Miscellany: roses and “roses,” Aristotle, coronavirus

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I appreciated your portrayal of the manner in which we may be inclined to employ our intellects to slice a concrete being up into conceptual abstractions. As an example: it is an abstraction to imagine the rose irrespective of the thorny stem from which it grows. So “abstraction” means that we represent one aspect or element of a thing separate from the thing of which that aspect or element is a part and (all too often, forget the essential anterior unity from which it was derived). “Analysis” is a good word for this process because the Greek literally means “splitting apart.” I thought of how tempting it is to regard a person we meet in the same critical way: parsing him or her up into what we like and what we don’t. The reverse of this would be to regard the person in her wholeness as the perfect expression of just who and what she is. Then it would not make sense to think of her “rosy” aspects and her “thorny” ones because they would both be subsumed under the standard of her reality and her wholeness. They would be seen as expressions of this and not judged against an independent standard of like and dislike that I happened to be entertaining. I suggested that the latter could be called “abstraction” and you already proposed a term for the former: “love.”

***

Philosophy is “love in wisdom” and “wisdom in love.” It is, basically, a Way with the purpose of refining the eye of the soul so that it sees the good and the true as beautiful; so that it loves what is good instead of what only seems good. Wisdom is necessary as a condition for the discernment between truth and simulacrum.

***

I also very much appreciated your argument in respect to consistency in words and deeds. I think a discrepancy of this sort is a form of falsehood: “hypocrisy,” we usually call it. I take this to mean that we are expressing one thing with our speech and another with our actions and these things are contradictory. Regrettably, it sometimes seems that hypocrisy is the rule rather than the exception. I could elaborate what I have in mind but I imagine you have some ideas yourself. I suggested that one reason we find it so infuriating when politicians contradict their own profession in their deeds is because of the hypocrisy inherent in such a situation. I think it is also important to observe the manner in which this undermines their authority. Inversely, coherence in word and deed establishes authority in someone in a natural way, even without holding office. In this way, integrity and authority are related as virtues.

***

Finally, I wished to add a remark about remaining neutral in respect an issue instead of taking one or another position on it. I think it is worth considering that neutrality in itself is not a virtue. In fact, it might even be the opposite of a virtue if it is taken as an end in itself. I think the virtue of neutrality is when it is employed as a means toward achieving the end of greater understanding. In other words, the practice of remaining neutral and sustaining an open mind is not for its own sake, but rather for the sake of being able to synthesise diverse standpoints on a question so as to be better able to arrive at the truth of it. If I had already made up my mind at the outset, I could never arrive at a comprehensive understanding because I would be unwilling to consider other evidence.

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You alluded to something that I would like to comment on in respect to the “corpus Aristotelicum.” It is widely believed that the extant works of Aristotle were never meant to be published and represented instead collections of “lecture notes” intended for people who were already familiar with the doctrines. This might seem surprising, but it is the only way to make sense of Cicero’s otherwise absurd assertion that “if Plato’s prose was silver, Aristotle’s was a flowing river of gold.” It is a tantalizing prospect that one of these works remains buried under a pile of dusty codices in some forgotten library somewhere. In any case, there is reason to suspect that the works of Aristotle that did survive were deliberately composed to be opaque and obfuscatory. Compare, for instance, this letter exchange between Aristotle and Alexander that the historian Plutarch relates:

 . . . when he [Alexander] was in Asia, and heard Aristotle had published some treatises of that kind, he wrote to him, using very plain language to him in behalf of philosophy, the following letter:

Alexander to Aristotle, greeting. You have not done well to publish your books of acroamatic doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.

And Aristotle, soothing this passion for preëminence, speaks, in his excuse for himself, of these doctrines as in fact “both published and not published,” as indeed, to say the truth, his books on metaphysics are written in a style which makes them useless for ordinary teaching, and instructive only, in the way of memoranda, for those who have been already conversant in that sort of learning.

Given that Aristotle is often considered the father of formal logic, it is clearly a sort of quip to say “both published and not published” since it defies the law of non-contradiction.

***

I have mentioned on numerous occasions in class how blessed I feel to be able to conduct this course right now and that is largely because of my perception that critical thinking is in such short supply in society at large. I think you brought out “exhibit A” in respect to this paucity of critical thinking when you broached the topic of the coronavirus pandemic response. There have been many policies implemented and measures taken in reaction to the news of this virus, but very few of them seem to demonstrate that they are the fruits of critical reflection on the issues at stake. The situation is severely exacerbated by the manner in which partisan myrmidons have taken advantage of the situation to advance their particular agendas at the expense of everyone’s welfare. At the same time, they have stifled all opposition by labeling it as “anti-science” or “conspiracy theory.” In fact, it betrays a profound misunderstanding of science as such to invoke it as the basis of concrete measures or policies. Claims of “following the science” are perfect case-studies of what we have described as “sophistry” in this class, since science, in principle, does not recommend any course of action but rather seeks to reveal relationships between observational data and to order our understanding of these observations by bringing them under overarching principles and natural laws. When science crosses the line into activism and politics, it often results in advancing policies that future generations regard with horror, like state-sponsored eugenics (which was “settled science” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) or the Manhattan Project, for instance.

Again, it seems that the politicization of science and everything else around the coronavirus response has had the unfortunate effect of stifling any critical discourse. The results, as you indicated, have been catastrophic for many people. It is very cavalier to dismiss outright the danger of acute infection by the coronavirus as well as the lingering symptoms of such infection, but it is really the height of absurdity to pretend that the danger of such infection is the only concern that needs to be taken into account. It is really the opposite of critical thought. “Naïve reactivity” is perhaps the best description for it. To think critically around the coronavirus pandemic, it would be necessary to pose the question more in the following manner: “how can we achieve the optimal balance between mitigating the deleterious consequences of coronavirus while attempting to preserve everything that makes life worth living for people?” Limiting coronavirus infection is one concern we should have but not the only concern we should have. Please feel free to add anything to this evaluation.

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