Monday, February 27, 2012

What Should Government Do?

One of my personal philosophical guides is Robert Heinlein. As I work through the Great Books, various elements remind me of questions and passages from his works. I thought I'd share them here.
This first one is from 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress'. The story is about the revolution of a lunar colony that is loosely based on convict colonies like Australia. The scene takes place as the three main characters are feeling out the political leanings of each other.

"Dear lady, I must come to Manuel's defense. He has a correct evaluation even though he may not be able to state it. May I ask this? Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?"
"Uh . . . that's a trick question."
"It is the key question, my dear Wyoming. A radical question that strikes to the root of the whole dilemma of government. Anyone who answers honestly and abides by all consequences knows where he stands - and what he will die for."
'Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?' I've been working on this question for more than twenty years and I still don't feel like I have a good handle on it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

On Wealth

I thought there were a number of interesting passages from Plato and Aristotle on various aspects of wealth. First from Plato:
the makers of fortunes have a second love of money as a creation of their own, resembling the affection of authors for their own poems, or of the parents for their children, besides that natural love of it for the sake of use and profit which is common to them and all men. And hence they are very bad company, for they can talk about nothing but the praises of wealth.
It seems to me that the comparison of authors and their poems is wholly different than that of parents and their children. Whereas a child is mostly loved unconditionally, a poem (or other creative output) is loved more on its perceived merits. Every author (songwriter, director, etc.) that I've ever read read of has favorites and not so favorites. They believe that item A is better than item B and act accordingly. Even if the rest of the world disagrees, they have a scale of value.
Not so with children. We really only hear of parents disowning their children in the most extreme situations and even then not reliably. Even the most horrible criminal has family members that will stand by them. But even outside of that, parents are not able to be all that rational when it comes to their children. I know of no modern play-write who will compare themselves with Shakespeare. I also know of no parent who doesn't believe their children are less than special.
I suspect that the comparison to a poet is the better one. A man who has made his fortune making life saving medicine will be more proud of that fortune than one who has made it counterfeiting drugs.

And then to Aristotle in 'Politics':
Now money-making, as we say, being twofold, it may be applied to two purposes, the service of the house or retail trade; of which the first is necessary and commendable, the other justly censurable; for it has not its origin in nature but by it men gain from each other; for usury is most reasonably detested, as it is increasing our fortune by money itself, and not employing it for the purpose it was originally intended, namely exchange.
And this is the explanation of the name (TOKOS), which means the breeding of money. For as offspring resemble their parents, so usury is money bred of money. Whence of all forms of money-making it is most against nature.
So simple exchange is fine but any kind of more complicated finance is unnatural? For centuries then, people have been questioning what money 'breeders' are really adding to society. The answers are out there in particular but probably easier to see in general. Cultures that adopt practices like charging interest (usury) and other aspects of finance have much more wealth than cultures that don't. That's true from the top to the bottom.
I wonder if Aristotle would have understood this better had he lived at a later time?

Monday, February 20, 2012

March Reading

Plutarch: 'Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans' (only Lycurgus, Numa Pompilius, Lycurgus and Numa compared, Alexander, Caesar) Kindle/Nook/Google

Just a heads up, this is a longer selection than the two previous months worth. It's biography and reads quickly but be warned that you might need to give it more time.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Slavery - Modern Focus

I mentioned slavery while discussing Aristotle's 'Politics'. I said that slavery was an unchallenged norm of the time and I was curious when that really changed. It seems that centuries later, Aristotle still had a seat at the debate. In 'Politics' he says:
those who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beast—and they are in this state if their work is the use of the body, and if this is the best that can come from them—are slaves by nature. For them it is better to be ruled in accordance with this sort of rule, if such is the case for the other things mentioned.
So some people are simply made for slavery; those that are as different from others as the man from the beast. Unfortunately this is hardly a clear distinction. When the Spanish met up with the natives in the New World they must have seemed to qualify and the Spanish virtually enslaved them. This was the argument of a 16th century theologian.
Before the New World was found, there was a much smaller racial component to slavery. In ancient Greece slaves came from a few different categories. They were sometimes conquered peoples. They were also something like indentured servants. Fellow Greeks were slaves. Some slaves were used as teachers and tutors. It's hard to imagine the conquistadors bringing back Aztecs for use as teachers and tutors . . .
Over many centuries, Western civilization had been more or less comfortable with slaves and quasi slaves such as serfs. Then with exploration they discovered groups of people that they could comfortably regard as beasts. I don't know how much attention people had paid to Aristotle's ideas on slaves before then but it certainly would have made sense then.
Only something else happened at the same time. A Spanish settler named De Las Casas found himself shocked at the treatment of natives/slaves in Cuba. He worked and worked and in 1542, Spain enacted laws outlawing slavery in their colonies. Pro slavery forces weakened the laws in a few years but now their was real argument against the practice. It would take some centuries, but eventually slavery would become illegal throughout the West.

When Western explorers came in contact with a more obvious 'other' they felt free to use them as slaves. They also treated them much worse than they had their countrymen. In fact, they treated them so badly that it shocked the conscious of some of the society's thinkers and led them to develop universal arguments against the practice of slavery.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Politics 1 - Aristotle

Aristotle starts off with a discussion of how people are grouped, comparing villages, cities and families. He talks about leaders and I found this interesting:
It is also from natural causes that some beings command and others obey, that each may obtain their mutual safety; for a being who is endowed with a mind capable of reflection and forethought is by nature the superior and governor...
'A mind capable of reflection and forethought'. This isn't what we normally think of when we think of leadership but it probably should be. We tend to elevate the charismatic over the quiet thinkers. Here is the rest of the sentence:
whereas he whose excellence is merely corporeal is formed to be a slave; whence it follows that the different state of master and slave is equally advantageous to both.
Well, that's more than a bit problematic. In fact it was hard for my modern eyes to read the long sections of this pieces that defended slavery. I'm going to do some side reading and try to get a handle on just what slavery meant in ancient Greece and there may be a follow up post.
If you take the above to mean that by nature, some people will command and others will be commanded, then I think this is true. I think that's what Aristotle is saying. He is defending the status quo by saying that the current societal arrangement has occurred because, as everyday life unfolded, the current arrangement was simply the most natural. It wasn't designed or pre-thought of like in the Platonic exercises, it exists because that's how things happen.
Of course it is tough for us to look at this some two millenia later because we see how that status quo was unfair. We see the evils of slavery. We see the subjugation of women (another place where this piece raised some modern eyebrows!). We see things much later in the process of figuring out human rights and that makes it hard to understand why they didn't get it back then.
On the other hand, virtually every pre-Enlightenment civilization around the globe that grew past the village stage, practiced slavery and treated women as second class citizens. As things unfolded in everyday ways, everywhere around the world they seemed to fit this same pattern. It would be easy to look at this as the natural turn of events.

Aristotle also talks about the the proper roles of families and kingdoms, particularly when it comes to acquiring property. He was against it. He considers the proper role of family to be that of improving the virtue and character of wife and children. This seems unconvincing to me, as the two actions aren't exclusive to each other. He also attacks usury, arguing that the idea of money making money is akin to incest. Fascinating but also not convincing. I think I'll try to put together something on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle on wealth.

Altogether, very interesting.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ethics - Aristotle

Unlike Plato, this was my first reading of Aristotle. I've read about him certainly, but never directly followed up and read his text. Or, it should be said, the notes that were taken from his lectures and printed up as text. (If we ever get a time machine, one of the first missions should be to go back to Ancient Greece and get some recordings!)
The style of writing is very different than Plato's dialogues. Much denser. Most every paragraph I would have to circle back and reread to make sure I was really understanding what was written. So be gentle with me, fellow readers! If I missed a point or you have disagreement with my interpretation, please point it out.

Book One of 'Ethics' is largely a discussion on finding the greatest good. Aristotle considers several popular avenues and defines the greatest good as 'happiness'. Not, mind you, a search for 'slavish' pleasure but a deeper happiness. He considers this a great goal for the people and if it is great for the people, it is of course good for the state as well.
He looks at different paths to happiness. He puts aside the pursuit of wealth as a real goal since wealth is simply used towards other means. His solution is this:

Why then should we hall happy the man who works in the way of pefect
virtue, and is furnished with external goods sufficient for acting his part in
the drama of life: and this during no ordinary period but such as constitues a
complete life as we have been describing it.

This seems like a very reasonable answer to me.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Philosophical Mystery

A very interesting article here on the identity of a mysterious modern philosopher. This has only a nodding connection to the Great Books but I think that anyone reading this blog would find it interesting.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Republic 1 and 2 - Plato

Back to Plato! The Republic is basically a long conversation, or series of conversations mostly having to do with the nature of justice. This leads to a broader discussion of government, or how to order a society.
The first book largely deals with whether justice is a virtue or not. On the face of it, this seems like a preposterous question since we use 'justice' and 'virtue' as nearly interchangeable terms. But the question does become interesting once it is dug into. Restated, who makes out better, the just man or the unjust one? Can you lead a more successful life by cheating?
In the second book Socrates is asked for a definition of 'justice'. He decides to look for justice at the very creation of the state. This then springboards into a discussion of what an ideal state would look like. After a short detour into how to train the guardians, he talks about how to teach the children of the state.
One of the difficulties that I've had reading Plato is that I find it far to easy to argue with him. For instance when justice is defined as 'repaying your debts', Socrates says:
Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and he asks for them when he is not in his right mind, ought I to give them back to him? No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so, any more than they would say that I ought always to speak the truth to one who is in his condition.

This is certainly true but also incomplete. Paying debts is certainly just but in the case there is another thing to consider; whether or not repaying the debt at one limited time would be in the best interest of your friend. Time and again it seems that Socrates will use a specific to disprove a general.
I've come to see this as limited thinking on my part though. If we want a complete definition of justice then we have to acknowledge the limitations of a general rule. We have to understand the various tiers of concerns that come into play. We must work harder at it and frankly, that work is its own reward. Or as Stan said here:
the dialogues are best read as a training ground for philosophic thought, rather than a source for statements of Platonic dogma.
So the challenge becomes not to nitpick but to figure out what the better answers would be. And what the better questions would be too!

In the second book Socrates tackles a problem in a way that I greatly respect. When answering a question about the state he doesn't look to adjust what has been built organically, he instead says 'what would the ideal look like' and then goes from there. Too often I think that we take the current state for granted and simply try to tweak. The Platonic system offers a way to look at the perfect and compare.
I was a bit frustrated by the cut off in this reading assignment because I started to get caught up in the piece right near the end. When I have time I will definitely move on and read more about the ideal states. We cover books 6 and 7 during year four but none of the rest.

What did the rest of you think?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Biography of Aristotle

Aristotle was born in northern Greece but was sent to Athens when he was 18 so he could study at Plato's academy. So the chain goes Socrates > Plato > Aristotle. Which is an amazing set of brains for one school.
He was at the academy for about 20 years. One story has him leaving because he doesn't like the direction the school takes after Plato died. Another story is that he fled a growing anti-Macedonian sentiment. After traveling for a bit he was invited to Macedon by King Philip II and there he became the tutor to Alexander the Great.
According to Wikipedia:

Aristotle not only studied almost every subject possible at the time, but
made significant contributions to most of them. In physical science, Aristotle
studied anatomy, astronomy,
embryology, geography,
geology, meteorology, physics and zoology. In philosophy, he wrote on
aesthetics, ethics, government, metaphysics, politics, economics, psychology,
rhetoric and theology. He also studied education, foreign customs, literature
and poetry. His combined works constitute a virtual encyclopedia of Greek
knowledge. It has been suggested that Aristotle was probably the last person to
know everything there was to be known in his own time.

Not too shabby. Unfortunately it is thought that only about a third of his writings still survive. This is a true tragedy, one that wasn't really brought home to me until I read Umberto Eco's wonderful 'Name of the Rose'.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Biography of Plato

Plato was born of a well to do family. There is some dispute over his name with an ancient suggestion that his true name was 'Aristocles' but he was called 'Plato' because he was broadly built. I humbly present that this should give hope to all of us who could stand to lose a few pounds.
He was a student of Socrates and from what I understand virtually everything he wrote was taken from the speaking of his teacher. This leads to questions over how much we can trust just how close a trancription he took. On the other hand, what has been left to history reads as clean conversation.
According to A.N. Whitehead:

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition
is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the
systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his
writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them.

So keep in mind that this is a biggie here.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

First Month Finale

I forgot to put this up last week, but since we haven't started digging in to month two yet, it isn't too late. This is mostly a place for some more thoughts on Socrates and Aristophanes. So . . .
  • Should Socrates have tried to escape as he was urged to in the Crito?
  • Was there more to 'Clouds' than I mentioned?
  • Would Lysistrata have been able to stop a war by withholding sex?

And of course

  • What did Socrates think he was accomplishing in 'the Apology'?

After one month I'm pretty happy with this project. I've spent many a night falling asleep while pondering some Plato. Stan said this would change our lives and I can see that. I'm also very happy to have some companions on the Great Books path with me. We only have 119 months left but I'm sure we'll have a good time.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Author Timeline

At some point I'll put one of these together for the whole author list. It's interesting to see how the list clumps, both in time and geography. Anyway, this (again) is just for this year.

Aristophanes 446 - 386
Plato 424? - 348?
Aristotle 384 - 322

Plutarch 46 - 120
Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles (around the end of the first century)
St. Augistine 354 - 430
Machiavelli 1469 - 1527
Rabelais 1494 - 1553
Montaigne 1533 - 1592
Shakespeare 1564 - 1616
Locke 1632 - 1704
Rousseau 1712 - 1778
Gibbon 1737 - 1794
Declaration of Independence - 1776
The Constitution of the US - 1787
Federalist Papers 1787 -1788
Smith 1723 - 1790
Marx/Engles 1818 - 1883/1820 - 1895

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

February Reading

Again, here are the pieces for this month:

Plato: 'Republic' books 1 and 2 Kindle/Nook/Google
Aristotle: 'Ethics' book 1 Kindle/Nook/Google
Aristotle: 'Politics' Book 1 Kindle/Nook/Google

You may want to know that we'll be returning to some of these again in the future. Here is a full list of the ten years if you'd like to look at it. It doesn't break it down by month like I have but at least you see what else is out there. (I'll post the full breakdown at some point.)