One Small Voice: The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre


Aristotle Research Report #2: Key Concepts

2016-07-23

One of the great challenges in understanding Aristotle's ethics, especially for those who don't read Greek, is that his key concepts are quite foreign to us moderns. Among those moderns we can include his usual translators, who all too often make him sound like a Victorian focused on virtue and prudence and moderation above all. Even Joe Sachs, my favorite translator of Aristotle, misses some golden opportunities to set the record straight, although in the main he succeeds in getting behind the long tradition of "Latinizing" Aristotle through the lens of Neoplatonic philosophy and Christian theology. Me, I prefer to find, if possible, good old Anglo-Saxon words as a way to route around the Latinization problem.

Let's look at a few of these key concepts.

First off is eudaimonia, usually translated as "happiness". Well, sort of. But we moderns associate happiness with a pleasurable feeling, whereas it was much more than that to the ancient Greeks. A daimon was a kind of lesser deity, for our purposes most particularly an inner god or the divine aspect of a human being. Thus to be eudaimon was to have a good inner god or to be well-favored in personal divinity; in less rarified terms, it was to flourish (a somewhat popular translation in more recent times) or, as Aristotle explicitly says, to "live well and do well".

Another critically important term is arete, usually translated (even by Sachs) as "virtue". Here people have been led astray in part by a dubious etymology that derives arete from the name of Ares, the god of war (thus connecting the term with the original Latin meaning of virtue as strength or manliness), and in part by the assumption that Aristotle is talking about virtue in the same way we are. Translators who try to overcome the problems inherent in rendering arete as virtue often opt for rendering it as excellence, which has its own problems (e.g., excellence is necessarily comparative). In pondering the meaning of arete while reading the Nicomachean Ethics recently, I realized that arete is related to the Greek verb aretao, which means doing well (see above), faring well, thriving.

Or consider psuche (reflected in our term psychology), usually translated as "soul". Yet Aristotle thinks that not only animals have psuche (which perhaps has become a more common view in recent decades), but even that plants have psuche. In my last post I mentioned that I was leaning toward translating psuche as "vitality", but I've decided that I like "aliveness" even better.

A fourth term is ergon, which for awhile was translated as "function" (thus leading to all sorts of scholarly confusion about Aristotle's "functionalism" - a notoriously vague notion in philosophy). Sachs translates it as "work", which I think is much closer to the mark.

A fifth is hexis, usually translated as "habit". Yet for us a habit is a kind of mindless routine, whereas for Aristotle a hexis (from ekho meaning "to have, to hold, to be in firm possession of") was a firmly settled state of being, what Sachs translates as an active condition of the soul.

Let's look at how these different translations might play out. (I'll use a few other terms here: dianoia translated as thinking instead of intellect, orexis translated as yearning instead of appetition (!), phronesis translated as good judgment instead of prudence, sophrosune translated as self-control intead of temperance, spoudaios translated as worthy instead of noble.)

For instance:

Aristotle thinks that the ergon of the dianoietic part of psuche is truth, and that its aretai are hexeis such as phronesis; similarly, he thinks that the ergon of the orectic part of psuche is something like balance, and that its aretai are hexeis such as sophrosune; and thus he thinks that the ergon of the human psuche is to live a spoudaios life, which consists in eudaimonia.

[Note: I'm still puzzling out what Aristotle considers to be the ergon of the orectic part of psuche, so I'm not really sure that it's balance.]

Plugging in different values for the various terms, we can derive quite different meanings from the following two versions.

Aristotle thinks that the function of the intellectual part of the soul is truth, and that its virtues are habits such as prudence; similarly, he thinks that the function of the appetitive part of the soul is something like balance, and that its virtues are habits such as temperance; and thus he thinks that the function of the human soul is to create a noble life, which consists in happiness.

vs.

Aristotle thinks that the work of thinking aliveness is truth, and that it thrives through settled states of being such as good judgment; similarly, he thinks that the work of yearning aliveness is something like balance, and that it thrives through settled states of being such as self-control; and thus he thinks that the work of human aliveness is to create a worthy life, which consists in living well and doing well.

Although I don't think that I'll ever make a full translation of the Nicomachean Ethics (Sachs gets close enough), I do find it helpful to think hard about how I might render his key concepts into English. Naturally I'll ponder this quite a bit more as I research his ethical philosophy over the next few years...


Aristotle Research Report #1: Eudemian Ethics

2016-07-11

In parallel with my work on the writing of The Upland Farm about Thoreau, I've started to do some of the research about Aristotle that I'll use as the basis for A Worthy Life. As I re-read various works by Aristotle for the first time in many years, I shall post research reports on what I learn. These reports will be fairly technical in nature and will presume some familiarity with ancient philosophy.

Our first stop is the Eudemian Ethics (EE) - that lesser-known sibling of the Nicomachean Ethics (EN).

Here Aristotle explores much of the same territory that he does in the EN, although he emphasizes different aspects and explains things in different ways.

One such difference is in his treatment of the ergon idea: i.e., what is the characteristic work of a human being, and of each core capacity of a human being?

He calls these capacities "parts of the soul" (psuche) but at 1219b33 he also says it makes no difference whether one refers to them as parts or as capacities, so I'll call them capacities because that's less metaphysically committed. By the way, I think "soul" is a misleading translation of psuche because of its modern / Christian connotations ("your immortal soul" etc.), and also because for Aristotle animals and even plants have psuche. Right now I am leaning toward translating psuche as "vitality".

In any case, at 1221b30 Aristotle asserts that psuche has two parts, and he comes right out to say that there are excellences of thought (aretai of dianoia) corresponding to the rational part of the soul, whose work (ergon) is truth. Yet although he then launches into a long analysis of the excellences of character corresponding to the part of the soul that has desire or yearning (orexis), he doesn't immediately say what is the work of that part of the soul. Perhaps it has something to do with achieving the mean between indulging desire and suppressing desire (which he discusses in II.3) or a kind of balance or equanimity, or even serenity? This was a common goal of the love and practice of wisdom in ancient days - see Pierre Hadot's book What is Ancient Philosophy?, for which I have a great admiration. Indeed, beacuse at 1219a24 he says that the work of psuche is to "make life" or "make alive" (zen poiein), we could say somewhat poetically that the rational part of the soul makes you alive to truth.

Aristotle's use of the term ergon is quite intentional, because achieving truth is work: it involves training / paideia, habituation, discipline, mental exercises, and the like. We could perhaps even say that truth is a matter of being consistent with reality.

In addition to thought (dianoia), the other key vital capacity is yearning or impulse or desire (orexis). This capacity humans share with animals, at least in part - animals have passion/spirit (thumos) and desire (epithumia) but not wish/purpose (boulesis) and these are the three aspects of orexis on his analysis. What is the ergon of orexis? It cannot be eudaimonia because animals have orexis but cannot be "eudaimon". In particular, animals do not have purpose (boulesis) or thought (dianoia) or planning (proairesis) and these are key elements in eudaimonia. However, animals too can act consistent with reality and their nature, i.e., can act "kata phusin". (I need to understand what Aristotle means by kata phusin - does it apply to animals and plants, too, or just to humans? Etc.)

In comparison to animals, humans participate in the divine and thus can live a higher life involving beauty or nobility ("to kalon") and combining or balancing orexis and dianoia (there is a great deal of work involved here, too, of course!).

For Aristotle there is an important connection between excellence and beauty, between arete and kalos: arete results in doing beautiful things that are worthy of honor, praise, and admiration (which he would consider consistent with the social nature of human beings). At the end of the EE, during his discussion of kalokagathia (perhaps well translated as "ethical beauty"), he even distinguishes the merely good person from the ethically beautiful person by asserting that the latter (who demonstrates complete excellence) does things not merely for the sake of the good ("to agathon") but for the sake of beauty ("to kalon").

There is also a deep connection between excellence and truth, because excellence involves accurately judging what is natural, where the mean lies, what is really to be feared (courage) and desired (temperance), and so on. Thus arete involves dianoia. Aristotle uses the phrases epitataktikos logos, orthos logos, and orthos krinein in these contexts, and even says at 1231b33 that the phrase "orthos logos" is what he actually means when he uses the term "ought".

Thus there is a cognitive element in excellence of character - at 1246b35 he says that wisdom (phronesis) is not a kind of formal knowledge (episteme), but it is a kind of insight (gnosis). For example, at 1220b16-18 he says that emotions can be present rationally or not, i.e., in accordance with accurate judgment or not, and that various powers act to make this so. But what exactly are these powers?

One of them, perhaps the key one, might be self-control (enkrateia), which he says "preserves reason" (1227b16).

Aristotle's exact analysis of self-control is not yet clear to me. At 1223b13 he says that excellence is self-control. Does this mean that in all of its forms (courage, temperance, etc.) arete is a kind of self-control because enkrateia preserves reason and thus brings in epitaktikos logos, orthos logos, orthos krinein, and in general dianoia? On this line of thinking, could enkrateia be the ergon of orexis for humans?

(Alternatively, it's possible that self-control is "merely" one of the aretai, whose deficiency is lack of self-control (akrasia) and whose excess is the unnamed vice of over-control - which would mean that enktrateia is not of overarching importance for all the excellences of character. This view might be buttressed by his statement at 1227b17 that enkrateia and arete are different, although he doesn't explain how.)

However, enkrateia is probably not the ergon of orexis, because he strongly implies that self-control is the arete of the non-rational part of psuche, i.e., of orexis (at 1246b13 he says that akrasia is the vice of the non-rational part of psuche, which would imply that enkrateia is the arete of orexis).

Going further, I need to understand the relationship between vital capacity (e.g., dianoia or orexis), arete (e.g., enkrateia in the case of orexis), and ergon (e.g., truth in the case of dianoia). What is the primary arete of dianoia that enables this capacity to do its work of achieving truth? What is the work of orexis such that enkrateia is its primary arete? And how is eudaimonia (the overall ergon of human vitality) produced by dianoia and orexis together and by their respective aretai?

Next I'll read the Nicomachean Ethics, which I hope will answer some of these questions...


Personal Productivity

2016-07-10

Today a friend asked me about more of my secrets for personal productivity. I still think that having a strong to-don't list and staying on a low-information diet are key factors in how I get so much done. However, reflecting further, I came up with a few more reasons:

  1. I focus in areas where I have a comparative advantage because I have practiced and honed my skills: in particular, technology (especially the intersection between technology and business) and writing (especially works that serious thinkers would consider to be pop philosophy).
  2. I work on many projects in parallel. Right now I am writing or doing research on both Thoreau and Aristotle. I have a number of technical projects underway at work and in the industry standards arena. And I continue to nurture some of my musical projects (I have at least four records to make and I endeavor to practice this music somewhat regularly so that I don't forget how to play it). On occasion, I devote a burst of activity to one of my various projects in order to nudge it forward or to finish it. I think it might seem that I am more productive than I really am, because something new is always being published or completed.
  3. Somehow I'm able to change focus quickly and keep things in memory over long spans of time (which might be related to the fact that I work on projects in parallel). Because of work and life schedules, I don't often have large blocks of time for my philosophical or musical projects (even though I wish I did!), so I have learned how to make the best use of whatever small blocks of time I have available (typically, the hour or two before I go to sleep, a few hours on Sundays, and plane and hotel time when I travel for work). The same goes for many of my technical projects, too.

Perhaps based on these three factors, I gestate on topics for long periods of time (I was thinking on and off about my book on Rand for seventeen years, and since my days at Columbia I've never really stopped thinking about Aristotle here and there). Thus when I finally do sit down to work on a topic intensively, I can often make fast progress.

Mostly, though, I just work hard...


Philanthropic Philosophy

2016-06-12

One of the few investment writers I still read is John Hussman. His deeply rational, evidence-based approach to the markets is something I very much appreciate in this world of breathless hype and cynical salesmanship.

Today, reading his latest missive, I learned that he also runs a non-profit foundation dedicated to "life-changing assistance through medical research, education, and direct aid to vulnerable populations having urgent needs or significant disabilities". I'm especially interested in his grant-funding principles; consider the following snippets:

To achieve the greatest impact, the Foundation emphasizes projects having the capacity to save or significantly improve lives, at a small financial commitment per person affected. These projects are often on the margin that divides a modest amount of help from nothing at all.
Consistent with the mission of the Foundation, alleviation of suffering or distress and low cost per beneficiary are essential criteria in evaluating grant proposals.
Proposed projects should have a reasonable expectation of having a life‐changing or life‐saving impact on project beneficiaries, at a small cost per person affected.
Except where we have a strong predisposition toward a given line of exploratory research, we generally restrict funding to proposals where prospective benefits are clearly described, where the transmission of project outcomes to the described beneficiaries is likely to be direct, and where the cost per likely beneficiary is quantifiable.
In short, the Foundation attempts to operate at the margin “between nothing and something,” where the intervention is life‐saving or life‐altering, at a low cost per person affected...

It strikes me that the foregoing are excellent criteria for philanthropic giving: by focusing on projects that have a significant impact at a relatively low cost, the giving organization gets the most bang for its buck. (I suppose other criteria are also important: transparency regarding expenses, measurement of outcomes, sustainability after the initiative receives seed funding from the giving organization, etc.)

Hussman writes as follows: "I honestly believe that life should be in service to others ... family and shareholder responsibilities always come first, but most of my limited time outside of those is spent in charitable work".

Looking at things this way has given me a new perspective on my lifelong philosophy project, and has spurred me to reflecting on whether I can clearly define the direct benefits that my books might have on those who read them. Although I have always tended to think of my philosophical work as something that might have only a long-term impact, perhaps I can produce writings that can help people improve their lives in a more direct, immediate way. Indeed, I feel that I benefit from my books in precisely this way, which is why I write them in the first place!

Along these lines, over 2,000 years ago Epicurus said:

A philosopher's words are empty if they do not heal the suffering of mankind. For just as medicine is useless if it does not remove sickness from the body, so philosophy is useless if it does not remove suffering from the soul.

Amen to that.


Investing for the Rest of Us

2016-05-28

Back in 2009, I wrote a blog post entitled Financial Thinking, in which I summarized the results of six months' research on investment strategies after the 2008-2009 market crash (informed both by practical experience and by my grounding in economics, history, psychology, and philosophy). Since then I've done a lot more thinking and research; more pointedly, of late a few friends have asked for my thoughts on the topic. Thus I figure it's time to provide a more complete report on my thinking about finance and investing.

First, I still agree with much of what I wrote in that earlier post: focus primarily on your career, pay yourself through aggressive savings, strictly limit your spending, don't get in debt, have a big rainy-day fund, don't trust professional financial advisors to have your best interests at heart, etc.

Second, it's unrealistic to believe that you as an individual investor can beat the combined brain power and market power of Wall Street. Think of it this way: let's say you're a doctor or a small business owner or whatever; would you expect on your own and in your spare time to write a computer program that would outsmart the combined brain power of the engineers at Google, Apple, Microsoft, and every other software company on the planet? No way. Yet why do you think that you can beat Wall Street? Don't even try!

Third, most individuals are constitutionally incapable of investing intelligently. Read up on behavioral finance. Its conclusions are sobering: most people buy high and sell low because they let their emotions get the best of them, especially when the investing environment becomes stressful. You might think you're immune, but there's a high probability that you're not.

Put all this together, and what you need is a low-stress investing method that doesn't require a lot of your time, is very safe, and yet still has a track record of handily outpacing inflation over the long term.

It sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?

Maybe it is. But I think I've found something that comes close.

It's called the Permanent Portfolio, and the strategy is to invest as follows:

If one of the components goes above 35% or below 15%, rebalance back to 4×25%.

That's it.

There are no newsletters to buy, no 10-K statements to read, no advisors to pay. You can do it all yourself without day trading or even actively playing the markets.

Yet since 1972 (when the price of gold was deregulated), the Permanent Portfolio method has returned a compound annual growth rate in excess of 9%, with very little stress and worry.

The Permanent Portfolio method (not to be confused with the Permanent Portfolio fund) was created by the late financial writer Harry Browne. Although his book Fail-Safe Investing provides a fine introduction, a more recent book by Craig Rowland and J.M. Lawson (entitled simply The Permanent Portfolio) goes into much more depth. There's also an active discussion forum at gyroscopicinvesting.com, which is a great way to share insights with fellow "PP" enthusiasts (even I, busy though I am, post there from time to time).

Finally, I'll remind you of Warren Buffett's first two rules of investing. Rule number one is: don't lose money. Rule number two is: don't forget rule number one. The beauty of the Permanent Portfolio is that each of the four buckets does well in some environments and offsets losses in other buckets. Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future returns and you need to always be on your toes regarding potential game-changing events. Yet together, stocks, bonds, cash, and gold have weathered many a storm and give every indication that they will continue to do so. Read the aforementioned books (along with all the other approaches you think might work, such as dividend investing) and realistically consider all your options; I've done so and concluded that the Permanent Portfolio is the most reasonable investing approach for folks who don't make their living in the financial industry.


Identity Self-Defense

2016-05-22

A friend of mine was the victim of identity theft recently, so I did some research and took action to further strengthen my identity self-defenses. Here's what I learned...

First, there are many measures that lots of folks don't take advantage of, for instance: paying cash for typical expenses such as groceries, using your credit card (not your debit card) for expenses where you want to take advantage of return policies, using your debit card only to take out cash and then only inside the bank branch (even ATMs outside bank branches have been hacked), regularly monitoring your accounts, setting up notifications with your bank and credit card companies (e.g., number of purchases, purchase amounts, ATM withdrawals, declined transactions, password and other account changes, suspicious activity), using strong passwords for online accounts and changing them regularly, even getting free credit reports once a year.

Second, there's a small world of stronger protections that aren't as commonly known:

  1. Ask to get on "do not mail" lists for free credit card offers, since these are an attack vector for people who might steal your mail.
  2. Create online accounts with all the usual services (IRS, Social Security Administration, etc.) so that someone else doesn't do so with your information.
  3. Set additional passwords or activate voice recognition features with banks, investment companies, and mobile phone providers so that someone can't complete a transaction (such as emptying your bank account or switching your phone number to a hacked phone and thus being able to change all manner of other accounts) even if they know your address, SSN, and other personal information. Personally, I like being asked for my special password every time I go into the bank to take out some cash. :-)
  4. Consider freezing your account with the credit reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) so that no one - such as someone who happens to have stolen your SSN - can pull a credit report on you without your knowledge. It's easy to unfreeze it if you need to and then freeze it again (although depending on what state you live in there's often a fee to do so).

Be safe out there!


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