Aristotle and the Higher Good

July 3, 2011


Aristotle and the Higher Good: Nicomachean Ethics

By Harry V Jaffa*
Published: July 1, 2011

Some time in the 1920s, the Conservative statesman F. E. Smith — Lord Birkenhead — gave a copy of the “Nicomachean Ethics” to his close friend Winston Churchill. He did so saying there were those who thought this was the greatest book of all time.

Churchill returned it some weeks later, saying it was all very interesting, but he had already thought most of it out for himself. But it is the very genius of Aristotle — as it is of every great teacher — to make you think he is uncovering your own thought in his. In Churchill’s case, it is also probable that the classical tradition informed more of his upbringing, at home and at school, than he realized.

In 1946, in a letter to the philosopher Karl Löwith, Leo Strauss mentioned how difficult it had been for him to understand Aristotle’s account of magnanimity, greatness of soul, in Book 4 of the “Ethics.”

The difficulty was resolved when he came to realize that Churchill was a perfect example of that virtue. So Churchill helped Leo Strauss understand Aristotle! That is perfectly consistent with Aristotle’s telling us it does not matter whether one describes a virtue or someone characterized by that virtue.

Where the “Ethics” stands among the greatest of all great books perhaps no one can say. That Aristotle’s text, which explores the basis of the best way of human life, belongs on any list of such books is indisputable.

In his great essay “On Classical Political Philosophy,” Strauss emphasizes the continuity between pre-­philosophic political speech and its refinement by classical political philosophy. It is part of the order of nature (and of nature’s God) that pre-­philosophic speech supply the matter, and philosophic speech the form, of perfected political speech, much as the chisel of the sculptor uncovers the form of the statue within the block of marble. Before the “Ethics” men knew that courage was a virtue, and that it meant overcoming fear in the face of danger. Aristotle says nothing different from this, but he also distinguishes true virtue from its specious simulacra.

The false appearance of courage may result, for instance, from overconfidence in one’s skill or strength, or from one’s failure to recognize the skill or strength of his opponents. The accurate assessment of one’s own superiority of strength or skill, which means one really has no reason to fear an approaching conflict, is another false appearance of courage. A false courage may also result from a passion that blinds someone to the reality of the danger he faces. In short, the appearance of courage may be mistaken for actual courage whenever the rational component of virtue is lacking.

The existence of politics before political philosophy is what makes political philosophy possible. Politics is inherently controversial because human beings are passionately attached to their opinions by interests that have nothing to do with the truth. But because philosophers — properly so called — have no interest other than the truth, they alone can bring to bear the canon of reason that will transform the conflict of opinion that otherwise dominates the political world.

Unfortunately, what has been called philosophy for more than a century has virtually destroyed any belief in the possibility of objective truth, and with it the possibility of philosophy. Our chaotic politics reflects this chaos of the mind.

No enterprise to replace this chaos with the cosmos of reason could be more welcome. The volume before us is much more than a translation. The translators, Robert C. Bartlett, who teaches Hellenic politics at Boston College, and Susan D. Collins, a political scientist at the University of Houston, have provided helpful aids.

Many Greek words cannot be easily translated into single English equivalents — for example, the Greek word techne, which appears in the first sentence of the “Ethics.” It is here translated as “art,” as it usually is. But the Greeks made no distinction, as we do, between the useful arts and the fine arts. The most precise rendering is probably “know-how,” but that does not seem tonally right. The best solution is to use an approximation like “art” and supplement it with notes. This is what the translators have done, in this case and others, with considerable thoroughness.

They have also supplied an informative introduction, as well as “A Note on the Translation,” a bibliography and an outline of the work. All this precedes the main text. Afterward comes a brief “Overview of the Moral Virtues and Vices,” a very extensive and invaluable glossary, a list of “Key Greek Terms,” an index of proper names and at last a detailed “general index.” Together these bring the original text within the compass of every intelligent reader.

Thomas Aquinas, writing in the 13th century, believed that in the “Ethics” Aristotle had said everything needful for happiness in this life. Thus Aquinas did not write his own book on ethics, but instead wrote a commentary on Aristotle. This tradition was extended by the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century, Leo Strauss, who wrote that all his work had no other purpose than to address “the crisis of the West.

But what is the West? And what is its crisis? According to Strauss (and many others), the West is the civilization constituted at its core by the coming together of classical philosophy and biblical revelation. The vitality of Western civilization results from the interplay of these alternative principles, though each contains within itself what claims to be exclusive and irrefutable authority. Symbolic of this authority are Athens and Jerusalem.

In “The Second World War,” Churchill remarks that everything valuable in modern life and thought is an inheritance from these ancient cities. The debunking both of Socratic skepticism (“the unexamined life is not worth living”) and of biblical faith (“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”) has led to the crisis of the West, a chaos of moral relativism and philosophic nihilism in which every lifestyle, no matter how corrupt or degenerate, can be said to be as good as any other.

In their brilliant and highly readable “Interpretive Essay” Bartlett and Collins suggest, without positively asserting, that Aristotle offers a solution to the problem, or crisis, of human well-being. But they seem to doubt whether it can meet the challenge of the God of Abraham. But these two principles are not adversarial in all respects.

Indeed, much of Strauss’s work is a radical attack — made with the greatest intellectual competence — against the latter-­day enemies of both the Bible and a Socratic Aristotle. Strauss maintained that Athens and Jerusalem, while disagreeing on the ultimate good, disagree very little, if at all, on what constitutes a morality both good in itself and the pathway to a higher good.

Aristotle’s greatness of soul (magnanimity) may seem to resemble pride, the greatest of sins described in the biblical canon. But Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of the “Ethics” offers proof against theological negativism. And in the “Summa Contra Gentiles,”Thomas made the case for sacred doctrine on the basis of Aristotelian premises. It is an assumption of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature that the highest good of each species is accessible to all, or nearly all, its members.

For man the highest good is wisdom. But since few if any human beings attain it, Aristotle’s nature requires a supernatural correlate: the afterlife. Whatever one thinks of this argument, it points to a dialectical friendship between Athens and Jerusalem. All the more reason for them to join forces in the desperate struggle, still going on, between civilization and barbarism.

Harry V. Jaffa is a distinguished fellow of the Claremont Institute. His books include“Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates” and “Thomism and ­Aristotelianism: A Study of the Commentary by Thomas Aquinas on the Nicomachean Ethics.”

A version of this review appeared in print on July 3, 2011, on page BR16 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Faith and Reason.

BERSIH2.0’s Response to Chandra Muzaffar

July 3, 2011

July 9 Rally: The BERSIH2.0 Show will Go On

Let us listen to the political humour of Hishamuddin Rais. This is followed by a serious message from Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan.

United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said of her: “… Ambiga Sreenevasan, has a remarkable record of accomplishment in Malaysia. She has pursued judicial reform and good governance, she has stood up for religious tolerance, and she has been a resolute advocate of women’s equality and their full political participation. She is someone who is not only working in her own country, but whose influence is felt beyond the borders of Malaysia. And it is a great honor to recognize her ...”

Dato’ Ambiga explains the mission of BERSIH2.0 and also why the show must go on, despite recent actions by our government. In the same breadth, both Hishamuddin and Dato Ambiga answer Dr. Chandra Muzaffar.

Article 10(1) grants freedom of speech, the right to assemble peaceably and the right to form associations to every Malaysian citizen but such freedom and rights are not absolute: the Constitution itself, by Article 10 (2), (3) and (4), expressly permits Parliament by law to impose restrictions in the interest of the security of the Federation, friendly relations with other countries, public order, morality, to protect the privileges of Parliament, to provide against contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to any offence.

Article 10 is a key provision of Part II of the Constitution, and has been regarded as “of paramount importance” by the judicial community in Malaysia.

Hishamuddin Rais in Action

Dr McCoy speaks his mind

Mrs Bhupalan Speaks

Civil Society Led-BERSIH2.0

Thank You, Dato A. Samad Said from Your Generation of Malaysians

Finally, I am posting a picture of Dato’ A Samad Said with his controversial poem Unggun Bersih.

Dato’ Samad (born in 1935) is a Malaysian intellectual of my generation and our internationally respect poet and novelist who, in May 1976, was named by Malay literature communities and many of the country’s linguists as the Pejuang Sastera [Literary Exponent] receiving, within the following decade, the 1976 Southeast Asia Write Award and, in 1986, in appreciation of his continuous writings and contributions to the nation’s literary heritage, or Kesusasteraan Melayu, the title Sasterawan Negara.

To you, dear Dato’, I say thank you for showing men and women of our generation that activism is not out of date, even at our age. Let us do it for the generations after us. We did what we had to do before but are now called upon to do it all over again for freedom, democracy and justice. Allah Selamatkan Malaysia, Negara tercinta.–Din Merican

Ungku A. Aziz: Pantun and the Wisdom of the Malay Mind

June 19, 2011

Ungku A.Aziz: Pantun and the Wisdom of the Malay Mind 

by Dato’ Johan Jaaffar @

ROYAL Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz Ungku Abdul Hamid is one of the greatest minds the country has ever known. He is also a man of many achievements, to name one, he is the first recipient of the Merdeka Award in the education and community category in 2008. His interest in all things literary is legendary.

He was obsessed with the Japanese haiku at one point and his latest love is the Malay pantun. Pantun undeniably is the most popular vehicle for the expression of poetic feeling among the Malays. Pak Ungku painstakingly assembled, documented and studied some 16,000 of them over the years. He selected 78 to be included in an interesting lecture organised by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) and the Malaysian Linguistic Association in 2007 as part of the Raja Ali Haji Lecture series.

I am honoured to have been given the opportunity to write the preface for the book Pantun dan Kebijaksanaan Akal Budi Melayu (Pantun and the Wisdom of the Malay Mind) based on the lecture published by DBP. It was a labour of love for me knowing the man behind the book. It is not often we find someone of his stature to give such serious attention to a Malay poetical form. It is normally the domain of literary scholars and researchers. Ungku Aziz certainly brings a new dimension to literary studies — looking at pantun from various disciplines — from economics to psychological references — areas very few would dare tread.

So his “reading” of the Malay pantun would certainly be different from others. But Ungku Aziz is a contrarian among economic thinkers who believe that there is a relationship between the economic capabilities of the Malays and their value system, worldview and psyche. When he started studying poverty among the Malays, he realised how culture, ways of life, dietary habits and government policies were an insurmountable hindrance to their progress.

It was not a pleasant thing to say at the time but Ungku Aziz shared the same view as another monumental thinker among the Malays, Zainal Abidin Ahmad or Za’ba, who was uncharacteristically audacious in criticising some of the “Malay ways”. It was, therefore, unsurprising that Ungku Aziz wrote a glowing tribute to Zainal Abidin’s views in the book Jejak-jejak di Pantai Zaman published in 1975.

Not surprisingly, too, it was Ungku Aziz who made the word minda (mind) part of the Malay lexicon. No other Malay literary creation explains the Malay mind better than the pantun. For more than 700 years of its existence as part of the Malay oral tradition, the pantun has always been the manifestation of the genius of Malay creativity and a storehouse of the Malay mind.

Pantun is simple in its form but complex in its texture and nuances. It is easily adaptable and allows for improvisation. The pantun contains beautiful imagery and the delicacy of thoughts. That is part of the reason why it survives the test of time. Even today, you hear pantun being read at wedding ceremonies and official functions, not to mention on the airwaves at the slightest provocation.

The pantun was created anonymously just like many of the works that constitute the Malay oral tradition. It is interesting to note that the pantun was born out of the largely uneducated Malay populace of old. Life was hard and survival was the rule. Far from the blooming of other literary brilliance and theatrical sophistication nurtured by the istana (court), lesser mortals had to contend with folk literature of their own, from cerita rakyat (folk tales) to verses like pantun, gurindam (a two-line verse) and peribahasa (proverbs).

Literary works became part of the socialisation process. Before radio and TV, people lived with tukang cerita (story-tellers) and penglipur lara (literally, soother of woes) of all kinds. Even nenek (grandmothers) were involved in telling exemplary moral stories to be emulated as well as fables, myths, legends and ghost stories. Literary works entertain and are used as tools to educate. They reaffirm social norms and community compliance. But creativity is their mainstay.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

June 9, 2011

Ode on a Grecian Urn

It has been quite some time that I have posted a poem on this blog. Tonight, I feel the need to indulge in a beautiful poem. For this purpose, I have chosen John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn.

In this Ode, I think, Keats  wants to create for us a world of pure joy, but here the idealized or fantasy world  is the life of the people on the urn. Keats sees them, simultaneously, as carved figures on the marble vase and live people in ancient Greece. Existing in a frozen or suspended time, they cannot move or change, nor can their feelings change, yet the unknown sculptor has succeeded in creating a sense of living passion and turbulent action. The real world of pain thus contrasts with the fantasy world of joy.

CLF , Terence Netto, and other lovers of poetry, can you attempt to interpret this last two lines of this Ode for me:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’–That is all
Ye know of earth, and all ye need to know.

I find them challenging to this day, the link between Beauty and Truth, in the context of this Ode which I read and studied ages ago. As I ride into the sunset, I have yet to fully appreciate these two lines. So, I googled and found this commentary on the beauty-truth equation, and am still not sure if I get it :

“The final stanza contains the beauty-truth equation, the most controversial line in all the criticism of Keats’ poetry. No critic’s interpretation of the line satisfies any other critic, however, and no doubt they will continue to wrestle with the equation as long as the poem is read. In the stanza, Keats also makes two main comments on his urn. The urn teases him out of thought, as does eternity; that is, the problem of the effect of a work of art on time and life, or simply of what art does, is a perplexing one, as is the effort to grapple with the concept of eternity. Art’s (imagined) arrest of time is a form of eternity and, probably, is what brought the word eternity into the poem.

The second thought is the truth-beauty equation. Through the poet’s imagination, the urn has been able to preserve a temporary and happy condition in permanence, but it cannot do the same for Keats or his generation; old age will waste them and bring them woe.

Yet the pictured urn can do something for them and for succeeding generations as long as it will last. It will bring them through its pictured beauty a vision of happiness (truth) of a kind available in eternity, in the hereafter, just as it has brought Keats a vision of happiness by means of sharing its existence empathically and bringing its scenes to emotional life through his imagination. All you know on earth and all you need to know in regard to beautiful works of art, whether urns or poems about urns, is that they give an inkling of the unchanging happiness to be realized in the hereafter. When Keats says “that is all ye know on earth,” he is postulating an existence beyond earth.

Although Keats was not a particularly religious man, his meditation on the problem of happiness and its brief duration in the course of writing “Ode on a Grecian Urn” brought him a glimpse of heaven, a state of existence which his letters show he did think about. In his letter of November 22, 1817, to Benjamin Bailey, he mentioned “another favorite Speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated.”–

Ode on a Grecian Urn

by John Keats

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these?  What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit?  What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels?  What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape!  Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Of Clouds and Golden Daffodils

April 25, 2011

Of Clouds and Golden Daffodils

It has been quite a while since I posted a poem on this blog. Given the political and non-political happenings including the gloom and doom about the future of the US dollar (now at RM 2.99), let me cheer all of us up with Bill Wordsworth’s poem I read in school decades ago.–Din Merican

I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud

by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling leaves in glee;
A poet could not be but gay,
In such a jocund company!
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.


Courtesy of Looes74, Mr Bojangles and CLF

Ulysses: “To strive, to seek,to find, not to yield”

March 31, 2011

Alfred Lord Tennyson‘s Ulysses: Uplifting our Spirits

Najib must Lead, not be Led

The last two stanzas of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses are inspiring for all of us who must face the challenges of living in a much confused Malaysia. We seem to be without direction, drifting in a sea of acronyms (ETP, NKRA, NEM) and slogans like 1Malaysia: Rakyat Didahulukan, Pencapaian DiUtamakan, Malaysia Boleh and Wawasan 2020.  Promises, Promises, Projects, Projects (4Ps), if I may add. So let us be inspired by Ulysses and verses from Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same name.

Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are,
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Maybe my friends, for one fleeting moment in Malaysia there was a Camelot. Or could I be dreaming? I remember this  tune by Julie Andrews on YouTube. –Din Merican