Sunday, May 31, 2009

Author Sketch: Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Politics)


Born: 384 BCE in Stagira
Died: 322 BCE in Chalcis

Other Things That Happened in Aristotle’s Lifetime:
The 30th dynasty rises in Egypt, the last native house to rule.
Rome builds wall around the city.
Alexander the Great creates an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indus River.
China was reaching the end of the Warring States period under three Zhou emperors, Anwang, Liewang, and Xianwang.

Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC

Works under study: Nicomachean Ethics (Book One), Politics (Book One)

Unlike Plato, who was born and lived almost exclusively in Athens, Aristotle lived and taught all over the Mediterranean. In this sense, he is a model for the Hellenic age that followed the Peloponnesian War and the decline of Athens as a military power. While Athens was still a major seat for the accumulation and dispensation of knowledge, the events that unfolded on the world stage in Aristotle’s lifetime dwarfed the city-skirmishes that largely characterized Greek politics prior to the 4th century and drew nearly every civilization within reach of the Mediterranean into a single culture unified by Alexander.

In the spirit of his times, Aristotle was born in Stagira, a Greek colony not far from the southern border of Macedon and lived apart from the intrigues of Athens until the age of seventeen when he moved there to study at Plato’s Academy. There is ample evidence suggesting that Aristotle was a remarkable student and can be considered, in his transmission of Platonic thought, an accurate and insightful source. After Plato’s death, Aristotle moved his operation to the city of Assus where he and three other former students of the Academy advised a local ruler named Hermias and opened their own school. This arrangement must have been a fruitful one for Aristotle married Hermias’ adopted daughter, Pythias. Three years later, he moved his new family to the city of Mytilene on the nearby isle of Lesbos where he engaged in most of his observations of nature and biological processes.

In 342 BCE, Aristotle was summoned to the court of Phillip II of Macedon that he might tutor his son, Alexander. A mere two years into this relationship, Phillip left Macedonia to wage war and Alexander was installed as regent to rule in his stead. With Alexander mostly distracted by his duties, Aristotle was free to open a school and concentrate on his own studies as well as act as an advisor to the regent prince when asked.

Aristotle Tutoring Alexander by J.L.G Ferris, 1895

When Alexander assumed the throne after his father’s assassination in 336, Aristotle left Macedon and returned to Athens to teach. There is compelling evidence to suggest that Aristotle’s connection with Alexander gave him new authority in Athens and he used it to establish the Lycaeum where he would walk with his students as he lectured. It is widely assumed that the written works associated with Aristotle are something like transcriptions of his lectures at the Lycaeum. In this sense, they are not the work of one particular period of his life but the sum of his learning up to that point.

When Alexander died thirteen years later, having brought what the Greeks would have thought as the known world under one flag, Aristotle’s reputation and fortune in Athens seem to have diminished with his passing. As the political waters around him began to fill up with ever more sharks bent on his death, Aristotle either fled or was exiled from Athens in 323 BCE. He, along with his second wife and two children, returned to his mother’s ancestral lands near Chalcis and, within just a few months, died in 322 BCE at the age of sixty-two.

Though Socrates and Plato are considered the source for much of his philosophy (though he differed with them in some ways), Aristotle, by virtue of his life’s course, was able to bring those ideas to bear on the flow of history in a way that neither of his predecessors could imagine. Meticulous and observational by his nature, Aristotle can seem a colder intellect than those who came before him but, whatever we can glean from his character some 2400 years later, one must respect the comprehensive nature of his learning, his relentless quest to synthesize and codify existing knowledge as well as his influence on knowledge for centuries after his death.

Map Legend:

1. Stagira
2. Athens
3. Assus
4. Mytilene
5. Macedon
6. Athens
7. Chalcis

Monday, May 25, 2009

Great Books: Plato's Republic Books One and Two (Part 3)

Parts One and Two of this essay can be read here and here respectively.

It may seem ironic that the State is the last, and perhaps least, important filter through which we will be looking at something called The Republic. This anomaly has more to do with the part of that work under examination as the full task of constructing this ideal society actually begins in Book Three. That is not to say however that ideas about the State do not figure into the dialogues of Books One and Two. There are several ideas about the State that surface before the focus of the dialogue as a whole turns specifically to it.

The first inquiry into the nature of Justice (begun by Cephalus and then defended by Polemarchus) concerns itself with the ways in which a person may be just. The second one, born from Thrasymachus’ argument that Justice is merely a euphemism for the stronger exerting their will over the weaker, turns its attention almost immediately to the broader expression as it relates to the way that humanity rules itself. After establishing that there are different forms of government (tyrannies, democracies, and aristocracies listed in particular), Thrasymachus provides us with our first description of the State and its function.

...the different forms of government make laws democratical, aristocratical, tyrannical, with a view to their several interests; and these laws, which are made by them for their own interests, are the justice which they deliver to their subjects, and him who transgresses them they punish as a breaker of the law and unjust. And that is what I mean when I say that in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger. [301]

What we find in Socrates’ examination of his claims, however, is a curious tendency of any conversation about States as a whole degenerating into a conversation about the particular ruler or rulers that govern that state. The dialogue, begun as an inquiry into the just action of a person, first references the State as the arbiter of the punishment due to that person should they behave in a criminal manner.

Socrates begins his rebuttal to the argument by asking Thrasymachus if he believes that “it is just for subjects to obey their rulers” [302]. Each of the three types of government being considered (aristocratic oligarchy, tyranny, and democracy) employs its own mechanisms for first crafting those laws and then enforcing them. It is also worth noting that other types of governance like imperial, monarchical, or theocratic (all extant prior to, during, and after the classical Greek civilizations rose and fell) are not considered. Regardless of the type of government under consideration, the actual act of creating, enforcing, and obeying or not obeying the Law is strictly a matter of human behavior. The State, in this sense, is not a person and so while it may be said to foster or stifle Justice, the success or failure of this effort is to be found not in abstractions, but in human behavior.

The issue of the State is largely ignored until mid-way through the second book as Socrates begins his rebuttal to Glaucon and Adeimantes’ lengthy defense of injustice as an value widely praised by gods and men alike. After raising again the idea that Justice may be thought of as both a human virtue as well one related to the State, Socrates argues that, as the State presents a wider-range of concerns that of a single human being, it makes sense to consider Justice first as virtue of a State and then draw analogies from the greater to the lesser. He then lays out his plainest argument for the existence of the State, suggesting that it arises, “out of the needs of mankind; no one is self-sufficing, but all of us have many wants.” [316].

The following paragraphs are a careful construction of the various facets of the population of a State, based on the aforementioned premise that all complexity arises from human want. After demonstrating that merely providing for the basic staples of human existence (food, clothing, shelter) gives rise to a surprisingly diverse population, Glaucon suggests that a truly civilized state would also include as many luxuries and entertainment as its population could support which, again, adds whole new classes and subsets of laborers. This concession leads Socrates to a startling conclusion.

SOCRATES: Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want…And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small not and not enough?

GLAUCON: Quite true.

SOCRATES: Then a slice of our neighbors’ land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth.

GLAUCON: That, Socrates, will be inevitable.

SOCRATES: And so we shall go to war…without determining whether war does good or harm, thus much we may affirm, that now we have discovered war to be derived from causes which are also the causes of almost all the evil in States, private as well as public.

His premise here, stated more plainly, is that while the State arises from the needs of its members, those unjust aspects of the State arise from their unnecessary wants. It also stands to reason that as a State is successful in its fulfillments of those, more superfluous interests (whether by conquest, trade, or a potent mixture of the two) the more unsustainable that enlarged and entitled population will become. This is the story of Empire, played out time and time again in the human experiment but always with the same inevitable outcome of utter ruin for all.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Great Books: Plato's Republic Books One and Two (Part Two)

The first part of this essay can be read here

To appreciate how an extended conversation presumably only about Justice might include inquiry related to Virtue and Vice, we must appreciate that Justice is recognized throughout (at least by Socrates) as a type of virtue or, perhaps more specifically, as a component of human virtue. Virtue (from the Greek arete) was considered the complete fulfillment of a thing or potential. If that thing was a Greek man, he might exhibit a number of virtues including excellence in sport and war, able management of his inheritance without resorting to something so crass as labor or mercantilism, and a wide variety of other measurements of a man’s cut (including his desire to behave justly) that all contributed to his overall Virtue or successful fulfillment of his ultimate purpose. So as the conversation turns towards a discussion of individual behavior, the question of Virtue and Vice become central to the inquiry.

Near the conclusion of his argument with Thrasymachus, Socrates draws an analogy between that which is just and good with virtue and, conversely, that which is unjust and evil with vice. This idea becomes magnified in the beginning of Book Two when Glaucon, playing the Devil’s Advocate, takes up the vanquished Thrasymachus’ argument that injustice is, in fact, good and virtuous. Glaucon begins his argument by retelling the story of Gyges, a shepherd who discovers a magic ring that renders him invisible. In the story, Gyges uses the ring to first gain advantage over his fellow shepherds and, ultimately, to murder the King and take his kingdom. Glaucon ties this story in with their current inquiry by taking it one step further.

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that we would stand fast in justice…Then the action of the just would be as the actions of the unjust…And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. [312]

Glaucon’s argument is carried one step further by his brother, Adeimantus who points out that “the universal voice of mankind is always declaring that justice and virtue are honorable, but grievous, toilsome, and that the pleasures of vice and injustice are easy of attainment and are only censured by law and opinion” [313].

In order to test the validity of their argument (something Socrates himself doesn’t get to in books one and two of the Republic), we must have some certainty about the meaning of the terms under consideration. Virtue and Vice are too easily mistaken for doing good or doing bad. The trouble with the shallow, contemporary reading is that good and bad are merely polar markers that delineate a wide range of behavior that is rarely all one to the exclusion of the others. A man who, for example, robs a bank in order to feed his family has clearly committed a crime but his actions are neither fully good nor fully evil; if, then, the road to hell is paved with good intentions so also would the banister on the stairway to heaven be gilded with evil.

Fortunately, Virtue, in the Greek mode of thinking, has nothing to do with any of these nebulous and unknowable quantities. When Plato speaks of Justice being a Virtue, it is understood that he is saying Justice is but one component of the state of Human Virtue. Justice alone will not make someone virtuous but it may be said that no true Virtue might be complete without it. If we are to accept the proposition that humanity is somehow unique among the animal kingdom from which we arose (hardly a settled matter but I think Socrates and Plato would agree), then we must also accept that the Virtue of a Human Being is unique as well and might well be recognized, as someone once said, by the fruit that it bears. When humanity does as Thrasymachus and the sons of Ariston suggest, practice injustice in whatever degree it can be perpetuated without being punished, it is no different from the law of the jungle where the strongest and smartest flourish at the expense of the weaker and not-so-smartest. If one can suppose that all culture, all faith, all love, all art, all whatever makes us human, can be boiled down to mere elaborations on our biological scripts (the same scripts that every other living thing on Earth is exercising right alongside us), then perhaps this is the more persuasive argument. In fact, regardless of what other baggage we may or may not have picked up along our evolutionary journey, those impulses certainly still exist within us and, at times, may still dominate our behavior.

If, however, we are to consider ourselves as something other than just unusually adaptive primates that exploited the right niche at the right time and accidentally wound up dominating the entire planet, we must also accept the possibility that our Virtue, the full expression of our purpose, might reflect the awesome responsibility of this higher consciousness. These components of Virtue (Justice, Mercy, Love, Reason, pick three of your own, etc), in contrast to the Virtue of any given animal, including the one we used to be, would seem alien and counterproductive. Their relative youth in comparison to the many calls of the wild that reside within in would also render them relatively fragile. Plato quotes Hesiod in observing that “Vice may be had in abundance without trouble; the way is smooth and her dwelling place is near. But before Virtue the gods have set toil.”

The message is clear. Virtue is an attainment of distinctly human potential while Vice, in whatever form it might take, embraces the old laws of survival that come so easily to us but which we execute with a savagery and wanton destructiveness without peer among forms of life we consider to be less evolved.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Great Books: Plato's Republic Books One and Two (Part 1)

The Republic, Books One and Two
Written by Plato circa 385 BCE
Place: Athens, Greece
Great Ideas: Justice, Vice and Virtue, State

The complete text of the Republic can be read online at for free. It uses the same Benjamin Jowett translation that is cited in this work, though page citations given for quoted material corresponds to the 2nd edition of the Great Books of the Western World set.

Unlike the emotional rollercoaster of Plato’s trilogy on the Trial and Execution of Socrates, The Republic is, in many ways, more typical of Plato’s work as a whole. It presents, in written form, a fictional conversation in dialogue form between Socrates and a number of other Greek men as they ponder a variety of philosophical issues. The Republic stands out as notable, if not unique, among Plato’s writings because of the expanse of topics methodically dissected within its narrative, the universal nature of the questions under consideration, as well as the exhaustive insights it provides into the worldview of both its writer and the audiences for whom it was intended.

One of the great questions in reading the Republic is, “How fictionalized is Plato’s version of Socrates anyway?” We know that Plato was a student, admirer, and probably friend to Socrates. We also know that, as a scholar, Plato would have to have been as comfortable retaining information taken in via the oral tradition as he was learning information from written sources. Put plainly, there is more evidence suggesting the veracity of Plato’s account of Socrates’ ideas than that of the writers of the Gospels in regards to the life of Jesus Christ. If Plato’s descriptions were, indeed, intended as transmissions from his master, they would be as close to direct as possible without being penned by Socrates’ own hand.

As tempting as this idea of an untainted glimpse into the mind of one of humanity’s great thinkers may seem, we must consider the possibility that Plato does not intend these “utterings” of Socrates to be mistaken for truth nor did the original audience have any expectation that they might be. It was custom among members of a particular tradition to attribute any knowledge acquired to the source of that tradition. By this mechanism, Pythagoras continued to gain attributions to his reputation for decades if not centuries after his death. Old ideas were the most valuable and, pragmatically, ideas would circulate further under these acknowledged information brands than they would as the crackpot theory of whatever scholar might have actually had them. We know that, in addition to his studies with Socrates, Plato was trained in a number of other schools including that of the Pythagoreans and Heraclitean. So, it is not unreasonable to posit that Plato’s writing would be a filter through which the sum of his knowledge, including much of what he learned directly from Socrates might find a more permanent home than the lecture room.

The two books of the Republic under consideration here can be broken into a series of debates over the nature of justice in which Socrates is called upon to fully defend its virtues over the spoils of injustice. The bad news is that he never even comes close in these first two books (of ten) to completing that argument. His solution to the problem of first defining and the defending justice is to create an ideal state and then contrast it with existing governments in order to see justice in those differences. In all honesty, The Republic, at times, reads like a Dungeons and Dragons manual with its careful classifications of like and unlike things (a nasty habit that will only prove more intolerable in the hands of Plato’s student, Aristotle). The good news is that those first two books alone are so pithy that they provide ample material to assess what Plato might have thought about three of the Great Ideas; in particular, Justice, Vice and Virtue, and the State.

This whole imaginary conversation begins as Socrates and his companions are detained by friends after attending a public ritual and pressed into returning to their villa to rest before the night’s festivities. Upon arriving, Socrates engages in a conversation with their father, Cephalus about the process of aging, asking him, “Is life harder towards the end, or what report do you give of it?” After establishing that how someone lives (happy, sad, angry etc) is the greatest indicator of how they will approach death, Socrates suggests that Cephalus’ relative wealth may skew his impression of how life’s end is for all who approach it by age. Agreeing that a happy man with wealth fares better in the end of his life than a happy man with none, Socrates asks him, “What do you consider the greatest blessing which you have reaped from your wealth?” After some consideration, Cephalus tells him that his wealth has allowed him to deal with men in an honorable way (ie without lying to them) and keep from dying knowing that he owed someone something he was unable to pay. When Socrates challenges him on these criteria as the foundation for a just man’s actions, Cephalus gently begs out of the conversation and hands it off to his son, Polemarchus.

Before looking at what ideas regarding justice spring out of this continued debate, let’s take just a moment to see what role Plato plays in constructing this dialogue. Socrates is depicted as having great zeal in worshipping the gods, having left his home and traveled some distance to attend a new Thracian variation on a festival honoring Artemis. This supports Plato’s narrative begun in Apology that Socrates was a deeply pious man despite the charge that got him executed, advocating for the worship of foreign or otherwise improper gods. Secondly, as he arrives at Polemarchus’ house, he is met warmly by Cephalus, a respected elder who admonishes him for not coming by to teach more frequently. This also reinforces Socrates’ posthumous defense against the charge of corrupting the youth as what father would welcome a teacher into his home that he knew taught things that were unwise or untrue? If Plato’s writing is seen as building upon the reputation of his teacher, the responsibility of burnishing that legacy belongs to him as well.

Polemarchus’ defense of his father’s definition of just action is something of a rhetorical dead-end. After some positioning on semantics, Polemarchus refines it to suggest that justice is “the giving to each man what is proper to him, and this he termed a debt” [298]. This allows for justice to be given to both those deemed as friends and those as enemies. Socrates counters with the idea that committing evil against one’s enemies is not just, but unjust regardless of the circumstances, asserting that:

…if a man says that justice consists in the repayment of debts, and that good is the debt which a man owes to his friends, and evil the debt which he owes to his enemies—to say this is clearly not wise for it is not true, if, has been clearly shown, the injustice of another can be in no way just. [300]

While Polemarchus seems content to leave the inquiry at that, Thrasymachus, another visitor to the home is not. In Book One of the Republic, he gleefully plays the role of the skeptic, not merely of the nature of justice but indeed of Socrates’ method of argument. The descriptions that Plato includes to add some kind of tension to the narrative borders on hysterical. Thrasymachus (in “Socrates’” words) “came at us like a wild beast, seeking to devour us,” also noting that:

I was panic-stricken by his words, and could not look at him without trembling. Indeed, I believe that if I had not fixed my eye upon him, I should have been struck dumb: but when I saw his fury rising, I looked at him first and was therefore able to reply to him. [300]

Thrasymachus charges that none of the men have any interest in learning anything about the nature of justice, only in agreeing with one another. After mocking Socrates’ method of inquiry, Thrasymachus finally puts in his own two cents about the nature of justice, describing it as “nothing else than the interest of the stronger” [301]. When pressed by Socrates to expound on this, he goes on further, suggesting that:

…in all states there is the same principle of Justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only responsible conclusion is that everywhere there is one principle of Justice, which is the interest of the stronger. [301].

While the conversation begins with how a particular person might practice just living in relation to those in his community, Thrasymachus steers it now towards how the idea of Justice might define not only the relationship of the individual to his peers, but also a state to its citizenry. Once arrived, he presents a view of the world that, while cynical, is difficult to deny as too often reflecting our own.

…my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men…that is to say, tyranny, which by fraud or force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale…for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetuating any of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace…But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of this having achieved the consummation of injustice. [304].

Rather than addressing this otherwise common sense observation directly, Socrates attacks Thrasymachus’ argument at its core, that justice represents the interests of the stronger over the weaker. Using a series of analogies, Socrates proves to his own satisfaction that justice is, in fact, more concerned with the interests of the weaker over the stronger. “Governments,” he asserts:

…rule and provide for the interest of their subjects who are the weaker and not the stronger…And this is the reason…why…no one is willing to govern [without payment]; because no one likes to take in hand the reformation of evils which are not his concern without remuneration…and therefore in order that rulers may be willing to rule, they must be paid in one of three modes of payment, money, or honor or a penalty for refusing [306].

He follows this up with a second analogy that ties the qualities of the just and unjust man with that of wisdom/goodness and evil/ignorance respectively. In the former, wisdom and goodness are predisposed towards cooperation with their like and conflict with that which they are unlike. In the latter, evil and ignorance will attempt to vanquish all competitors, good and evil alike. Socrates finishes the analogy by demonstrating that justice also cooperates with its like and against its unlike, whereas injustice seeks injustice for all. Seeing no way out of the rhetorical trap that Socrates has put him in, Thrasymachus concedes the point with as much grace as he can muster and leaves the discussion.

As a final point before continuing on to Book Two’s focus on justice and injustice in human behavior (considered in this context as Virtue and Vice), it is worthwhile to note that Plato chooses three very different kinds of people to verbally spar with Socrates in this opening book. While they are no doubt based on real people that may have been well known to the Athenians who first read this work, they also function as convenient archetypes suggesting how Socrates himself was received in his lifetime by his community. Cephalus, as a man shown as nearing the end of his life, lends authority to Socrates’ teaching through his approval but also represents the kind of traditional wisdom in the Greek culture that Socrates, and Plato after him, are trying to move beyond. Polemarchus is among the generation of younger men supposedly corrupted by Socrates’ teachings and presents an amiable, if half-hearted response to his teacher’s dissection of his half-baked argument. Thrasymachus is openly hostile to Socrates at the beginning of his discussion and derides not only his arguments but his methods for arriving at them. Only after the verbal battle begins turning distinctly against him does Thrasymachus regain his sense of courtesy and exhibits something resembling begrudging respect as he leaves the conversation. While he may not agree with Socrates, the text suggests, he leaves with more respect for Socrates’ methodology and cunning debate skills.