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"!