Heidegger famously said of Aristotle’s biography, “He lived, he worked, he died.” While many scholars take that to mean that Heidegger was dismissing the significance of biography in considering a philosopher’s work, Iain Thompson has convincingly argued that Heidegger takes for granted the significance of biography, so in the air was Werner Jaeger’s work on Aristotle’s biography, that he means not to dismiss it but to say it is not sufficient for understanding Aristotle. As when people resort to psychologizing a particular thinker instead of dealing with their work, it would be dismissive to say that we can entirely understand a thinker on the basis of things that happened to them or the whims of fortune that characterized their lives.
And yet. Perhaps we have swung too far away from caring about the specific details of the lives of those we study. I hesitate to say that the details can wholly frame our reading, but I also think it behooves us to see these thinkers as human beings: they didn’t just live, work and die; they struggled to find work they enjoyed, they loved, they fought, they studied and were disappointed; they struck out on their own. Examining the details we know and the gossip we can gather about a philosopher who has become more a marble bust than a human thinker can bring down to earth a towering colossus. Read more
Today we walked from our place in The Mets to Plato’s Academy, about five kilometers – it’s about 1.5 miles from the Agora. My colleague Lew Cassity is working on a book on Plato’s Laws and wanted to get a sense of how the walk from the Agora to the Academy would feel. We stopped off at the Kerameikos, where the Sacred Road that led to the Academy begins, and then we walked up Platonos all the way to the Academy.
When I was here in 2014, we took the bus out there and it seemed to take forever. I think it probably took as long as our walking it this time. In 2014, I remarked how unmemorial like the site is, less so even that Aristotle’s Lyceum. Like I said then, I guess, as Thucydides wrote, famous men have the whole world as their memorial; they don’t need statues. Read more
Yesterday at breakfast I proposed a thesis about the structure of Socratic questioning that my friend John Bova once put to me as we were reading the Charmides together in Greek. His thesis that I have found useful is that Socrates’s interlocutors often begin with a definition that is a particular, like quietness in the Charmides, whose problem is that it lacks a sense of the good. But then when the good is offered as a definition of the virtue, as Critias does in the Charmides, it lacks any concrete meaning. Socrates is then dialectically trying to pull together the concrete sense with the good, or my way of understanding this is to concretize the good. Bova talks about this in terms of a Badiouian kind of diagonalization, but I think it could be understood as manifesting the good in the production of the self.
My colleague Kevin Miles responded to my claim rather forcefully. He said, what could that possibly mean? Like me, Kevin doesn’t think that the good has a metaphysical reality in Plato’s dialogues. What could I have meant by the good? We spent an hour or so over breakfast working it out. My colleague Lew Cassity thinks of the dialectical interplay in terms of weighing pleasures and pains. We tried to get to the point, not where we agreed with one another as much as where we understood what we each were saying. It looks awhile. Along the way there were moments of real tension, maybe even frustration, but in working it out, I found the disagreements themselves helped illuminate and clarify what we were thinking. Without the disagreement, the specificity would not have been reached. Read more
Jetlagged and underslept, I went out early this morning into Athens and ran from our flat around the Acropolis and back. The Acropolis was empty, just the way I always think of it as a ruin, standing by itself, the lack of tourists giving the suggestion that the gods might still hover around. Four years ago when I was here I wondered about whether the religious sense of the space could be experienced if one were alone. It certainly does not feel as if it can be when overwhelmed by selfie-stick wielding tourists.
As we were approaching the top of the Acropolis, my colleague from Antioch Lew Cassity pointed out that the Greek Doric columns were asymmetrical, for two reasons. One reason was that they looked more energetic that way. The second was that if they were asymmetrical they would look uneven from a distance. My other co-traveler and colleague at Earlham College Kevin Miles raised the Protagoraean question about the reality of the appearance. Why suppose the appearance from a distance is less real, less how it appears, than the up close appearance of the asymmetry of the columns? Why think the columns really are asymmetrical than think they really are symmetrical because they appear so from farther? Read more
Tomorrow I leave for a month in Europe. I feel bad because everything seems to be going poorly and I’m leaving. Maybe I just need to be on the road, not checking the news and social media all the time, to come back for a better fight. I am spending the first week thinking and talking about ancient pedagogy in Athens with my GLCA ancient philosophy collaborators and a colleague at the American College of Greece, then a couple weeks bouncing around southern Europe with some friends, and then a week at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum in Italy, talking about Aristotle.
In the midst of everything going on, I’ve been thinking about why Plato and Aristotle matter right now, or ever. Miranda Pilipchuk recently wrote about the need to decolonize the canon where she talks about studying Plato and Aristotle for the sake of understanding the tradition without denying their contribution to marginalizing women and people of color in the field. She’s right. But I’m also interested in reading these philosophers against the way the tradition has read them to marginalize these folks, reading Plato in conversation with Baldwin, for example, or Aristotle against various traditions that use references to nature to exclude or oppress those deemed more natural than rational.
But lately I’ve also been thinking about the practices of reading as a practice for just community. Given the various aporiae Plato investigates and articulates concerning teaching and learning virtue, it would seem almost impossible to learn virtue from another. Virtue is learned not as a set of propositions. One cannot know before she knows what virtue is whether the person teaching virtue and justice knows it. The solution seems to be that each person needs to investigate for themselves and not take anyone else’s view without examining it and themselves carefully. Reading Plato’s dialogues themselves seems like a practice in this kind of learning. Jill Frank argues in Poetic Justice that reading Plato is a democratic practice, that Plato doesn’t present his city or its education or his critique of poets in order for the reader to take them in hand as truth. This makes sense given the difficulties he raises across the corpus about learning virtue. Instead, Plato has Socrates present these accounts for the reader to grapple with, to discern and investigate context and connections and to be changed by the investigation. It seems that the engagement with the text also prepares us to really listen to the calls of justice from others, and to see the difference between the account that looks good and the account that is good, between the desire for power for power’s sake and the desire for power to improve the world.
So yes, that’s me, again with Plato and Aristotle.
One of my favorite yoga teachers likes to say after particularly difficult poses in Bikram, have no reaction, just stand still. I’ve been thinking about how “having no reaction” seems like good Stoic practice for dealing with various frustrations in academic publishing.
A couple days ago I received a rejection from a top-tier journal on a paper that I’m pretty excited about. The reviewer said that my paper does not talk about one particular thing that everyone who writes on x has to talk about and that my lens for interpretation is not the useful key that I think it is. I do not think that x is that important to my reading or even really to the questions I am addressing and so I have no interest in talking about it. I do think my lens is a useful key. As I was reading the review, at first, I felt my blood beginning to rise. Then, my yoga teacher’s mantra occurred to me: have no reaction. I began to think about what it might mean to consider this response as information that the field gives about what it is like, but that positive or negative feelings do not need to be had in response to that information. Just stand still.
Everyone who knows me knows that I am not a Stoic. I have far too many opinions to be a Stoic. I usually so quickly go to the judgment that I have been wronged with these kinds of rejections. Sometimes, that’s true. More often than not, I go to the place of thinking that rejection is a personal judgment. It can feel like that. I think sometimes recognizing how rejections are unfair motivates us to raise important questions. I think that we need to get angry and organize to change the field, especially to become less narrow in its thinking about how publishing decisions are made. I’m working on that too. Read more
(A group of student leaders on campus at Wabash organize a weekly talk by a member of the Wabash community. This is a transcript of the talk I gave this morning.)
As a philosopher, one thing I like to think about is how our ideas about the world affect the way we live in the world. Today I want to talk about how our ways of thinking about how things are variously affect the ability of different people from different groups to thrive. I want to talk specifically about how we use the concept of “natural” to describe the ways we experience the world. We tend to describe things as natural, as “just being that way,” as the way things just happen to be with no input or interference from human beings, when we are unaware of the history of how they came to be that way. That move whereby what was formed for political and social reasons appears as natural is what we call ideology.
As a philosopher, I want to own some responsibility for this, since, as Nietzsche says, “Lack of a historical sense is the original error of all philosophers.”
To correct this error, I want to first back up a little bit and think historically about how the turn to nature has been used as a justification for ways of organizing the world. Leo Strauss explains the historical turn to a concept of nature as a turn to philosophizing. As he puts it, as long as everyone seems to do what you do, you do not prompt the question, is that right? It’s right because it seems like the only way. It is right because it has always been done that way. It is right because it is what everyone you know does. But when you leave your people and you encounter other people who do things differently, you begin to ask whether what your people do is right. Like when you are a kid like I was in a big family where we always sat down together for dinner every night and you think every family sits down for dinner every night until you go to your friends’ house and they have dinner in front of the television and you go home and ask why you have to eat dinner together and your mother tells you it’s because you don’t have a television. Not having a television also seemed right because it was what my family did. Like taking vacations in the mountains instead of at the beach. Read more
In Aristotle’s account of how a person becomes virtuous, he argues that a virtuous action is done in the way a virtuous person would do it. This account often appears circular to those who first encounter it, but I would suggest it is less circular than spiral. The person who aspires to virtue looks to the person further around the spiral who is already virtuous in order to consider how to be virtuous. By looking at the virtuous person as the model, they become a virtuous model themselves for the next person. Some readers of Plato argue that Plato presents a view of goodness as imitation. One becomes virtuous by participating in, which is to say, imitating the Forms of virtue, of Justice, of Courage, of Wisdom.
On Aristotle’s account, the virtuous person serves as a model for how the apprentice virtuous person should be, but that model is fundamentally about learning to make the judgment in a virtuous way out of their own character. The judgment in the process shifts from, what would that person do to what would I do. A person has become the phronimos, or the one of good judgment, when they are able to make their own judgments without a model, that is, when they become a model, not by having replicated the previous model, but by uniquely being able to determine what the bulls’ eye of virtuous living would be. Read more
This semester I am teaching a course I’m calling “Thinking with Arendt.” The question of the course follows from Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: if failing to think enables us to do great evil, what is it about thinking that leads us to live well? A corollary of this question is what are the ways that we think about other people that allow us to dehumanize them to the point where we can justify actively killing them or letting them go to their deaths? I’ve been teaching Eichmann as discussions about US immigration policy and border security are underway ahead of a deadline today for funding the federal government and I’m finding that second question particularly pressing.
First, I should say that it continues to boggle my mind that people in the interior of the United States talk about the need for a border wall, when there IS A BORDER WALL at much of the parts of the border that can be walled. Above is a photograph of part of the wall at the Hidalgo County Pumphouse that I took when I was living in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. The wall purposefully does not cover the whole border because it is meant to funnel people crossing to places where the border patrol can focus. The existence of the wall in the face of the discussions of it demonstrate the extent to which people in the interior are far removed from the reality of the border. People who live at the border don’t want a wall and they have long been mad about the way the current wall has destroyed ecosystems and public spaces. Read more
One way that Spinoza seems to be clearly drawing on the Stoics is in terms of recognizing that we are sorrowful about events because we suppose that we have some power to make them otherwise when we do not. The Stoics counsel us to seek to understand causes so that we might understand what outcomes we can affect and which we cannot, what aspects of the world we can control and which we cannot, to focus on those that we can and to recognize that those we cannot are just part of the order of things and to accept them accordingly.
The problem I was realizing as I was getting myself organized for the new semester and setting myself some intentions for the semester–thinking about how not to worry about things that are out of my control and to only work on those that were within my control–is that anxiety comes from not being able to know which is which. I can understand why the Serenity Prayer ends with a request for wisdom to know the difference between the things that we can change and the things that we cannot. My entire anxious life is rooted in wondering if I did something that adversely affected some situation that I might otherwise have thought I had no control over or whether I should have done something in order to bring about some desired goal that I might have thought was not in my control.
Seneca writes that nothing happens to the wise man contrary to his expectations because he recognizes when his efforts can be thwarted. But that would really seem to be all the time, which is to suggest that one’s plans may be in her control but the success of them always depends on the order of the nature and fate. For the Stoics, the actions that we control are themselves part of a larger order of nature. So our control is even then in affirming them as part of that order. The good Stoic then tries to fit into that order of what will be. Here it seems that the Stoic understanding of our action involves a sense of time that sees the action we contemplate as something that already fits within the order of the universe. The wise man acts in a way that knowing the causes of the universe can conform to its order. Such a way of acting seems to involve that we already know how our action fit into the universe. Our problem is that we cannot yet understand the causes of what has not yet happened. I think this is what Arendt means by the newness of action, and why Kant makes the responsibility to the duty and not the outcome, and yet it is the outcome that we want to achieve. This is why we can never fully understand the causes and as a consequence can never fully know what is in our control and what is not in our control. What is not in our power it would seem is the wisdom to tell the difference.