Archive for February 15th, 2011

Aristotle, skeptics, & stoics

February 15, 2011

We have about 600 years of new philosophy to cover today, from Aristotle to Aurelius. But we’re going to have to take some time, first, to process the absurdity of yesterday’s campus lockdown, prompted by yet another gun incident. We went ahead with class, pretending to a semblance of normalcy while with one eye monitoring email updates from President McPhee. Eventually we learned that the ricochet shooter had been apprehended and we could go about business as usual. Fat chance.  Strange Valentine Day, memorable birthday. [DNJChronicle]

I’d just been musing poetically about the improbable details of my personal end, in grudging recognition of time’s arrow and where it’s dragging us all eventually. But that wasn’t quite serious, until the helicopters started to circle our building. Now, inevitably, some benighted state legislator likely will attempt to resuscitate last year’s stupid proposal to place firearms in my hands and those of my colleagues. Sure, that would have made us all feel better yesterday.

The passage of time itself is what will really make us feel better. Maybe that’s the problem. But it does feel good to vent.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: continue to disregard the printed syllabus until further notice. Today we’re reading O 16-26, next time it’ll be PW 40-49. Also next time, let me know your plans for the midterm: your general topic, as much summary as you can give me in a sentence or two, and whether it’ll be a presentation or an essay.

Main point about Aristotle: if Plato’s the urrationalist, he’s the primordial empiricist. His Lyceum would have been a perfect choice for me (better even than Vandy), with all that peripatetic walking-about.  His syllogism is a powerful instrument, but maybe we don’t want to assume that everything meaningful fits its pattern. That’d be a terrifically informative conclusion, though.

He opposed Plato’s view that Forms (Ideas, Universals, Essences) are transcendent, contending instead that forms are in particular objects, in the very things Plato called shadows. They’re articulated and exhausted by formal, efficient, material, and final causes. The final cause behind everything, the ultimate purpose, goal, or telos, is the notorious philosophers’ god, aka the Unmoved Mover.  Scientists nowadays don’t have much use for that, but they do still invoke efficient causation.

He came close to facing the same charges that did Socrates in, but chose to leave Athens. Do we think the less of him for that? I don’t.

Through no fault of his own, he became the Unquestioned Authority of medieval philosophy. We shouldn’t hold that against him either.

His “metaphysics” is simply “after physics,” just a rung up the abstraction ladder. Nothing too “woo-woo,” in fact it mirrors his body language in “School of Athens“: pace Plato, forms (lower case “f”) are not transcendent and outside our terrestrial “cave,” they’re as particularized and individuated as we are.

His logic is basic and comprehensive. (But is it exhaustive of reality? A meta-metaphysical question, perhaps.)

His emphasis on potentiality also distinguishes him from his teacher Plato: Becoming is more important, certainly more formative, than Being. An acorn is a potential oak. A student is a potential teacher. But it’s important, too, not to see development of this sort as more teleological or purposive than it is. “Goals” are typically the possessions of individuals or cohesive, intelligently-directed groups, not of nature per se.

His Unmoved Mover is an unmoving “Philosopher’s God.” (No wonder so many of us are irreligious. Blame Aristotle, among others.)

His ethics is a constant quest for the middle ground, the mean, splitting the difference between extremes. This works, arguably, for courage, and charity and pleasure-seeking (etc.), but what about honesty?

His politics makes a strong case for the middle class. But why didn’t he challenge slavery? (Does this show that even the most sophisticated philosophy is trapped in its time & place?)

Our text today includes a nice graphic of the library of Alexandria (founded by Aristotle’s most ambitious, but possibly least ethically-reflective student), the sacking of which remains one of the great unwashed stains on our species. It was a great cosmopolitan mecca, and its destruction remains one of our species’ lowest moments.

“Eureka!” That must have been a wonderful moment for Archimedes…

Aristotle’s Lyceum successors were sceptics (our author’s a Brit, hence the “c” in place of my “k”) who renounced the quest for truth. Pyrrho was their most salient and extreme spokesman. (But we’ve just about forgotten his predecessor Chrysippus, thanks to the aforementioned legions of Caesar who burned the library that housed his works.)

Then, the contemptible/contemptuous Diogenes, a dog-like “cynic. (My pooches are insulted by the comparison.)

Rome was grand but mostly not too reflective. They did sponsor some impressive public works, though.

Then came the ill-fated Seneca. [“Seneca falls“… “dead stoics society“…”philosopher walks“…”premeditation“…”per aspera“…”self-sufficient“] You can read all about him in de Botton’s Consolations. And, watch this:

Not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

And don’t forget the pleasure-seeking Epicurus [“Back to the Garden“], or the slave Epictetus. We have much still to learn from them both, about freedom from ignorance and superstition, and the free will such freedom makes valuable.

And don’t forget Hecht’s Doubt, full of insight on the Greeks in ch.2 and the Romans in ch.4. Cicero in particular deserves a lot more respect than he’s gotten from other sources.