Presidential Lecture Series
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Alexander Nehamas
Nehamas On

  1. The Life of Philosophy

  2. Nietzsche and Instincts

  3. Children's TV

  4. Eternal Life

  5. The Idea of the Good in Platonic--Aristotelian Philosophy

  6. Lying

  7. Uncertainty

1. The Life of Philosophy

Today most people, including most philosophers, no longer believe that the life of philosophy is the best human life. That has made it impossible for philosophers to play the role that Plato (and, following him, Aristotle) envisaged for them and that many played, though intermittently and with enormous variations, until recent times. Even in Ancient times, the Platonic-Aristotelian view that the practical significance of philosophy derives directly from its theoretical nature was rejected by various schools--moderately by Stoicism, vehemently by Cynicism. But our present-day emphasis on theoretical (including, of course, moral and political) investigation has caused us to lose sight of the different conceptions of philosophy that were prevalent in antiquity.

Though still concerned with the nature of goodness and the right political organization, philosophy today is faced with the irreparable loss of the authority it once derived from being thought to constitute the best way of life. One could argue, of course, that the idea that philosophy represents the best life was just Plato's dream and that philosophers have never been better than the rest of the world (except, perhaps, at dreaming). Plato's dream was for a long time most people's wakefulness, but it has finally lost its hold on our imagination. The life of philosophy has gradually lost its exemplary status and philosophy has increasingly retreated into its theoretical component: we no longer believe that the life of philosophers constitutes a model that others should follow. But that has not stopped philosophers from thinking that they still have much to say about how life in general should be lived.

From: The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998: 102-3. ©1998, UC Press.

2. Nietzsche and Instincts

We have been talking rather freely about instinct and reason, and we must be more careful. We must never, when we read Nietzsche on this topic, understand him as if he were a vulgar Freudian. Nietzsche does not consider the instincts simply as the basic tendencies or impulses that constitute the bedrock of the self and to which he urges us to return. He is neither an irrationalist not an atavist. By "instinct" and "instinctive," Nietzsche generally understands any mode of behavior that is performed more or less unselfconsciously, without explicit awareness of the steps it involves. Instinctive behavior in that sense, though some of it may in fact basic be basic and unlearned, can also be the result of acculturation, effort, and practice. In particular, it can include the unquestioned codes (if such they were) of behavior of the early Greek aristocracy - codes that by Socrates' time may have broken down enough to drive Socrates' audience into disordered and inconsistent modes of life.

Nietzsche's way of thinking about instinct allows him to believe that even knowledge can become instinctive: "To this day the task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and is yet not clearly discernible" (GS II; 3:383). That instinct represents something learned is one of his most central ideas: "The great rationality of all education in morality has always been that one tried to attain to the certainty of an instinct: so that neither good intentions nor good means had to enter consciousness as such. As the soldier exercises, so should one learn to act. In fact, this consciousness belongs to any kind of perfection." "We must in fact seek perfect life where it has become least conscious (i.e., least aware of its logic, its reasons, its means and intentions, its utility)" (WP 439; 13:313). In most cases, instinct is for Nietzsche, as the self and nature are for Montaigne, not an origin but an end, not given but achieved.

GS = The Gay Science
WP = Will to Power

From: The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998: 140-141. ©1998, UC Press.

3. Children's TV

Consider television, however, as a source of such stories [fairytales, myth], and the implicit contrast between these other societies and ours disappears. The question no longer is whether our children are or are not told enough, but whether the stories they are being told are or are not good for them. And though by far the most common tendency today is to criticize children's television and to try to make it what is barbarously called "pro-social," some voices, at least, persist in making the case for the more Untraditional and apparently "anti-social" tales MacIntyre admires. Criticizing The Smurfs, Walter Karp, for example, writes that "what children urgently need from children's stories, are not lessons in cooperative living but the life-saving assurance that one can succeed--that monsters can be slain, injustice remedied, and all obstacles overcome on the hard road to adulthood." But Platonist attitudes have often resulted in programs whose central message is that "you must put no faith in must put no faith in an unjust world; the group alone can save you. This," Karp concludes, "is a very strange lesson to teach a free people's children"

From: "What should we expect from reading? (There are only aesthetic values)" Salmagundi, 111 (Summer, 1996): 33-34. ©1996, Salmagundi.

[Stanford and University of California affiliates may read the full-text of this article by choosing the Magazines and Articles database at the California Digital Library.* Search on "Nehamas, Alexander" as Author. The full-text of Richard Rorty's response to Nehamas's criticism, "Duties to the self and to others: comments on a paper by Alexander Nehamas," Salmagundi, 111 (Summer, 1996): 59-67, may also be accessed via the Magazines and Articles database.]

4. Eternal Life

The idea that there is such a thing as an eternal life and that it is in most ways more important than this life--though it has produced a number of great goods--I think has generally caused immensely greater misery than it has helped the world.

First of all, it has completely devalued, for many of those who believe in it, their present life. Second, it has made many of those people who believe in it live in constant fear and guilt for what's going to happen to them afterward. And it has prevented them from doing anything to get rid of that fear and guilt by acting right because, if anything, they will get their just deserts later on.

Faith in the eternal life, which means faith in an absolute justification if you are on the right side, has caused some of the worst treatment of human beings by other human beings.

Quoted in: Scott, Janny. "Lofty Ideas That May Be Losing Altitude," The New York Times, November 1, 1997, sec.B, p.13. ©1997, The New York Times.

[The full-text is available on-line via Academic Universe (Restricted to Stanford affiliates).** Select General News Topics, Keyword = Nehamas, Additional Terms = lofty ideas, Source Material = Major Newspapers, Date = Previous two years.]

5. The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy

With the passage of time, conceptual distinctions that may once have provoked arguments, fights or even wars seem to coalesce. Many come to appear as manifestations of a single, coherent point of view. Though they may grate on learned ears, expressions like "the Greco-Roman outlook," "the Elizabethan world picture," or "the values of the Enlightenment" are constantly used to describe such presumed unities.

Plato and Aristotle, however, seem to provide a remarkable exception to this commonplace. From our perspective, they stand close together in time, but seem philosophically worlds apart. Time has opened an immense gap between them - a constantly expanding space, large enough to contain the whole of the rest of philosophy within it.

From: "Greek on Greek and Eye to Eye," The New York Times, June 22, 1986, sec.7, p.29. A book review of: Hans Georg Gadamer, The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy (Yale University Press, 1986). ©1986, The New York Times.

[The full-text is available on-line via Academic Universe. (Restricted to Stanford affiliates.)** Select General News Topics, Byline = Nehamas, Additional Terms = greek, Source Material = Major Newspapers, Date = All available dates.]

6. Lying

"The principle here, if there is a principle, is you must never lie unless you must...Ironically, one of the most necessary lies we tell our children is you must never lie. Then we turn around and, when it suits us, pretend to believe the principle ourselves."

Quoted in: Scott, Janny. "Bright, Shining or Dark: American Way of Lying," August 16, 1998, sec.4, p.3. ©1998, The New York Times.

[The full-text is available on-line via Academic Universe. (Restricted to Stanford affiliates.)** Select General News Topics, Keyword = lying, Additional Terms = Nehamas, Source Material = Major Newspapers, Date = Previous year.]

7. Uncertainty

In a review of a book about Camus, the reviewer said that Camus's fatal flaw was that he could not take sides, that he saw everything from every point of view. I don't think that makes him a failure. We think that it's impossible to act unless you're certain that you're right; but certainty about yourself is also the quickest road to fanaticism.

Now, uncertainty--the sense that not only you don't know the truth but that many complex issues are irresolvably ambiguous--is sometimes the most productive way of allowing you to act while at the same time respecting that others are not going to accept your view, approve your action or follow your example. It produces a tentativeness that permits you to see many things from many points of view. Which is, I believe, the best definition of objectivity.

Quoted in: Scott, Janny. "In Praise of Uncertainty and Other Underappreciated Concepts," The New York Times, January 10, 1998, sec.B, p.9. ©1998, The New York Times.

[The full-text is available on-line via Academic Universe. (Restricted to Stanford affiliates.)** Select General News Topics, Keyword = Nehamas, Additional Terms = uncertainty, Source Material = Major Newspapers, Date = Previous two years.]

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