Archive for February 16th, 2017

Aristotle

February 16, 2017

Today in CoPhi it’s our first pass at Aristotle. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer” (or a spring-were the Greeks really so vague about the seasons as these alternative translations suggest?) was his most poetic observation by far.

 If then the work of Man is a working of the soul in accordance with reason, or at least not independently of reason… and we assume the work of Man to be life of a certain kind, that is to say a working of the soul, and actions with reason, and of a good man to do these things well and nobly, and in fact everything is finished off well in the way of the excellence which peculiarly belongs to it: if all this is so, then the Good of Man comes to be “a working of the Soul in the way of Excellence,” or, if Excellence admits of degrees, in the way of the best and most perfect Excellence.

And we must add, in a complete life; for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.

Happiness is far more than the sum of its parts, it’s a quality of soul steeped in a lifetime of habitual virtue. Or so we say, when interchanging “happiness” with “eudaimonia.” Flourishing or well-being are better substitutes. By whatever name, though, Aristotle’s saying the good life takes time, possibly more time than a lifetime affords. If your child suffers a tragic and premature end, even after you’ve gone, your life has suffered diminution. In some non-trivial sense your well-being has taken a hit, your flourishing has foundered.

From 335 B.C. to 323 B.C. (in which latter year Alexander died), Aristotle lived at Athens. It was during these twelve years that he founded his school and wrote most of his books. At the death of Alexander, the Athenians rebelled, and turned on his friends, including Aristotle, who was indicted for impiety, but, unlike Socrates, fled to avoid punishment. In the next year ( 322) he died. Aristotle, as a philosopher, is in many ways very different from all his predecessors. He is the first to write like a professor: his treatises are systematic, his discussions are divided into heads, he is a professional teacher, not an inspired prophet. His work is critical, careful, pedestrian, without any trace of Bacchic enthusiasm.

So many of the circumstances of life are beyond our control, on either side of the grave. Can we increase our chance of eudaimonia, or must we just learn to accept our fate and let happiness happen or not? Aristotle says we can take steps to develop our character, form strong habits, and live the good life. This is only partly subject to our control, since much depends on the quality of our early nurture. Some overcome adverse beginnings, others are derailed. Life and luck are unfair.

And that’s why Aristotle was so concerned to create a just society, a polis capable of nurturing and supporting all its citizens (except slaves and women-in this regard Plato scores over his pupil). “We live together, and need to find our happiness by interacting well with those around us in a well-ordered state.” If you choose to go it alone, you may or may not be pleased with your life but you definitely won’t flourish in Aristotle’s terms. 

The middle ages enshrined Aristotle as The Philosopher, the great authority not to be challenged. He would have hated that, inimical as it is to the spirit of free and open debate governed by reason alone.

Only hedonists conflate pleasure and happiness, but that doesn’t mean the relation between them is easy to pin down. Wouldn’t Aristotle admit that it might be possible to indulge the right pleasures at the right time for the right reasons etc., thus acknowledging that the time and place for pleasure is always a matter of judicious discretion? Bertrand Russell seemed to think he would not, and for that reason found the Nichomachean Ethics less than wholly appealing.  “The book appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seveteenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive.” Repulsive!


I would have said tepid, not repulsive, but Russell has a bit of a point. I’ll still line up on Aristotle’s side of the School of Athens. Which side are you on?

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