One Small Voice

The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre

Never Finished


Last weekend I went to an exhibit related to Leonardo da Vinci at the Demver Museum of Nature and Science. Amidst the reconstructions of his inventions and at the entrance to a whole room about the Mona Lisa I came across this quote: "Art is never finished, only abandoned." Although it's not clear to me if Leonardo actually said that (Vasari mentions something similar in his Life of Leonardo), I like the sentiment.

Lately I've been revisiting the short books I've written on Rand, Epicurus, Thoreau, and Nietzsche, improving the wording here and there (as described in a blog post entitled "Poetry as Code", in 2017 I did the same thing with my collection of poems and poetry translations). One great thing about self-directed, online publishing is that it's easy to keep tweaking: just check some changes into GitHub and a minute or two later the world sees a better version.

Consider, for example, my poem "Twilight Dance" in Songs of Zarathustra. It's about Nietzsche's love of both life and wisdom, so I wrote it in Sapphic meter. Unfortunately, the original version had clunky rhythms and didn't really sing. Let's compare the second stanza to see what I mean. Originally it went as follows:

These two loves of mine are very much alike:
They're changeable, untamed, wicked, even false --
A fountain of delight and shower of pain
To my highest hopes.

Here's the improved version:

These two loves of mine are very much alike:
Fickle, wicked, mocking, coy, unconquered, cruel --
Fountains of delight and showers of distress
To my highest hope.

I especially like the second line: seven instances of the "k" sound in eleven syllables. That really packs a punch!


Aristotle Research Report #9: τέλος


Part of my goal in writing an epitome of Aristotle's writings on personal excellence is to get closer to their original meaning, which I do by reflecting deeply on how to render crucial Greek words into English. Consider this cluster: τέλος, τελεία, τελειώτατον. In his book Aristotle on the Human Good, Richard Kraut translates them with variations on the English word "perfection". In present-day English, "perfect" has connotations of being absolutely without blemish; thus something perfect seems static and cold and unchanging, not dynamic and warm and living. I get a distinctly unworldly (dare I say Platonic?) feeling from Kraut's translation. Yet in Greek τέλος is something much simpler: the end-marker or finish-line of a racecourse. A τέλος is a goal; you can achieve a goal or complete a race, but you don't perfect a goal or perfect a race. Similarly with τελεία: Aristotle speaks of τελεία ἀρετή, which I would render as complete excellence (not "perfect virtue"). So also with τελειώτατον: in his analysis of εὐδαιμονία or living well Aristotle mentions that the highest goal of human action needs to be the most complete (not "most perfect") because if you could add anything more to it then there would be a more valuable goal. In all of these instances, I am tempted to find the idea of "completing" or "most completing" behind the scenes; in Aristotle's philosophy, the concept of ἐντελέχεια (becoming complete, achieving a goal, completing a task) is always central. And note that the task (ἔργον) you're working at (ἐνέργεια) is not imposed from outside but grows organically from within; Aristotle's teleology (that's that τέλος again) is not universal but particular, individual, personal. Thus my working title: Complete Yourself.

(On a related note, I often find it tiresome to read the secondary literature on Aristotle because if the scholar in question interprets key terms in an utterly different way than I do, then I need to mentally translate everything back to my own conceptual space as I read; absorbing hundreds of pages in which ἀρεταί ἠθικαί comes through as "moral virtue" instead of "excellence of character" is a chore!)


Aristotle Research Report #8: σοφία


In Book V of the Eudemian Ethics [1], Aristotle discusses the excellences of thinking things through (ἀρεταί διανοετικαί, usually translated as "the intellectual virtues"), in contrast to the excellences of character or ἀρεταί ἠθικαί. Recently I wrote about the more practical of the two primary excellences of thought: φρόνησις (which I translate as "wisdom"). Here I take a first glance at the more theoretical of the two: σοφία.

It's hard to know to translate this one. Although σοφία was itself wisdom in Greek philosophy (a.k.a. "the love of wisdom"), Aristotle gives it a more speculative cast here. I'm inclined to translate it as "sagacity".

Although both wisdom and sagacity are supposed to be ἀρεταί and thus balances or means between opposing tendencies to overdo or underdo the relevant behavior, only once (in the EE but not the NE) does Aristotle lay out those tendencies and only for φρόνησις, which as previously noted he describes as a mean between cunning and foolishness. Because he does not do the same for σοφία, we need to figure it out on our own.

Using Gilbert Ryle's distinction between knowing how and knowing that, we can glean that foolishness is an absolute lack of knowing how, whereas cunning is knowing how without the benefit of insight into or guidance by what is best - i.e., τό καλόν or what is beautifully right. Similarly, the deficiency of sagacity is most likely ignorance: the absolute lack of knowing that; this might imply that the other opposite of sagacity is knowing that without the benefit of insight into or guidance by what is best - i.e., τό θείον or the divine, which for Aristotle consists of the highest objects of inquiry (θεωρία). In ancient Greece, there's one word for this corruption (μοχθηρία) of the intellect: sophism.

This analysis is consistent with Aristotle's brief description of sagacity as a combination of inquiry (θεωρία) and insight (νοῦς). Unfortunately, Aristotle does not delve into a detailed description of σοφία. However, he does demonstrate many aspects of intellectual excellence in the way he works through philosophical problems. Here we can see his perseverence, his dedication to observation, his openness to evidence, his curiosity, his conscientiousness, his pursuit of order, his independence, his seriousness, his fairness to other thinkers, his love of truth, and other admirable qualities. A full account of σοφία or sagacity would do justice to these and other intellectual virtues.


[1] This is also Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics; henceforth, accepting the results of Anthony Kenny's research, I shall refer to the so-called "Common Books" by their numbering in the Eudemian Ethics.


Randian Confusion


After many months of reading Aristotle's philosophy and commentary thereon, recently I decided to re-read Ayn Rand's essay "The Objectivist Ethics", wherein Rand criticizes Aristotle for not considering ethics to be an exact science. I have no idea what that would mean. Consider, for instance, the relevant Wikipedia page (not necessarily reliable, but often a good start), which states:

The exact sciences, sometimes called the exact mathematical sciences are those sciences "which admit of absolute precision in their results"; especially the mathematical sciences. Examples of the exact sciences are mathematics, optics, astronomy, and physics, which many philosophers from Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant to the logical positivists took as paradigms of rational and objective knowledge. These sciences have been practiced in many cultures from Antiquity to modern times. Given their ties to mathematics, the exact sciences are characterized by accurate quantitative expression, precise predictions and/or rigorous methods of testing hypotheses involving quantifiable predictions and measurements.

How in the world did Rand think that ethics could be an exact science, subject to testing of falsifiable hypotheses, precise mathematical measurement, and quantifiable predictions? What would an ethical hypothesis look like? What would it mean to mathematically measure courage or moderation or wisdom? Are human beings within the realm of prediction rather than, at best, the realms of dependability or trustworthiness? The notion of ethics as an exact science strikes me as unmoored from human existence and experience.

Virtues Ancient and Modern


In his book Confronting Aristotle's Ethics, Eugene Garver explores how, for Aristotle, personal excellence is also interpersonal excellence: because of the intensely social nature of ancient communities, virtues like courage and moderation had value because they protected and preserved the balance of the community as a whole. Thus courage was really valor in battle against another community that would have enslaved your own people, not the courage of principled resistance (e.g., Rosa Parks) or intellectual integrity (e.g., Galileo). Thus moderation was about controlling your urges (adultery upsets social harmony) and keeping in good physical condition (it's hard to be valorous if you're grossly overweight). And so on.

Furthermore, philosophers like Aristotle taught and wrote primarily for the well-off sons of wealthy aristocrats. Thus the Aristotelian virtue of liberality counseled you how to properly give away your money. It never would have occured to Aristotle that something like frugality (which, pursued assiduously, enables you to achieve financial independence and take responsibility for your own life) could be a virtue.

That doesn't necessarily mean Aristotle's perspective on excellence of character is hopelessly out of date. However, some modernization is in order to apply Aristotle's more fundamental insights (e.g., about excellence as balance) to how we live today. I plan to do some of this work in my forthcoming book.


Aristotle Research Report #7: φρόνησις


For Aristotle, the various excellences of character (courage, moderation, justice, and the like) are all instances of tending to find a balance between overdoing and underdoing a particular kind of action or feeling, either generally or in a particular respect (e.g., becoming angry in the wrong situations, toward the wrong kinds of people, too quickly, too strongly, etc.). Borrowing terminology from archery, he speaks of balance as a matter of hitting the target (σκοπός) and of imbalance as a matter of missing the mark (ἁμαρτία).

Because an excellence of character is not a single act but a settled practice or way of being (at times he likens it to a second nature acquired through long experience), it involves stable patterns of intention (προαίρεσις) and thinking things through (διάνοια). It is not only a way of conducting yourself (πράττειν) but also a way of being minded (φρόνειν), in which success involves both acting well (εὐπραξία) and deliberating well (εὐβουλία). This excellent way of being minded is φρόνησις or wisdom (often rendered as "practical wisdom" or, in older translations, as "prudence").

Interestingly, φρόνησις itself is also a balance: in Book II.3 of the Eudemian Ethics Aristotle contrasts it with cunning (πανουργία) and foolishness (εὐήθεια). Whereas cunning might involve rationalization of your behavioral waywardness (we could call this deliberating badly or δυσβουλία) and foolishness might involve blindly being led by your emotions and cravings (we could call this not deliberating at all or ὐβουλία), φρόνησις involves straight reasoning (ὀρθός λόγος) in which you correct your bad tendencies toward craving (ἐπιθυμία) for too much pleasure (τό ἡδύ) or wanting (θυμός) to gain too much advantage (τό συμφέρων); instead, you come to see that by doing and choosing what is beautifully right (τό καλόν) you experience a higher kind of enjoyment and advantage. Thus wisdom is a master virtue that guides all the particular excellences of character (more about those in my next research report and, of course, in my forthcoming book Complete Yourself: Aristotle on Personal Excellence).

UPDATE 2018-02-16

While thinking further about φρόνησις, a perplexity occurred to me. Since φρόνησις is an ἀρετή and thus itself a balance or mean between cunning (πανουργία) and foolishness (εὐήθεια), you need a way to achieve that balance. With the excellences of character, φρόνησις is the way to achieve balance. With the excellence of thought that is φρόνησις, it would seem that you need φρόνησις in order to achieve φρόνησις. Can φρόνησις guide or produce itself? How do you acquire the balance that is wisdom if wisdom is required to acquire balance? An ἀπορία indeed...


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