Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lear and Aristotle on Courage and Radical Hope

I recently finished reading Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Lear is also the author of the wonderful Aristotle, the Desire to Understand. I would like to discuss Lear's use of Aristotle in the former book, but to do so I must give a preliminary account of Lear's project in that work, so I ask the reader's patience.

Radical Hope is a meditation on the meaning of the virtues, and specifically courage, in a time of cultural collapse. Lear bases his investigation on the life of Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow Nation. Plenty Coups's life spanned from the 1850's, when the Crow were still a vibrant Indian tribe, through to the 1930's, by which time they had been relegated to a reservation for many years. Lear credits Plenty Coups with guiding the Crow through this transition in a way significantly more successful than most other Indian tribes. 

What happened to the Crow was something far more significant than merely a military defeat or occupation. Their traditional way of understanding themselves became unintelligible. Lear calls this event a loss of concepts. When Plenty Coups was raised, the traditional Crow life was still tenable. His moral character and imagination was developed in its terms. For example courage, for the Crow, centered on the feat of "counting coups." Counting coups was paradigmatically some sort of  bold exploit with respect to the enemy. Lear quotes the following account of counting coups from Plenty Coups:

To count coup a warrior had to strike an armed and fighting enemy with his coup-stick, quirt, or bow before otherwise harming him, or take his weapons while he was yet alive, or strike the first enemy falling in battle, no matter who killed him, or strike the enemy's breastworks while under file, or steal a horse tied to a lodge in an enemy's camp, etc. The first named was the most honorable, and to strike such a coup a warrior would often display great bravery.

The crow-stick was also used as a "line in the sand" in battle. If a warrior planted his coup-stick, he was obliged to hold the ground in which it was planted or lose his life attempting to defend it. As Lear describes it:

The planting of the coup-stick was symbolic of the planting of a tree that could not be felled. In effect it marked a boundary across which a non-Crow enemy must not pass. This was a paradigm of courage. A warrior culture will accord highest honor to the brave warriors - and the wise old chiefs who once were brave warriors.

Now what happens when a tribe such as the Crow is moved onto a reservation? Prior to the reservation, the Crow had a certain understanding of life's possibilities. Life is about hunting buffalo and beaver and fighting the Sioux and Blackfeet. The tragic possibilities of life seem accounted for. The worst thing that can happen is military defeat by their enemies. Lear's point is not that the Crow thought they would always be victorious, but that they had a conception of the range of life's tragic possibilities. "Either our warriors will be able to plant their coup-sticks or they will fail." 

But after the move to the reservation, what meaning does "planting the coup-stick" have? The Crow no longer fight the Blackfeet or the Sioux; inter-tribal warfare is forbidden by the U.S. Government. What has happened is something the Crow couldn't even imagine prior to their move to the reservation. Worse than failing to plant their coup-sticks, the entire concept of "planting coup-sticks" has lost intelligibility. How is a warrior raised in the Crow warrior tradition, where life revolved around counting coups, to understand himself on the reservation where planting the coup-stick would be a ridiculous act?

This is what Lear means by "ethics in the face of cultural devastation." He doesn't mean merely that your nation has been defeated and occupied; he means that your nation's entire way of life and means of understanding itself has lost intelligibility. You have suffered a loss of concepts.

Plenty Coups is interesting because he responded to the devastation of the Crow way of life in a novel and flexible way. He didn't "go down fighting" by planting his coup-stick in a doomed defense against the U.S. Army. Plenty Coups, in his youth, had several dreams that prophesied the destruction of the Crow way of life. They also gave a clue concerning a way he could deal with it, "the virtue of the Chickadee" :

Young Plenty Coups's dream calls on him, and it gives him ethical advice - advice that seems designed to help him survive the cataclysmic rupture that is about to occur: become a chickadee! "He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom. The Chickadee-person is a good listener. Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use. Whenever others are talking together of their successes and failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words." Becoming a chickadee, then, is a virtue - a form of human excellence... Chickadee virtue called for a new form of courage, yet it drew on the traditional resources of Crow culture to do so. "The Chickadee is big medicine," Pretty Shield told her interviewer.
Lear makes the argument that, using the virtue of the Chickadee, Plenty Coups was able to transcend the culturally specific form of courage into which he was raised and discover a way the Crow could weather the storm of the White Man. This is what Lear means by radical hope; a hope that transcends the concepts with which one may understand it. The courage that Plenty Coups demonstrated in following the virtue of the Chickadee was outside the parameters of courage as it had been taught him in his Crow youth.

It is by way of analyzing courage and what it might have meant to Plenty Coups that Lear brings in Aristotle. He uses Aristotle's analysis of courage to analyze the courage of Plenty Coups. Lear then writes this:

In a period of cultural devastation such as Plenty Coups and the Crow had to endure, there would have to be a radical transformation in the risks associated with courage. At such a historical moment, traditional examples of risk - counting coups - have become weirdly irrelevant. And the risks that do arise are of a different order: the risks of facing a future that one as yet lacks the concepts to understand. Are there courageous ways of facing a future for which the traditional concept of courage has become inapplicable? This is not a question that Aristotle ever asked; and one can see that it has distinctive challenges.

Lear does not explore why Aristotle never asked this question; the impression he gives is that it is a simple lack in Aristotle. But there is a good reason that Aristotle never addressed it: His understanding of courage is not one that might become inapplicable through cultural devastation. In fact, this is the very reason that Aristotle's twenty-five hundred year old analysis of courage is still useful to Lear in his contemporary analysis of Plenty Coups.

The difference between Aristotle and Plenty Coups is that Aristotle was a philosopher and Plenty Coups, as brave and flexible as he was, was not. All of Aristotle's thought is based on the fundamental philosophical distinction between nature and convention. Aristotle analyzes courage in terms of nature; that is, in terms of the enduring characteristics of human being that are the same everywhere and for all time, and that transcend cultureNon-philosophical cultures, like that of the Crow, do not possess this distinction. For them, the conventional form of courage found in their culture - e.g. counting coups - is courage pure and simple. When circumstances change in a way that makes counting coups no longer intelligible as an act of courage, then courage itself ceases to be a meaningful concept. This is how the Crow can lose the concept of courage. Aristotle can lose his concept of courage only if human nature itself is transformed.

Lear introduces Aristotle's analysis of virtue this way:

For Aristotle, the virtues are states of character the exercise of which contributes to living an excellent life. He did not confront the problem that different historical epochs might impose different requirements on what states of the soul could count as courage. And thus the conception of courage I shall explore extends beyond the virtue that Aristotle explicitly considered.

Everything hangs on what is meant by an "excellent life." Does it refer to a culturally specific form of life, such as the nomadic warrior/hunter life of the Crow with its focus on counting coups, or the ancient Greek life specific to Athens? The original philosopher, Socrates, was executed for challenging the conventional forms of religious piety in Athens. For Socrates the "excellent life" could only be a life lived according to a reason informed by nature - "the unreflected life is not worth living." Aristotle followed Socrates by dividing the virtues into intellectual and moral virtues. The intellectual virtues are the virtues by which we know the truth about nature and man; the moral virtues are those that allow us to live according to the truth discovered by the intellectual virtues. The intellectual virtues inform the moral virtues. What makes "courage" truly count as courage is not its conformity to a culturally specific mode of life, but whether it reflects the truth about the nature of man; just as Socrates argued against Euthyphro that "piety" is only truly piety if it is based on the truth about the gods and not merely the conventional way of interacting with the gods.

Aristotle famously begins the Nicomachean Ethics by saying that "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim." He then proceeds to draw a distinction between instrumental goods and goods that are ends in themselves, the former of which are pursued for the sake of the latter. Aristotle uses the example of the military arts, which are all subordinate to the end of victory. The end of victory itself falls under the science of politics, or the master art, which is directed to the end of man as such. When an instrumental good is no longer able to serve the end to which it is subordinate, it loses its status as a good. This is implicit in Aristotle's analysis. Counting-coups was an instrumental good conducing to the successful defense of the nomadic warrior/hunter Crow tribe against other Indian tribes. For Aristotle, when counting-coups no longer made sense in terms of the success of the Crow tribe, it would cease to be a virtue. This would not have been a world-shattering event for Aristotle; it was world-shattering for the Crow because they did not possess Aristotle's philosophical understanding of the distinction between instrumental and final goods. Here is more from Lear on what happened to the Crow:

The Crow had a conception of happiness, a conception of what life was worth living for. They lived in relation to a spiritual world in which they believed God had chosen them to live a certain kind of life. Happiness consisted in living that life to the full. This was an active and unfettered pursuit of a nomadic hunting life in which their family life and social rituals could prosper... With the destruction of this way of life came the destruction of the end or goal - the telos - of that life. Their problem, then, was not simply that they could not pursue happiness in the traditional ways. Rather, their conception of what happiness is could no longer be lived. The characteristic activities that used to constitute the good life ceased to be intelligible acts. A crucial blow to their happiness was a loss of the concepts with which their happiness had been understood.

I believe that Lear is in danger of reading into the Crow a philosophical attitude they did not possess. Nothing Lear quotes from the Crow indicates that they had a concept of "happiness." They had a way of life, the nomadic warrior/hunter life, that constituted their life as Crow. They weren't living their lives "for" anything; they were just living them. Hunting buffalo and counting coups are what Crow did, and there is no reason to think they did it self-consciously in terms of a concept of what life was about. This lack of self-consciousness, or philosophical innocence, in fact, seems to be what attracted Rousseau to "savage" people and led him to develop the notion of the "noble savage." The noble savage lives directly and immediately, without the philosophical reflection that leads him to develop a science and politics that ultimately enslaves him (or so Rousseau thought.)

Whether or not we are attracted to the philosophical innocence of aboriginal life, it is a life that is in danger of becoming unintelligible if its specific mode of living becomes untenable. In such circumstances the only possibility open to it is a "radical hope", or a leap into (and hopefully across) the abyss. What is on the other side of the abyss (i.e. what the Crow will be like after the encounter with the white man) is something the "noble savage" can't possibly conceive.

A culture that is philosophically based, on the other hand, as Western culture was from the time of the ancient Greeks forward, has the resources to persevere through civilizational collapse, as trying as those times might be. The premier case of this is, of course, the collapse of the Roman Empire. St. Augustine, in his City of God, drew on all the philosophical (and religious) resources of the West to teach us that what mattered about Rome was not anything that could disappear with the sack of Rome; it would endure as God and the nature of man endures.


EdT said...


Very interesting points that I had never thought about.
- Ed

Willie said...

This is an interesting discussion. However, it seems to me that it overlooks two things: first, perhaps Aristotle did not ask the question of cultural devastation, because he did not face it; and second, that the "non-philosophical" culture of the Crow, thanks to Plenty Coups, did in fact make the passage through cultural devastation. As Lear puts it, one would think that they couldn't, except that they did.

I think your point that Aristotle's conception of virtue has more malleability to it than one would expect is right. But, to deny that flexibility to the Crow, particularly in light of their practices of dream-interpretation and the way they go forward, misses what Lear thinks they have to offer us today (and, I'd agree with him here; I see this as a subtle but intriguing response to MacIntyre, on how one deals with virtue being in ruins). Maybe it is only through the Crow conception of virtue, that we really see the full range of Aristotelian virtue.

David T. said...


Thanks for stopping by. I think the crucial difference between Aristotle and Plenty Coups is that Aristotle's philosophical understanding of man and nature is in its essence trans-cultural, and so is not vulnerable to the "loss of concepts" that happened to the Crow.

Aristotle's understanding of man starts from his observation that man is a "rational animal" and flows from there. The philosophical understanding of his nature, virtues and politics are all built on this. Now if Athens is overrun by the Persians or the Chinese, or even a native aboriginal tribe, this philosophical understanding is not affected a whit. It cannot be "devastated" by the particular failure of Athens. In fact, it hasn't been. The Aristotelian philosophy is still a living philosophy today after thousands of years despite the collapse of cultures in which it is embedded (e.g. ancient Greece and Rome.)

Now I certainly agree that Plenty Coups was an impressive and flexible man. But the problem he faced - a loss of concepts through cultural devastation - simply isn't something the Aristotelian philosophy is vulnerable to, because Aristotelianism is an abstract philosophical understanding. It can find a particular form in a given culture, but the philosophy transcends the particular culture. That's why I, as a 21st century American, still find 2,000 year-old Greek philosophy valuable.

The Crow culture, however, is not an abstract philosophical understanding that transcends its own culture. It certainly has some flexibility, as Plenty Coups demonstrated, but it is inextricably tied to the historical circumstances in which it arose. This accounts for his enigmatic statement concerning the move to the reservation: "After this, nothing happened." This is not something an Aristotelian would ever say whatever happened to his culture.