The Consolations of Aristotle’s Ethics
What the Stagirite gets right on how to live.
I have long ignored the wisdom in Aristotle.
I thought his Nicomachean Ethics was an antique. Teleology? Please. 'Incontinence'? Heh. The book is dry and disorganized and reads like the lecture notes they probably are. (Cicero, says Plutarch, thought Aristotle’s writing ‘a river of liquid gold.’ It seems he had a different edition.)
But hidden within the Ethics is perhaps the greatest study ever written on the elements of a life well lived. In place of excess it prizes balance. In place of sermonizing we get realism—those needing advice to clean their room can look elsewhere.
Over the next few months I plan to go deep on Aristotle’s account of flourishing. Here, though, I want to note the reasons for my renewed interest, and to see whether they speak to you, too.
If so, let me know in the comments. If not, well, I’ll keep the future essays short.
I was prompted to revisit Aristotle by Daniel Kaufman’s excellent essay on Aristotelianism in How to Live a Good Life, edited by Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary, and Kaufman. The chapter emphasizes the human quality of Aristotle’s approach:
The eudaimonic life, for Aristotle, is one in which we have lived to the fullness of our potential; developed our distinctive capacities to their finest points; and accomplished in the world what we have set out to do. It is a life that we should take pleasure in… a life of which a person can be rightly proud. (p. 76)
Aristotle offers a holism that’s missing from more ascetic accounts. The good life for Aristotle is an integrated life. Developing our potential requires work and resources and relationships.
Undergraduates at Brown often got stuck here. Is he really saying that good looks are part of the good life? That money and status are requirements too? That even luck plays a role? Well, yes, at least some modicum of them. I would ask students: Have you tried living without these? None had.
Somehow, amid all our consumption, we nevertheless cling to the belief that happiness needs only the stuff of the soul, that it requires nothing beyond us. Aristotle—and our common sense—shows this to be false. Kaufmann continues:
Far from its dependence on external goods being a defect of Aristotle’s eudaimonism, then, it is one of its greatest strengths, as it reflects a realistic, honest, and mature outlook on life. That effort alone is not enough; that in a fundamental sense I exist among and depend upon others; that social, political, economic, and natural forces are capable of overwhelming and destroying me and the things I have created; that it matters whether or not I actually have succeeded, as opposed to simply having tried to, and that I refuse to deceive myself about this—these are hard truths about our lives and our flourishing. (p. 78)
How strange that a culture like ours, in love with our dystopias, would need reminding that environment matters.
I have, as it were, shopped around for wisdom traditions. The Christianity of my youth was poorly suited to solace, solving every problem with prayer or repentance, or both. The indifference of Stoicism was numbing. Epicurus got so very much right but the hedonism felt simplistic. Secular Buddhism and vipassana practice proved most profitable. Yet with each of these traditions, I was disquieted by a pull toward the fringe. Stoics miss the richness of human emotions. Traditional Buddhism reserves the purest samadhi for monastics. The Epicureans would have me live in a garden and eat simple food with my friends. No objections there. But what of my duties to others? What of politics and family and love?
And none of these views helped me see beyond the perfectionism that caused me so much pain. Indeed, they inflamed the wound, left me thinking that I could be happy if I were a bit more perfectly committed.
Aristotle takes a different tack. He’s confident that extremism in any direction leads to deficiency elsewhere. Kaufman:
Certainly, we admire the brilliant painter, who has mastered his craft and produces works of extraordinary beauty, but if we discover that he is terrible to his wife and children, crooked in his business, and involved in ugly politics, our estimation of his life, generally, will be poor. That is, while we may continue to admire him as a painter, we will not admire him as a man….
None of this is particularly controversial, but strangely, it becomes so when one shifts the focus to moral virtue, where we find that many esteemed philosophers, as well as ordinary people, suddenly find single-mindedness an admirable trait. (p. 80)
Our great error consists in treating a single virtue as the whole of flourishing. We are undone by our obsessions. We know well the stock examples: the entrepreneur forsaking all in the name of Disruption; the parent who lives for their children; the scholar who can barely tie a shoe. To these the peripatetic has an antidote.
The good life isn’t a single virtue amplified. It is all of the virtues well arrayed.
In this there is not only happiness, but also freedom. More on that next time.