Monday, April 6, 2020

Some marginalia on the first four sections of the first book of the Ethica Nicomachea

These very rough notes are a somewhat expanded transcription of handwritten marginalia I set down for my own use. They are tentative, often inchoate, impressionistic, and speculative musings, rather than theses to defend. The focus throughout is on quarrying material useful for my own reflections on contemporary Catholic integralism. If the reader finds them useful, too, in some very small way, then so much the better.

[1094a1--The Bekker numbers in brackets are approximate--I was going to look them up and specifiy them more precisely, but honestly I can't be bothered.]

Politics is the "most authoritative art, and indeed the master art" (κυριωτάτης καὶ μάλιστα ἀρχιτεκτονικῆς). Note the Greek here: κυριωτάτης, reminiscent of "lordly" (compare "Κύριε ἐλέησον" or "κύριος Ἰησοῦς") and μάλιστα  ἀρχιτεκτονικῆς, "most architectonic" (compare Mark 6:3, "οὐκ οὗτος ἐστιν ὁ τέκτων, ὁ υἱὸς τῆς Μαρίας?" [Isn't this the Carpenter (ὁ τέκτων), the Son of Mary?"]). Taking admittedly unwarranted liberties with the text, we might say:
Politics is the Lord's art, the Maker's art. 
Aristotle has just begun his discussion, and already whispering between the lines of the Greek we find not only the connection between politics and God in some general, Deist sense, but a politics always already haunted by a very specific God--the Lord, the Carpenter.

[P]olitics... (πολιτικὴ) ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state (πόλις), and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them . . . .
This is the reason why politics is "the most authoritative art and that which is the master art." Moreover, this means that, rightly understood, politics just is integralism, and integralism just is politics. Politics orders our education. But education orders our souls--rightly or wrongly, depending upon what is taught, how, and by whom.

Since... [politics] legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end (τέλος) of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a πόλις, that of the πόλις seems at all events something greater both to attain and to preserve; for though it is worthwhile to attain the τέλος merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike (θειότερον) to attain it for a nation or a state (ἔθνει καὶ πόλεσιν).
Here, of course, we already have the superiority of the "common good" over that of the individual person insisted upon by Charles De Koninck.

Perhaps more surprisingly, here we also have not merely πόλις, but ἔθνος. So although a certain cosmopolitanism is doubtless demanded by the catholicity of the Church, we find in the order of nature as described by the Philosopher a place for the common good of an ἔθνος. Perhaps one wishing to protect the common good of an ἔθνος (nation) might be called a "national conservative." It may be doubted whether any national patriotism ought to survive in the order of grace, where there is "neither Jew nor Greek." But since grace perfects nature, it would seem that the City of Man may have its nations. just as the City of God, even, has not merely its clerics, but its laymen, too.

Here we are told that politics doesn't admit of mathematical precision. Aristotle gives us Burkean humanism, not Marxian economism. The attempt to substitute mathematics for prudence in modern political economy is folly.

[1095a1] Here we are told that the "young and rash" don't benefit from instruction in politics. The young lack the knowledge that comes from experience. The rash fail to benefit from knowledge, like the morally incontinent. A possible implication would be that neither the young nor felons (who have proven themselves rash) should enjoy the franchise.

We must begin with what is familiar to us. Hence any one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just and generally, about the subject of political science, must be brought up in good habits. [1095b1]
First note that the "noble and just" are "the subject of political science." This has direct application for whether Catholic Social Teaching is an authoritative teaching on faith and morals: the "noble and just" are moral matters. If politics just is a quest for the noble and just, then it is necessarily within the purview of the Magisterium.

Second, note that education--viz., a virtuous upbringing--is indispensable to right political deliberation. (Virtue ethics is premised upon the importance of habit.  We must continually cultivate virtue, which is a characterological condition, not an evaluation of discrete acts.) Two caveats: 1. Some few are able to reform and acquire some of this education of their moral sentiments in later life after a bad upbringing. 2. This education is not a matter of some gnostic technocratic meritocracy--it is a matter of the cultivation of virtue. In that regard, most of our present elite of "merit" is very maleducated indeed.

 [1095b1] Here, we are told that there are three types of life--the life of pleasure, the political life, and the contemplative life. The "life of pleasure" looks suspiciously like the sinful life of the prodigal. Then the latter look like the lives of laymen and vowed religious, respectively. But to leave it there is too bourgeois-republican and Protestant (but I repeat myself) a view. Aristotle also gives us this Dalrymplean sentiment here:

Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts. 

So consider the philosophers, warriors, and producers in Plato's Republic, corresponding to the intellect, will, and appetite in the soul. Nietzsche was right in some ways when he called Christianity "Platonism for the masses."  And the three estates of medieval society--clergy, nobility, and commons--gave the world a practical Platonic republic, presided over by the Philosopher-King in Rome.

Aristotle's "mass of men" here are the farmers and mechanics, and perhaps the merchants as well. Experience tells us that most men do prefer low entertainments, junk food, and vice. The Tao Te Ching tells us to keep the peasant masses fed but ignorant. Mencius tells us every man is innately good. The sane middle ground is to acknowledge original sin, but strive to cultivate virtue. Plato emphasizes the productive mass's need for temperance. Jeffersonian democracy tried to create a temperate republic. It was succeeded by Jacksonian democracy, which more often let the demos run riot. Perhaps the mass of men are innately--viz., genetically--such. Perhaps education in virtue, tutelage by the Church, can indeed bring Platonic temperance to the masses. Reality is likely a mix of both--the Church ever striving to broaden and deepen the virtue of the mass of men, and succeeding in making sturdy yeoman saints some of the time, and failing with other men.

Because the Church will not make every man a saint--to think otherwise is utopianism--there will always be not only contemplation for our philosopher-king clergy, and politics for men educated into habits of virtue enough that they deliberate aright, but a massa damnata of poor in faith we shall always have with us, living a life of pleasure. For them, the statesman can and should take Lao Tzu's advice--leave them to their folly, and don't try to make New Soviet Men of them. But for the Church, such men--and they are not at all limited to the stupid or the penniless--are a continual mission field. We cannot hope on this side of purgatory to bring every man to virtue--perhaps least of all me--but we strive nonetheless to fulfill Our Lord's Commission. If we do not make allowance for the existence of this group whom I'll call (with the Heraclitean distinction between wet and dry souls in mind) the massa inebriata (who will ever choose moonshine and sloth over temperance and uplift), then we are in a continual cycle of Protestant Reform, oscillating between Roundheads and  Jacobins and  Red Guards, and then Jacksonians and Restoration rakes and an amoral commercial republic of consumers, over and over again. Every deviation from a mixed polity has its characteristic failure modes. Democratical polity degenerates into ochlocratic democracy, and then into tyranny.  The Roundhead congregationalist and the democratic republican (but I repeat myself) make no allowances for the fact that not every man in the masses will be a Praise-God Barebone or a Stakhanov. So their Jeffersonian politics is like universalist theology--it ignores reality, and runs into madness.

A proper polity will balance the three estates, and so keep the pleasure-seeking of the masses politically in check. In our time, the soldiery isn't a proper estate anymore, and we see that fascism has failed, running into hideous follies of its own by letting not the serf, but the soldier run riot. Moreover, any Ibero-fascist vision of a state of humble producers, Spartan soldiers, and Catholic priests is a foolish utopianism of its own for us, not least because of changed material conditions from not only the agrarian city states of Plato's and Aristotle's time, but from the societies transitioning from farming to Fordism that embraced fascism.

Against the utopian urge to immanentize the eschaton, I would propose an oddball mixture of Dorothy Day and Michael Oakeshott: Think apocalyptically; act incrementally. Through attempts to re-integrate religion into public life, and to make some men more fit for political deliberation, we can attempt to forge a mixed polity from within our consumerist ochlocracy, by incrementally adding more of the contemplative and the truly political--the noble and the just--to today's pleasure-seeking Anglo-American liberal democratic republic.

[1095b1] Here we are told that honor is "roughly speaking, the τέλος of politics."  Again, we see that while a Gelasian dyarchy presiding over three estates concerns us all, the "political life" is neither the life of the massa inebriata, nor specifically that of the contemplative clergy, but most properly that of the will to the noble and just, the warrior guardians standing between the philosopher kings and the idiocy of the crowd. The restriction of the franchise (or at least the franchise for some upper house) to men who've served in the military--Heinlein's old chestnut--is perhaps implied by this. However, the illusion that the soldiery--either the fascist thugs of yore or the PowerPoint jockeys of today--is free from vice is itself a dangerous one. Indeed, the old Tory preference for the militia over the military, perhaps an indirect ancestor of the Second Amendment of our admittedly Whiggish Constitution, is probably a better seed for further reflection here than a jejune utopia of starship fascists.

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