June 06, 2006

How I spent my summer vacation VI

Well, the weekend was mostly spent reading for fun. (Yes! Weekends! Whooo!) And I was hired to teach a math class at a CC just on the other side of the Michigan border, so much of yesterday's writing time was taken up throwing together an assignment sheet.

So this covers reading I've done since Friday, finishing up the Ancients (I'm skipping Cicero and Plotinus because they haven't actually been on the exam in four years). Once I actually start reading today, it'll be on to Augustine.

Metaphysics, selections from books 7, 8, 9, and 12

The so-called middle books of Metaphysics deal with Aristotle's mature metaphysics of substance. It's quite involved -- in previous years, 'explain Aristotle's theory of substances' has been an entire long question of its own. However, briefly:

A thing is a compound of form and matter. Matter, ultimately, is unstructured, propertyless gunk ('gunk' is actually a term of art in contemporary metaphysics), 'pure potentiality'. It is the form of a thing that gives it all its structure -- and Aristotle argues that the form is what we call the 'essence' of a thing, that which makes it the thing it is. Thus, Socrates is Socrates because that particular matter which individuates him (ie, his matter, as opposed to Plato's) is structured into the human form. However, Aristotelean forms are, ontologically speaking, nothing over and above their instantiations; there is no Platonic Form of the Human in some intelligible realm in which Socrates participates or approximates. The structure, by itself, is literally no(-)thing; Aristotle draws an analogy (or perhaps makes an even stronger connection) with a subject and predicate, so that an uninstantiated form is like a predicate ('is human') that isn't predicated of any subject ('Socrates'). It's only when the two are brought together into a complementary whole ('Socrates is human') that there's any being or meaning.

The selection from book 12 concerns Aristotle's prime mover. The picture starts with an Eudoxean theory of nested celestial spheres responsible for the motions of the stars and planets; to prevent an infinite regress, this setup required an unmoved or first mover. But if we recall Aristotle's theory of change, and motion, the potentiality of the mover qua mover is actualized in bringing about the motion, ie, physically speaking, the agent qua agent must change themselves. How, then, can there be a mover that is not moved? Aristotle's solution is that 'objects of desire' move without changing: the cake doesn't need to do anything for me to want to eat it. The prime mover is therefore an object of desire for the outermost sphere -- in particular, the outmost sphere desires to emulate the prime mover. The only way it can do this, however, is through its eternal rotation, which causes the next interior sphere to rotation, and so on.

Since this eternal rotation is necessary (according to certain background assumptions widely shared among the ancient Greeks), the prime mover must necessarily exist in an eternally fixed and absolutely good fashion. From this, Aristotle concludes that it is eternally engaged in the eternal and highest good of contemplation; and, further, the only thing it can possibly be thinking of (to be eternal and absolutely good) is its own contemplation. That is, Aristotle's prime mover is 'a thinking on thinking', and this is the highest and most universal good.

This contrasts quite sharply with the Abrahamic divine we are much more familiar with in the West: the prime mover is not a creator -- the Aristotelean cosmos exists necessarily of its own accord, and is neither created nor destroyed -- and is essentially (as opposed to accidentally) solipsistic. Later, this will lead the Islamic and Christian Aristoteleans to posit their God qua creator as metaphysically prior to the prime mover; this gets incredibly esoteric by the time Aristotle is brought back to Europe, but, thankfully, none of that material appears to be on the reading list.

Nicomchean ethics, books 1-3, 6, 10

This is the first book on the list I've really looked forward to reading -- it should be no surprise that I'm far more interested in the question of how we should live our lives than what counts as substance.

Nicomachus was Aristotle's son, and this collection of lecture notes (most of Aristotle's surviving texts are believed to be lecture notes, based on their terse, dense style) was either edited by or simply dedicated to him.

The opening book is centered on the famous (at least, among ethicists) Function [ergon] Argument of chapter 7. This, in turn, is built on Aristotle's understanding of virtue or excellence [arete]. The virtue of a thing is whatever makes it valuable for being the sort of thing it is: the virtue of an eye is sharp sight, the virtue of a horse is its speed, and the virtue of a human is her rationality and ability to reason. (This is where the alternative translation is useful to contemporary English speakers: the virtue of something is whatever makes it excellent.) Hence, the good of a thing is functioning according to the particular virtue of its sort of thing; and thus the good of a person is functioning according to (in accordance with) her rationality.

The state of functioning in this way (eudaimonia) is translated, poorly, as 'happiness'. As discussed in book 6, happiness is not mere sensual pleasure, but is tied to excellence in activities of all sorts and the quality of 'practical wisdom' (I believe this translates phronesis, which is translated elsewhere as 'prudence'). Eudaimonia is the one complete and whole, and therefore the purest and highest, good: unlike sensual pleasures, which can be enhanced if accompanied by intellectual reflection and good company, eudaimonia cannot be improved upon in any way; and unlike entertainment and rest (which are undertaken, according to Aristotle, for the sake of rejuvenating ourselves, ie, for the sake of activity), eudaimonia is pursued for its own sake. Recalling the discussion of the prime mover, it is also the most divine state.

Book 2 gives a characterization of moral virtue as a moderation of extremes -- the virtuous person chooses to neither eat to excess nor starve themselves, but has a healthy, moderated diet, &c. Generally speaking, there will be two extreme vices and one moderated virtue; but this seems to break down with some vices, such as fidelity/adultery (how do you have 'too much' faithfulness to your partner?). There is an interesting discussion in chapter 4 that establishes being virtuous is more than simply acting virtuously -- to be just, one must knowingly choose to have a virtuous character.

Book 3 talks about the voluntary and involuntary, and arrives at the conclusion that we can only be praised or blamed for actions we choose, and that choice must be both voluntary and deliberative. The notion of a 'free will' won't be developed until Augustine, so this does not yet rise to a metaphysical discussion; Aristotle is more concerned about outlining some fairly intuitive circumstances of when we are coerced and compelled versus when we choose our actions.

Book 10 picks up on an earlier discussion of pleasure in book 7; the conclusions here seem fairly minor, and it is odd that they are assigned without including the earlier book. The final few chapters turn to politics, which is essentially ethics for the entirety of the community: echoing statements made back in book 1, the statesman's responsibility is the maintenance of the virtue and 'happiness' of the population as a whole.

Sadly, the reading list did not include books 8 and 9, which cover friendship, a topic that very few philosophers have showed much interest in.

It's quite likely that the ethical selections from Augustine, Aquinas, and Scotus will make references back to Nicomachean ethics; I'll probably have to come back to sections of this text later.

Total pages read: 525

Interesting philosophical link: The ethics of piracy (no, not that kind of piracy).

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