Friday, March 23, 2018

What is Final Causality or Teleology?

Edward Feser, in his book Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Chapter 2, “Metaphysics”), offers the following explanation for teleology:
“for the Aristotelian, final causation or teleology…is evident wherever some natural object or process has a tendency to produce some particular effect or range of effects. A match, for example, reliably generates heat and flame when struck. and never (say) frost and cold, or the smell of lilacs, or thunder. It inherently “points to” or is “directed towards” this range of effects specifically, and in that way manifests just the sort of end- or goal-directedness characteristic of final causality, even though the match does not (unlike a heart or a carburetor) function as an organic part of a larger system. The same directedness towards a specific effect or range of effects is evident in all causes operative in the natural world. When Aristotelians say that final causality pervades the natural order, then, they are not making the implausible claim that everything has a function of the sort biological organs have, including piles of dirt, iron filings and balls of lint. Rather, they are saying that goal-directedness exists wherever regular cause and effect patterns do.”

Thursday, March 22, 2018

John Locke’s Debt to Spinoza

Spinoza; Locke
When he was accused by the Bishop of Worcester of being a follower of Spinoza, John Locke replied, “I am not so well read in Hobbes or Spinoza to be able to say what were their opinions in this matter.”

But there is evidence to show that Locke, Spinoza’s exact contemporary, acquired Spinoza’s works immediately after their publication and thoroughly studied them. The philosophy that Locke developed was built almost entirely on the foundations of Spinozism.

Locke did not want to acknowledge his debt to Spinoza, because, during those days, Spinozism was seen as a threat to the traditional way of religious and philosophical thinking. The political and intellectual establishment regarded Spinoza with horror; his works were forbidden in Holland, England and several other countries in Europe. Locke knew about the controversies surrounding Spinoza, and for his own safety he wanted to downplay his connection with Spinozism. In fact, Locke published his own political writings anonymously to avoid any personal risk.

Matthew Stewart, in his book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, devotes several chapters to making the case that the foundational concepts in Locke’s philosophy are in essence a reproduction of Spinoza’s work. He writes: “So-called Lockean liberalism is really just Spinozistic radicalism adapted to the limitations of the common understanding of things.” In another book, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God in the Modern World, Stewart points out that Leibniz regarded Locke as a feeble imitation of Spinoza.

Stewart can be accused of being too unkind to Locke—in some of the passages it seems he is not taking into account Locke’s full context, and is giving too much credit to Spinoza. But in his two books (the ones that I am mentioning in this post), Stewart offers several sentences from Locke’s writing which closely mirror what Spinoza has written.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Nature’s God

Matthew Stewart, in Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, offers an interesting perspective on the religious and philosophical origins of the American revolution. He finds ample evidence of the influence of philosophers like Epicurus, Spinoza and Locke in the writings of Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Paine and other intellectuals.

Considerable attention is given in the book to the work of the two revolutionaries who were also outspoken deists, Ethan Allen and Thomas Young. Stewart’s thesis is that deism, which is a kind of "secular natural religion” inspired by the teachings of Epicurus, Spinoza and Locke, has played a critical role in the birth of America.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 5, “Self-Evident Truths,” in which Stewart is describing the influence of Spinoza and Locke on the development of the concept of freedom:
Spinoza captures most of the implications of these forbiddingly abstract and very counterintuitive ideas with a distinction between “active” and “passive” power. When a physical body acts in a manner that can be entirely employed through internal causes, it is active. When its actions are determined by outside forces (which is to say, when its actions are really reactions), it is passive. An active body is “free” in the sense of being determined to act through its own nature, while a passive body is not self-determined… The next step in Spinoza’s argument amounts to applying this same distinction between active and passive to minds as well as bodies. When the mind acts through ideas that adequately explain itself and its place in the world, it is active. When it acts through inadequate ideas, it is passive. Freedom in this sense is obviously not a binary, take-it-or-leave-it thing like the imaginary “free will”; it necessarily comes in degrees—degrees that match the adequacy of our ideas and range of our consciousness. Locke repeats the distinction between “active” and “passive” and then applies it to “actions of both motion and thinking” in language close enough to Spinoza to raise suspicion of direct borrowing.  
From the analysis that Locke and Spinoza share to this point, it follows that the freedom of mind, properly understood, does not consist in the ability to affirm propositions without reason or cause, as the common view supposes. Rather, freedom is just the power of the understanding itself. To be free it is necessary first to know oneself; and to know oneself it is necessary to first know the world. The absence of freedom, conversely, is just the lack of understanding. There is no such thing as an unfree mind according to this view; there are unfree individuals, but what they lack is a mind. In a formula, radical freedom is rational self-determination. Or, to use the phrase that Jefferson inserted into the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the mind is “created… free.”

Monday, March 19, 2018

Immanuel Kant and The Origins of Modern Aesthetics

The philosophical discipline of aesthetics got its name in 1735 when twenty-one year old German student Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten used the term in his master's dissertation to refer to “a science of how things are to be known by means of the senses.” Baumgarten elaborated his definition of aesthetics in his Metaphysica (1739), and then in Aesthetica (1750).

Immanuel Kant was acquainted with Baumgarten's work. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant says that Baumgarten’s aesthetics can never contain objective rules, laws, or principles of natural or artistic beauty. Here’s an excerpt from Kant’s Critique: “The Germans are the only people who presently have come to use the word aesthetic[s] to designate what others call the critique of taste. They are doing so on the basis of a false hope conceived by that superb analyst Baumgarten. He hoped to bring our critical judging of the beautiful under rational principles, and to raise the rules for such judging to the level of a lawful science. That endeavor is futile.”

Kant conformed to Baumgarten's usage of the word “aesthetic” in his Critique of Judgment (1790). With his analysis of aesthetic experience, aesthetic creativity, freedom of imagination, and the connections between the aesthetic and the moral, Kant enriched the field of aesthetics. His work contributed to a rise in importance of aesthetics in the academic practice of philosophy.

Paul Guyer, in his essay, “The Origins of Modern Aesthetics,” (Chapter I, Visions of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics) conducts a review of developments in aesthetics in the 18th century. He holds that the figure of Kant is central to our understanding of aesthetics. Here’s a paragraph from Guyer’s essay in which he is explaining the significant contributions that Kant has made to the modern conception of aesthetics:
Kant’s complex and delicate interpretation of the freedom of the imagination in the experience of beauty can be seen as the summation and synthesis of ideas set forth at the outset of the flowering of modern aesthetics in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Kant transformed the idea of the autonomy of aesthetic response that Hutcheson derived from Shaftesury’s much more limited conception of the disinterestedness of judgements of taste into his basic conception of the free play of the imagination. At the same time, he developed Baumgarten’s conception of the complexity of aesthetic representation into an elaborate conception of the content of art and the symbolic significance of aesthetic response itself into a structure that could make room for Du Bos’s conception of the engagement of the emotions through the imagination and Addison’s idea of our love for images of liberty without sacrificing his guiding ideas of the free play of the imagination. 
According to Guyer, in the post-Kant period several threads in Kant’s fabric of aesthetics became unraveled, and this lead to a dilution in the Kantian aesthetic vision.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Immanuel Kant’s View of Genius

Paul Guyer, in his essay, “Exemplary Originality: Genius, Universality, and Individuality” (Chapter 10, Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics, edited by Paul Guyer) talks about a subject that was of great interest to Immanuel Kant and to Kant’s predecessors and successors, namely genius. Kant’s conception of genius as an instance of exemplary originality is markedly different from that of most other philosophers.

Here’s an excerpt from Guyer’s essay:
At the outset of the eighteenth century, genius was characterized simply as exceptional facility in perception and representation, where the latter is the object of artistic production and the former its precondition. As the century progressed, and as long into the nineteenth century as genius remained a lively topic, it came to be characterized as a gift for invention, leading to originality in artistic representation. But only by a few, whom we might for this reason call philosophical geniuses, were the implications of the new conception of genius fully embraced. Immanuel Kant was the first to recognize that genius, as exemplary originality, would be a stimulus and provocation to continuing revolution in the history of art…
Guyer points out that Kant in his Critique of the Power Judgement defines genius as “the talent (natural gift)” or “inborn productive faculty” “that gives the rule to art,” or more precisely “through which nature gives the rule to art.” Further in the essay, Guyer says:
Analysis of artistic beauty entails that truly successful art must always possess what Kant calls “exemplary originality”: originality, because the successful work of art can never appear to have produced contingency or novelty; yet exemplary, because it must at the same time strike us as pleasing in a way that should be valid for all. Originality by itself, to be sure, is easy to achieve: just make something that departs from all known rules and models. Of course, in this way a lot of nonsense will be produced, so what Kant calls “original nonsense” is easy to come by. The trick is to produce exemplary originality, objects which, “while not themselves the result of imitation… must yet serve others in that way, i.e., as a standard for judging,” or objects that strike us as original in appearing to depart from known rules and models but which can themselves be pleasing to all or a rule for all. Thus, in Kant’s view, all truly successful art must be the work of genius. 
Guyer’s essay also offers an interesting comparison between the views of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. But on that I will comment in a different blog. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Modal Properties, Moral Status, and Identity

In his essay, “Modal Properties, Moral Status, and Identity,” David S. Oderberg answers the objections that have been raised against the Identity thesis, the claim that the zygote and the embryo are individual human beings. He concentrates on the cluster of objections that are based on certain biological phenomenal and appeal to the modal properties of the zygote and the embryo—to what could happen to the immature human being in certain circumstances.

Here’s Oderberg’s explanation of the embryological terms:
The term 'embryo' comes from the Greek for 'to grow,' and simply means 'growing human being'; and 'foetus' comes from the Latin for 'young offspring.' Hence either term could properly be used to denote the human being at any stage of development. 'Zygote,' 'morula,' and 'blastocyst,' on the other hand, denote specifically cellular aspects of the early human-the first coming from the Greek for 'yoke,' and signifying the coming together of the gametes, the second from the Latin for 'mulberry' and signifying the shape of the cellular matter, and the third from the Greek for 'sprout' and 'bladder,' signifying the hollowing out of the cellular matter constituting the human being at this early stage. 
According to Oderberg, the status of the zygote and the embryo can only be understood when there is a proper grasp of the metaphysics of human identity and there is a determination to keep morality at the top of the scientific agenda. He argues that life starts at the stage of conception itself. Here’s an excerpt:
Conception is that event, typically involving the union of sperm and egg, which consists in a change in the intrinsic nature of a cell or group of cells, where that change confers on the cell (or its descendants in the case of division) the intrinsic potential to develop, given the right extrinsic factors, into a mature human being. Note that the concept of intrinsic potential employed here is not the same as that rejected earlier when discussing whether the zygote is a potential human being. It was claimed that the zygote is an actual human being, but the definition of conception just given appeals to the idea that it is an actual human being with the potential to develop into a mature member of its kind, as long as circumstances permit it. The intrinsic potential mentioned in the definition is, therefore, a property of its actual humanity. We can see that this definition excludes the possibility that the egg is a human being, since its nature would have to change; without that change, it does not have the intrinsic potential to develop into a mature human being. The definition includes the union of sperm and egg, however, since there is an intrinsic change of nature. Whether this change is in the sperm or the egg is irrelevant for metaphysical purposes—it could be the egg which is changed by the sperm, or vice versa. As a matter of brute biological fact, however, the sperm-egg union is best conceived of as a change in the egg: the sperm enters it from outside, disintegrates, and the nucleus in its head merges with the nucleus of the egg. The definition also includes parthenogenetic cells and cloned cells, both of which have undergone an intrinsic change of nature from mere gametes, somatic cells or whatever, to cells with the intrinsic potential, given the right environment, to develop into mature human beings. If one of these cells only develops for, say a few days and the embryo then dies, this is not because the cell lacks the intrinsic potential to develop into a baby, child, or adult, but because certain extrinsic factors are not present, such as important nutrients; and this is indeed the currently proposed biological explanation of why full development fails in the case of cloned or parthenogenetically generated nonhuman animals. 
Oderberg defines conception as the coming into existence of a human being and if that is the case then the zygote is a human being, the same human being as the adult into which it will develop. Therefore, according to Oderberg, a zygote has the moral status of a human being. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Locke and Leibniz on Exotic Rational Animals

Locke; Leibniz
John Locke believed that a rational parrot would be a person but not a human being.

In his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke declares that rational parrots “have passed for a race of rational animals,” but they are still parrots and not human beings, “for I presume it is not the idea of a thinking or rational being alone that makes the idea of a man in most people’s sense: but of a body, so and so shaped, joined to it: and if that be the idea of a man, the same successive body not shifted all at once, must, as well as the same immaterial spirit, go to the making of the same man.”

Further, Locke says: “Since I think I may be confident, that, whoever should see a creature of his own shape or make, though it had no more reason all its life than a cat or a parrot, would call him still a man; or whoever should hear a cat or a parrot discourse, reason, and philosophize, would call or think it nothing but a cat or a parrot; and say, the one was a dull irrational man, and the other a very intelligent rational parrot. A relation we have in an author of great note, is sufficient to countenance the supposition of a rational parrot."

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is in agreement with Locke on this issue. In his New Essays on Human Understanding, Leibniz says, “there is no obstacle to there being rational animals of some other species than ours… Indeed it does seem that the definition of ‘man’ as ‘rational animal’ needs to be amplified by something about the shape and anatomy of the body; otherwise, according to my views, Spirits would also be men.”

In an earlier paragraph, Leibniz says: “I think I may be confident that anyone who saw a creature with a human shape and anatomy would call it ‘a man’, even if throughout its life it gave no more appearance of reason than a cat or a parrot does; and that anyone who heard a parrot talk and reason and philosophize wouldn’t describe it or think of it as anything but a parrot. We would all say that the first of these animals was a dull irrational man, and the second a very intelligent rational parrot.”

Like Locke, Leibniz believed that being a rational animal is not a sufficient condition for a creature to be classified as a human being—it is more important for the creature to look like a human being. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Power of Books

Matthew Stewart in Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (Chapter: “The Dirty Little Screw of the American Revolution”):

“DO BOOKS MATTER? Do they change minds—or do we just read into them whatever we want to know? We live in the most literate age in human history, yet many people today find few things less useful than books, and no books as useless as those of the philosophers. Many scholars today take for granted that philosophy is a technical discipline concerned with questions that can make sense only to a cadre of professionals trained to a perfection of irrelevance. The wider public, meanwhile, tends to think of philosophy as a place to stash all the questions that well up wherever our knowledge runs completely dry: the meaning of life, why there is something rather than nothing, the existence of the supernatural, and all that. Of the many attributes that seem to mark America’s founders as residents of a foreign time and place, probably none is more astonishing today than their unapologetic confidence in the power of books—and in particular the books of the philosophers.”

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Diffusion and Diminution of Stoicism

Artistic impression of Epictetus
with his crutch
A. A. Long, in his essay, “Stoicism in the Philosophical Tradition: Spinoza, Lipsius, Butler” (Chapter 15; The Cambridge Companion to The Stoic Ethics, Edited by Brad Inwood), says stoicism has never been fashioned as a systematic philosophy.

One of the reasons for this, Long says, is that the work of ancient Stoics is far less accessible in its original and comprehensive form than the work of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Sextus Empericus. Only a few fragments of the work of the pre-Roman stoics is extant. It is the treatments of Stoic ethics by Roman scholars like Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius that became influential during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and are responsible for the traces of Stoic ideas that we find in Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Rousseau, Grotius, Shaftesbury, Adam Smith, and Kant.

The development of Stoicism as a systematic philosophy was also hindered because of its core ideas getting assimilated in popular religious and philosophical movements.

Here’s an excerpt from Long’s essay:
In addition to the fragmentary state of the ancient sources, Stoicism was easily conflated or assimilated, on casual acquaintance, to ideas associated with the much more familiar names of Platonism and Aristotelianism. The conflation is not, of course, wholly mistaken. Outside metaphysics and technical logic, the three philosophies do have much in common, as the Academic Antiochus, Cicero’s friend and teacher, recognized. How easily they could be eclectically synthesized is particularly evident in the works of Philo of Alexandria, and even in Plotinus. This assimilation becomes still more complex in the writings of such early Christian thinkers as Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Calcidius. Some Stoic doctrines, such as the identification of God with fire and the denial of the soul’s immortality, were anathema to the early Fathers of the Church – which helps to explain why no complete texts by any early Stoic philosophers have survived. But early Christianity appropriated a great deal of Stoic ethics without acknowledgment. 
Unlike Epicureanism, Stoicism has never been a monolithic church. Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius were creative in their own way—they disagreed with each other on many issues, and they developed their own opinions on various aspects their version of Stoic philosophy. Long points out that despite there being several major differences between Stoicism and Christianity, Stoic ethics and Christian ethics have been fully assimilated. So to a large extent Stoicism is now an unacknowledged part of the Christian tradition.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Aristotelian and Epicurean Tyrants of Athens

A vital landmark in history of philosophy are the years 88–86 B.C., when first a Peripatetic philosopher, Athenion, and then an Epicurean, Aristion, briefly gained absolute power in Athens, both siding with Mithridates against the Roman army led by Sulla. Ironically during the reign of the two philosophers Athens lost its status as world’s center of philosophy.

Athenion was reigning when Sulla laid a crippling siege on Athens. At the end of the siege the Roman troops sacked the city, and Aristion, who was then in power, was executed on Sulla’s command.

There is considerable difference of opinion among historians on whether Athenion and Aristion were same person or two different tyrants who acquired power in quick succession. According to Posidonius, the tyrant’s name was Athenion and he was a Peripatetic philosopher. But Pausanias, Appian, and Plutarch, call him Aristion, and Appian says that Aristion was an Epicurean.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Why Did Early Stoicism Ignore Aristotle?

Zeno of Citium came to Athens around 300 BC and founded the School of Stoicism which formed a deep bond with the philosophical culture in ancient Greece. But we don’t find any sign of engagement between Zeno's Stoicism and Aristotle’s philosophy. David Sedley offers an answer in his essay, “The School, from Zeno to Arius Didymus” (Chapter 1; The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, edited by Brad Inwood). Here’s an excerpt:
One apparent feature of early Stoicism that has caused controversy is the surprising rarity of engagement with the philosophy of Aristotle. Even some of the most basic and widely valued tools of Aristotelian philosophy, such as the distinction between potentiality and actuality, play virtually no part in Stoic thought. Although there is little consensus about this, the majority of scholars would probably accept that, at the very least, considerably less direct response to Aristotelianism is detectable in early Stoicism than to the various voices of the Socratic-Platonic tradition. It is not until the period of Middle Stoicism (see Section 7) that appreciation of Aristotle’s importance finally becomes unmistakable. Yet Aristotle and his school were among the truly seminal thinkers of late-fourth-century Athens and, in the eyes of many, Aristotle himself remains the outstanding philosopher of the entire Western tradition. How can a system created immediately in his wake show so little consciousness of his cardinal importance? One suggested explanation is that Aristotle’s school treatises, the brilliant but often very difficult texts by which we know him today, were not at this date as widely disseminated and studied as his more popularising works. But an alternative or perhaps complementary explanation lies in Zeno’s positive commitment to Socratic philosophy, of which the Peripatetics did not present themselves as voices. Either way, we must avoid the unhistorical assumption that Aristotle’s unique importance was as obvious to his near-contemporaries as it is to us.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Intellectuals Hate Progress

In Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, the Chapter 4, “Progressophobia,” begins with the following lines:

"Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress. It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress, mind you: most pundits, critics, and their bien-pensant readers use computers rather than quills and inkwells, and they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia rather than without it. It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class—the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition."

Milton Friedman on Free Trade and the Steel Industry

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Immanuel Kant and The French Revolution

Immanuel Kant enthusiastically endorsed the French Revolution. He defended the Revolution in public and in his private dealings, and openly proclaimed that he was a republican. Here’s an excerpt from Manfred Kuhen’s Kant: A Biography (Chapter: “Problems with Religion and Politics”):
Some major intellectual figures in Germany, such as Goethe and Moser, were opposed to the Revolution from the beginning. Still, most — at least at the beginning — supported it enthusiastically. Older writers such as Klopstock and Wieland endorsed its goals. Younger authors — such as Herder, Schiller, and Fichte (all three of whom were influenced by Kant) wrote enthusiastically for the cause of the Revolution. Kant himself was just as inspired by it as were his students. As one of his acquaintances said, trying to correct Fichte's mistaken view that Kant took no notice of the French Revolution, “He lived and moved in it; and, in spite of all the terror, he held on to his hopes so much that when he heard of the declaration of the republic he called out with excitement: ‘Now let your servant go in peace to his grave, for I have seen the glory of the world.’” 
The politics of the French Revolution was a favorite topic of conversation for Kant. He showed great interest for news on how the Revolution was progressing. In his political writings, Kant has asserted that there is no right to rebellion. But he saw no contradiction between his enthusiasm for the French Revolution and his rejection of the right to rebellion, because he believed that Louis XVI had in effect abdicated when he called the Estates-General (a general assembly representing the French estates of the realm) in 1789. So, legally speaking, the French Revolution was not rebellion.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Cicero Versus Machiavelli

Machiavelli; Cicero
During the Renaissance, the humanist philosophers preached that the princes ought to keep their word and eschew force and fraud. They ritualistically repeated Cicero’s injunction in De officiis: ‘‘wrong may be done in either of two ways, that is, by force or by fraud; both are bestial: fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion; both are wholly unworthy of man.’’

But Renaissance scholar Niccolò Machiavelli countered Cicero's philosophy with his own dictum which he presented in The Prince: ‘‘rulers who have done great things have set little store by keeping their word, being skillful rather in cunningly deceiving men.’’ Machiavelli concludes with biting satire that a ruler must, after all, ‘‘know well how to imitate beasts . . . he should imitate both the fox and the lion.’’

The humanists used to preach that it is better to be loved than feared, and that cruelty can never profit a prince. But Machiavelli preferred the governance model of Cesare Borgia. He said that Borgia ‘‘was considered cruel,’’ but that his ‘‘harsh measures restored order to the Romagna, unifying it and rendering it peaceful and loyal." He asserts in The Prince that for a prince it is ‘‘it is much safer to be feared than loved..."

(Based on Eric Nelson’s essay, “The Problem of The Prince”; Chapter 17; The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Veatch on The Kantian Line on Moral Law

In his essay “Natural Law: Dead or Alive?,” Henry B. Veatch says that some thinkers try to justify their position on human rights and human duties without making an appeal to nature and natural law—they prefer to follow a Kantian line of justification.

In the following excerpt from Veatch's essay, we have his perspective on the Kantian line on moral law:
In general, Kant suspected that egoistic or self-interested motives were non-moral because they were not so much reasoned to and freely chosen as automatic, given biases or vested interests caused and determined heteronomously rather than by the autonomous choice of the moral agent. In the hope of making ethical choice more rational and autonomous, Kant turned to a universalizability principle. He reasoned that universalizing one’s reasons for action (i.e., by applying those reasons equally to every other agent) would form the decisive criterion for any action that is truly rational and hence a truly moral one. This universalizing approach led Kant to formulate his categorical imperative whose edict applied equally well to all moral agents. Kant was at pains to remove all self-interested goals, ends, or objects of desire as the possible justifying reasons for moral actions. Such self-interested motives seemed to him merely irrational deterministic reflexes of an agent’s actions (similar to Hobbes’s “passions”) rather than authentic, autonomous, and rationally chosen motives.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Political Views of Leonardo Bruni

Leonardo Bruni (1370 – 1444), the Renaissance humanist, historian and statesman points out that Rome attained great success in politics and culture as a self-governing republic, but as there was decline in republican values, Rome lost its liberty and became mired in chaos and corruption. (History of the Florentine People, by Leonardo Bruni, edited by James Hankins).

Bruni believed that liberty makes virtue possible, and without virtue there can be no glory. In his 1428 oration in praise of Nanni Strozzi, Bruni says:
Praise of monarchy has something fictitious and shadowy about it, and lacks precision and solidity. Kings, the historian [Sallust] says, are more suspicious of the good than of the evil man, and are always fearful of another’s virtue. Nor is it very different under the rule of a few. Thus the only legitimate constitution of the commonwealth left is the popular one, in which liberty is real, in which legal equality is the same for all citizens, in which pursuit of the virtues may flourish without suspicion.
Bruni held that cities must be must be governed according to justice if they are to become glorious. He says that justice is impossible without liberty.  Here’s his comment on political system in 15th century Florence:
Therefore, under these magistracies this city has been governed with such diligence and competence that one could not find better discipline even in a household ruled by a solicitous father. As a result, no one here has ever suffered any harm, and no one has ever had to alienate property except when he wanted to. The judges, the magistrates are always on duty; the courts, even the highest tribunal is open. All classes of men can be brought to trial; laws are made prudently for the common good, and they are fashioned to help the citizens. There is no place on earth where there is greater justice open equally to every- one. Nowhere else does freedom grow so vigorously, and nowhere else are rich and poor alike treated with such equality. In this one can discern Florence’s great wisdom, perhaps greater than that of other cities. 
(Quoted in The Earthly Republic: Italian Humanists on Government and Society, edited by Benjamin G. Kohl and Ronald G. Witt)
A Republican constitution is must for safeguarding the freedom of the people, according to Bruni.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

What Determines The Good of a Creature: Its Life-form or Life?

In The Perfectionist Turn, Den Uyl and Rasmussen point out that a creature’s life-form plays a crucial role in determining what is good for it. In Chapter 6, “Because,” they use the example of a praying mantis to explain that the good of a creature must be understood from  the point of view of its life-form and not its mere existence. Here’s an excerpt:
For example, consider the legendary account of the male praying mantis submitting to being devoured by the female in order for mating to be completed. If for some reason the female praying mantis dies after mating, but does so before she can devour the male (or is for some other reason prevented from devouring him), then the male praying mantis not only continues to exist, but continues to exist as a male praying mantis. It would then seem that the actions of this male praying mantis will neither help propagate the species to continue, nor live up to the kind of behavior appropriate to a male praying mantis. Yet, so long as this male struggles to continue to exist in its own right, it would seem that it benefited by the demise of the female praying mantis. Thus, her demise (and his not being devoured) is good for this particular male praying mantis, but not good for the kind of thing it is.  
In fact, however, the premature death of the female is not a benefit to this particular male. It only seems so, because we import an illicitly abstracted notion of good and ignore the life-form in question. It is not the case that “survival is always good” is simply true. It might seem to be true because, generally, being alive is better than not being alive. But as we have noted, that ignores that the good for a living thing must be being alive as the kind of thing it is. Having been left alive would be no more beneficial to this male praying mantis than having its legs cut off or being subjected to some other deforming act. One might think the situation is different if one considers the efficient cause separable from the final cause; so if the male praying mantis is not contributing to the continued existence of members of its species (final cause), it can nevertheless take actions to continue living as a male praying mantis (efficient cause) and thus have the benefit of living on. In other words, it may seem that failing to achieve a final cause does not alter the character of the actions needed to continue as the efficient cause of continuing to live on (for example, eating). In fact, however this is false. Failing to die does alter the character of the actions. Under the celebrated account with which we have been working, the male praying mantis’s conative propensities would be thwarted by remaining alive and must be understood in a new light—namely, as a deficiency of this praying mantis. This deformity may merely express itself in disorientation or frustration of basic tendencies; but it means that if given the chance to mate again, it will do so, and it will then submit to its demise, as it endeavored to do in the first place. 
(From The Perfectionist Turn: From Metanorms to Metaethics by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen; Page: 222–223)
The view expressed by Den Uyl and Rasmussen is similar to what Aristotle has preached. Aristotle  held that for living things and processes final causes are more important than either material or efficient causes. On page 226, Den Uyl and Rasmussen offer a paragraph from John Herman Randall’s Aristotle which elucidates Aristotle’s views on natural teleology:

“No kind of thing, no species, is subordinated to the purposes and interests of any other kind. In biological theory, the end served by the structure of any specific kind of living thing is the good—ultimately, the “survival”—of that kind of thing. Hence Aristotle’s concern is always to examine how the structure, the way of acting, the “nature,” of any species conduces toward the preservation of that species, and enables it to survive, to exist and to continue to function in its own distinctive way.” ~ John Herman Randall in Aristotle (Chapter 9: "Aristotle’s Functionalism Illustrated in Biological Theory"; Section: "Aristotle's Natural Teleology versus “Design”")

Friday, February 23, 2018

Aristotle’s Natural Teleology versus “Design”

Here’s an excerpt from John Herman Randall’s Aristotle (Chapter 9: "Aristotle’s Functionalism Illustrated in Biological Theory"; Section: "Aristotle's Natural Teleology versus “Design”"), Page 228-229:
Since the various religious traditions not unnaturally identified “nature,” the system of ends toward which natural processes are discovered to be directed, with the “will of God,” as Plato’s creation myth had already done, “final causes” were taken as the conscious purposes of the Deity, and as such were held to be ipso facto efficient causes, themselves acting to bring about their own realization. In sharp contrast, for Aristotle “final causes” and “natural ends” are in no sense whatever to be taken as “purposes”: they involve no conscious intent, except in the one case where conscious intent is obviously involved, human action and art. And final causes or ends are for Aristotle never to be identified with efficient causes: never for him does what a process brings about itself bring about the process. For Aristotle a final cause is always a necessary condition of understanding, a principle of intelligibility; it is never a “whence of motion,” an arche of action.  
In the second place, “final causes,” as they were developed during the predominance of the religious traditions, tended to become a way of showing how under the ministrations of God’s providence everything in the universe conduces to the self-centered purposes of man. In sharp contrast, Aristotle’s natural teleology is, in the technical sense, wholly “immanent.” No kind of thing, no species, is subordinated to the purposes and interests of any other kind. In biological theory, the end served by the structure of any specific kind of living thing is the good—ultimately, the “survival”—of that kind of thing. Hence Aristotle’s concern is always to examine how the structure, the way of acting, the “nature,” of any species conduces toward the preservation of that species, and enables it to survive, to exist and to continue to function in its own distinctive way. This Aristotelian emphasis on the way in which kinds of living things are adapted to their environment brings Aristotle’s thought very close to the functional explanations advanced by evolutionary thinkers: in both cases the emphasis is placed on the survival value of the arrangement in question.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Immanuel Kant’s Defense of Moses Mendelssohn

Moses Mendelssohn; Immanuel Kant 
Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant had high regard for each other’s works.

When Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason was published, Mendelssohn complimented Kant by calling him “the all-destroying Kant.” Mendelssohn believed that Kant’s Critique was destructive to both the empiricist and rationalist traditions which were hindering philosophy.

According to most accounts, Kant was quite satisfied by being referred to as “the all-destroying Kant" by Mendelssohn. By making several references to Kant’s works, Mendelssohn contributed a lot towards making Kant famous, if not infamous.

Mendelssohn died in January 1786. In April 1786, Kant was present at a dinner party where Mendelssohn’s philosophical talents were being impugned. Kant immediately rose to Mendelssohn’s defense. He passionately spoke of Mendelssohn’s original genius which enabled him to see every hypothesis in the best possible light.

As the argument between Kant and Mendelssohn’s detractors progressed, things started getting out of hand at the dinner party. The verbal exchange became so heated that Kant behaved very rudely and almost uncivilly before leaving with a feeling of ill-will.

(Written on the basis of an account given in Manfred Kuhen’s Kant: A Biography)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

On The Hellenistic Philosophical Schools

In her Introduction to The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, Martha C. Nussbaum draws a comparison between the Hellenistic schools of philosophy and modern philosophy. Here's an excerpt:
The Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and Rome—Epicur­eans, Skeptics, and Stoics—all conceived of philosophy as a way of ad­dressing the most painful problems of human life. They saw the philoso­pher as a compassionate physician whose arts could heal many pervasive types of human suffering. They practiced philosophy not as a detached intellectual technique dedicated to the display of cleverness but as an im­mersed and worldly art of grappling with human misery. They focused their attention, in consequence, on issues of daily and urgent human significance—the fear of death, love and sexuality, anger and aggression­—issues that are sometimes avoided as embarrassingly messy and personal by the more detached varieties of philosophy. They confronted these issues as they arose in ordinary human lives, with a keen attention to the vicissitudes of those lives, and to what would be necessary and sufficient to make them better. On the one hand, these philosophers were still very much philosophers—dedicated to the careful argumentation, the explicitness, the comprehensiveness, and the rigor that have usually been sought by philosophy, in the tradition of ethical reflection that takes its start (in the West) with Socrates. (They opposed themselves, on this account, to the methods characteristic of popular religion and magic.) On the other hand, their intense focus on the state of desire and thought in the pupil made them seek a newly complex understanding of human psychology, and led them to adopt complex strategies—interactive, rhetorical, literary­—designed to enable them to grapple effectively with what they had under­stood. In the process they forge new conceptions of what philosophical rigor and precision require. In these ways Hellenistic ethics is unlike the more detached and academic moral philosophy that has sometimes been practiced in the Western tradition.
Twentieth-century philosophy, in both Europe and North America, has, until very recently, made less use of Hellenistic ethics than almost any other philosophical culture in the West since the fourth century B.C.E. Not only late antique and most varieties of Christian thought, but also the writings of modern writers as diverse as Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Adam Smith, Hume, Rousseau, the founding Fathers of the United States, Nietzsche, and Marx, owe in every case a considerable debt to the writings of Stoics, Epicureans, and/or Skeptics, and frequently far more than to the writings of Aristotle and Plato. Especially where philosophical conceptions of emo­tion are concerned, ignoring the Hellenistic period means ignoring not only the best material in the Western tradition, but also the central influ­ence on later philosophical developments.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Poggio’s Discovery of De Rerum Natura in 1417

A 1483 copy of De Rerum Natura
In his fascinating history book, The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, Stephen Greenblatt posits that the Renaissance began when Lucretius’s 7,400-line poem De Rerum Natura was reintroduced in Europe. Here’s an excerpt from the book's Chapter 2, "The Moment of Discovery" (Greenblatt is describing Poggio Bracciolini’s discovery of De Rerum Natura in the library of a German monastery in Fulda in 1417):
Even the smallest of the finds that Poggio was making was highly significant—for anything at all to surface after so long seemed miraculous—but they were all eclipsed, from our own perspective if not immediately, by the discovery of a work still more ancient than any of the others that he had found. One of the manuscripts consisted of a long text written around 50 BCE by a poet and philosopher named Titus Lucretius Carus. The text’s title, De rerum natura—On the Nature of Things—was strikingly similar to the title of Rabanus Maurus’s celebrated encyclopedia, De rerum naturis. But where the monk’s work was dull and conventional, Lucretius’ work was dangerously radical.  
Poggio would almost certainly have recognized the name Lucretius from Ovid, Cicero, and other ancient sources he had painstakingly pored over, in the company of his humanist friends, but neither he nor anyone in his circle had encountered more than a scrap or two of his actual writing, which had, as far as anyone knew, been lost forever. 
Poggio may not have had time, in the gathering darkness of the monastic library, and under the wary eyes of the abbot or his librarian, to do more than read the opening lines. But he would have seen immediately that Lucretius’ Latin verses were astonishingly beautiful. Ordering his scribe to make a copy, he hurried to liberate it from the monastery. What is not clear is whether he had any intimation at all that he was releasing a book that would help in time to dismantle his entire world.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Significance of Renaissance Philosophy

Why is Renaissance philosophy significant for an intellectual historian? James Hankins answers this question in his essay, “The Significance of Renaissance Philosophy,” (Chapter 18; The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy, Edited by James Hankins). Here’s an excerpt:
It is easy to see why the Renaissance attracts the intellectual historian. It was a period when fundamental changes occurred in Western societies across a wide range of beliefs, religious, scientific, political, historical, and anthropological. Christendom disintegrated and sovereign states emerged. The Catholic Church lost much of its authority and new Protestant churches and sects appeared. Religious divisions and wars led to the first tentative expressions of the need for tolerance and freedom of expression. Educational ideals and practice were transformed. Humanists arose to challenge the hegemony of scholastic culture. Christian culture underwent a major reorientation in its attitude to the pagan culture of Graeco-Roman antiquity. Republicanism and absolutism crystallized into distinct traditions of political thought. Major changes occurred in how Europeans saw and analyzed human nature, the cosmos, and natural processes. The sciences grew less interested in contemplating nature and more interested in controlling it. A New World was discovered full of societies, flora, and fauna utterly unknown to Western learned traditions. The invention of printing – the information revolution of the fifteenth century – altered fundamentally the conditions under which knowledge-workers operated, making possible the collection, collation and analysis of information in ways and on a scale hitherto unimaginable. The sheer volume of new information and the variety of perspectives on offer, the religious quarrels of the time, not to mention the seductive power of ancient thinkers like Cicero and Sextus Empiricus, inevitably led to a resurgence of skepticism and fideism, and pari passu to a new concern with method and the reliability of knowledge. So it is hardly surprising that the intellectual historian views the Renaissance as an extraordinarily well-stocked workshop for the practice of his craft. 
Here’s Hankins’s thoughts on the connection between Renaissance philosophy and the philosophy in our own time:
In short, Renaissance philosophy offers many parallels with the philosophy of our own time. In our era too we have seen the fracturing and crisis of authoritative traditions, a new pluralism of philosophical perspectives, an unsettling information revolution, and passionate aspirations to integrate into philosophical discourse the wisdom literature of non-Western traditions. We too have philosophers hostile to system and rigorous demonstration who doubt the possibility of apodictic argument, philosophers who would prefer to see philosophy become a form of psychic therapy or a civil conversation or a form of persuasion and edification. We too have our skeptics and fideists; we too have those who search in philosophy’s past for alternative visions of the philosophical life. We too have philosophers fiercely committed to a wide range of positions on the proper relationship between faith and reason. We too have philosophers who aim to influence public deliberation and shape public life. If Renaissance philosophy does not promise the immediate profit of some other periods in the history of thought, if it does not always offer ready-made arguments and insights useful in current academic debates, it nevertheless offers what can be the most revealing insight of all – the insight that comes from looking in a mirror.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Nussbaum on Kant’s Intellectual Debt to Roman Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius, Immanuel Kant, Cicero, Seneca
In Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant offers a profound defense of cosmopolitan values. The word “cosmopolitan” occurs frequently in this essay and in Kant’s other political writings. Martha C. Nussbaum, in her essay, “Kant and Stoic Cosmopolitanism,” notes that although Kant’s cosmopolitanism is overtly based on a tradition which belongs to the eighteenth-century, the tradition itself and Kant’s own approach to it is saturated with ideas of Greek and especially Roman Stoicism.

Here’s an excerpt from Nussbaum’s essay:
We may also recognize Stoic ideas as formative in the Second Critique, whose famous conclusion concerning the mind’s awe before the starry sky above and the moral law within closely echoes the imagery of Seneca’s Letter 41, expressing awe before the divinity of reason within us. We see a particularly important reference to Stoic ideas of world citizenship in the Anthropologie, where Kant—apparently following Marcus [Aurelius], or at least writing in the spirit of Marcus—insists that we owe it to other human beings to try to understand their ways of thinking, since only that attitude is consistent with seeing oneself as a “citizen of the world” (Anthropologie, 2). And we can see these core notions of humanity and world citizenship as formative in the political writings as well, above all in the Perpetual Peace.  
As do Marcus and Cicero, Kant stresses that the community of all human beings in reason entails a common participation in law (ius), and, by our very rational existence, a common participation in a virtual polity, a cosmopolis that has an implicit structure of claims and obligations regardless of whether or not there is an actual political organization in place to promote and vindicate these. When he refers to “the idea of a cosmopolitan law,” and assets that this law is “a necessary complement to the unwritten code of political and international law” (Perpetual Peace 108), he is following very closely the lines of analysis traced by Cicero and Marcus. So too when he insists on the organic interconnectedness of all our actions: “The peoples of the earth have thus entered in varying degrees into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of laws in one part of the world is felt everywhere” (Perpetual Peace 107-8). 
When we reach the detail of Kant’s political proposals, the debt to Cicero’s De Officiis is, as in the Groundwork, intimate and striking. Kant’s discussion of the relationship between morality and politics in the first Appendix follows closely Cicero’s discussions of the relation between morality and expediency. Both thinkers insist on the supreme importance of justice in the conduct of political life, giving similar reasons for their denial that morality should ever be weighed against expediency. There are close parallels between the two thinkers’ discussion of the hospitality right and between their extremely stringent accounts of proper moral conduct during wartime, and especially justice to the enemy… 
Nussbaum is of the view that Kant, under the influence of Stoic ideas, has developed a political theory which can lead to peace. She writes: “Kant, more influentially than any other Enlightenment thinker, defended a politics based upon reason rather than patriotism or group sentiment, a politics that was truly universal rather than communitarian, a politics that was active, reformist and optimistic, rather than given to contemplating the horrors, or waiting for the call of Being.” But she asserts that that Kant’s cosmopolitan ideas cannot triumph in USA, because the country is indifferent to cosmopolitan goals. She says that Kant (and Cicero and Marcus Aurelius) would be disappointed at the political culture of modern America.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Cicero’s Influence on Immanuel Kant’s Principle of Morality

The German philosopher Christian Garve published his book Philosophical Remarks and Essays on Cicero’s Books on Duties in 1783. In the same year, Immanuel Kant began working on his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

The Groundwork does not have any explicit references to Cicero, but Kant’s friend J. G. Hamman has said that the Groundwork is a conscious response to Garve’s interpretation of Cicero’s On Duties.

In his article, published in Mind in 1939, Klaus Reich tries to show that Kant’s argument in Groundwork closely follows Cicero’s argument in On Duties. Reich points out that Kant was thinking of the classical list of virtues (justice, wisdom, courage, and self-control), which he may have discovered in Cicero’s ideas. Reich also makes the case that Kant’s principle of morality is inspired by Cicero’s stoic values.

Manfred Kuhen talks about the connection between Kant’s Groundwork and Garve’s Cicero in his essay, “Kant’s critical philosophy and its reception – the first five years (1781–1786)” (Chapter 18, The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy, Edited by Paul Guyer). Here’s an excerpt:
Furthermore, Garve was important. He had dared to criticize Kant’s first Critique, and Kant was moved to criticize Garve in turn. Thus Hamann reported early in 1784 that Kant was working on a “counter-critique” of Garve. Though the title of the work was not determined yet, it was meant to become an attack not on Garve’s review but on Garve’s Cicero, constituting a kind of revenge. Hamann, who took great interest in literary feuds, was initially excited. But he was soon disappointed. For six weeks later he had to report that “the counter-critique of Garve’s Cicero had changed into a preliminary treatise on morals,” and that what he had wanted to call first “counter-critique” had become a predecessor (prodrome) to morals, although it was also to have “a relation to Garve.” The final version did not explicitly deal with Garve. It is significant, however, that Kant read Cicero in Garve’s translation, and that he carefully looked at Garve’s commentary while writing the Groundwork. Though he might have been more interested in Garve than in Cicero, the latter had a definite effect on his views concerning the foundations of moral philosophy. But several schol- ars have argued that Garve’s Cicero was actually important to Kant in dealing with fundamental moral issues.  
What was to be a mere textbook treatment of well-rehearsed issues became a much more programmatic treatise. It is therefore no accident that the terminology of the Groundwork turns out to be so similar to that of Cicero – that “will,” “dignity,” “autonomy,” “duty,” “virtue,” “freedom,” and several other central concepts play a similar foundational role in both Cicero and in Kant. One of the most interesting things about Cicero’s account in this context is that involves the claim that our own nature depends to a large extent on our social role. Sociability or communicability is for him the most important principle from which duty derives. This is clear from the very terms Cicero uses. “Honorableness” or “the honorable” are translations of “honestas” and “honestum.” Both have to do with the holding of an office or an honor. Duties are thus essentially related to one’s social standing. They are bound up with something that is public, part of the sphere of the res publica or the community. Duties make little sense outside society. They are not internal or subjective principles, but public demands on us. Insofar as some of these duties are based on sociability as such, some duties will be universal, but they remain duties we have as “citizens of the world.” 
It is worth noting that Kant had a good knowledge of Cicero and he has remarked that true popularity in philosophy can only be achieved by reading and imitating Cicero.

Friday, February 9, 2018

A House for Mr. Immanuel Kant

A recent picture of Kant's House near Kaliningrad
After living in rented quarters for most of his adult life, Immanuel Kant purchased a house of his own at the age of 59 (on December 30, 1783). Renting a house meant occasional moves, at times at the insistence of the landlord, and therefore Kant felt that a house of his own would provide him certain amount of security, especially in his declining years.

In Kant: A Biography, (Chapter: “The All Crushing Critic of Metaphysics"), Manfred Kuhen offers an account of Kant’s journey into his own house. Here’s an excerpt:
The house Kant bought had belonged to a portrait painter named Becker, who had recently died. Hippel, whose own property bordered on Becker's, was instrumental in the deal. He told Kant that the property was for sale, and he wrote to Kant on December 24, the day before Christmas, that he had found out that the house was not yet sold, and that if Kant were to make an offer, he would probably be successful. Kant acted right away. Indeed, he wrote down notes and questions about what had to be done on Hippel's very letter. Thus he asked whether there was only one stove in the house, where precisely the borderlines of the property lay, whether he should take out a wall between two smaller rooms and the room that was to become the lecture room, and when the house would be free. The answer to the last question was: "in March." Kant made notes about the costs of the necessary renovation on the back of a short letter, dated February 21, 1784. Work appears to have begun at that time….
Kant was able to move into his new house on May 22, 1784. Kuhen also offers an excerpt from Johann Gottfried Hasse’s idyllic vision of Kant’s house:
On coming closer to his house, everything announced a philosopher. The house was something of an antique. It stood in a street that could be walked but was not much used by carriages. Its back bordered on gardens and moats of the castle, as well as on the back buildings of the many hundred years old palace with its towers, its prisons and its owls. But spring and summer the surroundings were quite romantic. The only trouble was that he did not really enjoy them .. . but only saw them. Stepping into the house, one would notice the peaceful quiet. Had one not been convinced otherwise by the open kitchen, with the odors of food, a barking dog, or the meowing of a cat, the darlings of his female cook - she performed, as he put it, entire sermons for them - one might have thought the house was uninhabited. If one went up the stairs, one would have encountered the servant who was working on preparing the table. But if one went through the very simple, unadorned and somewhat smoky outbuilding into a greater room which represented the best room, but which was not luxurious. (What Nepos said of Attics: elegant, non magnifies, was quite true of Kant.) There was a sofa, some chairs, upholstered with linen, a glass cabinet with some porcelain, a secretary, which held his silver ware and his cash, and a thermometer. These were all the furnishings, which covered a part of the white walls. In this way, one reached through a very simple, even poor-looking, door a just as destitute sans-souci, into which one was invited by a glad "come in" as soon as one knocked. (How fast my heart beat, when this happened for the first time!) The entire room exuded simplicity and quiet isolation from the noises of the city and the world. Two common tables, a simple sofa, some chairs, including his study-seat, and a dresser, which left enough space in the middle of the room to get to the barometer and thermometer, which Kant consulted frequently. Here sat the thinker in his wooden chair, as if on a tripod…
Johann Gottfried Hasse was Kant’s colleague at the University of Königsberg. Kant did not like dining alone, he usually invited one or two table companions, whose number, on special occasions, could be increased to five or six. Hasse was one of the frequent dinnertime guest at Kant’s house. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

On Cicero’s Access To The Works Of Aristotle

Aristotle                                       Cicero
Did Cicero know the same Aristotle that Thomas Aquinas knew in the 13th century and we can know today? Did he have access to the same Aristotelian texts which Andronicus of Rhodes used in the First Century B.C. to create his Aristotelian corpus?

In his essay, “Cicero on Aristotle and Aristotelians,” Walter Nicgorski says that Cicero had more of Aristotle’s work available to him than most people before and after Cicero’s lifetime. Nicgorski points out that Cicero lived at the juncture of time and place when and where the Aristotelian corpus of Andronicus was being compiled and made available to scholars. But this was also the time and place when and where the writings of Aristotle started disappearing and many of the texts were completely lost.

Cicero was deeply interested in philosophy—it was his primary concern to bring Greek philosophy to Rome. He was in touch with other Roman scholars, and therefore it is likely that he had full knowledge of the enterprise of assembling the Aristotelian texts which was going on in Rome during his lifetime. According to Nicgorski, Cicero’s writings support the idea that he consulted Aristotle’s non-popular works (commentarios) which were then being recovered and assembled.

Here’s an excerpt from Nicgorski’s essay:
In the reference to these works at De Finibus v. 12, Cicero actually uses the Greek cognate (ἐξωτερικόν) for “exoteric” to describe the popular works which are contrasted with those (limatius) “more carefully composed” commentarii, usually translated as “notebooks”. In this passage, Cicero reveals that the distinction between the exoteric works and the notebooks is one which the Peripatetics themselves make, that it is a distinction which applies to various works of the school, not simply to Aristotle’s writings, and that he is sufficiently familiar with both the exoteric writings and the notebooks to comment on the appearance of inconsistency between them with respect to content.  
Cicero did not, it seems, know with assurance that our Nicomachean Ethics and Politics were works of Aristotle. Cicero cites neither of these works directly, though he mentions the Nicomachean Ethics and shows himself aware that this work is attributed to Aristotle; he himself is inclined to think it was authored by Aristotle’s son Nicomachus. Though the scholarly consensus is that Cicero did not know our Politics, there is a possibility, as the late Elizabeth Rawson suggests, that he knew the Politics or much of it as the work of Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor as head of the Peripatetic school. Whether or not Cicero did give close attention to the texts of the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics or encountered their teachings in other sources, his work shows the impact of such teachings and appears largely consistent with them. The teaching of the Ethics is quite clearly reflected in De Finibus, especially in Book II where Cicero speaks in his own persona, and the De Finibus is a book that Cicero regards as his most important and that treats the topic which he holds to be foundational to all philosophy. Quite directly Cicero associates what he does in De Re Publica and De Legibus with the tradition of political inquiry in which Aristotle and his school are perceived as distinguishing themselves. Could not the Politics or some version of it be what Cicero has in mind when he so credits the Peripatetic heritage in political philosophy? 
It is also noteworthy that Cicero saw Aristotle as a follower of the Platonic and Socratic traditions. In De Officiis, he says, “[M]y philosophical writings differing very little from Peripatetic teachings, for both I and those men wish to follow in the socratic and Platonic tradition..."