Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: aristotle (page 1 of 2)

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.

Do Money and Material Gain Taint Thought, or Validity of Opinion? On Aristotle’s Ethics, Bk. 2 Chp. 7

As always, any Aristotle quoted or cited comes from Joe Sachs’ version of the Ethics. If you are interested in other things I’ve written on Aristotle, or the discussions preceding this one, see the index above.

Josh asked very directly, and very nicely, if money taints opinion. It would seem “selling out” is bad because it changes the motive and therefore the true actor in a situation – words can’t be trusted, actions could be the responsibility of anyone or anything.

I want to take time to address the issue of making money and living virtuously in the context of something else I was planning to write on. The issue for me is the list of Aristotle’s virtues in Bk. 2, Chp. 7. There, he gives 9 or 11 sorts of “means” a virtuous man must hit regarding his temperament; he must not be excessive or deficient in how he considers any of these characteristics. For example, to be courageous is a “mean” whereby one can be as courageous as possible. But to lack all fear is one “excess” – “rashness” – and to have too much fear is “cowardice.”

The list itself is preceded by a discussion in Bk. 2 Chp. 6 where it looks like Aristotle is giving us an account of virtue that is as simple as possible to follow. He wants people to be more thoughtful about virtuous action, hence there is the distinction made between things good for one end (an eye), things good for several ends (a horse), and things that may choose what ends they are good for (a human being, by implication – he does not say this outright at 1106a 15-25). At the same time, just because a mean is for humans is not as simple as one in arithmetic (1106a 26- 1106b5), we should not believe that reasoning about the “mean” is all there is. Plato was Aristotle’s teacher and absolutely counseled thinking about what is highest if one could.

We can see what Aristotle is up to when “craftsmanship” is invoked as something that considers a “mean condition” (1106b 14). Yes, there is a law-making art, yes, philosophy does begin from consideration of what sorts of excellences (virtues, properly speaking) are pursued in the arts. But still, Aristotle is emphatic if we let him be: “I am speaking of virtue of character, for this is concerned with feelings and actions, and among these there is excess and deficiency, and the mean” (1106b 17-19). It is this context which allows him to praise the Pythagoreans, a strange ally, as thinking correctly that “The good are good simply, but the bad are bad in every sort of way” (1106b 35).

The trouble with saying directly there may be a diversity of goods, stemming from human reason, that can be reconciled through human reason to a greater degree than most think, is that people won’t praise a plethora of things. If the philosopher organizes things hierarchically, well, people who do not philosophize are more adherent to one hierarchy and as we all know, are quite dogmatic about what they are stuck to. The question of getting people to act virtuously involves praise. Everyone needs praise to some degree if the basis of reason is our social interaction (logos – if speech, then reason). We cannot exist in a vacuum. Even Aristotle needs praise, or something with which he can feel respected through (the key allusion to praise setting this analysis forth is in 1106b 17-35. He uses the term several times there).

To give Josh a preliminary answer – can you see how being good without being purely rational, i.e. an angel – must involve some degree of what we would consider material compensation?

This reasoning about “praise” is extended in the list of virtues in Chapter 7 to great effect. The list of virtues in chapter 7, if we dispose of the final two, which are means in actually feeling, is as follows:

  1. courage
  2. temperance
  3. generosity (private giving)
  4. magnificence (public spending)
  5. greatness of soul (proper concern for honor)
  6. gentleness (still having the capability to be angry, but not unnecessarily so)
  7. truthfulness
  8. charm (for situations that are playful)
  9. genuineness (for all other situations)

A lot of people make fun of Straussians for romanticizing the “center” of any given list. The reason why one does so is Aristotle, though – there are times, as anyone can see from my poetry commentaries, that a list has a certain movement, and the beginning and end will count for more. Here, the center is absolutely key. All these virtues seem to be related to being an aristocrat or man of prominence: wealth is necessary for at least two of them (#3 and 4).

“Greatness of soul,” then, is the key – an aristocrat, a lover of what is best, is really an honor lover. And that’s not a bad thing – look at all the virtues he can possess. But it does mean he needs money, and needs to be honored, and that a higher sort of rationality is not quite a concern.

If we include the two “mean” feelings – one being a sense of shame, i.e. modesty (superseded by the fact one has to grow out of this to be a fully functioning adult), and “righteous indignation” (superseded eventually by a full sense of justice) – these two feelings being that which allow education in these virtues to take place, what we get as the center of the list is “gentleness.” I think a not unsubtle message is being sent by Aristotle here about the priority of courage in his schema – it is something that education helps mold. It cannot be wholly transcended as anarchists or the Left might wish it to be, for following Rousseau, they do believe in a softer humanity and better future through a more peaceable world. And there is a lot to that. What is surprising, of course, is how much thumos (spiritedness) is extended in making those sorts of arguments.

The Aristotlean understanding does not try to transcend, but to mold. And note that “gentleness” does not quite extend to all men. While all men need some honor, some wealth, if we can conceive of Socrates, we can conceive of someone wholly gentle in one way – he fights when called upon for the city only – and not quite as gentle as another. Witness his utter decimation of many interlocutors.

The point is, this list is not the whole story. But for our purposes, since wealth and honor are integral to life, they cannot automatically be seen as taints. Another question, which is whether people can handle the wealth or honor they are given, is more central.

How do Knowledge and Virtue Relate? On Aristotle’s Ethics, Bk. 2 Chp. 4

The translation of the Ethics used below is Joe Sachs’. The quotes are from Bk. 2, Chapter 4 (1105 a17 – 1105 b18)

The issue is locating the key problem in the opening paragraph of Aristotle’s chapter. We will begin with a part of it and skip ahead in the chapter to shed light on it:

One might raise as an impasse, though, how we mean that it is necessary to become just by performing just actions and temperate by performing temperate actions, for if people do things that are just and temperate they already are just or temperate people, just as, if they do the things that have to do with writing or with music, they are literate or musical people. Or is it not even this way in the case of the arts?

Now in Christian thought, and the thought of our secular world with its emphasis on freedom, one is usually only responsible for a moral wrong when one knows what one does is wrong.

Aristotle brings up the issue of the arts because he cannot even conceive of virtue devoid of knowledge. It is true that at 1105 b1-5, he will say the following:

For having the other kinds of artfulness, these things do not count, except the mere knowing, but for having the virtues, the knowing is of little or no strength, while the other conditions ave not a little but all the power, and they are the very ones which arise from repeatedly performing just or temperate actions.

Such a quote might lead us to think “knowing” doesn’t matter as much as “doing.” I actually think the key to this quote is at 1105 b12-18:

Most people… believe that by taking refuge in talk they are philosophizing and in that way will be people of serious stature, doing something similar to those sick people who listen to the doctors carefully but do none of the things they order. So just as they will be in no good condition in body if they treat themselves in this way, neither will those who philosophize in this way be in any good condition in soul.

The issue is that the knowing is so important, I think, it must be made manifest in action. For the emphasis, in virtue, is on such knowledge being made strength through action. For arts, to go back to the previous quote, “mere knowing” will do – the “knowledge” there is immediately effectual, and hard to distinguish truly from action. Thus it seems to me to be of a lesser quality.

To go back up to the quote that started this essay, we can see that the problem with knowledge of the arts stems from deduction. Deduction means we start with a product (1105 a23-4 for art, & a25-32 for virtue), and try to figure out the “causes” of the “effect” that product is. So what one might argue, then, is that the product of virtue does not require one take any pleasure in virtue (note how Bk. 2, Chp. 3’s opening paragraph contrasts with the thought of Immanuel Kant), or that one concentrate on actually producing virtue – “enlightened self-interest” might all be society needs.

The way Aristotle gets around this “impasse” is by hinting, i.e. the passage we started with, that knowledge of the arts is a deviation from knowledge of virtue. For arts should ideally be concerned with only the product effected, but we instead make judgments about the artists’ ability through his creation. The product of virtue, then, is not merely a virtuous action, but a state of the soul, an ability to relate to knowledge and hold it highest properly:

But with the things that come about as a result of the virtues, just because they themselves are a certain way it is not the case that one does them justly or temperately, but only if the one doing them also does them being a certain way: if one does them first of all knowingly, and next, having chosen them and chosen them for their own sake, and third, being in a stable condition and not able to be moved all the way out of it (1105 a29-35).

And now you can see why I’ve purposely picked a convoluted order to discuss this chapter. The key is seeing that knowledge and choice relate to being a certain way, and that cannot be emphasized enough. Such a thought being tucked away in the middle of Aristotle’s chapter, in these modern times, requires a drawing out with which to begin our contemplation.

On the Good: Comment on Aristotle’s Ethics, Bk. 1 Chp. 6

Translations of quoted material below and citations are from/of Joe Sachs’ translation, published by Focus, 2002. The essay is as difficult as it gets and is highly, highly speculative.

1. Background: The Audience of the Ethics

Aristotle begins by saying he wants to “examine the universal good and go through the difficulties in the way it is spoken of,” but that such a task is very difficult: “the men who introduced the forms were my friends” (1096a 12-15).

Notice that he does not say “the forms are an incorrect way of conceiving the universal good.” He says this is an inquiry he must make for the sake of the truth, that he must go beyond love of one’s own, and that this whole ordeal is sacred.

Now at the end of Chapter 3, Aristotle said a curious thing: “About the one who is to hear this discourse, and how it ought to be received, and what task we have set before ourselves, let these things serve as a prelude.” It is a curious thing because Aristotle did not explicitly say who his audience was in anything before – he didn’t say, for example, “this book is for Glaucon,” and he only talked in the most general terms of the mindset people have when approaching the question of the good. Of that mindset, we can pick out 3 sorts:

  1. Those who are more philosophic and can handle abstract inquiry (chapter 1). They are curious about the relation between knowledge and action, and how exactly it is knowledge governs action when ends are divergent: does a formal principle tell us when an end is better than another?
  2. Those who use knowledge for the sake of action. They need to be reminded that desires do have an end (1094a 20-21), and their mode of approaching the good conflates the highest and the human good (1094a 23, compare with 1093b 6-7). Nonetheless, they introduce us to politics, which is critical to any discussion of knowledge and action.
  3. Those who are impulsive: to be too impulsive is to be “young” and “inexperienced” and needing knowledge badly.

Aristotle’s audience is threefold, and each party is defined by the role they give knowledge – too high a role, too low a role, and way too low a role. Notice that this corresponds to something that Socrates or Plato might discuss: the tripartite soul, in its rational, spirited and appetitive components.

With the tripartite soul lurking in the background, I find it really difficult to believe that Aristotle is rejecting Platonic forms outright. In fact, my suspicion is that if anything, Chapter 6 read correctly will be insight into Platonic forms on a much higher level than anyone who sees it merely as criticism could have. After all, Aristotle has thrown aside love of “one’s own” in order to bring up the topic – when one’s friends are philosophers, there is no greater display of friendship.

2. Primary and derivative instances

Now those who brought in this opinion did not make forms within which a primary and derivative instance were spoken of (which is why they did not construct a form of number), but the good is attributed to what something is and also to the sort of thing it is and to a relation it has, while the thinghood of something, which is something on its own, by nature has priority over a relation it has (for this is like an offshoot and incidental attribute of what it is), so that there could be any form common to these (1096a 17-24).

This sentence makes my head spin. Let’s go through it step-by-step.

We have primary and derivative instances, and “number” is an example of these, Aristotle claims. On its own, we might say that primary and derivative instances are like God giving form to man in His image and likeness. And indeed, there is probably an implication of perfect/imperfect hiding in this distinction.

However, if there is, Aristotle wants us to be really specific as to what might make something perfect or imperfect – that example of “number” is not there for no reason. Jacob Klein once mentioned that a major problem the Greeks had with number is how they could be unities and diversities at once. Every number is in a sense “one,” since the use of say, 6, involves grouping 6 things under one concept.

If we take the problem of number to be how unity and diversity reconcile, then it might seem that Platonic forms are a great candidate for explaining how this might work.

Aristotle goes on to say the forms are very specific: “good” lies in “what something is,” “the sort of thing it is,” and “the relation it has,” the “thinghood” having priority over the “relation.” In the Republic, 510d5 – e4, Socrates says the following (Bloom’s translation follows):

Don’t you also know that they [geometers] use visible form besides and make their arguments about them, not thinking about them but about those others that they are like? They make the arguments for the sake of the square itself and the diagonal itself, not for the sake of the diagonal they draw, and likewise with the rest. These things themselves that they mold and draw, of which there are shadows and images in water, they now use as images, seeking to see those things themselves, that one can see in no other way than with thought.

Now that passage talks about the forms in terms of geometry, where ideal objects are realized through thought. The relations enable one to get a grasp on what is higher. Notice that this seems very much like derivative instances feeding into a notion of primary instances, despite all the specifics given.

However, in the Republic, the geometers are just the start of the story. The geometers almost pull from forms to make everyday objects intelligible; some others jump from hypothesis to form through dialectic, and then from form to form (Republic 511b-c). The geometers use hypotheses as a beginning that stays a beginning; Socrates posits one who uses them as a “springboard” in order to literally speculate about the origins of things.

The big question is whether the logic of primary and derivative instances is separable from the logic underlying “thinghood” (what it is/of what sort) and “relation.” I don’t think such a logic is separable from those more specific things, and notice that “good” is allied with “thinghood” in such a way that Aristotle seems to be saying the primary/derivative logic is the logic of the forms.

So why is he so convoluted about this issue? Why doesn’t he just say “I agree with Socrates” instead of running headfirst into the one of the most complicated lines of thought there are?

3. Being and the good

In the next two phases of his argument, Aristotle gets slippery again. In speaking of the fact that “good” and “being” are meant in many ways, he uses the categories – ways of being – to demonstrate an inviolable link with the good (i.e. “of what sort” points to the “excellences,” “virtues;” the good as “what something is” would be “god” or the “intellect;” questions of amount would point to what “limit;” “relation” makes us wonder about “usefulness,” “time” speaks of “opportunity,” and “place” brings up “dwelling,” which I will refer you to Heidegger to consider). Now he seemingly keeps the scope of being wider than the good, and the good seems to be only one facet of being. Still, since all our opinions about the good seem to derive from being – notice that we don’t agree on the gods, or what intellectual truth is, or what is useful, etc. – there is a sense in which “good = being” here. He cleverly loads this argument like so, and then says “well, there are lots of ways of attributing being to the good, so there is no universal common good.”

Finally, he says that there is one sort of knowledge per form. Therefore, knowledge is linked to a diversity of goods that can’t be reconciled under one form. Also, to try and describe the definition of something as having eternality by saying “whatever-itself” versus “whatever” contributes nothing to the discussion of the good.

It’s obvious Aristotle is lying here, too. The discussion in the Republic shows that “forms” are heading to a realm where oneness is possible and diversity is explanatory. Why is Aristotle so insistent on confusing us, then?

4. The common understanding

The issue is not Aristotle’s understanding but everyone else’s. People get satisfied with stuff, and they want to 1. preserve the stuff itself or 2. preserve the stuff making the stuff or 3. stop the opposite from happening.

The issue, then, is that we react instinctively, that thought and action are fused to the detriment of thought, and that appeal to reflecting on a highest of goods isn’t going to work for this inquiry. Furthermore, we label whatever we perceive this instinctive reaction as directed towards a “form” of the “good.” “Pleasures” and “honors” both end up being considered by people as good in-and-of themselves because we don’t have as high a conception of “primary and derivative” as the conception regarding number. Rather, our conception of “primary” is “I have it, right?” and “derivative” is exactly “well, this is how I’m going to get/keep it” (1096b 10 and onward). The joke is that our lack of understanding shows itself in our tendency for the purely “formal:” pleasures and honors are not means to ends, and therefore are good in-and-of themselves? The talk about forms is too high for a discussion oriented towards everyone.

So in the end, Aristotle is going to use the more primitive primary/derivative “understanding” to discuss the good. There is no real argument with the forms: he is being confusing, I think, in order to highlight some of the strengths of the Socratic teaching. Those strengths involve an attempt to be absolutely clear why one thing is “derivative” of another and whether that is a bad thing. They also show that being relates to the good through opinion, and that all being can be seen as derivative of the quest for the good. Finally, the forms do take into account a rich diversity, starting with particular arts and goods and transcending them in order to aim at a master art whereby man can be governed/govern himself for higher ends.

Are There Purely Formal Considerations in Politics? A Comment on Aristotle’s "Politics," Bk. 2 Ch. 9, First Paragraph

for Glen Thurow

Note: All quotes of Aristotle’s are from Carnes Lord’s translation of the Politics, pub. by the University of Chicago Press.

A recent discussion on secession which treated the issue as if it in-and-of itself had no moral content, as if it were something like taking out the garbage or doing problems in symbolic logic, had me thinking about whether every statement in politics has moral content and what that might mean for how we conduct ourselves. Couple this discussion with

  1. the never-ceasing presumption of “free speech,” as if all speech were created equal, and as if speech means anything if one is exempt from all responsibility for it (please extend this logic to any “right” people claim they have)
  2. the question of whether the tools for analyzing international politics are themselves value-neutral (i.e. blaming someone for taking the security of his country and its citizens seriously seems to be the real charge underlying the term “neo-con”)

and I think it is time for a serious theoretical look at the matter. This post, like many of my posts, is very long and technical. Please take your time and print it out if need be.

Concerning the regime of the Lacedaemonians and the Cretan regime, and indeed virtually all other regimes, there are two investigations [to be made]: one, whether some aspect of the legislation is fine or not with respect to the best arrangement; the other, whether it is opposed to the presupposition and the mode of the regime they actually have (1269a 29-33).

Aristotle asserts quite plainly here that what is at stake concerns “virtually all other regimes.” This is not merely about Sparta and Crete. The issue is, firstly, how legislation concerning the fundamental ordering compares to the “best arrangement.” The second part of the issue is how that ‘fundamental ordering’ may oppose 1) the “presupposition” of the regime itself (the idea it might have in mind about human nature, apart from the “best arrangement”) and 2) the “mode of the regime they actually have” (emphasis on “they actually have:” if some aspect of the more basic legislation is skewed, it might have created the defect it is in actuality opposed to).

Now it is agreed that any [city] that is going to be finely governed must have leisure from the necessary things; but in what manner it should have this is not easy to grasp (33-36).

In modern life, we have decided that we are going to conquer necessity, first and foremost. Everything we do is about “survival:” we go to school to get a job more than an education; religion is about charity, and that is about helping other people survive while trying to win survival for eternity. This sentence from Aristotle alone is a declaration that our valuation is questionable.

Do take note of how this sentence fits into the first sentence quoted: there has to be leisure so the very essentials of the law can be known and worked with. Politics is emphatically not happening in situations where everything is on the line, i.e. battles or needing get food in a situation where everyone might starve. To construct a vision of political life starting from an extreme, i.e. “social contract reasoning,” is in some sense a rejection of political life (i.e. the weight placed on survival by the Federalist makes deliberation a more difficult thing than it should be; Rousseau’s emphasis on freedom has resulted in the blindness of the majority, as we are seeing in the UK right now). In order to see what I’m driving at more fully, we are going to have to see Aristotle’s full political thought on this matter.

For the serfs of Thessaly have often attacked the Thessalians, and similarly with the Spartans’ helots, who are constantly awaiting their misfortunes as if in ambush. In the case of the Cretans, however, nothing of this sort has happened (36-39).

The question of the fundamental ordering became the question of “how do we get people away from being engaged in the same tasks animals are in continuously?” Now that question is taking another transformation, as some regimes do use slavery to try and remedy this problem. Some regimes are bad at having slaves: the Thessalians keep getting harassed by their own slaves. Some regimes are “good” at this, like Sparta, but the Spartans have to be so vigilant one wonders if they are truly relieved from necessity. Finally, some regimes can get away with having slaves, like Crete. Crete will be discussed in detail shortly.

The question that should be on our mind is whether some form of slavery is intrinsic to all regimes, whether it is the only solution to being relieved from necessity, and whether, if it is the only solution, it can be marginalized. Such a consideration makes all communitarian solutions fundamentally just, as they distribute the awfulness that might keep others down permanently, but communitarian solutions also bring forth tremendous awfulness of their own, as they insist we are equal in ways we are not and unleash forces intrinsic to mob rule. There is some injustice intrinsic to all regimes – no regime is perfectly just – but whether that takes the form of slavery, I wonder.

The cause of this [Crete not having slave problems] is perhaps that neighboring cities there, even when at war with one another, never ally themselves with those in revolt, since as possessors of subjects themselves it would not be to their advantage; but all the neighbors of the Spartans – the Argives, Messenians, and Arcadians – have been their enemies. In the case of the Thessalians, too, they revolted in the beginning when there was still war with those in adjacent territories – Achaeans, Perrhaebeans, and Magnesians (1269a39 – 1269b6).

In the case of Crete, the entire world is dedicated to slavery such that they do not aid slaves in revolt. Can an entire world dedicated to something unjust make that something just? Of course not, it can not even make it lasting. All that needs to happen is one city around Crete needs to aid slaves during a war and the whole system collapses.

Now you might be asking what any of this has to do with our initial question. It has an enormous amount to do with it, because the issue of slavery being just or unjust wasn’t settled in ancient times. The custom was that when you conquered someone, you conquered them, they were yours. Slavery was purely a matter of convention. If something is conventional, then is it not just because we the people say it is just?

In other words, the question of slavery for Aristotle is analogous to the purely formal principles we purport “rights” to be. Look, a right to an abortion does not merely offend people; there have been numerous studies showing that it is killing off future members of the Democratic party. Whether or not you are pro-life or pro-choice is irrelevant to the point I’m making: the point is, the practice’s justice is in question, but the way we get around it is through declaring “property rights,” an almost formal consideration. A baby is part of a woman’s body, that is her property, she can do with it what she will.

All I am saying is that trying to say that politics consists of purely formal considerations means that the worst injustices can be promoted as our greatest good (whether or not abortion is one of these is up to you). Aristotle is keenly aware of that and is even suggesting that at the international scale, a crude cosmic justice will intervene if one thinks otherwise: there will be wars, and some of them will not just threaten one’s citizens, but one’s whole way of life.

It is therefore in our interest to keep the idea that politics can be conducted at a level beyond partisanship, beyond morality, out of politics.

Now I did bring up the issue of international relations, and how we ought to analyze them. How much moral content should we import into politics? Is fixing a streetlight the same thing as the right to free speech? And is the only way international politics can be discussed in terms of power, or do we have the ability to bring concerns of justice in there? And how far do those concerns go?

But it would appear that, apart from anything else, supervision of them [slaves] is troublesome in itself – what the mode of one’s relations with them should be; for if it is lax, they become arrogant and claim to merit equality with those in authority, and yet if harshly treated they come to hate and conspire against them. It is clear, then, that those who have this happen to them in connection with helotry have not discovered the mode that is best (1269b 6-12).

The issue with having slaves is the bigger issue of politics: the character of the citizenry. That answers our earlier concern about why politics cannot be based on extremes – leisure is not a good in-and-of itself, it exists for the sake of education and a greater happiness, and full participation in ruling and pride in being ruled well. Citizens are those who can rule and be ruled interchangeably: this is clear from the first chapter of the Politics. Note that no matter how slaves are ruled, they are always in rebellion. Aristotle’s comment to end the paragraph is indeed ironic: no mode will be best for ruling slaves.

Finally, note what the discussion of slaves’ character does to the question of international relations – it gives us a criteria for how moral concerns should be addressed there. The question is not merely our obligation or our power, the question is us and the character of those we work with. Giving aid to regimes that perpetuate injustice, even if their citizens do not deserve to suffer, only perpetuates that injustice. The implicit aid of not helping out slaves in revolt made slavery in Crete worthwhile and every single person in that city and on that island poorer. I think, for our purposes, one can legitimately criticize neo-cons, but one has to recognize that they’re not “racist” or “inherently evil,” but coming from a sincere concern with our security, and whether or not we can be a force for good in the world. Similarly, Leftist positions are also respectable, because they posit that we can extend our wealth and our time in non-militaristic ways in order to have a better world. We should be having a far calmer, more thoughtful debate about our role in the world, really, but we, of course, don’t recognize that our concerns are always moral concerns, and so we call one another evil without knowing it, or worse yet, do so when we do know it.

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