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This is a series working from the Penguin edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred.

The first chapter ended with Aristotle suggesting that “wisdom is knowledge having to do with certain principles and causes” (6, emphasis mine). Now, to understand what this particular knowledge is, Aristotle begins with the wise person. The wise person has knowledge that goes beyond particulars, has a knowledge which is not immediately available to all people, can teach this knowledge accurately, and chooses their knowledge for the sake of the knowledge itself rather than treating it as instrumental to some external goal. The wisest person is the one with the most general knowledge, that by which all other subject areas can be known. This is the discipline of metaphysics, which examines principles and causes.

Aristotle goes on to compare metaphysics with other sciences: “And the most fundamental of the sciences, more fundamental than that which subserves it, is that which discerns for what end each thing must be done” (8). The sciences are not undertaken for their own sakes but only insofar as they are instrumental to particular ends. We might learn more about bees in biology so we can better utilise them for their honey. Metaphysics, however, has no end external to it because its end is itself: “So it is clear that we seek [this knowledge] for no other use but rather, as we say, as a free man is for himself and not for another, so is this science the only one of the sciences that is free. For it alone exists for its own sake” (9). (Thus, though we might undertake a biological investigation for its own sake, I would imagine that Aristotle would point to a more general knowledge which this points to and as such must in some sense be undertaken for another end, even implicitly). In this sense metaphysics is “better” than the other sciences that aim at ends outside themselves. Moreover, metaphysics is the highest science because it aims at the highest knowledge, the knowledge of god: “For god is thought to be among the causes of all things and to be a kind of principle” (10). That is not to say that god is necessarily the subject of this knowledge, only that god already has this particular knowledge at which metaphysics aims.

When reading the Nicomachean Ethics I noticed this preference of Aristotle’s for things that are for themselves and not instrumental to other things. He probably unpacks it a bit more elsewhere. I wonder though to what extent metaphysics is its own end. This is probably crude and a gross misunderstanding but if someone undertook a metaphysical investigation would not their end be different from their beginning? A metaphysical investigation is not static. It aims at the unknown beyond itself. I would add, who knows an end in the beginning? I might undertake a metaphysical investigation for its own sake, yet if metaphysics aims to share in god’s knowledge then isn’t it quite possible, whoever this god is, that it will arrive at a knowledge that it is indeed instrumental — there is something better beyond metaphysics at which it should aim. At least this is how I as a theologian would read Aristotle. Thus the cross and the resurrection of Christ look more than a little different from philosophical contemplation on principles and causes. Obviously this is no judgement on Aristotle but only a consideration for how he is appropriated.

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It may be a little indulgent but this post is intended to be a reference point regarding the conversations I have with people on ethics after metaphysics¹. Perhaps more indulgent is that this post is predominantly critical, contra my earlier resolution to do more positive up-building. Hopefully the critical nature will in some way be uplifting?

* * *

Firstly, with the end of metaphysics there is no objective basis for ethics. Metaphysics posited something beyond ourselves as a basis for ethics, traditionally God, although as thinkers got more critical of this tradition they came up with a non-theological, metaphysical basis for ethics (eg. Kant) before metaphysics was done away with completely. Whatever the objective reality beyond our physical selves was, it held some pattern for ethics, like loving others because they are made in the image of God or following actions through because in abstract terms they are right or wrong. Now, via science, what separates us from the animals has been relativised so that we are essentially no different from them. Further, what separates life from non-life, the animate (breathing) from the inanimate (breathless) has been relativised so that in the grand scheme of things we’re all just collections of atoms arranged uniquely. The laws of the universe are fundamentally a power-play, struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. There is no right or wrong. Why should we consider anyone beyond our own will to survive?

http://www.toonpool.com/user/398/files/ethics_333515.jpg

* * *

Secondly, ethical behaviour can be explained through evolution but evolution cannot provide a basis for it outside of itself. So (and this is crass because I don’t know my stuff) but say we care for others based on an instinct to preserve our species (Actually I couldn’t think of a good example, so critique it if you will but alternatively find me a replacement). We can say this is the case but we can’t say this should be the case. In our current, individualistic context, what interest do we have in something our instincts lead us to do when we can quite happily do otherwise than our instincts?

* * *

Thirdly, is there not a practical basis ethics? Just because we lack an objective basis for ethics we cannot dismiss that the operation of ethics, what it does, may be the real deal that all those airy-fairy metaphysicists missed with their heads in the clouds. Or maybe we can define it hedonistically: Because I have a desire for the good of others then it is good for me that I attend to that desire. The main problem I have with this is the subjective nature of a practical ethics. And if there are different ethical stances then the dominant will be sustained by power. Those who believe in equality will be fighting against those in power with antithetical interests. And if these egalitarians ever succeed then their vision will need be sustained by a continued power-play: Those opposing will have to submit to the laws of equality unless they can sway whatever power they have to do otherwise. If practicality is the basis for ethics then let those who wish to do unethically do so for their practical advantage! The other problem I have with practical ethics is that self-interest or other-interest, etc (whatever the basis for practical ethics), not rooted in a metaphysics, cannot go beyond itself. That is, if I do good for others in response to my own desires, for what reason do I respond to my own desires? I have a practical reason for ethics but I cannot call that reason itself good or meaningful. What stakes do I have in becoming happy? Because it is interesting and fills in time until I die?

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In conclusion, this is just a statement of the way things are (as I see them) and I’d love to hear further thoughts on why we/you do ethics. It is not my aim saying there is no basis for ethics to criticise people for acting ethically regardless. People who reject a foundation for ethics may rightly choose to act ethically. I just want to encourage an honesty behind this acting ethically. And if life lacks meaning so what? I admire those who continue in it anyway out of curiosity or interest, even some unacknowledged affirmation of the value of life. Neither do I intend this critique to be an apology for metaphysics or Christianity, etc. I cannot say that someone who does not have a basis for ethics should have a basis and therefore should convert. My faith exists for greater reasons than a desire for a basis for ethics.

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¹That is the general acceptance in Western academia over the last 200 years that there is no objective reality beyond material existence: What we have is what we have. There is no God, soul, spirits, afterlife, Beyond, etc…

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“I am here to tell you that in time, the mutator gene will activate in every living human being on this planet. Perhaps even your children, Senator” — Jean Grey

“I can assure you, there is no such creature in my genes” — Senator Kelly, X-men (2000)

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People love progress. Progress is widely accessible in pop culture, for example X-men where certain mutant genes have allowed some people to develop superhuman abilities. Eighties movies like Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) imagine a future where we advance so far technologically that technology becomes independent and takes advancement into its own hands. Progress is found in the scientific world (which I know little about), in evolution where animals ‘progress’ from single-celled organisms to not-so-single-celled organisms and then they learn to live on land and they grow legs and some get wings and then finally some lucky guys and girls start finding out that they can access abstract thinking or whatever it is that separates the peoples from the animals. It is after crossing this point of separation that we can imagine the future possibility of the likes of invisibility or even, recently, immortality, and movies like Gattaca (1997) can imagine a society where only the best genes are passed onto the next generation through some technological interpolation.

But does a materialist perspective in any way allow for such a notion of progress? Is it possible to say that Homo sapiens is more evolved than Homo erectus? Is it possible to say that a domestic cat is more evolved than a bacterium? Is it even possible to say there is something which separates humans from the animals?¹ No to all the above. There is no point in evolutionary history where humanity steps outside its animal bounds. Technology does not provide humanity with an abiological means to a post-biological or post-evolutionary ends. If it did, then at what point did we transcend our biology? Use of tools/technology is contained within our biology so technology escapes ostracisation as abiological.

What is more, progress assumes an invisible universal measuring stick. All organisms can be measured against this to determine who is the most ‘advanced’. But the evolutionary measuring stick is not located in the universal but the particular, the environment. Species adapt not according to what is universally awesome, but specifically to what allows them to survive and pass on their genes in a particular environment. Thus X-men, which takes advantage of the relatively random process of mutation, falls prey to the same concept of universality. Mutants in X-men may have problems controlling their powers, and then there are far-reaching social consequences of their genes, but according to the universal measuring stick they have progressed not because they are adapted to their environment in such a way that secures survival and positive reproductive ends but they receive the possibility of mastery over the universal environment. Thus in the third movie, Xavier can refer to Jean Grey as a ‘level five mutant’. To this we can say with Senator Kelly, “There is no such creature in my genes”.

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There are various ways in looking at progress in theology. Kierkegaard famously introduces his Fear and Trembling with a comparison between faith and philosophy:

In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be . . . going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows. . . except as he might succeed at the earliest opportunity in going further. Where these revered figures arrived, that is the point where everybody in our day begins to go further.

(Retrieved online here).

Fighting the good fight

Kierkegaard is attacking the idea that we can start where others have left off. But we are in reality not a part of some external framework where this is possible. Yes we can learn and build on the discoveries and theories of those who have gone before us, we can consider ovens and then make microwaves, but these are external to what it means to be human. There is an a-temporal core to human existence. Thus Nietzsche can address his work within his work at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, “You have already taken off your novelty and some of you, I fear, are on the point of becoming truths: they already look so immortal, so pathetically righteous, so boring!” (Penguin Classics, 2003, p.221). Whereas he experienced and lived his philosophy, now it was overtaking him to exist in the external world of truth, the world where philosophical progress supposedly exists. Faith on the other hand, or Nietzsche’s existential struggles, exists between the subject and God, or existence. The subject, though a part of space and time, ignores any progressive meaning contained in the spatio-temporal to interact with the infinite/eternal, etc which transcends it.

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¹If no, then you could probably also say that this inevitably leads to monism or, more familiarly, a kind of pantheism, where unity precedes difference. If there is nothing which separates a person from being a jellyfish from being a fungus from being the Loch Ness Monster (I swear she exists) because we are all contained under the category of ‘living’, then further there must be nothing to separate the animate from the inanimate, unless life is to be accorded some transcendental value.

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If the foolish, call them “flowers” –
Need the wiser, tell?
If the Savants “Classify” them
It is just as well!

Those who read the “Revelations”
Must not criticize
Those who read the same Edition –
With beclouded Eyes!

Could we stand with that Old “Moses” –
“Canaan” denied –
Scan like him, the stately landscape
On the other side –

Doubtless, we should deem superfluous
Many Sciences,
Not pursued by learned Angels
In scholastic skies!

Low amid that glad Belles lettres
Grant that we may stand,
Stars, amid profound Galaxies –
At that grand “Right hand”!

If the foolish call them flowers by Emily Dickinson
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A mural of Emily in her hometown of Amherst

    This is one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems. When at first I read it a couple of years ago I didn’t quite see what was going on but I wanted to stick at it because something about the poem kept me coming bamck to it. At the time I could find no decent analysis wherever I looked, possibly because I didn’t look hard enough, but also because this isn’t one of Emily’s more well known poems. This quality blogger’s post on the same poem popped up not too long ago and the rest of her posts are worth a read for Dickinson fans. This particular version of the poem was all I could find across the internet, with it’s intrusive capitals and mocking quotation marks. I thought I’d leave it as is, because I don’t really have the authority to mess with it.
    I was first introduced to Emily by way of watching the Simpsons (the same medium by which I discovered Walt Whitman). Lisa follows Bart to military camp and, being the only girl, finds herself in her only lonely quarters: “Solitude never hurt anyone. Emily Dickinson lived alone, and she wrote some of the most beautiful poetry the world has ever known… then went crazy as a loon.”
    I’m not sure how accurate Lisa’s conclusion is, but Emily certainly did spend a lot more time alone as she grew older. Wikipedia informs me (although I already knew (because I read the read the article ages ago (so Wikipedia is informing me on something it has previously informed me))) that “fewer than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime”.
    Emily asked that her poems be burnt after she died. A bit of wishful thinking there. But this is what makes her poetry so perfect. Emily Dickinson, for me, is the exemplary existentialist. Her poetry is a look from the inside into her life. She wrote most of them with no intention of being published. She wrote a few in some written exchanges with friends. But the better part of her poetry was an assertion of herself against existence, a questioning of God and science, life and death, sexuality, rationality, beauty and everything in between. Because there is no intended audience we have access to the unadulterated leanings of Emily’s introspective heart and mind. Regarding literary movements, she managed to get in before getting tied up in the lameness of realism.
* * *

Emily grew lily of the valley in her garden

    The overall message of the poem is exceedingly simple. And beautiful. If you think you’ve got it sorted upstairs, don’t be overbearing towards other people. Life is so much more than knowing this and that.
    Emily opens the poem with two types of people, the foolish know flowers by their general name, as ‘flowers’, and the wise, or savantswho can tell you the scientific name of each flower, ‘classify them’. Note that she doesn’t say, ‘If the foolish call them begonias and forget-me-nots’, and then compare this to more scientific terms, but that the foolish really only can, like me, say that this is a flower and that is a tree. Interestingly enough, I’d say Emily fell into the latter category, herself an enthusiastic gardener (a constant gardener maybe) who also pressed and collected flowers for a hobby. The poem, although essentially an apology for the underdog, doesn’t seem to have her shying away from defending academics from their naysayers too: ‘just as well’ should not be read in the idiomatic modern sense, ‘Just as well I brought my wallet with me!’ but in a more literal, word-by-word, sense, ‘If the Savants “Classify” them /It is [valid] as well!’ However, we cannot ignore that there may be a sense of self-deprecation throughout the poem, or a criticism of Emily’s own failure to live up to her humble ideals of the simple life and calling flowers flowers.
    Although there is no ‘but’ or ‘yet’ to introduce the next verse, which seems to be a more decisive dig at smug intelligentsia, the contrast is evident and sets up the next point that the poem makes: The learned who can detail the theological idiosyncrasies of Revelations (the last, controversial book of the bible, dealing with the end times, a hot topic considering Emily’s time and geography) need not belittle those who find it a bit more perplexing.
    ‘Could we stand with that Old “Moses”‘… is quite grammatically enigmatic. This verse threw me for a while until I’d read quite a bit more of Emily’s work to understand her style better. If you notice the dashes, you’ll see the sentence doesn’t finish until the end of the next verse. It almost makes sense when you realise this and read the two together, but just a little more imagination is required. It basically reads, ‘[If we could] stand with that Old “Moses”… /Doubtless we should deem superfluous…’ The Old Testament story which Emily is referring to is God allowing Moses to look upon Canaan, the Promised Land (a metaphor for heaven in Christianity and Judaism), but without entering it: ‘”Canaan” denied’. If we, like Moses, could stand before Canaan and look upon it, our vision and purposes in life would be drastically altered; our attention would turn to the sciences which angels engage in, rather than our more earthly pursuits. But remember that Emily’s denouncement encompasses the theological too: ‘Those who read the “Revelations” /Must not criticise…’ Her criticism is not aimed at just one quarter of academia.

I still don't understand Revelations...

    If Emily is calling to attention the relative purposelessness of higher learning then what is she advocating instead? Her conclusion looks forward to the Resurrection (a common theme in Emily’s poems), where the righteous and unrighteous rise to be judged at the end of times. ‘Belles lettres‘, literally, ‘fine letters’ is a French term to refer to literature as an art form. Considering ‘Revelations’ is the only piece of literature Emily mentions in the piece, along with the colourful nature of the book, she’s probably making reference to it. Being ‘Low amid’ the Revelations basically compares the standing of the foolish next to a piece of literature better approached by the scholarly. Emily asks that this be put aside and everyone, regardless of their level of erudition, may stand at the right hand of God.

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