Eliminate Psychological Pain: 2 Obols, Cheap!

[Antiphon] is said to have composed a tragedy together with Dionysus the tyrant. Yet while he was engaged in its composition he contrived an art to relieve pain, just as there is medical treatment for the sick. After he procured a small apartment for himself beside the marketplace of Corinth, he advertised that he was able to serve those in pain through words. When he discerned the causes [of pain], he consoled his patients. But he considered his art of painlessness inferior to when he turned to the rhetorical art[1].”  (Plutarch, Vit. X orat. 1 p. 833c)

 Without commenting on the validity of the charge, this anecdote reminds me of one of the most persistent criticisms of psychology/psychotherapy.  Such therapies involve word tennis until the troubles go away, with the implication that the mind clears itself of any particular problem after an elapse proportionate to its distress, by no dint of the therapy involved.  It is unclear, given the brevity of what is reported here, what exactly Antiphon was saying, but given the Platonic leanings of Plutarch, the story comes across as opportunistic hucksterism.  Obviously, as noted here, Antiphon preferred rhetoric (here apparently synonymous with sophistry) as a more lucrative enterprise to the “art of pain relief”, perhaps either due to its financial potential in court or because it was less vexing or both, and since Plutarch notes that this therapeutic enterprise was less valued, the impression given is that Antiphon simply varied the location, but not the content of his sophistry.  You can take the sophist cum therapist out of the agora, but you can’t take the agora out of the sophist.  Once a ware-peddler, always a ware peddler.  The practice, not to mention the recidivism rate, of word mongering, at any rate, is dangerously antithetical to philosophical considerations. 

This very brief story aptly portrarys, at least from a Platonist viewpoint, the contempt that sophists hador were reputed to havetowards the more important matters of the soul, as Antiphon displays by turning his back on the alleviation of others’ suffering.    

 [1]  [Antiphon] λέγεται δὲ τραγωιδίας συνθεῖναι ἰδίαι καὶ σὺν Διονυσίωι τῶι τυράννωι· ἔτι δ’ ὢν πρὸς τῆι ποιήσει τέχνην ἀλυπίας συνεστήσατο, ὥσπερ τοῖς νοσοῦσιν ἡ παρὰ τῶν ἰατρῶν θεραπεία ὑπάρχει· ἐν Κορίνθωι τε κατεσκευασμένος οἴκημά τι παρὰ τὴν ἀγορὰν προέγραψεν, ὅτι δύναται τοὺς λυπουμένους διὰ λόγων θεραπεύειν, καὶ πυνθανόμενος τὰς αἰτίας παρεμυθεῖτο τοὺς κάμνοντας. νομίζων δὲ τὴν τέχνην ἐλάττω ἢ καθ’ αὑτὸν εἶναι ἐπὶ ῥητορικὴν ἀπετράπη.

Thinking of Thought in the Thought of Aristotle’s God Part 3/3

“Indeed in some situations knowledge is the important thing, while in the productive arts without matter the substance and the essence are the important thing, while in the theoretical arts logic and the thought are the important thing.  Therefore, because the thing being thought and the intellect are not different, in so far as they possess no matter, the same thing will be the case, and thought is one thing in the thing being thought.

 Yet surely difficulties remain, if the thing being thought is composite.  For there would be change in the parts of the whole intellect.  In fact, that which does not possess matter is entirely indivisible.  In the same way the human intellect is indivisible, or at least a composite creature in a certain time is indivisible (for being well does not consist in this time or that time, but the best is in the whole of life, because it is something else), in this way the mind itself is from itself for the extent of eternity.”  (Metaphysics 1075a1-10) 1

Part 1       Part 2

Aristotle has to this point (Metaphysics 1074b15-1075) arrived at the following conclusions about nous, beginning from the premise that it is the most divine and honorable thing (from which idea nous is necessarily also an actuality, not a potentiality):  1)  It thinks 2) It thinks about the same thing 3) It thinks about the same thing all the time 4) It thinks about the most divine and honorable thing 5) It thinks about itself, since it is the most divine and honorable thing.

As my last post ended, I perhaps unskillfully made the decision to cut Aristotle’s text at a point which would allow for three somewhat equal sections, and thus three posts.  In order to rectify that division I have to “restitch” the last part of that section and the first part of this section.  As section 1074 closed, Aristotle had proved that a mental state itself and the object of that state can be, but are not necessarily, the same thing.  As 1075 begins Aristotle says that in some sciences the thing being thought is the knowledge.  Thus in Aristotle’s sense, it can be equally said that knowledge is the thing being thought.  He appeals to the productive and theoretical sciences for his examples.  A productive science builds or produces an end product.  This product could be a physical good, but it could also be a “product” like rhetoric.  Thus, in Aristotle’s words, in the case of a “productive science without matter” such as rhetoric, to think of the thing is to actually produce the thing itself.  The act of conceiving a good speech is to actually possess a good speech, even though one may still need to deliver it.  Likewise, as both nous and the object of nous’ thinking are also “without matter,” they are one and the same thing.  Yet Aristotle brings up another potential difficulty if we understand the object of thought to be composite (suntheton).  For nous itself would change insofar as at different times it would think about different parts of this composite, and thus it would change (a change of state) from thinking about X to thinking about Y.  However, nous has already been described as that which always thinks about the best thing, and never changes from such a state. Thus, we seem to have a contradiction in the nature of nous if we say that nous (1) always thinks about the same thing and (2) thinks about a composite thing.

Aristotle answers this difficulty by pointing out that the totality of the things composing a thought, if indeed it is composite, nevertheless is a thing separate from each of its constituents.  Indeed the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  By analogy with an argument Aristotle makes in the Nicomachean Ethics wherein he states that happiness is achieved by the totality of a life lived in accordance with the virtues, he similarly presses the point here that the thought of nous is a unified, coherent and separate entity different from the mere elements that individually constitute it.  Just as we may accurately speak of a “single” life, we can speak of a “single” thought, because both of these are of a qualitatively different nature than just a collection of virtues or thoughts, respectively.


1 ἢ ἐπ ̓ ἐνίων ἡ ἐπιστήμη τὸ πρᾶγμα, ἐπὶ μὲν τῶν ποιητικῶν ἄνευ ὕλης ἡ οὐσία καὶ τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι, ἐπὶ δὲ τῶν θεωρητικῶν ὁ λόγος τὸ πρᾶγμα καὶ ἡ νόησις; οὐχ ἑτέρου οὖν ὄντος τοῦ νοουμένου καὶ τοῦ νοῦ, ὅσα μὴ ὕλην ἔχει, τὸ αὐτὸ ἔσται, καὶ ἡ [5] νόησις τῷ νοουμένῳ μία. ἔτι δὴ λείπεται ἀπορία, εἰ σύνθετον τὸ νοούμενον: μεταβάλλοι γὰρ ἂν ἐν τοῖς μέρεσι τοῦ ὅλου. ἢ ἀδιαίρετον πᾶν τὸ μὴ ἔχον ὕλην—ὥσπερ ὁ ἀνθρώπινος νοῦς ἢ ὅ γε τῶν συνθέτων ἔχει ἔν τινι χρόνῳ (οὐ γὰρ ἔχει τὸ εὖ ἐν τῳδὶ ἢ ἐν τῳδί, ἀλλ ̓ ἐν ὅλῳ τινὶ τὸ ἄριστον, ὂν ἄλλο τι)— [10] οὕτως δ ̓ ἔχει αὐτὴ αὑτῆς ἡ νόησις τὸν ἅπαντα αἰῶνα;

Thinking of Thought in the Thought of Aristotle’s God Part 2/3

“Therefore, first off, if intellect is not a thinking but an ability for thinking, it is reasonable that the continuity of intellect’s thinking is toilsome. Second, it is obvious that there would be something more honorable than intellect, the thing being thought. For both thinking and the thought also belong to one thinking the worst thing. So that if this is to be shunned (for not seeing some things is better than seeing some things), thought would not be the best thing. So it thinks about itself, if indeed intellect is the best, and its thinking is the thinking of thinking. And it appears that knowledge and perception and opinion and understanding are always of something else, but are of themselves incidentally. And yet if thinking and being thought are different, concerning which does well-doing belong to intellect? [i.e. which action gives intellect its excellence? The something thinking or that something which is being thought.] For the essence of thought and the thing being thought are not the same thing.”1
Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1074b27-1075a1

Part 1 Here

Given the starting part that nous (intellect), traditionally interpreted as God himself, is the “most divine of phenomena” we have seen Aristotle argue in the first part of this passage, that nous 1) thinks, since not thinking would be irreverent, no better than the mortal nous of a sleeping man 2) controls itself, since if something else controlled nous‘ act of thinking nous would merely be a type of ability rather than the best (i.e. divine) essence 3) thinks of the most divine and honorable thing 4) always thinks of the most divine and honorable thing, since any alteration, ipso facto, is a change for the worse, and thus unworthy of the divine.

In this section, Aristotle continues his line of argumentation, working under the guidance of an implicit question, “What gives nous, as a thinking thing, its quality as the most divine thing? Is it the mere fact of its thinking, that it thinks, OR that which it thinks about, the object of its thought, the thing being thought about?” Aristotle says that if nous is not “thinking itself” but only the capacity to think, then thinking will only come to it with difficulty. In this understanding nous would be just like a poodle, in Dr. Johnson’s famous image, trying to stand on two legs. The dog certainly is able to stand on its hind legs, but poorly and with much labor; a true biped, however, can perform such an action with the facility of native ease. Likewise, if nous is only an ability, it is not nous in so far as it is thinking, but nous as the repository of the actual thought that it possesses, which is the valuable and divine characteristic of nous. Even the lowest form of human beings, for example a violent and recalcitrant prisoner, thinks and has thoughts of things, which in his case are undoubtedly base indeed. Thus it must be the content, the thing being thought, not thinking per se, which we as perceptive philosophers value, at least in respect to calling nous “divine.”

Aristotle says somewhat oddly, “So that if this is to be shunned (for not seeing some things is better than seeing some things), thought would not be the best thing.” I would paraphrase him thus. So if we reject (to use his word, shun) the idea that intellect is a thinking but accept rather, that it is a capacity to think, then thought and thinking are not the best thing, rather the object of thought, the thing being thought, is the best thing. His parenthetical remark is meant as a repetition of the line before, “for not seeing some things,” means “not thinking some things.” Aristotle therefore means, “Not thinking about some things (i.e. raping, outhouses, false statements) is clearly better than thinking about them.” This passing parenthetical remark is an additional proof that it is the object of thought that we value, not thinking itself, for if it were the latter we would even approve of the thinking of the most base and vile thoughts. We most certainly do not.

Aristotle also notes an odd feature of mental life, namely that although mental states such as knowledge or opinion can be “of” themselves, this is not intrinsic to their nature. I can have an opinion of my opinion that Plato is the best philosopher, such as, “I have the opinion that I may be wrong about my opinion that Plato is the best philosopher.”2 This fact, that I am able to form an opinion about an opinion does help to mark out the distinction that an opinion, as a mental state, is a different thing from that which the opinion is about. There is the opinion, and then the content of that opinion, which normally are difficult to distinguish. However, when Aristotle points out the fact that we can have a perception of a perception (looking in the mirror) or an opinion of an opinion, he has demonstrated that the mental state and the content of that state are two different entities.

When attributing qualities to nous, though, we need not choose between whether it is the thinking itself or the object of thinking that garners our admiration. For nous is a thinking of thinking. Nous both thinks, and in its thinking it thinks of the most divine and honorable thing, which happens to be itself. Nous therefore thinks about itself, perpetually thinking.

1. πρῶτον μὲν οὖν εἰ μὴ νόησίς ἐστιν ἀλλὰ δύναμις, εὔλογον ἐπίπονον εἶναι τὸ συνεχὲς αὐτῷ τῆς νοήσεως: ἔπειτα δῆλον [30] ὅτι ἄλλο τι ἂν εἴη τὸ τιμιώτερον ἢ ὁ νοῦς, τὸ νοούμενον. καὶ γὰρ τὸ νοεῖν καὶ ἡ νόησις ὑπάρξει καὶ τὸ χείριστον νοοῦντι, ὥστ ̓ εἰ φευκτὸν τοῦτο (καὶ γὰρ μὴ ὁρᾶν ἔνια κρεῖττον ἢ ὁρᾶν), οὐκ ἂν εἴη τὸ ἄριστον ἡ νόησις. αὑτὸν ἄρα νοεῖ, εἴπερ ἐστὶ τὸ κράτιστον, καὶ ἔστιν ἡ νόησις νοήσεως νόησις. [35] φαίνεται δ ̓ ἀεὶ ἄλλου ἡ ἐπιστήμη καὶ ἡ αἴσθησις καὶ ἡ δόξα καὶ ἡ διάνοια, αὑτῆς δ ̓ ἐν παρέργῳ. ἔτι εἰ ἄλλο τὸ νοεῖν καὶ τὸ νοεῖσθαι, κατὰ πότερον αὐτῷ τὸ εὖ ὑπάρχει; οὐδὲ γὰρ ταὐτὸ τὸ εἶναι νοήσει καὶ νοουμένῳ.

2. I am not, in fact, (nor can I be) wrong!