Stand Up with Aristotle

When I first read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics maybe thirty years ago, I was both puzzled and disappointed by his discussion of the moral virtues in Book IV–generosity, magnificence, friendliness, wit, and so on. It seemed a waste of space. A whole book on this? What were such banalities doing in a classic work of moral philosophy?

Aristotle’s (very brief) discussion of the place of humor in social life seemed a case in point. On Aristotle’s account, wit turned out to be a moral virtue, buffoonery and humorlessness, vices. 

Those who go to excess in raising laughs seem to be vulgar buffoons. They stop at nothing to raise a laugh, and care more about that than about saying what is seemly and avoiding pain to the victims of the joke. …

Those who joke in appropriate ways are called witty, or in other words, agile-witted. For these sorts of jokes seem to be movements of someone’s character, and characters are judged, as bodies are, by their movements (NE IV.8, 1128a5-12).

Really? That’s what morality requires? Telling the right jokes at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons, etc. etc.? Continue reading

Natural Law Libertarianism in Two Flavours

My two latest Agoric Café videos:

In the first one, I chat with philosopher Eric Mack about walking out on Ayn Rand, clashing with Nazi Sikhs in Seneca Falls, libertarian rights theory, Kantian vs. Aristotelean approaches to fixing Randian ethics, Nozickian polymathy, the unselfishness of Samuel Johnson, the ethics of COVID lockdowns, physical distancing in Durango, the CIA as an argument against anarchism, shoving someone in front of a bus as a form of restitution, and the edibility of matter.

In the second video, I chat with philosopher Gary Chartier about Robin Hood, left-wing market anarchism, natural law, free speech and employer power, libertarian secularism, Seventh-day Adventism, religious epistemology, long-arc television, urban fantasy, Lawrence Durrell, Iris Murdoch, Whit Stillman, the evils of giving extra credit and taking attendance, and the attractions of being emperor.

Aristotle on Free Will: One From the Vaults

Today I found that my 1992 Ph.D. dissertation, Free Choice and Indeterminism in Aristotle and Later Antiquity, is a free (to those with institutional access) download from UMI, so I decided to make it a free download for everybody.

Reducing and optimising the hell out of it only got it down from around 25 MB to around 18 MB, so I split it into four parts in order to get around the 5 MB maximum upload limit.

I haven’t OCR’d it because UMI has inserted renderable text on every page, which bizarrely blocks Acrobat’s OCR function, and getting around that is more hassle than it’s worth to me right now.

I still agree with what I say here in broad outlines, but not with every detail, and indeed I have a book manuscript, Aristotle on Fate and Freedom, that revises, updates, and supersedes the Aristotle portion of this. (It leaves out the sections on later antiquity.) That is better than this. But that’s not published, and this is, so here ya go.

The main thing I would want to retract today is the snarky remark about Los Angeles in the autobiographical sketch. L.A. is the bee’s knees, man! Not sure what my glitch was. (Of course it was inspired by a similar remark in Isaac Asimov’s bio, but that hardly justifies it.)

Bloomberg on “Stop and Frisk”: (Part 2 of 2)

I wrote this post back when Michael Bloomberg was still a presidential candidate. He dropped out of the presidential race on March 4. Soon after that, the pandemic struck. Consumed in the latter issue, I forgot that I’d written the second half of my “Bloomberg on Stop and Frisk” series. In some ways it’s dated, but in other ways not, so for whatever it’s worth, I’ve decided to run it now, six months after the fact. Sue me. 

In my last post on this topic, I distinguished between two different senses of “stop and frisk,” ordinary and Bloombergian, and argued that the distinction between them matters to our assessment of Michael Bloomberg as presidential candidate. On the one hand, it makes no sense to attack Bloomberg for his support of ordinary stop and frisk. To attack ordinary stop-and-frisk is to attack police work as such. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense to attack him for the specific version of it that prevailed when he was mayor of New York City. To attack Bloombergian stop and frisk is to attack a perversion of the real thing. Continue reading

It Sometimes Begins with Emerson

I just did this survey, “put together by the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) and the APA Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy.” (You have to be an APA member to take it.)

https://delaware.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_4McDN9ZhI7GVYCp

It was fun. It gave me a chance to reflect on my first encounter with philosophy, which, contrary to the old saw, didn’t begin with Ayn Rand. It began in a high school English class on American literature, where we read Emerson and Thoreau. I’m not sure contemporary analytic philosophers would regard either of the two as real philosophers, but whatever you call them, they were my first contact with anything describable as philosophy.* I found them pretty enthralling, and still do. As it happens, I’m re-reading Walden for the first time in a couple of decades, and enjoying it immensely. One of my undergraduate teachers, George Kateb, predicted to me back then that I would one day forsake Ayn Rand and return home to the American Transcendentalists. I was offended at the time, but by George, he was right. Continue reading

An Essential Question

Like most terms in philosophy, ‘essentialism’ gets used in a variety of different ways in a variety of different contexts. In its most general use, though, essentialism is the view that some things have essences. What is an essence? Accounts differ, but roughly at least we can say that an essence is a set of properties that a thing must have so long as it is the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is. Not all properties that a thing has are essential, because some of them are properties that a thing can gain or lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is; these are so-called accidental properties. Philosophers argue about whether this is the right way to understand essences and essential properties. Some, for instance, follow Aristotle in distinguishing further between necessary properties and essential properties: a property is necessary if it is one that a thing must have to be the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is, but a property is essential only if it is both necessary and fundamental, explaining why the thing has the other necessary properties it has, but not itself explained in terms of some other property. I’m not much interested here in the distinction between necessary and essential properties. What interests me is that there are plenty of philosophers who want to reject essentialism altogether. They don’t just want to say that for some categories, such as ‘human’ or ‘American’ or ‘fun,’ there is no set of properties that everything falling within that category must have and cannot lose without ceasing to belong to that category. Instead, they want to deny that there are any essential properties at all. I find this puzzling. Here’s why.

Continue reading

Aristotle, Seneca, and Gregory of Nyssa on Slavery

Aristotle gets a lot of flack for defending slavery. It’s not bad enough that he accepted it, like so many Greek thinkers before him; he went to the trouble of arguing for it. Worse still, his argument is, by almost universal scholarly consensus, pretty bad. The gist of the argument is that some human beings are so rationally deficient that they cannot lead autonomous lives and therefore need to be ruled by others in order to keep out of trouble, or at least in order to live decently; slavery is actually beneficial for them, and they’re better off being slaves than being left to their own devices.

Continue reading

Mega-Bleg: Plato, Aristotle, and the Jews

This is the sort of question that never occurs to me when I teach Plato and Aristotle back home (itself a rare event), but it’s the kind of question I’m sure to get asked while teaching them here in Palestine next week. And damned if I know the answer.

Were Plato and Aristotle acquainted with Abrahamic monotheism?

Put more concretely for purposes of historical inquiry:

Were Plato or Aristotle familiar with the Jewish people or the Hebrew Bible?

I’ll bet that David Riesbeck has an answer, but I pose the question(s) above (as well as those below) for anyone with answers. Continue reading