22 December 2006

Merry Christmas, Happy Hogmanay, and Happy New Year

I'll be on vacation from blogging (but not from celebrating, relaxing, or skiing) until January 9.
Good wishes and good cheer,

Going through a Library

This is how every good scholar starts.
The trick is to keep one's mind orderly in the process.

21 December 2006

Beneficial, but not Instrumental

I wonder what you thought of this penultimate paragraph from Roslyn Weiss' excellent review of Dominic Scott's Meno book:

I close with one final problem that I believe bears mentioning, namely, the assimilation of the beneficial to the instrumental. Scott contends that there is no final good in the Meno, that, indeed, such goods are conspicuously absent from this dialogue (155). It seems to me that for Socrates good things, that is, things that are intrinsically good, also have the effect of making other things good, yet such goods are not on that account "instrumental." Painful surgery might qualify as an instrumental good, but neither virtue nor knowledge does. For Socrates, even that good that is most widely agreed to be his ultimate good, happiness, is nevertheless "profitable": "It is not profitable (lusitelei) to be wretched but to be happy" (Rep. 1.354a). Good things, even final goods, are beneficial and profitable. They are not, however, instrumental.
To my mind this paragraph reverberated with this paragraph from the recent review, by Suzanne Obdrzalek, of the Penner and Rowe book in the same series:
In examining the central passage of the dialogue (216c-221d), P & R address the question, what is the first friend. P & R reject minimalist readings, according to which it is whatever we happen to desire for its own sake, proposing, instead, that it is wisdom. Their evidence for this claim is highly indirect. At the end of the Menexenus interchange, Socrates professes delight at Lysis' philosophia; P & R take this to indicate that wisdom is what is truly philon. Later, Socrates connects the good to the useful (220c)--this signals a backwards reference to the Lysis discussion, where it was established that wisdom makes one useful. At the close of the dialogue, Socrates links the good with what is oikeion; again, this harkens back to the opening, where wisdom is shown to make things he^metera. Since Plato never actually states that wisdom is the first friend, P & R are forced to rely on minute details of the text. However, these do not entirely support their case. For example, in the Lysis discussion, wisdom is what makes things useful, but is not identified with the useful (i.e. the good). Again, Socrates claims that wisdom makes things he^metera, but the first friend is what is oikeion, not what makes things oikeia. These details suggest that wisdom is a means to the first friend and therefore not the first friend, which is the end of all desire.
What do you think? Does it make sense to say that X makes Y good, and X may be desired (in part) because it makes Y good, and yet for all that X is the ultimate good (because it is 'beneficial', merely, not instrumental to anything else)?

19 December 2006

Simply Good

If you ask a student of Aristotle's Metaphysics what, on Aristotle's view, makes it that the word, 'exists', refers primarily to 'substance', you will get I think one of two answers:

(i) everything besides substance that exists, exists in a substance; and
(ii) to give a definition of any existing thing, one needs to mention a substance.
But suppose you asked this student: "What, on Aristotle's view, makes it that the word 'exists' is used without qualification (a(plw=j) as regards substance?" Or suppose one generalized the question and asked: "What makes it generally so, that a word is used of something without qualification?" What would the typical reply be in that case?

I'm not sure that there is a generally recognized answer to this question.

But here's something that I found recently when reading Aquinas, which bears upon this. It is a discussion in S.T. I.5.1, where Aquinas is trying to explain how it is that good things are not the same as existing things, even if, as he thinks, things are good just insofar as they are in act.

His position is that for something to exist simpliciter, is for it to be a substance, but for something for it to be good simpliciter, is for it to be perfect: thus, whatever exists simpliciter is therefore good secundum quid, and whatever is good simpliciter therefore exists secundum quid.

But why is it the case that we apply the word 'exists' simpliciter of substances? Here is his explanation:
...cum ens dicat aliquid proprie esse in actu; actus autem proprie ordinem habeat ad potentiam; secundum hoc simpliciter aliquid dicitur ens, secundum quod primo discernitur ab eo quod est in potentia tantum. Hoc autem est esse substantiale rei uniuscuiusque; unde per suum esse substantiale dicitur unumquodque ens simpliciter. Per actus autem superadditos, dicitur aliquid esse secundum quid, sicut esse album significat esse secundum quid: non enim esse album aufert esse in potentia simpliciter, cum adveniat rei iam praeexistenti in actu.
Since being properly signifies that something actually is, and actuality properly correlates to potentiality; a thing is, in consequence, said simply to have being, accordingly as it is primarily distinguished from that which is only in potentiality; and this is precisely each thing's substantial being. Hence by its substantial being, everything is said to have being simply; but by any further actuality it is said to have being relatively. Thus to be white implies relative being, for to be white does not take a thing out of simply potential being; because only a thing that actually has being can receive this mode of being.
Some questions. What is "potential being (or being in potential) simpliciter"? Why does "being" properly signify something that actually is, rather than substance? (If the latter, then there would be no argument.) Does this explanation do any more work than the two explanations above, viz. "being" refers simply to substance, because substance is not the existence of some other existing thing (its being of something would require a qualification in speaking of its existence)? Also, must one find something more basic (as "act" is more basic than "being") and something correlated with that more basic thing (as "potentiality" is correlated with "act") to explain the use of a word simpliciter?

18 December 2006

"Law (nomos) of Nature (phusis)" a Contradiction in Terms?

John Wild's book, Plato's Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law, arrived in my mailbox the other day. It is indeed, in part, a reply to Popper, as I suspected, but it is a reply also to several other scholars. I did not know this, but Popper's book was part of a 'wave' of books with a similar theme that appeared in the decade after the war.

It's been a while since I've read Popper and did not remember--I could not have been in a position to realize it then--how outrageous so many of his assertions are. These are made salient by Wild's stark quotations of Popper.

Wild is irked especially by Popper's comparison of Plato to the Nazis, and he wishes to argue, in contrast, that Plato--not the Stoics--was the first proponent of the 'theory of natural law' that Wild attempts to set out systematically in the second half of the book. It should be recalled that 'natural law theory' enjoyed high prestige in the years after the war, since it was invoked to justify the Nuremberg trials, and because it was widely regarded as the basis for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To establish that Plato was the first natural law theorist would have been to establish him, then, as a champion of free democracies.

Wild begins by arguing against the common claim that, for Plato or Aristotle, the concept of a "law of nature" would have been a contradiction in terms, on the grounds that they regarded phusis and nomos as necessarily opposed. As against this, Wild cites two passages from Plato (Gorgias 484a, Timaeus 83e), only the second of which, to my mind, is potentially convincing--but one passage would suffice to show the common claim wrong:

kai\ tau~ta me\n dh_ pa&nta no&swn o1rgana ge/gonen, o3tan ai[ma mh_ e0k tw~n siti/wn kai\ potw~n plhqu&sh| kata_ fu&sin, a)ll' e0c e0nanti/wn to_n o1gkon para_ tou_j th~j fu&sewj lamba&nh| no&mouj.
Lamb in the Loeb renders this:
And all these are factors in disease, whenever the blood is not replenished naturally from meats and drinks but receives its mass from opposite substances contrary to Nature's laws.
Don Zeyl in the Cooper anthology, however, avoids 'laws' altogether and has 'nature's way':
So whenever the blood, instead of being replenished in the natural way by nutrients from food and drink, derives its volume from opposite sources, contrary to nature's way, all these things, it turns out, serve as instruments of disease.
Notice that 'law of nature' seems to be not descriptive here but normative. Thus, taking it to mean what usually or 'customarily' happens would be incorrect. (Note also that Zeyl, in employing the repetition, 'in the natural way', 'nature's way', rubs out in his translation an interesting variation in the text.)

But--if I understand it correctly--what I find most interesting is that the sentence invites generalization. It is apparently using the phrase 'law of nature' to refer to 'a regular process which is kata_ fu&sin'; but Plato in many places speaks of regular processes which are kata_ fu&sin--and thus, it seems, he would allow that all of these might appropriately be said to be governed by normative 'laws of nature.' That is, the sentence apparently licenses the wide application of the phrase 'law of nature' in an account of Plato's thought.

Some Stories

First, two Gregory stories. (Gregory is my 3-year old.)

The other day Gregory was walking around and saying, "I've got my beer! I'm drinking my beer!" We didn't think anything of it and presumed he was just making-believe. Then he walked by again, carrying a sippy-cup, and he was saying, "You guys are not going to have any of my beer!" And then we all looked at one another in horror when we realized that he was carrying a sippy-cup of milk that had been missing for two weeks!

The day after that, Gregory and the other children watched with us the great film, Babette's Feast. At the point in the movie when the people got up from the dinner table and retired to the sitting room for cognac and coffee, Gregory saw fit to say--it was his only remark the whole time--"They're all done with their dinner now!" I guess that's what he got out of the movie.

And then a Joseph (age 6) story, which reveals something deep about human nature:

We were riding on the train from Boston to Worcester to visit his grandparents there. There was a boy about the same age, maybe a year or two older, with blond hair also. Joseph and this boy eventually talked a bit and exchanged names, and the boy told him that he was going to the end of the line also (Worcester) to visit his grandmother. Joseph came up to me with an animated face and a big grin: "He's going to the end of the line and visiting his grandma also. We're just like twins!"--that's how natural it is to search for commonality with others. On the basis of a couple of accidental coincident details, and a rough similarity of appearance, Joseph was ready to declare that he and this other boy were exactly alike.

15 December 2006

It's Nothing to Sneeze Through

I have heard that flight magazines presage important trends, especially among the executive and wealthy classes.

That is why, on a recent flight with United, I was interested to see an article in Hemisphers Magazine which was an apology for learning ancient Greek. The article is "Greek to Me", by Tom Mueller, a freelance writer. (He describes himself: "Tom Mueller speaks six languages fluently but wishes ancient Greek were his mother tongue.")

"A year ago I began to learn a dead language," the piece begins, "and it has subtly changed my life. Yet no one seems to believe me." Mueller continues:

When I say I'm studying ancient Greek, people usually respond, with a cocked eyebrow and a heavy diphthong of mistrust, in one of three ways. "Building your vocabulary?" Or: "Why don't you just read a translation?" Or, most damning of all, "A dead language?"

These are all fair questions, and at times, caught in a bruising clinch with Attic grammar, I ask them of myself.
Mueller at first turns the complexity of the language into a reason for studying it. After mentioning the dual, the middle voice, accentuation, and the optative mood, he remarks:
Some of the best Greek of all is still denser and stranger. The reason I started learning the language in the first place was to read The Illiad ... in the end, these oddments and complexities are precisely what fuel my efforts.
He concedes Greek has given him a "new X-ray view of English, which reveals the Greek bones under the skin of familiar friends like psychology ... and helps me understand lingo in medicine and natural history that I'd never encountered before"--even thought that was not the reason why he studied it.

But then, citing traduttore traditore, he rejects the idea that translations are sufficient, because the translator must pick just one strand from among the complex of meanings of a term. "Each word has a whole series of associations, a vast bubble chart of interesting meanings shimmering in the mind as one reads. When the translator makes his fatal choice--one word only, please--all but one of the beautiful bubbles burst." Mueller's example is congenial:
Of course, this impoverishment happens in varying degree, every time one language is forced to flow into the conduit of another. Last December, in a German-speaking village in the Swiss Alps, I bought a packet of paper tissues emblazoned, in German, with the proud marketing boast Durchschnupfsicher! As often happens in Switzerland, the package was multilingual, and the term was variously rendered in English, Italian, and French, as "three-ply," assorbente, and résistent; the English stressed the product's structure, the Italian its absorbency, the French its toughness. But the German term contained all three: Compounded of three separate words, it literally means "sneeze-through-proof". A concept of singular power.
Mueller next turns to the charge that the Greeks were unenlightened, or that their thought has since been superseded:
Call me a dupe, but when I read Aristotle's Physics or Poetics I'm not focusing on the fact that he defended slavery, any more than I reject the U.S. Constitution because the Founding Fathers themselves owned slaves and would have been thunderstruck by women's suffrage, or allow memories of Mozart's smutty letters to his cousin Maria Anna Thekla to sully the pleasure of his horn concertos.
Now that's a great sentence, one that perhaps only Frank Lewis and few others could truly appreciate! Aristotle and horn concertos all in one.

At the end of his piece, Mueller once more turns an apparent argument against into an argument for. The antiquity of the Greeks, he says, far from making them irrelevant, provides the best proof of their worth:
Not to belittle contemporary writers--I wouldn't give up my Banville and Proulx and Hamsun and Heaney for any money. They may even turn out to be among the Greats. Just that it's too early to say. Only with time will we see whether their works age like a legendary Bordeaux vintage or like cheap plonk. Jane Austen, whose writing has held up marvelously for more than two centuries, we can be a little more confident about. Dante, with another 500 years of fame under his belt, is a safe bet. Virgil is a sure thing. Homer is a lead-pipe cinch.
And here we find, in Mueller's own aspirations, the reason why classics and ancient philosophy will not fade away, even if it seems sometimes that they might:
And the closer I can come to meeting them on their home turf--to conversing with them in their native languages--the more I may be able to learn from them. Or so I believe. Which is why I labor over my flash cards and conjugations, seeking elusive communion with Homer and the Greeks. For 25 centuries now people have turned to their writings, 75 generations of readers with vastly different expectations and outlooks, who have found there something pure and profound, a new way of seeing the world that streams by them. It's time I saw for myself.

14 December 2006

A Bending Back of the Stick

Gerson finishes his book with "two final points", which provide suitable final points for us also. The first is this:

The Neoplatonists' devotion to the study of Aristotle should not be confused with an illicit dalliance. They knew or intuited that Aristotelian analysis served Platonic ends. Neoplatonists readily adopted, apparently ungrudgingly and without mental reservation, many of the concepts by which Aristotle articulated the structure and functioning of the sensible world. They would not have done so had they though they were introducing contaminants. If Aristotle is a kind of Platonist, then Neoplatonists were perhaps not wrong to suppose that Platonism needs Aristotle too (290).
Here Gerson alludes to the strategy of harmonization: follow Plato as regards the non-sensible world; follow Aristotle as regards the sensible world. For my part, I cannot regard that strategy as sound, for reasons already given.

But there is something else in Gerson's observation which I can endorse: Aristotle could never have been mistaken for a Platonist, unless there were features of his thought very much like Plato's--a 'shared framework', as we may call it. And just as this shared framework makes Aristotle's points of philosophical disagreement (as I have said) very interesting rather than irrelevant, so the fact that there is a shared framework makes a project of reconciliation seem achievable. (In contrast one couldn't even entertain a reconciliation of, say, Plato and Quine.)

But for all that it is misleading to say that "Aristotle is a Platonist", because there is no more reason to attribute this shared framework to Plato than to Aristotle.

But this perhaps is where Gerson's second final point comes in:
My final point arises from what I hope is a pertinent anecdote told to me by one of my undergraduate professors. When he himself was an undergraduate, he took a class on John Milton by a world-renowned scholar of English literature. This scholar spent class after class lecturing on prosody in Milton's works. Finally, one student screwed up his courage sufficiently in order to ask the professor if he thought that that was all there was to Milton. The reply was, "No, of course not, there is much else besides, but that is the part that has been missed in the study of Milton for some time." I hope that I have in this book provided some reason for thinking that, likewise, in the study of Aristotle, the harmonists' hypothesis is the part that has been missing for too long (290).
Thus: if we take Gerson's book to be one long bending of the stick back in an opposite, extreme--and ultimately unsustainable--position, as a kind of corrective, then we can agree that it plays a very useful role.

New Google Calendar for Events in Ancient Philosophy

I've decided to switch from AirSet to Google Calendar, and, as part of my move, I've created a public calendar for events in ancient philosophy in the US, Canada, and UK. You may view it here (but be forewarned that there is almost nothing on it yet!).

I propose that this calendar become a central clearinghouse for listing events in the field.

If you'd like admin privileges, for posting events on it, simply write to me about that.

You can access the calendar through a new link in the sidebar.

13 December 2006

Ten Points of Agreement between Plato and Aristotle

I'll try to post regularly over the next few days. I was busy last week with hosting Matt Evan's visit at Clark University through BACAP, and since then I've been grappling with trying to understand Gerson's thesis, that Aristotle my profitably be read as a "Platonist". Perhaps it is enough simply to state some unformed thoughts, since I have not arrived at many definite judgments.

I have no objection to Gerson's argument, but rather agree with it, insofar as it is a critique of Jaeger. Gerson is correct that, if there is development in Aristotle, it consists not of movement away from a strongly metaphysical picture of reality, but rather a transition within it. The contrast between Plato and Aristotle is not suitably understood as rationalist versus empiricist; metaphysical versus empiricist; or dualist versus naturalist. It is a mistake to say that a passage in Aristotle is earlier, or does not reflect his mature thought, because it is rationalist, metaphysical, or dualistic.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Gerson looks for agreement between Plato and Aristotle at too low a level of generality. It is not illuminating, I think, to maintain that Plato and Aristotle basically agree on the Theory of Forms, because Aristotle, too, allows that 'form' may exist independently of concrete, sensible particulars. Also, even though Aristotle holds that some aspect of the human soul is not mortal, clearly the doctrine of immortality plays little or no role in his philosophy, and therefore his doctrine is not the same as Plato's.

But how would I characterize their agreement? More structually, and in something like the following way:

1. Both Plato and Aristotle affirm the existence of non-corporeal ('immaterial') realities and substances, with real agency.

2. They agree that the human person is distinct from other substances in the natural world by having a power and agency which is non-corporeal.

3. They agree that the most fundamental and important realities are non-corporeal.

4. They agree that at first 3. seems to be false; that is, that the world as it appears to our senses seems entirely corporeal, and that therefore an advance in knowledge requires that we reverse or overturn this appearance, so that we come to recognize that what at first seems primary is, in reality, most distant from fundamental reality.

5. They agree that our achieving this overturning of appearance involves some kind of intellectual progress, which is appropriately understood as a some sort of ascent, from lower things to higher things.

6. They agree in holding that the lower things somehow imitate or strive after higher things.

7. They agree in accepting a principle of receptivity: viz. that lower things, in their imitation of higher things, take on as much of the reality of the higher things as they can, given the sorts of things that they variously are. ("What is received is received in the manner of the recipient, not in the manner of the thing received.")

8. They agree that what enables a human being to achieve this overturning of appearance, and intellectual ascent, is precisely the rational, non-corporeal power of the soul.

9. They therefore agree that there is an important affinity between the most fundamental reality of the universe ('God') and a human being.

10. They therefore agree that the highest activity of a human being is some kind of recognition of God or divine things--that knowledge and intellectual 'contemplation' are what a human being should most suitably strive after.

Now these points of agreement may usefully be placed in contrast with the standard viewpoint of the schools of Hellenistic philosophy, or with varieties of naturalism today, and if we additionally call these points of agreement 'Platonism', then to this extent one may usefully hold, with Gerson and the neoplatonists, that Aristotle is a Platonist.

11 December 2006

The Twin Pillars of Platonism

At the end of his book, Gerson quotes with approval Francis Cornford's assessment, that the theory of Forms and the immortality of the soul are the "twin pillars of Platonism." Gerson comments:

I think Cornford's observation is essentially correct and important, though we have seen reason neither to speak of 'the' theory of Forms nor to identify Plato's views about Forms simply with what is said in the so-called middle dialogues. In addition, we ahve also seen reason to deny that the immortality of the soul is personal immortality in the sense that it is typically and uncritically conceived of within many religions. With the appropriate qualifications made, I think it is fair to conclude that the "twin pillars" also support Aristotle's Platonism (289).
How so? According to Gerson, Aristotle is a Platonist as regards the existence of Forms, because he believes in "intelligibles", objects of thought, which exist in the mind of God; he is a Platonist as regards the immortality of the soul, because he holds that there is an aspect of the human soul which is immaterial and survives the destruction of the body, and also that, in ethics, we should strive to identify ourselves with this part of us.

Let us grant that Gerson is correct, that Aristotle, in his mature and settled thoughts, held such things. (And I believe Gerson is correct about this.) Still, does that make him a Platonist? We may agree that Aristotle would not be the sort of 'empiricist' that Jaeger and others have taken him to be--and, in particular, he would not be a 'naturalist'. But presumably the philosophical universe consists of more viewpoints than Platonism and empiricism.

I think this is where Gerson's claim at the very end of his book, that Aristotle is a Platonist malgré lui, begins to acquire some force. In saying this Gerson means:
...perhaps Aristotle could not adhere to the doctrines that he incontestably adheres to were he not thereby committed to principles that are in harmony with Platonism. ... [perhaps] an authentic Aristotelian, if he be consistent, is inevitably embracing a philosophical position that is in harmony with Platonism. That is, there cannot be an authentic form of Aristotelianism that is not in harmony with Platonism ... (274).
The point may I think be put in the following way. Aristotle is committed to such doctrines as the immortality of the soul and the reality of objects of thought in the Divine Mind. He says, however, very little about such things: he gives no account of the significance of the continued existence of the human soul, and he says little about how objects of thought in the Divine Mind play a role in God's working as a first cause. Yet any attempt to spell out such things would inevitably rely upon some broadly Platonist framework, or would tend to bring Aristotle into fairly close alignment with Plato.

In justice (this line of thought continues) we cannot remove these elements from Aristotle's philosophy, yet neither can we image that they should be left just as they are found in the Aristotelian corpus--that is, as obscure and undeveloped suggestions. They are too important for that. But then attempt to give due emphasis to these features, and one will be led to something that, on any fair appreciation, will count as a variant of Platonism.

I think this is Gerson's best argument. It is not that Aristotelianism as found in the corpus is a variant of Platonism, but that what is found in the corpus cries out for development and systematization, but there appears to be no way in which that could be done except within some broadly Platonic framework.

06 December 2006

A Harmonization Beyond, or Without, Substance?

I confess that I'm having a hard time understanding what Gerson means by a 'harmony' between Aristotle and Plato. I'll share some of my problems here with you.

I've been looking at Gerson's chapter on ethics and the good. One might think at first glance that here no harmony is possible. Aristotle presents a dozen objections to a Form of the Good; whereas, if Plato can account of goodness at all, it would be through appeal to a Form. Again, Aristotle thinks that, even if such a Form existed, knowledge of it would be irrelevant to human action; but Plato takes knowledge of the Good Itself to be essential to human goodness. Seems like an irreconcilable difference, no?

To 'reconcile' them, Gerson first points to the relatively superficial similarity, that both Plato and Aristotle think that there is a unique highest good:

We must be careful here to realize that in rejecting a superordinate Form of the Good, whether or not it is identical with that which is called 'the One', Aristotle is evidently not rejecting a unique good--namely, God--which is, as we have seen, unequivocally called 'the good' in the sense of 'the on account of which' or final cause (260-1).
This remark, of course, would 'harmonize' Aristotle not only with Plato but also with all theists, most idealists, and hundreds of other assorted philosophers. That is, it yields so far an empty harmony.

Gerson next writes the following.--And observe how he seems to shift seamlessly from what Neoplatonists think to what (it seems) he himself thinks. There are numerous passages like this in the book, which easily give rise to the idea that Gerson is not simply engaging in historical investigations but also offering an argument in his own voice:
So, it would not be unfair for Neoplatonists to claim that Aristotle recognizes a unique good at which everything aims or is oriented, though, in identifying it with intellect, he does not fully recognize its nature. His rejection of the Form (or the Idea) of the Good is, accordingly, owing in part to the mistaken belief that there could not be anything transcending intellect and so there could not be a truly 'universal good.' Indeed, his identifying the good with the thinking of God seems to make the good unacceptably limited, since strictly speaking it precludes the goods belonging to anything that does not think (261).
Is Gerson saying that the Neoplatonists regarded this as a 'mistaken belief', or that it really is a mistaken belief? The word 'Indeed', and Gerson's offering of an additional objection in the very next line, make it seem as if Gerson himself endorses these objections.

But, again, what sort of a 'harmony' would this imply? If philosopher A becomes harmonized with philosopher B, when A objects to B on grounds that miss the point (or, really, on grounds that seem like they miss the point to a follower of B), then, for instance, Bertrand Russell now becomes harmonized with every philosopher in the history of the West!

I suppose one would need to claim, more strongly, that A's views are such that they would bind him to accept the views of B, if he really did understand B. But Gerson nowhere argues that Aristotle, on Aristotelian grounds, would be bound to accept the Neoplatonic view of the 'One', or would be obliged to accept that such an entity helps to account for ordinary instances of goodness. (Gerson elsewhere cites Plotinus as arguing that 'thought thinking itself' could not be a suitable first cause, because a truly first cause must lack any complexity and be 'the One', pp. 206-7. But it seems enough for Aristotle if the first cause lacks any potentiality or coroporeality.)

Gerson next remarks, as regards Aristotle's objections in NE I.6 (and EE I.8) against the Form of the Good, that these objections:
...do not clearly indicate that the Form of the Good is understood by Aristotle to have the superordinate status it has in Republic [sc. as beyond ou)si/a]. As we shall see, the objection to this Form could just as well serve as objections to other Forms, mutatis mutandis. So, insofar as the objections assume that the Form of the Good is an ou)si/a, rather than that which is "not itself ou)si/a," as Republic specifically states, they do not really touch Plato's position, as understood by the Neoplatonists (261).
A small point: many of the objections in NE I.6 do not "just as well serve as objections to other Forms", as they hinge on the distinct behavior of 'good' as a 'transcendental' predicate.

Also: in various places Plato does speak as though he thinks there is a Form of Good which is an ou)si/a on a par with all the other Forms (e.g. ei0 me\n e1stin a4 qrulou~men a)ei/, kalo&n te/ ti kai\ a)gaqo_n kai\ pa~sa h( toiau&th ou)si/a, Phaedo 76d), so what Gerson says here applies to one version of Platonism, perhaps not the best or most representative version.

But, most importantly, it does not help one iota, by way of harmony, to urge as Gerson does that "Platonism regards the Good as beyond ou)si/a", if the view that "Good is beyond ou)si/a" is even more problematic, and seems even less promising as an account of our use of the word "good", than the view that the Good is an ou)si/a!

Look: if Aristotle on philosophical grounds shows little patience for the view that the Good is a Form, he will have even less patience with the view that it is a "One" beyond all ou)si/a.

Hence it is a fallacy--at least as regards any sort of harmonization--when Gerson writes:
...it should be pointed out that much of what Aristotle says [in NE I.6] loses its force if the Form of the Good is superordinate and hence not an ou)si/a. For it is only an ou)si/a that is a 'one-over-many' and so conceivably predicable univocally of many (262).
I wonder if what Gerson really means has little to do with 'harmony'. I wonder if his meaning is no more than that a dedicated Neoplatonist will not regard Aristotle's objections as a reason to change and adopt Aristotelianism. This would be unremarkable; it would simply mean that Neoplatonism has an internal coherence, and resources within, comparable to most serious philosophical systems. But it does nothing to establish a harmony between Aristotle and Plato.

04 December 2006

Two Types of Imitation of God

The passage from the Timaeus to which Gerson had likened a passage from the Nicomachean Ethics raises the question: when are the differences rather than the similarities between philosophers decisive?

For often--perhaps typically--the most interesting philosophical differences are between philosophers who belong broadly to the same 'movement', since, when differences are too great, there is never any meeting of minds in the first place.

The difference between (early) Wittgenstein and Hegel is uninteresting, but that between Wittgenstein and Frege (or Russell) is very interesting. The significance of the differences implies some shared outlook at the start. But for all that it would be grossly mistaken, of course, to talk about the 'harmony' of early Wittgenstein and Frege, or to assert that Wittgenstein was a Fregean.

And there are noteworthy differences in the passages from Plato and Aristotle. I mention two:

1. For Plato, the human soul does not 'belong' in the body, in the sense that it originates elsewhere (w(j a1ra au)to_ dai/mona qeo_j e9ka&stw| de/dwken), and its true home is elsewhere (pro_j de\ th_n e0n ou)ranw|~ sugge/neian). For Aristotle, the human soul is naturally fitted to the human body and it would be nonsense to say that some other life naturally belongs to it.

2. For Plato, then, the ethical task, 'assimilation to God', consists in practicing the sort of life to which the soul is naturally akin, as a way of recovering that life and of making oneself worthy of living it once again (pro&j te to_n paro&nta kai\ to_n e1peita xro&non). For Aristotle, 'assimilation to God' is rather 'imitation of God'--that is, living well within one's rank by imitating something of a higher rank (to_ zh~n kata_ to_ kra&tiston tw~n e0n au(tw|).

I won't take up everyone's time by pointing to other details of the cited passages which illustrate these differences; and anyone familiar with the other 'assimilation' passages in Plato would agree, I think, that these differences are manifested there as well.

To find an analogy to illustrate the difference, we need to find some clear example of a difference in station or rank. Baseball can provide such an example. For Plato, the human soul is like a major league baseball player who, because of some injury (say), has been sent down to the minor leagues. What he should do, then, is to avoid being distracted by the inconveniences of small-town minor league life and resume playing like a major league player as promptly as possible. After all, he belongs in the major leagues and should aim to return there. For Aristotle, in contrast, the human soul is like a minor league player who belongs in the minor leagues--that's where his talent suitably places him. Nonetheless, it's a good rule of action for him, too, that he should avoid being much distracted by the inconveniences of small-town minor league life and should strive to imitate, as best he can, a major league player.

Someone might say in reply--"But there will be no difference in how these two minor league players act; likewise, Plato and Aristotle accept the same view of a good human life, which is all that Gerson means to assert."

To this I would reply:

(i) That's a pragmatic answer. I suppose that for ethical philosophy, too, the truth is important, viz. whether the human soul really does belong in an everlasting realm and is only periodically incarnated, as Plato holds. For one philosopher to regard this as true and another to regard it as false is a big difference.
(ii) Platonic ethics arguably requires this notion as its ultimate justification of a good life. (Suppose that the first minor league player in our example were told that he is simply mistaken, and that he never is going back to the majors, as he had thought--how does he act then?) Or, at least, Platonic ethics is vulnerable to this difficulty in a way that Aristotelian ethics is not.
(iii) The two outlooks imply different ways of classifying desires as 'bodily', and different conceptions of the extent to which it is 'necessary' to yield to, indulge in, or satisfy non-intellectual desires.

I don't take myself to be saying anything earth-shattering here. This is boiler-plate history of philosophy for Plato and Aristotle. I'm simply wondering whether and why it's fruitful to emphasize only the similarities between Plato and Aristotle, as Gerson does, and whether these similarities are not relatively superficial--because, recall, I've adopted Gerson's criterion as my own standard: Is it exegetically fruitful to identify such similarities?

(One cannot say: the comparison shows that an 'intellectualist' reading of the NE is correct, since, again, everything hinges on how broadly one interprets the 'necessity' of our non-intellectualist aims. Also, someone might say that it remains unclear how much weight should be given to the cited NE passage: after all, perhaps the only thing that that passage is intended to accomplish by Aristotle is to show that what people look for in the 'assimilation to God' viewpoint may be adequately accounted for within his own viewpoint-- it is simply Aristotle's way of handling important Platonic endoxa about imitation of God.)

01 December 2006

"Dear Socrates, ... "

It gives one reason to question whether advice should ever be given except face-to-face, and perhaps even whether anything important should be written down at all. I mean the site, AskPhilosophers, which to my mind fails despite the best of intentions.

Here's how it works: chance persons send in their questions anonymously, which then get answered by any professional philosopher on the panel who wishes to take it up.

(No, it's not like those men of old who used to stand before large audiences and answer any question posed for money--the proceeds from the forthcoming book based on the AskPhilosophers website are being donated to worthy charities!)

The following tid-bit is not unrepresentative. A concerned reader writes in:

If no one ever loves me during my lifetime - if I don't ever have a relationship - will I have not lived properly? Is love that important to life, or is it something you can choose to engage in if you like? Thank you.
Four philosophers chose to respond to this. Someone jumped in right away with the following pearl of wisdom:
Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics argued that philia (a type of friendship-love) is essential to the good life. But Aristotle was a pinhead. For another take from a contemporary philosopher, who rejects the claim that love is essential to the good life, see Raja Halwani, Virtuous Liaisons: Care, Love, Sex, and Virtue Ethics. Chicago, Ill.: Open Court, 2003. And which rock group (J. Geils Band?) more radically impressed upon us that "Love Stinks"? To counter, I suppose, the inanity of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" (la la la la la....). The way the Rolling Stones torpedoed the Beatles' "Let It Be" with their own "Let It Bleed."
Thanks for that! Not to worry, however-- another philosopher quickly intervened and, getting right to the point, brought some needed clarity to the issue:
On Aristotle’s view, in order to determine whether Bob is living a good life, we first need to determine what kind of creature Bob is– e.g., is he a human being, a dog, or an oak tree. We then would judge the quality of his life against a species standard of flourishing. For example, our view of what it would mean for a dog to live a good life is informed by our views about the nature of dogs. We tend to think of a dog who lives its life in a cage as not living a good life for a dog, even if we imagine that it is given sufficient drugs to feel no discontent or frustration. A good life for a dog, we think, would be one that involved companionship, running around, barking at threatening noises and strangers, and so forth. Because a dog in a cage on drugs is not given the opportunity to engage in doggy activities, it is not functioning as a dog at a high level, and so, is not living a good life for a dog. If Bob is a dog, Aristotle would say, then we would judge his quality of life as good just in case he had a lot of opportunities to engage in doggy activities and was able to perform doggily at a high level. If Bob were a human being, however, we would not judge his life as going well if he spent his life running around with other dogs, barking at threatening noises and strangers, no matter how well he performed at these activities. There’s something wrong with Bob, we’d think; and even if he is content with his doggy life, since he’s a human being, he’s not living the life that is best for him.

It was on the basis of considerations of this sort that Aristotle would conclude that for human beings a good life would necessarily involve relationships characterized by mutual affection and good will. We might add that a life that involves such relationships has tended to be a successful life strategy for the human species, and as a species we have evolved to have impulses that motivate us to live a life that involves such relationships and that help us to sustain these relationships. On an Aristotelian view, any human life that did not involve the actualization of our distinctively human capacity to have close loving relationships would not be a good life.

However, we might wonder whether Aristotle is right to judge the quality of an individual person’s life against a species standard. While I agree with Aristotle that, in order to know what would be a good life for me, I would first need to figure out what sort of creature I am, and while I agree that it is likely that as a human being my nature will be very similar to the nature of other human beings, I don’t agree that the quality of my life should be judged in terms of its conformity to what would be a good life for most normal human beings. I might be quite unusual in that I feel absolutely no impulses toward loving relationships. I might feel no affection for other human beings, I might not be inclined to be in their company, and I might have no interest in their attitudes toward me. Whether they love me or hate me might be a matter of complete indifference to me. To be sure, if I were of this abnormal sort, life in a human society would be difficult, since others would have expectations of me that would be mistaken. And it is no doubt generally true that, for human beings, it would be easier to live a good life if one were normal in this respect. However, it doesn’t follow from this fact about the practical difficulties of such abnormality that my life would go better for me if it involved loving relationships. If my nature were idiosyncratic in the way that I described, loving relationships just would be no part of what would constitute a good life for me.
I hope the person who asked the question (that is, if he is a human and not a dog or a tree) now understands that, if he is the sort of idiosyncratic being for whom considerations of humanity are unimportant, then, if he chooses not to adopt anyway a life-strategy that has proved to be successful (I guess along the lines of "win friends and influence people"!), he will have 'lived properly' (his phrase!), even if in fact no one loves him.

No doubt about it, filosofi/a biou= kubernh/thj! How fortunate we are that there is now a site that "puts the talents and knowledge of philosophers at the service of the general public"!

30 November 2006

Plato on Assimilation to the Divine, and Another Platonist?

When Aristotle writes like a Platonist, is he a Platonist? That's the question. A test case might be when Aristotle seems to endorse 'assimilation to the divine'.

As good a statement as any of this view in Plato may be found near the end of the Timaeus. (Pardon the long passages. There is no way around this.)

[90a] And as regards the most lordly kind of our soul, we must conceive of it in this wise: we declare that God has given to each of us, as his daemon, that kind of soul which is housed in the top of our body and which raises us--seeing that we are not an earthly but a heavenly plant up from earth towards our kindred in the heaven. And herein we speak most truly; for it is by suspending our head and root from that region whence the substance of our soul first came that the Divine Power keeps upright our whole body. [90b] Whoso, then, indulges in lusts or in contentions and devotes himself overmuch thereto must of necessity be filled with opinions that are wholly mortal, and altogether, so far as it is possible to become mortal, fall not short of this in even a small degree, inasmuch as he has made great his mortal part. But he who has seriously devoted himself to learning and to true thoughts, and has exercised these qualities above all his others, [90c] must necessarily and inevitably think thoughts that are immortal and divine, if so be that he lays hold on truth, and in so far as it is possible for human nature to partake of immortality, he must fall short thereof in no degree; and inasmuch as he is for ever tending his divine part and duly magnifying that daemon who dwells along with him, he must be supremely blessed. And the way of tendance of every part by every man is one--namely, to supply each with its own congenial food and motion; and for the divine part within us the congenial motions [90d] are the intellections and revolutions of the Universe. These each one of us should follow, rectifying the revolutions within our head, which were distorted at our birth, by learning the harmonies and revolutions of the Universe, and thereby making the part that thinks like unto the object of its thought, in accordance with its original nature, and having achieved this likeness attain finally to that goal of life which is set before men by the gods as the most good both for the present and for the time to come. (Lamb translation. Greek below. In his quotation of this passage, Gerson does not include the bit in red above.)
Gerson sees parallels between this passage and a famous one in the Nicomachean Ethics, and he cites David Sedley in corroboratione: "It seems to have gone unnoticed by scholars," Sedley wrote in a 1997 article, "how accurately the main structure of Aristotle's ethics reflects this passage of the Timaeus". The NE passage (1177b26ff) is as follows:
But such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him; and by so much as this is superior to our composite nature is its activity superior to that which is the exercise of the other kind of virtue. If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything. This would seem, too, to be each man himself, since it is the authoritative and better part of him. It would be strange, then, if he were to choose not the life of his self but that of something else. And what we said before' will apply now; that which is proper to each thing is by nature best and most pleasant for each thing; for man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life therefore is also the happiest. (Original Ross translation, warts and all. Gerson in his quotation does not include the bit at the end in red.)
Are the similarities merely superificial? Gerson makes a good case that they are not:
There are so many striking similarities between the foregoing passages and what Plato says in Timaeus and Theaetetus about assimilation to the divine that one cannot help but wonder at the prejudices that have induced many either to ignore or to discount them. It is not just the obvious verbal parallels that are so impressive but the eccentricities of the parallels.
  • Both Plato and Aristotle urge us to try to achieve immortality as much as possible, as if that were something both in our power and allowing of degrees.
  • Both urge us to emulate divine life, though the focus of ethics would seem to be our ineluctable humanity.
  • And both proclaim that the divine life is a contemplative one, specifically removed from human affairs.
  • Finally, both rest what they say upon an assumption that the 'we' of ethical striving is in fact different from an embodied human being.
    [p. 255, bullet points added for clarity's sake]
Gerson seems correct, does he not? The parallels are striking. So then is Aristotle expressing Platonism here? Perhaps even: Doesn't his use of such language signal his allegiance to the general outlook of the Platonic school? How could it have failed to do so? And then, if we realize that he is evincing Platonism here, what difference should this make to the interpretation of NE?

(a.) dio_ fulakte/on o3pwj a2n e1xwsin ta_j kinh&seij pro_j
a1llhla summe/trouj. to_ de\ dh_ peri\ tou~ kuriwta&tou par'
h(mi=n yuxh~j ei1douj dianoei=sqai dei= th|~de, w(j a1ra au)to_ dai/-
mona qeo_j e9ka&stw| de/dwken, tou~to o4 dh& famen oi0kei=n me\n
h(mw~n e0p' a1krw| tw|~ sw&mati, pro_j de\ th_n e0n ou)ranw|~ sugge/neian

a)po_ gh~j h(ma~j ai1rein w(j o1ntaj futo_n ou)k e1ggeion a)lla_ ou)ra&-
nion, o)rqo&tata le/gontej: e0kei=qen ga&r, o3qen h( prw&th th~j
yuxh~j ge/nesij e1fu, to_ qei=on th_n kefalh_n kai\ r(i/zan h(mw~n

(b.) a)nakremannu_n o)rqoi= pa~n to_ sw~ma. tw|~ me\n ou}n peri\ ta_j
e0piqumi/aj h2 peri\ filoniki/aj teteutako&ti kai\ tau~ta dia-
ponou~nti sfo&dra pa&nta ta_ do&gmata a)na&gkh qnhta_ e0gge-
gone/nai, kai\ panta&pasin kaq' o3son ma&lista dunato_n qnhtw|~
gi/gnesqai, tou&tou mhde\ smikro_n e0llei/pein, a3te to_ toiou~ton

hu)chko&ti: tw|~ de\ peri\ filomaqi/an kai\ peri\ ta_j a)lhqei=j
fronh&seij e0spoudako&ti kai\ tau~ta ma&lista tw~n au(tou~ gegu-

(c.) mnasme/nw| fronei=n me\n a)qa&nata kai\ qei=a, a1nper a)lhqei/aj
e0fa&pthtai, pa~sa a)na&gkh pou, kaq' o3son d' au} metasxei=n
a)nqrwpi/nh| fu&sei a)qanasi/aj e0nde/xetai, tou&tou mhde\n me/roj
a)polei/pein, a3te de\ a)ei\ qerapeu&onta to_ qei=on e1xonta& te au)to_n
eu} kekosmhme/non to_n dai/mona su&noikon e9autw|~, diafero&ntwj

eu)dai/mona ei]nai. qerapei/a de\ dh_ panti\ panto_j mi/a, ta_j
oi0kei/aj e9ka&stw| trofa_j kai\ kinh&seij a)podido&nai. tw|~ d' e0n @1
h(mi=n qei/w| suggenei=j ei0sin kinh&seij ai9 tou~ panto_j dianoh&seij

(d.) kai\ periforai/: tau&taij dh_ sunepo&menon e3kaston dei=, ta_j peri\
th_n ge/nesin e0n th|~ kefalh|~ diefqarme/naj h(mw~n perio&douj
e0corqou~nta dia_ to_ katamanqa&nein ta_j tou~ panto_j a(rmoni/aj
te kai\ perifora&j, tw|~ katanooume/nw| to_ katanoou~n e0comoiw~sai
kata_ th_n a)rxai/an fu&sin, o(moiw&santa de\ te/loj e1xein tou~
proteqe/ntoj a)nqrw&poij u(po_ qew~n a)ri/stou bi/ou pro&j te to_n
paro&nta kai\ to_n e1peita xro&non.

o( de\ toiou~toj a2n ei1h bi/oj krei/ttwn h2 kat' a1nqrwpon: ou) ga_r h|{ a1nqrwpo&j e0stin ou3tw biw&setai, a)ll' h|{ qei=o&n ti e0n au)tw|~ u(pa&rxei: o3son de\ diafe/rei tou~to tou~ sunqe/tou, tosou~ton kai\ h( e0ne/rgeia th~j kata_ th_n a1llhn a)reth&n. ei0 dh_ qei=on o( nou~j pro_j to_n a1nqrwpon, kai\ o( kata_ tou~ton bi/oj qei=oj pro_j to_n a)nqrw&pinon bi/on. ou) xrh_ de\ kata_ tou_j parainou~ntaj a)nqrw&pina fronei=n a1nqrwpon o1nta ou)de\ qnhta_ to_n qnhto&n, a)ll' e0f' o3son e0nde/xetai a)qanati/zein kai\ pa&nta poiei=n pro_j to_ zh~n kata_ to_ kra&tiston tw~n e0n au(tw|~: ei0 ga_r kai\ tw|~ o1gkw| mikro&n e0sti, duna&mei kai\ timio&thti polu_ ma~llon pa&ntwn u(pere/xei. do&ceie d' a2n kai\ ei]nai e3kastoj tou~to, ei1per to_ ku&rion kai\ a1meinon. a1topon ou}n gi/noit' a1n, ei0 mh_ to_n au(tou~ bi/on ai9roi=to a)lla& tinoj a1llou. to_ lexqe/n te pro&teron a(rmo&sei kai\ nu~n: to_ ga_r oi0kei=on e9ka&stw| th|~ fu&sei kra&tiston kai\ h3disto&n e0stin e9ka&stw|: kai\ tw|~ a)nqrw&pw| dh_ o( kata_ to_n nou~n bi/oj, ei1per tou~to ma&lista a1nqrwpoj. ou{toj a1ra kai\ eu)daimone/statoj.

A Band of Brothers

I don't often stray from ancient philosophy, but I found the following picture so appealing that I wanted to share it with Dissoi Blogoi readers.

The picture was taken in the spring of 1942 at a camp either on or near the Peace River in British Columbia by my uncle, Pfc William J. Pakaluk, who was working on the Alaskan Highway, as part of the early U.S. defense efforts. (The U.S. had joined the war only a few months earlier.) On May 14th a sudden squall arose when he and some other men were taking a barge of construction supplies across Charlie Lake. 12 of the 17 men on board perished, perhaps including some shown here.

29 November 2006

Jaeger, Gerson, Gilson, and the Neoplatonists

Two 'thats':

(1.) There is some kind of deep difference between the philosophy of Plato and that of Aristotle. (This seems to be so, even if we are unsure of how that difference is to be characterized.)
(2.) There are many passages in Aristotle that look like passages in Plato, or passages that Plato might have written. (They seem that way, even we are unsure what their sense is ultimately.)
Now, how to deal with this? One way is to characterize (1.) in such a way that it becomes necessary to explain away (2.): thus Jaeger, who understands the difference to be that between an other-worldly and metaphysical rationalism, and a this-wordly and anti-metaphysical empiricism. The latter viewpoint simply cannot accommodate any significant portions of the former. Jaeger therefore needs to explain away the Plato-sounding passages in Aristotle by appeal to developmentalism: those passages really are passages that Plato could have written, but they belong to an early, platonizing period of Aristotle's development.

Gerson, insofar as he explores a 'harmony' between Plato and Aristotle in the spirit of the neoplatonists, takes a different approach. He characterizes (2.) in such a way that it becomes necessary to explain away (1.). The neoplatonists held that those passages in Aristotle that look like Plato could have written them really do say much the same as what Plato said. But from this one is meant to conclude-- contrary to what is commonly thought in modern times--that there are no deep differences between Aristotle and Plato: Aristotle is a Platonist; and the disagreements between them are on the level of a quarrel within a school.

Gerson quotes something from Gilson as an example of the view he wishes to call into question:
...reduced to their bare essences, these metaphysics are rigorously antinomical; one cannot be for the other without being against all those who are with the other, and that is why Saint Thomas remains with Aristotle against all those who are counted on the side of Plato.
There is perhaps some irony in the fact that, although Gerson understoods his book as a contributing to a critique of Jaeger, he apparently shares with Jaeger the view that the Plato-sounding passages in Aristotle are of a piece with Platonic philosophy. Gerson disagrees with Jaeger on how to resolve the difficulty posed by (1.) and (2.), but they are agreed in taking the Plato-sounding passages to be truly platonic.

To this, I think, we need to bring to bear the criterion that we had adopted for evaluating Gerson's approach. We said that Gerson's exploration of a harmony, in the spirit of the neoplatonists, is saved from being an 'exercise in historical perversity' precisely to the extent that it yields exegetical and philosophical fruit. But is it fruitful to read Aristotle's Plato-sounding passages in that way--as platonic? I do not prejudge an answer to this question; I simply raise the question.

In my next post, I'll consider a specific example, namely, Gerson's treatment of a passage in Aristotle which seems similar to those passages in Plato that recommend 'assmilation to God' as the goal of human life. As Gerson explains in his introduction:
There is not much Neoplatonic commentary material on Aristotle's ethical writings. It is, however, possible to piece together something that can legitimately be called a Neoplatonic reading of the Nicomachean Ethics and to show how on this reading the view of happiness and virtue there is in harmony with the central idea of Neoplatonic ethics: namely, assimilation to the divine (21).
The question is: Is the passage in Aristotle illuminated by taking him to be saying (more or less) what Plato says?

27 November 2006

You Can't Tell a Book from the Way It's Covered

Suzanne Obdrzalek has a tautly-argued review in BMCR of Terry Penner and Chris Rowe's recent commentary (with translation) of Plato's Lysis.

I so much enjoyed the sharp writing of her review that I read it twice, to make sure I did not miss anything.

Obdrzalek raises many interesting questions, for instance: How can the 'primary object of love' (prw~ton fi/lon 219d1) of the Lysis be wisdom, as Penner and Rowe claim, if we love wisdom, but not the primary object of love, for the sake of other things? (After all, wisdom makes us and what we deal with useful and good.)

Again, Obdrzalek is rightly unconvinced by Penner and Rowe's explanation of the argument that the love of a genuine lover will be reciprocated. She writes:

One difficulty raised by P & R is how Socrates can legitimate moving [sic] from the claim that the beloved is oikeion to the lover to the claim that the lover is oikeion to the beloved--this slide is needed to reach the conclusion that boys mustn't spurn true lovers. P & R's proposal is that if x loves y, then y is oikeion to x and is a means to x's acquisition of wisdom; in that case, x will be oikeion to y. It is difficult to see why the insertion of wisdom into this erotic equation should render philia reciprocal. P & R essentially make the lover loveable by converting him into the beloved, i.e. a means to wisdom.
And, perhaps only for the sake of argument, she gives a brave defense of Vlastos' 'utilitarian' interpretation of the dialogue at the end of her view.

I'd very much like to post on these topics, and maybe I will.

But here I simply wish to lodge an objection against what I think is an unfortunate paragraph near the beginning of Obdrzalek's review:
P & R's book will be of primary interest to scholars of ancient philosophy, particularly those familiar with contemporary analytic debates in the philosophy of language and moral psychology. It should be noted that, though the book presents itself as a translation and commentary, it is not suitable for looking up isolated passages of the dialogue, since it offers a cumulative interpretation. The translation itself is highly literal, and hence less fluid than Lombardo's; it will be of most use for those wishing a stand-in for the Greek. P & R do not provide much discussion of textual or linguistic issues, nor do they provide socio-historical background for the dialogue. These limitations are undoubtedly due to the fact that P & R intend the work as a philosophical commentary on Plato, and in this it excels. Plato's Lysis does a splendid job of giving a sense of what it is like to read a Platonic dialogue through the eyes of two readers who are at once keenly sensitive to literary nuance and deeply philosophically engaged.
The paragraph is unfortunate, as it gives an completely wrong impression of the book.

"highly literal, and hence less fluid"-- that inference needn't hold, and I don't think it does hold in this case. From my brief inspection, I find Penner and Rowe entirely as fluid as Lombardo--easy and good English, idiomatic, natural. If their translation is also more literal, then it is better in every respect. (Here one could wish that Obdrzalek, to support her point, had compared the two translations, as is sometimes done in BMCR reviews.) Penner and Rowe are not giving us some kind of Eek!

"of primary interest to scholars in ancient philosophy" -- I think, rather, the book aims at a general, educated audience, and in my view it succeeds. It is a wonderful example of humanity (in the old sense). It is definitely not a book in 'analytic philosophy', although it is lucid and concerned about arguments.

"P & R do not provide much discussion of textual or linguistic issues, nor do they provide socio-historical background for the dialogue." This is emphatically not true. The translation (as it is presented in the much longer commentary section of the book) is accompanied by frequent, detailed notes, which give fascinating and suggestive remarks on language and background. (But how could Rowe, at least, have a hand in a book which was not like that?)

"it is not suitable for looking up isolated passages of the dialogue, since it offers a cumulative interpretation" -- another non sequitur. Actually, the book has a very detailed TOC which makes it eminently suitable for finding the commentary corresponding to any passage. The cumulative interpretation complements, rather than obscures or obliterates, what is said about passages considered on their own.

On the other hand, it would be correct to say that the book discourages the reading of texts out of context, as if they are giving arguments in isolation. But on that point I should have liked to hear Obdrzalek say something about the goal of the series to which the volume belongs ("Cambridge Studies in the Dialogues of Plato"). Does she agree with that goal? And, in her view, do Penner and Rowe execute that task well?

FYI, here is the statement of principle from the CUP website:
Plato's dialogues are rich mixtures of subtle argument, sublime theorising and superb literature. It is tempting to read them piecemeal - by analysing the arguments, by espousing or rejecting the theories or by praising Plato's literary expertise. It is equally tempting to search for Platonic views across dialogues, selecting passages from throughout the Platonic corpus. But Plato offers us the dialogues to read whole and one by one. This series provides original studies in individual dialogues of Plato. Each study will aim to throw light on such questions as why its chosen dialogue is composed in the complex way that it is, and what makes this unified whole more than the sum of its parts. In so doing, each volume will both give a full account of its dialogue and offer a view of Plato's philosophising from that perspective.

More Good Things at Toronto

A friend drew my attention to the following, well worth noting here.

The Augustine Confessions Conference 2007

An interdisciplinary conference examining various aspects of Saint Augustine's great spiritual autobiography, the Confessions.

MARCH 30 - 31, 2007 at St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto

Featured Speakers:

  • Dr. Sara Byers, Ave Maria University
  • Dr. Catherine Conybeare, Bryn Mawr College
  • Dr. James Farrell, University of New Hampshire
  • Dr. Meredith J. Gill, University of Maryland
  • Dr. Peter King, University of Toronto
  • Dr. Scott MacDonald, Cornell University
  • Dr. Gareth Matthews, University of Massachusetts
  • Dr. Stephen Menn, McGill University
  • Dr. Oliver O’Donovan, University of Edinburgh
  • Dr. Mark Vessey, University of British Columbia

To find out more and register, please go to:


(I thought, though: 'Tis a pity that John Kenney of nearby St. Michael' s College, Vermont, is not featured on the program, as his recent book is provocative and good, The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Re-Reading the Confessions.)

25 November 2006

Adventures in Ideas

I discovered recently with pleasure that my teacher, Sarah Broadie, will be giving the 2007 Whitehead Lectures at Harvard University, May 10th and 11th--an honor not simply for Broadie but also for ancient philosophy. (After all, some footnotes to Plato are more conspicuous than others.)

Has another 'ancient philosopher' ever given Whitehead lectures? A quick exploration of the internet uncovered the following as past lecturers:

Tyler Burge
Cora Diamond
Michael Friedman
Nelson Goodman
Saul Kripke
David Lewis
Mary Mothersill
Thomas Nagel
Christopher Peacocke
Sydney Shoemaker
Morton White
Bernard Williams
Crispin Wright

24 November 2006

And the Finale Is .... Alcibiades!

Something light for today.

At Tanglewood last summer I heard Midori live for the first time, and was completely smitten by her interpretation of the Bruch first concerto -- especially the second movement.

So recently I began to think: had she recorded the Barber concerto, which is my favorite (with Sibelius a close second)? In doing some research on her discography, I discovered something new about ancient philosophy.

Perhaps you've heard the famous story of her stunning debut at Tanglewood, when she broke two 'E' strings, had to switch to larger violins (she was still playing a children's-size instrument) and caused Leonard Bernstein to kneel in appreciation at the performance's end. But I wonder if you know the name of the piece she was playing then. It was something I've never heard of, but it is worth giving especially here: Plato's 'Symposium' for Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion, by Leonard Bernstein.

The piece, written originally for Isaac Stern in 1950, is also called simply Serenade, with the following movements:

I. Phaedrus-Pausanias: Lento and Allegro Marcato
II. Aristophanes: Allegretto
III. Eryximachus: Presto
IV. Agathon: Adagio
V. Socrates-Alcibiades: Molto tenuto and Allegro Molto Vivace

At first, when I learned of this serenade on a theme of Plato, I thought it was strange, that someone should have written programmatic music on the basis of a philosophical dialogue.

But then I thought: Isn't it unusual, rather, that more pieces of music haven't been inspired by Plato? Wouldn't a student be reading Plato according to his own mind, if he wanted to compose music inspired by Plato's writings? After all, Plato thought of creative love and human thinking as somehow unified, and he did not write dry treatises, but beautiful literature.

And then I also thought: Did Bernstein as a student at Harvard (class of '39) perhaps study Plato--to connect this to what I just been thinking about--under John Wild or Raphael Demos? We all seek to accomplish something lasting in our scholarship and teaching: Wouldn't the teacher who had inspired Bernstein have achieved just that? (Although I don't know if this is a great work and a harmonia that will long survive the death of its composer.)

In any case, here's a description of the performance from the Midori and Friends website:
Midori made the first of two recordings for Philips in 1986 (Bach/Vivaldi with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Pinchas Zukerman). The second, a Paganini/Tchaikovsky pairing with the London Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin, followed in 1987. During this same period, she gave first performances with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Montreal Symphony, undertook her first European tour and made her now-legendary debut at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein conducting. The work was Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's 'Symposium' for Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion.

In the fifth movement, Midori broke the E string and was quickly passed the violin of the concertmaster, continuing to play without missing a beat. When the unthinkable happened again and she broke the E string on the concertmaster's fiddle, she took the violin of the associate concertmaster. Both borrowed instruments were different in size - and both were larger than her own instrument - yet Midori was unfazed. When she came to the end, the audience and the orchestra erupted in applause and Bernstein fell to his knees. The following day, the front page of The New York Times read, "Girl, 14, Conquers Tanglewood with 3 Violins."

23 November 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

In the United States, today is a national Day of Thanksgiving and a major holiday. Accordingly, I will likely not be posting anything later in the day. (But--who knows?--maybe I'll have a chance to sneak away and read Gerson.)

Something small for me to be thankful for here: Dissoi Blogoi is 1 year, 9 months old exactly.

Something else: the intelligent readership of this blog, and their admirably perceptive and unfailingly courteous comments.

To you: Thanks.

22 November 2006

Why Make Comparisons?

I can't really resist. But excuse me since I've already posted on ancient philosophy (or at least metaphysics) today:


Which well-known epistemologist, when asked to rank the five best books in epistemology of the 20th century, declined to take up the task and said, simply and quite sensibly:

"Few have enough knowledge about the whole century to make the needed comparisons. (There should be some Carnap, shouldn’t there?) Easier, nicer, and more useful to just list some good ones that folks might do well to read — which one can do without committing to them being better than other books that one perhaps isn’t so familiar with."

Hint: He's an epistemologist who is as well-placed to give such a list as anyone.


Keith DeRose

See comment #10 at:

I won't spell out the a fortiori argument.

By the way, I have no objection, and never have, to DeRose or anyone else posting on their website lists of "Ten Good Places to Go to Grad School in Philosophy". Or make it 20, and annotate it too.

Also, just to be perfectly clear, two pieces of advice I always give to students contemplating graduate study in philosophy:

(i) Do not undertake graduate study if you have to pay or borrow large sums to do so; you should be well-enough regarded going in that you get a generous stipend or grant.
(ii) Be idealistic, but within practical limits, that is: attend a graduate program only if, on the assumption that you do well, you will have a reasonable chance of getting the sort of job that you would find acceptable. (But I warn also of the dangers of grad-school acculturation: viz. that what one regards as an 'acceptable' job when one gets the Ph.D. may very well be different from what one thought, perhaps on better grounds, when one began.)

Elementa Philosophiae Aristotelico-Thomisticae

Thus the title of a two volume work by Josef Gredt, O.S.B..

I recently acquired the 7th edition (1937). A little research on OCLC indicates that it was first published in 1899 in Freiburg. First editions are relatively rare, yet the University of Pittsburgh owns a copy.

I first encountered this book on the shelves of the Robbins Library in the philosophy department of Harvard University. What was it doing there? Someone told me that John Wild used to use the book when he taught his seminar on Metaphysics.

Now this would have been between 1927 and 1961, the years when Wild was on the Harvard faculty. A little background: Wild was born in Chicago in 1902. He received a B.A. from the University of Chicago and then his Ph.D from Harvard in 1926. After a year as an instructor at Michigan, he returned to Harvard, where he wrote George Berkeley (1936); Plato's Theory of Man (1946); Introduction to Realist Philosophy (1948); Plato's Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law (1953); and The Challenge of Existentialism (1955).

As those titles indicate, Wild's interests changed from an initial focus on empiricism, to studies on Plato, to "realism", and then finally to existentialism. After a kind of philosophical conversion to existentialism he moved to Northwestern, then went to Yale, and then Florida. He died in 1972. His seminars using Gredt as the text probably date from his "realist" phase in the '40s.

(By the way, I've never seen so much as a reference to Wild's Plato books. I haven't a clue whether they are valuable.)

But now imagine a Harvard faculty with Wild and Demos, as well as C.I. Lewis, Donald Williams, and Quine on the faculty. That was an interesting time. (Williams "took the full breadth of the philosophical tradition in his stride"--observe Quine, Nozick, and Firth in their APA Memorial Minute for him--"writing on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic, and the philosophy of history. Scholarship in the philosophical classics, early and late, informed and disciplined his work. The breadth of his writing, moreover, was reflected in that of the courses he gave at Harvard." N.B. Are you able, dear reader, to draw a contrast at this point with what I have previously referred to as the current, narrow professionalism of philosophy?)

I was interested in Gredt because I wondered what it would be to teach metaphysics as if it constituted knowledge. And does it make sense, in contrast, to study metaphysics from within a tradition in philosophy that, as a matter of historical fact, takes its start from denying the possibility of any significant metaphysics at all? (Won't that only give us: the metaphysics that can be made to seem plausible on these unpromising principles?) To be sure, one might conclude that the whole thing was nonsense, but shouldn't one do so only after giving it the best try on its own terms? (And by all means use Wolff, or someone else, if that seems better to you: the point would be to use some text written by someone who believes metaphysics is knowledge.)

Gredt is bracing. I open a page at random:

THESIS XV: In omni ente creato essentia actualis et existentia eius distinguuntur distinctione reali positiva.
Then follows a description of the state of the question, under five distinct points. I quote from the first:
704. St. qu. 1. Ens creatum distinguimus contra ens increatum seu ens a se. Hoc exsistit vi essentiae suae, ac proinde necessario exsistit; essentia eius non recipit exsistentiam, sed est ipsa exsistencia. (Etc.)
After which follow several 'proofs':
705. Prob. th. Arg. I (ex limitatione entis creati). Actus non limitatur nisi per potentiam a se realiter distinctam. Atqui in omni ente creato existentia est actus per essentiam actualem limitatus. Ergo.
There then follow 'corollaries' (e.g. essentia creata se habet ad existantiam, sicut materia prima se habet ad formam), 'scholia' (Diversa substantiarum composito et simplicitas), and 'objections' with replies.

Now here is the amazing thing: Wild was teaching Gredt in a metaphysics seminar in Emerson Hall, Harvard University, at roughly the same time that Quine in an office down the hall was writing "On What There Is" and (with Goodman) "Steps Toward a Constructive Nominalism"!

21 November 2006

BACAP at Clark, December 7: Matt Evans

The Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy

Clark University

"Plato's Anti-Hedonism"

Professor Matt Evans
Philosophy, New York University

commentary by

Professor Verity Harte
Philosophy and Classics, Yale University

Thursday, December 7
7:30 pm
Jefferson 218
Clark University

To be preceded by a seminar:
"Plato's Concept of Affective Evidence"
3-5 pm
Seminar Room
Beck Philosophy House
Woodland and Loudon Streets
Clark University

For more information please contact:
Professor Michael Pakaluk

20 November 2006

Aristotle and Other Platonists

(Note: this post has been significantly revised. See note (*) below.)

I begin now a series of posts on the recent book by Lloyd Gerson, Aristotle and Other Platonists, which intrigued me because of its talk of investigating the 'harmony' between Plato and Aristotle.

I find the promise of a 'harmony' intriguing for two reasons, because: (1) this would match my idea of what philosophical progress amounts to, and (2) a 'harmony' might indicate whether there was such a thing as a 'perennial philosophy'. Let me explain.

(1) I accept Aristotle's view about philosophical progess: Z is a better philosophical view than X and Y, if Z incorporates whatever we regard as interesting and true in X and Y, and Z furthermore can give an account of those ways in which X and Y, in comparison with Z, got things wrong. In sum: a better philosophical view is a bigger truth, which shows by its synthetic nature that it is bigger, and which accounts for why lesser truths went wrong where they did.

When I hear talk of a 'harmony of Plato and Aristotle', then, I expect that this would be a view that was better than Plato's or Aristotle's taken separately; it would mark progress in philosophy.

(2) It seems to me that if there is knowledge (i.e. contact with the truth) anywhere in philosophy, this would show itself in the existence of a school of thought which over time showed a certain kind of vitality and development, not unlike that of a living system. Because of the nature of philosophy (in philosophy a mistake is a kind of 'folly' rather than an 'error' or 'ignorance'), I do not expect that near universal agreement among intelligent and informed persons will be a mark of philosophical truth, as it is in the natural sciences. I expect, rather, that the mark of knowledge will be a vitality of the sort I have mentioned. (To see examples of how this notion of 'vitality' may be explicated, see Alasdair MacIntrye's Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, or, as an analogue in the area of theology, John Henry Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.)

I have wondered, then, if the 'harmonization' which Gerson will investigate is a system with precisely this kind of enduring vitality, and which thus might count as a philosophia perennis.

Now I must say that, at first glance, I have serious doubts that these hopes will be fulfilled. I have not entirely ruled it out that they will, but Gerson's remarks in his Introduction are not encouraging.

The problem is already indicated in the title of the book, Aristotle and Other Platonists. The title is meant to be provocative, to be sure, yet it itself suggests that the 'harmony' between Aristotle and Plato to be achieved, is not that of arriving at a bigger view, of the sort I have described, but rather at some kind of reduction of Aristotle to Plato.

And then Gerson says just as much in the Introduction. He says that by a 'harmony' he means that, when Aristotle seems to disagree with Plato, either the disagreement is verbal merely (that is, a case of people using different language to say the same thing), or these views of Aristotle:

... are different from those of Plato because they rest on an imperfect or incomplete grasp by Aristotle of the correct Platonic principles (5).
That is, the harmonization amounts to: Plato is correct and Aristotle either agrees with Plato or disagrees because of a misunderstanding.

Now this would not be a 'harmony' at all but, as I said, as reduction of Aristotle to Plato--an attempt to vindicate the truth of Platonism as against apparent criticisms from Aristotle. As such, the work that Gerson is exploring would fall within a common, but to my mind not respectable, genre of philosophy--viz. 'school advocacy', not unlike works by Thomists who argued that Kant and Aquinas are saying the same thing (and when Kant seems to differ, that is because he misunderstands the correct Thomistic principle); or Wittgensteinians who argue that Aristotle and Wittgenstein are saying the same thing; etc. etc. But in this case the 'school' that was doing the advocating ('neoplatonism') would not be a thriving movement today but rather--it might be thought-- a strange interlude in the history of philosophy from the distant past.

Apparently sensing that the arguments he will be exploring are vulnerable to such a criticism, Gerson writes:
...a book that aimed to do nothing more than show that a group of largely forgotten scholars and eccentric philosophers were not quite as naive as is sometimes thought would in my view be of little interest. Rather, I want to show that reading Aristotle as a Platonist, or understanding Aristotelianism as a type of Platonism, far from being an exercise in historical perversity, does actually yield significant results both exegetical and philosophical (7).
Well, those are the stakes, are they not? That is, if Gerson cannot show that there are 'significant results' from his efforts, then, as he admits, his book is no more than "an exercise in historical perversity". To my mind, then, that becomes the guiding question as I read his book: Does Gerson follow through with his promise of 'significant results'?

(*) It was pointed out to me that my original post was supposing too much, in attributing to Lloyd Gerson as well the advocacy and view of harmonization that he is investigating in certain neo-platonists. I have revised the post to remove this suggestion, and I regret that unnecessary imputation, arising from my misreading of Gerson's Introduction.