Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Books I-IV

The Nicomachean Ethics. Authorship dated to approximately 350 BCE. Translation by J.A.K. Thomson; revised edition by Hugh Tredennich and Jonathan Barnes (Penguin Classics, 1976, 2004). 324 pages, 284 without addenda. Cost: free; read at Borders.

Introductory notes:
  • The Nicomachean Ethics is named after Aristotle's son (it is otherwise known simply as The Ethics) and is comprised of ten books, like Plato's Republic.
  • While Plato's works are essentially literary, Aristotle's surviving works are highly systematic, written as his university lecture notes, although he did write literary works, famous in his time for their beauty, that are lost to us today.
  • Aristotle inquired into and classified virtually every realm of human knowledge available at the time. The fraction of Aristotle's total writings left to us takes up some 12 volumes and covers anything from biology, logic, metaphysics, to ethics, politics, and art.
  • Aristotle's impressionable arrival at Plato's Academy reminds me of how Wittgenstein's powerful intellect similarly impressed Bertrand Russell. The bookend prodigies of Western philosophy.
  • Aristotle studied for some 20 years (!) under Plato, from the age of 18.

The opening sentences of The Nicomachean Ethics:

"Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good. Hence the good has been rightly defined as 'that at which all things aim.'"

For Aristotle, everything has an observable function. An aim, a first principle. And this visible function is of more interest and relevance for investigation than the invisible Platonic Form, though the two are perhaps not unrelated. For humans, who have the unique capability of reason, the ultimate - or first - good that we all pursue, is happiness (eudaimonia). Whether the most ordinary, the most vulgar, or the loftiest man, all men seek to increase their happiness, each in their different ways. Whether we seek goodness, courage, honesty... all paths ultimately converge to this first principle of seeking happiness. All of our actions and striving - war for victory, medicine for health - converge upon the increase of our happiness.

While there are many kinds of happiness, the highest happiness, is " activity of the soul in accordance with virtue." Virtues are determined by our reason, but are also interconnected with our visible relationships with others. The fullness of human nature is best expressed in the context of other human beings. Man is political, social animal.

Here are a few virtues Aristotle discusses, famously described on a spectrum, between their excess and deficiency.
  • Confidence (too much courage leads to (over-) confidence) – Courage - Fear (too little courage leads to fear).
  • Licentiousness – Temperance – (no name because it is a rarity - but I guess someone that is unhealthily, excessively ascetic would fall into this category.
I feel a parallel here, between Aristotle's idea of the (Golden) mean and the Buddha's teachings on "The Middle Way." The Buddha, after living in both princely pleasure and in extreme asceticism, rejected both for the middle route.
  • Prodigality (with money) – Liberality (generosity for the right people at the right times) - Illiberality (miserliness).
  • Vanity – Magnanimity – Pusillanimity. Here Aristotle also considers the use of money in the large scale spending of, say, patrons of large public works and infrastructure projects. Vanity here is a vulgar ostentatiousness.
The magnanimous man is Aristotle's hero - his equivalent of the philosopher-king. But they are not the same (see below).
  • Irascibility – Patience – Lack of spirit (submissiveness, and not getting angry at things for which one should)
  • Boastful – Truthful about one's abilities and character – Ironical (understatement)
  • Buffoonery – Conversational/Social Wit – Boorishness
  • Obsequiousness – Friendliness – Unpleasantness
Further quotes that elaborate these virtues, and especially that of the magnanimous man:

"... a person is considered to be magnanimous if he thinks that he is worthy of great things, provided that he is worthy of them, because anyone who esteems his own worth unduly is foolish..."

"[The truthful and magnanimous man] is open in his likes and dislikes (because concealment, ie. caring less for the truth than what people think, is a mark of timidity), and to speak and act straightforwardly...

"[The magnanimous man] is not prone to express admiration, because nothing is great in his eyes. He does not nurse resentment, because it is beneath the magnanimous man to remember things against people, especially wrongs; it is more like him to overlook them. He does not care for personal conversation; he will talk neither about himself nor about anybody else, because he does not care to be complimented himself or to hear others criticized, nor again is he inclined to pay compliments."

"It is possible, for example, to feel fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and pleasure and pain generally, too much or too little; and both of these are wrong. But to have these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is to feel them to an intermediate, that is to the best, degree; and this is the mark of virtue.”

One thing that I found interesting was the extent of Aristotle's considerations of wealth as a resource - a departure from the far-more ascetic Plato. For Aristotle, money, in the right man's hands, is not only an incredibly empowering tool, it is a requisite - something that he would naturally acquire by his excellence. And not only would he have the money to create large-scale public works, he would have the highest taste in manufactured goods and arts, thus commissioning the best and most tasteful (never gaudy) of private possessions (eg. beautiful fountains).

As Bertrand Russell says, Aristotle is actually the champion of the aristocrat:

"The best individual, as conceived by Aristotle, is a very different person from the Christian saint. He should have proper pride, and not underestimate his own merits. He should despise whoever deserves to be despised. The description of the proud of magnanimous man ["great-souled" is footnoted as a literal translation] is very interesting as showing the difference between pagan and Christian ethics, and the sense in which Nietzche was justified in regarding Christianity as a slave-morality."

"There is in Aristotle an almost complete absence of what may be called benevolence or philanthropy. The sufferings of mankind, in so far as he is aware of them, do not move him emotionally... there is an emotional poverty in the Ethics, which is not found in the earlier philosophers. There is something unduly smug and comfortable about Aristotle's speculations on human affairs; everything that makes men feel a passionate interest in each other seems to be forgotten."

- from A History of Western Philosophy

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Plato, The Republic, Books 3-10

The Republic (written approximately 380 BCE), translated by Desmond Lee (Penguin Classics, released 2007). Cost: Free (Borders). 480 pages.

One question I am compelled to ask myself in reading The Republic is why I tend to automatically assume that a democratic government is, by default, an ideal government. After some three millenia of evolution and experimentation, have we finalized that it is the best possible result? Or was it decided that it was simply the best sort of compromise between our best and worst tendencies? The better of only evils? Will it remain that way for the millenia to come? How will our leading world governments (continually) take the best elements of different ideologies, including democracy, and create new, hybridized systems?

Here are some of the faults that Plato said would inevitably arise in a democracy. They are creepily prescient. In the declining democracy, Plato says, wealth would be idolized over the actual goodness of a man (a degeneration from oligarchy). Due to the obsessions for profit, extravagance would be encouraged, with high values of interest on "poisoned loans." Young men would live "in luxury and idleness, physical and mental... and lose their ability to resist pain or pleasure." "And they themselves care of thing but making money, and have no greater concern for excellence than the poor." The poor would multiply exponentially. Equality would degenerate into an insistence upon the equality of all pleasures. All inhibitions would be thrown off, and they would call "insolence good breeding, license liberty, extravagance generosity, and shamelessness courage." And eventually, all of this would degenerate into a tyranny, where a charistmatic popular champion will come to power through the manipulation of his or her image. This gives me associations of the apocalyptic antichrist, but we've already seen this, in the Nazi Regime, in North Korea.

If we could somehow perfectly equalize the disparities of our society, could we somehow set up a society where we really could say that all children in a rising generation were maximizing their potentials? I want to grant even more possibility for change than Plato does: why must people settle into some position in the latter half of their lives? This is probably a very modern attitude. But Plato is still clear-sighted enough to see that people can be great no matter where they are born. In his society, universal education (including women) of mind and body would be the means to determine the classes. There would be a meritocratic educational program, with gradual steps of selection where the best students continued their comprehensive education in philosophy and in war (continuing throughout one's 20's, 30's and 40's), until the age of 50, whence a philosopher-king could be chosen.

The philosopher-king was Plato's ideal man. He would be a reluctant ruler, uninterested in power or money, sincerely consumed only by the welfare of the state he lived in and felt responsible for. He would have a love of subjects regarding eternity, truthfulness, self-control, balance, courage, intellect, a good memory, maturity (Book VI).

Though the American in me resists, I am persuaded by his vision of this philosopher-king. How refreshing it would be if such a selfless, wise ruler existed, swept up to rulership not by his or her own selfish ambition but because of a certain historically momentous inevitability! Obama? haha.

" is better for every creature [whether for one individual or for all of society] to be under the control of divine wisdom."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Plato, The Republic, Books 1-2

The Republic (written approximately 380 BCE), translated by Desmond Lee (Penguin Classics, released 2007). Cost: Free (Borders). 480 pages.

Deciding to start reading in earnest last week, I figured out that of the ten total books in The Republic, two books per day (while taking notes and basic outlining) were about my mental limit, especially for one sitting at Borders.

And today, I finished Plato's last words - a riff, through the narrator Socrates, about the fruits of good, just living - about the peace and true satisfaction that is possible to attain in this life and the life to come. If you know how Reality really is -what happiness and goodness really is - you will find an eternal happiness and good.

The Republic opens with a conversation between Socrates, who is returning home from a local festival, and the people at a friend's house that he stops by. The progression of the conversation topics seems illogical, in retrospect (how do you move from a discussion on the merits of old age to a heated debate on justice?), but, and perhaps like the most natural conversation, perhaps the flow makes sense only when you are immersed in the actual dialogue.

Socrates begins a conversation with his friend's elderly father about age and its wisdom (as "those who have gone before us"), versus its nostalgia (of those who long for the passions of youth), and then the contention that "the rich have many consolations." From this, the discussion becomes that of wealth versus happiness, and then about the idea that wealth is valuable for the "good and sensible" man who knows what to do with it: he will pay all his debts and thus avoid cheating and lying (stealing). He then asks whether telling the truth (never lying/cheating) is really the definition of doing "right" and meting out "justice."

And here, Thrasymachus, a Sophist, quiet until now, angrily interrupts -- he cannot repress his thoughts any longer. He says,

"Justice is simply is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party."

Thrasymachus's words, cynical, but penetrating, world-weary, seem to prefigure those ideas that I thought were much more recent: the idea that the fittest survive, the competing ideas of democracy, monarchy, communism, or religion, and all their sub-debates. Which majority imposes itself on which? Is that imposition violent or nonviolent? When does a minority idea - somewhat protected by modern democracies - become too dangerous to the differing majority, who then needs to take reverse action?

Socrates, of course, will systematically answer all of Thrasymachus's questions, starting from the universe up, eventually to arrive at his vision of the perfect society.

Among these early books, I was fascinated to stumble upon quotes/anecdotes that seemed to have such direct parallels with important ideas and texts that came centuries later.
  • "...people who are healthy have no use for a physician..."
  • " we have seen, it is never right to harm anyone at any time."
  • The myth of the rings of invisibility. Two ringsgive their wearers the power of invisibility. One ring is given to a just man, the other to an unjust. The unjust man will commit crimes, naturally, but eventually, inevitably, so will the just man. This will be the case all the more if the just man is assured that he will never have to face the consequences of his crimes.
  • The perfectly just man:
"We must strip him of everything except his justice... Our man must have the worst of reputation for wrongdoing even though he has done no wrong, so that we can test his justice and see if it weakens in the face of unpopularity and all that goes with it; we shall give him an undeserved and lifelong reputation for wickedness, and make him stick to his chosen course until death...

"... the just man, as we have pictured him, will be scourged, tortured, and imprisoned, his eyes will be put out, and after enduring every humiliation he will be crucified, and learn at last that one should want not to be, but to seem just."

It must have been so resonant for Christians like Paul and Augustine to read especially this kind of dialogue as they developed their theologies. From there, Paul's fervent missionary work. From there, Augustine's further hybridization of Platonic thought and Christian theology. From there, Emperor Constantine, and the entire Western world.