I’m on a roll folks. After I did the last group activity, I was inspired to do another, and I think this one was even more successful in getting students to think about Aristotle’s Metaphysics. For this game, I distributed envelopes to every group. In the envelopes were two sets of flashcards that I had made. One set was the same in every envelope. It included all of the four causes, the ways of being, and the candidates for substance. In the other set were instances of one of these.
Students had to figure out to which of the first set the second set belonged. Some of the sets of instances could belong to more than one category, for example, the genus set, which included animal, plant and planet, could also be considered universals. One set that was particularly hard for students was that of substance, in which I included various “thises” – Dr. Trott, the tree on the mall, their pet dog Spot. Students had to report out to the whole class to which of the first set their instances belonged and they had to explain why. Some students struggled, but the class was asked to help them figure out the right answer.
Even more than the first exercise, this one got students invested in understanding the material, drawing distinctions and thinking about how Aristotle offers them a vocabulary to explain the world. It also helped them see what wasn’t clear to them in the process of having to apply their learning to concrete examples. And it gave them an opportunity to explain to one another in a more informal setting and to raise questions to one another in a low stakes environment.
I am a little more than one week in to teaching my ancient survey. This is my second time starting with Aristotle’s Metaphysics. I know that sounds wild, but I think Aristotle sets up principles that make it easier for students to see what the Pre-Socratics and Hesiod are doing, and he gives us a lot of vocabulary for thinking about what counts as knowledge. My theme for the course as a whole as a search for a good measure. I like to frame the beginnings of Greek thinking as the opening up of and taking seriously of the question of whether we have or need proper measures for living and knowing. I teach Plato’s Euthyphro and Protagoras after Aristotle, the Pre-Socratics and Hesiod and then I come back to the Nicomachean Ethics at the end. I think it works well, but I’ve been trying to find ways to get students to engage more actively with the texts earlier on in the semester, especially since the Metaphysics is hard.
I’ve also been recently inspired by colleagues at Ball State whose workshops I attended when I gave the keynote at the Conference for Pre-College Philosophical Engagement in April. Matthew Hotham and Jen Howland both ran workshops where they had students do an active exercise in order to think through some complicated concepts. Jen set up a capitalist regime where only she owned the means of production and the rest of us had to fight with one another, organize against her, get co-opted as law enforcement and snitches — what started as just a simple claim she made at the beginning articulating the terms ballooned into an intricate representation of how capital works including how it draws on principles of competition and insecurity in the community. It was very cool. I was not able to pull something like that off in the discussion of the law of non-contradiction. What I did was more like what Matt did in his group. First he asked students to define a religion. Then he gave out packets that included a slip of paper that described a religion and asked people to decide whether it really was a religion and to think about what standards they used to make that judgment. It forced students to think about why they used the standards they did and whether they should always apply.
I did something a little bit like that. I printed out ten slips of paper with various claims from the second half of Aristotle’s Metaphysics IV. These were claims that Aristotle uses as examples to say either that the person was violating the ban on contradiction or was invoking it even if they claimed to deny the need for such a ban. For example, the first one was, say something that is meaningful to you and to someone else. Aristotle says to do this and thus to differentiate oneself from a plant is to invoke the law of non-contradiction. Another one said, to avoid tripping in the well, an action that implies that you are stating that tripping in the well is bad, not not-bad. I divided students into groups and asked them to explain how the claim on their paper either violated the ban or invoked it. We started the exercise on Wednesday when they had only read the first several chapters of IV where Aristotle sets up the need for the starting-point of theoretical knowledge and then articulates it. Then students had to read the rest of the book where Aristotle says he can’t demonstrate the truth of the claim but he can refute anyone who denies it. Students then had to reference the reading to explain how their claim would violate or invoke the ban on contradiction. Read more
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.
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
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.
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