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the echoing wisdom of the teacher’s teacher’s teacher

October 29, 2009

I’ve tried, now and then, to read Aristotle for pleasure. I would get the odd, frustrated feeling that there really ought to have been something pleasurable going on, but that some magical thread essential to the activity of reading was consistently eluding me. Well, I’m trying to read the Nicomachean Ethics again. And this time I have been enchanted by the winding path book i traces. I think maybe I used to imagine that Aristotle was like a box, with minute specimens in compartments in compartments, but not alive (I don’t know where I got this idea, maybe I heard someone going on and on about “the categories” of understanding, or some such thing) … and didn’t fully trust or realize that his teaching might itself be “a being-at-work in accord with virtue,” a folding and unfolding in speech, enshrining and embodying an aim at the good: an aim to which the teacher is indeed entirely given, yet an aim too fundamental to be entirely his own.

Here is a small but beautiful example (and also what we call humorous, I think) of Aristotle’s awakening his listeners’ wonder. This is from chapter 4, which begins characteristically–“now, taking up the thread again”–marking the easy meanders of his discourse which nevertheless seem destined, as if attracted by something of great weight, to hit upon what is needful at every turning:

But about happiness–what it is–they are in dispute, and most people do not give the same account of it as the wise. Some people take it to be something visible and obvious, such as pleasure or wealth or honor, and different ones say different things, and even the same person often says different things; when sick one thinks it is health, but when poor, that it is wealth, and when they are conscious of ignorance in themselves, people marvel at those who say it is grand and above them. And some people believe that, besides these many good things, there is some other good, by itself, which is responsible for the being good of all these other things.

One delightful aspect of this passage is how effectively the examples draw one in to the argument. We imagine and try them out for ourselves “when sick one thinks it is health, when poor, that it is wealth” … and consequently, at the next turn, we find ourselves imagining as our own condition precisely what the argument indicates our condition to be … “and when they are conscious of ignorance in themselves, people marvel at those who say it is grand and above them.” We have thus, perhaps, been readied to hear the account of the wise: that “besides these many good things, there is some other good, by itself, which is responsible for the being good of all these other things.” Aristotle will go on to refute various superficial versions of this opinion, at the same time developing the marvellous and at times vexed perplexities it introduces. Yet here he gives this famous opinion of his teacher the place of honor; it is the prize and hope of those “who are conscious of ignorance in themselves”–a phrase we might take as a reverent self-reminder of the peculiar wisdom his teacher’s teacher was possessed of.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Finny permalink
    November 1, 2009 8:27 am

    Very cool.

  2. November 16, 2009 2:55 pm

    I review Aristotle at times–at least in Anglo–finding the Ethics more to my liking than the spooky, pre-Gallilean metaphysics. Assuming a man named Aristotle wrote the texts (really, it’s probably the work of copyists, and scribes), he seems to be a sort of Barry Goldwater of the ancient world. OK a bit smarter, but a type of moderate, in love with heritage, and Honor. A patriot, for better or worse , yet Aristotle does not seem as militaristic or macho as some read him. He emphasizes truth telling as well (as Aquinas notes). Bertrand Russelll considered Aristotle sort of lacking–and mortal–compared to Plato and Socrates, and that seems accurate. Aristotle’s a great pragmatist in a sense, an advisor to statesman, or generals, but not a visionary sage as is Socrates (tho’ even Socrates not lacking in conservative aspects).

  3. rainscape permalink*
    November 17, 2009 10:27 am

    I would guess that if we really want to get that difference between Socrates and Plato on the one hand, and Aristotle on the other that you feel, or the (to my mind) no less important difference between Socrates on the one hand, and Plato and Aristotle on the other (though I’m not at all interested in the scholarly attempts to separate Plato’s Socrates and the historical Socrates in the dialogs, as though a “historical” Socrates could be recovered through detective work that circumvents the perplexed and enchanted tradition that seeks to come to terms with him)–if we really want to get that difference into view, we would first need to come into contact with the great likeness that drew and draws the work of their thinking together. As long as we are merely arranging and re-arranging them under various (journalistic?) headings–moderate, conservative, mortal, macho, pragmatic, visionary, sage–(as though all of these categories were transparent and obvious in the same way), we do not begin to approach what is at work in their thinking, and we do not come near to what is dangerous and what is potentially saving in the heroic (even if fatal, flawed, or, in some way, deformed) aim of their lives.

  4. November 17, 2009 11:44 am

    Some of the adjectives I tossed about may have been a bit colloquial; not all of them are (comboxes are not the NY Times, or Jstor,either, sir). Terms such as pragmatic, militaristic, even macho have a fairly stable definition. Aristotle does not accept the platonic heaven for one (as Russell noted– like Frege, Russell tended to slightly platonic views). The historical view also remains important to some of us, and for that matter, I don’t think the catholics have a monopoly on the greek philosophers . The Founding Fathers were reading Aristotle.

    While I don’t think Aristotle was a mechanist per se, his metaphysics of essencia (or animism, according to some) does not seem that similiar to traditional judeo-christian thought, though of course Aquinas makes use of it (I seem to recall that the Pope of St. Thomas’s time forbade Aristotle). He was an empiricist as well, even a zoologist of a sort.

    Apart from the few empirical aspects, Aristotle’s metaphysics seem closer to polytheistic views, however odd . Aristotle’s final cause should not be mistaken for biblical views (or apocalyptic views). Aristotle himself opposed metaphysical mysteries (like those of Plato).

    Greeks travelled far into the east–into india, and the western edge of China– even before Alexander. Many greek and latin cognates may be found in sanskrit.

  5. rainscape permalink*
    November 17, 2009 2:48 pm

    I don’t object to the terms themselves, merely the sense that simply applying them to Aristotle does any work–without, that is, showing Aristotle’s particular way of being macho or mortal and how that elucidates what is at work in his thinking.

    I’m not sure in what direction this is aimed “The historical view also remains important to some of us, and for that matter, I don’t think the catholics have a monopoly on the greek philosophers.” (By “the enchanted and perplexed tradition that seeks to come to terms with Socrates” I did not primarily mean anything Catholic or even church-related at all, but Plato and Aristotle (first of all, and in this context), and all the interpreters after them who have been perplexed and enchanted by their thought.) I’m certainly not interested in a thought-monopoly of any kind–unless it were a board game; that might be fun!

    I’m certainly not at the place we’re I can make or respond to statements about whether or in what way Aristotle can be said to be an empiricist, or a polytheist, or a zoologist … I always get the sense that, when applied to a philosopher, the meaning of such terms (even and maybe especially if a philosopher should apply them to him or herself) is transformed by the particular way in which so-and-so can be said to be an emipiricist (or what have you)–a question that can’t be answered until we’re at the same time responding to the deepest cues of his or her thought.

    I do like Jacob Klein’s essay in Ancients and Moderns, “Aristotle: an Introduction,” though. He seems to give a responsible (not to mention beautiful) preliminary to the difficult business of positioning a great thinker in relation to his tradition–take “tradition” in the broad sense of “all those before and after who are drawn into the same work of thinking.”

    I leave out the Indian or Chinese presences in Greek thought not because I think they’re irrelevant, not at all! by the dog! (to bring in an Egyptian presence); but because I’m, so far, even more incompetent to speak about such things than I am about the things I foolishly go on about on this blog.

    Someday, I would love to learn Sanskrit.

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