Thursday, February 2, 2012

Third Salvo

Contrasting the count noun materialism of our own time with the mass noun materialism of the early Meilesians, one might suppose that just such straddling of ancient and modern might come to be a familiar feature in “missing chapters.”  At any rate I dare to scout a peculiarly unpromising venture along that line if only to indicate early on how, in pursuing my program, I shall not be content with easy pickings.  Flaunting indeed bravado, I aim to project a modern counterpart of Aristotle’s much maligned great souled man who must not fail of being quite as problematic as him.
            At the same time, the problematic greatness of mind of this modern counterpart is designed to invite us to rethink our alienation from Aristotle’s original a salient characteristic of whom lies in his . . . disdain that Aristotle feels free to liken to how the vulgar rich throw their weight around in contempt of the rest of us who are so much less well heeled than they.
            Excelling in his exercise of all the moral virtues, Aristotle’s great souled man’s disdain can only be said at 1124B 1-5 to be grotesquely aped by the vulgar rich, rather in the mode of a caricature of him in Aristophanes.  Alas, caricatures even in their monstrous exaggerations can be very revealing of the truth, and one may thus even credit the many classical scholars of the last century, not least those who were otherwise fans of the Nicomachean Ethics, for deploring NEIV, 3.  Flat-footed enough in its valorization of folk ethics in the absence of this egregious chapter, which can really be felt to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb, Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, as between too much and too little, hardly squares with a disdain that even invites parody. 
            How then explain my own eagerness to project a modern replay of this highly infelicitous material?  Well, no such eagerness ever crossed my mind.  One very external factor, rather, comes into play, namely the following paragraph very late in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, from a chapter entitled “Of greatness of mind”.
Heroism, or military glory, is much admired by the generality of mankind.  They consider it as the most sublime kind of merit.  Men of cool reflection are not so sanguine in their praises of it.  The infinite confusions and disorder, which it has caused in the world, diminish much of its merit in their eyes.  When they would oppose the popular notions on this head, they always paint out the evils, which this supposed virtue has produced in human society; the subversion of empires, the devastation of provinces, the sack of cities.  As long as these are present to us, we are more inclined to hate than admire the ambition of heroes.  But when we fix our view on the person himself, who is the author of all this mischief, there is something so dazzling in his character, the mere contemplation of it so elevates the mind, that we cannot refuse it our admiration.  The pain, which we receive from its tendency to the prejudice of society, is over-powered by a stronger and more immediate sympathy. 

            So there you have it, without any coaching from me, a “missing chapter” in the history of ethics, credited solely to Hume, whereby greatness of mind is found to straddle ancient and modern thanks to Hume’s rather more candid Nietzschean trope already anticipated by Aristotle.  Equally committed to providing a philosophic rationale for folk ethics, they are also at one by jointly disrupting the scheme with a Nietzschean add-on.
            Actually, there are two “missing chapters” in ethics that come into play here, only one of which features this add-on in Hume and Aristotle alike, with the other, quite novel “missing chapter” undertaking to combine Aristotle’s ethics with Hume’s sans the Nietzschean add-on in each of them.  In projecting this novel Humeo-Aristotelian version of folk ethics, it may be almost enough for me to fixate on how the Greek word kalon, commonly translated as “noble” or “fine”, which is what Aristotle’s ethics is all about, goes much more compellingly into “meritorious”, once one registers the fact that “personal merit” plays precisely the role for Hume that the kalon plays for Aristotle.  But it is not merely “meritorious” that enriches our grasp of Aristotle’s kalon.  There is in Hume something else, though for this – “what elevates the mind” – we must not hesitate to plunder Hume’s Nietzschean add-on.
            Finally, Hume supplies a third factor – “disinterested approbation” – that trades on the distinction between what we desire and what we admire, where the kalon figures principally as regards the latter, with Aristotle’s akrasia thus kicking in at long last.  Arguably, there is even a fourth factor – Hume’s even handed treatment of self-regarding vs. other regarding considerations in his four-fold scheme of personal merit = the kalon, namely (a) conduct useful to others, (b) conduct useful to oneself, (c) conduct immediately agreeable to others and (d) conduct immediately agreeable to oneself, where (d) figures directly in what elevates the mind of the hero while (c) characterizes our vicarious participation in that elevation by way of “sympathy”.
            This even-handedness is all the more striking for those who have accessed in Aristotle’s Rhetoric his extended account of the kalon strongly emphasizing altruism.  Not that any such emphasis is evident to modern readers of the Nicomachean Ethics.  To the contrary, we are apt to fault Aristotle for contaminating what affects to be a rationale for folk ethics with an excess of self-regardingness.
            That the kalon comes fully into its own very belatedly, only in Hume, I take to be an astonishing “missing chapter” in the history of ethics.  How’s that for straddling ancient and modern!