wouldn’t that audience rarely —if ever—- visit the Lyceum where the activity of dialogical questioning is taken for granted? And, very importantly for students of Ar., wouldn’t this signal to the greater maturity present in the NE in contrast to the EE? Or put another way, wouldn’t the EE stand to Plato’s Republic, as the NE stands to the elder Plato’s Laws?

5) And, why does Aristotle seem to struggle with the hierarchical relation between different ends, those that are activities for their own sake, and those which have an end (a work) apart from the activities themselves? Why does he FIRST say that the those with works apart are naturally better (again, in what sense of “nature”?)? But then at the end of this very same Subsection 1, he goes on to, seemingly, contradict himself by saying that actually “it makes no difference at all whether the ends of the actions are the activities themselves or something else apart form these”? Didn’t he just a few lines before argue the exact opposite? Why exactly is Aristotle trying to “confuse” us? Is he trying to get us to see that the relation between ethical activity and its “products” is one that will be shown to be problematic? For shouldn’t one be ethical for the sake of the activity itself and not for any results stemming from these noble actions? Or put another way, what is the product of being ethical apart from being ethical? Wouldn’t that alone be the greatest pleasure? Is the product for another, or rather the product becoming oneself a certain kind of person? Or put another way, can the moral virtues be seen solely for their own sake, and not for any ulterior product which they may obtain? And we know, as well, that Ar. will go on to claim that eudaimonia, which is in fact THE end of our human activity, is in fact not a state but an ACTIVITY? So once again, Ar. seems to make us puzzle precisely as to which type of ends take precedence over the others. Or, rather, may there not be instances in which the activity undergone IS the “product”? Isn’t the relation between logos (speech) and ergon (deed) a bit like this? Because, following Ar. and the Socratic legacy, isn’t the core question HOW we should lead our lives? And, isn’t Ar. starting to signal, perhaps, that understanding is some such kind of activity?

6) And as regards the famous expression “hence people have nobly declared that the good is that at which all things aim”, why once again is Aristotle so reticent to distinguish between the “good simply” and the merely “apparent good”? For surely we may believe of our arts, inquiries, actions and choices that they may be directed towards the/our good, but be totally wrong about this! Evidently too many are not (drug trafficking, lock-picking, bullying, smoking, stealing, murdering, prostituting ….) Why is Aristotle so resistant about giving us any of the too well-known bad examples? Isn’t it, of course, because of the connection to the puzzles put forward in 2)? Or to provide an example, why would Ar. simply see with amazement —or better, disgust—- the fact that Colombian TV networks, and MANY citizens, find it unproblematic to produce a series on the life of Pablo Escobar? And what is it about our anti-Aristotelianism that allows such actions to generate HUGE ratings and economic benefits? And, beyond this, if “the good is that at which all things aim”, surely what this superior end is, must be further dealt with? For Ar. knows quite well —as he will let us CLEARLY know as he proceeds in Book I—- that there is a philosophical tradition stemming from “Plato” that seems to claim that THE Good, and most probably also those who claim to know IT, are “not even of this world”! Doesn’t Ar. know all-too-well Aristophanes Clouds?

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

INTRODUCTION

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

A. NEGATIVE SETTING

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

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

El interés principal para esta propuesta de investigación ——como aspirante a su departamento——- es la de hacer una defensa profunda de lo que representa la filosofía política clásica como posible respuesta a la actual crisis del liberalismo moderno occidental. Dicha investigación se enfrentaría conceptualmente a los defensores del proyecto de la modernidad que buscan las condiciones universales para la defensa de nuestras democracias en una teoría comunicativa (Habermas), y a aquellas posturas que buscan hacer explícitas las condiciones fundacionales imaginarias e hipotéticas para una teoría de la justicia (Rawls). Por otra parte, aunque esta investigación ve la importancia del serio y profundo cuestionamiento radical a la razón moderna que plantean las obras de Nietzsche/Heidegger ——–que en su conjunto incluso llegan a cuestionar el proyecto occidental de racionalidad política fundado originariamente por Sócrates—– esta considera que la falta de una reflexión política sostenida permite a los neo-nietzscheanos post-modernistas (Foucault, Derrida) una ilusoria victoria conceptual que permanece incompleta, que es imprudente (en el sentido Aristotélico de phronesis), y que por ende es altamente peligrosa para la salud general de la comunidad política. En contraposición, afirmamos que es en la obra ético-política de Aristóteles que se da la máxima expresión de lo que representa la filosofía política clásica como contrapropuesta. (1)

Dejando de lado las múltiples interpretaciones que puedan haber surgido de Aristóteles, lo cierto es que al centro de la argumentación detrás de esta investigación radica una lectura que se funda en el pensamiento de Leo Strauss (y en particular, de su estudiante Thomas Pangle). En general el reto neo-aristotélico se ve enmarcado dentro de una tradición aún más amplia que se puede comprender hoy en día como la del “movimiento socrático”. Este movimiento de retorno retoma con seriedad el evento socrático ejemplar, a saber, el de la fundación de la reflexión filosófica de lo político por parte de Sócrates. Comprenden ellos que en efecto hay un segundo Sócrates que se ha distanciado de las presuposiciones apolíticas de los pre-socráticos, presuposiciones que llegaron a conformar la postura conceptual del primer Sócrates interesado exclusivamente en la pregunta por la naturaleza (physis). Esto es lo que es conocido como la “segunda navegación” de Sócrates (Fedón, 99c). Strauss lo resume así: “Socrates was the first philosopher who concerned himself chiefly or exclusively, not with the heavenly or divine things, but with the human things”; Strauss (TCaM, 13).  Es por ello que para lograr una real recuperación del reto del pensamiento político clásico se debe recurrir a la ya mencionada perspectiva que ve el debate antiguos-modernos como el conflicto fundamental para las aspiraciones de una verdadera filosofía política que tenga respuestas concretas, prudentes y sabias a nuestras crisis. (2) Sin embargo este retorno comprometido y serio al racionalismo de la filosofía política clásica tiene ya desde su comienzo diversas variantes interpretativas. Esto se puede ver claramente en la triple comprensión que se da de Sócrates por parte de Platón el filósofo dialéctico, por parte de Jenofonte el escritor militar y por parte de Aristófanes el comediante. La evidente tensión entre estas apropiaciones socráticas se ve claramente hoy en día en el contexto filosófico universitario en la medida en que Jenofonte no es considerado, como sí lo era en la antigüedad (por los romanos, por Maquiavelo, por Hobbes y por Shaftesbury), como un pensador digno de un estudio serio, profundo y continuado; sobretodo por la recuperación del valor de la retórica como lenguaje privilegiado de lo político. (3)

Ahora bien, la excepción a esta regla de exclusión silenciosa, es precisamente la propia tradición straussiana. Al recuperar la multiplicidad de lenguajes socráticos, y muy especialmente la obra de Jenofonte, la tradición straussiana gana una interpretación enriquecida de los clásicos, y en particular, de la obra aristotélica. El retorno recuperativo de la filosofía política clásica por parte de la tradición straussiana por lo tanto permite el planteamiento de preguntas olvidadas. Por ello a la base de esta interpretación surge la pregunta fundamental que el discurso filosófico moderno ha relegado al olvido, a saber, la pregunta misma de ¿por qué la filosofía? A la importancia de las preguntas heideggerianas tanto por el sentido del ser como por el “¿qué es la filosofía?”, se enfrenta una pregunta aún más fundamental y originaria en términos políticos. Es decir, el “qué es” de la filosofía sólo se puede comprender cabalmente una vez hayamos realizado una investigación prudente del “por qué” de la necesidad del filosofar dentro de la comunidad política. Leo Strauss ofrece cierta claridad acerca de esta pregunta que funda las posibilidades del saber filosófico una vez se ha liberado de su “amnesia” frente a la filosofía política clásica: “The philosophers, as well as other men who have become aware of the possibility of philosophy, are sooner or later driven to wonder, Why philosophy? Why does human life need philosophy? … To justify philosophy before the tribunal of the political community means to justify it in terms of the political community, that is to say, by means of a kind of argument which appeals, not to philosophers as such, but to citizens as such.” (mi énfasis) (4) Sin duda la academia, en gran medida, no ha escuchado este llamado. (more…)

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With the welcome publication of the important Recovering Reason: Essays in Honor of Thomas L. Pangle (ed. Timothy Burns, here)  we now have an accessible bibliography for those of us interested in the work of a true exemplar of the philosophic life, its depth and its joy.  This post merely transcribes said bibliography.

(Note 1: For an important lecture by Professor Pangle on the nature of Socratic Political Philosophy following Leo Strauss see here . Only viewable on the Windows Platform).

(Note 2: For a recent interview by the Jack Miller Center see here . )

(Note 3: Those seriously interested but unable to have access to most of these works, specially in developing countries, contact me.)

Bibliography of the Published Work of Thomas L. Pangle

1973
Montesquieu ‘s Philosophy of  Liberalism; A Commentary on The Spirit of the
Laws. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Review of Charles Yost’s The Conduct and Misconduct of American Foreign
Policy. Yale Review 62. no. 4 (June); XVI-XVIII.

1974
Review of R. Hackforth’s Plato’s Phaedo, Phaedrus. and Philebus. American
Political Science Review 68, no. I (Mar.): 258-260.

Review of John Stuart Mill, The Later Letters (4 vols.) edited by Francis E.
Mineka and Dwight N. Lindley. Yale Review 63, no. 1 (Oct.): VIII-XII.

1975
“England After 1832.” The Yale Review 65, no. 1 (Oct.): 143-46. (Review
essay of Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, edited by Norman St. John
Stevas. The Political Essays, Vols. V-VIII.)

1976
“‘The Political Psychology of Religion in Plato’s Laws.” American Political
Science Review 70. no. 4: 1059-77.

“The Moral basis of National Security: Four Historical Perspectives.” In
Historical Dimensions of National Security Studies, edited by Klaus Knorr.
307-72. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Review of Eric Voegelin’s From Enlightenment to Revolution. Political Theory
4, no. 1 (Feb.): 104-08.

1977
Review of G. M. A. Grube’s Plato: Republic. American Political Science Review
71 no. 3: 1336-37.

1978
“Rediscovering Rights.” The Public Interest 50 (Winter): 157-60. (Review
essay of Ronald Dworkin’s Taking Rights Seriously.)

“The Period of Cold War.” The Yale Review 67, no. 2 (Dec.): 289 -92. (Review
essay of Daniel Yergin’s The Shattered Peace.)

Review of Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars. American Political Science
Review 72, no. 4: 1393-95.

Review of D. J. Manning, Liberalism. American Political Science Review 72,
no. 4: 1380-81.

Review of Melvin Richter’s  The Political Theory of’ Montesquieu and David
Carrithers’ A Compendium of The Spirit of the Laws. Political Theory 6, no
4: 567-69.

1979
“A Note on the Theoretical Foundation of the Just War Doctrine,” The Thomist
43, no. 3: 464-73.

Review of W. B. Gallie’s  Philosophers of Peace and War. Review of
Metaphysics 33. no. 2.

1980
The Laws of Plato, translated with notes and a book-length interpretive study.
New York: Basic Books.
Review of Charles Beitz’s Political Theory and International Relations. Review
of Metaphysics 34. no. 1.

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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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