Friday, October 30, 2009

Old Testament - The Book of Job

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do we see persons who we know are evil doing well, being happy and successful? Is God not really in charge of what happens? Is he ignorant of evil or not truly omnipotent? What is divine justice?

The Book of Job is called one of the "wisdom literature" of the Old Testament, the others being Psalms and Proverbs. From my reading, it appears to be quite poetic and rich in metaphors. This book is thought to have been written in the 5th century BC in the post-Exilic period.

To give a synopsis, this is the story of a man named Job who has his faith tested in the severest sense. Job is very successful, has a large, happy family and is pious and thankful toward God. Satan says to God that Job is only pious because he is prosperous and well treated. God decides to wager (?) Satan that this is not true and he allows Satan to do terrible things to Job. Satan steals all of Job's livestock, destroys his livelihood, kills all his children and then gives Job a horrible, disfiguring disease. Job's wife tells him to curse God and die.

About then, three of Job's friends show up and they have a long dialogue with Job about why God would do this to someone who is good and pious. What is communicated to us is one of the fundamental beliefs in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim faith. God tests us with adversity, he allows bad things to happen to good people AND good things to happen to bad people. However, the good people shall be rewarded in the end.

Job has a difficult time understanding why God would do this to him, one of his faithful servants.

Eventually God reveals himself and tells Job that he cannot possibly understand God's reasons. God says that Job cannot comprehend the breadth of the Earth, send forth lightning, provide food for all beasts or know the heavens above. How then can Job understand the great plans of God?

In the end, God rewards Job for his patience and faith by granting him ten more children, more livestock and a much longer life. However, I do wonder if this is suitable recompense for all his suffering, including the death of his first ten children. In addition, why would God need to make a wager with Satan. What does that prove? God already knows that Job is faithful and steadfast and he will never be able to convince Satan of that. Of course the theologians would say that I cannot possibly understand what God's plan convenient.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Plutarch: Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar

Plutarch compares the lives of two great men from antiquity, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

Alexander (356–323 BC) was a Macedonian who is best known for his generalship and the spreading of Greek culture far to the east. In defeating the Persian king Darius III, Alexander created one of the largest land empires ever to have existed. As a brilliant tactician, Alexander's military achievements are often the standard to which all other military leaders are compared.

Plutarch describes Alexander as having a strong personality, huge ambitions and being highly energetic. He seemed to be continually pushing himself, which may explain how Alexander did so much in his short life, dying from sickness at the age of 32 in Persia. His greatest faults may have been his overdeveloped ego, a sense of megalomania and a penchant for alcohol.

Julius Caesar (100-42 BC) was a man of many talents who transformed Rome from a republic into an empire. Plutarch describes in detail how Caesar could be both a superb military commander and a shrewd politician.

What I found interesting about Plutarch's biography was how much of it reminded me of Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar". I realize old Will did not have many sources to use for his plays, but I was surprised to see lines being lifted right out of Plutarch's work, although Caesar does not say Et tu, Brute? when Brutus stabs him.

In comparing these men from antiquity we can see they were both excellent military commanders who defeated armies several times the size of their own forces. Caesar fought battles in distant Britain, while Alexander travelled all the way to the gates of India. Both men also played a significant role in government, founding cities and designing civil works projects. Caesar and Alexander had great ambitions and repeatedly pushed themselves and their men to their physical limits. In battle they were courageous, implacable warriors, but they were also magnanimous to their defeated enemies.

They did have significant differences, especially in their political lives. Alexander was a king who dealt with little dissent, while Caesar fought a civil war and became an emperor. Alexander died very young from illness while Caesar was assassinated at the age of 56. A young Caesar once lamented that Alexander had conquered a kingdom by his age, while he had done nothing notable. Alexander did not develop a strong enough political structure and his empire fractured after his death, while Caesar's Roman Empire continued to flourish after he was killed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Plutarch: Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius

The founding laws and mores of a state can have long-lasting consequences for the success and development of that government as well as the people being governed. In this first section, Plutarch compares the famous lawgivers of ancient Sparta and Rome, and demonstrates how these individuals affected their countries.

Lycurgus (7th century BC) was a Greek lawgiver from Sparta, a city-state on the Peloponessian peninsula in the area known as Laconia. He is important as being one of the first lawgivers in the Western world and his image is found several times in the US Capitol.
The men of Sparta trained for war their entire lives, shunned luxury and were known for their brevity of speech. The word "spartan" means living without luxury and someone who is "laconic" expresses themselves with few words.

Lycurgus was a king of Sparta and he travelled around the Mediterranean looking for the best form of government. In the end he combined what he thought were the best parts from several governments, which resulted in the idea of Sparta that we know today. Spartans were each given an equal share of land, so that no one had more. Lycurgus also banned money to help reduce avarice, introduced the sharing of wives and the communal raising of children. He also set up a senate to help bring moderation to the government and encouraged the communal eating of meals between men to promote equality. It was sort of a happy little commune - except that their entire lives were focused on becoming perfect fighting machines.

So with everyone training to fight, who planted crops, raised animals and kept everything moving? The Spartans used helots (slaves) to do their their dirty work. The helots significantly outnumbered the Spartans, however, the Spartans were expert warriors. This meant that it was quite dangerous and unlikely for any helots to rise up, even as perilous as it was for the Spartans. Despite the unequal society, the laws of Lycurgus lasted far longer than most other city-states in Greece or anywhere else.

Numa Pompilius (753-673 BC) was the second king of Rome. Like Lycurgus, he lived a very "spartan" life, but he did not insist on the same conditions for Roman citizens. In contrast, he encouraged the accumulation of wealth. Numa found that Rome was in a state of constant war and he tried to encourage diplomacy and other means of acquiring land and power. In comparison, Lycurgus found his city of Sparta soft and weak and tried to mold them into warriors.
Plutarch finishes the comparison by stating that Rome only truly developed when it abandoned the teachings of Numa and became belligerent, aggressive and rapacious. However, when Sparta deserted the doctrines of Lycurgus they became weak and were subjugated by the rest of Greece.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Plutarch: an introduction

Plutarch (AD 46 – 120) was an ancient Greek historian and biographer, who became an Roman citizen during his lifetime.  The son of a wealthy land owner, Plutarch travelled widely - Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt and Italy. During the 10 years he spent in Rome he visited well-stocked libraries, taught philosophy in Milan and visited many ancient battlefields.

One of his most well-known works is "Parallel Lives" a series of biographies is also known as the "The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans". Plutarch compares two lives, usually one Roman and one Greek, to examine similarities and differences between them. For example, he compares the great Roman conqueror Julius Caesar to Alexander the Great. 

Plutarch has been called the first biographer, and his writings are our source of primary knowledge for many famous people from antiquity. His writing are not only historical, but also reflect the humanity in each of his characters, which was later embraced by subsequent admirers such as Franklin, Beethoven, Montaigne, Emerson, Napoleon and Jefferson. 

 I will only be reading a few of the 23 comparisons he makes, but reading Plutarch is surprisingly easy. Although he tries to be objective and impartial (like a modern historian), I have read that he slightly emphasizes some facts in order to make a point.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Aristotle: Politics

"He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is self-sufficient, must either be a beast or a god." (Aristotle)

Aristotle's Politics is said to be a natural follow up to Nicomachean Ethics. In this book he outlines what it means for men to live in society, follow laws and accept a hierarchy of rulers and the ruled (or slaves and masters).

Continuing, Aristotle says that in all relationships there is a master and a slave. In marriage, the man is the master over his children and wife. In society, people must obey the ruler. One of the best forms of government is an aristocracy, where the naturally superior rule over the inferior. One of the worst may be democracy, where everyone has a voice in the rule, even though many should not. We would find that shocking today, although our country's forefathers were aware that the unwashed masses could be easily influenced by a persuasive demagogue. Also the common folk do not always make informed decisions - which is something that Aristotle predicted (and probably witnessed).

Aristotle rails against the creation of currency and interest on money, which he considers unnatural. When people barter, they only take what they need. Likewise, the bartering tools serve functions (shoes, food, animals) while coins are only money and are not good for anything else. In addition, currency can be accumulated and this encourages greed. Interestingly, Aristotle says that the best way to make money is to get a monopoly. He lists examples such as those who cornered the iron ore market or had control of all the olive presses for making oil. It is clear that Karl Marx would have approved of some of Aristotle's beliefs.

Why do we have government? Aristotle thought the development of the state was natural for man, since man is a political animal. Starting with bonds between a man and woman, to a group of families (a village) to the much larger city-state, just as men and women need each other for companionship and procreation, a state develops out of a need. This need is the "good life". Within a state man is the most perfect of animals, but separated from law and justice man is at his worst.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Nicomachean Ethics - Justice and Friendship

The last two topics in Nicomachean Ethics are regarding justice and friendship.
What does it mean to be just? How does a just person act? Aristotle explains that justice is the greatest virtue which also encompasses all other virtues. The opposite, injustice, is making gains from vices (cowardliness, self-indulgence, adultery). Justice is a mean between having too much and having too little - people should have what they deserve. If you are rewarded too well you are being unjust; if you are not rewarded enough then you are being unjustly treated. Unfortunately you cannot tell if a man is just by looking at them, you have to see them in action. Sometimes we can only see a person's true character when they have power or money as "rule will show the man" (Aristotle).

"With out friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods" (Aristotle)
What is friendship? Do like attract like or do opposites attract? Aristotle quotes Heraclitus in saying that "it is what opposes that helps" but he also says that friends are alike in virtue. Aristotle describes three kinds of friendship, those based on utility, pleasure or goodness. Friends of the first two sorts are only filling a need between the two parties and these friendships do not last. You may want a friend for conversation, playing a game, sharing an experience or camaraderie- but as soon as you do not need this, the friendship will dissolve.

Friendships that last are those based on a love of character in the other person. True friends help each other in all conditions and genuinely care for each other, but do not require anything in return. Friends do not give each other every honor, only the honor they deserve based on their status, age and relation. Finally, to be a friend you must love yourself. If you seek what is best for you and are virtuous, then you will seek the best for your friend as well.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Nichomachean Ethics - Free will

Are we responsible for making bad decisions or doing evil? How do we know right from wrong? What tells us that we are following the "Doctrine of the Mean" between the extremes of too much or too little? Socrates said that no one knowingly commits evil, but Aristotle decided to elaborate on this.

[I borrowed this image from Freud regarding the Id, Ego and Superego. However, I think it is just an expansion onto Aristotle's own ideas]

Aristotle tells us that wisdom is the product of practical knowledge and intuition. We learn practical knowledge (phonesis) from our parents or the state. Without phonesis it is impossible to know how to pursue the correct ends. Intuition is something we develop by putting our moral compass into practice and using it everyday.

Aristotle elaborates that every action should be considered as either voluntary or involuntary and we should only recognize voluntary actions as truly virtuous or lacking virtue. Involuntary actions are done under duress, compulsion or ignorance and can not be considered representative of character. Can a person be called brave if he is forced to fight? Can a person be called a coward if he runs away from a sudden noise?

Voluntary action requires reason; the balance between appetite and seeking the higher good. No one knowingly does evil but we are responsible for our ignorance (i.e. not knowing the consequences of our actions). If we choose to remain ignorant then we are committing evil. These statements by Aristotle seem to predict the development of existentialism in which our free will is the primary agent controlling our life. Aristotle calls knowing what is right but not doing it akrasia or a lack of self-control. This is the worst vice since the person is beyond reason; he has abandoned reason and surrendered control to his lower, baser appetites. However, if you lack self-control because of temperament (emotion) that is better than if you are conscious about your [bad] choice.

Aristotle also adds that being virtuous requires practice and habit. Being good is not enough, you must practice being good. Aristotle states that the winner of the Olympics is not the strongest man, but the strongest man who competes.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Nicomachean Ethics - Doctorine of the Mean

Aristotle thought that the highest form of "good" was happiness. This should be the end goal of any endeavor. The only way to be happy is by living a virtuous life, which depends on maintaining a mean between oppossing feelings or behaivors which lie on the extremes.

For example, we should show Temperance by not giving in too easily to physical pleasure while still being able to enjoy physical sensations. Courage is to not be a coward but also not be brash; Shame is being modest but also not overly shy or shameless. Patience is being "angry with the right person and to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way".

The highest ends are ends in themselves, which is why happiness is more important than money or honor. Money and honor are only means to an end, and that end is happiness, to which we should all strive. Virtue comes through habit and education. We need to know the right way, but we only become good by acting good. Knowing how to swim is not the same as swimming, and does not make you a swimmer. Aristotle says that hitting the correct mean is difficult, but we can get close if we give up pleasure for its own sake. We must instead get pleasure by being virtuous, which will bring us true happiness in the end.

Aristotle: an Introduction

Socrates was the first of the great Greek philosophers, who then taught Plato, who in turn mentored Aristotle. Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) is recognized as one of the most important contributors to Western philosophy and thought; many of his ideas were accepted as dogma for 2000 years. He wrote on numerous subjects including: politics, logic, music, theater, physics, metaphysics, poetry, ethics, biology, zoology and was the teacher of Alexander the Great.

I am currently reading two of Aristotle's works including Nichomachean Ethics, which is his magnum opus on ethics. The name of the book comes from Nichomachus, Aristotle's son, and this text "is widely considered one of the most important historical philosophical works" (Wikipedia).

The second book I am reading is Politics, a book Aristotle wrote about the philosophy of human social structure. It was Aristotle, after all, who coined the phase, "man is a political animal".