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Several Matters of Life and Death: The Crux between Classical and Modern Philosophy (Happiness, Death, Nobility, Science, and Poetry)

Lecturer: Martin Black

Originally Taught: Winter School 2013

Modern life is essentially characterized by progressive science on the one hand and by political institutions devoted to individual freedom or rights on the other. The coordinated arguments for these two features were the core of the modern Enlightenment, founded in fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries in Europe. We now live in an age of globalization, or the universalization of the Enlightenment. The problems we face might seem unique to our century; for example, the universal decline in educational standards, global warming, the corporatization of all aspects of life, the levelling of cultural/political diversity, the replacement of all forms of rhetoric by a rhetoric of equality that is accompanied by gaping disparities in wealth, the devotion to technological progress accompanied by the neglect, coarsening, or elimination of literary, artistic, and political culture, the intrusion of the state on daily life in the name of security, and so on and so forth.

Most attempts to grapple with our current circumstances fail because they themselves accept the premises of modern philosophy or science. Those premises were established by the early modern philosophers via an attack on classical philosophy: to become aware of our situation we need to revivify that controversy. The purpose of this course is to re-examine the central points at which the moderns departed from the classics, in order to understand both the costs and benefits of the Enlightenment. These points arise from the new understanding of human happiness and its relation to our understanding of happiness, death, nobility, science, and poetry.

The two elements of the modern project mentioned above, the political and scientific, are united in their opposition to the Aristotelian teaching that a natural being has a proper end and form by nature. Machiavelli makes the first modern proclamation for a new science of human beings that looks to the “effectual truth,” or to what human beings actually are and do, rather than to their imagined ends or perfections. The replacement of a natural fulfillment gives priority to power over knowledge as the guide to life. What Machiavelli accomplished on the political plane was accomplished on the scientific and metaphysical planes by Bacon and Descartes. Modern science is modeled upon the practical or productive “arts” (such as house-building or clock-making), a model which allows for the infinite progress in the conditions of life, or the extension of power over nature. But the mathematical basis of scientific law precludes any knowledge about the ends to which we should use our new powers. Our end is understood as the desire for security or to escape from death rather than a positive desire for happiness. Along with reason itself, all of our relations (friendship, love, citizenship, etc.) become instruments of narrow self-interest.

The quarrel between the moderns and the ancients can be understood in the light of the social role of poetry. “Poetry” in the narrow and broad sense (epic, myth, literature, drama, fables, and so on) has always been the spring of humane culture. Philosophy or reason entered the political or literary arena as a competitor with Plato’s declaration that there was “an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy” (Republic 607b). The central difference was the question whether the life of action or creation were superior or subordinate to the life of thinking and contemplation, but there was no dispute that “the poet is indeed the right popular philosopher” (Sidney, An Apology for Poetry). Plato created a philosophical poem with a new hero to be placed alongside those of poetry, even as the central poetic tradition absorbed the philosophical notions of natural principles and the intelligibility of life. The fundamental questions of life were engaged within and between the great philosopher-poets of the tradition (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, etc.).

The “quarrel” has changed since modern natural science transformed human life, both by becoming our model of knowledge and by the proliferation of the technology derived from it. The famous objectivity of science, the source of its success, is its restriction to quantitative prediction, to the exclusion of qualitative judgment. This means that science in principle cannot tell us how to use our growing powers over nature as a whole, and human nature in particular. But if science is our model for knowledge then poetry is merely fiction or subjective: it loses its long recognized power to please and instruct. It seems that Shelley’s statement that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (A Defence of Poetry) was for the first time becoming false just as he uttered it. Despite the presence of eminent poets in our time, poetry has become a private pleasure, and our public life is dominated by the boring scientific poetry or “fable” of material gain and health (Descartes, Discourse I, VI).

Procedure: Our sessions will consist of part lecture and part discussion. I welcome questioning of the material or my interpretive suggestions. No prior study of these texts is presumed, but you will benefit most from our discussion by reading the passages suggested in the reader.

My assumption is that it might be possible to read four or five pages before each day’s session. The PDF of readings made available online are longer: these are supplied chiefly so that I can refer to certain passages in class, and in case you have more time to look or one or another author in more detail. Please don’t feel that you ought to be reading all of them before we meet. It would be helpful to have a printout of, or a device containing these readings in our sessions.

Course Schedule with Readings

Lecture 1: Introduction to the contemporary problem of science, philosophy, and human self-understanding; the role of poetry in the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns; the political revolution of modern philosophy

Readings: (1) Aristotle, Excerpts on human nature, happiness, and excellence

(2) Machiavelli, Excerpts from The Prince

(3) Excerpts from Sidney and Shelley’s defences of poetry

(4) Excerpts from Plato and Aristotle on poetry

Lecture 2: The political revolution and the origin of the scientific revolution

Reading: (1) Hobbes, Excerpts from On Human Nature and Leviathan

(2) Bacon, Excerpts from the New Organon

(3) Descartes; the Regulae and the Discourse on Method

(4) Aristotle on science

Lecture 3: The scientific revolution and the ends of science and of human beings; classical tragedy and the notion of progress

Reading: (1) Aristotle on nature, natural science and its relation to human happiness

(2) Bacon: The New Organon I.129

(3) Descartes: Excerpts from the Discourse on Method the Meditations

(4) some excerpts from Shakespeare and Aeschylus

Lecture 4: The basis of human rights and the legitimacy of an inequality of property

Reading: (1) Excerpts from Locke’s Second Treatise

(2) Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality

(3) Some excerpts from classical and modern poetry

Lecture 5: The dilemmas of the modern individual’s private sentiment, corrupt politics, universal science, and endless abstract because universal moralizing

Reading: (1) Excerpts from Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

(2) Excerpts from Kant’s essay on theory and practice

Level of Difficulty: Intermediate