Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: aristotle

Notes on a Lecture of Susan D. Collins – “E Pluribus Unum: Citizens, Friends, and Free Thinkers in the Ancient City”

These are my notes; feedback appreciated, I did what I could to be clear. You can watch the original lecture here. Susan Collins teaches at the University of Houston and is the co-author of a translation of Aristotle’s Ethics. If you’re interested, an interview with her.

Can ancient thought guide current political practice? There are several complications at the start of the inquiry. For example, illiberal aspects of the past: slavery was commonplace in Classical Greece and Rome. Further, our world is so, so different that it is hard to see how two thousand year old theories could be applicable. The use of an iphone can invalidate a restaurant review made 5 minutes earlier. Doesn’t politics require some sense of stability? A continual flux of information and opinion seems overwhelming for concepts made for a world where people would lose all hope in the midst of battle because of an eclipse.

So why not leave the ancient city behind? Well, it emphasizes aspects of political life we tend to neglect. Unity is one of those. Modern democracy nowadays tends to place greater emphasis on a libertine freedom centered around the individual. There are good reasons for this, of course, but older thought may prove useful for finding a way to unity and pride in that unity which involves respect for the rights of all. Aristotle talks about a city working together for an end, for the sake of the good. Our political life doesn’t really allow for reflection on what it means to live well. Rather, it seems to emphasize simply living.

The contrast brings us to the more specific concerns of the ancient city. Family looms large in the Republic, though it is treated somewhat ironically there. Laws are a more fundamental concern for ancient thought generally, as they point to the development of virtues which shape citizens a particular way. The city has a “wholeness and rootedness” that takes man’s sociability seriously; not all law points to mechanism or artifice, creating incentives or disincentives for behavior. However, an overemphasis on law or family can make conventionality in the guise of tradition seem like it only speaks to the higher aspects of humanity. It might become hard to guard against a certain nostalgia for generations past.

Still, there are more “realistic” dimensions of the ancient city, ones that remind of modern concerns such as security. The prime example: the ancient city takes conflict seriously. Conflict is not just one city going to war with different cities, but the problem of many seeking the good within the city itself. Various associations form within the city, i.e. families, where people seek the good for themselves and their allies. Aristotle speaks of an “equal exchange of evils” where various associations and communities composing the city continually demonstrate the harshness of civic life. Hierarchy, force exerted from the more authoritative part of the city, is not just a basic necessity but perhaps even integral to whatever freedom is enjoyed in everyday life.

These more realistic dimensions, when considered in the context of what seem to be idealistic notions, raise fundamental questions. What does it mean to live in common? To have a shared life? What could any of this have to do with force?

It helps to treat ancient political philosophy as somewhat practical, as continuous with problems raised in ancient history that Plato and Aristotle were very familiar with. Herodotus gives us story after story about different peoples with different customs. His “inquiry” – the word we translate as history – focuses on them as they are all about to be conquered by the Persians. It seems some notion of Greek freedom and prudence is opposed to this imperialism. Thucydides, however, starts from the problem of Greek empire. People are far less important in his account than the destruction of war and fatal acts.

Thus, we can see flux and conflict as an “intellectual frame” for the ancient city. For example, consider the first book of the Republic: religion, foreigners, sophists, tyranny and force are all brought up to open a book that will give us an ideal city of sorts. The dialogue Charmides has Socrates back from service at the siege at Potidea, dealing with half-baked notions of philosophy from Critias and Charmides, who are associates of his and wannabe tyrants. Aristotle tells us in the Politics that without law and justice, man becomes the worst of the animals. He must have virtue.

Now Aristotle gives us a distinctively political basis for virtue. He lays heavy emphasis on reciprocity, as evidenced by the discussion of “the equal exchange of evils” above and the famous “ruling and being ruled in turn” of the opening of the Politics. But he also talks about the need to exchange goods for community, the fullness and full implications of “a common way of life.”

This brings us to an “ancient realism,” where themes of flux and force and also community reside. One has to wonder about what true community could be in the face of so much conflict. The “architectonic power” of ancient community sees freedom as stemming from authority. The “closed” society, local and strictly moral as opposed to universal and tolerant, is where law shapes mores and gives a way of life. Law requires reverence and piety.

But the establishment of a pious authority obviously does not make anyone free on its own. Ancient realism wonders how the city encompasses community, family, friends; the question of nature, however, emerges as one moves back to the individual and asks about the ends of the city. A diversity of political communities are comprehended by law. In the city, more natural communities are united by law; friendship matters at least as much as having an armed camp. Aristotle at times speaks of philosophy in the same breath as gambling and exercise. It seems like as one gets a friendlier, better city united by law, philosophy is more susceptible to being attacked by it. Why does anyone need knowledge?

Philosophy doesn’t despair. The activity of philosophy is what enabled the more natural basis for the city to be brought forth. The freedom that is philosophy stays somewhat hidden, but is ever present. As long as people can see conflict and disagreement as natural and work with it politically, they can see the higher possibility philosophy represents – that something positive or meaningful about our nature might be understood.

Notes on a talk of Ronna Burger concerning Aristotle’s Ethics

Privileged to witness Ronna Burger lecture on her book Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates: On the Nicomachean Ethics. Below are my notes, rewritten into a straight lecture and with some ideas that are definitely not Dr. Burger’s. I take full responsibility for anything said that is stupid or problematic. I guess this is a paraphrase of sorts?

What happens to “moral virtue” – as opposed to “intellectual virtue” – in the Ethics? It seems to be demoted in status as the work progresses. This may be related to what I consider a Platonic element in Aristotle, the existence of which I am never exactly sure of.

Aristotle presents Socrates as a proponent of the thesis “virtue is knowledge.” Moral virtue is a rejection of this thesis. Initially, it does seem Aristotle does reject Socrates outright, but my own work finds a Socratic Aristotle in Book 6 and 7 – late in the Ethics. Still, there’s an easier way to intuit the existence of a Socratic Aristotle: just ask why the Ethics exists in the first place, why Aristotle decided to write anything down at all for an audience. Aristotle’s identification of his audience is very slippery. He says if you’re brought up with moral values, you don’t need to know the “why” regarding them. (Traditional Aristotle is not the “why” of virtue, but the “that.”) At the same time, he emphasizes starting with what is “first for us” in terms of opinions – one must grasp what is just and beautiful in order to see what Aristotle is trying to accomplish. The question of the audience is not merely whether the audience should be virtuous or not. If the audience is virtuous, it doesn’t need the Ethics. But an audience would need some understanding of virtue (“first for us”) to get anything out of it. Aristotle is not Nietzsche: he does not declare “We Immoralists.” Rather, it looks like he wrote for nobody.

Of course, it is more likely the case Aristotle is bringing forth a tension with moral virtue which very much demolishes the status of the “that,” or moral virtue itself. Moral virtue is precisely virtue that denies self-understanding is critical to virtue. To insist otherwise is to make virtue prudence or wisdom and put people who may not be prudent or wise in a peculiar position. A courageous person isn’t virtuous, regardless of his intelligence or knowledge?

We move then, to Book 3, where Aristotle discusses courage. Courage is acting for the sake of the kalon (noble/beautiful). This is not devoid of complications. If philosophy involves identifying a human nature, is anything natural about the noble/beautiful? Perhaps courage is distinctly unnatural. One wonders if this is related to the discussion coming from nowhere. A serious discussion of kalon does not appear in Book 2, nor telos (end/completion/final cause).

Something lower may also be at work in terms of forming virtue. The famous Aristotlean habituation is manipulation of pleasure and pain in order to produce moral virtue. Strangely enough, this gives the idea of the “mean” a new importance beyond the traditional understanding. Habituation and nobility need to be reconciled regarding our moral formation. “Virtue is a mean state because it is aiming at the mean:” this is redundancy pointing at plurality. There are many ways to go wrong, but one “bullseye” we see as right. There are many virtues and characters and emotions accompanying such virtues.

The lower expands the problem to the point of making philosophy necessary. If we went the route of the Aristotlean stereotype of Socrates, virtue is wisdom and prudence to such a degree that one wonders if virtue even exists. Here, virtue may be strangely enough connected with something feeling right for all of us. Prudence is involved in an assertion of identity that the world accepts. This is not strictly conventional: the idea that there is one right action, that someone acts prudently, points beyond common sense to the transformative moments in human history. No one calls cops hosing down protestors for civil rights virtuous.

Prudence as essential to virtue gives one nobility, then, as well as the good. It points beyond conventionality even as it is fundamentally practical. In a way, prudence’s reduction of virtue unifies virtue: Socrates is right in a larger sense. But this still leaves us with a gigantic problem. We extrapolated from the consequences of habituation to get the link between prudence and nobility; virtue that feels right for all of us, not just some. Prudence and habit are local matters, though, which almost always privilege “us” over “them.” We need to see more clearly the link between prudence, which is instrumental reasoning – figuring out the means to the end – and theoretical wisdom. We know what is noble and beautiful fragments among the virtues. That explains our everyday push to be moral, to make ourselves a certain person. A wisdom where everything is known, a moral order where perfection and happiness could be determined for everyone: would that demand one human nature? Would it destroy the diversity of and approach to virtue habituation implies?

Perhaps prudence itself is a struggle to be a unity. In Book 6, Aristotle talks about medicine causing health and theoretical wisdom being health. This is very strange: don’t people die for the highest things? It can’t be strange, though, if Aristotle is pushing us to see the consequence of making everything practical – of course wisdom must be health! Prudence has to point beyond itself, even though it unifies moral virtue, the latter which sees itself as its only end.

The problem is “the self-understanding of moral virtue” – how do we see ourselves as wrong? And yet, we do. The problem points back to the philosopher himself. It would be easy and snobby to say one deals in a higher realm with higher things where one is open to being wrong. “I do science, I reconstruct history, I don’t need to concern myself with the myths people create because I’m busy working for truth.” The trouble with this is the same problem with myth. Myths aren’t problematic because they’re false. They’re problematic because of the psychological need they cover up. Philosophy depends on perceptions about beauty and nobility: it is no accident that we regard certain people as philosophers because of their reputation. It is no accident the true philosophers can look beyond reputation to find value in a diversity of natures, to find other philosophers where no one would look.

Perhaps philosophers do not make friends. Perhaps they are hedonistic and erotic in extreme degrees. It just is worth considering, for a brief moment, that moral virtue may be paradigmatic of more than itself. We have to pretend like there is some higher, divine wisdom where perfection and happiness meet not because all conventionality is worthless, but rather because when its value surprises and informs, it demands to be taken seriously in higher ways. There is no necessary connection between moral virtue and wisdom where moral virtue is directly productive of wisdom. But it is hard to be called wise – and maybe even hard to see oneself as wise – when one doesn’t have something serious to say about morality.

Aristotle’s Criticism of Thales: Metaphysics 983b17 – 984a5

Of Thales we know virtually nothing. However, Aristotle’s comment on his thought in-and-of itself is worthwhile:

For there must be some nature, either one or multiple, out of which the other things come into being while that one is preserved. About the number and kind of such sources, however, they do not all say the same thing, but Thales, the founder of this sort of philosophy, says it is water (for which reason too he declared that the earth is on water), getting hold of this opinion perhaps from seeing that the nourishment of all things is fluid, and that heat itself comes about from it and lives by means of it (and that out of which things come into being is the source of them all). So he got hold of this opinion by this means, and because the seeds of all things have a fluid nature, while water is in turn the source of the nature of fluid things (~ Metaphysics 983b17 – 28).

There’s more here than “Thales said everything is water.” “Water” is like a principle that is a substance. It preserves (“nourishment of all things”), causes motion (“heat,” [is where] “things come into being”), and is a point of origin (“seeds… have a fluid nature”). Thales and “everything is water” is a way of examining how a cosmology is comprehensive. It has to account for how time “works:” how things change in it, how they are preserved in it, where they come from.

Aristotle continues:

There are some who think that very ancient thinkers, long before the present age, who gave the first accounts of the gods, had an opinion of this sort about nature. For they made Ocean and Tethys the parents of what comes into being, and made the oath of the gods be by water, called Styx by them; for what is oldest is most honored, and that by which one swears is the most honored thing. But whether this opinion about nature is something archaic and ancient might perhaps be unclear, but Thales at least is said to have spoken in this way about the first cause. (One would not consider Hippo worthy to place among these, on account of his cut-rate thinking.) (~ 983b28 – 984a5)

Did Thales actually do science (natural philosophy)? In the Politics, Thales is used as an example of a philosopher who isn’t a a philosopher. Asked what the worth of philosophy is, he used astronomical calculations to determine if there might be a good harvest and invested accordingly. That’s not even an attempt to find the truly good for himself, let alone the comprehensive good the Politics inquires about.

Here, Thales is saying something that seems secular in proclaiming “all is water.” It is a break, in a way, with the poets and the mythical tradition. Water is not necessarily “Ocean and Tethys.” Then again, Ocean and Tethys are water and tied very closely to the gods for a number of Greeks. The gods themselves are swearing on water. Perhaps “water” is an elaborate comment on how the gods (beings? originators of beings?) relate to chaos (water). But it is more likely the case that myth allowed for this sort of “scientific” supposition easily. The opinion that “everything is water” was in a way implicit in myth and the one who could articulate it first and sermonize about it would be honored greatly. “Hippo” is a comment on what happens when philosophers compete for honor. If you want the truth, you have to move away from honor and riches and to an account that actually explains something. “Everything is water” is near impossible to distinguish from “everything is chaos” in both a mythical and scientific setting.


Aristotle, Metaphysics. trans. Joe Sachs. Sante Fe: Green Lion Press, 2002

Ancients and Moderns: On Aristotle’s Politics I.1 (1252a 1-25)

The Aristotle quoted below is from the Carnes Lord translation of the Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1985).

1. Aristotle opens and immediately challenges us and our modern world:

Since we see that every city is some sort of partnership, and that every partnership is constituted for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what is held to be good), it is clear that all partnerships aim at some good, and that the partnership that is most authoritative of all and embraces all the others does so particularly, and aims at the most authoritative good of all. This is what is called the city or the political partnership.

It is impossible to not make too much of this. The city (polis) aims at the good; politics is about the good, not just security or property or freedom (contrast with Federalist 10). Moreover, our participation in political life “aims at the most authoritative good of all,” embracing all the other partnerships and the goods they involve. There cannot be church/state separation in a sense here; contrast with Machiavelli.

Independent of any particular practices Aristotle may want us to adopt, what is advanced in this paragraph is a basis for theoretical reflection. The very notion of political theory, despite political science departments with “theorists” and activists that spout what they think is political philosophy, remains alien to us unless our concept of the good can be brought forth. We need to know what we want and how we want it; we need to attempt organizing our needs and wants, our ends and the means we require. We need to be clear man is a social animal (note the repeated use of “partnership”). If we were focused on practicality, or even theoretical reflection of the highest order, it would be possible to deny man’s social nature.

Now the rest of Book 1 of the Politics explores the polis according to “nature.” Thus, Book 1 starts talking about slavery – are there people who ought to be ruled by nature? Are there those who must rule by nature? I find “what is held” (believed? In that case, conventional) and “authoritative” to be interesting words in the paragraph quoted. To what degree can the city not simply be natural?

2. Aristotle then begins to distinguish types of rule:

Those who suppose that the same person is expert in political [rule], kingly [rule], managing the household and being a master [of slaves] do not argue rightly. For they consider that each of these differs in the multitude or fewness [of those ruled] and not in kind – for example, [the ruler] of a few is a master, of more a household manager, and of still more an expert in political or kingly [rule] – the assumption being there is no difference between a large household and a small city; and as for the experts in political and kingly [rule], they consider an expert in kingly [rule] one who has charge himself, and in political [rule] one who, on the basis of the precepts of this sort of science, rules and is ruled in turn. But these things are not true.

Four types of rule have been posited: rule over slaves, household management, political, kingly. One wonders whether “rule over slaves” is merely a form of violence. Political rule is beautiful and ennobling, to say the least: it is where one “rules and is ruled in turn.” Citizenship as leadership: is that “not true?” True or not, it is something any serious republic must consider. We all know we need as much nobility as we can get.

Now Plato and Xenophon do ask at a surface level whether all rule is really just household management. Household management is procurement and distribution: it is roughly what we would call economics. War and peace, not to mention the law, can be thought an extension of such reasoning. All you’re doing at the level of the city is feeding more mouths, no? On a perhaps higher level: a true king uses his expertise to assign people with the correct natures to appropriate tasks?

I think Aristotle insists on a qualitative difference between types of rule in order to make clear there are larger issues at stake. Every regime is a comment on human nature. A proper theoretical accounting works with a diversity, not just “rulers” and “ruled.” Perhaps even the definitions of kingly and political rule are suspect because they underestimate what would comprise a political science.

3. Aristotle concludes this chapter with some remarks pertinent to the philosophic:

This will be clear to those investigating in accordance with our normal sort of inquiry. For just as it is necessary elsewhere to divide a compound into its uncompounded elements (for these are the smallest parts of the whole), so too by investigating what the city is composed of we shall gain a better view concerning these [kinds of rulers] as well, both as to how they differ from one another and as to whether there is some expertise characteristic of an art that can be acquired in connection with each of those mentioned.

What are the parts? What is the whole? What truly rules? If the city is composed of a diversity of human natures, the whole may not simply¬† be”humanity.” Moreover, various cities try to say something about what man is when truly human. Given that it seems peculiarly human to reflect on nature, nature itself may be at stake. A ruler would be someone (or something) who at the least comprehends human nature. There is probably no such art, but the closest one can come is through wisdom. In our partiality we reflect the goodness of the whole.

A Note on the Term “Essence”

I use the term “essence” a lot, and I sorta regret/sorta don’t regret doing that because it does oversimplify issues. It also provides a good-enough introduction to thinking without getting lost in too much jargon or too many distinctions. I throw plenty of those at you.

Nonetheless, I should have posted this earlier, from Joe Sachs’ translation of On the Soul by Aristotle, p. 203:

what it is for something to be (ti en einai) What anything keeps on being, in order to be at all. The phrase expands ti esti, what something is, the generalized answer to the question Socrates asks about anything important: “What is it?” Aristotle replaces the bare “is” with a progressive form (in the past, but with no temporal sense, since only in the past tense can the progressive aspect be made unambiguous) plus an infinitive of purpose. The progressive signifies the continuity of being-at-work [energeia, activity/”kinetic energy”], while the infinitive signifies the being-something or independence that is thereby achieved. The progressive rules out what is transitory in a thing, and therefore not necessary to it; the infinitive rules out what is partial or universal in a thing, and therefore not sufficient to make it be. The learned word “essence” contains nothing of Aristotle’s simplicity or power.

If you can make head or tail of that, congratulations, you’re the world’s smartest person and eligible for a PhD. at any number of fine schools. For now, just go back anytime I used the word “essence,” read all that in, and fix the arguments to make everything kosher, k?

Creating Statesmen, Part 1: Aristotlean Natural Right

All material quoted below is from Leo Strauss’ Natural Right and History, “Classic Natural Right,” pp. 156-164

1. We begin by distinguishing between nature (Gk. physis) and convention (Gk. nomos). Convention we are all familiar with – men make words and laws; proper practice establishes something as a convention. Money is the ultimate extension of this reasoning; it stands for value but is nothing in-and-of itself. When invested, strangely enough, it can create more of itself despite having only an arbitrary relation to actual wealth. To some degree, artifacts – tools – reflect the conventional. A tool requires a technique, if it is not a technique itself. It is used to exercise control and the criteria for its validity is its effectiveness. A tool is not useless even if it should never be used.

But artifacts can lead us to reason an entirely other way. We may wonder why scientific laws don’t just allow us to fashion better tools, but allow us to marvel at how intricate the universe is. In such a case we marvel not at what is effective, but what is true. We may think about why we have the different words in different languages for the same thing. Finally, what provokes us into thinking that there is a natural order where human nature is a critical question is the issue of justice. We differ as to what is just, but all are agreed that something is just and something is unjust. And if we argue enough, we can at least see why people think one law is just and not another, if we don’t come to agree with their law as being reflective of something more truly just.

Now there are many who say that justice is merely a matter of following the law, and laws vary from society to society. So justice is purely a matter of convention. “Natural right” is the assumption that this view is full of crap – something must be “right” “naturally,” or “right by nature.” It could be the case that we argue about justice not because we’re stupid, but because we actually can prove one law is more just than another. Opinions, after all, stem from truth. If there was nothing that was true, then one opinion couldn’t possibly be better than another.

Notice that the way “nature” is being used here does not refer to “plants and animals and stuff outside the house.” The nature of a thing is informed by its end: an acorn is meant to become an oak tree. When reasoning about human nature, we consider man as a “rational animal” to begin with, and also consider his end, true happiness through pursuit of the virtues.

2. From Aristotle we get the phrase “rational animal” and also, I think, the example of the acorn becoming an oak tree. And yet Aristotle has views on “natural right” that should strike us as very strange. To wit:

According to Aristotle, there is no fundamental disproportion between natural right and the requirements of political society, or there is no essential need for the dilution of natural right…. A right which necessarily transcends political society, he gives us to understand, cannot be the right natural to man, who is by nature a political animal. Plato never discusses any subject – be it the city or the heavens or numbers – without keeping in view the elementary Socratic question, “What is the right way of life?” And the simply right way of life proves to be the philosophic life. Plato eventually defines natural right with direct reference to the fact that the only life which is simply just is the life of the philosopher. Aristotle, on the other hand, treats each of the various levels of beings, and hence especially every level of human life, on its own terms (156).

So right now you’re probably thinking Plato’s sharp divorce of the philosophical and political causes him to make a mistake, and that Aristotle nicely and neatly remedies this by asserting that politics is natural to man and hence we need not all be philosophers to be just. In making this move, you’ve forgotten that Plato is Aristotle’s teacher, and thus has literally schooled Aristotle. The first consequence of Aristotle’s thought isn’t so bad:

Aristotle says, then, simply that natural right is a part of political right. This does not mean that there is no natural right outside the city or prior to the city. To say nothing of the relations between parents and children, the relation of justice that obtains between two complete strangers who meet on a desert island is not one of political justice and is nevertheless determined by nature. What Aristotle suggests is that the most fully developed form of natural right is that which obtains among fellow-citizens; only among fellow-citizens do the relations which are the subject matter of right or justice reach their greatest density and, indeed, their full growth (157).

I realize this doesn’t sound problematic to you, but I do ask you to consider why Socrates and Plato consider philosophy to be such a radical endeavor. The philosopher being one who is true to his word entirely is the best citizen: his attachment to the laws is not contractual but freely and truly chosen. His attachment to his fellow-citizens is as ambitious as it is welcoming: with them he hopes to find and celebrate wisdom.

However, the second consequence of Aristotle’s thought on this matter drove the thinkers of the Middle Ages crazy:

The second assertion regarding natural right which Aristotle makes – an assertion much more surprising than the first – is that all natural right is changeable (157).

Aristotle, unlike us, is unwilling to gloss over the consequences of abandoning the philosopher as a standard. That all “natural right is changeable” probably means that infanticide can be justified, there is no absolute “right to life.” The idea that the truly just man “does no harm,” given to us from Plato’s Republic, has been completely abandoned – or has it? Strauss attempts to explain this very strange teaching:

By saying that in extreme situations the public safety is the highest law, one implies that the public safety is not the highest law in normal situations; in normal situations the highest laws are the common rules of justice. Justice has two different principles or sets of principles: the requirements of public safety, or what is necessary in extreme situations to preserve the mere existence or independence of society, on the one hand, and the rules of justice in the more precise sense, on the other. And there is no principle which defines clearly in what type of cases the public safety, and in what type of cases the precise rules of justice, have priority. For it is not possible to define precisely what constitutes an extreme situation in contradistinction to a normal situation (161).

Strauss says this Aristotlean teaching differs from Machiavelli in that Machiavelli denies natural right simply; there is no concern in the latter for a difference between the “every day” and “extremes.” Here, at least, Aristotle is trying to show that the things that preserve society don’t fatally compromise it. I do buy this sort of reasoning – I know I’ve said at times the reasoning used in war cannot be applied to our situation in peace. Something is wrong with using martial metaphor all the time, especially with regard to activities that should educate.

But I suspect Strauss is playing a rhetorical game here. Natural Right and History is ultimately about the principle behind the Declaration of Independence, and it is helpful when teaching politically ambitious people to suggest that the divide between classical thought and American Constitutionalism is not so sharp. Unfortunately, we are in a situation where people being ambitious is itself a problem, because wisdom is not about finding and taking on difficult questions, but rather whatever you think it is. There’s no ambition in a world where everyone already knows best.

For Aristotle, is it possible for the principle behind a society to be perceived as fatally compromised and yet the society still workable? I think the answer is “yes” based on “all natural right is changeable.” There are plenty of Aristotlean complaints that characterize the Spartan regime as inhuman, and yet it is never dismissed outright as unworkable [Note: I need to check this. I think a good argument can be advanced that it is unworkable]. I’m guessing right now the safe reading is that since politics itself is a nature-convention blend, the naturally just thing to do can be to merely defend convention, and not go out of one’s way to undermine the pieties which any political association assumes. This obviously narrows Strauss’ reading of “natural right is part of political right” – that is now literally true, and means where there is no politics, there is no natural right. The situation of two men on a desert island is a political situation, unless there is a natural good – higher than justice – that binds them, i.e. fraternity, or a lower good that requires a necessary association. Acting like animals hunting together does not require natural right, although there is a natural association.

3. If we do take Strauss’ reading seriously – and we have very good reason to take it seriously, our inquiry is meant to bring us to the truth as well as make our actions nobler – we find this:

Natural right must be mutable in order to be able to cope with the inventiveness of wickedness. What cannot be decided in advance by universal rules, what can be decided in the critical moment by the most competent and most conscientious statesman on the spot, can be made visible as just, in retrospect, to all; the objective discrimination between extreme actions which were just and extreme actions which were unjust is one of the noblest duties of the historian (161).

I don’t think this is an unfair or thoughtless conclusion, but it does mark our age as one especially hostile to the emergence of statesmen. Our historians are activists, lobbying in the here and now for very particular policies and willing to read history any way that will advance their cause. Furthermore, everyone has knowledge of universal rules that they can’t possibly defend before anyone else, but can apply in the voting booth.

We are in an insane situation, where prudence probably cannot emerge since there is no such thing as wisdom strictly speaking. We’ll pull through, but I’m not going to dumb this down; I would be an idiot to underestimate what we’re up against. For now, a few points from this discussion should be striking:

  1. The social character of knowledge about what is right. A common good, a serious view of justice, takes into account other views and doesn’t rely on facts alone but on other opinions.
  2. The delicateness of the political. Man is between beast and god, but boy is it easy for him to pretend to be either. Our tendency to anarchism as an ideal, our thought that the best government is the least government, can lead us to be inhuman for the seemingly most gentle of reasons.
  3. The necessity – and difficulty – of philosophy. Someone really does have to stand above, or else seeing the obvious is an issue. But the second someone stands above, we want to tear them down, esp. if they proclaim to know better.

Is Politics Reducible to Rhetoric?

The following is only a summary (with some purposely loaded comments) of an aspect of Leo Strauss’ essay “On Aristotle’s Politics,” found in The City and Man, pg. 17-24

Machiavelli held that it was possible for tyrannical power to come about from a “deep knowledge of political things.” The conclusion of the essay on Macbeth shows that perhaps one reason we have an awful politics is that we may have traded our capacity to love in order to become experts in politics, each and every one of us. Too many cooks spoil the brew, as they say. The sophists Aristotle engages disagree mightily with this, for what government does day-to-day anyway is actually done and the knowledge is available handily. What is more difficult is to get power or persuade others to do your bidding. Thus rhetoric becomes, for them, the supreme political art.

I hold that Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, in thinking Washington is a spin machine that is able to dictate how we conceive issues through a passive media, think the sophistic conclusion, but not for the reasons the Sophists held exactly. They seem to think that in a democracy, the tasks with which government is charged can be fulfilled efficiently as long as people participate and are looking for the best solution. In other words, while the sophists dismiss the most practical workings in order to romanticize speech’s power, Colbert and Stewart see the improper use of speech as an impediment to progress, and probably see the properly functioning day-to-day operations as characteristic of progress.

To be even more blunt: the Sophists are shrewder than Colbert and Stewart. The Sophists know as long as there are people, “truth” alone will not be enough, that the political is far more than trains running on time. To use speech well unlocks the imagination: if politics is reducible to rhetoric, then politics could be the sphere where the highest uses of reason are present. The classical understanding, where the city tells us which gods are authoritative, minces no words about this. Our understanding, where we really believe we have separation of church and state (does the decline in religious belief have anything to do with the power of the state, even, or especially when, the state declares itself the advocate of freedom), well.

Against the Sophists, Aristotle argues that while a type of reason, tied to progress, is certainly characteristic of the highest functionings of any given art, it cannot be characteristic of law, for law’s “efficacy” comes from the fact that it is defended by a passion stemming from the ancestral. Old laws are obeyed, not new ones. Jefferson’s proposal to have a revolution every 19 years makes sense given that every generation will feel itself a founding generation: it does not make sense, though, in that it is an attempt of the new to mimic the old, and such an attempt has failure written into it – an actual revolution, every generation? That defeats the point of making laws. What if one generation got the laws right? Politics doesn’t change unless we change completely.

So once we see that “law” could be reasonable, but is really tied to passion in its being and consisting (a law is effective inasmuch as it keeps fiercer passions at bay), we can see one problem with politics being reducible to rhetoric: the assumption, in rhetoric, is that everyone can be persuaded. But everyone cannot be persuaded: that’s why laws exist in the first place (again, the political innocence of Stewart and Colbert should be noted here. Note the difference between “policy” and “law,” and what the word “policy” covers up).

The deliberative function of government isn’t a cute irony when contrasted with the nature of law, for such considerations run deeper. It is brute strength which allows us to survive to some extent. People had to fight and plow fields in order for the city to exist. Aristotle, in speaking of the best polity, allows for the possibility of intelligent men to be slaves to mere brutes, as if intelligence were only an aid to increasing strength which already exists. Plato seems to consider strength a “natural title to rule” (if you’re a feminist, note that to say classical thought is gender discrimination is a narrowing of the problem. The problem is whether any one should be intelligent, whether all intelligence could be is the pain that one is unfree). It should be noted – again, see the essay on Macbeth, linked above – that all of modern science (which allows, at its height, for predictive claims), esp. in this democratic age, is an increasing of power, the use of intelligence for the sake of strength only.

Against the fact of survival, reason needs to be reconceived as more than intelligence, if there is to be anything higher for man. But such considerations, of course, will pull us farther away from the political and law. So again, rhetoric does involve a supreme power, as the Sophists noted. In fact, it is so supreme that it is beyond this world and cannot be used to control others simply. For one needs to actually understand something in order to be controlled, and political considerations, even in this Enlightened age, always start from the fewest assumptions possible.

© 2015 Rethink.

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑