Monday, February 27, 2006

Marx, Aristotle, and Eagleton

I reread Terry Eagleton’s After Theory yesterday, for what reason why I do not know. Let’s say I like the beat and it’s easy to dance to, so I give it a 98.

After Theory is Eagleton’s assessment—pitched at the general reader level—of the state of Theory (structuralism, post-structuralism, and postmodernism) circa 2003.

I find it interesting that Eagleton links Aristotle’s conception of the good life, human flourishing, and happiness with Marx’s philosophy. Maybe, it massages my ego to see the brilliant Terry Eagleton juxtapose Marx and Aristotle because I have been thinking about the juxtaposition for quite a few years.

For Aristotle, as we have seen, ethics and politics are intimately related. Ethics is about excelling at being human, and nobody can do that in isolation. Moreover, nobody can do it unless the political institutions which allow you to do it are available. It is this kind of moral thinking which was inherited by Karl Marx, who was much indebted to Aristotle even in economic thought. Questions of good and bad had been falsely abstracted from their social contexts, and had to be restored to them again. In this sense, Marx was a moralist in the classical sense of the word. He believed that moral inquiry had to examine all of the factors which went to make up a specific action or way of life, not just personal ones.

Unfortunately, Marx was a classical moralist who did not seem aware that he was, rather, as Dante was not aware that he was living in the middle ages. Like a lot of radicals since his time, Marx thought the whole of morality was just ideology. This is because he made the characteristically bourgeois mistake of confusing morality with moralism. Moralism believes that there is a set of questions known as moral questions which are quite distinct from social or political ones. It does not see that ‘moral’ means exploring the texture and quality of human behavior as richly and sensitively as you can, and that you cannot do this by abstracting men and women from their social surrounding. This is morality as, say, the novelist Henry James understood it, as opposed to those who believe you can reduce it to rules, prohibitions and obligations.

Marx, however, made the mistake of defining morality as moralism, and so quite understandably rejected it. He did not seem to realize he was the Aristotle of the modern age.

Later, Eagleton takes Aristotelian ethics to task.
Aristotle's man of virtue is notoriously self-centered. He enjoys friendship as part of the good life, but it is the life of contemplation he finds most precious. What Aristotle does not fully appreciate is that virtue is a reciprocal affair. He sees, to be sure, that it can thrive only in political society; but he does not really recognize that virtue is what happens between people--that it is a function of relationships. His so-called 'great-souled man' is alarmingly self-sufficient. Freindship matters to the man of virtue, but it is more mutual admiration than genuine love.

This gets back to the question: what kind of Marxist am I? I keep returning to Marx to find answers; that is, trying to integrate my reading of Marxist’s texts into my other belief systems—no easy task for a humble thinker, like me.

Yet, the project has been an enjoyable one, one I look forward to continuing this year.

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