Monday, June 26, 2023

The Nicomachean Ethics - moderate Aristotle - clarity within the limits of the subject matter


I will borrow the quotation from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics I found on p. 186 of Gary Paul Morson’s extraordinary new study of the ethics if Russian literature:

Our discussion will be adequate if it achieves clarity within the limits of the subject matter.  For precision cannot be expected in the treatment of all subjects alike, any more than it can be expected in all manufactured articles…  Therefore in a discussion of such subjects [the just, the good]… we must be satisfied to indicate the truth with a rough and general sketch…  For a well-schooled man is one who searches for that degree of precision in each kind of study which the nature of the subject at hand admits: it is obviously just as foolish to accept arguments of probability from a mathematician as to demand strict demonstrations from an orator.  (Bk I, Ch 3, tr. Martin Ostwald – Morson uses a different translation)

Aristotle will be surprised, and highly interested, in advances in mathematics that invalidate his last example, but aside from that what strikes me here is how Aristotle’s approach is so different than Socrates’s.  No pursuit of the perfect definition for Aristotle.  Close enough is good enough, even if the definition does not cover every weird edge case.  How much of philosophy is debate over weird edge cases?  Don’t waste your time, is Aristotle’s advice.  He has more interesting things to do than push fat people in front of trains.

I see one reason I have trouble writing this piece.  Aristotle is the philosopher of the moderate and the ordinary.  His ethical system is an extended argument for moderation in almost all things.  His arguments are too complex to label them common sense, but they are generally commonsensical.  He rarely says anything too strange or wildly imaginative.  He is not the philosopher to argue that nothing exists or to write a proto-novel about the pre-historic war between Athens and Atlantis.

In other words, I find Aristotle a little boring, in part because I am mostly sympathetic.

The material world exists.  It exists pretty much as you perceive it – close enough.  The epistemological  problems that bothered so many philosophers are nonsense.  Pleasure is real, so enjoy it, but don’t overdo it.  True happiness and true friendship are founded on virtue and contemplation, but other kinds of happiness and friendship are valuable, too.

Sounds good to me.

Someday I will read the hard stuff, Metaphysics and so on.  Not this time round.

The philosophers for “next month,” which is now, are the Cynics.  I have been enjoying a surprisingly well-written guide for students, Cynics (2008) by William Desmond, and enjoying even more the writing of Lucian, the great, unique 2nd Century satirist.  The fragments of my hero Diogenes the Cynic will fit in there somewhere.

Then we will turn to Epicureanism and its sublime poetic exposition The Nature of Things (or whatever title your translator chooses) by Lucretius.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Books I Read in May 2023

I had a good time.


The Nicomachean Ethics (4th C. BCE), Aristotle - a post, however shallow, should appear soon.


Joseph in Egypt (1936), Thomas Mann

The Long Valley (1938) &

The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck - I last read this probably forty years ago.  The great turtle chapter is still great.  It's not Moby-Dick, but the mix of rhetorical modes is brilliant and sophisticated.  I have read five Steinbeck books recently and have been enjoying them a lot, kitsch, propaganda, and all.  

The World and All It Holds (2023), Aleksandar Hemon - look, a new novel.  Written at the usual Hemon level (high), but the subject is grindingly depressing.  Hemon shoves his poor protagonist into the world's worst places.  Be warned.


Selected Poetry (1940-73) &

Peasant's Wake for Fellini's Casanova and Other Poems (1986-8), Andrea Zanzotto

To Each His Own (1966), Leonardo Sciascia - this is the only book actually related to where I am going.  Another anti-Mafia anti-mystery.

If Not Now, When? (1982), Primo Levi - an adventure novel about Russian Jewish partisans, with barely any Italy in it at all.

Eldorado (2006), Laurent Gaudé - no, this one is about Sicily, too, if distantly.  The state of Mediterranean immigration circa 2006.  I read it in French, since the Portland, Maine, public library has a copy in French.  Good library.


More Was Lost (1946), Eleanor Perényi - a memoir of love and bad timing.  A 19 year-old American marries into the Hungarian nobility in 1937.  Events ensue.  Bad, bad events.  Only in her mid-twenties when she wrote the book, her youthful voice is a pleasure amidst the crises and tragedies. 


Adonis (1657), Jean de La Fontaine

A Harpa do Crente (1838), Alexandre Herculano - the great Portuguese Romantic poet, his ostentatious tomb dwarfing the Modernist tomb of Fernando Pessoa in the Jerónimos monastery in Lisbon.

Le bleu du ciel (1935/1957), George Bataille

Le Mont Analogue (1944/1952), René Daumal - I have been catching up on mid-century French weirdos.  The current Wiki for the Bataille novel says it "deals with necrophilia."  The book is in the French decadent tradition, but boy does that give the wrong idea.  As metaphor, not wrong.

I still owe a post on Gide's anti-novel The Counterfeiters.