31 January 2007

Dissolving a Difficulty, not Formulating a Theory

The problem that Boethius discusses in Consolation V is (roughly) how God's omniscience is compatible with human freedom.

But the first thing to settle is what precisely he is trying to do in discussing it: since we want to know whether he fails on his own terms.

Which of the following is he attempting?

(i) to tell us how it actually works--that is, to give us something like a theory or a model, of how God's knowledge of our actions works together with our freedom when we do those actions; or
(ii) (simply) to dispel or dissolve an objection--that is, to leave it standing, that God knows all things, and that we are free, but without attempting to explain how.

The first task is positive and rationalistic; the second is negative and purely defensive. Someone who held, for instance, that the relationship between God's knowledge and our actions is ultimately mysterious (although not inherently contradictory), would want to take the second approach.

In my view, Boethius does take this second approach. He offers a diagnosis of why we feel a difficulty in God's knowledge of our future actions. On his view, the difficulty arises because we presume, incorrectly, that God's knowledge of the future is like the knowledge that we might have of the future. We can have knowledge of the future, only as regards those things that are strictly determined by antecedent causes. (Why? Because we can have such knowledge only by tracing such causes into the future.) But God sees future things in an eternal present. Thus he can see and know future things directly--even future events which are not determined completely by causes antecedent in time. God's foreknowledge is really direct knowledge of things that are future for us.

If this is the correct understanding of Boethius' aims, then that other difficulties can be raised as regards Boethius' conception of God (such as the relation between God's omnipotence and human freedom) is irrelevant. Of course there will be such difficulties, and, of course, Boethius will think that (given sufficient attention) they can be similarly dissolved. But it would be strange to say, as Marenbon does, that because there are such difficulties, then Boethius' account is vitiated in the end.

Boethius was never attempting to offer in the first place a fully satisfactory 'theory' or 'model' of God's relationship to the world. He meant to diagnose and dissolve one difficulty, and he does so.

(Of course, one might wonder: Why was he concerned with just that difficulty? Why wasn't he equally concerned with the difficulty about omnipotence? A good question: which I'll answer tomorrow.)

29 January 2007

Is the Consolation Vitiated at the Very End?

Today I'll simply state the problem that, in the view of John Marenbon, vitiates the conclusion of Boethius' Consolation. In later posts I'll consider whether Boethius would have thought that it really is a problem, or even a new problem.

It's important to consider, of course, how the difficulty appeared or might have appeared to Boethius, since what is at issue is whether Boethius deliberately states it, or brushes it aside, and whether his doing so therefore is crucial for the interpretation of the Consolation. If we have good grounds for thinking that Boethius would not have regarded it as a difficulty, then that the difficulty perhaps troubles us means nothing for the interpretation of the work.

According to Marenbon, immediately after Boethius gives his resolution of the difficulty about divine ominiscience and human freedom, he seems to introduce a new difficulty, now involving divine omnipotence and human freedom. The key passage is this from Consolation V (P6) is this:

Well, you will ask, isn't divine knowledge changed as a result of my rearrangement, so that as I change my wishes it, too, seems to change its knowledge? The answer is no. Each future thing is anticipated by the gaze of God which bends it back and recalls it to the presence of its own manner of knowledge; it does not change, as you think, with alternate knowledge of now this and now that, but with one glance anticipates and embraces your changes in its constancy. God receives this present mode of knowledge and vision of all things not from the issue of future things but from His own immediacy. So that the difficulty you put forward a short time ago [V, P3], that it was unfitting if our future is said to provide a cause of God's knowledge, is solved. The power of this knowledge which embraces all things in present understanding has itself established the mode of being for all things and owes nothing to anything secondary to itself. And since this is so, man's freedom of will remains inviolate and the law does not impose reward and punishment unfairly, because the will is free from all necessity. (Watts, Penguin edn.)

39. quid igitur, inquies, ex meane dispositione scientia diuina mutabitur, ut cum ego nunc hoc nunc illud uelim illa quoque noscendi uices alternare uideatur? 40. -- minime. omne namque futurum diuinus praecurrit intuitus et ad praesentiam propriae cognitionis retorquet ac reuocat; nec alternat, ut aestimas, nunc hoc nunc aliud praenoscendi uice, sed uno ictu mutationes tuas manens praeuenit atque complectitur. 41. quam comprehendendi omnia uisendique praesentiam non ex futurarum prouentu rerum sed ex propria deus simplicitate sortitus est. 42. ex quo illud quoque resoluitur quod paulo ante posuisti, indignum esse si scientiae dei causam futura nostra praestare dicantur. 43. haec enim scientiae uis praesentaria notione cuncta complectens rebus modum omnibus ipsa constituit, nihil uero posterioribus debet. 44. quae cum ita sint, manet intemerata mortalibus arbitrii libertas nec iniquae leges solutis omni necessitate uoluntatibus praemia poenasque proponunt.
Marenbon's gloss is as follows:
However it is interpreted, Philosophy's argument takes a surprising turn at the very end of the book. When he gave his initial statement of the problem, Boethius the character had distinguished the problem at issue—that of divine prescience—from that of divine predetermination. He had explained (V.3) that, for the purposes of their discussion, he was assuming that God does not cause the events he foreknows: he knows them because they happen, rather than their happening because he foreknows them. He added, though, in passing, that he did not really accept this view: it is ‘back to front’ to think that ‘the outcome of things in time should be the cause of eternal prescience.’ Philosophy now returns to this point, conceding that God's act of knowing ‘sets the measure for all things and owes nothing to things which follow on from it.’ Although Philosophy considers that she has successfully resolved the character Boethius's problems, the reader is left asking whether this final concession, which makes God the determiner of all events, does not ruin the elaborate defence of the contingency of human volitions she has just been mounting.
The problem is this: if God is (as Aquinas would later put it) the immediate efficient cause of everything that is--indeed, if, for God, to know something created simply is to create it--then how can the human will be truly free, since, ultimately, it is God that causes each person to choose how he acts, when that person acts as he does?

The passage from the Consolation quoted above appears only four sentences from the end. It would indeed spoil the argument of book V, if not the entire work, if it presents as serious a problem as Marenbon thinks.

26 January 2007

Doubts about SEP

Typically I find myself feeling very grateful for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, yet sometimes I wonder whether it deserves to be taken as seriously as a print encyclopedia. Its great strength--the lack of any true need to economize on words--in some instances appears to be its real weakness.

That it need not go through the expense of being printed explains why SEP can contain lengthy articles on, for instance, "Supertasks", a footnote to a footnote to a footnote to Plato. A valuable discussion, one might concede--but is it as valuable as a concise article on Zeno's paradoxes which, exercising exemplary good judgment, mentioned but then dismissed the solution involving "supertasks" as misguided?--Or must all possible literature reviews be included in an encyclopedia? (That would be a supertask.)

Sometimes I find an article the wordiness of which is never justified even on its own terms. An absurdly lengthy entry on "Time Travel and Modern Physics"--which, in truth, lacks the claim to authority that an encyclopedia article should have, but reads, rather, like one professor's lecture notes--at least has the good sense to conclude with an honest admission, which, however, completely undermines the author's efforts:

Similarly, even if all of our consistency conditions can be met, it does not follow that time travel is physically possible, only that some specific physical considerations cannot rule it out. The only serious proof of the possibility of time travel would be a demonstration of its actuality. [Thanks for that bit of commonsense!] For if we agree that there is no actual time travel in our universe, the supposition that there might have been involves postulating a substantial difference from actuality, a difference unlike in kind from anything we could know if firsthand. It is unclear to us exactly what the content of possible would be if one were to either maintain or deny the possibility of time travel in these circumstances, unless one merely meant that the possibility is not ruled out by some delineated set of constraints. As the example of Aristotle's theory of water shows, conceptual and logical “possibility” do not entail possibility in a full-blooded sense. What exactly such a full-blooded sense would be in case of time travel, and whether one could have reason to believe it to obtain, remain to us obscure.
Obscure indeed--but one suspects that the author's spilling of 15,000 words on the topic has helped contribute to its obscurity.

John Marenbon's article on Boethius, which I have been looking to recently for illumination, presents a similar problem in its section 6, "Divine Prescience, Contingency, and Eternity", a tangled and obscure exposition, which surely would have turned out better if editors had required that it occupy one-third the space.

First of all, it contains strange and incoherent sentences--a clear sign of poor editing:
In V.3, however, the character Boethius puts forward an argument, based on God's foreknowledge of future events, which threatens to show that even mental acts of willing are determined and so (as Boethius the author believed) unfree.

None the less, the discussion which follows does not, as the danger seems to be, address itself to a non-problem.

They hold that Philosophy is arguing that God is atemporal, so eliminating the problems about determinism, which arise when God's knowing future contingents is seen an event in the past, and therefore, fixed.
Second, the discussion gives no clear answer to what Boethius took the problem about divine foreknowledge to be, and how he attempted to solve it.

It mentions first the supposed scope fallacy in a modal operator--but one does not know why, since Marenbon tells us that this is not the problem considered in the text. Then we are told that Boethius' solution requires that we not think of God as "in time" but rather "in eternity". That surely is correct, yet Marenbon concludes by saying that "[i]t is important to add, however, that most contemporary interpreters do not read the argument of V.3–6 in quite this way" because "[t]hey hold that Philosophy is arguing that God is atemporal, so eliminating the problems about determinism, which arise when God's knowing future contingents is seen an [sic] event in the past, and therefore, fixed"--which, as far as one can tell, looks indistinguishable from Marenbon's view.

Surely an encyclopedia, whether online or not, is obliged to offer something clearer, more orderly, and more definitive than this.

24 January 2007

Wisdom and Reason in the Consolation

I won't quite claim it as confirmation that sapientia disponit omnia suaviter, yet I was very pleased to find in today's NDPR a review by John Marenbon, which, as it happens, takes up some of the themes I raised in my very last post about Boethius' Consolation.

Marenbon's review raises two questions for me:

(1) Is he right to hold that there is some serious difficulty left hanging at the end of book V of the Consolation? Marenbon uses strong language to describe the problem: "changes of direction, incoherencies and ultimate failure" (in his SEP article), "tensions" and "inconsistency" (in his review).

(2) How is this difficulty handled by the book under review (Eileen Sweeney, Logic, Theology, and Poetry in Boethius, Abelard, and Alan of Lille: Words in the Absence of Things)?

Since the review is just out, I'll consider the second question first. What Marenbon says is this:

The end of Boethius's Consolation presents a puzzle to interpreters. The most obvious way of reading the text is to take Boethius as having been successfully consoled by the personification of Philosophy: he now sees that the world is governed justly in accord with the highest good, that the wicked do not really prosper and the virtuous are always rewarded; he is ready to raise the difficult question of whether divine prescience precludes contingency in human affairs, and to accept Philosophy's explanation of why it does not. Yet there are definite tensions within the text that tell against this straightforward interpretation, and there is the overarching problem of why Boethius, a Christian facing his death, limits himself to a purely philosophical consolation. Earlier scholars speculated, unconvincingly, that Boethius had abandoned Christianity for pagan Platonism. Recently, the tendency has been to ask, rather, whether Boethius is really aiming to present a successful philosophical consolation. Joel Relihan, for example, contends that the need for a Christian consolation is made clear because of Philosophy's failure. I have argued, more modestly, that Philosophy's overall argument is not coherent, and that, in her own, pagan terms, the personification of Philosophy is aware of her own limitations -- the limitations, that is, of human reasoning even raised to the highest level. Sweeney sees the matter a little differently (pp. 58-61). The inconsistency in Philosophy's arguments is a matter of pedagogy, 'moving her pupil ahead and, at times, coming back down to meet him when he cannot quite move higher with her.' In her view, Boethius the author is fully aware of the limitations of 'reason, Philosophy's instrument' in grasping the divine order, and it is here, she says, that the poetry of the Consolation -- which is, therefore, far more than ornamental -- has its role. This is a subtle reading, which carries a good deal of conviction.
The paragraph to me seems confused by Marenbon's changing of the question. What is the problem that Sweeney's interpretation helps resolve? Is it "the overarching problem of why Boethius, a Christian facing his death, limits himself to a purely philosophical consolation", or rather the unnamed but "definite tensions" that are said to persist in the text?

But I'm most interested in the highlighted sentences, which, for me, raise more questions than they answer. Why should a teacher's 'moving a pupil ahead' and 'coming back down to meet him' (by the way, hardly a coherent image), imply inconsistency in what is taught? I suppose that all teachers lead their pupils in the sense intended, but typically without contradicting themselves.

Also, I take it that Sweeney distinguishes Philosophy from human reason ('Philosophy's instrument'). Thus a limitation in an argument offered by human reason, need not be a limitation in Philosophy, which might reasonably be understood more broadly to include such things as intuition, insight, intellectual vision, and understanding. This seems a useful distinction--even though I'd like 'human reason' to be explained better.

But then, what role exactly (that is, according to Sweeney) is the poetry of the Consolation supposed to play? Marenbon's review does not tell us. To be sure, its role is 'more than ornamental'. That we might have supposed. (At least: it is meant to appeal to emotions, as argument appeals to reason.) But what 'far more than non-ornamental task' does Sweeney think it accomplishes?

Is the poetry, for instance, meant to provide reasons 'of the heart' que la raison ne connait point? Does it pretend to give independent insights, an ineffable 'grasp of the divine order', which could not in principle be expressed in philosophical argument? Does it offer 'divine' rather than 'human reason'? And how would it do so?

Marenbon does not say, and hence I as a reader have no idea whether I should agree with him, that Sweeney's is indeed "a subtle reading", and follow him in recognizing that it "carries a good deal of conviction". In fact, I haven't the slightest idea how Sweeney offers a viewpoint different from Marenbon's or Relihan's. It has something to do with the poetry, I gather.

(You will perhaps say: "Read the book." Yes, I'll look at it, at least. But a review is meant to save work, and give us key ideas and considerations prior to our reading it.)

20 January 2007

Does the Exception Prove the Rule?

In one of the first posts of this blog, I raised the old chestnut of why Boethius, a Christian, should have written his Consolation without, it seems, even a trace of an expression of any distinctively Christian belief. (Compare, for instance, the very different approach to consolation in prison, written byThomas More, "A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation".)

Yet perhaps it is wrong to hold that there is no trace. There is, perhaps, a single allusion to Sacred Scripture in the work, as John Marenbon, in his SEP article on Boethius observes:

One, perfectly plausible way of reading the Consolation is to take it, as most philosophical works are taken, at face value. On this reading, Philosophy is recognized as a clearly authoritative figure, whose teaching should not be doubted and whose success in consoling the character Boethius must be assumed to be complete. The apparent changes of direction noted [above] will be taken either as stages in Boethius's re-education or as unintended effects of the author's wish to make this work into a compendium of a syncretistic philosophical system, and Philosophy's own view that she has resolved the problem of prescience will be accepted as that of Boethius the author.

Yet there are a number of reasons which suggest that Boethius's intention as an author was more complex. First, it would have been hard for his intended audience of educated Christians to ignore the fact that in this dialogue a Christian, Boethius, is being instructed by a figure who clearly represents the tradition of pagan Philosophy, and who proposes some positions (on the World Soul in III m.9, and on the sempiternity of the world in V.6) which most Christians would have found dubious. Boethius the character says nothing which is explicitly Christian, but when in III.12 Philosophy says, echoing the words of Wisdom viii, 1 that ‘it is the highest good that rules all things strongly and disposes them sweetly’, he expresses his delight not just in what she has said but much more ‘in those very words’ that she uses—a broad hint to the reader that he remembers his Christian identity even in the midst of his philosophical instruction.

I confess this was new to me. The exact words of the verse from the Liber Sapientiae of the Vulgate are (understand Sapientia as the subject):
Attingit ergo a fine usque ad finem fortiter,
Et disponit omnia suaviter.
And in the Consolatio:
22. -- est igitur summum, inquit, bonum quod regit cuncta fortiter suauiterque disponit. 23. -- tum ego: quam, inquam, me non modo ea quae conclusa est summa rationum, uerum multo magis haec ipsa quibus uteris uerba delectant, ut tandem aliquando stultitiam magna lacerantem sui pudeat! --
Which the translator of my Penguin version, Victor Watts, renders (alas, somewhat lamely):
'It is the supreme good, then, which mightily and sweetly orders all things.'
Then I said, 'The conclusion of this highest of arguments has made me happy, and I am even more happy because of the words you used. I am now ashamed of the stupidity of all my railing.'
Marenbon says that that one passage provides a "hint" of Boethius' "Christian identity". Watts in a footnote says that, if indeed Boethius is here "complimenting Philosophy for echoing the words of the Book of Wisdom", then this "is an important indication of Boethius's attitude to faith and revelation".

But how exactly would it be an "important indication"? And why should a single reference to a Hellenized book in Hebrew Scripture show anything about the "Christian identity" or "faith" of the author?

(Question to Dissoi Blogoi readers: Would Boethius have thought of the Book of Wisdom as having the title, Sapientia Solomonis, or under the more philosophical-sounding titles, Liber Sapientia, or, as among some Greek Fathers, h( qei/a sofi/a, h( pana/retoj sofi/a?)

If the lines are an allusion, then it seems better to say, as cracking that old chestnut: Boethius, even though a Christian, supposed he could write his Consolation as he did, in just the same way that the Liber Sapientia could, as he thought, have a standing, and an important and distinctive role, within the canon of Christian Scripture. If no one would wonder why a Christian might read on its own and indeed treasure, in his collection of inspired writings, something like the Book of Wisdom, then why should we wonder that a Christian should write, as standing on its own, a book which gives (what he takes to be) an account of wisdom?

19 January 2007

Off Point

A curious couple of paragraphs in a recent review of a book by Naomi Reshotko:

Penner's account of the Dominance theory of desire has been most forcefully expressed through his interpretation of Gorgias 466a-468e in "Power and desire in Socrates,"Apeiron 24 (1991) 147-202. In my "Rhetoric's Inadequate Means: Gorgias 466a4-468e5", Classical Philology, forthcoming, 2007, I argue, among other things, that Penner grossly misinterprets Socrates' claim that everyone desires the good in the Gorgias argument. In "The Desire for the Good: is the Meno inconsistent with the Gorgias?" Phronesis 39 (1994) 1-25, Penner, in collaboration with Rowe, attempts to extend his account of Socratic desire in Gorgias to Meno. Among other things, I criticize their interpretation of the Meno argument in "Desire for Good in Meno 77B2-78B6, "Classical Quarterly 56 (2006) 77-92. (See also Anagnostopoulos' article "Desire for the Good in the Meno," in Socrates and Plato: Desire, Identity, and Existence, Reshotko, ed., Academic Publishers, 2003, 171-91.)

Reshotko's treatment of Socratic intellectualism in chapter four depends upon Penner's account of Socrates' argument against akrasia in Protagoras in "Socrates on the strength of knowledge," Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 79 (1997) 117-49. Among other things, I criticize Penner's interpretation of Socrates' account of akrasia in Protagoras in "The Ridiculousness of Being Overcome by Pleasure: Protagoras 352b1-358d4, "Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 31 (2006) 113-36. Finally, my view of desire in Lysis, in Trials of Reason: Plato and the Crafting of Philosophy, OUP, forthcoming, 2007, chapter 2.vi, diverges from that of Penner and Rowe in Plato's Lysis, CUP, 2005.

I thought this was supposed to be a review of a book by Naomi Reshotko.

As a reader of the review, I don't care that the reviewer somewhere disagrees. (I suppose all of us disagree with almost everyone else on almost everything.) And I certainly don't care if he disagrees with someone besides the author of the book.

(Oh--check for yourself--it's not that you'll find a discussion of the book elsewhere in the review.)

18 January 2007

Aristotle in Alaska in August

I wonder if one has to think that Aristotle was a materialist in order to participate in the following event. (Alaska in August--what better time to visit?)

Call for Abstracts

The University of Alaska Anchorage has funded a conference on Aristotle and Life occurring August 7-10, 2007. The conference is only open to 8 invited participants and will be a workshop style conference. Participants are expected to bring a draft of an unpublished paper to the conference. Every participant will also serve as commentator for another participant. Each paper will receive several hours of discussion and feedback. The final versions of the papers will be published as an anthology or as a special issue of a journal (conditional, of course, on editorial review).

The focus of the conference is on the application of Aristotle’s hylomorphic analysis to living things with a particular interest in human persons. The goal of the conference is to bring Aristotle’s analysis into the contemporary debate as a viable non-reductive materialist approach to persons and living things.

Those accepted to participate will be reimbursed for $500 of travel expenses. Participants can stay in University apartments (single bedroom units are reserved, doubles are available for an additional cost) from 8/6-8/12 for $50 per night. Lunches and snacks will be provided on the days that the conference convenes.

Additional recreational opportunities will be available for those who wish to join in the fun.

Deadline for submission is 2/28/07. Accepted applicants will be notified before 3/31/07.

Applicants should submit a 300-500 word abstract and CV to John Mouracade: afjmm2@uaa.alaska.edu.

17 January 2007

Stoicism and the Good: An Upcoming BACAP Event

The Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy (BACAP) announces an upcoming event on the Dartmouth Campus:

Katja Vogt, Columbia University
"The Good is Benefit: On the Stoic Definition of the Good"

Commentary: Stephen Menn, McGill Univ.

Thursday, February 8, 7:00 p.m.
Carson L01

Also a seminar, "Plato and the Stoics on Benefit"
Friday, February 9, 10 a.m.
Thornton 103

For more information please contact Professor Margaret Graver (margaret.graver@dartmouth.edu).
For a map of Carson, see the NW quadrant map here.

16 January 2007

Is the 'Concept of Natural Law' in Aristotle?

One last observation on Gisela Stiker's article, "Origins of the Concept of Natural Law" . . .

Consider the following paragraph from that article:

As regards the question of natural justice, Aristotle insists, against the relativist, that it is not true that what the law prescribes varies completely arbitrarily from one society to another. There is a common core of laws, often unwritten, that can be seen to be part of any legal system--those laws that forbid murder, and fraud, for example--and these laws prescribe what is naturally just in the sense of being a necessary part of the order of any human community (EN V 7, 1134b17-30). But this view, that some laws are natural in that they prescribe what is naturally just (Rhet. I, 1373b 1-18), should not be confused with the theory that there is a natural system of law that defines right conduct.
Add to the view that Striker here ascribes to Aristotle only that:
(i) laws that belong to this 'common core' are naturally recognized by us--that is, they are typically identified by us, and acknowledged to have force, apart from training or instruction; and that
(ii) these naturally just laws have priority over other laws, in the sense that other laws have no authority if they contravene a law that belongs to this 'common core';
and one then has a very good statement, I think, of the theory of natural law. These further points are presumably the important ones, if we are inquiring whether Aristotle had a 'concept of natural law'. (In my view it is likely that he endorsed (i) but unclear whether he would have endorsed (ii).)

Striker denies that the 'concept of natural law' is found in Aristotle only because she (strangely) thinks it is part of that concept that natural laws actually define what justice is, and that natural laws must somehow have the same extension as human positive law (it cannot be, she apparently thinks, that only some human laws express or articulate the natural law).

Needless to say, her essay then becomes an exercise in which the desired result is built in from the start: she defines the 'concept of natural law' in such a way that only the Stoics (if even they) could have originated it.

15 January 2007

Influence, or Mere Similarity?

Striker's essay ("Origins of the Concept of Natural Law") ends with some puzzling history of philosophy:

[T]he peculiar features of the Stoic theory of nature also prefigure, at least, most of the various other forms that the doctrine of natural law came to assume in the course of its long history. Many of them can be seen as versions of the Stoic doctrine that use just one of the many attributes of nature as conceived by the Stoics. Thus, for example, nature is rational--hence one can claim that the natural law is the law of reason. Nature is also divine--so the Christians could take over the doctrine by supposing that that natural law must be identical with God's commandments. Finally, the contents of Stoic natural law are derived from fundamental tendencies of human nature, and so the natural law could also be represented as a law of human nature--which led to the charge of confusion between descriptive and normative laws raised by the nineteenth-century utilitarians.
Is Striker claiming actual influence, or simply a similarity?

At first she seems to claim only a similarity ("prefigures, at least"). But then she speaks about borrowing in the abstract ("one can claim"), and then actual borrowing ("the Christians could take over the doctrine..."), and then borrowing in the abstract once more ("could also be represented as"). It must be confessed, this seems confused. What exactly is the historical influence of the Stoic theory, and the actual dependence of other views upon it?

It's puzzling in particular how the Stoic idea that "nature is divine" could have made it easier for "the Christians" to take over the doctrine--since "the Christians" agreed with "the Jews" that, because nature was created ex nihilo, it is in no sense divine. Or, if Striker means by "nature is divine" merely that the cause of nature is divine, then Christians could presumably have assented to that without any need to borrow from the Stoics. As for whether, apart from Stoic influence, it would have been easy, within a Jewish background, to think of ethical precepts as akin to a Law, although not written, but known 'by nature'--that's easy enough to understand (e.g. o(/tan ga\r e)/qnh ta\ mh\ no/mon e)/xonta fu/sei ta\ tou= no/mou poiw=sen, ou(=toi no/mon mh\ e)/xontej e(autoi=j ei)si\n no/moj: Paul, Rom 2:24).

Likewise, it's unclear why a proponent of natural law would need to suppose that all of nature is rational, or to suppose that it is rational in some distinctive sense attributable to the Stoics (rather than nature's simply being teleological, or under the providence of a rational deity), in order to hold also that, for human beings, the supposed precepts of 'natural law' are also precepts of human practical reason.

In sum: the 'concept of natural law' antedates the Stoics (as we have seen); and nothing distinctively Stoic seems required for the concept. How then are the Stoics its originators?

13 January 2007

Updated Template for Dissoi Blogoi

Well, it's good enough for now: an updated template for the new Blogger, and Recent Posts and Recent Comments for the sidebar. I'll fiddle with this more as I have time.

By the way, click on the post title (now underlined) if you wish to read the comments associated with that post.

Problems with Comments

Some readers have reported difficulties in posting comments. They write comments which then vaporize into cyberspace--when they click on "Post This Comment"--rather than get recorded on the blog.

I suspect the reason is that recently I moved this blog over to the beta version of a new blog platform that Google is offering (or, since Dec 21, 2006, the "new Blogger", no longer beta), and that the script for the Recent Comments feature in the sidebar, which I had added (from Blogger Hacks) to the original blog template, is no longer working correctly as a result.

Until I find a fix, may I suggest that you post comments by clicking on the Comments line at the end of the relevant posts (rather than clicking on the sidebar), and that you also save a back up copy of something that you've crafted, just in case?

Greek Law and Natural Law

These paragraphs from Joseph Almeida's review today in BMCR of the Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law seem relevant to our discussion of the origin of the concept of natural law.

If Almeida is correct, Ober thinks the concept could not have originated from within 'the Greek mind' at all (can that be correct?); whereas Long apparently gives a sociological account of how the idea might have occurred to a philosopher.

Ober in "Law and Political Theory" (located in Part 5) applies to the
literature a framework of contemporary legal and political theories in
order to highlight interplay between theory and practice in the Greek
law. Thus the Greek mind had no notion of natural law or objective
morality. Rather it shows a deontological and politicizing positivism
subject to the influence of institutional form in the shaping of
polis-specific laws. Under the groupings, "legislation and amendment,"
"application and interpretation," and "enforcement and penology," Ober
sweeps with general observations over Greek writers from Hesiod to
Demosthenes. Hesiod had a theory of justice, but no institutional means
of implementation; Solon applied judicial theory through legislative
institutions; Thucydides theorized about international justice but
faced gaps in international legal structure similar to Hesiod's local
deficiencies; Plato and Aristotle theorized about law disengaged from
practical application, but theorizing and practice met in Demosthenes.
While Ober's broad treatment may provoke objections on particulars, his
"interdisciplinary approach ... informed by contemporary ... theory"
exemplifies the kind of innovation which Cohen believes will "open
fruitful avenues for future exploration." (p. 24).

Philosophizing also is A. A. Long's "Law and Nature in Greek Thought"
(located in Part 5). One of the most interesting pieces, it would have
been well placed in a book on Greek philosophy. Long examines the
relationship in Greek intellectual history between nomos and physis
from strong antithesis in fifth-century theorists to conjunction in the
"natural law" of the Greek Stoics. In the fifth century the notion of
nomoi was too vividly connected with particular legislation to become a
metaphor for the universal divine order. For this, Greek thinkers
employed the idea of dike. However, the transformation of world view in
Hellenistic society from polis parochialism to cosmopolitanism
citizenship freed nomos from such limiting associations. Thus the
Stoics joined ethics to cosmology wherein "natural law" became a
manifestation of a larger and encompassing rational order of the "laws
of nature." For Cohen, Long's article represents the potential fruits
of an interdisciplinary application of philosophic inquiry to the study
of Greek law.

On Striker's Definition of Natural Law

It should be clear, then, why Striker's defininition of natural law is unsatisfactory. Here it is again:

The term "natural law" refers, it would seem, to the rules of morality conceived of as a kind of legal system, but one that has not been enacted by any human legislator. By contrast to human legal codes, the natural law is supposed to be valid independently of any formal procedures, and such that is cannot be changed. Besides, this law is supposed to provide the standards by which human legislation is to be judged--laws will be just or unjust depending on whether they do or do not conform to natural law. This is, at any rate, the concept of natural law that I'm going to talk about.
There are some vague terms in her definition ('valid', 'conform to'), but apparently, according to Striker, in order to be a proponent of 'natural law theory', one needs to believe that:
  1. There is some such separate thing as 'morality', and
  2. The content of 'morality' may be expressed as a system of rules, resembling a detailed legal code; yet,
  3. Although this code is very detailed, it is the same everywhere and unchanging; furthermore,
  4. Positive law is just if and only if it coincides with ('conforms to'?) this moral code.
Now, has anyone ever thought this? I don't think so. Yet, if not, it seems pointless to look for the origin of this idea.

Moreover, it then becomes trivially true that this idea would not originate in Plato and Aristotle, as they are not the origin of any idea that no one ever held. It's a bit too easy, then, when Striker argues that Plato and Aristotle are not the origin of 'the concept of natural law', since they did not think of morality as consisting of a system of rules!
I hope I have said enough to substantiate my point that both Plato and Aristotle are rather far from endorsing anything like a conception of a natural law--the idea that morality can be represented as a system of rules, and the virtue of justice defined as the disposition to abide by those rules.
But Striker thinks that the Stoics were the origin of the 'concept of natural law'? Yet did they think of morality as consisting of a system of detailed rules? Or if they are 'far from endorsing' anything like that, or explicating 'morality' in that way, then by parity they are similarly not the originators of the 'concept of natural law'.

It must be said that Striker fudges the point. She uses a severe standard when she considers the extent to which Plato or Aristotle would acknowledge moral rules, but an easy standard when she looks to the Stoics:
Chrysippus argued that following nature will consist in pursuing two primary impules that nature has given to human beings--the impulse toward self-preservation and the impulse toward sociability. The first will lead one to seek out and acquire things needed for survival, but also presumably for the full development of one's innate capacities; the second is considered to be the foundation of justice as an other-regarding virtue, and leads to caring for one's children and family first of all, but then ultimately for the welfare of all human beings as well. Concern for oneself and concern for other rational beings is supposed to result in a regular and orderly pattern of conduct that will exhibit a kind of harmony that accounts for the goodness of the universe as a whole.
So far, no detailed code of rules, but a couple of basic rules at best. As for general appeals to regularity and harmony, these may be found in Plato and Aristotle as well as Chrysippus. Striker continues:
Obviously, a lot of filling in will be needed to arrive from those two fundamental tendencies at a detailed set of rules of morality. For example, one needs to set out in detail what things will be needed for self-preservation or self-development, and what is required by concern for others. Also, it seems fairly clear, at least from a modern perspective, that the two primary impulses might lead to conflicts: what if what I try to do to preserve or develop myself turns out to involve actions that will harm rather than benefit my neighbors? How can one show that my concern for others will appropriately limit what I do to promote my own welfare?
These would clearly be questions that any code of morality akin to a legal code would have to answer, especially those questions that relate the private to the common good. Did the Stoics provide answers that suggest that morality consists of a system of rules? At this point Striker shifts attention to the different concept of 'following nature':
It is not clear that observation of nature will provide an answer to these questions--and in fact it seems that when the Stoics were challenged to give a reply that would show how following nature does lead to just and virtuous conduct in cases of conflict, they found themselves in considerable difficulties. But I cannot try to pursue these further questions here.
Elsewhere she cites De Officiis as developing a detailed code of moral rules of the sort she thinks the 'concept of natural law' requires. But doesn't that treatise contain simply an examination of various cases and examples, in light of some rules of thumb and intuitive appeals to the virtues? Striker acknowledges the difficulty:
But one has to admit, I think, that there is only a rather tenuous connection between these highly general observations about human nature and the often very specific rules of conduct we find in Cicero's De Officiis and the books of many later Stoics (from "Following Nature", sect. 4, "The Laws of Nature").
So if we say that Stoic theory licenses the postulation of a few general precepts that are naturally known from the observation of human nature, and then that practical reasoning is meant to fill in the details, from reflection on representative cases, differently so for different times and places-- Is it clear that nothing like this is in Plato, Aristotle, or other earlier thinkers?

12 January 2007

The 'Concept of Natural Law' as Antedating the Stoics

Suppose we say that the 'concept of natural law' is the following:

There are some precepts and proscriptions which:
  1. are binding upon everyone
  2. can be naturally known, and known to be so binding; and,
  3. are prior to human law, in the sense that:
  • any human law which commands or forbids the same thing as these is binding because of these; and
  • any human law, obedience to which would require disobedience to these, is not binding.
Nota bene:
--By 'binding' I mean 'binding in conscience'; viz. it must be followed on pain of doing what one should recognize as wrong.
--We should expect these precepts and proscriptions to be few in number and to pertain to essentials of human social life. They would not, by any means, constitute the whole of 'justice' or 'morality.'
--These precepts and proscriptions might aptly be called natural because they are naturally known; are binding on all who share human nature; and are interpretable as laws that are necessary for the social life of those who have a nature such as ours.
--We should expect that these precepts and proscriptions would, additionally, be aptly interpreted as deriving from providential divine legislators.

Then it seems clear that the 'concept of natural law', so described, antedates the Stoics by far. It is found, for instance, with all of the elements described above, in the Antigone of Sophocles:
You, you with your face bent to the ground, do you admit, or deny that you did this?

I declare it and make no denial.

You, ...tell me--not at length, but briefly--did you know that an edict had forbidden this?

I knew it. How could I not? It was public.

And even so you dared overstep that law?

[450] Yes, since it was not Zeus that published me that edict, and since not of that kind are the laws which Justice who dwells with the gods below established among men. Nor did I think that your decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten [455] and unfailing statutes given us by the gods. For their life is not of today or yesterday, but for all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth. Not for fear of any man's pride was I about to owe a penalty to the gods for breaking these. [460] Die I must, that I knew well (how could I not?). That is true even without your edicts. But if I am to die before my time, I count that a gain. When anyone lives as I do, surrounded by evils, how can he not carry off gain by dying? [465] So for me to meet this doom is a grief of no account. But if I had endured that my mother's son should in death lie an unburied corpse, that would have grieved me. Yet for this, I am not grieved.

11 January 2007

How to Define 'Natural Law'

I think the answer to the question I posed yesterday is this: history of philosophy, like any history, attempts to make what has happened understandable; and to make something understandable, usually we need to account for diverse phenomena, and unify them, in terms of single principle, or a small set of principles. A true theory can play the role of a single principle, when we interpret what came before as a progressive series of attempts to state the theory that we regard as true. (E.g. we see Copernicus and Kepler as antecedents to Newton; or Aristotle interpreted his predecessors in physical science as attempting to identify all four causes.) Yet it would seem that this is not the only way in which the phenomena of history may be unified. (Consider, e.g. the view that Hume is a sceptic who brings the epistemological turn initiated by Descartes to its logical conclusion. Two scholars, one who endorses Hume and the other who does not, might both think this: one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.)

But now what about natural law theory: how do we define it?

Mark Murphy in his article, already mentioned, in SEP, defines it by giving a paradigmatic instance, viz. the theory of Thomas Aquinas:

Even though we have already confined ‘natural law theory’ to its use as a term that marks off a certain class of ethical theories, we still have a confusing variety of meanings to contend with. Some writers use the term with such a broad meaning that any moral theory that is a version of moral realism -- that is, any moral theory that holds that some positive moral claims are literally true (for this conception of moral realism, see Sayre-McCord 1988)-- counts as a natural law view. Some use it so narrowly that no moral theory that is not grounded in a very specific form of Aristotelian teleology could count as a natural law view. It might be thought that there is nothing that can be done to begin a discussion of natural law theory in ethics other than to stipulate a meaning for ‘natural law theory’ and to proceed from there. But there is a better way of proceeding, one that takes as its starting point the central role that the moral theorizing of Thomas Aquinas plays in the natural law tradition. If any moral theory is a theory of natural law, it is Aquinas's. (Every introductory ethics anthology that includes material on natural law theory includes material by or about Aquinas; every encyclopedia article on natural law thought refers to Aquinas.) It would seem sensible, then, to take Aquinas's natural law theory as the central case of a natural law position: of theories that exhibit all of the key features of Aquinas's natural law view we can say that they are clearly natural law theories; of theories that exhibit few of them we can say that they are clearly not natural law theories; and of theories that exhibit many but not all of them we can say that they are in the neighborhood of the natural law view but nonetheless must be viewed as at most deviant cases of that position. There remain, no doubt, questions about how we determine what are to count as the key features of Aquinas's position. But we may take as the key features those theses about natural law that structure his overall moral view and which provide the basis for other theses about the natural law that he affirms.
This is a respectable way of arriving at a definition, no doubt, and perhaps Murphy is right in his choice of Aquinas as a paradigm; but surely his reasons for that choice are bizarre: "Every introductory ethics anthology that includes material on natural law theory includes material by or about Aquinas; every encyclopedia article on natural law thought refers to Aquinas." So he has made Prentice-Hall and Macmillan the determining authorities in this matter.

I had mentioned John Wild's book, Plato's Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law. Wild arrives at his own definition by a reflection on the word 'nature' (phusis, natura). He distinguishes five things relevant to morality which, he thinks, are meant by this, and then he looks at 'the early Stoics', Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, Hugo Grotius, and Thomas Paine, and argues that each of these thinkers, commonly accounted philosophers of 'natural law', organized their thought around these five distinguished senses of 'nature'. Wild's method thus combines etymological reflection (a venerable way of generating endoxa) with a consideration of paradigmatic cases.

Here's the definition that Striker gives at the beginning of her article. It seems a definition by stipulation. I may say something about the adequacy of this definition tomorrow:
The term "natural law" refers, it would seem, to the rules of morality conceived of as a kind of legal system, but one that has not been enacted by any human legislator. By contrast to human legal codes, the natural law is supposed to be valid independently of any formal procedures, and such that is cannot be changed. Besides, this law is supposed to provide the standards by which human legislation is to be judged--laws will be just or unjust depending on whether they do or do not conform to natural law. This is, at any rate, the concept of natural law that I'm going to talk about.
But how else might one define 'natural law'?

In addition it might be defined pragmatically, I think. By this I mean: look to the contexts in which people have wanted to appeal to it; see what it is that they wished to accomplish by such appeal; and then ascribe to natural law just that content that would enable it to play that sort of role.

For instance, look to the appeal to natural law made by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", or to the tribunal at Nuremberg, when it tried Nazis and Nazi collaborators for crimes, but not for any violations of German positive law; or to the appeal to natural law and natural rights made by American revolutionaries. How much content would we need to build into 'natural law' for it to play the public and political role it is meant to play in these contexts?

10 January 2007

Invention versus Discovery in Philosophical Historiography

Happy New Year, 2007!

I resume Dissoi Blogoi in the new year by taking up once again the question of the origin of the concept of natural law.

Here's a puzzle. Gisela Striker has an essay, "Origins of the Concept of Natural Law", where she takes herself to be arguing that the Stoics, and not anyone before them (e.g. Heracleitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), originated the concept. Yet Mark Murphy, in his article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, cites Striker's article as evidence that the Stoics did not advance a theory of natural law!

Answer to the puzzle: Murphy thinks that a 'natural law theorist' must hold that 'the good is prior to the right'; but he interprets Striker as claiming that, for the Stoics, the right is prior to the good: "Arguably the Stoics were natural law thinkers," he says, "but they seem to deny... [that the] right [is] prior to the good (see Striker 1986)."

The puzzle shows, of course, the importance of defining terms at the start. What does one mean by 'natural law' or 'theory of natural law'?

But for today I wish to consider a slightly different question as regards historiography in philosophy, namely: Does it matter whether one believes that something is true (correct, real) when doing history of philosophy? Will this make a difference to how one understands history?

Suppose that an historian of science is writing about the Copernican revolution. He believes that the sun is in the center of the solar system; the orbits of the planets are elliptical; and that these orbits are the expression of matter as following Newton's general law of gravity. He writes history accordingly, as a series of imperfect attempts to get clear about the actual physical structure of the solar system. (Yes, he keeps in the back of his mind the idea that classical mechanics is itself imperfect: there is no need to say this, since, for small velocities and masses, space-time will be Euclidean.)

Now would he write this history differently if he somehow prescinded from the truth? Suppose he suspended his judgment, or 'bracketed' his belief in classical mechanics: would he write the same history? And, if his history were different, would it be better or worse for the difference?

That is, I am asking whether, when doing history, to prescind from judging whether a philosophical view is true is indeed already to take a position of sorts. Suspension of judgment might seem to be a neutral position (neither committing nor not), yet perhaps it is not neutral.

For instance, someone who thought that there is (really, in fact) a natural law, when writing a history of the concept of natural law, would aim to give an account of how something real came to be understood. But someone who thought that there is not (really, in fact) a 'natural law', or who, as a methodological principle, prescinded from any judgment as to whether there was such a thing, would be constrained, it seems, to give an account simply of what people came to believe--or something like that.

My mind was turned to these thoughts by Striker's use of the words 'invention' and 'authorship' in her essay, when she sets up her problem. Someone who thought that there was a natural law, or who was writing on such a presumption, would prefer terms such as 'discovery' or 'account' instead. And 'invention' hardly seems a suitable term for someone who aims to prescind from any judgment. (It won't do to say that one means only that the theory was invented, not what is being theorized about, since we normally do not talk in that way. Einstein is not the inventor of the theory of General Relativity.) Anyway, this is what Striker writes:

Philosophical concepts and theories are not usually invented or made up like fairy tales; we may expect them to be intended to help solve some specific problem or problems.
(Isn't this a false alternative? The proper contrast with invention is discovery. Yet Striker contrasts invention with fecklessness.)
Which problems? Like most parts of the Western philosophical tradition, the notion of natural law goes back to the Greeks. But surprisingly enough, scholars seem to disagree about who first introduced it. Some say that the concept was there from the start, that is to say, from the fifth century on, when Socrates and the Sophists introduced the subject of ethics into philosophical debates. Others, like Watson [G. Watson, "The Natural Law and Stoicism", in Problems in Stoicism, A. A. Long, ed., London, 1971], tell us that the concept of natural law was invented by the Stoics, but that in fact--so Watson goes on--it only gained importance and influence through Cicero, who introduced it into legal theory by claiming that the natural law sets the standards by which human legislation should be guided and evaluated. (Given Cicero's self-proclaimed dependence on Greek authors, this would be strange indeed, though it may be true that the Stoic doctrine got into the medieval tradition via Cicero.)
Striker then begins to sketch her own view:
One might have thought that a simple question of authorship could be settled more easily. I think indeed that it can be settled, in favour of the Stoics. The reason for the dispute seems to me to lie in the lack of a distinction between the thesis that there is such a thing as natural justice on the one hand, and the thesis that there is a natural law on the other.
And I'll leave it at that for today.