Monday, May 27, 2019

Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer

Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer
Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer is an oil-on-canvas painting done by Rembrandt in 1653. The painting was commissioned by Rembrandt’s Sicilian patron named Don Antonio Ruffo, who did not request any particular subject.

The painting shows Aristotle, wearing a gold chain, resting his hand on a bust of blind Homer, a legendary figure from three centuries earlier, and thoughtfully looking at it. The gold chain that Aristotle is wearing is presumed to have an image of Alexander the Great. Some scholars have interpreted the painting as a morality tale—Aristotle, a successful and well-dressed courtier, is envying Homer who was blind but lived like a free spirit and did not have to wear any chain.

The painting was purchased by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1961 for $2.3 million. 

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Strauss On Rousseau’s View of Man

Leo Strauss sees Rousseau as a modern Epicurean, an atheistic and materialistic thinker. On Rousseau’s Second Discourse (The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality), Strauss makes the following comment in his book Natural Right and History (Chapter 6: “The Crisis of Modern Natural Right”):

"The Second Discourse is meant to be a “history” of man. That history is modeled on the account of the fate of the human race which Lucretius gave in the fifth book of his poem. But Rousseau takes that account out of its Epicurean context and puts it into a context supplied by modem natural and social science. Lucretius had described the fate of the human race in order to show that that fate can be perfectly understood without recourse to divine activity. The remedies for the ills which he was forced to mention, he sought in philosophic withdrawal from political life. Rousseau, on the other hand, tells the story of man in order to discover that political order which is in accordance with natural right. Furthermore, at least at the outset, he follows Descartes rather than Epicurus: he assumes that animals are machines and that man transcends the general mechanism, or the dimension of (mechanical) necessity, only by virtue of the spirituality of his soul. Descartes had integrated the "Epicurean" cosmology into a theistic framework: God having created matter and established the laws of its motions, the universe with the exception of man's rational soul has come into being through purely mechanical processes; the rational soul requires special creation because thinking cannot be understood as a modification of moved matter; rationality is the specific difference of man among the animals. Rousseau questions not only the creation of matter but likewise the traditional definition of man. Accepting the view that brutes are machines, he suggests that there is only a difference of degree between men and the brutes in regard to understanding or that the laws of mechanics explain the formation of ideas. It is man's power to choose and his consciousness of his freedom which cannot be explained physically and which proves the spirituality of his soul."

Like Lucretius, Rousseau viewed man as naturally independent, self-sufficient, limited in his desires and, therefore, happy. He saw society as the creator of all the artificial desires and false opinions which gave rise to conflict and misery. Both Lucretius and Rousseau had a non-teleological view of man’s passage from nature into history.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

On The Impact Of Language On Sensations

Henri Bergson is of the view that language gives a fixed form to the fleeting sensations that we experience. Here’s an excerpt from his book Time and Free Will (Chapter 2, “The Idea of Duration”):
Our simple sensations, taken in their natural state, are still more fleeting. Such and such a flavour, such and such a scent, pleased me when I was a child though I dislike them to-day. Yet I still give the same name to the sensation experienced, and I speak as if only my taste had changed, whilst the scent and the flavour have remained the same. Thus I again solidify the sensation; and when its changeableness becomes so obvious that I cannot help recognizing it, I abstract this changeableness to give it a name of its own and solidify it in the shape of a taste. But in reality there are neither identical sensations nor multiple tastes: for sensations and tastes seem to me to be objects as soon as I isolate and name them, and in the human soul there are only processes. What I ought to say is that every sensation is altered by repetition, and that if it does not seem to me to change from day to day, it is because I perceive it through the object which is its cause, through the word which translates it. This influence of language on sensation is deeper than is usually thought. Not only does language make us believe in the unchangeableness of our sensations, but it will sometimes deceive us as to the nature of the sensation felt. Thus, when I partake of a dish that is supposed to be exquisite, the name which it bears, suggestive of the approval given to it, comes between my sensation and my consciousness; I may believe that the flavour pleases me when a slight effort of attention would prove the contrary. In short, the word with well-defined outlines, the rough and ready word, which stores up the stable, common, and consequently impersonal element in the impressions of mankind, overwhelms or at least covers over the delicate and fugitive impressions of our individual consciousness. To maintain the struggle on equal terms, the latter ought to express themselves in precise words; but these words, as soon as they were formed, would turn against the sensation which gave birth to them, and, invented to show that the sensation is unstable, they would impose on it their own stability.
According to Bergson, the language that we use to analyze and describe our feelings leads to a distortion of the same feelings. We discern a certain kind of feelings as violent love or a deep melancholy because our immediate consciousness is overwhelmed by our language.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Leo Strauss on Thomas Hobbes

Leo Strauss views Thomas Hobbes as the creator of political hedonism and political atheism. In his book Natural Right and History, (Chapter 5, “Modern Natural Right”; Page 168-169), Strauss writes:

"Hobbes rejects the idealistic tradition on the basis of a fundamental agreement with it.  He means to do adequately what the Socratic tradition did in a wholly inadequate manner.  He means to succeed where the Socratic tradition had failed.  He traces the failure of the idealistic tradition to one fundamental mistake: traditional political philosophy assumed that man is by nature a political or social animal.  By rejecting this assumption, Hobbes joins the Epicurean tradition.  He accepts its view that man is by nature or originally an a-political and even an a-social animal, as well as its premise that the good is fundamentally identical with the pleasant.  But he uses that a-political view for a political purpose.  He gives that a-political view a political meaning.  He tries to instill the spirit of political idealism into the hedonistic tradition.  He thus became the creator of political hedonism, a doctrine which has revolutionized human life everywhere on a scale never yet approached by any other teaching.

"The epoch-making change which we are forced to trace to Hobbes was well understood by Edmund Burke: “Boldness formerly was not the character of atheists as such. They were even of a character nearly the reverse; they were formerly like the old Epicureans, rather an unenterprising race. But of late they are grown active, designing, turbulent, and seditious.” Political atheism is a distinctly modern phenomenon. No pre-modern atheist doubted that social life required belief in, and worship of, God or gods. If we do not permit ourselves to be deceived by ephemeral phenomena, we realize that political atheism and political hedonism belong together. They arose together in the same moment and in the same mind."

Sunday, May 19, 2019

On The Three Enlightenments

Gertrude Himmelfarb, on the three Enlightenments (The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments)"The British Enlightenment represents “the sociology of virtue,” the French “the ideology of reason,” the American “the politics of liberty.” The British moral philosophers were sociologists as much as philosophers; concerned with man in relation to society, they looked to the social virtues for the basis of a healthy and humane society. The French had a more exalted mission: to make reason the governing principle of society as well as mind, to “rationalize, as it were, the world. The Americans, more modestly, sought to create a new “science of politics” that would establish the new republic upon a sound foundation of liberty."

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Bergson on Two Sources of Morality and Religion

In his 1932-book Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Henri Bergson notes that the most societies are closed like a hive or an ant-hill. In closed societies, men are motivated by instinct and are indifferent to each other, and they are prepared to take defensive or offensive actions. In an open society, on the other hand, men are motivated by intelligence and are capable of embracing all humanity. From this definition, Bergson draws the analogy between a “closed morality,” which is a social morality that does not extend to all human beings but only to the group, and “open morality,” which embraces all humanity. On religion, Bergson says that there has never been a society without religion, and he differentiates between a "static" and "dynamic" religion. He draws a distinction between a “closed soul” and an “open soul” and gives the example of Socrates as an open soul who is concerned about entire humanity. He writes, “There was irony running through Socratic teaching, and outbursts of lyricism were probably rare; but in the measure in which these outbursts cleared the road for a new spirit, they have been decisive for the future of humanity.”

Here’s his description of the relationship between the closed soul and the open soul:

“Between the closed soul and the open soul there is the soul in process of opening. Between the immobility of a man seated and the motion of the same man running there is the act of getting up, the attitude he assumes when he rises. In a word, between the static and the dynamic there is to be observed, in morality too, a transition stage. This intermediate state would pass unnoticed if, when at rest, we could develop the necessary impetus to spring straight into action. But it attracts our attention when we stop short - the usual sign of insufficient impetus. Let us put the same thing in a different way. We have seen that the purely static morality might be called infra-intellectual, and the purely dynamic, supra-intellectual. Nature intended the one, and the other is a contribution of man's genius. The former is characteristic of a whole group of habits which are, in man, the counterpart of certain instincts in animals; it is something less than intelligence. The latter is inspiration, intuition, emotion, susceptible of analysis into ideas which furnish intellectual notations of it and branch out into infinite detail; thus, like a unity which encompasses and transcends a plurality incapable of ever equalling it, it contains any amount of intellectuality; it is more than intelligence. Between the two lies intelligence itself. It is at this point that the human soul would have settled down, had it sprung forward from the one without reaching the other. It would have dominated the morality of the closed soul; it would not have attained to, or rather it would have not have created, that of the open soul. Its attitude, the result of getting up, would have lifted it to the plane of intellectuality.”

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Sartre’s Search for a Title: from Melancholia to Nausea

Jean-Paul Sartre had thought of giving the name Melancholia to the novel on which he was working during the 1930s. But Gaston Gallimard, the book's publisher, felt that Melancholia was not commercial enough. He advised Sartre to find a better title. Sartre suggested Factum on Contingency as an alternative. This had been the title that he had given to his early notes for the book in 1932. He also came up with a longer title, Essay on the Loneliness of the Mind. But Gallimard was not enthused by these titles. Sartre then suggested another title: The Extraordinary Adventures of Antoine Roquentin. He told Gallimard that the blurb would offer an explanation of there being no adventures. After pondering for a few days, Gallimard came up with his own suggestion: Nausea. Sartre liked the suggestion and Nausea became the title of his book which got published in 1938.

Monday, May 13, 2019

MacIntyre On Character and Intelligence

In his book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre notes that for Aristotle character is inseparable from intelligence. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 12, “Aristotle’s Account of Virtues” (Page 154-155):

“According to Aristotle then excellence of character and intelligence cannot be separated. Here Aristotle expresses a view characteristically at odds with that dominant in the modern world. The modern view is expressed at one level in such banalities as ‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever’ and at another in such profundities as Kant’s distinction between the good will, the possession of which alone is both necessary and sufficient for moral worth, and what he took to be a quite distinct natural gift, that of knowing how to apply general rules to particular cases, a gift the lack of which is called stupidity. So for Kant one can be both good and stupid; but for Aristotle stupidity of a certain kind precludes goodness. Moreover genuine practical intelligence in turn requires knowledge of the good, indeed itself requires goodness of a kind in its possessor: '... it is clear that a man cannot have practical intelligence unless he is good’.”

According to MacIntyre, modern social practice and theory follows Kant rather than Aristotle: “It is indeed difficult to envisage the exaltation of bureaucratic expertise in any culture in which the connection between practical intelligence and the moral virtues is firmly established.”

Sunday, May 12, 2019

On Philosophers and Street Porters

In his book The Wealth of Nations (Book I, Chapter 2), Adam Smith asserts the common humanity of the street porter and the philosopher : "The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education… By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a greyhound, or a greyhound from a spaniel, or this last from a shepherd's dog."

Saturday, May 11, 2019

On The Role of Senses and Freedom of the Mind

In his essay, “Good Sense and Classical Studies,” (Henri Bergson: Key Writings; page 422), Henri Bergson says:

"The role of our senses, in general, is not so much to give us knowledge of material objects as to signal their utility to us. We taste flavours, we breathe odours, we distinguish hot and cold, darkness and light. But science tells us that none of these qualities belong to objects in the form that we apprehend them; they only tell us in their picturesque language the inconvenience or advantage that things have for us, the services they could render us, the dangers they could lead us into. Our senses thus serve us, above all, to orient us in space; they are not turned towards science, but towards life. But we do not only live in a material milieu, but also in a social milieu. If all of our movements are transmitted in space and thus disturb part of the physical universe, by contrast most of our actions have their immediate or far-reaching consequences, good or bad, first of all for us, then for the society that surrounds us. Foreseeing [prevoir] these consequences, or rather having a presentiment of them [pressentir]; distinguishing the essential from the inessential or indifferent in matters of behaviour; choosing from the various possible courses of action the one which will produce the greatest amount of attainable rather than imaginable good: this is, it seems to me, the role of good sense. It is thus indeed a sense in its own way; but while the other senses place us in relation to things, good sense presides over our relations with persons." (This essay is an address delivered by Bergson at the Great Ampitheatre of the Sorbonne, July 30, 1895.)

Here's Bergson view of freedom of the mind:

"One of the greatest obstacles, we were saying, to the freedom of the mind, are the ideas that language gives to us ready-made, and that we breathe, so to speak, in the environment which surrounds us. They are never assimilated with our substance: incapable of participating in the life of the mind, they persevere, as truly dead ideas, in their stiffness and immobility. Why then do we so often prefer them to those which are living and vibrant? Why does our thought, instead of working to become master of itself, prefer to exile itself from itself? It is firstly through distraction, and by dint of amusing ourselves along the road, we no longer know where we wanted to go."

Friday, May 10, 2019

Bergson On The Meaning of The Comic

Henri Bergson’s 1911 book Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic is a collection of three essays which explore why people laugh and what laughter means, especially laughter that is caused by comical acts. Here’s an excerpt from the first essay, “The Comic in General — The Comic Element in Forms and Movements — Expansive Force of the Comic”:

"The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human. A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it,—the human caprice whose mould it has assumed. It is strange that so important a fact, and such a simple one too, has not attracted to a greater degree the attention of philosophers. Several have defined man as "an animal which laughs." They might equally well have defined him as an animal which is laughed at; for if any other animal, or some lifeless object, produces the same effect, it is always because of some resemblance to man, of the stamp he gives it or the use he puts it to."

Bergson sees laughter is a social gesture which inspires people to avoid eccentricity and be normal. In his first essay, he notes: “By the fear which it inspires, it restrains eccentricity, keeps constantly awake and in mutual contact certain activities of a secondary order which might retire into their shell and go to sleep, and, in short, softens down whatever the surface of the social body may retain of mechanical inelasticity.”

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

William James and Henri Bergson

William James, a senior to Henri Bergson by 17 years, had a high opinion of Bergson's work. In his 1909 book The Pluralistic Universe, James writes: “If I had not read Bergson, I should probably still be blackening endless pages of paper privately, in the hope of making ends meet that were never meant to meet, and trying to discover some mode of conceiving the behavior of reality which should leave no discrepancy between it and the accepted laws of the logic of identity. It is certain, at any rate, that without the confidence which being able to lean on Bergson's authority gives me I should never have ventured to urge these particular views of mine upon this ultra-critical audience.” Here’s an excerpt from James’s letter to Bergson on June 13, 1907:
O my Bergson, you are a magician, and your book is a marvel, a real wonder in the history of philosophy, making, if I mistake not, an entirely new era in respect of matter, but unlike the works of genius of the “transcendentalist” movement (which are so obscurely and abominably and inaccessibly written), a pure classic in point of form. You may be amused at the comparison, but in finishing it I found the same after-taste remaining as after finishing “Madame Bovary,” such a flavor of persistent euphony, as of a rich river that never foamed or ran thin, but steadily and firmly proceeded with its banks full to the brim. Then the aptness of your illustrations, that never scratch or stand out at right angles, but invariably simplify the thought and help to pour it along! Oh, indeed you are a magician! And if your next book proves to be as great an advance on this one as this is on its two predecessors, your name will surely go down as one of the great creative names in philosophy. 

There! have I praised you enough? What every genuine philosopher (every genuine man, in fact) craves most is praise — although the philosophers generally call it “recognition”! If you want still more praise, let me know, and I will send it, for my features have been on a broad smile from the first page to the last, at the chain of felicities that never stopped. I feel rejuvenated. 
As to the content of it, I am not in a mood at present to make any definite reaction. There is so much that is absolutely new that it will take a long time for your contemporaries to assimilate it, and I imagine that much of the development of detail will have to be performed by younger men whom your ideas will stimulate to coruscate in manners unexpected by yourself. To me at present the vital achievement of the book is that it inflicts an irrecoverable death-wound upon Intellectualism. It can never resuscitate! But it will die hard, for all the inertia of the past is in it, and the spirit of professionalism and pedantry as well as the aesthetic-intellectual delight of dealing with categories logically distinct yet logically connected, will rally for a desperate defense. The élan vital, all contentless and vague as you are obliged to leave it, will be an easy substitute to make fun of. But the beast has its death-wound now, and the manner in which you have inflicted it (interval versus temps d'arrêt, etc.) is masterly in the extreme. I don’t know why this later redaction of your critique of the mathematics of movement has seemed to me so much more telling than the early statement — I suppose it is because of the wider use made of the principle in the book. (The Letters of William James, Edited by his son Henry James; Page 290-294)
James is talking about Bergson's Creative Evolution and in a later section of the letter, he informs Bergson about his own book Pragmatism: “You will be receiving my own little “pragmatism” book simultaneously with this letter. How jejune and inconsiderable it seems in comparison with your great system! it seems in comparison with your great system! But it is so congruent with parts of your system, fits so well into interstices thereof, that you will easily understand why I am so enthusiastic. I feel that at bottom we are fighting the same fight, you a commander, I in the ranks.”

Monday, May 6, 2019

Enlightenment Endangers Philosophy

Allan Bloom in his “Interpretative Essay,” (The Republic of Plato; Page 392):

“Socrates teaches that wisdom and political power are distinct. Their coming together can only be due to the coincidence that a man who is wise happens also to be a ruler, thus uniting the two things; nothing in their two natures leads the one to the other. Political power serves the passions or desires of the members of a city, and a multitude cannot philosophize. It may use the results of science or philosophy, but it will use them to its own ends and will thereby distort them. Moreover, the wise man by himself is more of a threat to a regime than a helper. Intellectual progress is not the same as political progress, and, because there is not a simple harmony between the works of the mind and the works of the city, the philosopher without power must remain in an uneasy relationship with the city and its beliefs. Enlightenment endangers philosophy because it tempts philosophers to sacrifice their quest for the truth in favor of attempting to edify the public; in an "enlightened" world, philosophy risks being made a tool of unwise and even tyrannical regimes, thus giving those regimes the color of reason and losing its function as the standard for criticism of them.”

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Allan Bloom on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

In his interpretive essay on Plato’s the Republic, Allan Bloom offers an interpretation of the Platonic Allegory of the Cave. Here’s an excerpt:

“After initiating Glaucon into the mysteries of this divine beauty, Socrates turns to an elaboration of the relationship of the philosophic soul to the city. The divided line described the soul's progress from its lowest level of cognition, imagination, to trust, thought, and finally intellection, its highest level. But now Socrates makes clear that this is not a simple movement depending only on talent and effort. There are powerful forces that stand in the way of the philosophic quest. The discovery of that quest has the character of a liberation from bondage. In the most moving of all his many images, Socrates compares our situation to that of prisoners in a cave. We are surrounded by darkness, our only access to ourselves and the world coming from the observation of shadows on the wall. But, although there is darkness, there is also a light in the cave; the pale shadows we possess are made possible by that light. Moreover, a few human beings can emerge from the cave. Our lives are a combination of ugliness and sublime possibility. The Enlightenment, taken literally, believed that the light could be brought into the cave and the shadows dispelled; men, in that view, could live in perfect light. This Socrates denies; the philosopher does not bring light to the cave, he escapes into the light and can lead a few to it; he is a guide, not a torchbearer. The attempt to illuminate the cave is self-defeating: a part of man craves the shadows. The light would be dimmed and distorted; it would not provide real clarity within the cave. And, at the same time, those who have the urge to ascend to the light would be discouraged from the endeavor by the myth, apparently based on reason, that there is no other light to which they can ascend. Thus the only source of liberation and inspiration would disappear from the cave. The Enlightenment teaches that the cave can be transformed; Socrates teaches that it must be transcended and that this transcendence can be accomplished only by a few.” ~ (“Interpretative Essay”; The Republic of Plato by Allan Bloom; Page 402-403)

Friday, May 3, 2019

Voegelin on Nietzsche’s Last Man

There is a resistance to transforming into the Nietzschean overman—this challenge will not be acceptable to most men. They would rather live as the antithesis to the overman, the Nietzschean Last Man. In his essay, "Nietzsche, the Crisis, and the War" (Journal of Politics, 1944), Eric Voegelin talks about the Last Man:

"The refusal of the challenge can assume various forms which, in part, are determined by the time position of the evading person. A first form has been characterized by Nietzsche himself in the symbol of the “Last Man.” Zarathustra preaches the gospel of the superman to the people, and the people are silent. He then tries to arouse them by an appeal to their pride and draws the picture of the most contemptible, of the Last Man, whom they will be unless they overcome their present state. The Last Man is the man without creative love, without creative imagination, without a desire for anything that is more than himself. “What is a star?” asks the last man, and he is satisfied with his little pleasures and the comforts of his existence. What he wants is: some warmth, some neighborliness, not too much work, protection against disease, a sufficient measure of drugs to create pleasant dreams (liquor, movies, radio), no poverty but not too much wealth. He wants to know what is going on and to thrash it out; all want the same and want to be equal; he who feels different goes voluntarily into the insane asylum; “formerly all the world was insane”—say the most subtle and leer; one has a pleasure for the day and a pleasure for the night— but with restraint, for the last man is concerned about health and wants a long life. “ ‘We have invented happiness’—say the last men and leer.” At this point of the speech the audience breaks out in enthusiasm: “Oh, give us this last man—make us these last men. You can have then your superman!” and they laughed. “But there is ice in their laughter,” adds Nietzsche, having diagnosed correctly the schizophrenic touch of the man who is last because he is lost spiritually."

The popularity of the Last Man leads to despiritualized existence or nihilism which is the a cause of brutality and war. “The evasion of the challenge through derision and through acceptance of the despiritualized existence is, however, a short-lived possibility. When the organizing power of the spirit becomes weak, the result is not a peaceably happy despiritualized society, but a chaos of instincts and values. Despiritualized happiness is the twin brother of despiritualized brutality; once the spiritual order of the soul is dissolved in happiness, it is only a question of time and circumstance when and from which quarter the attack on an order without dignity will begin.” 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Exercise of Reason Preceded the Philosophy of Reason

Brand Blanshard in Reason & Analysis (Page 52):

“Indeed men seem to have been exercising the reason we have just described for at least five hundred thousand years before they had anything like an adequate idea of what being reasonable meant. Aristotle, who struggled long to achieve such an idea, pointed out that what was first in order of nature may be last in order of recognition; and he would certainly have agreed with Locke’s remark that ‘God has not been so sparing to men, to make them barely two-legged animals, and left it to Aristotle to make them rational.’ But while rational practice may be developed independently of theory, the theory of reason does depend on a developed practice; it is only with instances of an accomplished use of reason before them that philosophers have ever succeeded in giving an account of that use. The great advances in understanding what reason means have accompanied or shortly followed bursts of reflective activity."

In the next passage, Blanshard points out: "When man escaped from the animal mind, his use of reason seems to have been concentrated for some hundreds of millenniums on the connection of means to end.” (Page 52)