One Small Voice

The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre


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It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

2020-11-21

On November 21st, 2000, I posted the first entry in this online journal. Although I had tried my hand at writing a weblog even before then (e.g., using a tool for posting entries through a Jabber messaging app), writing at my own website was more appealing. Given that I'm still posting here twenty years later, I declare my original experiment a success. Here's how I characterized this space in that first entry:

I see this space as part diary, part sandbox, and part weblog -- a place to explore ideas and events on the web, in real life, and in my head.

That's still very much the case. Although the topics I explore aren't quite the same (for instance, I rarely post about technology or politics any longer) and although my perspectives aren't quite the same, I perceive more continuity than change in the 1655 entries I've posted so far.

Here's to the next twenty years!

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Aristotle's Dialectical Pedagogy: A Review of Revaluing Ethics by Thomas W. Smith

2020-11-12

In my research toward writing Complete Yourself: Aristotle on Human Fulfillment, I have read dozens and dozens of books about Aristotle's ethics and his philosophy in general. A small number of those books stand out in the crowded field of Aristotelian studies, but only one of them has been a revelation to me: Revaluing Ethics: Aristotle's Dialectical Pedagogy by Thomas W. Smith.

Smith uncovers and elucidates the conceptual and (dare I say) literary flow of the Nicomachean Ethics by revealing how Aristotle leads his likely audience of young, virile, aristocratic young men from unquestioning adherence to conventional values toward a radical questioning and revaluing of everything they thought they knew was true and right (that is: toward the examined life). We are not accustomed to treating an Aristotelian treatise like the Ethics as a work of literature, but Smith demonstrates convincingly that this is the exactly right way to treat it (in the process showing that it's not a traditional treatise at all, but a living, breathing exploration of the foundations of human life). He upends so many of the assumptions of academic scholarship regarding Aristotle (from the so-called Doctrine of the Mean to the so-called great-souled man, from the relation between justice and equity to the meaning and role of love in human life, from the bifurcation between moral virtue and intellectual virtue to the desire to understand the world around us through contemplation) that by the end of his book my head was spinning.

Furthermore, the new vistas he opens up are tremendously exciting. Can we apply his dialetical methodology to, say, the Politics or the Metaphysics? Would a similar analysis of the Eudemian Ethics yield complementary fruit? If so much that we thought we knew about Aristotle's ethics simply isn't true, what are Aristotle's deepest insights into living a successful human life? If Aristotle were presented with an audience of present-day Westerners, how would he lead them toward the examined life and what assumptions would he drive them to question along the way? These are fascinating questions, which I hope to explore as I continue to dig deeper and deeper into Aristotle's philosophy.

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Election Survival Guide

2020-11-01

Every four years I dread the prospect of yet another election for president of the United States. What a depressing, anxiety-ridden spectacle! It's almost enough to make me a monarchist (if only we could find the right sort of monarch, of course).

As with everything else, 2020 is worse than usual. With every election season that passes, it appears that Americans of the partisan variety become even more tribalistic in their beliefs and emotions. Their attitude seems to be that above all we must keep those other bastards from gaining power because they're either closet fascists or closet communists. Those of us in the moderate middle (if you can call a libertarian gradualist like me a moderate) are caught in the crossfire uttering curses of "a plague on both your houses!"

In the spirit of Rudyard Kipling's advice to "keep your head when all about you are losing theirs", here are a few suggestions for making it through the impending election of 2020:

  1. Recognize Reality. Have you ever noticed that no matter who is elected president, the core functions and dysfunctions of American governance remain pretty much the same? Democrat or Republican, we still have 47 ineffective federal jobs programs, a broken system of legal immigration, endless farm subsidies, an unaccountable FISA court, an inscrutable tax code, tragically awful schools in the inner cities, a continually growing budget deficit, and so on ad infinitum. Just a thought: perhaps it really doesn't make that much of a difference who's elected.

  2. Concentrate on Continuity. Yes, the potential outcomes can seem bad, especially if you lean far in one direction or the other. Yet a corollary to the first point is that there is more continuity than change in American governance: we've had representative assemblies, trial by jury, and (mostly) the rule of law for 400 years. It's unlikely that we'll experience a radical break in these traditions at every level of government overnight (do you think that your city council or county courts will simply disappear?).

  3. Exit the Whirlwind. The outcome of all but the most local of elections is completely outside your span of control and influence. Why fret about something you can't change? Indeed, why deliberately subject yourself to extra fretting by paying attention to the partisan vitriol and useless chatter on TV, radio, and the Internet? Just let it go. In any case, you'll have to deal with whatever the consequences are, so it's better to stay mentally sharp and practically flexible if you want to thrive under the new regime.

  4. Heal Thyself. Politics is a disease from which only you can cure yourself. Just about everything in life (family, friends, health, community, work, love, art, science, culture, environment, philosophy, religion) is far more important than politics. By taking action in these domains, you'll experience much more fulfillment and you'll do something positive for the state of the world. Politics is almost always the problem; it's far superior to be part of the solution.

Unfortunately, elections happen. I wish you the best of luck in surviving this one!

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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A Wider Palette

2020-10-30

In my most recent post ("Beyond Binary"), I talked about the need to transcend dichotomies and false alternatives. One aspect of doing so is recognizing what I called a wider palette of viewpoints, which is easy to do in philosophy and psychology but not in politics (at least not in American politics with its two-party system).

Continuing my focus on the personal rather than the political, I'd like to explore another domain of human experience that is rightly home to a wider palette: the inner life of feelings and emotions.

Too many people have a kind of binary view of human feelings. For instance, we might think that one dimension of emotional experience is being either satisfied or angry. If these are the only alternatives along this dimension, then it's all too easy to quickly escalate to an extremely angry reaction toward people or events you encounter.

A wider palette enables you to identify and experience a wider and likely healthier range of reactions. Perhaps you're not truly angry (let alone irate, outraged, or furious) but merely annoyed, disappointed, irritated, miffed, vexed, frustrated, irked, or displeased. Or, on the positive side of the spectrum, perhaps you're not merely satisfied but pleased, content, happy, delighted, elated, ecstatic, overjoyed, or euphoric.

One practice I've found helpful in this regard is searching for just the right word to describe what I'm feeling. To do so, I might consult one of my favorite books: the thesaurus. Or I might try to identify how a character in a novel I've read might have felt in a particular situation. This practice can be applied even more broadly to, say, pieces of music (is the emotional tenor of Chopin's Polonaise #6 best captured by "heroic", "triumphant", "jubilant", or "exultant"?). An added benefit is that taking a moment to identify what I'm feeling can give me just enough distance to not react immediately in a way that I might regret later.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes for you!

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Beyond Binary

2020-09-20

As political polarization proliferates, it's beneficial to explore realms of thought that are not limited to left vs. right and us vs. them. Personally, I'm partial to philosophy: it's impossible to reduce all of philosophical thinking to, say, Epicureans vs. Stoics without ignoring the deep and unique contributions of Platonists, Aristotelians, Taoists, Buddhists, Confucians, Hindus, Christians, humanists, skeptics, existentialists, and many more.

Matters are similar in psychology, populated as it is by Freudians, Jungians, Adlerians, behaviorists, cognitivists, humanists, and adherents of more recent trends like evolutionary psychology and positive psychology.

Or consider music, with its many genres, sub-genres, and practitioners. Even in, say, jazz music you can experience ragtime, dixieland, stride, swing, bebop, hard bop, free jazz, chamber jazz, Latin jazz, gypsy jazz, bossa nova, and many more. The landscape is similar in literature, film, painting, sculpture, and other art-forms.

Yet in the world of politics - especially American politics with its two-party system - we are experiencing what Lee Drutman recently identified as a partisan death spiral. Although his recommended remedies are worth trying, I'd like to suggest something even deeper: ignore politics and immerse yourself in human phenomena that aren't merely two-sided. Philosophy, psychology, and the arts are fine places to start, especially because each one has its own kind of healing powers and yields its own kind of wisdom. Perhaps if we all became more attuned to finer shades of difference in these domains we'd be less likely to tolerate polarization in politics, too. Or so we can hope.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Aristotle Research Report #14: The Faults of Aristotle

2020-09-05

Although I think Aristotle was the greatest mind who ever lived, he did have his faults. In modern times, he is especially criticized for supposedly being anti-science, anti-democracy, pro-slavery, and anti-women. Let us briefly consider these charges.

Naturally, some of his attitudes can be traced to the culture in which he lived (the classical Greece of 2400 years ago), his social class (aristocratic), and the like. However, in general I think that what we consider his errors would been self-correcting because of his inductive approach to knowledge. Life is very different today than it was back then, and at his best Aristotle would have adjusted his views and theories to match the human experience.

As to science, Aristotle it's difficult to say that he was anti-science given that he was the founder of zoology, of biology, and perhaps even of science itself (cf. Leroi, The Lagoon). However, it's true that he did not have the concept of an experiment, missed some basic facts, speculated needlessly (e.g., about self-generated animals), and was overly attached to some of his theories.

As to democracy, Aristotle thought that a constitutional republic was better than pure populism and advocated the rule of law over the rule of men. Indeed, many of his insights form the foundation of modern constitutionalism. However, I still need to read a number of books about Aristotle's Politics to determine the extent of Aristotle’s aristocratic leanings.

As to so-called "natural slavery", the jury is out on exactly what Aristotle meant. Some scholars have argued that the criteria Aristotle defined - a person must by nature lack basic human capacities like foresight in order to be considered naturally servile - actually form a critique of ancient serfdom. Such a judgment should be a question of innate capacities, not their realization (which could be thwarted by lack of opportunity); however, much depends on enculturation: Aristotle might have argued that by nature all barbarians are slavish, yet when fully assimilated to Greek culture a non-Greek could be prepared for freedom.

As to women, Debra Modrak argues persuasively in her article "Aristotle: Women, Deliberation and Nature" that he did not hate women (as should be clear to anyone who has read his will, where he exercises great care over his wife and daughter). However, Aristotle seems to have had an unjustifiably low opinion of the deliberative powers and emotional constitution of women, and thus seems to have been unable to break free from opinions prevalent among the men of his time and place.

These are all complex issues and require greater study than I have given them so far, but I wanted to make clear for the record that I am not unaware of them.

(By the way, although at the end of 2019 I thought I was done with the first phase of research on this project, I keep finding more books and articles of interest, which I hope to finish reading sometime next year.)

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