People get into this condition [i.e., ignorance] through their own fault, by the slackness of their lives; i.e., they make themselves unjust or licentious by behaving dishonestly or spending their time in drinking and other forms of dissipation; for in every sphere of conduct people develop qualities corresponding to the activities they pursue.”Aristotle [i]
Plato and Aristotle were philosophers of Classical antiquity. Those who can read these ancient philosophers in the original Greek are better able to understand the fundamentals of art and science. To understand Plato and Aristotle is to hold a decisive intellectual advantage in all forms of discourse. The value of the ancients is hard to explain to the desiccated modern mind – which is often unable to place facts in their proper context. Modern life is very busy, very distracted. Modern man is trapped in the news cycle, unable to synthesize or unify his knowledge. The ancient science of seeing, weighing, and ordering has largely been lost to us. A modern thinker with access to the ancients, however, is like a man looking down from the top of a mountain. Those who know nothing of the ancients, having journalistic predilections, are only looking down from the foothills. It never occurs to them that there is a mountain to climb. Unlike his journalistic critics, Brazilian philosopher Olavo de Carvalho is someone who climbed that mountain.
Olavo learned Greek. He studied Aristotle and Plato. When I met Olavo in person, several years ago, his originality, his skill as a thinker, was apparent from our first conversation. His insights were clarifying. His polemics were full of fun. His mind was always searching for answers. In future centuries his name will be remembered while the “well-foddered, famous wise ones”[ii] of our time will be forgotten. And now, after his book on Machiavelli was translated into English, and reviewed on this site a year ago under the title “Olavo’s Machiavelli,”[iii] another of Olavo’s books has been translated – Aristotle in a New Perspective: Introduction to the Theory of the Four Discourses. It is a book that contributes to our understanding of Aristotle’s theory of discourse as a process that brings unity out of diversity, informing all of Aristotle’s “logical, physical, metaphysical, and ethical speculations … [as] the unmistakable hallmark of his style of thinking.”
It is Olavo’s thesis that Aristotle’s poetics, rhetoric, dialectics, and analytics do not form four separate sciences; rather, these four subjects form what Olavo calls “a nesting doll,” or what others might call a system for understanding intellectual culture, placing reason and imagination in proper context, leading us to the pinnacle of philosophical reflection, the crown of culture, which is knowledge about knowledge. In Aristotle’s four discourses Olavo has also found a schema for tracking the evolution of culture through four stages corresponding to the four types of discourse: Poetics, Rhetoric, dialectic, and analytics.
For readers unfamiliar with Aristotle, a brief biographical note is in order. Aristotle was born in the Greek town of Stagira, in ancient Macedonia. His father was court physician to Macedonia’s king. The year of Aristotle’s birth was 384 BC, fifteen years after the death of the famous philosopher Socrates, who was tried and sentenced to drink a deadly concoction of hemlock because he had allegedly corrupted the youth of Athens, and for introducing strange gods to the city. Aristotle was the student of Plato, one of the youth Socrates had supposedly corrupted (though it may be argued that Plato corrupted Socrates by depicting him other than he was).[iv] When Aristotle was eighteen, he was sent to study at Plato’s Academy in Athens where he remained for twenty years, becoming a teacher of rhetoric and dialogue. When Plato died, and Aristotle was not given directorship of the Academy, he left Athens to do other work, including to serve as tutor to Alexander (later, Alexander the Great), son of King Philip II of Macedon. Aristotle returned to Athens in the wake of King Philip’s victory over Thebes and Athens at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC). In 335 BC Aristotle set up his own school in Athens, the Lyceum, which rivaled Plato’s Academy. Aristotle’s philosophy differed from his master, Plato. He did not credit Plato’s theory of forms, neither did he like communistic aspects of Plato’s political philosophizing. When Alexander the Great died and the Athenians turned against Macedon, Aristotle was charged with impiety (due to his association with Alexander’s court). Rather than drinking the hemlock as Socrates had done, Aristotle fled Athens, “lest the Athenians sin twice against philosophy.” In the centuries that followed, Aristotle became the single most influential philosopher in history. His reputation came under attack in the seventeenth century, with early modern thinkers sometimes counting him as the enemy.
In the ongoing battle of ideas, Olavo saw the importance of Aristotle because Aristotle held the keys to many subjects – from ethics and politics to poetry and rhetoric. Some readers may wonder what the value of an ancient philosopher might be when modernity has surpassed antiquity in its knowledge; yet, looking at the erosion of our discourse, and the nonsense that passes for “science” on every side, modernity has clearly taken a wrong turn. We have lost the very language of noble reasoning because we have taken too many shortcuts, piling error upon error (even as we call it “science”). Instead of a meditative ascent toward Noesis or philosophizing, modern academic science has been descending into trivial speculations that tell us more and more about less and less. As Ellis Sandoz put it, “reason is the ‘something’ in man that experiences shame in the recognition of his ignorance or that resists … the deformation of his own existence and that of other men by destructive forces in the social field.”[v] Man must address his ignorance or suffer deformation through false knowledge. Man must also seek a proper context to form the categories of his thought. To start with something small and work one’s way up to the brain of a gnat is to “gnatify” one’s mind and soul. Great questions must always be kept in view. Or, as Aristotle wrote at the beginning of his Metaphysics, “Art arises when … one universal judgment about a class of objects is produced.” To remain enmeshed in trivia is to have no universal point of departure; that is, to make oneself stupid.
If we become lost in trivia, we run the risk of intellectual demoralization. This tendency, so characteristic of our time, has led many to eschew intelligence in favor of plausible and convenient stupidities. In this context it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who famously discovered that stupidity is more dangerous than malice. Olavo made this discovery as well, famously opposing the intellectual demoralization and stupidity of his country, writing a bestselling book titled, o minimo que voce precisa saber para nao ser um idiota – which translates, “The least you need to know not to be an idiot.” In this book he touched on one particular type of idiot – the “useful idiot”:
The communist mentality … is so ignorant of freedom of thought, subjugates intelligence so heavily to party command, that it manages the subject’s ideology not by the intentions and values he professes, but by the simple hypothetical and ofttimes paranoid conjecture of the political or public benefit that [communist] parties … may derive from their words, albeit opportunistically….[vi]
Here is a glimpse at the stupidity of our time. It is the most dangerous stupidity in the history of the world. Olavo stood against the arrogant laziness and total lack of curiosity which made this stupidity into an almost irresistible power; a power that promises death and destruction even as these words are being written. Olavo believed, with Aristotle, that the remedy for dangerous stupidity was to be found in a higher truth – in the divine Nous or Ground out of which our existence has emerged. It was Aristotle who warned us “not to follow those who advise us to have human thoughts, since we are only men … but on the contrary, to … do our utmost to live in accordance with what is highest in us.”[vii] Eric Voegelin, a philosopher who shared Olavo’s appreciation for Aristotle, wrote:
The Classic, especially the Aristotelian, unrest is distinctly joyful because the [philosophic] questioning has direction; the unrest is experienced as the beginning of the theophanic event in which the nous reveals itself as the divine ordering force in … the cosmos at large; it is an invitation to pursue its meaning into the actualization of noetic consciousness.[viii]
Philosophy shows us that man is more than a mortal being. He is an unfinished being, as Voegelin noted, “moving from the imperfection of death in this life to the perfection of life in death.” Man participates in the divine through his thoughts – which may coincide with the divine mind by adhering to truth instead of embracing lies. It is lies, indeed, that deform man’s existence. As our thoughts form into discourse, we had best bring that discourse to truth.
All discourse, noted Olavo, is “the passing from one proposition to another.” Olavo then added, “The formal unity of any discourse depends on its propositional unity, that is, the arrangement of the various parts with a view towards obtaining the desired conclusions.” First, you have the premise and its presuppositions; then, you have the logical or analogically connected components of the argument, giving propositional unity to the whole; then, you must bring about a change in the opinion of those who listen to this argument (usually, by the striking nature of the argument); and then, of course, you have an acknowledgement of the argument’s credibility. Thus, discourse is a passage from the believed to the believable.
What we have, in today’s discourse, however, does not pass from the believed to the believable. It is, rather, a passage from nonsense to nonsense, leaving infected idiots in its wake. And this was borne out in the criticism Olavo’s work received from so-called “experts.” It was, of course, foolish for idiotas to match wits with Olavo on Aristotle; for Olavo knew Aristotle while his critics were clearly ignorant pretenders. The resulting black comedy, included in the English translation of Olavo’s book, is a joy to read. As one who understood the teachings of Aristotle, and had benefitted from those teachings, Olavo skewered his critics.
Originally, Olavo’s essay on Aristotle was sent for publication to the Editorial Committee of Science Today magazine, run by the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science. Olavo reported, “When almost a year had passed without response, I felt at liberty to publish the article in a book. At the start of October 1994, I received the first impeccably rendered copies from the printers. That same day … I found an envelope on my doorstep … returning the originals with a rejection letter saying that, as the paper was on education in odontology … I would be better served placing it in a specialist publication.”
Odontology, of course, is the scientific study of diseases of the teeth. Puzzled by this bizarre explanation for the magazine’s rejection, Olavo wrote back to the Editorial Board, “neither I nor Aristotle ever suspected this hidden inclination towards dentistry in our speculations….” He offered that the Editorial Board had not read his essay on Aristotle, somehow mistaking it for an essay on dentistry. Lo and behold, the Editorial Board responded to Olavo by saying their reference to “odontology” had been a typing error. They assured Olavo that experts had studied his essay and found it wanting. As proof they sent a two-and-a-half page handwritten “critical assessment” of Olavo’s essay. But it was even more dismaying than the “odontology” reference. The expert “critical assessment” contained, by Olavo’s count, three serious errors of historical inaccuracy, five errors deriving from a lack of familiarity with Aristotle’s works, eight crucial errors of interpretation of Aristotle’s writings, three fallacious arguments, two reversals of Olavo’s intended meaning, three spelling errors, and two other problems.
Olavo wrote, “the above is reason to bury one’s face in one’s hands, and wonder aloud: What in the Lord’s name is happening in this country?”
Olavo’s critique of the Editorial Committee’s “critical assessment” is a veritable Dunciad directed at those whose pretense to knowledge was a comedy of errors. How could Brazil’s leading society for the advancement of science send him such a shameful admission of ignorance and fraud? Ominously, 1990s Brazil was afflicted by that same slovenliness Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gassett attributed to Spanish university life shortly before the Spanish Civil War.
At this juncture it is useful to refer to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Theory of Stupidity,” composed on the tenth anniversary of Hitler’s accession to power:
Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious person. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.[ix]
Aristotle said that “every wicked man is in ignorance as to what he ought to do … and it is because of error … that men become unjust and, in a word, wicked.” Stupidity, in this sense, is responsible for the greatest evils of history. Aristotle explained in his writings on ethics that ignorance is not an acceptable excuse. Wanton stupidity resulting from wanton ignorance is a choice. Aristotle wrote, “People get into this condition through their own fault, by the slackness of their lives….” When Aristotle lists the circumstances necessary to committing a crime, he concludes, “Now nobody in his right mind could be ignorant of all these circumstances.”[x] Aristotle further asks the ultimate question, regarding the ignorant man’s culpability, “how can he fail to know himself?”
In his “Theory of Stupidity” Bonhoeffer said that people sometimes “allow themselves” to become stupid. They do so, it seems, because they want to belong to a crowd or a mob; for stupidity is characteristic of ochlocracy (rule by the mob). “Upon closer examination,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity.”
The implications go to the heart of Olavo’s work. What Olavo was confronted with in Brazil, what Bonhoeffer was confronted with in Nazi Germany, was human beings who set aside their own humanity out of slovenliness. And this is a definite choice; for man is, as Aristotle showed, the “rational animal.” Yet here we have rational animals refusing rationality out of laziness. Thus, in the last analysis, humans are not human by mere biology. Having the gift of language, and the gift of the human mind, becoming a homo sapiens is nonetheless a disposition: to think or not to think. To be physically human, without deciding to think, is to prefer subhuman status and all that goes with it: abject servility, self-degradation, and moral decrepitude.
It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that … intellect, suddenly atrophies or fails. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him.
How do we avoid being stupid? How do we affirm our humanity? Olavo’s theory of Aristotle’s four discourses can help us discover the good. With reason in one hand and the good in another, we may also aspire to wisdom and that precarious thing called freedom. Philosophia – φιλοσοφία – signifies “love of wisdom.” Philosophical methods include poetics (depicting the good through imagination), rhetoric (persuading others of what is good), dialectic (finding the good through dialogue), and analytics (confirming the good through syllogism).
A little philosophy goes a long way.
Here is a link to my recent interview with Dr. Li-Meng Yan: https://www.americaoutloud.com/what-is-behind-strategic-deception-from-russia-communist-china-alliance/
Links and Notes
[i] Aristotle translated by J.A.K. Thomson, The Nicomachean Ethics (New York: Penguin Book, 1982), p. 123.
[ii] Nietzsche’s description of popular, well-paid intellectuals.
[iv] I believe that Plato’s Socratic dialogues have corrupted our image of Socrates. This. is apparent where Plato underscores the intellectual superiority of Socrates over and above his sincerity, leaving us with “Socratic irony.” In an essay titled “Reconsidering Socratic Irony,” Melissa Lane wrote, “That Socrates is ironic is something that many people who know little else about Socrates believe. If this belief is rooted in ancient texts, they are likely to be thinking of Plato’s and Aristotle’s portraits of Socrates rather than those of Aristophanes and Xenophon….” Lane goes on to say that “neither Xenophon nor Aristophanes ever uses about Socrates the Greek word eirôneia, which is the only Greek term (sometimes) translatable as ‘irony.’ By contrast, Plato and Aristotle both use this word and its cognates about Socrates … and this has played a key part in the formation of the tradition of ‘Socratic irony.’” Lane quotes Aristotle’s text, which shows that by using the word eirôneia Aristotle (at least) did not mean “irony” in the modern sense. Aristotle wrote: “The way self-deprecating people [eirônes] understate themselves makes their character appear more attractive, since they seem to do it from a desire to avoid pompousness, and not for the sake of profit; most of all it is things that bring repute that these people too disclaim, as indeed Socrates used to do.” (From the Nicomachean Ethics, 1127b23-26, Rowe and Broadie translation.) Please note: Lane’s study shows that a nuanced misreading of the Greek language has here colored our understanding of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. We should also remember that Socrates was so poor that he often walked about barefooted. Socrates had to take care that his disagreeable questions were not interpreted as insults. This is what explains his self-deprecatory approach. The polite forms of address used by Socrates could hardly have been ironic. His interlocutors were not generally stupid and would have been insulted by irony. Socrates therefore relied on formally friendly and complimentary forms of address if only to demonstrate his respect and good intentions. Modern readers have difficulty seeing Socrates as he was. They see him as a great man rather than the poor son of a stonemason with a shrewish wife. Did Socrates’ wife take her husband to be “ironic”? For Socrates’ sake, we should hope not, for it would not have turned out well for him. And a man beaten down at home is going to carry his demeanor with him into the street. Socrates is, in fact, a humble and sincere man. He has no reason to brag about anything. Irony would have been insolence coming out of his mouth, and insolence belongs to arrogance (which is nowhere in evidence with this man). The philologist Eleanor Dickey discovered that in Plato’s dialogues Socrates was, in fact, using friendly terms of address to better obtain a hearing from his interlocutors. This approach was not patronizing. Socrates was not engaged in ironic put-downs. This is not to deny moments of irony in the dialogues of Socrates, as we find in his praise for Euthyphro and Hippias (who are, in fact, intellectual clowns). Lanes asked if Socrates’ praise for these smug individuals is truly ironical, however. She argues that Socrates was not ridiculing them; rather, he was attempting to draw a confession from them that would prove instructive to the other listeners. The outstanding characteristic of Socrates, then, was his sincerity in pursuing the truth. He never spoke cynically but always argued according to reason. It is, in fact, our cynicism that makes Socrates appear “ironic.” For those interested in Lane’s essay, see The Cambridge Companion to Socrates, pp. 239-41.
[v] Ellis Sandoz, The Voegelin Revolution: A biographical Introduction (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), p. 211.
[vi] Olavo de Carvalho trans by google, The least you need to know not to be an idiot (Rio de Janeiro & Sau Paulo: Editoro Record, 2015), p. 589.
[vii] Ibid, p. 213, Aristotle paraphrased from Sandoz.