Aristotle, the judge-y philosopher

So as I noted the other day, I’m going back to re-read all of Magna Moralia (MM), Ethica Eudemia (EE), and Ethica Nicomachea (EN) by (roughly) Aristotle after approximately 20 or so years, in order to reclaim this guy from my decades-old impressions that I didn’t really love Aristotle’s intellectual project. In the interim, he’s become quite en vogue again, due in part in my field to Bent Flyvbjerg’s Making Social Science Matter.

I’m working on the EN right now*, and while I am finding much that of value–I’ve taught bits of the EN for years–I am still running up against the same problem that I had even as a callow 17 year-old trying to read this guy even as my classmates dissed me doing it: he’s a judge-y fellow, and it’s not just his reasonable rebuking of over-indulgence in his “incontinence” sections. It’s all over the book. For all the beatings Plato gets for his loyalty to aristocracy, Aristotle again and again returns to the idea that being high born and well-taught are precursors to virtue.

This is fine, I guess, in an ancient, except that it does not really answer the question of whether somebody might be low-born and desirous of virtue, but ill-taught because of his or her context, might be able to acquire abilities to recognize what is fine and good.
Quite early on here, we have:

καὶ εἰ τοῦτο φαίνοιτο ἀρκούντως, οὐδὲν προσδεήσει τοῦ διότι. ὁ δὲ τοιοῦτος ἢ ἔχει ἢ λάβοι ἂν ἀρχὰς ῥᾳδίως. ᾧ δὲ μηδέτερον ὑπάρχει τούτων, ἀκουσάτω τῶν Ἡσιόδου:

οὗτος μὲν πανάριστος ὃς αὐτὸς πάντα νοήσῃ,

ἐσθλὸς δ᾿ αὖ κἀκεῖνος ὃς εὖ εἰπόντι πίθηται·

ὃς δέ κε μήτ᾿ αὐτὸς νοέῃ μήτ᾿ ἄλλου ἀκούων

ἐν θυμῷ βάλληται, ὁ δ᾿ αὖτ᾿ ἀχρήϊος ἀνήρ.

And the man of good moral training knows first principles already, or can easily acquire them. As for the person who neither knows nor can learn, let him hear the words of Hesiod:

Best is the man who can himself advise;

He too is good who hearkens to the wise;

But who, himself being witless, will not heed

Another’s wisdom, is worthless indeed.

Sigh. I’m having trouble with the ἀχρήϊος bits. Irwin translates as “useless”; Rackham, the translator for the Loeb Classical edition I cribbed from above, uses the word “worthless.” Those strike me as defensible translations, both, but capturing different ideas about what a person who doesn’t listen to wiser fellows failing really is: is he of no use to them, or is without value as a person (…because, perhaps, he’s of no use in general, no use to them, no use to society, or no use to anybody, even himself ? Aristotle doesn’t allow for happy fools.)

This is in a big section where Aristotle is banging on about how teaching is somewhat wasted on callow and immature learners, which anybody who has spent time with recalcitrant undergrads can tell you, is true (I just imagine a bunch of rich young male Greeks lolling around ignoring Aristotle while they scroll through…scrolls…or some other ancient version of Yik Yak.)

Back to my original point about Aristotle McJudgypants, it’s not clear to me from worthlessness to uselessness how one ever acquires virtue or knowledge of the good and the right if his precursors are not met, and that mets one must be older and experienced to know what is right and wrong, and that’s fine to some degree, but at what point does one get to push off the ground and say “I’ve got the practical wisdom, y’all listen” and by which mechanisms even those of us with grey in our hair should be expected to keep revisiting and revising our ideas of the right and the good.

And if anybody of good breeding and nurturing can acquire good morals easily, then what do we need study for?

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Wheat bread sucks: a (particularly childish) manifesto

Ok, I have a million ideas today, and I have to work on the book, but I have recently moved to eating a vegan diet as much as possible* because I just hate the animal exploitation that goes into meat. And it’s not good for me, and my state has no water, and so forth, and so on. It’s not about you. I’m not judging you. Ok? We can start there.

Now, I know that the picking and choosing of what food to eat and not eat is a signal of socio-economic privilege, and I understand that, and I’m usually among the first to roll my eyes way the heck on up in my head when dealing with a Californian who needs to be all ordering off the menu with a dozen requirements for every silly thing from what shape plate they want to switching out cilantro pesto for regular pesto even though the restaurant doesn’t have any damn kind of pesto to begin with.

With that kind of silly crap going on, lines at a sandwich counters stretch on forever, with spoiled brat Californians happily blithering on about their whatever intolerance while the rest of are starving to death in line behind them, desperate to go back to work, while they turn getting a stupid sandwich into a transaction that takes longer than refinancing your mortgage when you have bad credit. I normally love me some Californians, but never, ever, in a sandwich line. It’s a sandwich. it is not a life-changing experience. CAN WE MOVE ON HERE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?

It is thus a matter of some personal (albeit silly) pride of mine that I just ask for a #5 on white, or whatever. On white. Because I hate wheat bread. I always have.

A recent sandwich line innovation, however, has them picking the bread for you. #5s in the world now come on various and sundry buns, and if you don’t want whatever bread product they have chosen, for reasons of economy and to make it clearer to everybody on the sandwich assembly side of things just what kind of sandwich they are supposed to be making here, you have to issue a dreaded special request.

So it is with a great deal of irritation that my self-satisfied, low-maintenance sandwich line rule of never fussing about with special requests during a lunch rush hits up against the hard brick wall of that fact that every single damn vegan sandwich in the world comes on $@!#!! loathsome wheat bread. While you meat eaters are granted rosemary focaccia and Dutch “crunch” buns, BBQ tofu or a simple pile of stupid vegetables always, inevitably, have to be served on wheat effing bread.

I’m dying inside a little inside here anyway: I’m not one of those vegan converts who recoils primly in horror at the very idea of polluting this here temple with animal flesh. This here temple is already way the hell polluted, and I’ve had a jolly good time doing it, thank you, and giving all that up as a concession to age is no small loss.

There are days when I look up, and instead of my students’ faces, I see a whole classroom of cheeseburgers instead, with side helping of biscuit and sausage gravy. Ok? So when I am ordering my whatever little pile of yummy, yummy, healthy raw (or cold slimy cooked) vegetables, I’m already feeling somewhat deprived by the whole deal. The last thing I need to have is my little pile of vegetables served on stupid wheat bread.

I’m Ron freaking Swanson trapped in a body that won’t let me eat what I want.

I get why restaurants do this sort of thing. They are playing the odds, and the odds are that a person who, when confronted with lovely, savory, delicious meat will choose the pile of flavorless veggies is also a person who is going to burst into rapturous praise of -effing wheat bread. “It’s sooooooooooooooo much healthier, like ZOMG, it’s so much more like what our caveman ancestors ate” and “It has sOOOOooooOOOOOooooOOOOooooooooo much more flavor” (yeah, bad flavor) “How can anybody eat that insipid white bread?” blah blah blah. You can find both my husband and my mother in this group, and I wish they’d shut the hell up. (Well, about wheat bread and how I should like it.)

My choice in life is now to eat my sad vegetable sandwich (no cheese, even) made even more disappointing by yucky wheat bread, or become one of the legion of special request whiners cluttering up the world with their ever-so-special demands, thus lengthening every sandwich line I join and forcing all others, who just want to grab a sandwich and get back to freaking work, to wait while I say, “Can I have that on (insert bread that doesn’t suck), instead?” and the minimum wage slave assembling sandwiches has to either explain that yes, I can, or no, I can’t.

RRRRrrrrrr.

*I say as much as possible because it’s hard, and I’m not perfect, so if you see me in an airport grabbing a slice of pizza, please don’t come up to me and say “I thouuuuught you saiiiiiiiid you were a vegan, but this just proves you’re a hypocrite, so there!” Remember: not about you. Trying to forestall the triple bypass here. Ok? Trying to feel less bad about dead animals. You work your program, I’ll work mine. Or not. LIVE FREE OR DIE DAMMIT.

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Launching on my special study of Aristotle for a few months

I’m going back to the Nichomachean Ethics after a 20-year break. I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a special study of this book, the Eudemian Ethics, and the Magna Moralia.

Don’t ask how the book is going, just don’t.

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Christian Matheis on justice, race, and public policy

As many of you know, I was fortunate enough to be a Virginia Tech for awhile, and one of the most wonderful features of Virginia Tech is their ASPECT (The Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought) group that draws together researchers from fields across the university in conversation about social, political, ethical, and cultural thought. By far, ASPECT had for me the most in-depth and interesting intellectual engagement at VT.

I still follow their activities, and one that caught my eye this morning comes from PhD student , whose wonderful website can be found here. (I have got to get going on a website. I am the world’s most disorganized person.) Christian’s blog post appears at RE: Reflections and Explorations, and his piece is entitled: Public Policy, Racial Justice, and Liberatory Thought:
By what criteria can we call public policy properly ‘anti-racist’?
. There is much here worth reading, including:

When informed by liberatory thought, individuals and groups engaged in social movements advocate for wholesale change: ethical respect and due moral regard, institutional shifts that broaden access to shares of political rule, and for the feasibility of governance by those formerly oppressed, marginalized, targeted, and otherwise deemed unworthy or incapable of fair and decent conduct as the primary architects of politics.

Go read.

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I’ve been reading about vaccines

I recently butted heads with a person making excuses for the anti-vaxxers, with the typical “Big Bad Pharma” routine, and I suddenly realized that I had really strong opinions on the subject.

This story from Australia reinforced my views.

This child died for no reason, just like every kid who dies in car crashes. At least with cars we have the utility associated with high levels of mobility–like that’s commensurate, somehow, but at least it’s something. In the case of vaccines, the utility is in free-riding.

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“Nourishing the spirit” versus “Fostering one’s career”

I won’t pretend that I don’t think William Deresiewicz’s evidence for his book, Excellent Sheep, is thin and overstated. Nonetheless, I don’t disagree with the problems of neoliberalization of higher education he highlights. I’m just not sure what to do about it.

This review by George Scialabba in Foreign Affairs strikes me as actually more insightful than the book:

College, in Deresiewicz’s view, is supposed to be the place where one discovers an allegiance to something larger than oneself: service to a community or a cause, the practice of art or science or scholarship. The problem is not merely pedagogic but political: unless American elites are dedicated to something larger than themselves, an American commonwealth is impossible.


and:

Deresiewicz notes the mass migration of elite college graduates to careers in finance and consulting: at many Ivy League universities, at least a quarter of all students go into those fields after graduation. Deresiewicz believes that these shifts have occurred not because students find economics, finance, and business intellectually or morally fulfilling but because they fear that holding out for more interesting work would be too risky, or because they must pay off student loans, or simply because, in a winner-take-all society, who wouldn’t want to be one of the winners?

and:

Many readers will have murmured to themselves by now: “Yes, I’ve heard all this talk about souls and individuality and self-creation before: very inspiring. And I’m well aware that severe economic inequality is a feature of contemporary American life. But what does Deresiewicz propose? If he had the authority and the resources to change American universities, how would he go about it?” 



I guess I don’t think that it’s impossible to both nurture the spirit and help a young person get ready for a career. I think it’s possible to learn Excel and Aristotle. Why not?

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Satire alert: Scott Walker sells off Bucky the Badger to Geico

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Citing the need for more business-oriented solutions to the obvious problem of a highly ranked and otherwise successful public institution of higher learning, the University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker today announced that he is authorizing the sale of the school’s beloved mascot, Bucky the Badger, to online insurance giant Geico. Bucky will replace their former animal mascot, a gecko with a posh English accent known to his friends as “Geck.”

Walker states that this move secures him as somebody who has bravely fixed what wasn’t broken so that it can be broken so that he then can have credit for fixing it. “I’m just the man for this sort of thing.” He noted, throwing down double finger guns.

Bucky issued a statement through his agent today that he’s excited for the new opportunity to make a difference on the national stage. Sources close to the badger report that Bucky is thrilled with the move: “I’m tired of just seeing myself on TV when UW pulls their shit together to get to the NCAA playoffs. That’s, what? Once a year, man, or maybe twice. How am I supposed to bank any serious coin hooked up to an academic institution? I’ve got, like, six cows and 237 cubs to support.”

Former mascot Geck the gecko responded to this news from his loft in the boggier bits of the Thames in London: “Geico and I have had a wonderful working relationship. I’m so grateful for all the time we’ve had. It’s been a few years since they have really needed me, what with their Cavemen and other stellar personnel. I’m looking forward to new projects, and, frankly, more time for myself. I wish Bucky all the best in the future.”

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Geico marketing staffers noted that this parting message was typical of the urbane and gracious Geck, and insiders expressed some worries about working with the pugilistic badger. “Have you ever seen that badger crack a smile? No, you haven’t. It’s always been “Fight! Fellows! – fight, fight, fight!” with that guy.”

University of Wisconsin staffers say that there is no plan to replace Bucky, even though it wouldn’t really cost anything, because doing so would interfere with the high-profile austerity symbolism surrounding Walker’s announcement, and potentially undermine the impact of his finger guns.

There is, however, a new plan to have members of the business community sponsor the University with donations that entitle them to have their names engraved on individual blades of grass on the quad.

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Sonia Hirt’s comparative land use

So I’ve been reading away on Sonia Hirt’s 2014 book

Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land Use Regulation, and finding it quite helpful. Sonia was one of my colleagues at Virginia Tech, and she’s really a wonderful thinker. She’s from eastern Europe, and she’s from architecture, which means she has a unique way of looking at land use and American practices in a way that helps us see things we normally don’t.

I’m not that far into yet, and I’ve been a rotten reader and have been reading out of order, but so far, she’s focussed in on the American cultural aspects of zoning. I’m never sure how to evaluate these sorts of claims about cultural predilections. They feel apt enough, but then there’s the nagging question of how you seek and formulate evidence, a common enough complaint about cultural histories, where charges of essentialism loom.

The book’s organization is a bit surprising, which is one reason I’ve been jumping about a bit; you start with how American zoning works. This is a very nice chapter for planning students, along with the subsequent chapter, on how other, most European, countries approach zoning. The last chapters have to do with explaining the beginnings of zonings, so that it’s a bit inverted. I think the structure does work, particularly for students.

Zoned in the USA The Origins and Implications of American Land Use Regulation Sonia A Hirt 9780801479878 Amazon com Books

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Johnny Cash and the last word on open carry

(and ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOUR MOM)

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The political uses of apocalypse: a reading list to be going on with

My Facebook page has become a clash of cultures between my deeply religious relatives and other secular friends over one of those memes that people send about. Memes are always reductive, and they are usually a shorthand form of political communication, designed to score points off of the satirized viewpoint among people who agree with you rather than convince people who don’t. This one had to do with the apocalyptic arm of the contemporary GOP and its focus on supporting Israel not as a freestanding state designed to be a homeland where the Jewish people (to the degree that we may speak of peoples in the Rawlsian sense of the word) have self-determination, but as the ground zero of the end times for all the worthy Christians waiting to be raptured.

This of course annoyed the Christian conservatives who refuse to be painted with this brush (of course not), but apocalyptic thinking is so rooted in western politics that it’s hard to ignore the sticky problem the meme presents, however rudely, about the central problem of apocalypticism in politics.

There are explicit forms of apocalypticism among people who think we physically are on the clock, winding down, which induces fatalism with regard to progress. We have good evidence that Jesus Christ was an apocalyptic thinker, which makes much of the social program he outlines difficult to apply millennia later: if the end times are coming, of course you can give away all you own. You shan’t need that coat, anyway. But in a world that rolls on an on, you just might.

There are also implicit forms apocalypticism that treat disaster thinking as an inherent set of assumptions about the way the world is going. As my colleague, Martin Krieger, points out, you can see apocalypticism in lots of environmental discourse, particularly climate change. And to some purpose: disasters do happen, societies do die, as do cities.

In this way, I tend to think of apocalypticsm as a parallel to utopianism. I’m influenced here by Richard Gunn’s thought piece on the topic (pdf download.) I don’t think they are obverses; I do think they tend to run in tandem because of the influence that heaven and hell influences have on Judeo-Christian thought and attitudes, and, thus, on how people think society might progress or can progress (or not) and thus on the way they think about politics.

And then: ZOMBIES.

There’s a goodly bit of utopianism and apocalypticism in urban studies, which is one reason I find both so interesting: The Life and Death of Great American Cities is an exemplar. Life. DEATH. ZOMBIES.

Here are some things to read if you like this sort of thing:

Genesis 5:21-24 and 6:1-8

Ezekiel 37-39; Isaiah 24-27; Zechariah

Daniel 2, 7-12 (Bible);

4 Ezra (= 2 Esdras 3-14)

John’s Apocalypse, esp. chs. 1-3, 12-18 (Revelation in the New Testament); 1 Thessalonians, esp. chs. 4-5 (for Paul’s apocalyptic worldview);

Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World To Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. 2nd edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Judean Apocalyptic Literature. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking, 2012)

Eugene Weber. 2000. Apocalypses: Propheicies, Cults, and Millenial Beliefs Throughout the Ages. Havard University Press.

Harrison, J.F.C. 2013. The Second Coming: Popular Millenarialism 1780-1850. Routledge.

There is so much writing on contemporary Christian apocalypticism that I don’t know where to begin. I have always liked:

Daniels, Ted. 1999. A Doomsday Reader: Prophets, Predictors, and Hucksters of Salvation. NYU Press.

But it’s an older book. Anybody have suggestions?

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