The Return of Aristotle

 

In the mail last week, while I was in Charleston, I received The Eudemian Ethics of Aristotle, edited and translated with a commentary by Peter L. P. Simpson. It was an exceedingly welcome arrival.

I read the work ages ago when Simpson and I were tutorial partners at Wadham College, Oxford; and I have occasionally consulted it since. But I have not worked my way through it with care in something like 40 years. When I do so, I will take that effort as an opportunity to re-read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in the fine, recent translation of Robert C. Bartlett and Susan Collins, and this effort may occasion my reading of Claudia Baracchi’s Aristotle’s Ethics as First Philosophy and Ronna Burger’s Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates: On the Nicomachean Ethics.

I teach Aristotle’s Politics with some frequency, and I normally use Peter Simpson’s fine, highly readable translation The Politics of Aristotle. If I really go on an Aristotle binge, I will have to re-read Simpson’s Philosophical Commentary on the Politics of Aristotle and Bernard Yack’s The Problems of a Political Animal: Community, Justice, and Conflict in Aristotelian Political Thought before tackling Michael Davis’s The Politics of Philosophy: A Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics and Thomas Pangle’s brand new book Aristotle’s Teaching in the Politics.

To put it mildly, there is a great Aristotelian revival underway, and it has been going on now for something like 30 years. In mentioning these books, I am merely pointing to the tip of a large iceberg. I could have mentioned works I own by Carnes Lord, Richard Kraut, Mary Nichols, Richard Janko, Aristide Tessitore, Clifford Bates, Stephen Salkever, Arlene Saxonhouse, Sarah Broadie, C. D. C. Reeve, John M. Cooper, Anthony Kenny, Terence Irwin, Brendan Nagle, Fred Miller, and William James Booth; and, even as an indication of my own holdings, this list is far from complete.

The reason for Aristotle’s return, gentle reader, is simple and straightforward. There is something missing from modern political thought, and nearly every thinker of any depth has been aware of this fact at least since John Locke’s pupil the third Earl of Shaftesbury began criticizing his instructor and initiated an Aristotelian revival early in the eighteenth century with the publication of his Characteristicks.

I have long thought that Montesquieu, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson should all be treated as neo-Aristotelians. In more recent times — whenever it has become obvious that we have lost our moral bearings and whenever it has become clear that no form of social contract theory can fully explain how we aspire to live as a people — women and men have turned back to the Peripatetic. In this time of moral and political confusion, if you have the time and the inclination, you might want to do so yourself. You will not regret the effort required.

There are 30 comments.

  1. Inactive
    Paul A. Rahe: 

    The reason for Aristotle’s return, gentle reader, is simple and straightforward. There is something missing from modern political thought, 

    Yes, but we have Mr Obama (who is cooling the planet as we speak) and Mr Biden (who wants to fire shotguns through doors).

    • #1
    • April 4, 2013 at 3:33 am
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  2. Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    David Williamson
    Paul A. Rahe: 

    The reason for Aristotle’s return, gentle reader, is simple and straightforward. There is something missing from modern political thought, 

    Yes, but we have Mr Obama (who is cooling the planet as we speak) and Mr Biden (who wants to fire shotguns through doors). · 18 minutes ago

    Damn! I forgot about them.

    • #2
    • April 4, 2013 at 3:53 am
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  3. Member

    I’d be curious what the good professor’s take is on his colleague’s (Tom West’s) ingenious defense of “Lockerstotle.” Me likes how he kinda’ threw down the gauntlet here: 

    Locke explains more forcefully than almost any other philosopher, ancient or modern, why “[a]dultery, incest, and sodomy” are viewed as “sins”: [ . . . ] To that end, there is a need for “the distinction of families, with the security of the marriage bed” (Tr. 1, §59). Does your revered Aristotle say anything as strong as this on this topic?

    • #3
    • April 4, 2013 at 4:25 am
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  4. Inactive

    Professor, I would be interested in your thoughts on Mortimer Adler. Years ago, his books helped make Aristotle accessible to me. I still read Adler from time to time.

    • #4
    • April 4, 2013 at 4:29 am
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  5. Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    Fred Williams: Professor, I would be interested in your thoughts on Mortimer Adler. Years ago, his books helped make Aristotle accessible to me. I still read Adler from time to time. · 40 minutes ago

    Adler was a very capable popularizer. His one shortcoming was that the translations he used were not careful and precise.

    • #5
    • April 4, 2013 at 5:11 am
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  6. Member

    Professor Rahe: I’ve read a fair amount of Plato, but very little Aristotle (I have a vague recollection of reading some of the Politics forty years ago in college). I recently download the Bartlett/Collins Nicomachean Ethics to my Kindle, but haven’t started it.

    My question: Would the Nicomachean Ethics be a good place to begin Aristotle? If not, what should I use as gateway drugs?

    Aside from the Ethics, what other works of Aristotle would you suggest to a a guy in his early sixties who wishes to taste his best, but will unlikely read very broadly. [My reading list will require me to live to about 125 to get through as it is].

    • #6
    • April 4, 2013 at 5:11 am
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  7. Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    Robert Lux: I’d be curious what the good professor’s take is on his colleague’s (Tom West’s) ingenious defense of “Lockerstotle.” Me likes how he kinda’ threw down the gauntlet here: 

    Locke explains more forcefully than almost any other philosopher, ancient or modern, why “[a]dultery, incest, and sodomy” are viewed as “sins”: [ . . . ] To that end, there is a need for “the distinction of families, with the security of the marriage bed” (Tr. 1, §59). Does your revered Aristotle say anything as strong as this on this topic?

    Edited 42 minutes ago46 minutes ago

    Sin is not part of Aristotle’s vocabulary. Marriage he views, as did all of the Greeks and the Romans, as an institution designed for the procreation and rearing of children. The marriage ceremony takes this form. The father of the prospective bride meets with the prospective groom and says, “I give you this woman for the procreation of legitimate children.” Marriage he otherwise treats as a special case of friendship — i.e., as a friendship of virtue aimed at a certain common good (procreation and rearing).

    I am not (yet) persuaded by the attempt to assimilate Locke and Aristotle.

    • #7
    • April 4, 2013 at 5:17 am
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  8. Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    tabula rasa: Professor Rahe: I’ve read a fair amount of Plato, but very little Aristotle (I have a vague recollection of reading some of thePolitics forty years ago in college). I recently download the Bartlett/Collins Nicomachean Ethics to my Kindle, but haven’t started it.

    My question: Would theNicomachean Ethicsbe a good place to begin Aristotle? If not, what should I use as gateway drugs?

    Aside from the Ethics, what other works of Aristotle would you suggest to a a guy in his early sixties who wishes to taste his best, but will unlikely read very broadly. [My reading list will require me to live to about 125 to get through as it is]. · 12 hours ago

    Edited 12 hours ago

    Read the Nicomachean Ethics first, then the Politics. I recommend Simpson’s translation. Then, Aristotle’s Rhetoric (perhaps in the Loeb Classical Library version) and his Poetics.

    • #8
    • April 4, 2013 at 5:17 am
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  9. Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    Neolibertarian: Wasn’t it inThe Politicsthat Aristotle suggested “all men do, in fact, aim at what they think good”?

    This always seems an important key to me when arguing/persuading the left. With this in mind, it’s always easier to trace their arguments back to the root.

    I’ve also found it’s a statement which proves very, very difficult for many of my conservative friends to wrap their heads around.

    Dr. Rahe, what do youthink Aristotle meant by that? · 10 hours ago

    Edited 10 hours ago

    At the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, he writes, “People have nobly declared that the good is that at which all things aim.” At the beginning of the Politics, he writes, “Every community gets established with some good in view (for everyone does everything for the sake of what they think good).” This seems self-evident to me, and it puts a premium on right opinion — for we can easily err in what we think good.

    • #9
    • April 4, 2013 at 5:25 am
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  10. Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    Aurelius: Prof. Rahe: I’d be interested in hearing how you think Hume is a Neo-Aristotelian. · 6 hours ago

    What I have in mind is this. Hume rejects what he calls “the selfish system of Hobbes and Locke.” That is, he rejects the project of refounding the moral virtues on calculation (cf. Machiavelli, The Prince Chapter 15 with Hobbes, Leviathan Chapter 15). Montesquieu and Adam Smith are, I believe, on the same page. So what they want to do is to restore to our understanding of morality (and politics) something like the dignity, the subtlety, and the prudence one finds in Aristotle’s analysis. Of course, in their metaphysics and epistemology, they do not return to Aristotle. There is, in fact, a great gulf between them and the Peripatetic. It is this which makes them neo-Aristotelians, not Aristotelians.

    This can be put in another way. They try to do justice to the third early of Shaftesbury’s trenchant critique of his former teacher without following him in fully returning to the Aristotelian fold. Hume, at times, looks to the more generous passions as a foundation. Montesquieu is similarly interested in the passions. Smith’s account is more complicated.

    • #10
    • April 4, 2013 at 5:37 am
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  11. Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    Pseudodionysius: So, Locke explains more forcefully than Aquinas why adultery, incest or sodomy are sins? That’s an interesting point of view. · 9 hours ago

    . . . and highly improbable.

    • #11
    • April 4, 2013 at 5:38 am
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  12. Inactive
    Paul A. Rahe
    Pseudodionysius: So, Locke explains more forcefully than Aquinas why adultery, incest or sodomy are sins? That’s an interesting point of view. · 9 hours ago

    . . . and highly improbable. · in 0 minutes

    As is the claim that Locke provides a better and sturdier foundation for family life on the whole than Aristotle does. 

    • #12
    • April 4, 2013 at 6:16 am
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  13. Inactive
    Paul A. Rahe
    tabula rasa: Professor Rahe: I’ve read a fair amount of Plato, but very little Aristotle (I have a vague recollection of reading some of thePolitics forty years ago in college). I recently download the Bartlett/Collins Nicomachean Ethics to my Kindle, but haven’t started it.

    My question: Would theNicomachean Ethicsbe a good place to begin Aristotle? If not, what should I use as gateway drugs?

    Aside from the Ethics, what other works of Aristotle would you suggest to a a guy in his early sixties who wishes to taste his best, but will unlikely read very broadly. [My reading list will require me to live to about 125 to get through as it is]. · 12 hours ago

    Edited 12 hours ago

    Read the Nicomachean Ethics first, then Politics. I recommend Simpson’s translation. Then, Aristotle’s Rhetoric and his Poetics.

    I’ll second this.

    I think you’ll enjoy the way Aristotle proceeds and argues in NE, tabula, and while you can certainly read the Politics and NE separately, the way he understands moral behavior and the psychology that he sketches out in NE does play an important role in his politics.

    • #13
    • April 4, 2013 at 6:31 am
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  14. Inactive

    Wasn’t it in The Politics that Aristotle suggested “all men do, in fact, aim at what they think good”?

    This always seems an important key to me when arguing/persuading the left. With this in mind, it’s always easier to trace their arguments back to the root.

    I’ve also found it’s a statement which proves very, very difficult for many of my conservative friends to wrap their heads around.

    Dr. Rahe, what do you think Aristotle meant by that?

    • #14
    • April 4, 2013 at 6:59 am
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  15. Member

    So, Locke explains more forcefully than Aquinas why adultery, incest or sodomy are sins? That’s an interesting point of view.

    • #15
    • April 4, 2013 at 8:00 am
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  16. Inactive

    From my little perch very happily ensconced in a hotbed of the Aristotelian resurgence, I worry some Ricochet readers might make a mistaken assumption based on your post, knowing your political worldview and the nature of Ricochet. This resurgence is not at all coextensive with any sort of conservative revival. There are a lot of Marxists in this movement. Those who approach Aristotle through Smith, Hume, Hutcheson, and Shaftesbury are less common.

    • #16
    • April 4, 2013 at 8:42 am
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  17. Inactive
    Prof. Rahe: Of course, in their metaphysics and epistemology, they do not return to Aristotle. . . . It is this which makes themneo-Aristotelians, not Aristotelians.

    Hume declares Hobbes’s state of nature to be a fiction (e.g., Treatise 3.2.2, 3.2.22). However, he agrees with Hobbes that morality aims to solve the problems of limited sympathy and scarcity of resources. When Hume calls justice an artificial virtue, he indicates that it lacks normative, transcendent status. He denies that artificial virtues are therefore arbitrary (3.2.1, 3.3.6). For Hume, our moral framework’s validity is grounded in first order issues of internal consistency and utility. For pain and pleasure are fixed and universal.

    Moral antirealists argue persuasively that utility, pleasure, and pain, allow numerous, rival moral frameworks. They underdetermine first order moral issues. To this, Aristotle and the medieval scholastics have a philosophical rebuttal. For unlike Hume, they have robust accounts of ordered goods that are grounded in metaphysics.

    Metaphysics is indispensable to Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian ethics. So despite Hume’s moral realism and his retention of some Calvinist and scholastic moral language, it is unhelpful to classify him as neo-Aristotelian.

    • #17
    • April 4, 2013 at 9:22 am
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  18. Inactive

    Prof. Rahe: I’d be interested in hearing how you think Hume is a Neo-Aristotelian. Hume is not an Aristotelian on the subject of moral education. For Aristotle, the appetites and passions need to be educated and transformed so that they align with reason. Pleasure is not necessarily aligned with a given virtue, though in a mature person the exercise of virtuous habits should be pleasurable.

    Hume’s account in his Treatise and Enquiry is quite different. He argues that we know good and evil through pleasure and pain or through our sympathy with the pains and pleasures of other persons. Pains and pleasures are original impressions that are fixed by nature in us and not products of reflection (Treatise 2.1.1, 3.1.2). For this reason, it wouldn’t even make sense to try and educate them. What Humean moral education amounts to is widening of our sympathies and learning to calculate utility correctly.

    That being said, neither Aristotle nor Hume have much place for Christian humility as a virtue. Perhaps some of their conclusions are similar, but this does not entail that their premises and reasoning are similar.

    • #18
    • April 4, 2013 at 10:34 am
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  19. Inactive
    • #19
    • April 4, 2013 at 10:41 am
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  20. Member
    Paul A. Rahe
    tabula rasa: Professor Rahe: I’ve read a fair amount of Plato, but very little Aristotle (I have a vague recollection of reading some of thePolitics forty years ago in college). I recently download the Bartlett/Collins Nicomachean Ethics to my Kindle, but haven’t started it.

    My question: Would theNicomachean Ethicsbe a good place to begin Aristotle? If not, what should I use as gateway drugs?

    Aside from the Ethics, what other works of Aristotle would you suggest to a a guy in his early sixties who wishes to taste his best, but will unlikely read very broadly. [My reading list will require me to live to about 125 to get through as it is]. · 12 hours ago

    Edited 12 hours ago

    Read the Nicomachean Ethicsfirst, then the Politics. I recommend Simpson’s translation. Then, Aristotle’s Rhetoric(perhaps in the Loeb Classical Library version) and his Poetics. · 10 hours ago

    Edited 10 hours ago

    Thanks Professor. Your posts alone make Ricochet worth the price of admission.

    • #20
    • April 5, 2013 at 4:11 am
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  21. Inactive
    Paul A. Rahe
    Neolibertarian: Wasn’t it inThe Politicsthat Aristotle suggested “all men do, in fact, aim at what they think good”?

    At the beginning of theNicomachean Ethics, he writes, “People have nobly declared that the good is that at which all things aim.” At the beginning of thePolitics, he writes, “Every community gets established with some good in view (for everyone does everything for the sake of what they think good).” This seems self-evident to me, and it puts a premium on right opinion — for we can easily err in what we think good. 

    Well, mine was the venerated Penguin Classics paperback addition, which explains the discrepancy. Read between moving skids with a hand truck in the factory I worked at (1 million years ago).

    Still, while you and I find it self-evident, and understand it illustrates how easily we fall into error, I find this concept proves nearly insurmountable to many.

    Discounting discussion about feral individuals like Adam Lanza or Caligula, how many people do you know who could stomach a claim that Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, or Kim Jong Un do what they do for the sake of what they think good?

    • #21
    • April 5, 2013 at 6:53 am
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  22. Member

    Then, Aristotle’s Rhetoric(perhaps in the Loeb Classical Library version)

    I have to protest loudly here that the George A Kennedy edition of Rhetoric is the one that you want along with the Seth Benardete and Michael Davis translation of The Poetics.

    • #22
    • April 5, 2013 at 7:40 am
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  23. Inactive
    Prof. Rahe: I disagree. What makes them neo-Aristotelians is their attempt to come to grips with Shaftesbury’s critique of Hobbes & Locke.

    This point of dispute about the proper scope of the term neo-Aristotelian reminds me of similar debates about the terms Augustinian and Thomist. The problem is that the terms may become trivial—they cease to locate a thinker in terms of doctrines, texts, schools, debates, etc.

    Suppose we grant that a thinker may be neo-Aristotelian but her theses may controvert Aristotle’s central theses in ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. Then by that standard who is not neo-Aristotelian? If engaging Shaftesbury’s writings is an adequate reason for Hume to be considered neo-Aristotelian, then is Kant also neo-Aristotelian because he engages Hume’s writings?

    Regardless, Hume ranks among the five or ten most important philosophers in western history. His ideas certainly have dignity, subtlety, and prudence comparable to Aristotle’s ideas.

    There may be a book or at least a journal article in this small dispute, if it hasn’t already been written. Your docket no doubt is full, but perhaps it would be interesting for one of your enterprising students.

    • #23
    • April 5, 2013 at 9:45 am
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  24. Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    Aurelius

    Hume declares Hobbes’s state of nature to be a fiction (e.g., Treatise 3.2.2, 3.2.22). However, he agrees with Hobbes that morality aims to solve the problems of limited sympathy and scarcity of resources. When Hume calls justice an artificial virtue, he indicates that it lacks normative, transcendent status. He denies that artificial virtues are therefore arbitrary (3.2.1, 3.3.6). For Hume, our moral framework’s validity is grounded in first order issues of internal consistency and utility. For pain and pleasure are fixed and universal.

    Moral antirealists argue persuasively that utility, pleasure, and pain, allow numerous, rival moral frameworks. They underdetermine first order moral issues. To this, Aristotle and the medieval scholastics have a philosophical rebuttal. For unlike Hume, they have robust accounts of ordered goods that are grounded in metaphysics.

    Metaphysics is indispensable to Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian ethics. So despite Hume’s moral realism and his retention of some Calvinist and scholastic moral language, it is unhelpful to classify him as neo-Aristotelian. · 1 hour ago

    I disagree. What makes them neo-Aristotelians is their attempt to come to grips with Shaftesbury’s critique of Hobbes & Locke.

    • #24
    • April 5, 2013 at 12:46 pm
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  25. Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    Hegesias: From my little perch very happily ensconced in a hotbed of the Aristotelian resurgence, I worry some Ricochet readers might make a mistaken assumption based on your post, knowing your political worldview and the nature of Ricochet. This resurgence is not at all coextensive with any sort of conservative revival. There are a lot of Marxists in this movement. Those who approach Aristotle through Smith, Hume, Hutcheson, and Shaftesbury are less common. · 4 hours ago

    Yes, I know. Marx has nary a nasty word to say about Aristotle. He is, in his way, a neo-Aristotelian as well. I will confess to having a soft spot in my heart for the old Marxists. Gene Genovese — may he rest in peace — was the godfather of my first child.

    • #25
    • April 5, 2013 at 12:48 pm
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  26. Inactive
    Robert Lux: I’d have a read of West’s essay before you think that. See especially section VIII of the essay “Is Nature Worthless?” West is reading Lockepolitically – that has to be kept upmost in mind. 

    I recognize West’s intention, and especially in the context of American politics and political thought, his approach to Locke, overall, may be the most judicious. He’s right in his “critique”–and understanding–of what is happening in the chapter he cites from NRH, and we ought to be wary, especially for American politics, of attempts to reduce Locke either to Hobbes or to Hegel.

    Periodically, I’ve resorted to something resembling West’s argument 

    Nevertheless, there is a difficulty here, and that is in our moment adopting a posture toward Locke in the way that West does, we run the risk of further obscuring problems, both in Locke and for our contemporary situation.

    Said another way, its better for us at the moment to have a revival of Aristotle, and privilege him, than it is to have a revival of Locke.

    The former provides a better path to the corrective of what ails us than the latter does.

    • #26
    • April 6, 2013 at 7:01 am
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  27. Member
    Pseudodionysius: So, Locke explains more forcefully than Aquinas why adultery, incest or sodomy are sins? That’s an interesting point of view. · April 4, 2013 at 5:00am

    Pseud- I’d have a read of West’s essay before you think that. See especially section VIII of the essay “Is Nature Worthless?” West is reading Locke politically – that has to be kept upmost in mind. 

    Indeed, this really gets back to my statements to you on Heidegger, Aristotle, Strauss. Put most broadly: what are the grounds for political obligation in modernity in a world utterly transformed by Christian monotheism?

    And I’ll just point out that West is reading Locke on a much higher level than Feser: within a couple paragraphs, West shows that Feser’s understanding of “God’s workmanship” argument is simply wrong (pp. 123-3 of Feser’s Locke book, vs. section IV of West).

    Moreover, it would be silly to imply that West has somehow doesn’t understand Aquinas. I have an 80 page unpublished essay by West on Aquinas that is riveting – a correction of standard Straussian orthodoxy on Aquinas… 

    • #27
    • April 6, 2013 at 7:45 am
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  28. Member

    Pseud- I’d have a read of West’s essay before you think that. See especially section VIII of the essay “Is Nature Worthless?” West is reading Locke politically – that has to be kept upmost in mind. 

    I’ll have a longer look this weekend, but just based on my quick glance, West doesn’t even attempt an analysis of the Thomistic understanding of nature, so I’m still at a loss as to how he justifies his initial assertion. That said, I’ll read his essay once or twice and then compare to Feser’s book, which I own.

    I’ll likely have to dig out my Brian Benestead text as well, since I’m sure West in his scrap with Strauss and Pangle doesn’t have a Thomistic understanding of the common good or its intelligibility either.

    • #28
    • April 6, 2013 at 8:09 am
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  29. Member

     I have an 80 page unpublished essay by West on Aquinas that is riveting

    The nature grace debate has been going on for well over 400 years, with a total of several thousand pages of ink spilled, so I’d be surprised if West has said anything groundbreaking on Aquinas’s understanding of nature, though I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve read the essay.

    • #29
    • April 6, 2013 at 8:11 am
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  30. Member

    After reviewing the material, I think West needs to engage the work of F. Russell Hittinger. I saw several holes in West’s appraisal of Aquinas’s use and extension of natural law, and I think a narrower engagement with Hittinger’s work would produce a more fruitful paper.

    • #30
    • April 6, 2013 at 8:33 am
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