31 October 2008

Gods As We See Them, part II

I asked yesterday about Xenophanes' argument (is there one?), because it seems to me that the fragments are today standardly taken to express an indifference argument, but I don't see that that is the only, or most plausible, alternative.

The indifference argument would be: different kinds of creatures represent the (bodily form) of the gods differently; there is no reason for preferring one such representation than another; thus, no such representation should be affirmed.

Now indifference arguments are common in presocratic philosophy.  Still, this one seems off the mark here, for two reasons.  

First, if that's the sort of argument that Xenophanes had in mind, he would never have presented the argument in a cross-species form-- because it would have struck his audience as absurd to say there was no reason to prefer what humans suppose over what oxen and lions might suppose!  At least, this would be far from a natural claim to make. 

Second, as put forward with regard to different groups of human beings, the argument is too sophisticated: one has to assume that each culture and racial group is on a level with every other, which is an egalitarianism that would have been more problematic for Xenophanes' audience than any theological conclusion he would have wanted to establish.

The truth is, we impute this indifference argument to Xenophanes because we find it easy to accept.  We ourselves presuppose equality of cultures, and we presuppose, too, an innate tendency to 'paint the world with our own thoughts' (a la Hume and Freud), and so, from variations of the sort that Xenophanes describes, we quickly conclude that the differences point to the essentially subjective origin of the phenomena.

The move is well displayed by McKirahan's commentary.  This is the argument as he reconstructs it: 
...we Greeks think the gods have the appearance of Greeks, yet all other peoples portray the gods as having the distinctive characteristics of themselves; but a god cannot simultaneously have the characteristics of all human peoples, and there is no reason to prefer one anthropomorphic account to another.  More radically, [Xenophanes] challenges the very conception of anthropomorphic gods.  In this case too, the belief stems from humans projecting their own nature onto the divine.
I guess I want to say that this reconstruction stems from modern scholars' projecting assumptions that they find plausible onto Xenophanes.

I'll say tomorrow what looks to me an argument that has a better chance of being what Xenophanes actually thought.

30 October 2008

Gods As We See Them

I've been thinking about some sayings attributed to Xenophanes in connection with a passage from NE VI.  I'll say what the connection is tomorrow, but for now the sayings, which you know, and some comments:

 Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all sorts of things that are matters of reproach and censure among men:  theft, adultery, and mutual deception. (B11)

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that theirs are are blue-eyed and red-haired. (B16)

But if cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as men do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own-horses like horses, cattle like cattle. (B17)


1.  Wikipedia expresses a common view in saying that Xenophanes is ridiculing what he describes.  But what in the Greek (see below) suggests ridicule?   I've heard Jim Lesher in a lecture point out how hard it is to judge whether a remark in an early Greek writer is meant to be a joke.  In fact Lesher remarks,  conservatively, in his SEP article, merely that "Xenophanes comments on the general tendency of human beings to conceive of divine beings in human form".

2.  What is the argument which leads from "oxen and lions would draw the gods as like themselves" to "gods lack bodies" (or to whatever the conclusion is supposed to be)?

3. I don't think it is sufficiently appreciated by commentators how what is ascribed to gods (in these passages) are shapes and appearances conceived of as good (beautiful).  Isn't the thought that Ethiopians find black skin and the snub noses lovely--that's why they represent the gods in that way.   Presumably they are right to take the gods to be beautiful.  And perhaps that's also why it's a mistake to ascribe adultery, theft, and fraud to the gods, as Xenophanes says elsewhere.  (Lesher says that Xenophanes is supposing that "an attribution of scandalous conduct would be incompatible with the goodness or perfection any divine being must be assumed to possess" -- yes, if you are using 'goodness' in the sense of what gives appeal, not for what we might call 'moral' goodness.)

πάντα θεοῖσ' ἀνέθηκαν Ὅμηρός θ' Ἡσίοδός τε,  

ὅσσα παρ' ἀνθρώποισιν ὀνείδεα καὶ ψόγος ἐστίν,

κλέπτειν μοιχεύειν τε καὶ ἀλλήλους ἀπατεύειν.

ὡς πλεῖστ' ἐφθέγξαντο θεῶν ἀθεμίστια ἔργα,

κλέπτειν μοιχεύειν τε καὶ ἀλλήλους ἀπατεύειν.


ἀλλ' εἰ χεῖρας ἔχον βόες [ἵπποι τ'] ἠὲ λέοντες

ἢ γράψαι χείρεσσι καὶ ἔργα τελεῖν ἅπερ ἄνδρες,

ἵπποι μέν θ' ἵπποισι, βόες δέ τε βουσὶν ὁμοίας

καί <κε> θεῶν ἰδέας ἔγραφον καὶ σώματ' ἐποίουν

τοιαῦθ', οἷόν περ καὐτοὶ δέμας εἶχον <ἕκαστοι>.  


Αἰθίοπές τε <θεοὺς σφετέρους> σιμοὺς μέλανάς τε

Θρῆικές τε γλαυκοὺς καὶ πυρρούς <φασι πέλεσθαι>. 

29 October 2008

Delays in the Post

What is it they say about vacuums?   Okay, I'll try to break free from my lethargy and post something...

Maybe it's not quite lethargy but simply a lack of conviction that the things that interest me currently would interest others generally.

16 October 2008

Nicomachean Ethics VI in Brazil!

I'm in São Paul for the week, for a conference in Nic. Eth. VI at the university, organized by Marco Zingano. Here's the very interesting program that my host has arranged, centered on a new translation and commentary of David Reeve:

Colóquio Ethica Nicomachea - livro VI

Departamento de Filosofia, Universidade de São Paulo

15 a 17 de Outubro de 2008

Programa do Colóquio

Dia 15 de Outubro de 2008, Quarta-Feira

- 14h00 : Gavin Lawrence (University of California) : Aspects of Wisdom: Aristotle and Phronesis

- 15h30 : Hendrik Lorenz (Princeton University) : Aristotle´s Practical Philosophy

- 17h00 : Cristina Viano (CNRS, Paris) : Sur la vertu naturelle

Dia 16 de Outubro de 2008, Quinta-Feira

- 10h00 : C. D. C. Reeve (University of North Carolina) : Nicomachean Ethics VI: translation and commentary (introduction to the text)

- 14h00 : C. D. C. Reeve (University of North Carolina) : Nicomachean Ethics VI: translation and commentary (discussion of the text)

Dia 17 de Outubro de 2008, Sexta-Feira

- 14h00 : Michael Pakaluk (Institute for the Psychological Sciences) : Practical Truth

- 15h30 : Fabio Morales (Universidad Simon Bolivar) :  The Relation between Sophia and Phronesis in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics

- 17h00 : Catherine Darbo (CNRS, Paris) : tba

Organização :  Marco Zingano  mzingano@usp.br   www.fflch.usp.br/df

And here's the view from my room:

As for 'practical truth', maybe I'll say more about that strange bird tomorrow.

11 October 2008

De Dή

I forgot something yesterday.    Highlight also a word in the first clause of the sentence:  

Διττῆς δὴ τῆς ἀρετῆς οὔσης ..., 

since the codices have δέ, δή being Susemihl's correction.   It seems that all the translators quoted by Gotthelf go along with this (since all of them use a roughly postpositive 'then') but should they?

 This is not as insignificant a point as many fine points of translation, since δή serves to underline the chapter break (doesn't it?) --and perhaps here, as sometimes elsewhere, the chapter break should be viewed as irrelevant for the argument.

Also, Gotthelf had asked whether the genitive absolute construction at the beginning was more accurately rendered in English as a dependent or an independent clause: and, if what Aristotle really wrote was δέ, then presumably he was taking that construction itself to be bearing the weight of connecting his new point to what had preceded (cp. 1101b10, perhaps 1108b11, 1111b4, 1162a34, 1176a30.  Is there a rule?   I don't know.)   In English, I think, the same force would be achieved with an independent clause (beginning with 'So' or the equivalent).   

And then, interestingly, it wouldn't be true that, as Gotthelf claims, "a closer mapping onto the Greek syntax is more accurate".   Or, rather, as is so often the case, it turns out that what looks to be a closer mapping really isn't.



10 October 2008


I wonder if you saw the review of C.C.W. Taylor's Clarendon Aristotle volume on Nic Eth II-IV, by Allan Gotthelf.

I've been reviewing (for many months now) that volume for Classical Review, and what I find so daunting is formulating a judgment on the translation as a whole, since this requires a considerable amount of attention.

I suppose a quick method would be to look at some very challenging sentences of Aristotle, or sentences at which the translator aguably does not do such a good job, and rely upon these in the manner of an experimentum crucis.  But Gotthelf has found an even easier method, which is to judge the entire translation by its first sentence, and by the translator's choice of equivalents for nine words!

You might not believe me, but yes, it's true--Gotthelf's conclusion, based on this evidence alone, is unqualified:

In sum, then, we appear to have a translation that eminently meets the goals of the Clarendon series: it is accurate, readable, and accompanied by a philosophically-oriented commentary -- to which we now turn.

You might say that 'appear' serves to qualify, but in the context, rather, it serves to restrict the evidence for his conclusion to the evidence which Gotthelf has presented.
(But did the editors ask that the examination of other texts be deleted?  After all, Gotthelf promises something more: 

Let's ask if Taylor's translation accomplishes this, and how in that regard it compares, in some sample passages, with the most frequently used recent English translations...
But then he goes on to examine only one sentence.)

By the way, as regards that sentence, Gotthelf looks at ways in which other translations diverge, and then asks whether Taylor is better on these points.    But perhaps a better way of going about it, would be to ask in what ways Aristotle's Greek is possibly suggesting something non-standard,  or subtle, or interesting, and then see whether this gets suitably captured in any of the translations, Taylor's included.    

I'll give you the sentence and highlight what I see as areas which require special attention, and then you can consider whether the translations are completely satisfactory at these places:

Διττς δ τς ρετς οσης, τς μν διανοητικς τς

δ θικς, μν διανοητικ τ πλεον κ διδασκαλίας χει

κα τν γένεσιν κα τν αξησιν, διόπερ μπειρίας δεται

κα χρόνου, δ' θικ ξ θους περιγίνεται, θεν κα τονομα

σχηκε μικρν παρεκκλνον π το θους.


08 October 2008

Survived to Tell the Tale

Who isn't on Anthony Preus' mailing list?  But if you're not, you might find this interesting, from a missive today:

A conference to honour Alasdair MacIntyre on his 80th birthday will take 
place at University College Dublin, 6-8 March 2009. 

The theme of the conference will be "What happened in and to moral philosophy in the twentieth century?".

Alasdair MacIntyre will deliver an autobiographical paper, "On having survived the moral philosophies of the twentieth century".
 at http://www.ucd.ie/philosophy/macintyre

(More to come later.)