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  • Aristotle was born around 384 BC in the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia

  • where his father was the royal doctor. He grew up to be arguably the most influential

  • philosopher ever, with modest nicknames likethe masterand simplythe philosopher’.

  • His first big job was tutoring Alexander the Great who, soon after, went out and conquered

  • the known world

  • Aristotle then headed off to Athens, worked with Plato for a bit, then branched out on

  • his own. He founded a little school called the Lyceum. French secondary schools - ‘the

  • lycees’ - are named in honour of this venture. He liked to walk about while teaching and

  • discussing ideas.

  • His followers were nicknamedperipatetics’ - ‘the wanderers.’

  • His many books are actually lecture notes

  • Aristotle was fascinated by how many things

  • actually work: how does a chick grow in an egg? How do squid reproduce?

  • Why does a plant grow well in one place

  • and hardly at all in another? And - most importantly - what makes a human life, and

  • a whole society, go well? For Aristotle, philosophy was about practical

  • wisdom. Here are four big philosophical questions

  • he answered. One : what makes people happy?

  • In theNicomacheanethics (the book got it’s name because it was edited by his

  • son, Nicomachus) Aristotle set himself the task of identifying the factors that lead

  • people to have a good life - or not.

  • He suggested that good and successful people all possess distinctvirtues’ - and proposed

  • that we should get better at identifying what these are, so that we can nurture them in

  • ourselves and honour them in others. Aristotle zeroed in on 11 virtues

  • Courage Temperance

  • Liberality Magnificence

  • Magnanimity Pride

  • Patience Truthfulness

  • Wittiness Friendliness

  • Modesty

  • Aristotle also observed that every virtue seems to be bang in the middle of two vices.

  • It occupies what he termedthe golden mean’ [a perfectly balanced plank on triangle] between

  • two extremes of character. For example, in Book IV of his Ethics, under

  • the charming title ofConversational Virtues: wit, buffoonery and boorishness’, Aristotle

  • looks at ways people are better or worse at conversation. (knowing how to have a good

  • conversation is one of the ingredients of the good life, Aristotle recognised).

  • Some people go wrong because they lack a subtle sense of humour: that’s theboor”,

  • someoneuseless for any kind of social intercourse, because he contributes nothing

  • and takes offence at everything.’

  • But others carry humour to excess: ‘The buffoon cannot resist a joke, sparing neither

  • himself, nor anybody else provided that he can raise a laugh, and saying things that

  • a man of taste would never dream of saying.’

  • So thevirtuousperson is in the golden mean in this area: witty, but tactful.

  • A particularly fascinating moment is when Aristotle draws up a table oftoo little

  • too muchandjust rightaround the whole host of virtues.

  • We can’t change our behaviour in any of these areas just at the drop of a hat. But

  • change is possible, eventually. ‘Moral goodnesssays Aristotleis the result of habit’.

  • It takes times, practice, encouragement. So, Aristotle thinks, people who lack virtue should

  • be understood as unfortunate rather than wicked. What they need is not scolding or being thrown

  • in prison but better teachers, more guidance.

  • Two: what is art for?

  • The blockbuster art at that time was tragedy. Athenians watched gory plays at community

  • festivals in huge open air theatres. Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles were household names.

  • Aristotle wrote a ‘how to write great playsmanual: the Poetics. It’s packed with great

  • tips. For example, make sure to use:

  • peripeteia - a change in fortune, when for the hero things go from great to awful [in

  • Titanic, Leonardo de Caprio gets Kate Winslow (great) then they hit the iceberg (awful)

  • and anagnoresis - a moment of dramatic revelation

  • when suddenly the hero works out their life is a catastrophe

  • But what is tragedy actually for? What is

  • the point of a whole community coming together to watch horrible things happening to the

  • lead characters? Like Oedipus (in the play by Sophocles) who by accident, kills his father,

  • gets married to his mother, finds out he’s done these things [on screen: anagnoresis!)

  • and gouges out his own eyes in remorse and despair.

  • Aristotle’s answer is Katharis - which is greek forCatharsis.

  • Catharsis is a kind of cleaning - you get

  • rid of bad stuff. In this case cleaning up our emotions, specifically our confusions

  • around the feelings of fear and pity. Weve got natural problems here: we are

  • hard hearted: we don’t give pity where it is deserved. And were prone to either exaggerated

  • fears or not getting frightened enough

  • Tragedy reminds us that: terrible things can befall decent people including

  • ourselves): a small flaw can lead to a whole life unravelling

  • and so we should have more compassion (or pity) for

  • those whose actions go disastrously wrong. We need to be collective re-taught these crucial

  • truths on a regular basis. The task of art - as Aristotle saw it - is to make profound

  • truths about life stick in our minds. Three: What are friends for?

  • In books eight and nine of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle identifies three different

  • kinds of friendship. There’s friendship that comes about when

  • each person is seeking fun; theirchief interest is in their own pleasure and the

  • opportunity of the momentwhich the other person provides. We need other people to have

  • a nice time around. We need pleasant companions.

  • [on screen, beer drinking festival] Then there are friendships that are really

  • strategic acquaintances: ‘they take pleasure in each other’s company only in so far as

  • they have hopes of advantage of it.’

  • [on screen: faux-jovial business meeting] Then there’s the true friend: Not someone

  • who’s just like you. But someone who isn’t you - but about whom you care as much as you

  • are about yourself. The sorrows of a true friend are your sorrows

  • to, their joys are yours. It makes you more vulnerable - should anything befall this person.

  • But it is hugely strengthening: you are relieved from the too small orbit of your own thoughts

  • and worries, you expand into the life of another, together you become larger, cleverer, more

  • resilient, more fair minded. You share virtues and cancel out each other’s defects. Friendship

  • teaches us what we ought to be. It is - quite literally - the best part of life.

  • Four: how can ideas cut through in a busy world?

  • Like a lot of people, Aristotle was struck by the fact that the best argument doesn’t

  • always win the debate or the battle.

  • He wanted to know why

  • this happens and what we can do about it.

  • He had lots of opportunity for observations: in Athens lots of decisions were made in public

  • meetings (often in the Agora - the town square); orators would vie with one another to sway

  • popular opinion.

  • Aristotle plotted the ways audiences and individuals are influenced by many factors that don’t

  • strictly engage with logic or the facts of the case.

  • It’s maddening. And many serious people [especially Plato] can’t stand it. They

  • avoid the marketplace and populist debate.

  • Aristotle was more ambitious. He invented the art of what we still today call Rhetoric:

  • the art of getting people to agree with you. He wanted thoughtful, serious and well-intentioned

  • people to learn how to be persuasive - to reach those who don’t agree already.

  • He makes some timeless points: You have to recognise, acknowledge and sooth people’s

  • fears. You have to see the emotional side of the issue - is someone’s pride on the

  • line, are they feeling embarrassed - and edge round it accordingly.

  • You have to make it funny - because attention spans are short.

  • And you might have to use illustrations and examples to make your point come alive.

  • Were keen students of Aristotle. TodayPhilosophydoesn’t sound like

  • the most practical activity. Maybe that’s because weve not paid enough attention, recently, to

  • Aristotle

Aristotle was born around 384 BC in the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia

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PHILOSOPHY - Aristotle

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    Leroy Chan posted on 2015/04/19
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