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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 2

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

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

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER TWO

If, therefore, there is some end of our actions that we wish for on account of itself, the rest being things we wish for on account of this end, and if we do not choose all things on account of something else —for in this way the process will go on infinitely such that the longing involved is empty and pointless — clearly this would be the good, that is, the best. And with a view to our life, then, is not the knowledge of this good of great weight, and would we not, like archers in possession of a target, better hit on what is needed? If this is so, then one must try to grasp, in outline at least, whatever it is and to which of the sciences or capacities it belongs.

But it might be held to belong to the most authoritative and most architectonic one, and such appears to be the political art. For it ordains what sciences there must be in cites and what kinds each person in turn must learn and to what point. We also see that even the most honoured capacities —-for example, generalship, household management, rhetoric—- fall under the political art. Because it makes us of the remaining sciences and, further, because it legislates what one ought to do and what to abstain from, its end would encompass those of the others, with the result that this would be the human good. For even if this is the same thing for an individual and a city, to secure and preserve the good of the city appears to be something greater and more complete: the good of the individual by himself is certainly desirable enough, but that of the nation and of cities is nobler and more divine.

The inquiry, then, aims at these things, since it is a sort of political inquiry. ” (NE, 1094a18-1094b11; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Why does Ar. begin once again with a conditional if-sentence? Is HE unsure of himself? Or rather, does he wish to make US open to the possibilities? Does he wish to allow us to think for ourselves? And, why exactly does he offer two —and only two— choices? Why does he present us with an either/or predicament? Why is it EITHER a Summum bonum OR a pointless longing for the unattainable? For it is clear, isn´t it, that modern thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu actually come up with a RADICALLY different strategy? Isn’t their/our modern strategy one which ALLLEGEDLY, does away with the either/or predicament? For instance, isn´t it clear that Hobbes , rather than positing a SUMMUM bonum puts forth as the basis of all political philosophy what could be called a MINIMUM bonum, namely, self-preservation/security? But if we are the heirs of such an INNOVATIVE and challenging reduction by the early moderns, HOW to even SEE the radically different and challenging nature of Ar.’s stark choice? Or put another way, has modernity really done anyway with the ALL/NOTHING dilemma posited by Aristotle? Are OUR longings, leading us ANYWHERE; are OUR ends worthy of us? For we must recall what has been said of modernity’s solution as a “joyless quest for joy”, mustn’t we? At the cost of being imprudent, wouldn’t we wish either tragedy OR happiness, rather than an obfuscating “appearance” of impoverished and spiritually barren secure living? Isn’t this exactly why Ar. promptly qualifies himself by saying that we are speaking not simple of the good, but THE BEST simply?

2) But much more radically speaking, what exactly is the longing nature of human beings ALL ABOUT? How is this longing going to play out as we move along the paths of the NE? What exactly is this Summum bonum for which we all search and which, allegedly, may bring an “end” to such needful longings? And what to do with Locke’s description of our motivation as simply being one in which NO Summum bonums appear, but rather sets of pleasures and pains we seek or avoid? But, what if this longing were to turn out to involve our longing for a certain kind of immortality, of eternity? What is the nature of such eternity, of such desire for immortality? And in this regard, isn’t it the case that, as modern, Machiavelli ALSO did NOT see the need for positing any superior or more architectonic end than that of FAME? And don’t the Federalists in the Constitutional debates to a large extent AGREE with him? (See SECTION IV below) But as we said in our previous commentaries, wouldn’t it be odd to long to be famous for the WRONG reasons?

3) And doesn’t Ar. early on tell us very clearly that this is ALL a question of the kind of life we ACTUALLY lead? But then again, how exactly are we to connect KNOWING about this good (if there is such a overarching good, and if it DOES have such weight) with actually DOING/ACTING/MAKING in our everyday lives? For couldn’t it happen that perhaps the greatest good might turn out to be of such a radically different nature that all acting, doing and making in our everyday moral concerns, might come to be cast as secondary? Or put another way, what if SOME of us, as archers, were pointing to a target we cannot even see at the start? Will engaging the NE make it visible for some of us? To whom? To which of Ar.’s DUAL audience? And, what if precisely such longing is part of the reason we fail to see? How would our longing be thus transformed? Would it even remain? Further, what is it about the example of archery that makes it attractive to Ar.’s audience? I mean, couldn’t we just substitute it for a revolver, or even a machine gun? But, isn’t archery a very demanding SKILL (so much so that it is still part of the Olympics)? Isn’t it true that just about ANYONE can fire a gun at ANY target? What is it about the TECHNOLOGICAL achievement of gunnery that DOES AWAY with the nobility of ARCHERY? And, what is it about archery that is SO different from hand-to-hand fighting skills? Are we seeking a certain distance from the actual fight?

4) And crucially connected to our previous commentary on Ethics I,1: why does Ar. ONCE AGAIN waver between saying what exactly it is that hits upon this target? Why does he say it is a science OR a capacity? Isn’t he once again making us see the highly complex relation between KNOWING and having a CAPACITY that can be activated? Is it actually a science that can activate the capacity (dunamis) and release its energy? But isn’t the ethical inquiry to proceed in OUTLINE? Which exactly is the SCIENCE of outlines? And wouldn’t it be EXTREMELY odd to think that the PRACTICAL SCIENCES are, in the end, under the MASTERY of the speculative/theoretical ones? Wouldn’t it be odd to think that one becomes good/noble/moral at the Lyceum? Or, going back to our previous commentaries, wouldn’t a certain part of Ar.’s audience —that of the serious citizens—- see this submission with radical suspicion? Isn’t this why General Laches protests so much against General Nicias in the Platonic dialogue which bears HIS name? And, isn’t Nicias’s fate –—and the defeat of Athens— in Sicily quite relevant in this regard? And to find a certain parallel in areas beyond the humanities, isn’t it clear that famous business professors such as Mintzberg actually see clearly these dilemmas when they argue that it is EXTREMELY difficult to categorize what MANAGING actually is all about? Isn’t this why they argue that MANAGING is a science and an art and a capacity and an activity and a kind of knowing? And isn’t managing a KIND of leading? Or put another way, aren’t business schools quite unaware of these Aristotelian puzzles, and likewise of the very history of the economic goods which they claim hold Ar.’s privileged position as being THE BEST?

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