Aristotle to Outlaw

We have Aristotle on two tracks (the Little History and Philosophy Bites) today in CoPhi, and on the third a “Woody Allen-ish” philosopher from New York (Canada originally), Lou Marinoff. He’s featured in today’s reading from America the Philosophical, as is local star Lucius Outlaw. 

Aristotle‘s in the Pythons’ philosopher’s song too, though he’s even more sober than his Ionian predecessors. He rejected his teacher Plato’s metaphysics, returned to the cave of the phenomenal world to take a closer look, avoided universalizing abstractions and CAPS (preferring forms in things to transcendent and remote FORMS “above”), and inspired the name of our annual Spring speaker series in the philosophy department at MTSU, the Lyceum

Our first-ever Fall Lyceum was in November. Carlin Romano came and explained why America, contrary to popular prejudice, really is a vibrantly philosophical civilization. You just have to look in the right places. His book will show us where.

The best quick & graphic way of illustrating the difference between Plato and his student Aristotle, I’ve found, is by pondering Raphael’s famous painting School of Athens [annotated]. Pay close attention to the hands.

Aristotle said one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and a few moments of pleasure don’t add up to a happy life. Nor does a “happy childhood.” We must be in it for the long haul, and must see our good as coordinate with that of others including those who’ll succeed us after we’re gone. It’s all about eudaimonia (“you die” is a helpful mnemonic, aggressive and hostile though it sounds, and though it really means you live.)

Aristotle was a naturalist, noticing our continuity with the rest of nature. Like trees and plants we flourish when well-nurtured. Unlike them, we must take charge of our own nurture in order to reach our potential.

It’s so ironic that the middle ages made Aristotle “The Philosopher,” i.e. the unquestioned Authority. That was indeed “against the spirit of philosophy.”

Terence Irwin’s podcast interview is compelling listening, for those unaccustomed to a Yorkshire accent (or whatever it is). He makes the same point I just did about coordinating the personal and the public good, and “identifying one’s own interest with other people’s interest” etc. 

He also helpfully corrects overly-simple reductions of Aristotle’s ethics to a dogged middle-of-the-roadism. Avoiding extremes doesn’t mean choosing the blandest, milk-toastiest possibility. It means doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason etc., and that could very well turn out to be something exciting. Or scary. (Like bombing Syria? What would Aristotle say?)

I used Lou Marinoff‘s Plato, Not Prozac in Intro (before it was CoPhi) some years ago. Was a bit tempted to experiment with hanging out a shingle and seeing whether the market could bear my therapeutic presence. One of these days, maybe.

Best intro to him might be this Times feature from awhile back.

philosophical counselors disagree on everything from the best name — philosophical practice? public philosophy? — to whether they should be trying to cure people, empower them or guide them to self-understanding…

Marinoff and other practitioners hold that we all have a philosophy of life, whether we know it or not, and that we can benefit from identifying that philosophy, making sure it helps us rather than hinders us — defining success, say, in a way we might actually achieve it — and then strengthening it through dialogue with the great thinkers. 

Sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it? But when professions and income levels collide, controversy ensues.

Lucius Outlaw was a pioneering African-American philosopher who studied at Fisk. He’s at Vanderbilt now (where he’s said some terrific things about teaching, learning, and love). I’m not quite sure why Carlin Romano’s chosen to shine such a spotlight on him (I’ll put it on my list of questions for Carlin when he comes, in November.)

The most prominent African-American philosopher in America is Cornel West, “in a league of his own” in Outlaw’s own words. Here he is in London last year with our first podcast interviewee, MM McCabe (Socrates), and then in the public sphere of NYC, in a taxi, in and on “the examined life.”





Kwame Anthony Appiah, London-born Ghanaian-raised, Cambridge-educated, and Princeton-based, is another African-heritage philosopher in America we should all know. HisCosmopolitanism, discussed here, would be required reading in every school, if I were philospher-king. He too was featured in The Examined Life, articulating why it’s not only okay for people to be different but actually imperative. And healthy.
See also his wonderful talk on “Ethics in a World of Strangers.”

There have been important African-American philosophers all along, including (notably) W.E.B. DuBois and (arguably) Booker T. Washington. And then there’s Hubert Harrison.


Hubert Harrison, the “Black Socrates,” defies the stereotype of unblinking theism among African-Americans. He also admired Paine, noted errors in the Bible, and embraced Agnosticism (“such an agnostic as Huxley was”).  He said he had no intention of bowing down to a lily-white god or worshipping a Jim Crow Jesus. He was more than a little literal when he also embraced Nietzsche’s repudiation of “slave ethics.” Admitting that reason alone did not meet his every need, he still preferred “to go to the grave with my eyes open.” That’s a really good personal credo, “eyes open.” Mind too. JMH

One more thing. The Bible book of Ecclesiastes came up in discussion on the CoPhi site, over the weekend. I broke my vow of staying entirely off the Internet during the Sabbath to post my own two cents. Seems crucial, from an Aristotelian or Marinoffian or just plain life perspective, to try and get clear on just what the author was trying to say. Surely not that you have to die and be one of the proud, the few, the “elect,” to be happy. I prefer Jennifer Hecht’s gloss:

Koheleth brushed aside the dream of an afterlife with a simple appeal to reason–Who knows this?–and the conclusion that humans have nothing above the beasts in this regard...

But it doesn’t follow that simple happiness is unavailable in this life. The recipe’s pretty simple.

Love your spouse. Get some work to do, do it with all your might; enjoy the simple pleasures of food, drink, and love. Everything else is vanity. 

But, it’s a form of vanity we can live with. The search for true love, solid friendship, good work, and daily delight might just be enough. Enjoy your life. A person could do worse. The search for happiness on this orb is anything but a “dismal” undertaking, as someone sadly suggested. You could ask Aristotle. It’s the end and aim of life.

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