Posts Tagged ‘on Socrates’


Reflections: Political Thoughts on Sustainable Development (A Commentary on Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs’s Coursera course: “The Age of Sustainable Development”)

Having had the opportunity to start to undertake Professor Sachs´s quite informative and extremely educational course on Sustainable Development (SD) –now going into its 6th week— I would like to briefly express some of my concerns and questions regarding SD. Of course, as I read the Discussion Forums, many point to issues regarding the many factors involved in the implementation of the policies which SD allows us to better see and hopefully, to implement, specially in those cases of “poverty trap” in which the conditions are more troubling and recurring. No one wishes to live in inhuman hardship all his/her life; extreme poverty must be eradicated via a concerted effort, and by all ethical means available. In this regard, many of the now famous “TED talks” allow us to try to imagine the hardships and thus feel the importance of connecting lovingly for serious practical improvement: for example, TED talks by: 1) Bono, 2) Jacqueline Novogratz (specially the one regarding prostitution), and my two favorite, 3) Jessica Jackley, founder of KIVA  here , and 4) Bunker Roy founder of the Barefoot Movement here . Also, non-academic books such as The International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris, which tells the story of microfinancing success KIVA whose motto is tellingly “loans that change lives”, humble us and transform us in ways we could not even foresee. In brief, many are concerned, and rightly so, with practical issues. Many forum posts in this course come to mind in this regard. Let us just recall a simple one:

“Hello all peers,  My name is Abdikadir Daud from Ethiopian Somali region, I’m forwarding my thanks to the course   facilitator because I got extended knowledge from this course and I will transfer this skill to my communities .
Abdikadir” ( here )

Abdikadir from Ethiopia, like many of us from around the world, wants to make a difference.

However, my questions proceed from a very different area. They pertain to philosophical questions, that is to say, they deal with the core concepts, formulations and assumptions which must be put forward in the case of any given approach to the complex political and economic reality in which we live. P. Sachs himself does not tire of saying that SD is not merely a PRACTICAL path to CHANGE the world, but also –and more importantly— a THEORETICAL path to UNDERSTAND the world (Lecture 1, Week 1; and beginning of 1st Google Hangout, here ). He even goes so far as to say that it is a NORMATIVE framework which means it involves certain moral presuppositions. These convey the limits, for instance, for all business practices; not everything that is legal should be done. (see, for instance, 2nd Google Hangout: Question No. 4, “On the role of regulation of business.”) Consequently, my main concern regarding the EXCELLENT lectures we have been fortunate to partake in, is to signal –however embryonically– to some of the more puzzling philosophical underpinnings underlying the Sustainable Development Movement. This means that, according to such a critique, it becomes extremely important to undergo a rational critique of the core concepts which guide the interpretative self-understanding of SD. I believe that training in the humanities (specially, political philosophy) alone provides the impulse to see the real importance of such a critique, a political/philosophical critique. I also believe that, given this theoretical inclination, few of our fellow Coursera virtual classmates will proceed to consider the rest of this –much longer than normal– post!

Obviously –though I have lived half of my life in Colombia (which exemplifies many of the problems P. Sachs speaks of, and MORE!) and the other half in Canada (which exemplifies many of the benefits of which P. Sachs speaks of, and MORE!)— we must immediately confess that we do not possess the intellectual capacity nor the global comprehension that somebody like P. Sachs allows us to perceive in each of his engaging video-lectures for the Coursera course. We are but learners, poor in understanding. Be this as it may, nonetheless we will venture to point to what I consider to be some extremely troubling silences and/or omissions which may make us –should make us– question SD forcefully.

Now, although I have already tweeted  to #susdev some general short questions, for instance: 1) “ #susdev Suppose we ALL were middle-income citizens of the world. Is that enough? Would our spirit not lose sight of what is MOST important?”, or 2) “ #susdev Isn´t there a rhetorical identification between “extreme poverty” and “poverty” which does not allow for a real critique of SD goals?”, still –as mentioned above– our concern in this post is somewhat more detailed or profound.

We could say that SD, in general —and Clinical Economics, in particular— could be giving us a “differential diagnosis” that may SEEM to point to the root cause of things, variable as they may be, but which may end up REALLY missing the CORE causes of the general “disease” with which some thinkers believe we are currently afflicted as moderns and post-moderns. And by missing some of the CORE causes, it might not be providing the best “medicine(s)” available/desirable. In the philosophical arena, the most radical critics in this regard would be those who follow Heidegger´s powerful critique of technology. Though extremely important, we shall not go into that camp here in detail.

Rather, using P. Sachs own clinical analogy, we can say that it is common nowadays to see traditional Western medicine incapable of treating complex diseases which do not have to deal with physical trauma or life-death situations. Chronic illness, such as different forms of arthritis/fibromyalgia, are a case in point. Of course, P. Sachs´s views seem to us to be much more akin to alternative medicine, in this respect. For one of the basic tenets of alternative medicine is that each patient is UNIQUE. So, each country, according to “Differential Clinical Economics” is likewise, quite UNIQUE. P. Sachs does not tire of saying that a holistic approach to the healing of poverty cannot be founded on a single linear conception of cause. Failing to understand this uniqueness may in fact worsen the situation beyond recovery. In medicine, one need only bring to mind the controversy over the drug Celebrex which not only did not actually cure your arthritis (it simply alleviated the pain), but actually –with certainty– damaged your heart! The history of many other drugs follows this pattern, unfortunately. In political life, the current political turmoil of countries such as our feverish neighbor Venezuela, may be thought to be something akin. As you will see, given the spirit of this post, one truly wonders what P. Sachs´s thoughts are on the current crisis in Venezuela, precisely because its regime claims to hold power for the poor. However that may be, P. Sachs —who also helped Bolivia during its feverish times— summarizes this view well:

“The modern doctor is expected to diagnose the specific causes of a specific patient’s illness and to offer a specific prescription that is accurately honed to that patient’s conditions and needs. The modern economist should do the same in diagnosing the persistence of poverty.” (our emphasis; Chapter 4: “Why Some Countries Developed While Others Stayed Poor, I. The Idea of Clinical Economics”)


Thus, one imagines that if P. Sachs himself were to fall ill, he would most likely search for an alternative medicine center rather than a traditional monolithic hospital built on unquestioned homogeneous forms of understanding, (or better yet, both if possible, for not all traditional doctors are self-enclosed and not all alternative doctors are truly open). The drama of the latest candidate for the Oscar Awards which deals with HIV/Aids –the compelling movie, Dallas Buyers Club—exemplifies all these tensions perfectly. For we, who have been sick, know well that the sick are among the poorest, mind you.

But, as you will see below, our critique could be said to involve a much more intense and alternative diagnosis than the one which P. Sachs offers. It would be an alternative to the alternative; but much more troubling. It would be an alternative that would show –if someday made fully explicit– that the alternative provided by SD is, in the end, really, really, not so much of an alternative except in the imagination, albeit with some crucial exceptions, among them, that of the eradication of extreme poverty itself. The idealistic overtones of SD would be seen thus to be constantly destabilized by the realistic peculiarities of localities, by a kind of non-Machiavellian political realism (i.e., much closer to Thucydides´s) and by certain “intractables” of human nature. Or to be less severe and less cranky (!) —for we know, as its students, that SD has partially succeeded IN REALITY through exciting models such as those of the Millennium Villages– one could say that the goals of SD, for instance, the Eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG´S), must be corrected with recourse to another tradition which not only sets the hierarchy of these goals aright, but also may add some which may have been altogether forgotten in SD differential diagnosis, however complete it claims to be. ( here )


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

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




“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)

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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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.


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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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.


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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Educación,  interculturalidad y estudios del lenguaje.

(Breve ensayo para posible concurso académico.)

Aunque son múltiples los senderos que podemos seguir para intentar esclarecer, así sea tan sólo inicialmente, la complejísima relación entre educación, interculturalidad y los estudios de lenguaje, escogeré enfocarme en aquellos senderos que he recorrido en mi proceso de aprendizaje investigativo. Pero antes de entrar de lleno en ellos deseo enfatizar que, dada mi experiencia vital integral, resulta claro que cualquier investigación de la tríada educación-cultura-lenguaje se verá infinitamente enriquecida  —y cobrará un sentido de realidad y veracidad particulares—- si se ha tenido la fortuna y la dedicación para integrar en la vida propia los siguientes cuatro elementos que giran en torno a la temática del lenguaje,  y que inevitablemente van más allá de la simple experiencia académica.

Estos cuatros aspectos que considero claves para una real comprensión de las dinámicas lingüísticas son: 1) el hecho mismo de aprender varios idiomas, lo que nos enfrenta directamente con las dinámicas del aprendizaje y sus particularidades individuales (en mi caso, aprendizaje del inglés, francés y griego antiguo; para no mencionar los desarrollos artísticos paralelos), 2) vivir por largos periodos de tiempo en la cultura misma dentro de la cual el lenguaje cobra su dinámica vital en tanto ”forma de vida” (en mi caso, ciudadano colombo-canadiense con títulos en ambos países y largos periodos de vida en sus diversas culturas, la latina, la anglosajona y la francesa de Québec), 3) el haber podido realizar una multiplicidad de lecturas académicas correspondientes a la temática en cuestión (en mi caso, i) la concepción de la dinámica lingüística a partir de la obra de Charles Taylor, y ii) la concepción —altamente crítica de la filosofía tayloriana— de lo que es una educación liberal fundada en la filosofía política clásica a partir de la reinterpretación de la vida socrática realizada por Leo Strauss y su estudiante Thomas Pangle),  y  finalmente, 4) la posibilidad diaria de enseñar/traducir  el idioma que buscamos comprender en su real y cambiante complejidad (en mi caso, enseñanza del idioma inglés por más de una década, y traductor oficial tanto en Colombia como en Canadá).

A mi modo de ver, al poder incorporar estos cuatros elementos vitales y conceptuales, logramos tener mejores herramientas ——herramientas más humildes y autocríticas——- para intentar siquiera entrar a considerar el enigma que es el lenguaje humano y su relación con la educación. Sobretodo, con respecto a la educación en el sentido griego liberal de las cosas y su postura crítica frente a la dominante, constantemente aplaudida y siempre solicitada sobre-especialización; sobresegura sí, pero muchas veces irrelevante y vacua. Porque parece que cada vez sabemos más en detalle, pero de lo menos relevante. Y porque es claro que la comprensión del lenguaje es inevitablemente, particularmente, el camino privilegiado para la auto-comprensión.

Dados los anteriores elementos quisiera simplemente enfocar la líneas de investigación que de hecho he realizado con respecto al lenguaje hasta estos momentos (¡interrumpidos por la aparición de la enfermedad y su particular lenguaje!), lineamientos sobretodo fundamentados ——a la manera de Aristóteles—— en la idea de que el ser humano es un ser, en parte, por naturaleza político. Es lo político lo que abre, sin lugar a duda, y de manera privilegiada, la particular triada educación-interculturalidad-lenguaje. O como lo dice el programa mismo de su facultad: “lo anterior nace del convencimiento de que solo a través del lenguaje se ejercen los derechos civiles y sin su manejo adecuado el ciudadano estará siempre sometido a la exclusión. “

¿Qué ejemplos dinámicos de interculturalidad podríamos mencionar, hablando concretamente de las investigaciones ya realizadas? Al menos, y de manera muy sumaria, los siguientes cuatro: (more…)

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“Lo vital es lo irracional,
Lo antivital es lo racional.”

Chávez  (Documental canadiense titulado Revolución)

Comienza usted su muy cuestionable columna, indicando que en lo que concierne al racionalismo filosófico-político clásico, y en particular a la vertiente de Platón:

“Aún muchas personas que no han leído a Platón conocen su propuesta de una República aristocrática donde los más sabios, que son a la vez los más virtuosos, han de ser los llamados a gobernar el Estado-ciudad.”

Ya con estas palabras se indica el camino del descalabro. Los descalabros sobretodo más dramáticos se dan cuando una interpretación precisamente se funda en “rumores” –y se perpetúa a la manera de “rumores”—– más que en serias aproximaciones a los complejos textos en cuestión. Es claro que en tanto académico, y usted ha de saberlo bien como profesor,  intenta uno estar abierto a diversas interpretaciones de textos fundacionales. Sin embargo, cuando una interpretación es tan contrario, o tan simplificada, o tan tediosamente repetitiva, (o peor aún,  las tres a la vez),  en lo que se refiere a un texto para la reflexión política primordial  ——-es decir, la reflexión de un texto que abre el camino en occidente para la reflexión de una temática fundacional, la de la virtud de la justicia— se debe confrontar dicha interpretación limitada decididamente. Y si dicha interpretacion, en su aparente seguridad, además es utilizada para generar implicaciones políticas concretas y juzgamientos éticos específicos, pues con mayor decisión ha de confrontarse con seriedad.

Lo cierto es que toda su columna se funda en la presuposición interpretativa, repetida hasta el cansancio por la izquierda radical y la izquierda de centro latina una y otra vez sin imaginación hermenéutica inspiradora, de que La República de Platón tiene como conclusión fundamental el que la verdadera justicia, virtud fundamental de lo político en tanto que revela las condiciones para el bien común,  se dará solamente cuando los gobernantes virtuosos sean los filósofos y los filósofos virtuosos (que usted parece identificar con seres de perfección) sean los gobernantes. Es decir, la solución al problema de lo político se da en la coincidencia entre poder y saber. (1)

Pero una lectura más interesada en el aprendizaje de los grandes filósofos y escritores políticos clásicos  revela todo lo contrario; en particular, nada más foráneo al pensamiento dialógico platónico fundado sobre la base de una cierta skepsis socrática que va a contrapelo tanto de  un relativismo insulso que caracteriza muchas de nuestras decisiones éticas actuales, como de un absolutismo conceptual de formulismos repetitivos ad infinitum. Es más, tal vez nada haya hecho más daño político en América Latina que el silenciamiento de la filosofía política clásica que como usted parece asegurar indirectamente, estaba tan equivocada, que poco ha de enseñarnos como modernos. Pero me pregunto, ¿qué tal que los destinos del continente tal y como lo reveló Unasur, se estén generando a través de un efectivo silenciamiento de alternativas cuya fortaleza es en cambio reconocida a lo largo de la historia y de las culturas? ¿Qué tal que encontrásemos en Platón, o mejor, en la Filosofía Política Clásica como tal (Tucídides, Platón, Jenofonte, Aristóteles, Plutarco y Cicerón), el gran camino de moderación que es requerido para una real resolución a nuestra encrucijada como país y como continente? Porque, ¿no resultaría irónico que entre más se dice que se une América del Sur bajo una visión “social demócrata de izquierda” que pide valorar la diferencia, termine triunfando al eliminar la diferencia que una vez predicó hasta el cansancio? ¿No resultaría  altamente cuestionable el que  dicha retórica de apertura se mantuviese solamente “hasta conseguir el poder” que permita instaurar un nuevo régimen “revolucionario” absolutista?

Pero dejando estas preguntas de tan grande envergadura de lado, me limitaré ahora a  argumentar más concretamente el por qué su suposición es tan injusta en tanto académico, y seriamente equivocada en tanto candidato presidencial. Para ello recurriré a 3 puntos centrales –——lo más brevemente expuestos—– que espero le revelen la necesidad de retomar las preguntas fundacionales que permitan una argumentación mucho más profunda y enriquecedora de los dilemas y las encrucijadas a las que nos enfrentamos en la Colombia de hoy. Estos puntos serán; 1) aspectos del diálogo de Platón titulado la Apología, 2) aspectos del  famoso texto de la República al que usted hace alusión pasajera, y finalmente,  3) en tanto apéndice, aspectos relacionados con otro diálogo platónico, Las Leyes,  que permite una reconsideración que lo que hemos de entender por republicanismo clásico y de las intenciones platónicas que subyacen a su obra.

1. La Apología

Comencemos más allá de La República con lo más “obvio”, sinceramente, aquello que es demasiado obvio. La obra de Platón  gira en torno a, o mejor, es una defensa dialógica  de la vida de Sócrates. Ahora bien, como veremos, resultaría altísimamente extraño que  Platón “dedique” su obra a aquel ser del cual aprendió el filosofar, y sin embargo a la vez defendiera las posiciones que usted le atribuye. Por ello en la Apología de Sócrates (cuya lectura debe ser acompañada de la Apología de Jenofonte), no encontramos rastro alguno de esa ecuación que usted asume como fundamento de la “teoría platónica de las cosas”, a saber, una coincidencia entre el filósofo y el gobernante como resolución a la pregunta por la virtud de la justicia. En cambio, lo realmente impactante es que Sócrates allí precisamente dice y defiende —defiende con su vida ya que esta en un juicio condenado a la más severa pena posible por parte de la justicia política misma— todo lo contrario! Según Sócrates en dicho texto, que se da tan solo días antes de su muerte, el saber filosófico es por naturaleza una acción que se acomoda de manera mucho más saludable al ámbito de lo privado. Pero en vez de llenarnos de más “rumores”,  escuchemos al propio Sócrates:

“This is what opposes my political activity, and its opposition seems to me altogether noble. For know well, men of Athens, if I had long ago attempted to be politically active, I would long ago have perished, and I would have benefited neither you nor myself. Now do not be vexed with me when I speak the truth. For there is no human being who will preserve his life if he genuinely opposes either you or any other multitude and prevents many unjust and unlawful things to happen in the city. Rather, if someone who really fights for the just is going to preserve himself even for a short time, it is necessary for him to lead a private rather than a public life (mi énfasis: Apo. 31d-32a; edición Thomas G. West, disculpe la falta de traducción)

Como ha de ser evidente, estas palabras van en total oposición a su suposición, y por ende ponen en entredicho toda su columna ya que una coincidencia entre gobernantes y filósofos implicaría que los filósofos socráticos están de entrada interesados primordialmente en la búsqueda del poder político en el ámbito publico como medio para instaurar su visión absolutamente segura de la  justicia. Ahora bien, el por qué Sócrates prefiere la vida privada a la pública, bueno, eso sólo es posible entrar a considerar si superamos de una vez por todas su errada suposición que, para usar términos marxistas,  es enajenadora.  Pero sin duda unas de las claves radican precisamente en hacer la pregunta por la justicia no sólo en cuanto a su relación con las virtudes políticas tomadas como fines en sí mismas, sino también en cuanto a su relación con la noción de “felicidad” en términos de lo que cubre la correspondiente palabra griega eudaimonia.


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Reflections: Response to “El Tiempo” columns 7: Comentario a Francisco Cajiao: “Educar para la Política”, febrero 17 de 2009.

Debo decir que es casi siempre un verdadero placer leer sus columnas. Su profundo conocimiento de las dinámicas educativas de Colombia es admirable.

Ahora bien, considero que en su columna sobre educación para la política hay varios elementos de gran importancia. Ante las actuales dificultades políticas que vive nuestro país —y las conectadas dificultades éticas y educativas—— usted invita al lector, en parte, a hacer un recorrido histórico hacia los griegos. En este sentido usted, muy prudente y acertadamente, indica que hay al menos dos elementos a considerar. Citándolo directamente dice usted:  1. “La política es el comportamiento fundamental del ciudadano. Política viene de polis (ciudad). Por eso, cuando se habla de competencias ciudadanas es necesario entender que ellas deben conducir a la formación política. …. el ciudadano debe aprender desde su infancia a discriminar lo que conviene para el bien común, de acuerdo con un orden ético y jurídico.”,  y 2. “Siempre, desde la antigua Grecia, se consideró la educación como el medio privilegiado para fortalecer la democracia, formando ciudadanos libres, capaces de discutir sus diferencias y propuestas mediante el ejercicio de la razón. Por esto, el ágora es el espacio privilegiado de la política.”

Al primer elemento le podemos dar el nombre famoso de republicanismo clásico en la medida en que el ser humano según Aristóteles es por naturaleza un ser político. El segundo elemento que usted enfatiza acertadamente es lo que podríamos llamar la importancia de una educación liberal para los griegos. Lo cierto es que en su conjunto estos dos elementos indican una parte de las bases fundamentales de la reflexión filosófica sobre la política que encontramos principalmente en la obra de Aristóteles, que a su vez está respondiendo de manera directa, y también indirecta, a las reflexiones políticas y filosóficas por parte de Platón y su maestro Sócrates. Pero como veremos, estos dos elementos no subsisten de manera tan armónica como podríamos pensar, y sobretodo como podríamos desear, en tanto modernos. Es decir, en tanto modernos nos parecería obvio que, si  logramos dar con el adecuado tipo de educación política, entonces lograríamos llevar o transferir a la realidad esas conclusiones, los resultados de dicha investigación, como base de un proyecto político definitivo de fundamentos universales y generalizables. De esta manera, entonces la práctica y la teoría se retroalimentarían de manera beneficiosa para ambas de tal manera que la justicia se encarnaría como nunca antes. Algo así sí creyó posible todo movimiento marxista/socialista/comunista (y más aún el leninista/stalinista que es modelo aún para las afiebradas FARC) con su consigna de transformación total de la realidad tal y como aparece formulada de manera dramática en las breves y famosas Tesis sobre Feuerbach del propio Marx: (“Tesis 11: Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.)

Pero me temo que semejante proyecto que cree que la educación política puede adquirir real vida y guiar decididamente “desde arriba” (e incluso militarmente) el quehacer político contrasta radicalmente con el verdadero realismo filosófico-político de los grandes pensadores políticos griegos Platón, Jenofonte y Aristóteles (posteriormente complementados por la obra de Cicerón para los romanos). No puedo entrar en detalle aquí, pero por ejemplo, el ejercicio dialógico que presenta La República de Platón, cuyo tema es la pregunta de su interés, es decir, la pregunta por la virtud de la justicia (virtud fundacional de lo político en tanto que nos remite al “bien común”),  invita no a que fundemos una ciudad realmente gobernada por aquellos filósofos políticos o líderes que supuestamente sí han logrado ver el verdadero esquema educativo a seguir, sino todo lo contrario, invita a ver en cierta medida el por qué de las limitaciones profundas y serias de creer que la teoría puede llegar a tener semejantes efectos sobre la realidad política de cualquier ciudad o de cualquier comunidad política. Es más, al comienzo del drama que es este diálogo fundacional entre Sócrates y dos interesantes jóvenes (Glaucón y Adimanto) con intereses políticos diversos, Sócrates mismo es forzado a permanecer en la discusión contra su propia voluntad. Posteriormente en el diálogo Las Leyes Platón retoma de nuevo las intrínsecas limitaciones de lo político comenzando esta vez su investigación desde el lenguaje propio  de lo político. Por ejemplo, los interlocutores son ahora hombres mucho mayores, ya no de Atenas sino de una ciudad extranjera debido a la peligrosa complejidad de las preguntas propuestas, hombres de la “tercera edad” que además deben beber un poco de licor (!) para poder incluso dar arranque al diálogo mismo acerca del complejo rol de las leyes y de lo divino en la fundación de una comunidad política.

Pero incluso, bajo cierta interpretación, también los últimos dos libros de la Política de Aristóteles revelan una posición similar; no hay allí un modelo que podamos simplemente copiar e instaurar en la realidad. Por el contrario, revela esta obra de manera magistral un cierto dualismo claramente jerarquizado indicando, a la vez, tanto la importancia del ámbito político como igualmente las limitaciones inherentes a dicho ámbito humano, limitaciones que sólo se vislumbran desde  la filosofía política  misma. Y una concepción similar ocurre en La República de Cicerón. Además, siglos después, Santo Tomás Moro siguiendo el mismo modelo escribió su Utopía que de nuevo es un ejercicio para percibir los límites de lo político desde el lenguaje de la filosofía política, no un manual de cómo llevar a cabo transformaciones definitivas en la “realidad”.

Esto es lo que se conoce, en el lenguaje de una corriente interpretativa que toma como base la obra de Leo Strauss, como el debate entre el “utopianismo clásico” que se enfrenta decididamente al “idealismo moderno”. Se resume dicho debate, y disculpe que no lo traduzca, de esta manera:

“classical political philosophy  conceives the “best regime” not as an ideal to be realized, nor even something to be approached and worked toward; the elaboration of the best regime is intended, rather, as a subtly playful thought-experiment meant to reveal the limitations of what we can expect from all actual political philosophy” (Pangle, Thomas, Leo Strauss: An  Introduction to his Thought and Intellectual Legacy, p. 46)

Es decir, sea lo que sea que aprendamos de los filósofos políticos griegos, resultará nocivo el no intentar ver sus escritos en sus propios términos. Es más, el pensamiento político clásico es la vacuna precisamente contra el  complejo deseo, por parte de cierto tipo de seres humanos,  de instauración de la justicia total y verdadera en el ámbito real de la política ciudadana. El siglo XX nos dio múltiples ejemplos de los desastres al intentar llevar a cabo cierto tipo de proyecto secular radical a como de lugar (Stalin, Mao, Khmer Rouge,  …. FARC). El periódo del terror bajo Robespierre que se desprende de la Revolución  Francesa de 1789 nos lo revela igualmente. Es decir, el deseo de encarnar un proyecto totalizante de justicia terrenal (piénsese en el resultado de “aplicar” el “Libro Rojo” de Mao para los ciudadanos chinos) , y un cierto deseo inmoderado, violento y hasta tiránico, parecen estar conectados de maneras que el racionalismo político griego nos permite entender mejor. Para estos últimos no puede haber una reconciliación final entre filosofía y política; es más, es gracias a esta fructífera tensión inevitable que garantizamos tanto cierta moderación real en la praxis política, como la creación de unos líderes/ciudadanos hasta cierto punto libres de falsas expectativas y deseos destructivos con respecto a un cierto ordenamiento legal que ellos encarnan y del cual descienden. Como usted lo pone: “el ciudadano debe aprender desde su infancia a discriminar lo que conviene para el bien común, de acuerdo con un orden ético y jurídico.” Pero además esta valiosa tensión “garantiza” la aparición en escena de aquellos individuos filosóficamente preparados en la tradición clásica que puedan generar interpretativamente dos proyectos diferentes, a saber,  la más profunda explicitación de las bases que fundamentan un proyecto político dado (piénsese por ejemplo en el valor que los straussianos le dan a los “Founding Fathers” de los Estados Unidos),  explicitación que a la vez  les permite de esta manera poder juzgar sana y prudencialmente —– al igual que criticar seriamente—— los progresos y/o retrocesos del ordenamiento mismo desde su fundación.  Un ejemplo de dicha postura dual sería el entrar a considerar críticamente la Constitución del 91 más allá de una simple defensa progresista. (more…)

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Reflections: Socrates and Xenophon, the philosophic and the political life

At the very least, this is clear. The most fundamental difference between Socrates and Xenophon might be dangerously summarized by saying that Socrates, who rarely felt the need to physically leave Athens, never wished to rule over anyone under any circumstances, while Xenophon —–his questioning and nowadays seldom read student—– did in fact wish to rule over many under varying circumstances (see Buzzetti).

Or, to put it much more nobly and perhaps more truthfully: it would be best to say that the once unknown and adventure-loving Xenophon —–who had come into direct contact with Socrates—– suddenly came to recognize far outside the boundaries of his native Athens not only the unavoidability of ruling among humans, but also and perhaps much more importantly, his absolutely unique capacity for such ruling when true crisis touched upon his life and those surrounding him. However, later in life he seems to have given up this politically engaged desire for the desire to recollect in writing both tension-ridden forms of life: on the one hand recovering the life of Socrates in his Memorabilia and the other  truly amazing shorter Socratic texts, and on the other hand recovering the circumstances of his rise to fame and glory as a commander in his autobiographical The Anabasis of Cyrus. In contrast, Socrates also never felt the desire to write, not of himself or others.

Agoristic philosophy ——as the foundation of political philosophy—– begins in wonder (thaumazein) at such striking complex connections and deep tensions between the life of politics and the life of philosophy. Its path is that of an understanding of the dynamics of virtue(s); its guide remains Aristotle.



Xenophon only appears in direct conversation with Socrates in two short sections, one in his Memorabilia where he listens to Socrates’ views on kissing(!), the other in his The Anabasis of Cyrus where he recalls the conversation with Socrates with which he began his voyage. These astonishing sections read as follows:

Appendix 1: (Memorabilia I, 4; Bonnette translation)

“These were the sort of things he used to say with playfulness accompanied by seriousness.  On the other hand, he advised that one steadfastly refrain from sex with those who are beautiful. For he said that it is not easy when one touches these sorts to be moderate. In fact, after he perceived once that Critobulus the son of Crito had kissed the beautiful son of Alcibiades, he asked Xenophon in Critobulus’ presence”

“Tell me, Xenophon,” he said, “ didn’t you hold Critobulus to be one of the moderate rather than the rash human beings, and one of these with forethought rather than senseless and reckless?”

“Certainly,” said Xenophon.

“Well, hold now that he is hotheaded and heedless in the extreme. He would even make somersaults into daggers and leap into fire.”

“And what did you see him doing,” said Xenophon, “that you have formed such judgments about him?”

“Did he not dare to kiss the son of Alcibiades, who is most fair and in his bloom?” he said.

“But if that is the reckless deed,” said Xenophon,”in my opinion, I, too, would endure this risk.”

“You wretch!” said Socrates. “And what do you think you would suffer after kissing  someone so beautiful? Would you not immediately be a slave rather than free, spend a lot of harmful pleasures, be in great want of leisure for attending to anything noble and good, and be compelled to take seriously what even madman would not take seriously?”

“Heracles!” said Xenophon. “What terrible power you ascribe to a kiss.”

“And do you wonder at this?” said Socrates. “Don’t you know that poisonous spiders not even half an obol in size crush human beings with pain and drive them from their senses  merely by touching them in their mouths?”

“Yes, by Zeus!” said Xenophon, “For spiders inject something through their sting.”

“You fool!” said Socrates. “Do you think that when those who are beautiful kiss they don’t inject anything, just because you don’t see it? Don’t you know that this beast that they call beautiful in bloom is so much more terrible than spiders that, while spiders inject  something when they touch, it (even when it does not touch, but if one just looks at it) injects even from quite far away something of the sort to drive one mad? And perhaps ‘lovers’ are called ‘archers’ because those who are beautiful inflict wounds even from afar. But I counsel you, Xenophon, whenever you see someone beautiful, to flee without looking back .”

Appendix 2: (The Anabasis of Cyrus III, 1, 4; Ambler translation )

“In the army there was a certain Xenophon, an Athenian, who followed along even though he was neither a general nor a captain nor a soldier; but Proxenus, a guest-friend of his from long ago, had sent for him to come home. He promised that if he came, he would make him a friend of Cyrus, whom Proxenus himself had said he believed to be the better for himself than his fatherland was. So Xenophon, on reading his letter, took common counsel with Socrates the Athenian about the journey. And Socrates, suspecting that becoming a friend of Cyrus might bring an accusation from the city, because Cyrus had seemed eager in joining the Lacedaemonians in making war against the Athenians, advised Xenophon to go to Delphi and take common counsel with the god about the journey. Xenophon went and asked Apollo to which one of the gods he should sacrifice and pray in order to make the journey he had in mind in the noblest and best way and, after faring well, to return safely. And Apollo indicated to him the gods to whom he needed to sacrifice.

When he came back again, he told the oracular response to Socrates. On hearing it, Socrates blamed him because  he did not first ask whether it was more advisable for him  to make the journey or to remain, but he himself had judged that he was to go and then inquired how he might go in the noblest way. “However, since you did ask it in this way,” he said, “you must do all that the god bade.”

So after sacrificing to the ones the god had indicated, Xenophon sailed off.”

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Three biblical stories, two in the Old Testament ——specifically in Genesis—— and one in the New Testament, might aid us in trying to understand, however imperfectly and sketchily, the issue of brotherhood in the Bible. The first story is the well-known story of Cain and Abel; the second, the well-known story of Joseph; and finally, the third story, the well-known story of the parable by Jesus of the Lost Son. All three will be presented solely by way of puzzles and questions. In this regard we ask hesitantly: Could it be that the possibility of friendship according to the Bible is very limited in the case of brothers for some very precise reasons? But, why would this be so? Don’t citizen parents actually put all their conjoined strengths into bringing up their children to be good to each other, to love each other?

Story 1: Cain and Abel, Genesis 4

Why provide a second fall immediately following the most foundational of all falls by Adam and Eve? Why indeed are the primary models of brotherhood Cain and Abel? Why is the story so astonishingly short? Why did God not accept Cain’s offering even if it was the first? Why is Cain so wronged and upset by God’s not accepting his gift? Is it because he is the first born? But, what is it that the first born feels entitled to that feeds such angry responses? Moreover, why does he seek to kill his brother? Why not simply punch him a few times? What is the nature of such blinding rage? What is the fundamental importance of Abel’s being a “keeper of flocks” as against Cain’s being “a tiller of the ground”? Is there something about nomadic lives that is more akin to the nature of the divine? Would it be its greater independence from the earthly? Or is it that nomads are much more in need of the presence of the divine as they move around a “homeless” world? Does it have to do with the fact the Abel deals with animals and their care? But then again, why can’t Cain see that God himself actually speaks to him in the story and not to Abel? In the same vein, why is the story about Cain and much less about Abel? Why does it matter so little to know what Abel’s life was like? And furthermore, why does Cain lie to make things even worse? But if Cain knows he is a sinner, and the worst at that as a fratricidal kind of being, why continue to punish Cain with a permanent eternal sign that will mark him permanently to all on the earth? Why punish him beyond his own consciousness of his knowing he has done a terrible, spiritually self-destructive, deed? (See Appendix 1 below.) And dramatically for political philosophy as defended by Athens, why is Cain the one who actually founds the first city of the Bible, the city of Enoch? Why is the Bible so pessimistic about the political from the very start?

Story 2: Joseph, Genesis 37-50

Why is the love of Joseph by his father so connected to the varicolored tunic he gave him in his old age? Does this shed light into the relation of the beautiful and the divine? Why is it also so intimately connected to his actually accompanying his father in old age as the younger one? Does this shed some light into the commandment regarding the honoring of our parents? Is honoring our parents primarily being able to accompany and prepare them for death? But if so, wouldn’t believers also learn much from Socrates for whom philosophy is a constant preparation for dying? And, why does the Bible see it fit to show that now it is not only one brother, but many, who hate Joseph? Moreover, why does Joseph so naively express such complex dreams to his brothers? Didn’t he surmise he would be in trouble? Must faith be necessarily naive (see Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy)? And besides, what is so special about dreams and our connection to the divine in the Bible? How to contrast these presence with Aristotle’s own consideration in his prudential text on dreams? And his brothers, why can’t they appreciate Joseph’s honesty? Would they have rather Joseph not tell them anything at all, that is, not prepare them at all for God’s presence? And very polemically, does Joseph’s being selected by God shed some light on our modern democratic families? And still, why in this occasion do the brothers decide only to fake Joseph’s death? Is it because they are thinking of their father with a certain sympathy? Surely not, for their father would still think Joseph to be dead, wouldn’t he? What is so particularly appalling about Judah’s idea of selling and wreaking profit from his brother’s enslavement? What is it about our desire to have and posses material things than makes Judah lead his own family into utter dislike by God? His future generations, the creations of his creations, are somehow condemned by his avarice, aren’t they? Is this part of the basis as well for Aquinas’ powerful condemnation of usury which speaks little to us nowadays? And what precisely could anger brothers and sisters about one of their own actually being chosen by God? Why wouldn’t this be an occasion for joy? What are brothers particularly so much in competition about? Could it be that at the bottom of their hearts lies a desire to become god-like and to be recognized as such by their kin? Wouldn’t this be what Aristophanes tells us as well in the Symposium? And moving closer to our times, why did Thomas Mann rewrite the story of Joseph in so many pages in our modern context of war? And very importantly, perhaps most importantly, how to understand Joseph’s final words to his fearing brothers:

“But Joseph said to them, “do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. So therefore do not be afraid: I will provide for you and your little ones” So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis, 50: 20-21)

What exactly does Joseph mean by saying that God “meant it for good”? Was Joseph at all times aware that things would end so? Wouldn’t one apply the words “all ‘s well that ends well “ here? Is this last question simply a reflection of one’s pride? And why does he not suffer as much as Job does? What is it about Joseph that gives him such strength?

Story 3: Parable of the Lost Son, Luke 15: 11-32

Why does this parable follow the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin? Why are they so ordered? Why one must speak of losing oneself in parables? Is it because we are moving in a particular direction? And crucially, why does the lost son wish to become a migrant risking his own life? Is it because he is more like Abel than Cain, the tiller of the land? Why wish to get lost? For surely, we know what is at stake in leaving our families, don’t we? And once again, why does the brother get so angry? Why is the love of his own recognition so important to him if he has lived right beside his father all his life? Wasn’t that enough? What more could he be looking for? And again, who would be envious of one’s brother’s having suffered and despaired in solitude? Which of these two brothers would actually be better prepared to honor his parents, as is our duty according to the 10 Commandments? Would the adequate honoring of one’s parents be a compromise between the two? But wouldn’t such a compromise involve a certain strange kind of anger that is not to be seen in the noblest of honorings and loves?

Appendix 1:

For a much more developed puzzling presentation of the Bible, one can turn to Professor Thomas Pangle’s difficult, yet engaging and puzzle-creating, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham where he touches on the life of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Isaac. In particular, see pages 93-96 ‘The Puzzle of Divine Foreknowledge” which are three complete pages made up only of puzzles and questions. Or later on, in the chapter on “Guilt and Punishment” where Pangle writes in crucial relation to the above questions:

“But this last formulation brings close to us a final troubling question. However we are to understand criminal responsibility, what are the intelligible grounds for the overwhelming conviction that the guilty deserve to suffer for what they have done; and what are the intelligible grounds for the concomitant hope that they –that even we ourselves— will suffer the punishment that they, and we, deserve. For guilt betokens sin or vice; and sin or vice are either genuinely and severely harmful, in the most important respect, to the very soul of the criminal; or else they betoken an alienation of the criminal from the source of meaning for him as a being designed to devotion. Why, then, is it appropriate, why is it sensible, that such a crippled and or alienated being receive, in addition to and as a consequence of his corruption or alienation, further harm or suffering. Why is it so terribly important for us that to the suffering and mutilation of the spirit that is entailed in being unjust there be added extrinsic bad consequences for the perpetrator?” (PPGA, p. 101)

Pangle keeps alive, in critical contrast to modernity, the enriching yet tense debate between Athens and Jerusalem.

Appendix 2:

For a striking story of how Socrates views, at least minimally, the relation between brothers see Memorabilia 2.3 where one finds an astonishing conversation with Chaerecrates who has fought with his older brother. To begin to even try to understand this story, one would have to reconsider what Socrates considered to be a philosophical life and its relation to the citizens who inhabit the agora. Without such a perspective, the story seems merely to involve a strange naivety. And we know for certain that Xenophon, a general, was anything but naive.

But perhaps the true nature of brotherhood is best exemplified in The Republic where Glaucon and Adeimantus —both Plato’s brothers— encounter Socrates dialogically on the question of justice and reveal dramatically to the reader their unique and differing characteristics as regards the political and philosophical life. Perhaps it is by looking at the question of justice that at least some healthier brotherhoods may come about.

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