Posts Tagged ‘political philosophy’


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

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




“This is also why the perplexity arises as to whether happiness is something that can be gained through learning or habituation or through some other practice, or whether it comes to be present in accord with a sort of divine allotment or even through chance.

Now, if there is in fact anything that is a gift of the gods to human beings, it is reasonable that happiness is god given, and it specially among the human concerns insofar as it is the best of them. But perhaps this would be more appropriate to another examination —yet it appears that even if happiness is not god sent but comes to be present through virtue and a certain learning or practice, it is among the most divine things. For the prize of virtue or its end appears to be best and to be something divine and blessed. It would also be something common to many people, for it is possible for it to be available, through a certain learning and care, to all who have not rendered defective in point of virtue. And if it is better to be happy in this way rather than through chance, it is reasonable that  this is how [happiness is acquired] — if in fact what accords with nature is naturally in the noblest possible state, and similar too is what accords with art and with cause as a whole, especially the best [art or cause]. To entrust the greatest and noblest thing to chance would be excessively discordant.

What is being sough is manifest also on the basis of the argument [or definition], for happiness was said to be a certain sort of activity of soul in accord with virtue. Now, of the resulting goods, some must necessarily be present, others are coworkers and by nature useful in an instrumental way. And this points would be in agreement also with those made at the beginning: we posited the end of the political art as best, and it exercises a very great care to make the citizens of a specific sort —namely, good and apt to do noble things. It is to be expected, then, that we do not say that either a cow or a horse or any other animal is at all happy, for none of them are able to share in such an activity. It is because of this too that a child is not happy either: he is not yet apt to do such things, on account of his age, though some children are spoken of as blessed on account of the expectation involved in their case. For, as we said, both complete virtue and a complete life are required: many reversals and all manner of fortune arise in the course of life, and it is possible for someone who is particularly thriving to encounter great disasters in old age, just as the myth is told about Priam in the Trojan tales. Nobody deems happy someone who deals with fortunes of that sort and comes to a wretched end. ” (NE, 1099b9-1100a9; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

1) To begin, why does Aristotle CLEARLY connect this subsection to the previous one, specially with the reappearance of the question of luck and ethical upbringing? For didn’t he end the previous subsection pointing in this direction? Put directly; why does Ar. —-towards the end of this subsection— tell us that leaving happiness to chance is EXCESSIVELY discordant, but NOT simply COMPLETELY discordant? Why is he SO open to this possibility, or at the very least, its influences? To contrast, haven’t we seen many OTHER subsections ending abruptly? And surely The Bible does not so argue, does it? How could it, given God’s omnipotence and foreknowledge? And surely Kant doesn’t either, does he? What is it about the Kantian categorical imperative that allows it to be blind to fortune? What are the political consequences of this Kantian blindness? Is Habermas aware? And, coming back to the passage, don’t WE take it for granted —and specially the spoudaios— that it is EDUCATION (habituation and learning), moral education in particular, that allegedly makes us in the end good and happy? Isn’t this why parents SEND their children to pre-school, school and university: to aid them in making them fulfilled and complete human beings? Doesn‘t the complex matrix of social education make, allegedly, ALL the difference? Put very succinctly, what is Ar.’s mentioned PERPLEXITY all about: “This is also why the perplexity arises”? What does he MEAN that HAPPINESS may NOT be up to us? Isn’t our modern mindset truly oblivious to THIS possibility? In other words, WHO is thus perplexed: evidently not parents, are they? Law-makers? Or, is it rather that Ar. has ANOTHER aim in mind? Could he be preparing the terrain to make us more OPEN to the complexities of life, more attuned to the myriad situations that may occur and that in FACT we do not, cannot and should not wish to control (see also Plato´s Phaedrus and the initial speeches related to erotic domination, and some of Nussbaum insights)? Won’t we see something like this in BOOK VI, and the crucial discussion of prudence (phronesis) as part of the correction of a certain blindness behind justice AND, more importantly, THE just? Or, in moral terms: isn´t Aristotle slowly opening a serious critique of the radical moralistic claims that underlie the life of the spoudaios? How so? Precisely because perhaps the spoudaios HAS TO believe in the utter responsibility for HIS and OUR own actions? Isn’t this the core element of his “seriousness”, of his noble justice? And don’t we hear it in our daily lives: “take responsibility for …” (specially, and STRIKINGLY, as regards illness)? But, if this were so, if learning the moral virtues by way of a certain serious habituation is the path, the HOW exactly are we to critically, philosophically, Socratically, question the very presuppositions of such seriousness which knows itself not only to have found THE answers, but furthermore, and more problematically, has found in THOSE answers the MEANING of its self-worth? Isn’t this PRECISELY why Plato’s Laws can be seen as setting the stage in which righteous indignation ——which KNOWS of its seriousness and its self-created responsibility— can be softened to EVEN include the philosophical critique of the gods? For, isn’t impiety perhaps the single most IRRESPONSIBLE crime committable by any human? And so that we may be understood, wasn’t Ar.´s departure from Athens the result of such accusations of impiety? Don’t we have to keep constantly in mind both Socratic Apologies in this respect? And, what if Ar. were heading in a similar direction? For isn´t it striking, for instance, that righteous indignation (which is one of the virtues Ar. lists initially), will in fact, NOT be analyzed by Ar. as he proceeds? What is it about nemesis in particular and its relation to justice as punitive retribution that Ar. finds, from the point of view of the philosopher concerned with the truth of the whole, SO deeply troubling? Furthermore isn’t this why Ar. is so adamant about pointing out that there is a BIG difference between voluntary and involuntary actions in BOOK II?  And even going further, could this be the very beginning of Ar.’s concern with Socrates’s famous idea that “no one does evil voluntarily”? But, what is THE POINT OF this idea as regards the greatest most complete and happiest life available to us humans? Won’t Ar. take up that challenge in BOOK VII dedicated to the phenomenon of akrasia (Book which strikingly begins criticizing a Socratic position, ONLY to agree with it in the end!)?

And so that we may be better understood as regards the importance of Ar.’s explicit reference to chance/fortune (tuche); what are we to make of MACHIAVELLI’S distinctively un-Aristotelian and un-biblical concern with chance (fortuna) both in the Prince and in his Discourses (see section IV below)? Shouldn’t we attentively hear Machiavelli’s words when he memorably says in this regard:

“When I have thought about this sometimes, I have been in some part inclined to their opinion. Nonetheless, so that our free will not be eliminated, I judge that it might be true that fortune is arbiter of half of our actions, but also that she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern. And I liken her to one of these violent rivers which, when they become enraged, flood the plains, ruin the trees and the buildings, lift earth from this part, drop in another; each person flees before them, everyone yields to their impetus without being able to hinder them in any regard. And although they are like this, it is not as if men, when times are quiet, could not provide for them with dikes and dams so that when they rise later, either they go by a canal or their impetus is neither so wanton nor so damaging.”

What, then, is the aim of the New Rational Political Science inaugurated by Machiavelli and developed by all early modern theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu; albeit in different forms)? Put more directly, how does SCIENCE and the reconsideration of NATURE as purely materialistic and interconnected solely in terms of efficient causality, define the WAY we moderns relate to political things (see Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws)?  Won’t we tend to believe, contrary to what Ar. is telling us is perplexing, that we can in fact control events —both natural and social—-  to such a degree that Ar.´s call for a serious concern with such PERPLEXITIES might be seen as rather naïve (see quote Hobbes section IV below)? But, hasn’t this idea of progressive control, within a materialistic universe founded upon discoverable casual laws, come into question via different angles? Politically speaking, didn’t THE political sphere of the 20th century show this collapse most dramatically of all? But then, if Ar. truly believes that it is the political which ORDERS the human ends towards happiness, how exactly are we to retrace our steps, or regain our footing, beyond the calamities of mere chance OR the calamities of radically directed and deadly political programs? Put another way, isn’t Ar.´s perplexity OUR deepest perplexity once again? In Straussian terminology, doesn’t chance invite a debate between a return and progress?

2) But leaving aside the question of chance, what exactly does Ar. mean by saying that happiness can be gained by learning OR habituation OR —–dramatically—– “some other practice”? First off, isn’t learning a kind of habituation; can they be so easily separated? And how will habituation in BOOKS 2 and 3 be related to the moral virtues in particular so that IT becomes the KEY element in the education of our virtuous character? And, if we are habituated INTO something, that is to say, some way of being, how exactly can we say that WE have made ourselves into such a being? And if so, once again one need ask, did not Ar. say just a few subsections before tell us that justice appears to be by nomos (custom/convention) rather than by physis (nature)? So, aren’t we really speaking of different sorts of habituation depending on the regimes we live under? But then, WHO decides which one is better than another? HOW does one so decide, specially if, as we moderns tend to believe, all cultures are relative and worthy of EQUAL respect? Aren´t all cultures, all habituations, simply historically “determined”? And, thinking of the very way we INTERPRET Ar. himself: isn’t this precisely the issue with those who see in Ar. a duped defense of the Greek virtues per se? Don’t THEY think that Ar. was simply habituated into thinking that philosophy cannot go beyond the limits of what is morally given at any given time by the society of which we are a part? But it is clear Ar. thinks otherwise, doesn’t he? In other words, if there is nothing BEYOND the claims of habituation to form us, how exactly can we even truly speak of LEARNING? Aren’t those who argue that Ar. simply defended the Greek virtues simply submitting to this VERY MODERN belief, rather than tackling Ar.’s realistic challenges to the limits of the moral/political sphere? For, wouldn’t it be extremely ODD that he who is called THE philosopher, were so easily duped in the ESSENTIALS? But if Ar. is not so duped, then what does that say about OUR modern relativistic and historicist self-deceptions? What would Ar. have to offer us THEN? Simply that we become Greek again? The answer is “certainly not”, isn’t it? Or is it we are to learn anew, precisely because a certain kind of HABITUATION has NOT allowed us to see beyond its spheres, respectable as they may be? Isn’t THIS why Ar. adds the striking words “or some other practice”? Couldn’t this OTHER practice be moving US in that direction? For we need ask, why does Ar. not simply say WHAT that other practice might be? Is it because he wishes to be seen as open-minded so that we can add WHAT we wish depending “on the historical times”? Or rather, he PRUDENTLY points to a path for the serious reader who —given the digressions of previous subsections— understands the dangers of philosophical inquiry to the practical political sphere, and consequently is willing to take up this highly critical task within the contours of a much more private educational setting, a setting which perhaps leads  towards the most complete and self-sufficient happiness?


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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




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)


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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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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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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Review of: Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution, here

(Taught by Professor Thomas L. Pangle  here , The Teaching Company)



Perhaps one way to express the extraordinary debt we owe Professor Thomas Pangle for the many gifts his teaching generously provides us, is by recalling one of the specific difficult issues taken up in the deeply and intelligently contested debates held between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists over the very meaning of the American Founding and the foundational requirements of the new American Constitution. Thus, in dealing with the very complex question over the separation of powers ——partly following Montesquieu, the Oracle for all those involved in the debate—– Hamilton goes on to defend the idea that for the very stability of a sound modern commercially-oriented Republic, the executive must possess, embody and publicly be made clear to possess, what he calls ENERGY. Hamilton writes: “Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government” (FP, No. 70, p. 421).

And surely one part of the goodness of the gift that Professor Pangle offers us in these 12 (yes, only 12!), very short, very dynamic, very powerful and very concise lectures, is precisely his ENERGY-rich presentation of the Founding Debate itself, an energetic presentation which should in fact allow for a better sense of the dynamics of government and of governing by better prepared citizens, that is to say, ennobled citizens better educated for the intricacies of learning to rule and to be ruled as the dignified self-governing beings that they can become. In other words, these lectures, at the very least, allow for the creation of the requisite spaces for a better UNDERSTANDING of the  conditions underpinning the political sphere on its own terms, that is to say, of the struggles undergone to gain the privilege of ruling and of the intense struggles over the hierarchical ordering of the ends of good government as seen by diverse practically-minded statesmen/stateswomen. The course does so via an understanding of the conceptually and practically privileged origin, irrepeatable historical origin, which IS the unique and momentous Founding of any given political community. Such prioritization of the Founding notably defended as particularly enlightening by all of classical political philosophy, but nowhere more clearly brought to light for us to see than in the dramatic presentation which is Plato’s Laws. Within the American civic heritage such privileged moment is precisely that of the Confederation Debates held between 1787 and 1790 when the post-revolutionary “Articles of Confederation” came under serious questioning during and after the Convention of 1787. It is the Federalists (Madison, Hamilton, Jay; using the pen name “Publius”) —–in response to highly critical newspaper articles published anonymously by brilliant Anti-Federalists (Brutus, Federal Farmer, Centinel), some of whom had left the Convention filled with intense indignation—— who, because of said challenge, are “put on the spotlight” and made to defend their radical, previously unheard of, innovations.

And, it is made transparently clear to us, in the urgency of the tone of the delivery, and through certain republican rhetorical abilities used (!), that such a return ——which stands in serious contrast to a simple shallow “progressive” reading of history as economically/ideologically driven——- is by no means an exercise in luxurious time consumption. Rather, such a return bespeaks of the crisis of the American political system, if not of the very crisis of the democratic west itself as exemplified in ONE of its member nations (albeit a very powerful, one could even say, a kind of model one; of this, more later). Or, as Professor Pangle’s Professor wrote:

It is not self-forgetting and pain-loving antiquarianism nor self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism which induces us to turn with passionate interest, with unqualified willingness to learn, toward the political thought of antiquity. We are impelled to do so by the crisis of our time.” (Strauss, The City and Man, 1).

This uniquely energetic presentation, then, is all the more comprehensible as a kind of response to such a crisis. Such a vigorous presentation is a philosophically-inspired reflexive attempt at UNDERSTANDING the core elements that may be considered, in part, and primarily by those interested in the political life itself, in order to become the types of public leaders ——in their souls, so to speak—– who can ultimately generate sound, decisive and prudent educational practices amongst their liberally-educated citizens. Such leaders, the dignity of whose moral virtuous and intellectual skills is repeatedly recovered by Professor Pangle, would then be better capable of generating a certain kind of political healing of our complex modern democratic condition, which ——–because not seen in its complexity—– can be worsened furthermore by a false sense of security that is derived always from all convenient uncritical “ideological” oversimplifications. Such medical therapeutics, in an important sense, deals with origins, not merely with a multiplicity of simplified and disconnected symptoms. Undoubtedly, Aristotelically speaking, the course is partly a courageous attempt at a therapeutics of critical recovery. And to know that this unique experience is available to us all via the internet through The Teaching Company bespeaks of the energetic generosity of shared thought and of thoughtful American enterprise.



But prior to going into the CONTENT of the course itself, it might be wise to look at some of the features which make the course such an exemplary one for us all, academics and non-academics alike; specially for those of us interested in recovering the dignity of political life, of public service and of the complex sacrifices and dilemmas involved in the pursuance of our highest most virtuous moral and intellectual ideals.


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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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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: Leo Strauss on moderation and the extremisms of Colombia

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

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

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

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

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

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