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Posts from the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Non-Imitative Yoga and Becoming Virtuous in Aristotle and Plato

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

Border Walls, Immigration Policy, and Hannah Arendt

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

The Stoic Solution: The Wisdom to Tell the Difference

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.

New Year’s Resolution Fail

I made two New Year’s Resolutions.  I’m not going to tell you what they were.  Mostly because I don’t want you to judge me.  I will say that one was about not doing something and one was about starting a new practice.  Today is January 14.  I have kept up the new practice.  I was able not to do the other thing for six days.  I haven’t given up on it.  But I also didn’t keep it.  I’m trying not to judge myself, but I think it’s pretty clear that the sheen of the resolution has worn off–it loses its ability to inspire once it has been broken.

We all know that resolutions don’t work.  They don’t really change our behavior.  I don’t usually make them — maybe one out of every three years I make some resolutions.  And yet, there’s something so attractive about the idea that a new year can bring a new you.  Just resolving that things will be different can make them so.  Much of the critique of New Year’s resolutions amount to a critique of willpower as an effective way to change our lives.  We need to engage in practices and projects because willing ourselves to be different does not work. Read more

A Stoic Reading of Aristotle

Last semester, I ended the last three weeks of my ancient philosophy course on the Stoics.  I began the course with Aristotle’s first line from the Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire to know.”  The entire course unpacked this sentence and its multiple possibilities.  What does it mean for nature to direct our desire to know?  How is human nature a matter of knowing?  How does knowledge function as a measure of ourselves and of the world?  How does knowledge depend on desire?  To what extent and in what ways are we responsible for becoming who we are, for fulfilling or not fulfilling our nature?  I was happily surprised to find the Stoics a fitting conclusion to these conversations, especially because of the way they think of the order of nature itself as fate, and human virtue as a matter of affirming this order or fate.

The Stoics offered a new possibility for understanding Aristotle’s famous opening line in a way that shows the intimacy between nature, fate and freedom or responsibility for the Greeks.  This intimacy is something that is very difficult for Aristotle to separate.  The Stoics were students of Zeno of Citium but they were clearly drawing from both Plato and Aristotle.  It isn’t much of a stretch then to offer a Stoic interpretation of Aristotle’s anthropology and ethics.  When Aristotle says that all men by nature desire to know, the Stoic interpretation would be that human beings fit into the order of the cosmos as knowing beings.  They fulfill that order when they fulfill their nature as knowing beings.  They are responsible to become the kinds of beings who affirm the order of the cosmos.  Human virtue consists in managing the pains and pleasures of the world so that they do not detract but support their role in the order of the cosmos.  Human vice is giving in to impulses that detract from the order of the cosmos.  Aristotle describes choice as that which leads to actions wherein our desire is guided by reason.  Choosing is affirming the rational order of what is. Read more

Teaching Plato with Baldwin: The Aporiae of Self-Examination

This past fall I taught the philosophy senior seminar on Plato and Baldwin.  I had several reasons for putting these thinkers together.  One, I wanted students to see the ways that knowing oneself, individually and collectively, remains of pressing importance for producing a just world.  I wanted students to see the philosophical aporiae involved in distinguishing between a true account and an ideology–an account propogated for the sake of power.  I wanted them to think about how difficult it is to distinguish the two and how dangerous it is to assume the distinction is clear.  I wanted them to think about how philosophers make claims to power by assuming they can make this distinction easily.  I wanted them to think about how our own investments in being right make it difficult for us to change our minds.  And finally, I wanted them to consider what the implications of that difficulty are for the status of our own self-evaluation.  I also wanted students to think about both the individual and the collective process of self-examination, as Plato has Socrates asks of Athenians and of Athens. Read more

Book Review: Ömer Aygün’s The Middle Included

I volunteered to review this book for a scholarly review site in a field that is adjacent to mine.  I was asked to rewrite it because it did not accord with the standard ways of speaking about Aristotle.  I pulled the review and am publishing it here.  I mention this background because I think it is worth noting how deep a hold the traditional approaches to Aristotle have.  This hold makes people assume there is no more interpretation to be done on Aristotle.  It makes some scholars resistant to new and fruitful approaches that recover Aristotle from scholastic approaches.  It makes them assume that logic is clearly and obviously distinct from ontology and ethics.  Aygün offers a careful reading of the text to challenge this approach to Aristotle and by doing so contributes to the growing scholarship that unsettles a tradition that takes these questions to be settled.

Aygün, Ömer. The Middle Included: Logos in Aristotle. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016. xv, 272 p. $34.95 (pb). ISBN 9780810134003

It is a difficult and remarkable task to say something new about the whole of Aristotle’s philosophy.  Such is the project Ömer Aygün undertakes in The Middle Included: Logos in Aristotle to argue that Aristotle is not a thinker of the excluded but the included middle. Aristotle is traditionally understood as the father of logic based on his articulation of the law of non-contradiction.  The law of non-contradiction is both a logical and an ontological principle because Aristotle thinks that what is must be knowable, and insofar as it is knowable, it follows the principles of knowledge.  The law of non-contradiction, that the same thing cannot be said to be and not be of the same thing in the same respect at the same time, is the most reliable principle of knowledge for Aristotle.  But it is also a principle of being because it is not just that it cannot be said, but the same thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way in a subject.  The middle is excluded because if something is said to be of a thing there is no middle position wherein it could also be said not to be.  The middle is excluded because what is and what is not must be held apart.

Aygün offers a novel interpretation of this law by arguing that logos puts into relation that which is opposed and hence, is the middle that has traditionally been thought to be excluded. Logos, Aygün argues, joins what is opposed—contraries–without reducing or sublating what is opposed.  The traditional language of Aristotelian scholarship understands logos in terms of logic as a formal system or speech as a mechanism for communicating personal thoughts to another.  This language distances the contemporary reader from the richness of Aristotle’s language that shows the human being to be formed by logos in a way that conceives of the human as a being that draws the multiplicity of the world into a unity. The apparent strangeness of Aygün’s language is necessitated by the demand to make what we suppose is obvious in Aristotle become a question again.  His account of logos makes the human being “the middle included,” because, through logos, which he describes as a mediation, a synthesis, and a stretching, the human being joins together the difference and multiplicity that constitutes the world.

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The Incompatibility of Democracy and Capitalism

In her book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Nancy MacLean explains that those who wanted to reap the rewards of unfettered capitalism realized in the mid-twentieth century that democracy and democratic institutions and practices were a threat to their efforts.  In the wake of the New Deal and Great Society, Americans had grown to expect the government to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable citizens–the poor and the elderly.  The government was regularly called upon to rectify historical wrongs, as in the case of racially segregated schools where schools for Black children were not equal to schools for white children.  Labor unions sought collective rights to bargain for better contracts.  Environmentalists sought government regulations to protect water and air and other natural resources from contamination and against climate change.  Americans saw the government as a source of positive change.

In my last post, I lay out MacLean’s case for how libertarians like James M. Buchanan and Charles Koch sought to sow the seeds of nihilism, suggesting that politicians, scientists and educators were not aiming to serve the public good, but for their own interest and therefore should not be trusted.  In this post, I address the recognition that these folks came to have that their dreams of capitalism without restraint were at odds with democracy, and the ways that they employed the rhetoric of democracy to undo the democratic gains of the twentieth century, especially in the areas of civil rights, labor unions, health care and social security, and public support for those in poverty.

As MacLean explains, average American citizens had come to realize that they could have power to influence government by joining their voices into a collective.  Buchanan aimed to break the power of these collectives by casting them as undemocratic special interests.  Following his notion of “public choice theory,” where politicians’ goal is only to be re-elected and not to do what is right and just for the common cause, Buchanan argued that politicians had become beholden to “special interests” of labor unions, including teachers unions, and civil rights organizations who would work to defeat them in elections if they did not do what they asked.  In this way, Buchanan and his cohort turned the process of making politicians accountable to their constituents into a situation in which politicians were held hostage to those special interests.  This rhetorical move is particularly ironic given the Koch brothers active efforts to defeat politicians who supported the Affordable Care Act.  MacLean traces this strategy back to Brown V. Board of Education, when Black families sued counties and states that refused to integrate and were then cast as seeking special protections when what they wanted was equal protection under the law and equal access to high quality education.  This move culminated in Pres. Reagan casting recipients of assistance for poor families as “welfare recipients” who were taking advantage of the government.

By making collective appeals to the government–the only appeals that were effective for those who were historically excluded–by calling these appeals those of special interests, they were able to turn the tables for how to influence government back to those individuals who had the wealth to do so.   If collectives were suspect, and only collectives could make a difference for the working class, then making collectives seem undemocratic returned the power to the undemocratic moneyed individuals who could then use the same “public choice theory” that politicians only cared to keep their jobs to threaten politicians that they would lose their jobs if they voted in support of the collective interests of the common people.

In Politics III.8, Aristotle says that democracy occurs “when those who control [the constitution] do not have much property, but are poor” (1279b18-19).  With this definition of democracy, Aristotle points out the very problem that Buchanan and the Kochs encountered: democracy wants to address the concerns of the poor, who outnumber the rich.  Outnumbering the rich, the practioners of democracy are at odds with the rich who aim  to produce wealth without restraint or concern for others and without having to support the community in which such wealth is produced.  The only recourse for the rich is to make the democratic practices themselves suspect and to replace them with the force of their wealth, which is in fact the current state of affairs.

Herein lies the ruse of libertarianism, whose view of freedom is not unlike the view of freedom that Aristotle associates with the democrats: to do whatever they want without license.  Aristotle implores them to recognize that the law is not slavery, but salvation, as I explicate in a recent article.  The law is considered slavery when it is viewed as coming from somewhere else.  Law is recognized as coming from somewhere else when government is seen as otherwise than the citizens, which is what Koch et al want — to be the source of government and law at the expense of the democratic many.  To the extent that they want to be free of government, they want to be above the collective determination of what is good. Outnumbered, they alone want to say what is good.  Their wealth has made them think that they are not dependent on others and so it has made them, like the Cylcops, as one who is “clanless, lawless, and homeless” (Pol. 1253a4). Following the association of wealth with virtue that can be traced back to the ancient oligarchs, who thinking themselves unequal in one way, supposed they were unequal in all ways, they think that their wealth makes them as the one who is so outstanding in virtue that they should not be a part of the city (1284a4-7).  As MacLean shows, they aren’t really opposed to the city and the law altogether, but they want it to divide the city in such a way that the government serves only their interests rather than that of the democratic majority.  Arguing that the collectives are undemocratic, they aim to make the government undemocratic for their own ends.  They are willing to put their wealth to work to turn the law and government from the public good to their own private goods.  They do this because they suppose they are better than the democratic majority, but it is worth noting that Aristotle will go on to say that the multitude is stronger, richer and better, when taken as a collective (1283a39-41).

The libertarian critique of government works as a ruse: it criticizes democratic efforts as undemocratic in order to undo democracy.  It works to encourage the majority to think it is undemocratic for the government to restrict those trying to make the community undemocratic.  This stealth move puts democracy in chains.

Freedom, Fate, and Being Human: From Aeschylus to Marzano-Lesnevich

In her book The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich employs the legal concept of proximate cause to consider the extent to which the things that have happened to us dictate who we are and what we will do.  Marzano-Lesnevich joins an investigation into a murder and the life of the murderer who was a child molester to her own memoir of growing up in a family in which she was molested by her grandfather.  At 18, she confronts her grandfather about what he had done to her as a child.  He responds that he too was abused as a child.  So, she wonders, is there no escape from this cycle?  Worse, is there no holding to account if the proximate cause continues to recede?

The troubles of the house of Atreus do not begin when Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia.  Agamemnon’s grandfather, Pelops, was served in a stew to the gods by his father and rescued by Demeter.  And his father, Atreus, serves up his brother Thyestes’s kids to Thyestes and only one son – Aegisthus — survives.  Aegisthus is the man that Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, is having an affair with when Agamemnon returns from battle and the man who helps Clytemnestra kill Agamemnon in the bathtub to exact revenge for killing Iphigenia.  Aeschylus writes a final part to this story to address the question of how there can be freedom from what has gone before.  On Aeschylus’ telling, justice is the break of the bloodletting cycle of revenge.  Each actor in the family up until the intervention of Athena into this story has been constrained to seek revenge by what has befallen them or what has gone before them.  Athena introduces freedom into the story by justifying Orestes and refusing the Furies drive to exact revenge on him.  But this freedom for Orestes comes at the real cost of Clytemnestra’s murder going unpunished.  On the calculus of Orestes’ familial responsibility, he must exact revenge for his father’s death, but this revenge will also require its own revenge.  Athena frees Orestes not by ending that familial responsibility, which he does fulfill, but by allowing Orestes not to be held responsible for fulfilling that responsibility. Read more

Power and the Pursuit of Justice

Corey Robin makes the case that we tend to associate virtue with  powerlessness and to see power as a vice, a position which leads us to suppose that to be good we must be without power and that, as he says, “strongmen are strong.”  I think he’s right, and I think this view of virtue as powerlessness follows from an association of power with self-interest that can be traced back to Plato.

As I argue in my last post, the problem of political nihilism is that it seeks power for its own sake, and justifies all power just by virtue of being power.  As Thrasymachus (and Judge Jeanine Pirro) argues, everyone knows you do what you do in order to get power and it is right as long as you can get away with it.  Socrates does not argue that power is bad, but that justice should have the power, rather than pure self-interest, which is divided against itself since lacking knowledge of what is good, one pursues only power.  I’ve long thought that Socrates makes an argument that is itself will-to-power–the power of the philosopher, a power legitimated by the positing of the good, which the philosopher pursues.  Seeking to set up the philosopher as the ruler, Socrates is subject to Thrasymachus’ complaint–he too seems to be acting and arguing for the sake of his own power, just as everyone does.

The difference between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that Socrates thinks that justice should have power, rather than any old person who can get the power.  This point leads to several difficulties.  The philosopher making this case in the cave that justice should rule rather than whoever achieves the rule has to appeal to those who just want power.  The philosopher does not even claim to have access to that justice–or at least there’s a case to be made that Socrates denying that he knows is distinguished from his fellow citizens only in his concern to pursue justice and to pursue the rule of justice rather than power alone.  He has to appeal to the desire of his fellow citizens for power in order to make the case that justice should be the ruling authority.  The lack of knowledge and the lack of desire for justice in his audience requires him to appeal to their desire for power in order to get them to desire justice.  Not being able to directly impute knowledge of justice, not least because Socrates does not have it, Socrates only posits the idea that there is such a thing, and that such a thing would be better for those who rule and those who are ruled.  Again and again, Socrates makes this case to Glaucon and Adiemantus who get on board with a depiction of a city some would call absurd because they think they will rule in this city because they think they can have such knowledge.  Socrates then uses the desire for power to motivate a desire for knowledge and for justice. Read more