Almost four years ago to the day, I posted some hopeful thoughts about working for freedom within the Republican party, specifically within the framework of the Republican Liberty Caucus. I changed my voter registration to Republican, attended a few meetings and caucuses, and started to learn a bit about how electoral politics works at the local level (which, in the county where I live, mostly means Republican party politics).
The week after Donald Trump was selected as the 2016 presidential candidate of the Republican party, I changed my voter registration from Republican to Libertarian because I do not want to be associated with a party that sees fit to nominate a corrupt, narcissistic, irrational, utterly unqualified thug to be the leader of the free world.
Why Libertarian (again)? Do I now think, despite all evidence and personal experience to the contrary, that the Libertarian Party can be truly competitive in America's two-party political system?
No, I'm not delusional. 2016 will no more be the year of the Libertarian Party's electoral breakthrough than it will be the year of Linux on the desktop. Yet, just as I'm typing this on my System76 laptop running Ubuntu, so I have come to realize that it doesn't matter whether my political or economic choices are in the mainstream: what matters is that they are consistent with my personal values and principles.
Thus my views on this aspect of electoral politics are almost the exact opposite of a cynical, muddle-headed essay that Internet observer Clay Shirky posted recently, under the title There's No Such Thing As A Protest Vote. Shirky argument is that you can choose among the following three positions (I've modified his wording to show what I really think of them):
Let's consider a similar argument regarding, say, computer operating systems:
To see why, let's begin with the final assertion.
By living in a so-called representative democracy (actually an oligarchy, but I repeat myself), it's always the case that I leave it up to the American electorate to decide who will be president. I don't have a choice in the matter - that's how the system works. The same goes for our so-called free market economy - I don't have a choice in the matter of which products (such as personal computers) will dominate in the market. And it would delusional to expect otherwise, to believe that my individual vote or my individual purchase makes one whit of difference to political or economic outcomes.
Thus I wholeheartedly agree with those who observe that my vote doesn't matter - to society. But it does matter a great deal - to me. Do I want to give my sanction to the aforementioned thug who has been nominated by the Republican party, or to the equally corrupt criminal who has been nominated by the Democratic party? No, no, a thousand times no. Knowing full well that I have no voice in the matter, I hold ever more firmly to the one small voice that I do have: the inner voice of my principles and my own integrity, and the reflection of that voice in how I conduct myself in the world.
My political principles are effectively libertarian: freedom, liberty, individual rights, small government, local decision-making, a true populism in which the people hold the power, a form of government that is best because it governs least. Although I have no hope that the world or America or my own state or county will live up to those principles anytime soon, I can at least loudly proclaim my refusal to approve of those candidates and parties and organizations who violate these principles, and to align myself with those who do (even if they are imperfect or ineffective).
Perhaps I'm not thereby working for human freedom (because I still don't know how to do that); but at least I'm not actively working against it.
As I begin the large and deep task of (re-)reading the complete works of Aristotle, I am spurred to ponder why I am drawn to working through various philosophers in this way. I've come to see that there is an almost visceral element here, of directly confronting the insights of a great thinker and gaining intimate knowledge about how that person approached life and the pursuit of wisdom. In order to do this, I find that I need to read the philosopher's original language of expression: Greek for Aristotle and Epicurus, English for Thoreau and Rand, and German for Nietzsche (which makes me consider learning classical Chinese so that I can directly encounter Lao Tzu). I also find that I need to immerse myself directly in the philosopher's own words and not spend too much time reading other people's commentaries. Ironically, the outcome of my doing so is in each case a book that comprises more commentary! Yet for me the book that I write is merely a record of my personal encounter, which I use primarily to remind myself of what I have learned. Secondarily, I hope that by recording my own philosophical encounters I might inspire you to do the same with the great thinkers you find most congenial (and I would love to read about similar encounters with philosophers I likely won't have the time or inclination to work through completely myself, such as Confucius, Krishna, Buddha, Plato, the Stoics, Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Emerson, and Sartre). What's most important is the encounter itself, because it helps me gain more wisdom as I adopt some of the outlook and practices of someone much more sagacious than I am.
Until my current reading of Aristotle's ethical writings, I had never noticed the connection he draws between ethics and beauty. No, not the surface beauty of physical good looks with which people are so obsessed these days, but the desire for true beauty: to have a beautiful character, to perform beautiful actions, to live a beautiful inner and outer life. Indeed, he frequently argues that an action is not truly ethical if it is not done for the sake of beauty. For example, someone who does something outwardly courageous only for the sake of social conformity does a good thing but not for the right reasons, whereas someone who performs the same act because it is a beautiful thing to do is in a higher ethical realm.
While trying to understand this idea, I got to thinking about Aristotle's so-called "doctrine of the mean", and specifically about a better way to translate his term "mesotes" (which is invariably translated as "the mean"). To stay with the example of courage, according to Aristotle the middle way between rashness and cowardice is courage. The rash person underestimates the dangers of a particular situation, whereas the coward exaggerates them; by contrast, the courageous person accurately perceives the dangers and therefore fears what deserves to be feared. Similarly for an emotion like anger - the irascible person gets angry on the wrong occasions and with the wrong people, is too quick to anger, etc. But Aristotle does not say that anger is a bad emotion, and in this way differs from those who claim that anger is a sin (Christianity) or an emotion to be avoided entirely (Epicureanism); instead he says that there is such a thing as justified anger, and that people who never get angry even when it is justified also miss the mark.
Thus I see "the mean" as a kind of dynamic, natural balance between too much and too little. And balance can be beautiful: think of a gymnast arched on the balance beam, or a dancer poised to make a pirouette, or a baseball shortstop finishing a double play at second base. Balance is also a matter of being well-proportioned, and according to Aristotle an excellence of character such as courage or generosity is a stable state of being to produce proportionate responses based on true understandings (a kind of disposition for "justified true emotion", if you will).
One further aspect of ethical beauty is related to an odd little side comment Aristotle makes in the Nicomachean Ethics about physical beauty: that small people can be cute but they can't be beautiful because they're simply not big enough. Whether or not this strange notion was common in ancient Greece, it might be connected to Aristotle's idea of greatness of soul (megalopsuchia): only people who achieve all-around excellence of character, who truly thrive as human beings, can have ethical beauty; by contrast, people who don't aim as high might be neat and orderly and even admirable in their own less morally ambitious way, but according to Aristotle they're not ethically beautiful.
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.)
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.
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...
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...
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:
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...
For older entries, check the archive. To track changes, follow the feed.
Peter Saint-Andre > Journal