Review: Aristotle for the 21st century

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Many years ago, as an undergraduate at Fordham University, I took two courses taught by the same Jesuit professor: one on Plato and one on Aristotle. While both classes were excellent, I strongly preferred the one on Plato. But Edith Hall’s new book, Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life, has tempted me to see Aristotle in a whole new way.

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Aristotle's Wayby Edith Hall

Penguin Press. 272p $27

The book discusses topics that many of us may find important: happiness, self-knowledge, love, community, leisure and mortality. Hall, a professor at King’s College London, draws the reader in by often referring to a movie, a play or a book that addresses the point being discussed. For example, the Italian movie “Life Is Beautiful” involves the lies a Jewish father tells his son while they were in a concentration camp during World War II. He uses the lies to help the boy’s chances of survival. Hall analyzes the movie in terms of the use of means and ends when one is trying to understand intentions. Throughout the book, Hall uses this approach to help us to interpret the thoughts of Aristotle.

Hall begins her study of Aristotle’s writings on the elements needed to learn how to accomplish the most important thing in life: happiness. What is happiness in Aristotle’s mind? “Finding a purpose in order to realize your potential and working on your behavior to become the best version of yourself.”

What is happiness in Aristotle’s mind? “Finding a purpose in order to realize your potential and working on your behavior to become the best version of yourself.”

In the chapter on “Potential,” Hall outlines Aristotle’s view of the need to be true to oneself. How does one do that? Aristotle turns to “one of his most famous doctrines,” namely, the four fundamental causes: material, efficient, formal and final. For example, look at a stone sculpture. A sculpture reflects the four causes: the stone it is made of (material), the sculptor (efficient), its design and shape (formal) and its reason and purpose (final). An individual’s material, efficient and formal causes are one’s body, your parents and one’s DNA. One’s final cause is the reason and purpose of an individual’s existence.

Were you not supported in developing a talent or natural proclivity during your life? Hall points out that “Aristotle didn’t really get going until his fifties, so you almost certainly still have time!” Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics emphasizes the “good” and analyzes which goods are best to achieve one’s goals. Hall also directs the reader to Helen Keller who, despite her deafness and blindness, worked hard to identify what she was potentially good at with the help she received from her parents, doctors and instructor.

Once you identify your potential, you must make decisions. Hall points out that “Aristotle developed into the first philosopher to describe in practical terms the best way to make a decision, written in a lively, matter-of-fact manner without complicated jargon.” Aristotle’s works contain a “formula” or “rules” that should be followed to make decisions. Aristotle and his students studied a treatise called “On Deliberation” written by a friend of Socrates and Pericles, and on the basis of this treatise and Aristotle’s thinking, Aristotle taught his rules for deliberation.

Aristotle’s study of friendship, Edith Hall writes, generally is “more sophisticated than almost any other theory of friendship subsequently produced.”

While the reader may struggle with Aristotle’s rules on potentiality and decision-making, comprehension becomes easier when Aristotle covers love and friendship. Marriage is a particular type of friendship. Aristotle notes that in the friendship of marriage, husband and wife must provide mutual support to each other and, in addition, should reproduce the human race. Aristotle’s study of friendship, Hall writes, generally is “more sophisticated than almost any other theory of friendship subsequently produced.” Aristotle thought that there are three categories of friendship: utility, pleasure and mutual love. The characteristics that Aristotle identify on how friendship can manifest itself are those that many of us will recognize in our friendships during our lives.

Friendships and love might be critical to happiness, but they are not sufficient. Human beings live together best in a society. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics analyze how governments can contribute to—or destroy—society. Aristotle analyzed four types of government: democracy, tyranny, aristocracy and monarchy. Good government, he wrote, requires a foundation of relationships between citizens and an orientation toward the common good of all. When one looks at the political scene today, one might easily assume that decisions are made with little emphasis on the common good or justice. Aristotle reviewed constitutions and examined how the health of individual relationships underpin the political community. For example, tyrannies discourage activities among citizens that foster self-esteem and self-confidence.

Perhaps the most meaningful chapter is the one on “Leisure.” Hall notes the influence of Aristotle’s writings on Thomas Aquinas and Josef Pieper (in his classic work Leisure: The Basis of Culture). The popular view in ancient Greece was that leisure was best spent on “physical pleasure and ephemeral amusements.” Aristotle recognized this. However, Aristotle also insisted that leisure is the ideal human state; work is merely the means to further leisure activity in which our full potential for happiness can be realized. Leisure makes us uniquely human in the ways it helps us sustain our souls, our minds, our personal and civic relationships.

Aristotle believed that more free time would make self-education more achievable. What you choose to read or watch or listen to directly affects your development as a moral being.

Aristotle believed that more free time would make self-education more achievable. What you choose to read or watch or listen to directly affects your development as a moral being. Making full use of leisure requires more thought and effort than our working lives. It is when we are at leisure that we find our true selves and our greatest happiness.

Lastly, Hall points out that “thinking about happiness inevitably involves thinking about death.” We all die, of course, but Aristotle insisted that if one realized his or her potential in life, both the person one was and the things one did during life became ways that one’s “being” continued after death. Aristotle believed in a God (or prime mover) but he did not believe that there is life after death. He also believed that each individual “can be the author of his own story” and can shape one’s own direction and the lives of their loved ones and friends.

Aristotle approached mortality while he was in exile from Athens after he was charged with impiety. While Socrates had accepted a death sentence through suicide for a similar charge, Aristotle chose exile instead (even though he was probably suffering from cancer at the time). Hall uses Aristotle’s will to demonstrate his thinking on mortality during this period. He took pleasure in reading the old classics of Greek literature and attended to personal matters, such as his adopted son and his own children, his concubine and his slaves.

Hall’s text rewards the reader by offering gems from Aristotle’s thought; it made me want to return to the philosopher’s classics again and again. She puts together complicated concepts and writings in a form where readers can easily identify subjects that are critical to an individual’s opportunity to find happiness.

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