More Platonic reflections from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in CoPhi today, and Russell on Aristotle.
Goldstein continues her reply to the philosophy jeerers and their slight that philosophy bakes no bread and gets us nowhere. She might have recalled William James’s opening salvo in Pragmatism acknowledging the former but entirely repudiating the latter.
Believing in philosophy myself devoutly, and believing also that a kind of new dawn is breaking upon us philosophers, I feel impelled, per fas aut nefas, to try to impart to you some news of the situation.
Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out the widest vistas. It ‘bakes no bread,’ as has been said, but it can inspire our souls with courage; and repugnant as its manners, its doubting and challenging, its quibbling and dialectics, often are to common people, no one of us can get along without the far-flashing beams of light it sends over the world’s perspectives. These illuminations at least, and the contrast-effects of darkness and mystery that accompany them, give to what it says an interest that is much more than professional.
Aristotle’s student Alexander, “arrogrant, drunken, cruel, vindictive, and grossly superstitious,” was evidently not a good philosopher. Russell doubts he learned much from his tutor, but he did us the service of keeping Hellenic civilization alive long enough to produce a big chunk of our curriculum.
Aristotle was optimistic and teleological (or purpose-driven), convinced that “the universe and everything in it is developing towards something continually better.” Coulda fooled us, or most of us. (But Goldstein’s husband Steve Pinker, with his Better Angels, might offer qualified agreement.)
Aristotle’s “good,” unlike Plato’s remote and abstract Form, is immanent and practically universal. It’s that activity of the virtuous soul called eudaimonia, flourishing, or happiness. Everybody wants some, for its own sake. Aristotle’s god is another story.
And what is virtue? It’s any action that tends to produce happiness (but don’t confuse happiness with fleeting pleasure. One swallow does not make a summer.
Some more possible points for discussion today: If Aristotle’s metaphysics is Plato diluted by common sense, what’s so common about it? Does each of us have an “essence”? What do you think of Aristotle’s airy and impersonal God? Is happiness the only thing in the world that’s intrinsically good, for its own sake? Is Aristotle’s golden mean really golden, or is it vapid, formulaidc, and equivocal? Is it true what Fish said to Boghossian, that philosophical conclusions “do not travel”? What can that possibly mean, from a peripatetic or pragmatic point of view?
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