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Confuse and Conquer

Our concern with Greek Ethics did not originate with Aristotle, but we must look to him as the first well-recorded source.  For those of you who have read Nichomachean Ethics (especially if you’ve done so in the original Greek), you know precisely what I’m talking about when I say that the whole thing revolves around a quest for eudaimonia.  His deviance from platonic ethics is best elucidated in his abandonment of the cardinal virtues in favor of a mean from which other virtues can be derived.  In particular, we should note his addition of the concept of phronēsis to the class of intellectual virtues.

Do you feel especially enlightened?  I don’t, and I even know what I was talking about!  How about this instead?

The oldest musings on ethics we have come from Aristotle and a few bits of Plato.  Early Greek ethics centered on discovering prescriptive methods for living well and achieving a kind of contented long-term happiness.  Plato’s ethics centered around what he called the Four Cardinal Virtues, namely temperance, courage, justice and prudence.  Aristotle abandoned this system, and instead placed courage and temperance at the center.  He called these a “mean” from which all the other virtues arose.  It’s especially interesting to ethicists that he called prudence an intellectual virtue, as this was a significant departure from Plato.

How was that?  A little better?

The thing is, both paragraphs convey the same information.  The difference between them is that the first paragraph alludes to a lot of information while the second paragraph presents it.  If you are familiar with Aristotelian ethics, you would know which four virtues Plato called “Cardinal.”  If you know Greek, you’d recognize the word phronēsis.

But for most Americans, things like “Cardinal Virtues” and phronēsis are relatively useless.  Not because we are incapable of understanding them.  Quite the contrary.  Aristotelian ethics have been referenced by hundreds — thousands — of philosophers and writers through the centuries.  Though the original work may not be commonly known, and though Greek is not our native language, most educated Americans have been exposed to both Platonic and Aristotelian ethics in more modern forms.

Colloquially, I like to call expositions like the first example “Confuse and Conquer.”  It’s not really designed to educate.  It’s designed to sound impressive.  In more sinister cases, this tactic is used to intimidate a would-be interlocutor into thinking himself incapable of discussing the concept at all.

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m not very big on name-dropping.  This is by design.  While it’s true that I am pretty well-read, I don’t read to be able to drop names.  I read to incorporate new ideas into my worldview.  Heck.  I’ve got ideas I remember years after I’ve forgotten who wrote the book.  My goal is to present ideas, not authors.

I’ve written blog posts that would qualify as upper level college theses if I’d written them in the right format and cited every single concept.  But the truth is, most of my readers aren’t interested in knowing precisely where I got every little smidgen of data.  I’m always happy to provide references when asked, but generally speaking, people are much more interested in the ideas than who came up with them.  And that’s the beauty of ideas.  They don’t require their author to be valid.

Obviously, I’m making a specific point about the recent influx of apologists in the comment threads.  I hope I’m not coming off sounding preachy or condescending.  I’ve spent a lot of time in academia in my life, and I know that sometimes, it is temptingly easy to descend into jargon and code-speak.  But it’s important to remember that jargon and code-speak are shortcuts for people who speak their particular technical language often.  The words themselves are not important.  It’s the concepts they refer to that make the difference.

When we’re talking to someone who doesn’t speak the jargon fluently, we can sometimes make the mistake of thinking that because they don’t use the jargon, they don’t understand or can’t understand the concept beneath the jargon.  But then, how will we ever know if we don’t speak plainly about the concepts themselves?



One thought on “Confuse and Conquer

  1. Well said, Hamby!

    Posted by Joel Justiss | November 4, 2010, 9:56 pm

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