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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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