Friday, January 27, 2012

Are Incontinent Fools Wise?

You might wonder why Aristotle is so interested in incontinence that he devotes the whole of Book VII of his Nichomachean Ethics to it.  Is that really a problem for philosophers to worry about?

Well, it is, at least the kind of incontinence that Aristotle worries about.

The continent man is one "ready to abide by the result of his calculations" while the incontinent man is "ready to abandon them."  Why does the continent man abide by his calculations?  Because he knows "his appetites are bad, and refuses on account of his rational principles to follow them."  The incontinent man, on the other hand, abandons his rational principles "as a result of passion."

But if you chop logic like the sophists, worries Aristotle, then you might end up unraveling your rational spaghetti into believing that "folly coupled with incontinence is virtue."  For if continence makes a man stand by a false opinion, then it is good if an incontinent man, that abandons "any and every opinion", abandons a false opinion.

Aristotle briskly clears away the problem of this sophistical mirage, the virtuous incontinent, for he argues that the incontinent man is in the position of someone "having knowledge in a sense and yet not having it, as in the instance of a man asleep, mad, or drunk."  He is like a city that "passes all the right decrees and has good laws, but makes no use of them".  He is neither good nor bad, just a muddle.

But what about the continent man with the wrong opinion?  Well, Aristotle says, these are likely strong-headed people, "hard to persuade in the first instance and not easily persuaded to change".  This is to suggest that an continent man can be consumed with "passion and appetite".  On the contrary, the "continent man will be easy to persuade".  For being a man of rational principle, he is not led by his appetites and his pleasures, but readily bows to rational persuasion.

But let us not confuse the incontinent man with the self-indulgent. The first stands by his choice, and is not apt to repent his follies, while the incontinent man means well but is led astray by his passions.  The self-indulgent man is "incurable and the incontinent curable."  Think of the difference between dropsy and epilepsy, says Aristotle. The "former is a permanent, the latter an intermittent badness."

So that's all right!

Friday, January 20, 2012

What About That Mean?

Every virtue, says Aristotle, brings things into good condition.  Therefore virtue is also "the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well."

Does that mean that the harder you work at virtue, the better?  Not exactly, for virtue is not found in extremes, writes Aristotle, but at the mean between two extremes.  It is "an intermediate between excess and defect."   Thus the great Aristotelian notion of the mean.

But the mean is not a rigid thing, half way between the extremes of excess and defect.  If "ten pounds is too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does not follow that the trainer will order six pounds."  The mean is an individual thing for each person.

Thus, the mean for Milo the excellent wrestler in the eating department would not the the same as for "the beginner in athletic exercises".  Obviously, Milo would need to eat a lot more than you or me. He's a wrestler in training. Therefore the appropriate mean for him is a lot more than for the beginner.  Today, we would say that it is one thing for a Tour de France competitor to consume 5,000 calories per day, but quite another thing for a couch potato.

The point is that "the master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate," the mean between the extremes. But the mean for each virtue is not the same for everyone; the mean is the intermediate that leads to virtue in each of us.  It is a "mean relative to us" according to a rational principle as a "man of practical wisdom" would determine.

Vice, of course, is different. There is no mean there for Aristotle. It is just bad. There is no such thing as "adultery with the right woman, at the right time, and in the right way". Of course that says nothing about adultery with a slave.

With the virtue of honor, according to Aristotle, the mean is "proper pride"; the excess being "empty vanity" and the defect "undue humility."  Aristotle understands honor here as aristocratic pride.  But in Honor: A History, the modern James Bowman defines honor rather differently.  It is the reputation that a hoplite infantryman would have for staying in line, or a GI for supporting the buddies in his unit.  It has nothing to do with aristocratic pride, but is rather the reputation for courage under fire.

Indeed aristocratic pride, so ubiquitous in The Iliad, is a corruption of honor.  It is the insistence that an aristocrat be treated as though he were courageous and unflinching in combat, whether or not he is.

You could call aristocratic honor a vice.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How Many Divisions Has the Soul?

Stalin famously inquired in 1944 how many divisions the pope had.  Reportedly, Pope Pius XII replied that “You can tell my son Joseph that he will meet my divisions in heaven”.

Almost as confusing is Aristotle's explanation of the elements of the soul in Nicomachean Ethics I 13. OK, chaps, he says, there are, first of all, the rational and the irrational, although they are not quite as obviously discrete elements as "the parts of the body."

Never mind about the vegetative aspect of the irrational soul, he says, that operates even in nurslings and embryos, not to mention "full-grown creatures."  This irrational element seems to operate in a world of its own and is uninfluenced by reason.

However, there is another irrational element that seems partially connected with the rational element, and indeed can be influenced by it.  This element is an "appetitive" and "desiring element."  It might move a man "aright and towards the best objects".  But there seems to be another principle that "fights and resists" the rational principle.  Thus the appetitive element shares in the rational element only "in so far as it listens to and obeys it".

Now here is where things get tricky.  The appetitive irrational element seems to be subdivided into two parts, the one that does the right thing on its own, and the other capable of obeying the the rational principle as articulated, e.g., by one's father.

But what about the rational principle?  What about that?  Well, that seems to be divided into two sub-elements too.  For "some of the virtues are intellectual and other moral".  The man of good character we praise for being "good-tempered or temperate"; the wise man for "his state of mind".

So there we are.  For the Aristotelian soul we have a rational element and an irrational element.  We divide the rational element into the intellectual and moral, and the irrational into vegetative and appetitive.  But the appetitive we subdivide into a rational part, insofar as it is persuaded by or obeys the rational principle, and the irrational part, which just does what it does, in opposition to the rational principle.

How many divisions has the soul?  Counting only "leaf" elements, we have five.  Counting all nodes from the complete soul on down, we have a total of nine.  Who knows how many divisions there will be in heaven?

Remember, the point of all this is to understand that "activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue" which is happiness or eudaimonia.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Who Gets to Judge?

If we say, as we did yesterday, that we in western society are dealing with the Two Great Crimes of Modernity, then what do we do about it?

The two great crimes are really quite simple.  Capitalism's great crime is plantation slavery, when business owners got to own the people that worked their sugar plantations, first in Cyprus, then in the West Indian sugar islands and Brazil.  And then there was a fabulously profitable cotton slave plantation play in the good old USA.

The solution to this crime was that the capitalists should not be the judge of their own cause.   A moral movement arose to critique plantation slavery, and plantation slavery is no more.  In the US, of course, it took a civil war to persuade the plantation capitalists to abandon their slave profits.

The crime of the educated class is the totalitarian state.  Any old tyrant can set up as a despot, but it takes an intellectual to come up with the totalitarian state where all aspects of human socialization are collapsed into government and politics, and anyone that uttered a peep of objection got carted off to a slave-labor camp.

Today the hard totalitarianism of the Stalins and the Maos is over and lives on in the twilight of Cuba, but our liberal friends are still keen on the authoritarian welfare state, in which society is half collapsed into the political sector, and liberals get lots of political and cultural power and, in their role as judges of the capitalists, a lot of power over the economic sector too.

How can we get out from under this soft totalitarianism?  It's not that hard.  We must just establish that the liberal educated class cannot continue as the judge of their own cause any more than the capitalists.  Liberals have to choose whether they want to run the welfare state or whether they want to judge it.  They can't do both.

Our liberal friends are rather like Bottom the weaver, the "mechanical" from Midsummer Night's Dream.  They want to play the starring role of Pyramus, and then they want to play all the other roles too.  On top of that they want to tell everyone else how to play their own roles.

I watched the South Carolina debate last night, and so I got to see the key moment, when Juan Williams lobbed the usual race-card question at Newt Gingrich about work and welfare.  Newt knocked it out of the park, both on content and style.  I particularly liked his asides on the taboo of upsetting liberals.  The crowd (becoming more and more an actor in these events) cheered Newt lustily and booed Juan lustily.  Why?  Because Americans (considered in the strict sense of people that do not hyphenate their identity) are fed up with liberals playing Bottom the weaver.

Liberals keep saying they want a national conversation, but you better not disagree with them, or you are a racist.  You had better not critique their welfare state programs, or they will call you a racist.  But then, if you have a political debate on Martin Luther King Day that is supposed to be racist.  If your campaign doesn't buy radio ads that target black radio that is supposed to be racist.  I'm sure that, to suggest that the best way to avoid poverty is to finish high school, get married, and don't have children until you are in your twenties, is also racist, but I haven't actually seen anyone make that accusation.

There is a word to describe something that is so sacred, so holy, that it cannot be mentioned.  It is called a taboo.  But liberals are above all that.

Our liberal friends have a closed system that justifies their soft tyranny as kindness and compassion, and they have erected a remarkable policing system to intimidate their opposition and to control and marginalize any criticism of their rule.  But sooner or later, someone will challenge the liberal culture of fear, someone will break the taboo, and the liberal police state will collapse.

Nobody will be surprised except the liberals.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Two Great Crimes of Modernity

Let's tell it like it is.
Instrumental reason, the Enlightenment, write Horkheimer and Adorno, is a dance of domination, domination over nature and domination over man. "What men want to learn from nature is how to dominate it and other men."
Oh, gee, we already did. in Modernity's Original Sin.   But let us do it again in a slightly different way.

The Original Sin of modernity, the application of instrumental reason to domination, resulted in two Great Crimes: capitalism's great crime and the educated elite's great crime.

The Great Crime of capitalism was the development of plantation slavery.  It was the utter domination of men for the purpose of profit; for the slave plantations, right from the start in the sugar plantations on Cyprus organized after the Crusades, were always business enterprises: production for profit, and if it meant using up a few Muslim slaves, well, the pope said it was OK because the slaves weren't Christians.

We may say that capitalism, like Buddhism, has its Hinayana, its contemptible lesser vehicle, in industrialization, the harrowing process by which a rural population of farmers is transformed into a competent wage-earning workforce.

The Great Crime of the educated elite was the development of the totalitarian state.  The totalitarian state of fond memory was the utter domination of men for the purpose of an idea, a vision of the perfect society, for the totalitarian state, right from its start in the Terror of the French Revolution, was always a soteriological secular religion, saving the world from exploitation and molding it into heaven on earth.  If it meant using up a few rich peasants or the whole bourgeoisie, well, you can't make omelettes without breaking eggs.

The French Revolution and its Terror represented the totalizing of the Age of Reason.  The fascist states represented the totalizing of Romanticism and its union with nature.  The communist states represented the totalizing of Marxism and it class-war ideology.  But the totalitarian idea has its Hinayana, its contemptible lesser vehicle, too.  We may call it, with Jürgen Habermas, the "authoritarian welfare state."

The educated class is like any group of men for "men like power and will seize it if they can," in the words of Nicholas Wade.  The educated class uses instrumental reason applied to the technology of state power to dominate other men.  Only its goal is not profit, like the capitalists, but to rule the world as the benevolent and beneficent Oz.  The problem is that instrumental reason is a tool for domination, and the means that the educated class uses for domination is the canonical tool for the domination of other men:  politics and government.

Government is force, and politics is threatening force.

Over the decades, we have found ways of taming capitalism.  Today's capitalists fight over market share, and when they succeed they benefit almost everyone.  Their products benefit the consumers, and they share their extraordinary profits with their supporters, who are their investors and employees.

There has also been a taming of totalitarian educated elites, but not by much.  If the full-on totalitarian state engulfed the whole of society into a soteriological political crusade and oceans of blood, the authoritarian welfare state, at least, only engulfs half of society, or at least its GDP, into the maw of the state and the projection of political power.  But we cannot say, when government dominates all our worthiest cooperative instincts--the care of the aged, the care of the sick, the raising up of children, and the relief of the poor--that we have really tamed the totalitarian urge.  The lesser Great Crime of the educated class still oppresses us as the industrial capitalists used to dominate the industrial working class.

Plantation slavery was ended by the rise of a great moral and religious movement that anathematized the exploitation of men and women as mere slavish cogs in a profitable production machine.  We have yet to see the full development of a moral and religious movement to end the Hinayana of totalitarianism: the authoritarian welfare state and its reduction of all cooperative and caring instincts to a mechanical nexus of blind political power.

In my view this moral and political movement, that I believe begins with Edmund Burke in the 18th century, has yet to come to fruition because it has failed to inspire the people who will most benefit and socialize a world free from totalizing educated elites:  women.  When we talk of the authoritarian welfare stat reducing the care of the aged, the care of the sick, the raising up of children and the relief of the poor to care-less, compassionless centralizing, compulsory government programs, we are talking about all the best instincts and concerns of women reduced to bureaucracy and mind-numbing rules.

You can reduce capitalism to rules; that makes sense because capitalism is about sublimating the aggressiveness of human males to a fierce battle over market share, and men are always asking us to draw the line for them.  But to reduce care of the most vulnerable to rules and regulations is insanity.  Every woman knows that her aging mother needs health care that adapts to her individual need.  Every child is unique, and it is ridiculous to fit armies of children onto the Procrustean bed of the government child custodial facility.  And every poor person needs the personal attention that will turn mere relief into reintegration into the larger society.

Come on girls.  You have a world to win, and nothing to fear except the chains--of suffocating government rules and regulations.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Happiness: Is Virtue Sufficient

Our good friend Aristotle defines happiness (eudaimonia, the good life, or human flourishing) as "activity in accordance with virtue."  But is virtue sufficient for happiness?

Obviously, we can say, it is not.  In the first place, he considers virtue as the springboard of happiness.  If you want to have a good life, your actions must be done in accordance with virtue.  But virtue is the accumulation of habits and education, not to mention contemplation.  They are the necessary means by which we can build the necessary facility, the aptitude, skills, and attitude necessary to a good life.

Happiness is not just a man living a life of virtue in isolation; it requires what Aristotle calls self-sufficiency.  He means, by this, living not just in solitary virtuous splendor, but in a family, responsible for women, children and slaves, and the community of the city-state, "for man is born for citizenship."

And Aristotle tells us that happiness must extend over the whole of life.  It is not just a moment.  We cannot call a man happy if he has been buried, like Job, in unspeakable miseries and has lost everything: wife, children, camels, goats, and sheep.  But we do not wait to call a man happy until we are sure that his descendants will also be happy.

Aristotle seems determined to confuse us when he suddenly turns from his assertion that the practice of political science in legislation is the highest good.  in NE X 8 he ups and tells us that, "perfect happiness is a contemplative activity.  This seems a rather unworthy descent into special pleading for his own function and profession.  Do not plumbers think that the world begins and ends under the kitchen sink?  Do not economists tell us that the world would be a better place if politicians listened more to economists?  If the best life is a life of contemplation, where then is "activity in accordance with virtue?"  He is getting close to the east Asians who tell us that the best is Nirvana, the absence of all striving and acting.  In this case, of course, happiness as virtue collapses precisely into a trance of philosophy, and activity of life reduces to mere intellectual irritability.

Charles Taylor speaks of the best life in two dimensions: a basic human flourishing, of course, but also an attempt to reach for something higher, something transcendent.  Perhaps Aristotle, in his bios theoretikos, his life of contemplation, is making his own reach for transcendence, for "the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative."

In that case happiness is just virtuousness, dissolved into blissfulness.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Aristotle's Waffle on the Function Argument

In our western canon there is perhaps no stronger support for reason than Aristotle's "function argument" in Book I, Chapter 7 of the Nichomachean Ethics.  But plenty of people have challenged the throne of reason.

For instance, in the Daodejing, the Chinese challenge to the rationalism of Confucianism, the ideal is not reason but an effortless spontaneity, the Dao, the Way of life.  Everything is downhill from the Way.
When the way is lost, virtue appears;  when virtue is lost, kindness appears; when kindness is lost, justice appears.
And, one might suspect, when justice is lost, then power appears.

Something similar appears in the West with the Romantic rebellion, a reaction against the totalitarian idea that Reason is everything.

In the Ethics, Aristotle hangs his hat on reason, that "the function of man is an activity of soul [anima] which follows or implies a rational principle," and a good rational principle, well executed, at that.
[H]uman good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtues, in accordance with the best and most complete.
This would add up to happiness (i.e. eudaimonia, which translates as human flourishing) and that in a complete life.

At the beginning of the Ethics, Aristotle tells us what all this is leading to: the highest good, as in managing the relations between men in the polis.  Here he establishes that the highest good is the combination of subsidiary goods, as the skill of harness-making is subsidiary to horsemanship, and horsemanship subsidiary to strategy, and strategy to politics.  And the highest good is clearly politics,
since politics uses the rest of the sciences... it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from... this end must be the good of man.
 But in Ethics X 8, Aristotle backs up a bit, and, once he has dealt with mere pleasure, and established "happiness is activity in accordance with virtue," he discovers that the highest form of happiness is found in "the man who is contemplating the truth", for he doesn't need money like the liberal man, or power like the brave man.  "[F]or deeds many things are needed" but not for the contemplative life.

Anyway, says Aristotle, the contemplative life is much like the life of the gods, for it is ridiculous to imagine them running around doing absurd things like dispensing justice, signing contracts, or confronting dangers.  No, "Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation."  The gods must "delight in what was best and most akin to them (i.e. reason)" in other words, philosophers, and "the philosopher will more than any other be happy."

This is straying rather far from the simple function argument, that happiness is virtuous action according to a rational principle, and that, moreover, the highest and best form of the good is political science and legislating the good of the polis.

In fact, if you think of philosophy as getting close to the gods, then it must be getting close to some kind of ineffable, effortless spontaneity.  Which is what the non-rational Daodejing was proposing about the same time, only thousands of miles away in China.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Let's Keep Things The Way They Are

For Aristotle, the natural order of things is the hierarchical order of city-state Greece.  Masters rule over workers, patriarchs over households of women and slaves,  and statesmen over states.  Every action aims at some good, and the arts that combine subsidiary arts are better.  Thus the highest good involves the rule of the state, for politics encompasses all the other arts as its rule encompasses the rule of all the subsidiary groups.

"Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal."  Anyone outside the state, by nature rather than accident, is like Homer's denounced "tribeless, lawless, hearthless one."  But Aristotle is taking Homer's words out of context.

When the ageing Nestor pats Diomedes on the back and tells him he's young enough to be his son, and is really a good chap, he says
Surely a tribeless, lawless, homeless man
Is he who loves to stir the strife of war
In his own people
and not a nice young man like Diomedes.  Nestor is trying to calm the Achaeans, stirred up by Diomedes' harsh words against Agamemnon.  Agamemnon has had it with the Trojan War and Diomedes, to the approval of the troops, wants to continue.  Calm down, chaps; let's put a steak on the barbie, says Nestor.

By interpreting Nestor's remarks as a put-down of all heads of rebellion, Aristotle is revealing his wider agenda.  He wants not just the natural evolution of things, but a specific order of things.   He asserts the natural evolution of separated villages to coalesce into a state, thus enabling the bare needs of life to expand into the good life.  Parts coalesce into wholes, wholes into bigger wholes and the more developed a thing, the closer it is to its nature.  But that is not enough.  He wants the old to rule the young, for the old aim at knowledge, not action.  And of course men should rule over women and slaves and the Greeks should rule over barbarians, as today we would say that the educated should rule over the bigots and the bitter clingers.

This is a view of social life that experiences the good as an eternal hierarchy, a return to a golden age after the humiliation of the Peloponnesian War.  It does not seem to comprehend the cycle of rise and fall, of birth and death.  We moderns believe it is precisely in the conflict between young and old, between the established order and the rebellious tribeless, lawless, hearthless ones that life is injected into a declining dynasty, and a new social order grows out of an exploitative patriarchy. Natural to us means to maintain a harmony with the growth and the cycles of Nature.

For Aristotle the "final cause and end of a thing" is the best.  For us it is the fleeting moment before the onset of "creative destruction" or the fin de siècle before the revolution.