4-The Doctor's Son
1. Where does our most vital knowledge come from, according to Aristotle?
2. What role does reason play, for Aristotle, in generating knowledge?
3. What questions do Platonists and Aristotelians, respectively, ask of nature?
4. What's a better word for Aristotle's theory of the mean?
- COMMENT: "I go for a walk through the forest near my house, just as Aristotle walked along the beach at Assos... This is nature, the real world buzzing and blooming around us." (49) Is this scene more natural and real than, say, that of Descartes in his armchair wondering if he exists or might be dreaming? What do we get from excursions under an open sky that eludes us indoors? Is it a coincidence that Plato turned to the metaphor of a cave, when characterizing the quality of everyday experience?
- What do you think of "Aristotle's God" and of Deism? (51)
- Is Aristotle's "behaviorism" superior to Bentham's, Skinner's, and Dawkins'? (55)
- Virtue requires us "at every step to think out for ourselves what the circumstances demand" (58). Is this too much to expect of a vast democratic citizenry?
5-Good Citizen or Philosopher Ruler?
1. What were Plato's and Aristotle's conflicting visions of freedom?
2. Who are Socrates' two main antagonists who argue against his (Plato's) conception of justice?
3. Name one of Plato's communitarian and one of Aristotle's individualist heirs.
4. What are two words that specify the difference between Plato's and Aristotle's conceptions of politics?
- Democracy had proved to be a disappointment to "nearly everyone in Greek intellectual circles in the mid-4th century BC." (63) Has democracy in our time disappointed you? Can you give a rousing defense of democratic practice, not just democratic theory? Are we living through another time of epochal democratic decline, or are you hopeful that our politics will rally?
- Have we had any philosopher-rulers? Do you think our most successful or most constructive leaders have been the more philosophically-inclined? Early in his presidency, it was suggested that Obama was our first philosopher-in-chief. Does that judgment hold up?
- Do you think it's useful to study ideal models of political utopia? Does it improve our polity, to compare it with Plato's Republic (63) or Bellamy's Looking Backward etc.? How about studying dystopias (Huxley's Brave New World etc.)?
- Are oratory and rhetoric dangerous for democracy, or its essential currency? (Carlin Romano treats the rhetorician Isocrates as a hero, in America the Philosophical. But was he a villain, inspiring demagoguery instead of civic virtue?
- If Plato was the first eugenicist (67), have we learned any lessons since his time that he might agree should preclude future experiments selective human breeding?
- What road to happiness are you on? Do you agree that you have to be traveling towards a "model of perfection" to be happy? (67)
- Is there a greater danger of "institutional inertia" in Aristotle's approach? (75) Is Plato's "antidote" the right one?
- Not a question, I just want again to urge us all to emulate The Philosopher: "And since Aristotle liked to walk as he talked" his students became peripatekoi... (77)
6.-The Inheritors: Philosophy in the Hellenistic Age
1. How did the Hellenistic philosophers want to broaden their inheritance from Plato and Aristotle?
2. What was Antisthenes' critique of Plato's Forms?
3. What were Strato's two crucial decisions?
4. What was Aristotle's alternative to Big Picture thinking?
- What do you think of Diogenes the Cynic? Was he an admirable iconoclast and gadfly in the Socratic mold, a disgusting anti-social reprobate, or something else? If he was the first deconstructionist, what was Socrates?
- Would the Hellenistic philosophers have been at home on our social media? (80) Should more intellectuals reach out to a broader public, beyond the ivy walls and ivory tower? Or does that cheapen scholarship?
- Is there "one crucial thing" (81) that represents the secret of happiness? What do you think of Aristippus's "formula" (82) and Epicurus's doctrines? Do you find the latter "chilly and comfortless" (83)? How about Seneca's suicidal fatalism?
- Can science, and the philosophy of science, do justice to both the detailed diairein of empirical inquiry AND the Big Picture?
A proposal to rename most philosophy departments to more accurately reflect their focus on European and American philosophy prompted a spirited debate between readers who favor a European focus and scholars and students of Chinese, Islamic and other thought traditions.
“We ask those who sincerely believe that it does make sense to organize our discipline entirely around European and American figures and texts to pursue this agenda with honesty and openness,” wrote Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden in an essay in The Stone series. “We therefore suggest that any department that regularly offers courses only on Western philosophy should rename itself ‘Department of European and American Philosophy.’”
One reader said the term “philosophy” itself necessarily indicates the Western tradition rooted in Greek thought... (continues)*Walking meditation is most closely associated with Buddhism. In her wonderful history of walking, Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit notes in a stream of tracks traipsing across the bottom of the pages that "in Japanese the word for 'walk' is the same word which is used to refer to Buddhist practice..." But she also notes an Eskimo custom of walking away from anger.
There: we've smuggled in a bit of eastern and world philosophy, amidst our western stroll. Let's keep looking for ways to do that.
Strolling @dawn - some of my recent dawn posts touching on our course themes. I won't always duplicate those here, but links to them will always appear in the scroll near the top of the page if you're interested.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016Walk or ride
"I go for a walk through the forest near my house, just as Aristotle walked along the beach at Assos," writes Arthur Herman, recounting the bounteous profusion of nature's teeming, towering, bewildering, constantly changing flora and fauna at his feet. "This is nature, the real world buzzing and blooming around us."
Herman says Aristotle was already onto the core truth of evolution millennia before its time, noting nature's dynamic of identity-through-ceaseless change. It's a truth that eluded Mayberry's Goober, when he briefly adopted the appearance of a philosopher and wondered "if a man's hisself, how can he change?" We're all continuously becoming something, all the time, turning potentiality into actuality or into something short of it. We're all on a journey.
Our journey through the forest struck Plato's and Aristotle's heirs, the Hellenistic Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics, as an opportunity to make themselves at home there and everywhere. Initially, writes Jennifer Michael Hecht, they "felt a desperate desire to get out of the seemingly endless, friendless woods." But thanks to the applied philosophical therapeutics of their "graceful-life philosophies" they learned to love the place. "Hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you're done.
But, back to Plato. For him the journey was an attempted ascent from the cave. For Aristotle, whether we ever actually spill out into a metaphysically higher light or not, every increment of fresh observation in the forest, on the beach, under the open sky is an opportunity to shed a little more light. [Nice and timely poem today, Seamus Heaney's "The Skylight" - "...extravagant Sky entered and held surprise wide open..."]
And for Diogenes, to whom we turn tomorrow in chapter six, the journey is a search for honesty and freedom. That's a quarry that can be especially elusive. Better bring the dogs. Don't let the Emperor or your teacher or anyone block your light.
My good friend the new Gradual Student offers another nice metaphor, of life's journey as a rickety bus ride. They killed Socrates when he went back to the cave. Will the other riders be more forgiving, when the enlightened rider re-boards?
"I think we're all bozos on this bus," whether we've read the Republic or not.
And I think Ken Kesey was right, we're all a little cuckoo. "You're either on the bus or off it." We've got a ticket to ride, but I'm with Aristotle. I'd prefer to walk.
Monday, May 16, 2016
The cynical solution
You don't realize how much stuff a college dorm can hold until you have to empty it. Took about four hours of schlepping between dorm room and two packed-to-the-gillls vehicles yesterday... a nice break in the monotony of the drive up and back.
And the happy result: family all home and reunited, until Older Daughter's next move in about three weeks, destination Hollywood via Chavez Ravine. (I'm looking forward to catching a glimpse of the great Vin Scully, she's looking forward to a glimpse of her professional future.)
Another happy weekend event: the neighbors down the street hosted a block party, with bourbon, beer, barbeque, and bluegrass I'd just been complaining about how we don't make enough of an effort, most of the time, to know the people in our neighborhood. As with so many inertial complaints, the solution was simple. Somebody just had to step up and issue the invitations. Thanks for your generosity and initiative, neighbors.
Today's lifelong learning philosophers thought happiness pretty easy to solve: the Stoics and Skeptics both say it involves a therapeutic recognition and acceptance of our limitations. We can only do and know so much. As the overworked sports cliche has it, they tell us we can be happy if we just learn to "stay within ourselves" and don't overreach.
The original Hellenistic Stoics and Skeptics were cousins of the Epicureans and Cynics. What they all had in common was a sense that humans could indeed take the initiative and create the conditions of their own well-being by living in accord with nature. They "hoped to move philosophy beyond the bounds of formal discussion" established in the groves of Plato's and Aristotle's academes, writes Arthur Herman in The Cave and the Light, and to impress everyday people with the value of reflective thinking that informs deliberate and ameliorative living. They "would have been at home on Facebook or Twitter as any contemporary blogger."
Diogenes the Cynic was a dog philosopher, finding canines more reliable than humans. Homeless, fearless, and deconstructive, he famously told Alexander to "stand out of my sunlight." He had no use for social status or convention, or for intellectual conundrums that fail to recognize a practical solution even when staring it in the face. [Diogenes @dawn]
Solvitur ambulando! He'd have been fun at a block party. Probably not so much help on moving day, though: we'd have had to step around the "School of Athens" lounger while he complained about the light.
Happy birthday, Studs Terkel! Studs was no cynic, but Diogenes would have loved him anyway. "Why are we born? We're born eventually to die, of course. But what happens between the time we're born and we die? We're born to live. One is a realist if one hopes."
Saturday, May 14, 2016
Grit in the glass
The Stoics and Skeptics are glass-half-empty people, a lack-centered disposition and temperament not to my taste. But they're also be calm and carry on people of perseverance and grit. That deserves a lot of credit.
“Begin each day," advises Aurelius, "by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.” I don't endorse that - we've all had many better days, better meetings - but I do admire the proactivity, the advance work, and the charity of the assumption that even the most obnoxious people are doing the best they know how to do.
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” True, and on the quality of the thoughts of others whose deeds flow from those thoughts. Stoics don't like to talk about that, and the vulnerable mutual dependency it implies, but it's true too. That's why we can't be content to work only on ourselves, and why I can't accept the Stoic proposition that only our respective interiors can be landscaped. We must ameliorate external conditions too, or die trying.
For Schopenhauer, external conditions and inner life alike are wholly controlled by the impersonal, implacable, voracious Will. We can't starve it to death but we can learn to feed it on our schedule, and feed it less.
“It is difficult to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else.” Yes, but the best skeptics know it's imperative to seek it together and in public, and to share our finds. That's why they write books, live with dogs (Schopenhauer's were all called "Atman"), and stay on Earth as long as they can. We must imagine them (the best of them) happy. Glass half empty? I'll have another.
Friday, May 13, 2016
Looking ahead to Sunday's trip up I-24 to help Older Daughter gather and schlep her stuff back to Tennessee, and to Monday's Happiness, when we'll be talking Stoics and Skeptics.
When she was home last summer, Older Daughter and I bonded over homemade Reuben sandwiches and Tina Fey. She was on a Netflix binge-mission to see every last "30 Rock" episode. When she discovered my proficiency at grilling kraut, corned beef, and rye (with a side of vinegar chips and a deli pickle) the show and the sandwich became our lunchtime Thing.
So naturally, when I thought about her homecoming yesterday around lunchtime I just had to make a Reuben and text a picture of it to her. "Brushing up." -"Can't wait!"
Do Stoics get excited about family reunions, and express their excitement in silly-happy gestures? Or is that too emotive for a sensibility that, in the popular imagination at least, generally dampens and discourages overt displays of affection that risk deepening our dependent attachment on sources of happiness (like beloved other persons) beyond ourselves and our immediate control? You can't master events, they say, but you can and should manage your mental response to events.
I hope most Stoics are still in touch with an affectionate inner responsiveness, even if it doesn't always show. Just as we were saying the other day, happiness so frequently is the unforced flower of simple life and its small occasions when we allow ourselves to feel it. Every day can be Mother's Day.
The popular imagination is fed by pop-cultural stereotypes. I'm always picking on Mr. Spock, in class, and pointing out how ill-served his human half is by the suppression of spontaneous good cheer. Violent emotion may indeed be a kind of madness, but severe self-repression and hyper-reserve are just as crazy. To paraphrase David Hume: be a Stoic, but amidst your stoic vulcan philosophy be still a (hu)man.
Oliver Burkeman is a modern-day stoic/skeptic, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. He disparages "the modern-day 'cult of optimism'" and extols the Stoics. "For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility, not the excitable cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word, 'happiness.' And tranquility was to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one's circumstances.”
I can't be indifferent to any positive "circumstance," from a well-grilled Reuben to an overdue reunion. Excitable cheer is not everything, but it's still a big part of what happiness means to me.
In the right frame of mind, Oliver, we don't have to "chase after enjoyable experiences" - they'll come right to us. We just have to be ready to catch them.
Thursday, May 12, 2016
No drones on our journey
What a different vibe on campus, this time of year - calm and quiet, unhurried, plenty of parking. Our classroom in the Business and Aerospace Building, home base for our summer stroll through civilization, is like Leibniz's monads: no windows. But unlike those misbegotten monads we have a remedy for our insular condition: we'll break out for at least twenty minutes every hour, into the empty corridors and open air.
I was amused to see that our classroom is across the hall from the unmanned aircraft office, or (as I prefer to call it) the Center for Drone Studies. The concept of sending mechanical proxies to do our work, especially our dirty work, is profoundly antithetical to the peripatetic model. We have to do our own strolling, if we want to find the nectar in the journey.
We're a small but varied and voluble group, it's going to be a great course. We barely began discussing some important themes sure to recur - the evident gap between the historical Socrates and his dialogic representation by Plato, the limits of perfectionism, whether there really is a universal and mathematically precise "language of nature" applicable to everything, including politics. All part of the "big picture," and we're on our way to find it.
Before class I met the charming retired couple from our May mini-Happiness class. They've been everywhere, and they're still eagerly traveling and learning. They know where to find that nectar. They know philosophy travels.
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Diogenes at the Googleplex
How would Plato respond to the Googleplex, Rebecca Goldstein wonders? He'd be wowed, astounded, and bemused by the latest in cave technology. He'd have plenty to say.
How about Diogenes? Rebecca Solnit suggests he might have the opposite reaction.
Kierkegaard liked to cite Diogenes: “When the Eleatics denied motion, Diogenes, as everyone knows, came forward as an opponent. He literally did come forward, because he did not say a word but merely paced back and forth a few times, thereby assuming he had sufficiently refuted them. Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Solvitur ambulando, of course, is what he wasn't saying. It's not an instance of what Wittgenstein would later call passing in silence whereof one cannot speak, but more an application of the principle of parsimony or the wielding of Occam's Razor. Words only muddy an issue any fool should be able to grasp immediately.
The late great songwriter Guy Clark died yesterday. They played an interview on NPR in which he made precisely that point, that a good song is no more complicated than it has to be. Tell it straight and simple, and whenever possible show, don't say. Leave something to the listener's imagination and perceptual acuity.
Solnit goes on to mention Edmund Husserl, the phenomenologist who "described walking as the experience by which we understand our body in relationship to the world" rather than following the usual philosopher's script of emphasizing either the senses or the mind, abstracted from their motile embodied context. If Husserl's student Heidegger had payed closer attention, he might not have elevated Being over becoming. He might have walked away from the fascists, or at least distanced himself a little more, before getting bogged down in his own words.
Happy birthday Tina Fey, who understands the hubris of verbal excess.
In response to people who claim that women are not funny, she said: "My hat goes off to them. It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that because you don't like something, it is empirically not good. I don't like Chinese food, but I don't write articles trying to prove it doesn't exist."
|America Walks (@americawalks)|