Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Aristotle's Ethics

Are Aristotle's Virtues Achievable in Practice?

es, Aristotle's virtues are achievable in practice, but there are several obstacles in achieving them. One of the problems is that virtuous activities are not an "exact science" because it is a practical science that requires choosing wisely. There are many obstacles to choosing wisely. Aristotle says that virtues "are expressions of our choice, or at any rate imply choice" (1106a). Many thinks can influence bad choices. For one thing, a person must have the right knowledge to choose wisely. One hindrance to this is that a "young man is not a fit person to attend lectures on political science, because he is not versed in the practical business of life from which politics draws its premises and subject matter. Besides, he tends to follow his feelings" (1095a). Another thing the intended purpose of this knowledge is action and the youth needs the knowledge from experience to know how to choose wisely. Another thing is that having the virtues come from creating habits from continual practice. The way to be just is to do just actions, but one needs to be just to do just actions from virtue. Another problem is that there is one way to do it right and many ways to do it wrong. To practice virtuous acts requires fulfilling many conditions: doing the right thing in the right way with the right motivation in the context of the right circumstances. How does one do virtuous acts without being virtuous? No one is born with virtue because it is something developed from practice. Another problem Aristotle thinks that might hinder the development of virtue or make it more difficult to achieve is unfortunate circumstances. Since one is not born with virtue and a child does not have parents who cultivate virtue in their children, it can be difficult for children to develop virtue. In addition, it is sometimes hard for a poor man to be virtuous or a poor man or a person in limited circumstances might find it hard to develop virtue. Another problem might be that all the role models are examples surrounding a young person are examples of vice. Aristotle states that the "moral virtues, then, are engendered in us neither by nor contrary to nature; we are constituted by nature to receive them, but their full development in us is due to habit" (1103a). In other words, it requires hard work. It takes years to form in us. Many might not be willing to do the hard work to develop virtue. In addition, they might want immediate gratification, instead of working for a good life that requires many years. Another problem could be that the habits (vices) we formed early in life hinder us from developing virtue later. Aristotle says, "So it is a matter of no little importance what sort of habits we from from the earliest age--it makes a vast difference, or rather all the difference in the world" (1103b20). Aristotle argues that it might be difficult to overcome a lifetime of bad habits. Aristotle thinks that "a bad moral state, once formed, is not easily amended" (Book III). One other problem I like to mention and it concerns the mean. Virtous actions requires hitting the mean between deficiency and excess and doing this is quite difficult. For one thing one has to take in considerations one's own inclinations and hit toward the mean close to the extreme of one's inclinations. For example, if I have a tendency to be over confident, the mean will lie closer to being cautious. So, yes, Aristotle's virtues are achievable, but with great difficulty.   

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Plato's Republic

The Republic of Plato translated, with notes, an interpretive Essay, and A New Introduction by Allan Bloom. 2nd ed. Basic Books, 1991.

The Republic

Books I-II

Cephalus states that justice is "giving back what a man has taken from another." However, it would not be just to give back a gun to a person who will harm himself with it. Simonides said "it is just to give to each what is owed." This seems to be true. If we owe someone, it is just to pay them. It is then said that justice is to do good to friends, and harm to enemies. They think they owe an enemy arm. Socrates argues that people are to do good, not harm. For example, a doctor should not harm his patient. Socrates asks is it "the part of a just man to harm any human being whatever"? No seems to be the implied answer. How can a man be just if he does harm to others? Thrasymachus states that "the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger." In other words, if someone can get the better of someone else, it is just. This seems to be wrong because if everyone is trying to better each other, this is a world at war. In addition, he says that people create laws that benefit themselves. This seems to be true, at least sometimes. We have those in power oppressing minorities or outsiders. This cannot be just. What would happen if the tables are turned? Thrasymachus argues that the unjust man is stronger than the just man, so it is better to be unjust if you do not want to be taken advantaged of. Socrates uses the example of a robber gang to show that being unjust does not lead to success. If the robbers are unjust in all matters to each other, they could never work together to achieve their aims. The argument turns with the question, does the just or the unjust live happier? They end Book 1 with the argument that the just will lead better lives. Basically, the idea is that those who develop the virtues will live better lives. For example, those who pursue the seven deadly sins will suffer from it. 

In Book 2 a big question voiced by Socrates, "Is there in your opinion a kind of good that we would choose to have not because we desire its consequences, but because we delight in it for its own sake." This seems to be distinguishing ends from means. Socrates tells about a ring that makes one invisible. Would you seek the good if you could get away with doing the bad without harmful consequences or would you do the good if you did not receive good consequences, but bad ones. It reminds me of the book of Job when it is asked, Does God serve Job for nothing? They decide the best way to know what is justice by enlarging the framework by creating a city in speech. Basically, the city is divided between the farmers, soldiers, and rulers. Everyone will do the one thing they are good at. It seems everyone will be happy by doing the task that they are good at. The argument seems to be at the end of Book 2 that this would be just if everyone worked from their particular strength. One question about Book II is that it endorses censorship. The only poets are musicians allowed will be those whose ideas agree with the beliefs of the city. This chapter also emphasizes training children in the moral virtues. The city will not allow bad representations of the gods are heroes. I do not know if censorship is what is required for a just city. He will return to this subject in book X.

Books III-X

A Major theme of Plato's Republic is What is Justice. I summarized some of the answers to this question above. Socrates thought it might be more clear by seeing what is justice in a city. He argues that there is a close relationship between the city and the individual. The City is made up of three groups: Guardians, Soldiers, and Farmers. He describes three parts to the soul: the calculating or rational part, and the spirited part. The idea is that the guardians or rational part is to direct the other parts. In desribing this, he emphasizes the importance of cultivating both the moral and intellectual virtues.Of course, one of the most known parts of the Republic is the allegory of the cave. It is Socrate's idea on how we know the forms or the transcendentals. He describes this journey to knowledge as a quest. It is interesting that he describes that a only a few will take this journey to wisdom. He shows how many things can interfere in this quest for wisdom. He also says that intellectual pleasures are the greatest pleasure. 

Another theme of the Republic is whether the just man or the unjust man lives the good life. There are many answers to this question during the dialogue. Socrates believes that the just life is the good life and the unjust life is the wretched life. In some sense, the Republic is Socrate's argument that the just life is the best life. The Republic is a many layered work that discusses Plato's ideas of justice, society, government, education, and aesthetics. It is a book that requires many readings. I look forward to reading it again in the future.

Socrates states that education "is not what the professions of certain men assert it to be. They presumably assert that they put into the soul knowledge that isn't in it" (Book VII, 518 b-c). This reminds me of an experience I had many years ago. I enjoyed going to Tastee's Donuts to drink coffee and read. One night I was there grading papers. The owner's wife saw my grades and were appalled. She asked me why I was not "learning" them. The reason was that I could not learn them, but could just assist them in gaining knowledge. The main actor is the student, not the teacher. As Plato says, we are like midwives in assisting in the delivery. If we took this idea seriously, would it change how we taught? 

Plato's Argument for the Immortality of the Soul

Plato, Phaedo

In the first argument for the immortality of the soul, Socrates seems to be arguing from the cycle of life. He argues that the souls of people come from the underworld (54). He states, "If that is true, that the living come back from the dead, then our souls must exist there..."(54). This seems to make sense. Where do souls come from? It seems this argument is as strong as other explanations of the origin of the soul. Materialists, of course, would say there are no souls, so they will not accept the argument; but if we accept the existence of souls, and they are immortal, the first argument seems supported. What I do notice is that the arguments are interconnected, so to accept one it seems you have to accept the others. The second argument is the argument of recollection. This seems to be a strong argument since most people experience deja vu. It seems that we have done the same thing before or remember doing it. There might be other explanations for this experience. Another support of this argument is that we seem to be born with a knowledge of the forms. How do we know these things? It does seem sometimes we experience an opening of the curtain and we know things or have a mystical experience. In the third argument, Socrates differentiates the soul/body, the visible/invisible, the material/immaterial. He states the body is visible and material and impermanent. In contrast, the soul is invisible, immaterial and permanent. This seems to be a strong argument for the immortality of the soul. These comparisons seem accurate. In addition, he argues that knowledge through the senses are ever-changing; in contrast, reasoning about the forms are eternal. How we experience the body does seem that us (soul?) is different from the body. In addition, we have reports of people leaving their bodies for a short time. The last argument seems to be based on the theory of the forms. He even thinks that "Mind" directs everything (69). He says that we assume "the existence of a Beautiful, itself by itself, of a Good and a Great" (70). He says particulars are made what they are through participation in the forms. For example, something is beautiful by participating in the beautiful. Then, he argues that opposites cannot exist in itself. I am not sure I understand what he means by this, but he argues if the soul is what gives life, it is indestructible and deathless and cannot give death. He argues that the "soul will never admit the opposite of that which it brings along" (73). I admit I do not completely understand these arguments, but I hope I understand it a little. I try to think of these arguments in the context of their time and the immortality of the soul seems supported by these arguments. Other arguments could be added to it. For example, since people do not get their due in this life, so their must be another life where sinners will be punished and the righteous rewarded.

Is Socrates wrong to start from certain cultural beliefs and to see where the thought will take him? It might be wrong to view Socrates as a purely rational thinker. Maybe, there is both faith and reason in Socrates use of dialectic. Descartes wanted to start from scratch, but I think he was wrong in his pursuit.