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Greatness of Soul: Its Limitations

I’m trying quickly to finish up a chapter on Tocqueville and magnanimity, and I’m opening with Aristotle. Here’s my summary of the implicit Aristotelian criticism of that the magnanimous man. Let me know what you think, and I apologize for the writing. It’s a rough draft yadda yadda:

The genuine experience of greatness comes through the cooperation of the rational and spirited parts of the soul. Aristotle shows that it reaches its peak through its abstraction or diversion from the erotic part of the soul, the part that reveals to us our dependence on and gratitude to others, our need for love and friendship, our limitations and incompleteness as solitary beings, the perverse futility of all our striving for self-sufficiency, and our wondrous openness to the truth about all things. The great-soul man unreasonably refuses to understand himself as a being who is born and will die, and he is, in some measure, in willful rebellion against what he really knows about the contingency of his own existence—especially on his own.

Discussions - 20 Comments

Peter, I think I would need to see more to be coherent, but...I think you're right that A provides a critique of a circumscribed greatsouled man, but isn't there a dialectic in his treatment that points to a truer one. In addition, isn't magananimity but one peak of moral virtue in the Ethics. Couldn't it be combined with friendship or with justice (as founding and preserving perishable things like cities). Further, I am struck by the end of A's discussion of courage where he says that the greater the man the more virtue will be required for a noble death--since he knows more what he will lose by death. I agree with you that Christian magnanimity is more erotic, more honestly so. I like the topic. There are some lines in Churchill, whose magnanimity was both more ironic and more tragic, that might suit it. Where do you begin in Tocqueville?

Professor Lawler,
I very much like your formulation but have some questions, which may be a bit off topic. First, would Aristotle say that "all" our striving for self-sufficiency is perversely futile? Is it not the case that the best life by his account seeks to liberate itself from most, if not all, attachments, and thus points beyond political life towards a solitary one? In this way the magnanimous man's detachment may resemble the philosopher's. It seems to me that even the friendship between the philosophers, by his account, is more about the search for truth than it is about the friend. One is almost led to wonder if its culmination would not effectively eliminate the need for the friend. The second question follows from the first. Is philosophy really an erotic activity? I ask because I (perhaps wrongly) see a kinship between the magnanimous man and the philosopher or at least a potential sympathy for one another.

Rob, All that's true and coming...where are the lines in Churchill, though? Thanks!

John, Big question: Is philosophy essentially transerotic?--does even philosophic friendship fade away as thanatos and/or impersonal necessity trumps eros? Another big question: Does the magnanimous man seek but fail to find completely the serene self-sufficiency (contemplation) that Aristotle attriburtes to the philosopher. The mm does have Socratic qualities. But he lacks wonder, A. says, which would be an important difference. He lacks an openness to any reality outside himself. Aristotle says three times that for him "nothing is great," and that does seem philosophic, in a way. But he contradicts himself by being confident that nothing is greater than himself, which is not Socratic. For S, the "who" or spirited question is displaced by the "what" one--the particular person comes to know the anonymous truth.

And in T I begin with his candid analysis of the contradictions of his own magnanimity in the SOUVENIRS.

Peter, all the words you use boil down to existential heroism. As Hamlet said:

"To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them."

A's mm is political, but there's no real or sufficient place for him in the political, such as it is, most of the time. What does he do? He tends to self-sufficiency, or to a dream of s-s out of necessity. There is a real and a rich inner life. In the end it is not enough. So the question is, what is trans-magnanimous. The lover, the philosopher and the poet--none of them in the end is trans-erotic. Look at Book 10 of the Ethics--the sublime but seemingly futile yearning for.....what? Certainly contradicts the inadequate acquiescence in the fiction of a "happy death" in Book I. I'll think about WSC. No Churchill books at home.

One more point, and an obvious one. A's mm is "self-sufficient" in the sense of being an end (a model of human virtue) AND a beginning (as a founder or preserver). All the peaks in the Ethics (except perhaps friendship) merge as hinges or boundaries of political life. The erotic question has to do with the sufficiency of his way of life as a human life, or his life as lived to himself alone, as Shakespeare says in Sonnet 94.

I recently tried to get some of students to see how Aristotle's magnanimity gets flattened in modernity with the de-politicization of desire; Descartes tries to collapse the difference between thumos and desire and ends with the homogenous "passions of the soul". If the satisfaction of the soul is not a political question, then the emphasis gets shifted away from the community to the isolated ego and away from politics to psychology. I think the end result of this, for Descartes, is that magnanimity gets replaced by generosite. For Aristotle, the great souled man still shows his politicality in the failed attempt to transcend politics.

Ivan, isn't Cartesian generosite an emphatically political passion, because it motivates the philosopher-scientist who calls mankind to conquer and master nature and to bestow true glory upon him as the greatest benefactor and "strongest spirit" (see Part VI of the Discourse, and the Epistle Dedicatory to the Meditations)? Richard Kennington discussed this in his Review of Metaphysics article "Descartes' Soul Doctrine and 'the Teaching of Nature'" and his Strauss-Cropsey entry on "Descartes." (Both are found in his On Modern Origins.)

Paul, I think there's a political dimension to generosite as there is to the mastery of nature but generosite still appears as a kind of autonomous greatness if not egotism. This is why all the motivations Descartes adumbrates for publishing in the VI Discourse all essentially reduce to self-interest; the great scientific project requires the heteronomous recruitment of help but for the sake of individual self-aggrandizement. I think there's a sense in which the goal of autonomy for Descartes turns out to be self-consciously illusory or myth-like and so he does seem to backhandedly acknowedge the persistance of the political but has difficluty squaring that with his account of the passions. Incidentally, I've read Kennington's book and think it's fantastic.

Interesting exchange. Ivan, aren't the, admittedly flattened, passions of desire and aversion in Meditations VI separate from the autonomous thumotic pride that resides in the movement to and from the cogito? And it's what he does from the standpoint of the cogitio with his mathematical physics that shows his desire to refound the world. There is, furthermore, gleeful pride both in D and Bacon in the assertion of humanity and generosity as a substitute for charity. There is also, I think, an identification of what D does from his archimedean point with God. I love the Kennington book too but think more needs to be written on Descartes and his connection to the political, starting with the state of nature.

Oddly enough, Paul and Ivan, I'm going to a LF conference tomorrow on Bacon and Descartes. And so I've read some of that fantastic Kennington book for the first time. My impression is that the general Bacon/Descartes project is the humanitarian depoliticization of the world. Generosity is political, but it is what animates the minds and passions of thse who politically pursue a postpolitical utopia: Justice is replaced by benevolence, and the most benevolent world will be one where the longing for justice has withered away. Kennington, pp. 202-03:
"Bacon attempted to surpass Machiavelli..For the 'endeavor to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe' through a universal method is more benevolent than the teaching of political modes and orders...This [Baconian] argument in its entirety is a germinal part of the project of Descartes." The idea of political progress--whch benefits only "particular places"--is replaced by the "benefits of discoveries " that "may extend to the whole race of man." So generosity animates a political (imperialistic) project to produce a postpolitical and postimperial future, a world where moral virtue--including greatness of soul--would be, as Harvey says, unemployed. I hope you guys keep talking about this...

Well, I think there's an odd dualisitc account of the passions given in Descartes. On the one hand, you do have the banal "passions of the soul" that attach to the "composite man" of Discourse VI: corporeal animal plus epiphenomenal consciousness. Then, there is the thumotic pride Robert mentions that is variously described as philosphical (like in Discourse III) or in terms of autonomous, individual apostheosis that liberates one from the tutelage of nature. It's not clear what the basis of this thumotic assertion is, it certainly transcends the more basic physiologically based passions, and in some sense is necessarily frustrated since autonomy is never achieved; we get an "infinity of artifices" for "an infinity of maladies" meaning the process is asymptotic (and Sisyphusean). Descartes seemed not to have adequatelyly contemplated the connection between the goal of self sufficiency as interpretated by the philosophger and that of mastery as understood by the scientist. This exchange is a nice break from grading.

Michael Davis' "Ancient Tragedy and the Origins of Modern Science" has a great section on Descartes that takes him seriously as a political philosopher.

Peter, my one question about the quote you cite from Kennington, which is a key quote, is whether Machiavelli's enterprise is in principle any more political (in the sense you mean) than Bacon or Descartes. I sure wish I were going to that LF. I am hankering to write an article on B and D since I had such a great semester studying them in class.

I think you're right, Peter. Later talk about the "end of history" presupposes an end to politics, not scientific advancement. In this post-political utopia politics is rendered obsolete since Descartes' "mathesis universalis" brings about universal enlightenment and since the problem of scarcity gets solved. Oddly enough, the goals of science seem obviously parastic on religion but is also meant to replace it: we return to a secularized paradise where reason is exalted, where abundance can be secured without the pain of hard labor, where politics is unneccessary, and where we encourage each other to eat the previously forbidden fruit. Immortality gets sacrificed for longevity and health and the individual greatness of the few is exchanged for universal comfort.

Thanks, Ivan. Maybe we should put together a symposium in Peter's PPS.

I'm manly (or vain), I want full credit (after Ivan) for steering the discussion in this interesting direction. I totally agree with Peter's #13. I need to do some work now, so I'll return later. (Threat? Promise?) A few preliminary thoughts: Bacon, of course, is more overtly political than Descartes, and he (Bacon) apparently keeps politics in the world for a lot longer than Descartes' sketchy remarks would indicate. (BTW: I assume that we all know Joseph Cropsey's fine treatment of the Discourse on Method in his Political Philosophy and the Issues of Politics? He was the first, I believe, to point out the movement from the beginning of Part II (the 30 Yrs. War; the mess which is divided Christian Europe) to the end of Part II (the praise of peaceful, tolerant, commercial Holland and, especially, Amsterdam: Descartes preferred the commercial republic. As did Spinoza later.).) Bacon's odd combination of no politics and indirect or hidden rule in the New Atlantis has to be taken into account in any account of his politics. One might read Bob Faulkner's book on Bacon in this regard. Gotta go.

Peter, Let us know how the LF goes.

Well, sure on the LF. Paul owes us a profound post and the rest of you should continue to discuss amongst yourselves. Paul deserves the greatest of honors--even though we can't begin to comprehend his true greatness--for getting this fine discussion going.

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