Aristotle, Stoicism, and sophistry

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Aeon's why read Aristotle today? (by King's College classics professor Edith Hall, whose latest book is Introducing the Ancient Greeks) describes his "fundamental tenet" this way:

...the goal of life is to maximise happiness by living virtuously, fulfilling your own potential as a human, and engaging with others - family, friends and fellow citizens - in mutually beneficial activities. [...]

Aristotle's optimistic, practical recipe for happiness is ripe for rediscovery. It offers to the human race facing third-millennial challenges a unique combination of secular, virtue-based morality and empirical science, neither of which seeks answers in any ideal or metaphysical system beyond what humans can perceive by their senses.

"Aristotle's ethics are inherently flexible," Hall writes, and "There are no strict doctrines:"

Aristotle thought that general principles are important, but without taking into account the specific circumstances, especially intention, general principles can mislead. This is why he distrusted fixed penalties. He believed that the principle of equity needed to be integral to the judiciary, which is why some Aristotelians call themselves 'moral particularists'. Each dilemma requires detailed engagement with the nuts and bolts of its particulars. When it comes to ethics, the devil really can be in the detail.

"The applicability of Aristotle's holistic ethical and scientific outlook to our 21st-century problems such as theocracy and pollution," she continues, "prompts the question of why is there so little public awareness of his ideas:"

One is certainly his much-cited prejudices against women and slaves. He was a well-to-do male householder, and in his Politics he endorses slavery in the case of Greeks enslaving non-Greeks, and pronounces that women are incapable of reasoned deliberation. Yet he would have entertained reasoned arguments to the contrary, if backed up by empirical evidence. In every field of knowledge, he argued that all beliefs must be perpetually open to adjustment: 'medicine has been improved by being altered from the ancestral system, and gymnastic training, and in general all the arts and faculties'. The laws the Greeks used to live by 'were too simple and uncivilised': he cites as examples the obsolete practices of purchasing wives and bearing of arms by citizens. He insists that law-codes need revision, 'because it is impossible that the structure of the state can have been framed correctly for all time in relation to all its details'.

In contrast to Aristotle's analytical approach, Hall writes that "One of the reasons why Stoicism is enjoying a revival today is that it gives concrete answers to moral questions:"

Aristotle's ethical writings, however, contain few explicit instructions about how to act. Aristotelians need to take full responsibility in deciding what is the right way to behave and in repeatedly exerting their own judgment.

Similarly, Stoicism comes in for abuse via contemporary pundits. Modern Stoicism's Justin Vacula takes aim at pop-philosophy's Jordan Peterson and his best-seller 12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos:

When I use the word "Stoic," I reference the practical philosophy of life popularized by Ancient thinkers including Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius I'll later detail - not a common usage which people may understand as merely being resolute in the face of challenge [...] or a severely misguided interpretation - one being detached from positive or negative emotions.

"I don't recall Jordan Peterson mentioning influence from Stoic thinkers or Stoic Philosophy in his content," Vacula writes, "but I see many parallels between his work and central themes in Stoicism.:"

Jordan Peterson, in addition to receiving praise, has been vilified in popular media following his opposition to Canadian Bill C-16 concerning what he dubbed government-compelled speech in regards to gender pronouns; criticism of modern feminist positions; opposition to what he calls neo-Marxist postmodern leftists; identity politics; and political correctness. Peterson spends a considerable amount of time constructing arguments supplementing his skepticism and notes the danger of popular opinion which could lead people astray from reason.

Peterson diverges from Stoic writers when engaging in name-calling or ascribing ill-motives towards groups of people he disagrees with.

Massimo Pigliucci's how to be a Stoic takes issue with both Peterson and Vacula. "The issue," writes Pigliucci, "is whether there are sufficient deep similarities between Peterson and Stoicism. I will argue that not only the answer is no, but that the sort of worldview Peterson advances is, in fact, anti-Stoic:"

Peterson buys wholesale the most crude version of evolutionary psychology, according to which gender roles have been pretty much fixed since the Pleistocene. From this perspective, according to Peterson, the apogee of American cultural life was back in the '50s, and we ought to get back to that place.

"Peterson does say a number of fairly sensible things," but also "a lot of pseudoscientific and pseudophilosophical nonsense." Pigliucci cites this passage from Peterson's 12 Rules:

"Have you cleaned up your life? If the answer is no, here's something to try: start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today... Don't blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don't reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city? ... Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world."

"This sounds deceptively Stoic," continues Pigliucci, "but the deception is dangerous:"

First off, notice that we are told not to go out and make noise about changing the world until our own household is in perfect order. Well, then, since it will never be (we are not sages), I guess we are not authorized to invest time and energy into questioning our social systems and try to change them for the better. How convenient, for someone who clearly benefits from said social order.

Then Pigliucci analyzes "the infamous case that actually catapulted Peterson to fame: his public criticism of Canada's bill C-16, because of its stultifying political correctness:"

The bill added gender expression and identity to the list of criteria one cannot not be discriminated by in accordance to the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson claimed that C-16 would compel him to use a student's preferred gender pronoun or face criminal prosecution. This is simply and utterly false. Here is the full text of the bill, so you can check for yourself.

"Why, then," wonders Pigliucci, "is he so influential?"

Why are we spending so much energy and time talking about him? I really can't do any better than put the answer as commentator and critic Nathan Robinson did recently in what is the best and most in-depth critique of Peterson I've seen so far:

"If you want to appear very profound and convince people to take you seriously, but have nothing of value to say, there is a tried and tested method. First, take some extremely obvious platitude or truism. Make sure it actually does contain some insight, though it can be rather vague. Something like 'if you're too conciliatory, you will sometimes get taken advantage of' or 'many moral values are similar across human societies.' Then, try to restate your platitude using as many words as possible, as unintelligibly as possible, while never repeating yourself exactly. Use highly technical language drawn from many different academic disciplines, so that no one person will ever have adequate training to fully evaluate your work. Construct elaborate theories with many parts. Draw diagrams. Use italics liberally to indicate that you are using words in a highly specific and idiosyncratic sense. Never say anything too specific, and if you do, qualify it heavily so that you can always insist you meant the opposite. Then evangelize: speak as confidently as possible, as if you are sharing God's own truth. Accept no criticisms: insist that any skeptic has either misinterpreted you or has actually already admitted that you are correct. Talk as much as possible and listen as little as possible. Follow these steps, and your success will be assured."

As Pigliucci concludes, "You know what Socrates used to call this sort of person? A sophist. And he didn't mean it as a compliment."

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on May 29, 2018 8:58 AM.

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