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Bready Chair Discusses Political Benefits to Reading Aristotle

September 13, 2013

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Peter Josephson, Richard L. Bready Professor of Ethics, Economics, and the Common GoodWhen voters despair over political life in the United States, they may want to read Aristotle's On Poetics for comfort. Peter Josephson, associate professor of politics, says Aristotle helps us see that political life inevitably involves us in contested (and politically irresolvable) claims over ethics and justice. Reading Aristotle thus prepares us for action in the messy exercise of political power.

Josephson discussed Aristotle's views on ethics in the first of his lectures as the Richard L. Bready Professor in Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good. His lecture was entitled Aristotle's Surprise: Poetics and Moral Realism.

Aristotle's On Poetics remains an essential account of the nature of tragic drama, but it also considers the problem of ethical education. Professor Josephson explores Aristotle's text, and finds that the moral imagination of Aristotle's tragic poets leads us to a realistic understanding of the uncertainty and complexity of morality.

Audiences prefer happy endings, the professor said; however, life offers far more nuance and contradiction. He quoted Aristotle saying, "Any given thing has both good and bad consequences." Public policies are never entirely good, even though leaders refuse to acknowledge that fact, Josephson said.

Necessarily contentious, politics is a way of mediating the self interest of different people. "People want to believe they act nobly, even while they pursue their own interest," he said.

Josephson is the third Bready Professor since the chair was endowed in 2005 by Richard Bready '65, a trustee and generous supporter of the college. The chair provides scholars with the opportunity to study the relationship between ethics and specific disciplines in the liberal arts. It also supports the examination of how ethics and the disciplines function in a free market economy.

During his three-year appointment, Josephson plans to complete his second book on John Locke, examining the role of the philosopher in the political community. He will deliver a lecture on that topic on April 8. He also is working on projects on Aristotle's Poetics and the moral imagination, and on the relationship of the religious pilgrim or exile and the political community.

Other Bready Professors have been Dale Kuehne, professor of politics, and Montague Brown, professor and chair of philosophy, the first to hold the chair.