2008 08 06
Do I Resemble Your Wife?

Okay, first things first.1 One true answer to the title’s question is: not entirely. Phew. Dodged one there, didn’t you? Not so fast, though. The answer may well be “Somewhat,” in which case it behooves you to read on to see how.

Alright, I’ll admit it. It’ll behoove me if you read on. You see, I might have gotten myself into a bit of hot water, although with some thought and an even keel, this water may turn out resemble more the palliative springs of many a television boom town than the terrifying pit at the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The sitch is that I am giving a talk on Friday. My first talk professional talk post-grad school. And I’m nervous. I’m nervous for the usual reasons. These include the fear that I’ll make a fool of myself in the Q&A, and that my central argument is just not that good. But there is an additional, more idiosyncratic reason that I really want to think hard about before delivering the talk. And that’s the distinct possibility that while my central argument is fine, I have used a poorly chosen example to add support to my conclusion. This would leave me dialectically naked, even if my underlying argument remains cogent. So I want to try to extract myself for this situation as carefully as possible, and this is my test run.

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Howls of outrage (8)

2008 02 01
Bleg, or, phleg: Aristotle, catharsis, porn

It’s a philosophy-bleg!

My colleague is teaching Aristotle on catharsis this afternoon. The cartoon view of catharsis is that drama (or just? mainly? tragedy) is useful because it allows us to purge our harmful emotions by getting emotionally wrought over a fictional situation. My colleague is wondering whether Aristotle could say pornography is useful for purging the bad emotion (or, excess emotion?) of lust, or whether Aristotle would be required to say that porn is bad because it forms bad habits. So, Aristotle: for or against porn?

I told him I knew the man for this job, and then I thought other people might be interested too so I’m posting this rather than emailing you, CY.

Howls of outrage (9)

2007 11 18
Aristotle for autodidacts

Posted by in: Aristotle, Philosophy

Quite some time ago, a clever polymathic autodidact wrote to me asking for advice about reading Aristotle. A long time ago I promised a response on the blog. Eh. What can I say? I’ve been busy. Here’s a brief version of what I would write if I had more time.

Let’s begin by facing the obvious: Aristotle is really difficult. There are several reasons for that. First, almost none of what comes down to us from antiquity with Aristotle’s name attached to it was written for “publication” (i.e., wider circulation). Rather, what we have seem to be more like lecture notes, or perhaps the sort of notes you might circulate after a lecture as a sort of memory aid. It’s a pity. An author renown in antiquity for the prose style of his published writings is now enjoyed mainly by eccentrics with an odd, acquired taste for crabbed lecture notes in a dead language. Just as we would expect with notes that were circulated among the initiated, Aristotle’s writings are also filled with arcane terminology and refer to contemporary debates familiar to his audience but often not to us.

And it gets worse. Those lecture notes—or whatever they are—seem to have been stitched together, sometimes rather crudely. For example, the text we read as the Nicomachean Ethics isn’t the unity we might expect from the fact that people are always going on about Nicomachean Ethics this and Nicomachean Ethics that. To take just one example, there are two discussions of pleasure in the work, apparently in conflict, and neither of which refers to the other. Clearly someone, whether Aristotle or a later editor, has done some cutting and pasting. This adds to the general air of confusion.

Finally, Aristotle is really hard to read because he was interested in really hard problems, and his answers to those questions were often subtle, and sometimes restated in different ways over a lifetime of thinking about them.

So, one way to answer the request for advice about getting into Aristotle is: you might just want to skip it. Or perhaps, defer it until you know a bit about the context in which Aristotle is writing. You might, for example, want to begin instead with Plato. Now of course Plato has difficulties all his own. But there at least the student (often) has the benefit of a polished text, and sometimes a highly readable and entertaining one. And while the dialectical context matters there too, you can get a quite a bit from, say, the Gorgias (which is a wonderful place to begin reading Plato) even if you don’t have any background in Classical Greek philosophy or culture.

If this isn’t enough to dissuade you, then I suppose the best way into Aristotle depends on your interests. You might approach Aristotle for a number of different (but compatible) reasons. You might, for example, be looking for true claims about matters of interest to you, along with good reasons for believing those true claims. In that case, my advice would be to spend rather more time poking around in Aristotle’s ethics than anywhere else. Both this and this translation of the Nicomachean Ethics are pretty good, and if you like to go it alone, you might pick them up and just start reading. (It can be useful to compare translations when you’re working through a difficult passage, but either one will do for the first few passes through the text.)

You might, however, be interested in Aristotle because you want to know more about the influence he exercised on Western intellectual history. In that case, you might be interested in the Physics, and in particular the first three books or so.

Now, usually when I’m recommending philosophy books, I just tell people to jump right in and ignore the secondary material. (I think this is especially good advice when it comes to Plato.) But for the reasons I mentioned above, it seems to me that it might be very useful to introduce yourselves to Aristotle’s texts in conjunction with carefully chosen secondary material. If you’re interested in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, then, you might get your hands on The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, edited by Richard Kraut, and dip into it as you read through Aristotle’s text. I’ve read a few of the papers in this collection so far and they’re just superb. In particular, I really enjoyed Gavin Lawrence’s “Human Good and Human Function,” which you can read with enormous profit immediately after giving Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics a shot. Jennifer Whiting’s “The Nicomachean Account of Philia is also wonderful.

I’m a bit less sure about the best secondary material on the Physics, but I do recall being extremely impressed by Sarah Waterlow’s (=Sarah Brodie) Nature, Change, and Agency in Aristotle’s Physics a while ago when I was working through some material in the Physics. Waterlow is especially good in that book at drawing contrasts between Aristotle’s and modern approaches to the study of nature. And it seems to me that this makes reading the Physics alongside Waterlow a challenging but possibly very rewarding way of starting to get a grip on a part of Aristotle’s thought that had an enormous influence historically.

There are also other ways in, and some very good introductions to Aristotle. To name just one, the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle is pretty solid, and is good at pointing the way forward in many more directions than I’ve mentioned here. The first chapter by Jonathan Barnes is also funny and helpful as the sort of introduction that I would attempt if I were less busy.

Aristotle enthusiasts are encouraged to add further suggestions in the comments.


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2007 09 29
Bonitz’s Index Aristotelicus

Posted by in: Aristotle, Books

A while back I complained that I couldn’t find Bonitz’s Index Aristotelicus anywhere on the internet, in spite of the fact that copyright on the work had long lapsed, the difficulty of taking a copy out of the library, and its real value to any student of Aristotle. I just noticed that a few months after my complaint, the wonderful Internet Archive obliged. Bless their generous hearts. They have done a very useful thing.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2007 09 08
Aristotle on proper weightlifting technique

Commenting on an obscure point about connate pneuma in his 1912 translation of Aristotle’s De Motu Animalium, A.S.L. Farquharson writes that a comment of Aristotle’s is, “a reference perhaps to holding the breath when a weight is lifted. A[ristotle], like gymnastic teachers to-day, supposed it gave power.”

Interesting that Aristotle’s assumption about breath still held in Farquharson’s day. My understanding is that this is not a good thing to do, and the laziest of googlings suggests that the current consensus is that the proper technique involves breathing out as you work the muscle through its range of motion and in as you relax it. So, also, I was recently told by a rather large man at my gym who noticed that I was holding my breath a bit without noticing it, and who shouted, “Gotta breathe, baby, gotta breathe!”

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 08 30
Google Books

Posted by in: Aristotle, Books, Google

Google Books looks like it’ll be very useful, since a lot of books I use for research are a) not on my shelf; and b) have lapsed in copyright. Already, for example, I’ve noticed Cope’s Introduction to Aristotle’s Rhetoric among Google’s many full-text offerings. This summer I used the Perseus Collection to consult Cope’s commentary on the Rhetoric and for easy bilingual reference to some of the texts he mentions in passing, but had missed having his Introduction. Have I mentioned that I love the internet?

One disappointment to report so far, however. Bonitz’s Index Aristotelicus is still not anywhere to be found on the internet. In a way, this is unsurprising: It’s long, with really small print, which probably makes it difficult to scan in clearly and a nightmare to manually enter. Also, many people nowadays, including me, are in the habit of using the TLG instead for word searches. All the same, I do find it odd that no one, anywhere, has done this yet. Bonitz still has his fans, and his index is often more useful than the TLG, at least for some purposes. Also, it’s really fucking expensive, and library copies of the book are few and usually not circulated.

So if anyone wants to scan about a 1000 pages of text and host it in an easy to access way on the internet, I would be much obliged. If I had time, I swear I would do it myself.

UPDATE: Bingo!

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 07 25
On the relation between testicles and vocal cords, according to Aristotle

Posted by in: Aristotle

I have almost finished working through Aristotle’s biological works, hunting for inspiration and clues. I have found much to admire: Aristotle was the head of one of the most ambitious scientific research projects ever undertaken, and the sheer mass of detail and theoretical sophistication found in the resulting works is often breathtaking. And then there are passages like this, breathtaking mainly because I’m laughing too hard to breathe properly:

All animals when castrated change over to the female state, and as their sinewy strength is slackened at its source they emit a voice similar to that of females. This slackening may be illustrated in the following way. It is as though you were to stretch a cord and make it taut by hanging some weight on to it, just as women do who weave at the loom; they stetch the warp by hanging stone weights on to it. This is the way in which the testes are attached to the seminal passages, which in their turn are attached to the blood-vessel which has its starting-point at the heart near the part which sets the voince in movement. And so, as the seminal passages undergo a change at the approach of the age when they can secrete semen, this part undergoes a simultaneous change. And as this changes, so too does the voice . . . If the testes are removed, the tautness of the passages is slackened, just as when the weight is removed from the cord or from the warp; and as this slackens, the source (or principle) which sets the voice in movement is correspondingly loosened. This then is the cause on account of which castrated animals change over to the female condition both as regards the voice and the rest of their form: it is because the principle from which the tautness of the body is derived is slackened. (Generation of Animals, V.vii, Loeb translation)

Howls of outrage (9)

2006 07 14

A theme I see pursued occasionally on academic blogs like Crooked Timber or Timothy Burke’s site is openness in research and teaching. I think this page, set up by Monte Johnson to detail his work with D.S. Hutchinson on Aristotle’s Protrepticus, is an model of open and generous scholarship. It assembles quite a lot of useful material on the subject, and includes some transcripts from a seminar they co-taught this summer. Since my dissertation touches on the subject of their research, this has been extremely helpful to me.

Anyway, I loved this bit from Papyrus Fragment POxy 3659, which they translate as follows:

And what about the philosophers themselves? If you confined them in the one house and an equal number of madmen in another house next door, you would get much, much greater howls from the philosophers than from the madmen!

(The fragment is of unknown provenance, and is included in their collection of texts because it might be relevant to Aristotle’s Protrepticus.)

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2006 06 30
The best tragic style

Posted by in: Aristotle, Philosophy

From Aristotle’s Rhetoric, III.3:

As for what Gorgias said to the swallow which, flying over his head, let fall her droppings upon him, it was in the best tragic style. He exclaimed, “For shame, Philomela!” For there would have been nothing in this act disagraceful for a bird, whereas it would have been for a young lady. The reproach therefore was appropriate, addressing her as she was, not as she is.

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2006 06 14
The relevance of her pleasure

Posted by in: Aristotle, Sex

From a discussion in Book X of Aristotle’s History of Animals on the causes of infertility:

There are various signs by which you can tell that the man is not responsible [for a failure to conceive]; and it is very easy to tell this if he has intercourse with other women and produces children. And it is a sign that they do not keep pace with one another if, although all the conditions described are met, he does not produce children. For it is plain that this alone is the cause; for if the woman too contributes something to the semen and to the process of generation, it is plain that the partners must keep pace with one another. Thus if the man ejaculates quickly and the women with difficulty (for women are for the most part slower), that prevents conception; and that is why partners who do not produce children with one another do produce children when they meet with partners who keep pace with them during intercourse. For if the woman is excited and prepared and has the appropriate thoughts, and the man has previously been pained and has grown cold, they must necessarily then keep pace with one another.

I’m having trouble squaring that passage with Book II, chapter 4 of the Generation of Animals, where Aristotle says that conception is possible even if the female does not take the pleasure in sex that she typically takes.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 05 30
Did Aristotle really not know anyone who could wiggle his or her ears?

Posted by in: Aristotle, Philosophy

From Aristotle’s History of Animals (492a23-24):

A human being alone, among creatures which have ears, is unable to move them.

Howls of outrage (9)

2006 04 25
On the account of the role of phantasia in human action found in Aristotle’s De Anima and his De Motu Animalium

Posted by in: Aristotle, Philosophy

What the fuck?

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 04 22
Aristotle on menstruation and mirrors

Posted by in: Aristotle, Classics

The other day, “A” challenged me to think of one true thing that Aristotle said. She was just being silly, of course. Aristotle said lots of true things! But I’m not sure about this, from Aristotle’s On Dreams:

If a woman chances during her menstrual period to look into a highly polished mirror, the surface of it will grow cloudy with a blood-coloured haze. It is very hard to remove this stain from a new mirror, but easier to remove from an older mirror. As we have said before, the cause of this lies in the fact that in the act of sight there occurs not only a passion in the sense organ acted on by the polished surface, but the organ, as an agent, also produces an action, as is proper to a brilliant object. For sight is the property of an organ possessing brilliance and colour. The eyes, therefore, have their proper action as have other parts of the body. Because it is natural to the eye to be filled with blood-vessels, a woman’s eyes, during the period of menstrual flux and inflammation, will undergo a change, although her husband will not note this since his seed is of the same nature as that of his wife. The surrounding atmosphere, through which operates the action of sight, and which surrounds the mirror also, will undergo a change of the same sort that occurred shortly before in the woman’s eyes, and hence the surface of the mirror is likewise affected. And as in the case of a garment, the cleaner it is the more quickly it is soiled, so the same holds true in the case of the mirror. For anything that is clean will show quite clearly a stain that it chances to receive, and the cleanest object shows up even the slightest stain. A bronze mirror, because of its shininess, is especially sensitive to any sort of contact (the movement of the surrounding air acts upon it like a rubbing or pressing or wiping); on that account, therefore, what is clean will show up clearly the slightest touch on its surface. It is hard to cleanse smudges off new mirrors because the stain penetrates deeply and is suffused to all parts; it penetrates deeply because the mirror is not a dense medium, and is suffused widely because of the smoothness of the object. On the other hand, in the case of old mirrors, stains do not remain because they do not penetrate deeply, but only smudge the surface.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2005 02 01
Aristotle’s Ethics

Recently, I mentioned that this semester I am teaching a class on Aristotle’s ethics, auditing a class on Aristotle’s ethics, and working on my dissertation on Aristotle’s ethics. You were probably thinking, is he really focusing closely enough on Aristotle’s ethics? The answer was: Hell, no! So I’ve now added a Greek reading group on Aristotle’s ethics.

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2005 01 27
Aristotle’s Ethics

In previous semesters, my plan has always been to teach and audit classes on subjects that are well outside the topic of my dissertation, Aristotle’s ethics. The thought was that this would keep my mind limber and flexible, and prevent me from getting sick of Aristotle. Alas, the other subjects always turned out to be completely engrossing, and the semester would dwindle away without much progress on my dissertation. Not this semester. This semester, in addition to (ahem) making astonishingly rapid progress on my dissertation, I will be teaching a class on Aristotle’s ethics, and auditing a class on Aristotle’s ethics. As I remarked to a friend the other day, my motto for this semester is: “Aristotle’s ethics, Aristotle’s ethics, Aristotle’s ethics . . . until I put my fist through a wall.”

Howls of outrage (4)