Posted by Richard on  UTC 2020-03-05 15:43

We are in a world of shouting kids. Some young brains may be good at mathematics or music or coding, but for everything else they are as half-baked and idiotic as their less talented fellows. As it happens, a large number of the middle-aged seem to have lost their marbles too, but that is a phenomenon we shall consider on another occasion. One thing at a time.

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Under no circumstances should we take advice or instruction from teenagers. From the age of about fifty onwards something useful may be said, then after seventy, laconic hesitancy gradually gives way to silence, since there really is now nothing more to be said. Almost everything sayable has already been said – and most of that which has been said has probably turned out to be wrong.

Ancient Greek geezer

Aristotle (384?-322?) can be our model. The period of his greatest works began when he was around fifty years old and continued for twelve years until his death at around sixty-two. There is no doubt that the work he left behind has framed a large part of the culture of the West until the present day. Here the phrase 'the work he left behind' covers about a third of his total output, the other two-thirds did not survive.

No one knows what Aristotle looked like, so clear from your mind all the inventions of the later ages – every bust of him you see is pure imaginative fakery.

Of his surviving works one of the best known is the Nicomachean Ethics. No one knows when it was written or why is is called 'Nicomachean', nor does anyone know whether he himself wrote it or whether it essentially consists of the lecture notes of a student.

The book which we have today is a practical guide for the conduct of the good life – pragmatical as opposed to theoretical were the terms he used to describe his method, ['παροῦσα πραγματεία οὐ θεωρίας', NE II.2 1103b].

In the book, Aristotle made the distinction between Ethics (Moral Philosophy) and all the other flavours of intellectual enquiry – scientific, mathematical and so on. He placed the study of Ethics above the others, since it was the culmination of all the other disciplines: ultimately the attainment of the good life was the primary aim of life itself:

This then being its aim, our investigation is in a sense the study of Politics.

The English translations used here are by Harris Rackham (1868-1944) (1934). The Greek text is that edited by Ingram Bywater (1840-1914) (1894). They are both available online at the citations. NE II.2 1094b.

He surprises the modern reader, acclimatised to that moral swamp we call politics, by elevating Politics (which, in Aristotle, deserves capitalisation) as the primary study:

To secure the good of one person only is better than nothing; but to secure the good of a nation or a state is a nobler and more divine achievement.

NE II.2 1094b.

The reason for this is that whereas Ethics may guide the individual, Politics as Aristotle understands it is the guide for the nation as a whole.

All the other philosophical avenues could be followed by the merely bright at any age. In contrast, Ethics requires wisdom, which in turn requires experience, which in turn requires maturity. And Politics, as the extension of Ethics, even more so:

To criticize a particular subject, therefore, a man must have been trained in that subject: to be a good critic generally, he must have had an all-round education. Hence the young are not fit to be students of Political Science. For they have no experience of life and conduct, and it is these that supply the premises and subject matter of this branch of philosophy. And moreover they are led by their feelings; so that they will study the subject to no purpose or advantage, since the end of this science is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether they are young in years or immature in character: the defect is not a question of time, it is because their life and its various aims are guided by feeling; for to such persons their knowledge is of no use, any more than it is to persons of defective self-restraint. But Moral Science may be of great value to those who guide their desires and actions by principle.

NE II.2 1095a. This passage is alluded to in Shakespeare's play Troilus and Cressida (1601) Act II, Scene 2, 1161f: [Hector] 'Paris and Troilus, you have both said well, / And on the cause and question now in hand / Have glozed, but superficially: not much / Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought / Unfit to hear moral philosophy:'
Shakespeare's allusion to the present part of the Nicomachean Ethics shows that for the educated audiences of his time this was neither an arcane text nor an arcane thought.

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Ancient American geezer

The reader finds this disquisition too long, too platitudinous? Well, if you want it snappier, let's turn to that poetic condenser par excellence, Ezra Pound (1885-1972):

or longevity because as says Aristotle
philosophy is not for young men
their Katholou can not be sufficiently derived from
their hekasta
their generalities cannot be born from a sufficient phalanx
of particulars
[… 3 pages …]
'is not for the young' said Arry, stagirite*

Ezra Pound, The Cantos, Faber, London, 1975. Canto LXXIV p. 441… p. 444.
*Aristotle was born in the town of Stagira, in northern Greece, hence 'stagirite'.
'ἐκ τῶν καθ᾽ ἕκαστα γὰρ τὰ καθόλου.'

In the Pisan prison camp in 1945, without access to texts, Pound had to rely for almost everything on his memory. It is not a surprise that he conflates the section on hekasta and katholou with the previous section on the need for experience and wisdom. Using these two terms, Aristotle writes:

since these are the first principles from which the end is inferred, as general rules are based on particular cases; hence we must have perception of particulars, and this immediate perception is Intelligence.


Consequently the unproved assertions and opinions of experienced and elderly people, or of prudent men, are as much deserving of attention as those which they support by proof; for experience has given them an eye for things, and so they see correctly.

'General rules are based on particular cases': 'ἐκ τῶν καθ᾽ἕκαστα γὰρ τὰ καθόλου'. NE II.2 1143b1-b5.

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We must not assume that these Aristotelian baubles are being mentioned by the poet approvingly. In this case the contrary seems more likely, since Pound had ranted at Aristotle in 1938 in his stimulating but impenetrable book Guide to Kulchur:

This does not imply acceptance of Arry's statement that the young "shd. not study moral philosophy", even though the use of that phrase may have implied a perception on Arry's part that his lectures weren't suitable pabulum for the inexperienced.

My point being that they are definitely the compost, intelligent enough to serve counterfeiters by providing them means toward the confusion and obfuscation of others.

I wd. even go further and state in parenthesis, with the date Ap. 16 anno XV*, that the things still needing to be remedied in the Italian State are due to an Aristotelic residuum left in Mussolini's own mind. Despite all he has sloughed off in evolving his totalitarian formulae.

Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, Faber, London, 1938. 'AND THEREFORE TENDING', p. 309.
* 16 April in the Era Fascista XV = 16 April 1937. Year 1 of the E.F. began in 1922, New Year's Day being 29 October, the anniversary of Mussolini's accession as Italian prime minister.
The E.F. ended on 28 April 1945, when Mussolini and his mistress were shot and their corpses strung up upside down from a petrol station in Milan on the following day. This was the event with which Pound began his Pisan Cantos during his internment: 'Thus Ben[ito] and la Clara [Petacci] a Milano / by the heels at Milano'. Pound himself was arrested by partisans six days after Mussolini's execution. His own fate hung in the balance until he was handed over to the US army.

Thus in Pisa, seven years later, Pound is probably not quoting Aristotle with approval, but nothing is certain. The lines and sentiments from his study of the Nicomachean Ethics in 1937 may have been just one of those jumbled fragments which floated into his fractured mind, the mind of the 'lone ant from a broken ant-hill / from the wreckage of Europe, ego scriptor.' [Canto LXXVI, p. 458].

The old man now had lots of time in the prison camp, in sight of the gallows, to review his hekasta and formulate some better katholou.


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