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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 like ‘the master’ and simply ‘the 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 nicknamed ‘peripatetics’ - ‘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 the ‘Nicomachean’ ethics (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 distinct ‘virtues’ - 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 termed ‘the 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 of ‘Conversational 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 the “boor”,
someone “useless 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 the ‘virtuous’ person is in the golden mean in this area: witty, but tactful.
A particularly fascinating moment is when Aristotle draws up a table of ‘too little’
‘too much’ and ‘just right’ around 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 goodness’ says Aristotle ‘ is 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 plays’ manual: 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 for … Catharsis.
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. We’ve got natural problems here: we are
hard hearted: we don’t give pity where it is deserved. And we’re 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; their ‘chief interest is in their own pleasure and the
opportunity of the moment’ which 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.
We’re keen students of Aristotle. Today ‘Philosophy’ doesn’t sound like
the most practical activity. Maybe that’s because we’ve not paid enough attention, recently, to
Aristotle
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PHILOSOPHY - Aristotle

2284 Folder Collection
Leroy Chan published on April 19, 2015
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