Parts and wholes

A new year, a new term, and new seminars: the postgraduates are doing Aristotle (De Anima III) and the faculty Sextus (Outlines II). Meanwhile, I’m working on my thesis on Plato, contemplating doing my third essay on the Stoics and Epicureans, and will be giving a comment on the Presocratic philosopher Melissus at a conference in St. Louis. There’s even a reading group on Augustine run by my colleague Tamer. So the next couple of months will be a tour of practically the whole of ancient philosophy.

At the moment, however, I’m returning to a paper I was working on last term on the unity of the city in the Politics. It’s a bit of a grab bag of ideas at the moment, and I want to cast a couple of them out into the aether to see if they’re any good. (I tried out a different angle in this earlier post.) The question I tackle in the paper is this: Aristotle says in the opening chapter of the Politics that he’s going to use his analytic method on the city, finding its incomposite parts and working out what their relations are to each other and to the whole; what is his answer? Instead of spelling out right away what the basic parts of the city are, Aristotle next tells a genealogical story (I.2) about how the city, the political community, comes to be from smaller communities, the village, the household, and the basic dyadic communities of male-female and master-slave. He starts I.3 by stating that it should be clear by now that the city is made up of households, and while he repeats this claim elsewhere (in IV.3, for instance), there’s also plenty of evidence that he conceives of individuals, especially citizens, as parts of the whole that is the city (III.1, VII.8, etc.). So which is it? Quite a lot rides on what we make of his analysis, since the ‘organicist’ interpretation of Aristotle, that is, the interpretation of the city as a natural whole of which we are organs, has led some interpreters (for instance, Jonathan Barnes [1]) to conclude, among other things, that Aristotle’s political philosophy is fundamentally totalitarian. Continue reading

What is political virtue?

Apologies for the long hiatus again. Cambridge terms move very swiftly!

I’m beginning to sketch out my thoughts on a paper on intellectualism and moral education in Plato’s Protagoras and Republic. One of my motivating questions is why Socrates in the latter dialogue adopts for the guards’ early training so many features of the cultural education described by Protagoras in the former. Here’s a question that came up in comparing the two accounts: Where does the notion of political virtue or the virtue of the citizen (politikē aretē) in these dialogues originate?

When Protagoras sets out to defend the thesis that virtue can be taught (indeed, he tries to show that virtue must in fact be successfully taught wherever political communities exist), he refers, as Socrates does, to political virtue. In the rest of the Protagoras, it seems as though Socrates is out to show (implicitly) that whatever the state is of well-habituated people in a decent city, it can’t be virtue; for virtue consists in a systematic knowledge of goods and ills. A bit further on after the description of the guards’ education in the Republic, we are told that their education results in a specifically political kind of courage (IV, 430c). A natural assumption in the context of the rest of the Republic is that courage without qualification is to be found only among the rulers, who possess wisdom. But even in this passage, there is some question about whether Socrates is actually attributing political courage to the auxiliaries, or whether the description “political courage” applies instead to the city, which is made courageous by the preservation of a belief by the auxiliaries (indeed, a not unimpossible translation of politikē andreia is “courage belonging to the city”). After all, we are told we must wait for a fuller account of courage itself. But if Socrates is only discussing the city’s virtues in this passage, then this seems both to disregard that we’ve already been told in Book III that the early education of the guards makes them moderate and courageous and also that in his discussion of moderation in Book IV, he seems to start from facts about moderation in an individual in order to find moderation in the city, rather than the other way around. It may also be useful to keep Phaedo 80a-c in mind, where Socrates refers to the virtues of non-philosophers as “demotic and political”, but no less a guarantor of happiness; such people are reincarnated among one of the social animals or in decent people (andres metrioi).

So that brings us back to my question: do we have any evidence in Greek thought prior or contemporary to Plato [1] about what “political virtue” might mean, and can we use that evidence to adjudicate among these different views about what Socrates means in the Republic by it?

[1] Some very quick TLG’ing turns up one use of politikē aretē in Xenophon (Lac. Pol. 10), but I can’t help but think there must be 5th c. antecessors of the concept, if not the precise collocation.

The statue analogy of Republic IV and pro tanto goods

The PhD seminar this term is on Republic IV, a nice opportunity to spend a suitable length of time on a text that repays careful study. We covered just the first few pages, 419a-423c, in today’s meeting, and in this space alone, there was an extraordinary quantity of interesting material, upon which a lively discussion ensued. I want to raise a question I have about a single, purple passage: the famed statue analogy (420c-e). (No doubt my understanding of this passage and the broader context is partly due to today’s conversation with my fellow seminar participants, to whom credit and thanks.)

First, the context. Socrates [S.] is here responding to Adeimantus’ [Ad.] worry that the guards in the city they are describing will have none of the trappings generally associated with happiness (εὐδαιμονία). A question that persists throughout the broader passage is the extent to which S.’ response is meant to be a refutation of a genuine problem or simply a way of ‘moving the goal posts’ and dismissing conventional accounts of happiness. In setting out the concern, both S. and Ad. refer to the good things other people consider to constitute happiness or at the very least consider to be closely associated with happiness (Ad. at 419a9-10: πάντα ὅσα νομίζεται τοῖς μέλλουσιν μακαρίοις εἶναι “all those things reckoned to belong to the blessed-to-be”; S. at 420a5-6: οἷα δὴ οἱ εὐδαίμονες δοκοῦντες εἶναι ἀναλίσκουσι “precisely what those reputed to be happy spend their money on”). We might, however, reasonably suppose that Ad. is less committed to Socratic-Platonic ideals, so that the two mean slightly different things by such language – Ad. raising a feature of the commonplace view of happiness as a genuine objection, S. entertaining the view for the sake of the discussion, but never in doubt about its misguided premises.

This brings me directly to the statue analogy. Continue reading

The highest science

Apologies for the hiatus – I’ve been moving from Oxford from Cambridge, and the very stimulating Southern Association for Ancient Philosophy annual conference in Cambridge also intervened.

Once happy outcome of the conference: my attention was adverted by Sarah Broadie to a very useful article on EN X.9 called “The development of Aristotle’s political philosophy and the concept of nature” [1], which begins with a quote from Aristotle’s lost Protrepticus, an exhortation to philosophy written, we think, while he was still at the Academy. My interest piqued, I inquired further, and it seems that as far as ‘lost’ works go, there’s a good deal of material from the Protrepticus that survives. The ongoing reconstruction of the Protrepticus by D.S. Hutchinson and M. Johnson (see their website) follows along the lines of earlier work by Bywater, Jaeger, Gadamer (yes, that Gadamer!), and Düring — by mining the works of Iamblichus, who, as we can tell from his use of Plato, quoted (i.e., by our standards, plagiarised) liberally and often verbatim from his predecessors. The unmistakably Aristotelian air of several chapters of Iamblichus’ own Protrepticus leads to the natural conclusion that much of Aristotle’s own exhortation may be extracted.

Reading through a bit of this material, one passage caught my eye especially. For it is an unmistakably Platonic sentiment – that the highest science is philosophy – cast in roughly Aristotelian terms. Continue reading

Does every natural thing have a unique telos?

Another question about ends (τέλη) arising from Gabriel Richardson Lear’s excellent Happy Lives and the Highest Good. The problem is how to understand what Aristotle means when he says that something can be chosen both for its own sake and for the sake of happiness (εὐδαιμονία). One solution would have such ‘middle-level goods’, i.e., final (τέλειον) but not absolutely final (ἁπλῶς τέλειον) goods, have two ends – one contained within themselves and another further end that they happen to promote in virtue of being intrinsically valuable, namely, happiness (p. 37). The first problem Lear sees for this solution is that the two ends would have to coincide regularly, but by chance, a type of phenomenon Aristotle rules out in the Physics. She continues,

But at a deeper level, this interpretation is questionable because it supposes that a good may have two separate, teleologically unconnected ends. Although I have not yet found evidence to this effect, I doubt very much that Aristotle would admit that the proper pursuit of or natural coming to be of a thing could have two entirely independent ends. For if we say that a thing has two ends, we are saying that it has two separate natures or forms. (p. 38)

This is a fascinating argument. The question I want to get at is whether Aristotle has a metaphysical commitment  against the natural coming to be of a thing having two independent ends. I presume that a clear counter-example would suffice to dispute this claim.

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The Ends of Productive Activity (EN 1094a3-6)

I’m reading EN I in preparation for the MPhil seminar on the same this coming term, and it’s already proving to be a fruitful exercise. After working through the first four or five chapters, I have a long list of questions, and I’ve just written a paper on the purpose of the EN and the Politics – as a reply to John Cooper’s forthcoming article “Political Community and the Highest Good” [1] – that draws primarily on these early chapters and EN X.9. I want to try out some of the interpretive points I make in the paper in this forum, especially since many of them deal with difficult and crucial passages in the text.

Today, however, I was reading Gabriel Richardson Lear’s Happy Lives and the Highest Good [2], where she makes a point about a claim to do with productive activity that Aristotle makes at the very beginning of the EN. As it happens, I was thinking about this point earlier this year when, as I recall, Carlo Natali brought up a similar worry at a conference on κίνησις and ἐνέργεια in Oxford.

Continue reading