I have started rereading the book Revaluing Ethics: Aristotle’s Dialectical Pedagogy”. I shall not give an account of the book, merely of some of the stimulating ideas that he advances or that occur to myself as I read it.
1. Since Plato never speaks in his own voice in his works, we cannot actually know what he himself thinks. Many people take him to be putting his own ideas into the mouth of Socrates, but this is by no means certain.
2. With these ancient texts of Aristotle and Plato, it is impossible to be certain which passages are meant to be taken ‘straight’ and which are ironic. It is quite clear that some passages are ironic as this is made plain in the text, but there is plenty of room for dispute about many other passages.
3. It is common for people to say, “Plato thinks such and such,” or “Aristotle believed so and so,” but it may well be a mistake to take these texts as consisting primarily of the advancement of propositions or particular arguments. The purpose may have been rather to teach people how to think rather than what to think.
4. In the project of learning how rather than what to think, irony can play a very strong part. Skill in thinking involves seeing the implications of an idea including the absurd ones.
5. Aristotle wrote many books. These are mostly records of his lecture notes, so they were generated as part of his interaction with particular groups of students. Unless one understands who he was talking to at the time one may not make much sense of why he says what he does.
6. Two of the most famous of Aristotle’s books are his Ethics and his Politics. Nowadays we take ethics and politics as two different subjects. However, it is pretty clear that Aristotle’s Politics follows on from his Ethics and is an extension of the same basic project.
7. The project is not so much that we should know about ethics or know about politics as nowadays understood in academia, but rather that we should become better people by learning to think about things in a more penetrating manner.
8. In particular, we should learn how politics works because the polity that we live within inevitably distorts us and if we are to have any chance of liberating ourselves from such distortion we need to understand what is going on.
9. The Politics is, therefore not really about how a state is or should be governed, nor about what policies or laws are best, nor about how to be a politician. It is about learning to think critically (in the best and correct sense of the term) about the process and influence of politics.
[After sharing a few of these ideas with a friend she pointed out that things must have been very different in Ancient Greece, politics having been much more small scale in a city state. I am sure this is true, but the principles that I have teased out above do seem to me to still have a lot of validity in our modern situation. We can restate the matter more bluntly as: everybody is shaped by the politics around them and this influence can make us bad. If we want to be good we need to wise-up to what is going on and this requires critical thought. I think there is some truth in this whether we are talking about the politics of a small group or of a nation. In any case, there is a good deal to be said for clarity of thought and the value of being able to analyse an argument so as not to be swept away by ideas merely because they are popular in the group that we identify with.]
10. The Ancient Greeks were much concerned with questions of honour. Honour is, in a certain degree, something earned, but is also something that, being bestowed by others, is something that one is not in control of. It may be bestowed for good reasons or bad ones. One may be honoured for one’s virtue or for being a good storm trooper. True nobility must stand apart from concern for honour.
11. An important issue is the nature of equity. A virtuous person is able to make equitable judgements, which is to say, ones (a) not ruled by selfishness, (b) that are fair as between all parties, (c) that create conditions for things to proceed in a good or better manner in future.
12. An equitable decision may embody an element of irony, as when a person who has advocated something is ‘honoured’ by being given the responsibility for carrying it out (as, perhaps, can be seen in some recent political appointments in UK). We might then distinguish a rather strong-minded form of equity from a weak one. The weak one would be a matter of attempting a kind of universal fairness or equality that might be vulnerable to hypocrisy and manipulation by the unscrupulous on the one hand and self-indulgent exploitation by the feeble and lazy on the other. A strong-minded kind of equity would be illustrated by the kind of judgements made by Solomon that forced people into positions where they would reveal their better or worse nature and meet its natural consequences. I think that this distinction is one that could bear more thought and examination.
I shall go on reading and, no doubt, this will throw up other thoughts.