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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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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09/23/13

The Moral Compass


Wheel of the dharmaI have a laminated card beside me, wallet-sized so it can be carried around easily. I made it at my shop a few years ago; just a simple, two-sided business card with some text. It’s part of my personal moral compass. We all benefit from some guidance, at times, something to remind us of the higher things.

I look at it frequently through the day, as a reminder when I find myself in Dante’s dark wood. Every problem, every concern, every moment of doubt can be worked through using these basic principles, if you step outside the flow and think them through.

One side has the Four Noble Truths. These state the core beliefs of Buddhism in a simple, non-theistic manner.

My card says:

  1. Life means suffering. To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in.
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things, and the ignorance thereof.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable. It can be achieved through the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment.
  4. The end of suffering is through a gradual path of self-improvement described in the Eightfold Path. It is the middle way between extremes of self indulgence and self mortification.

Suffering isn’t always what you associate with the English word. The Pali word is ‘dukkha”  and it can also mean anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, frustration, unease. A range of emotions. Wikipedia tells us:

Dukkha is commonly explained according to three different categories:

  • The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying.
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
  • A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.

The Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of developing insight into the nature of dukkha, the conditions that cause it, it how it can be overcome. This process is formulated in the teachings on the Four Noble Truths.

It’s not pessimism, but rather objective realism that informs this view. We all have anxieties over jobs, money, love, dying, sex, health, politics and more. They cause us stress, they cause us to suffer, to agonize, to hate, to conspire, to hurt.

“Life,” as this BBC page on the Buddhism says, “is not ideal: it frequently fails to live up to our expectations.”

So true. And we live in a culture where happiness is a marketable quality: we are brought up to believe happiness can be bought.

The Buddha also recognized happiness, but like suffering, he also knew it is impermanent.

We become happy when we get a new toy, a new car, a new pet, a new spouse, a new cell phone or computer, when we get drunk, when we get laid, when we watch a funny TV show, when we hear a good song on the radio – but suffering returns because the new becomes the old quickly. We become disenchanted. Happiness wears thin.

We always want the new, sparkly, shiny things. The newest model, the latest game, the puppy or kitten when the other pet has grown up. We want the emotional surge that new stuff gives us. Gimme, gimme, gimme.

We also get a surge of pleasure when we win a game, when we triumph over another, when we sink the ball into the basket.

Some feel pleasure when they hurt others, too. Suffering makes them angry, bitter, lonely. Frustrated. They attack others in a vain attempt to relieve their own distress. But it doesn’t work. They need to keep attacking and hurting to try to keep their suffering at bay. Hurting others alleviates their own pain.

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