07 October 2006

Maior Difficultas

This will be my last post on Meyer on the voluntary. Next I discuss Jennifer Whiting's essay on philia (friendship).

The difficulties in Meyer's discussion of Aristotle on the voluntary derive, I think, from her presenting a revisionist and--dare I say--idiosyncratic interpretation, as if it were obviously correct and standard.

The usual way of presenting a revisionist interpretation, largely followed in Meyer's book, is to argue something like, "Scholars generally believe X, on reasons A, B, and C. But I shall deal with each of A, B, and C, and show that they do not have the weight which they are usually taken to have." This method of "divide and conquer" inevitably raises the question of what is at stake, that is, of why it should be so desirable to explain away apparent evidence in favor of X. And then the reader is free to decide whether the reinterpretation is plausible, all things considered.

Probably because Meyer must give a condensed version in her contribution to the Kraut volume, she cannot begin by conceding that the evidence, taken as a whole and at first glance, goes against her interpretation. She has to proceed as if this contrary evidence either did not exist, or got its force from "misinterpretation", "misleading impressions", and inferior readings of the text. But the unfortunate result is that her presentation, then, seems peremptory and dogmatic. More importantly, as I said, it does not allow the reader to judge whether her interpretation is the most plausible 'big picture', or whether the benefits it brings are worth the cost.

For instance, there are various ways of dealing with the apparent contradiction below, besides dismissing 2:

1. Whether someone acquires good character depends upon how he is raised.
2. Whether someone acquires good character depends upon himself.
(i) One might say that this difficulty is how it must be, for a philosopher such as Aristotle who affirms the essentially social character of a human being--that this is the form that "up to him" will take, for a social being. Compare the synchronic difficulty: we accept both that whether someone acts well depends upon the society he lives in, and that whether he acts well depends upon him.
(ii) We might wish to hold that, for Aristotle, basic standards of right action (what is kalon) are available to anyone, because they are in some sense objective and discernible by reason. Meyer's interpretation, in contrast, seems to presuppose some form of conventionalism, or at least internalism, according to which standards of right action are available only through instruction.
(iii) It wasn't entirely clear to Plato, after all, whether virtue could reliably be taught: since frequently he observes that what was reckoned good education seemed not to be good, that is, not to impart virtue reliably. But likewise Aristotle might have held that poor education is not uniformly bad. And indeed people seem better at teaching children to act well than at acting well themselves. Moreover, a poor education seems to be poor largely because it is inconsistent, that is, because it allows in bad elements (e.g. stories of the gods killing or committing adultery) rather than because it fails to include good elements.
(iv) The task of acquiring virtues of character, at least, seems similar or the same in any culture: Wasn't it possible to become courageous or not, or self-disciplined or not, in Nazi Germany? What we might regard as a bad upbringing can consist largely of bad principles. Yet Aristotle in III.5 seems concerned principally with virtues of character.
(v) I wonder if a view operating in the background for Aristotle is that reason should govern, and that, in principle, it always can govern, so that, if it does not (which is how he wishes to contrue bad action, problematically), then nothing else can be faulted except reason. If that view (an inheritance from the Republic, perhaps) seems implausible to you, consider pa=j ga\r nou=j ai(rei=tai to\ be/ltiston e(autw|= (NE 9.8, 1169a17)--and I could cite a dozen similar texts.

These considerations, or others like them, cannot be even raised or considered on Meyer's discussion, which proceeds as if any other view, besides her view, that Aristotle rejects 2., depends upon misinterpretations and misleading evidence.