Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Notes About Notes

In my second decade of planned reading (2007-2016), I read all of Plato’s surviving works and almost all of Aristotle. For the third ten-year schedule, I decided I would simply read through my extensive notes on all these philosophical works. I thought this exercise would just remind me of the main points and the flow of argument, but some other interesting things have happened.

Take the Republic, for instance. I had read Plato’s blueprint for utopia twice in my life and had some clearish memories about how the dialog felt, how Plato’s version of Socrates got from point A to point B. Some of that flavor made it to my notes, but for the most part I had just recorded main lines of argument and the points stated. As I read through the notes on books I-V ten years after writing them, without the deceptively connective tissue, the arbitrariness of some of the features of Plato’s model society was clearer, the veneer of deductive logic almost transparent. Rulers must come from the military class? Slaves can’t act in plays? (People have to be slaves?)

The genius of Aristotle, on the other hand, seems to shine through no matter how much I condensed his words. In the Prior Analytics, Plato’s most famous student pretty much invents the formal study of logic and then begins to show how to use it in argument before the assembly. His advice covers a wide range: from analysis of your opponent’s syllogisms to knowledge about the psychologically best time to spring your conclusion on the audience. Plato would have dismissed it all as machination in the cause of power rather than truth, but then that’s why he and Aristotle are arguing in Raphael’s painting.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is one of my favorite books of philosophy. Just in books VI-X, which I reviewed this month, he covers many vital topics. He shows me why I sometimes do things I don’t want to do. He outlines the three prototypes of Dickens’s villains (a topic I’ll have to devote a whole post to some time!). He describes various kinds of friendship and helps me understand when and how both to forge a relationship and to break one. He explains why marriages fail (and by extension, how to make them last). His explanation of what a happy man gets out of true friends suggests the reason God, who needs nothing, wants happy people. And if, when Aristotle says in book X that happiness is the virtuous act of contemplation, a Christian recognizes the Triune God as the ultimate object of contemplation, Aristotle’s ending simply becomes a theological treatise on the purpose of creation and life. No wonder Dante gives Aristotle the most honored position among pagan philosophers in Limbo.

Now, to prepare to write this post, I went over the notes I just took this year: notes I took after reading the notes I wrote ten years ago. And now you’re reading my notes about my notes about my notes. You’re so far from actual Aristotle, you should stop looking at my blog right now . . . (hmmm, still here, I see) and read the Ethics for yourself. Of course, what you find there will be a translation of what scholars believe were students’ notes of the master’s lectures. I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.

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