03/26/14

The ethics of politics via Aristotle


Aristotle PoliticsPolitics, Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, is the “master science of the good.” The good of which he wrote is the greater good, the “highest good” that benefits the state, not the personal.

For even if the good is the same for the individual and the state, the good of the state clearly is the greater and more perfect thing to attain and safeguard. the attainment of the good for one man alone is, to be sure, a source of satisfaction; yet to secure it for a nation and for states is nobler and more divine.

But good is hard to define, Aristotle wrote, and full of “irregularity” because, he added, “in many cases good things bring harmful results.”

For Aristotle and his fellow philosophers, politics was the science of figuring out what is conducive to life in a polis or city (which in the Greece of his day were city states); it determined how people can live together in communities and cities. It still is, which is why his 2,000-plus year-old work, Politics, is still taught in poli-sci courses.

Politics also has the practical side: the legislative component. And ethics underlies both parts.

Ethics and virtue are interconnected in Aristotle, but it’s not entirely the same virtue of which Machiavelli writes (and Aristotle described many more virtues than Plato’s four: courage, wisdom, temperance and justice). Aristotle’s virtue is a mean between excess and deficiency. It isn’t being super good, or unbendingly upright, or sticking to a dogma or theological script.

It’s almost like situational ethics (see Nicomachean Ethics, Book I.7). The BBC notes:

Situation ethics teaches that ethical decisions should follow flexible guidelines rather than absolute rules, and be taken on a case by case basis.

As this site notes:

Aristotle says that it is a mean between extremes, but not a mechanically determinable mean: “to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way”

For example, the mean between obsequiousness and cantankerousness is friendliness (see here). Angry, vituperative blogs full of accusation and wild allegation would not fit Aristotle’s definition of virtuous because they have a deficiency of social conduct, according to the chart.

As this site explains:

The good for human beings, then, must essentially involve the entire proper function of human life as a whole, and this must be an activity of the soul that expresses genuine virtue or excellence.

It also notes:

True happiness can therefore be attained only through the cultivation of the virtues that make a human life complete.

Cultivation: it means virtues have to be consciously worked at, and practiced. They are not innate or hereditary.

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03/21/14

Marcus Aurelius


Marcus AureliusI continue to be profoundly moved by the wisdom of the classical authors. It’s often hard to accept that some of them were writing two or more millennia ago: many seem so contemporary they could have been written this century.

Of late – within the past year or so – I’ve been reading Lucretius, Aristotle, Horace, Cicero, Seneca, Pliny the Elder*… and more recently Marcus Aurelius.

I’ve had a couple of versions of his Meditations (written ca. 167 CE) kicking around on my bookshelf for decades. I’ve dipped into it many times before today, but never really read it for more than some pithy, salient, quotable lines. These translations have all been 19th century ones. This week I started reading a more recent Penguin edition (trans. Maxwell Staniforth, 1964) and was duly impressed and delighted at how much crisper and clearer it reads than the somewhat florid, older ones. So much so that I recently ordered an even more modern translation from Amazon (George Hays, Modern Library, 2003) and started on it, too.

In part my hesitation in the past to read more of the classics has been due to the rather dense prose that many of my translations offered – most of them being published originally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Great in their day, they see archaic and stilted today. The newer, modernized translations make these works much more approachable.

For example, here’s the George Long (1862, reprinted in the Harvard Classics series, 1909) translation of the opening of Book XII:

ALL those things at which thou wishest to arrive by a circuitous road, thou canst have now, if thou dost not refuse them to thyself. And this means, if thou wilt take no notice of all the past, and trust the future to providence, and direct the present only conformably to piety and justice.

And here is an 18th century translation by Hutcheson and Moor:

All you desire to obtain by so many windings, you may have at once, if you don’t envy yourself [so great an happiness.] That is to say, if you quit the thoughts of what is past, and commit what is future to providence; and set yourself to regulate well your present conduct, according to the rules of holiness and justice.

Compare these with the 1964 translation by Maxwell Staniforth (Penguin Books):

All the blessings which you pray to obtain hereafter could be yours today, if you did not deny them to yourself. You have only to be done with the past altogether, commit the future to providence, and simply seek to direct the present hour aright into paths of holiness and justice.

Here’s the 2003 Hays’ translation:

Everything you’re trying tor each – by taking the long way around – you could have right now, this moment. If only you’d stop thwarting your own attempts. if only you’d let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present towards reverence and justice.

I’ve also tended to shy away from reading too much of Meditations in part because he also deals with divinity and soul – and I tend more towards the moral and ethical, the philosophic rather than spiritual, writers. But reading through his book now, the Hays’ translation in particular, I find his spirituality less cloying than I had initially.

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03/11/14

What’s in a missing word?


HoraceThere’s a line in one of Horace’s epistles that really caught my eye. In Latin it reads:

Utque sacerdotis fugitiuus liba recuso,
pane egeo iam mellitis potiore placentis
Horace: Epistles, Book I, X

No, I can’t translate it.* However, I was reading David Ferry’s 2001 translation and he renders it like this:

I’m like that slave who ran away because
They fed him honey cakes and he longed for bread.

That appealled to me both for my recent passion for making bread, but also for its philosophic – almost Buddhist – intent.

Ferry gives us both the Latin and English, and I struggle to match the original with the English version. And in doing so, something about his translation bothered me. Something missing.

Wikipedia tells us that Horace’s (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) epistle X is about:

The Advantages of Country Life – (Addressed to Aristius Fuscus, to whom Ode I.22 is also addressed). This epistle begins with Horace contrasting his own love of the country with his friend’s fondness for the town; then follows the praise of Nature; and finally the poet dwells on the superior happiness that moderate means and contentment afford, compared with riches and ambition.

Fine. I understand: Horace is saying he prefers the plain life of the country, not the honey-cake life of the city. He doesn’t need the luxuries and the excesses to be content.

Ferry isn’t a literal translator: more of a poetic one. He’s been acclaimed for that, and criticized for it, too, but I like his work. Many English renditions of Latin poetry come across as stilted and forced, while I find Ferry’s work much smoother and reads more naturally (some call it “approachable”). (Read here how other English-speaking poets have variously tackled Horace)

Still, one Latin word in the original stuck out as missing in translation: sacerdotis.

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02/23/14

Lucretius and the Renaissance


WikipediaIt’s fairly clear, even after reading only a few verses, why Lucretius’s didactic poem, On the Nature of Things - De Rerum Natura -  made such an impact on thought, philosophy, religion and science in the Renaissance. It must have been like a lighthouse in the dark night; a “Eureka” moment for many of the age’s thinkers.

For others, especially the church leaders, it must have arrived like a mortar shell among their intellectual certainties and complacencies; shattering walls and window. An act of war that threatened to tear down whole schools of thought and belief.

While today his descriptions of atoms, void, and immortal substance may seem obvious and even a little quaint, they were revelations then, in the Renaissance. They shook the comfortable world picture of the Renaissance and challenged both faith and science.

Yet Lucretius wrote his poem in the time of Julius Caesar, before the Christian church even began. Then it was lost for more than 1,400 years, to be rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Poggio was hunting lost manuscripts through European monasteries, trying to copy them so he could restore the lost words of the Romans for everyone to read. His discovery of On the Nature of Things was serendipitous in the extreme,* but it opened a Pandora’s box of effects.

Stephen Greenblatt, in his excellent book, The Swerve, about the fortuitous discovery and its impact, opens Chapter Eight with this:

On the Nature of Things is not an easy read. Totaling 7,400 lines, it is written in hexameters, the standard unrhymed six-beat lines in which Latin poets like Virgil and Ovid, imitating Homer’s Greek, cast their epic poetry. Divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease. The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high.

So it’s a tough, challenging read, as much so today as it ever was. I’m reading it, but have to admit it’s a bit of a slog, even in the modern Penguin edition.

Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret.
Life is one long struggle in the dark.
Book II, line 54.

It’s astounding how anyone in Caesar’s day could by reason, logical, analysis and inference alone – no highly technical equipment, no advanced mathematics, no electron microscopes, no particle colliders, no Hubble telescope – deduce the structure of the universe was based on atoms. And then to infer that those atoms were constantly in motion, indestructible and timeless.

That’s what the Epicurean philosophers did. Lucretius, perhaps the last of them (or certainly at least the last outstanding Epicurean) put their theories and ideas together into one long, rhetorical poem to teach his fellow Romans what Epicureans stood for.

In doing so, Lucretius deconstructs and dismisses the theories of his contemporaries about the nature of the universe, using the same tools of thought and reason. Those theories – now long dismissed –  fossilized into accepted dogma for many centuries before his book was rediscovered. On the Nature of Things had no less an impact on Renaissance thought than On the Origin of Species had on modern thought.

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02/14/14

Amo, Amas, Amat…. and what?


Wheelock's LatinMy well-thumbed copy of Eugene Ehrlich’s book, Amo, Amas, Amat and More, is dated 1985. It’s amusingly subtitled “How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others.”

It’s still in print, it seems, or was as recently as 2006. I’ve read my copy on and off for the past 25-plus years, but have not been able to effectively astonish anyone with my grasp of Latin.

Possibly the reason for this is that my grasp of Latin is small. Very small. I had a single year of Latin classes in high school; lessons mostly relegated to the dustbin of my mind along with solving quadratic equations. The rest I’ve scrounged from other books and sources. It’s less a grasp than a smattering of random bits.

I’d like it to be better. As in to actually be able to read and understand at least elementary Latin, not merely recognize that the words on the page are in Latin. Which is, at present, Greek to me (if you’ll pardon the inexecrable joke…). And certainly better able to write it than cutting-and-pasting the inevitable Lorem ipsum placeholder into a draft design project.

So last week I took the plunge and ordered a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, 7th Edition, from Amazon with the intention of teaching myself. And hope not get too distracted by other books, baking, computer games, politics, pets and Friday housework… ooh, a new ukulele….

My learning accomplishments in Latin to date include reading the first 40 or so pages (mostly introduction and pronunciation basics) and memorizing the present tense verb conjugations of two -are and -ere verbs in Lesson One. Which means I’m about a hundred years of effort from having enough Latin in my grey matter to astonish anyone other than my dogs.

Laudo, laudas, laudat, laudamus, laudatis, laudant… plus the imperative: lauda and laudate. Impressed yet? Yeah, so were my dogs. But it’s one small step further along this path than last week. A journey of a thousand li starts beneath one’s feet, as Lao Tzu wrote. This is my early footing, then.

I dug my Ehrlich off the shelf this morning, along with a couple of aged Latin dictionaries and every book about Latin I could find in my collection. It’s a fairly thin lot. But I need some extra help as struggle through Wheelock’s Latin on my own – a lot more than I currently have on the shelves.

I need at least one collection of Latin verbs nicely conjugated for my enjoyment, plus grammar guides, workbooks, and some better dictionaries. And maybe some source material (interlinear translations would be nice), like the one I have for the Canterbury Tales).

Ka-ching, the Amazon.ca cash register is singing (hinc illae lacrimae…) (okay, I had to dig that one out of a file of Latin phrases…)

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01/29/14

Reading Thucydides at last


BookshelfSomewhere on one of my bookshelves, is an old Penguin paperback copy of History of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. It’s a bit worn, pages lightly yellowed, glue a little brittle. It’s been sitting on the shelf, stacked with many other paperbacks, piled two deep, floor to ceiling, for the past two decades and more.

It’s never been read, not completely. I read the introduction, maybe some small sections, back in my wargaming days, 30 or 35 years ago. Like many of its companions on that shelf, it’s a book I put aside for the days when I expected to have more time to read such works. My retirement. Insert canned laughter here.

Of course, when I bought it, in the 1970s, I hadn’t expected to be in politics, writing books and articles on municipal issues, blogging, playing the ukulele, and furiously baking in my “golden years.” How did I ever get so busy?

Nowadays, it seems these books may have to wait a little longer to be read. Some of them, anyway. The pile of books in progress beside the bed seems to get refreshed with new titles all too often, and few of the older ones make their way into it.

Thucydides sits on the shelf with similar Penguin editions of Herodotus, Xenophon, Josephus, Suetonius, Caesar – historians of ancient Greece and Rome. He shares shelf space with Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hardy, Wolfe, Baudelaire, Austen and other great writers of fiction. Many of them were put aside for later, although others have been read.

There’s a whole collection of Latin American authors I picked up in the 70s; mostly read back then, but many deserve rereading. There are collections of classic Japanese and Chinese poets. Books by popular modern authors – Michener, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Burroughs (read most of those), Kerouac (ditto), Heller, Vonnegut. There are philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Voltaire, Hobbes, Suzuki, Spinoza. Plays by Wilde, Shaw and Sophocles. Essays by Orwell and Voltaire.

Some days, I despair I’ll ever get to them. They deserve to be read, all of them. Each is a gateway to a whole world, a universe, even. Now and then I pick one up, read a chapter, maybe a poem or an essay, but it goes back on the shelf for years after that.

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