“Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life”; New Book On The World’s Greatest Philosopher – Enlightens Us On Finding Meaning & Purpose In Our Lives

“Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life”; New Book On The World’s Greatest Philosopher – Enlightens Us On Finding Meaning & Purpose In Our Lives
 
     There is a new book out — “Aristotle’s Way,” by Edith Hall, that brings a fresh new look at perhaps the greatest philosopher and thinker humankind will ever produce. According to Ms. Hall’s Wikipedia biography, she is a British scholar of classics, specializing in Greek literature and cultural history, and a Professor in the Department of Classics and Center for Hellenic Studies at King’s College, London. Her new book was reviewed in the February 15, 2019 edition of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) by Julian Baggini, author of “How The World Thinks: A Global History Of Philosophy.” Ms. Hall’s new book was also reviewed by John Kaag in the January 27, 2019 New York Times (book review section). Mr. Kaag is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, a Miller Scholar at the Santa Fe Institute, and author of “Hiking With Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are.”
 
     Mr. Baggini begins, “there is no shortage of books promising to show “how ancient wisdom can change your life,” the generic subtitle of Ms. Hall’s new book. “What distinguishes “Aristotle’s Way,” he wrote, “from its predecessors, is the eponymous subject really can deliver on the promise.”
    “Aristotle is one of a handful of thinkers who can credibly lay claim to being the greatest philosopher in history,” Mr.Baggini wrote. “A major survey showed that among academic philosophers today, only David Hume has more disciples. Such as been his [Aristotle] pre-eminence, that Thomas Aquinas referred to him simply as “the philosopher.” “Outside academe, however,  Aristotle’s brilliance is curiously dimmed. Popular books have extolled Confucius, the Stoics, and even Existentialists, but not the genius who is more their equal.”
     “Part of the problem,” Mr. Baggini wrote, “that Aristotle is so darn sensible, and sensible just isn’t sexy. At the heart of his ethics is the doctrine of the mean, which argues that virtues and vices are not opposites, and that the right way to act falls between two wrong extremes. So, whereas the Stoics, for example, condemned anger, Aristotle thought excessive meekness was just as problematic; and, that it was good to have the right amount of anger for the right reason, at the right time, toward the right person. Unlike Plato, who saw the passions as unruly beasts to be tamed, Aristotle thought that our job was to tune them — that is, to modulate them, and deploy them carefully.”
     “Ms. Hall does a good job of explaining this,” Mr. Baggini notes, “and many other Aristotelian ideas, bringing them to life with vivid examples. Referring to the desire for revenge, she cites Achilles, who responding to the death of his friend at the hands of Hector, kills Hector “in single combat, mutilating his corpse, and also executing twelve entirely innocent Trojan youths…This is excessive.” “To help us grasp the snares of envy, she discusses Saieri in “Amadeus,” Mr. Baggini wrote. “Her own life can be part of the exposition.” “I am by nature, very vengeful,” she confesses, also admitting in a passage on fostering trust and loyalty that “I used not to ring my husband and children often enough when I went abroad. The results were not good.”
     “But on many occasions, Ms. Hall brings too much of herself to her subject, presenting her contemporary version of Aristotle, rather than the ancient Greek original,” Mr. Baggini notes. “This is most evident,” he observes, “in her focus on happiness as the ultimate goal. As she observes the word Aristotle used to label this objective was, eudaimoniaAmong philosophers, it is common to stress that the word means “flourishing,” rather than a subjective emotional state, or a kind of positive background mood. Eudaimonia involves a more objective conception of living as a human ought to live, according to our species’ true nature. Ms. Hall acknowledges this,” Mr. Baggini notes, “but places more emphasis on the subjective feeling of happiness, thus turning Aristotle’s philosophy into, as she puts it, a “program for becoming a happy person.”
     “This shift may seem subtle and minor,” Mr. Baggini wrote; “but, it detracts from what is potentially most useful about Aristotle today. In an age where we are obsessed with subjective happiness, he offers a challenge, suggesting that we ought to concentrate instead on living virtuously. As Ms. Hall notes, that effort will probably deliver us contentment more reliably than the pursuit does. But, the goal should simply be to live well.”
     “At one point, Ms. Hall defines Aristotelian happiness as “finding a purpose in order to realize your potential; and, working on your behavior to become the best version of yourself.” “This formula makes no reference to how we feel, which makes it in one way a better gloss on eudaimonia than others she offers,” Mr. Baggini wrote. “But, her versions of “purpose,” and “potential,” belong more in the 21st century, than to the fourth century B.C.,” he contends. “Aristotle was less concerned with our unique individual purposes and potential, than with those of human beings as a class: rational animals who ought to cultivate their higher intellectual capacities. It is hard to imagine him asking the reader, as Ms. Hall does, “Have you identified and actualized your unique potential?”
 
     “Unlike many other thinkers,” Mr. Baggini wrote, “Aristotle allowed a proper role for the physical pleasure in the good life; but, far from encouraging sensuous enjoyment, he explicitly said that the most important human pursuits were intellectual, not physical. On Ms. Hall’s account, you wouldn’t know that,” he observed. “She correctly said that Aristotle “was fascinated by the sensation of taste, by food and cooking,” but fails to point out that he also said the senses of touch and taste were “terrible and brutish,” because they are “pleasures as animals also share in.”
     “Almost all of Ms. Hall’s attempts to make Aristotle attractive to the modern reader involve shifts in emphasis, rather than misrepresentation,” Professor Baggini wrote. “The only exception is her claim that “he speaks with less disapproval of democracy than any other system.” In fact,” Professor Baggini notes, Aristotle “says that democracy is only the best of the deviant forms of government, inferior to both monarchy and aristocracy. She is surely right, however, to ask readers to excuse his undeniable misogyny and support of slavery. There is nothing in his philosophy that makes these prejudices of his time inevitable. As she persuasively argues, his evidence-based approach would surely have led him to revise his opinions today.”
     “Aristotle’s Way,” “has much to commend it,” Professor Baggini concludes: “It raises the profile of the great philosopher, makes the relevance of his key ideas plain, and will encourage people to read his classic “Nicomachean Ethics.” “But, while it preserves most of the gold to be found in the ancient source material, the effort to mine Aristotle’s thought for a happiness-seeking age makes the book’s message, if more palatable, less potent.”
    Professor Kaag notes that “there is a pernicious, but widely held, belief that turning our worlds upside down, that living a happy, well-adjusted life entails acts of monkish discipline, or heroic strength. The genre of self-help lives and dies in fanaticism: We should eat like cave men, scale distant mountains, ingest live charcoal, walk across scalding stones, lift oversize tires, do yoga in a hothouse, run a marathon, run another. In our culture,” Professor Kaag observes, “virtuous moderation and prudence rarely sell but, taking her cues from Aristotle, Hall offers a set of reasons to explain why they should.”
     “Self-reflection may be a private affair, but being virtuous never is,” Professor Kaag wrote. “Project Happiness,” “as Hall puts it, cannot be accomplished by oneself, but depends on the kind of relationships we foster or neglect. Togetherness is the testing ground of Aristotelian virtue.
     Professor Haag closes, “Is a life of vice a truly happy one?” “The answer is a firm, yet compassionate: “No.” “As Hall explains, Aristotle, who lived “at close quarters with the tyrannical Macedonian royal family, the ruthless Phillip II and his scheming wives, concubines, and lieutenants, all jockeying for position at court, seems to have meticulously observed the misery of immoral people…..These miserable reprobates, who can’t stand to be alone with themselves, can’t fully experience their own joys and sorrows, as their is a civil war in their souls.” “Perhaps,” Professor Kaag concludes, “this is the precisely the moment to consider the impossibility of happiness without virtue.”
     Lots to think about here.  But, I like “Aristotle’s Way.” Everything in moderation. Not ignoring our emotions, anger, envy, whatever they are; but, understanding we are all human, fallible, with feet of clay. As someone once told me as I was starting my professional career, “treat people on the way up…like you want to be treated on the way down.” Something we need to be reminded of in this current environment of destroying someone’s life for a mistake they made decades ago – be it a racial slur, wearing blackface, etc. If these individuals have shown contrition, and otherwise lived an exemplary life..well. let’s just say I long for the day where we no longer ‘enjoy’ this scorched Earth environment we currently find ourselves in. Aristotle…….would not approve.  RCP, fortunascorner.com

One comment

  1. Cheers, a really interesting read – added to bookmarks so will pop back for new content and to read other people’s comments. Thanks again.

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