Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life is a new book by Edith Hall, professor in the Department of Classics and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College, London. As the title makes clear, it’s a book about how Aristotle’s philosophy can provide practical guidance for living, aimed at a general readership.
I really enjoyed this book and I think others will too. I found it very readable and Hall is clearly an authority in this area. She’s written about Aristotle in quite a conversational style but she clearly cares deeply about the material. She mentions that she travelled to eight different places where he lived as part of her research into his life and philosophy. She tries hard to make Aristotle’s ideas accessible to modern readers who are unfamiliar with classical literature or academic philosophy and I think she succeeds very well. My own area of interest is Stoic philosophy and its practical applications to modern living so the similarities and differences between the Stoics and Aristotle are particularly interesting to me. I’ll touch on some of those aspects below as I describe a few of the key ideas from Hall’s book.
The chapter titles are fairly self-explanatory and provide a convenient overview of the main topics covered in the book:
Hall begins by explaining that although most of us seem to agree that happiness is desirable, the word itself is somewhat ambiguous and has acquired several quite distinct meanings. In a sense, the rest of the book can be understood as an attempt to explore Aristotle’s concept of happiness (eudaimonia) and its implications for different areas of our lives. However, according to Hall, John F. Kennedy captured the essence of Aristotelian happiness in a single sentence: “The full use of your powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope.” The first and simplest point to observe about this, as Hall notes, is that Aristotelian virtue ethics is traditionally contrasted with certain forms of hedonism. There’s more to life than the pursuit of pleasure. A genuinely fulfilled life also requires actualizing our potential as rational beings, which is basically what Aristotle means by virtue (arete), although pleasure also plays a part in this.
Hall explains the Aristotelian principle known as the “Golden Mean”, according to which virtue lies between the two extremes of excess and deficiency, which constitute vice in relation to some character trait or quality. For instance, courage is understood as the middle state between the vices of rashness and cowardice, the former resembling an excess of courage and the latter a deficit. Vengeance, likewise, is okay in moderation according to this view. As Hall puts it: “people who have no desire whatsoever to get even with those who have damaged them are either deluding themselves or have too low an estimate of their own worth.”
This differs from the ethical position adopted by Socrates, and later by the Stoics, who said that the desire for vengeance is inherently foolish and vicious. The desire for revenge is just wrong, according to this view, even if it’s relatively moderate in nature. For example, in Plato’s Crito, Socrates asks whether it is right, as the whole world says, to attempt to get even by repaying evil with evil. Doing evil, or harm, to others, he says, is the same thing as doing them an injustice, which would be wrong.
Then we ought to neither return wrong for wrong nor do evil to anyone, no matter what he may have done to us. […] Let us take as the starting point of our discussion the assumption that it is never right to do wrong or to repay wrong with wrong, or when we suffer evil to defend ourselves by doing evil in return. (Crito, 49c)
When I studied Aristotle at Aberdeen University, a few decades ago now, Ian Fowley – an elderly philosopher who looked remarkably like Socrates – liked to describe the principle of the Golden Mean as follows… If you were throwing a party and uncertain how many bottles of wine to purchase for your guests, Aristotle’s advice would be like saying “don’t buy too many, but don’t buy too few either – the right amount being somewhere between these two extremes”. Perhaps that might sound wise, in a sense, but it’s a bit too vague to be of very much help when it comes to practical decision-making.
As Hall explains, Aristotle thinks we should be angry with our enemies but not too much, just the right amount.
The truly great-souled man will get to the point of serenity where he “does not bear grudges, for it is not a mark of greatness of soul to recall things against people, especially the wrongs they have done you, but rather to overlook them.” On the other hand, Aristotle does think that there is a time and a place not only for vengeful feelings such as anger, but for vengeful action. […] In the fourth book of the Nicomachean Ethics he even argues that revengeful feelings can be virtuous and rational.
The Stoics, by contrast, believed that anger is temporary madness and that the wise do not indulge in this sort of vengeance. Stoics accept their initial feelings (propatheiai) of anger as something involuntary, natural, and morally indifferent. However, we shouldn’t continue to fan the flames of our anger voluntary but rather learn to take a step back from it and regain our composure before deciding what action to take next. For the Stoics, the distinction between virtue and vice is more qualitative than quantitative. The full passion of anger is always irrational, and unphilosophical, because it entails a desire for the other person to suffer harm. The wise man, by contrast, wishes that his enemies would improve and become wise themselves.
I find that today some people tend to be more drawn to the Stoic perspective and some to the Aristotelian way of looking at anger. Some people just don’t get very angry, and they seem to get along fine in life. Other people get quite angry but appear able to deal with it constructively. What I’ve learned, though, from my experience as a cognitive therapist, though, is that strong feelings such as anger tend to introduce various cognitive and attentional biases. These potentially hamper our ability to deliberate clearly about difficult situations and to engage in rational problem-solving. And once we begin to entertain feelings of anger they can easily begin to skew our judgement.
I’m definitely more inclined toward the Stoic perspective, which inspired the theory and practices of modern cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy. However, I can see the merits of both points of view, Stoic and Aristotelian, and I think they provide a great opportunity for discussion, comparing them to one another and teasing out the subtle differences. However, Hall’s short appraisal of Stoicism is surprisingly negative and somewhat dismissive:
Other ancient philosophical systems have found advocates in modern times, especially the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus. But Stoicism does not encourage the same joie de vivre as Aristotle’s ethics. It is a rather pessimistic and grim affair. It requires the suppression of emotions and physical appetites. It recommends the resigned acceptance of misfortune, rather than active, practical engagement with the fascinating fine-grained business of everyday living and problem-solving. It doesn’t leave enough room for hope, human agency or human intolerance of misery. It denounces pleasure for its own sake. It is tempting to agree with Cicero, who asked, “What? Could a Stoic arouse enthusiasm? He will rather immediately drown any enthusiasm even if he received someone full of zeal.”
I think these are criticisms worth hearing and each of these points about Stoicism deserves to be answered. For example, you might say Stoicism lacks joie de vivre, although a profound type of joy (chara) is actually one of the core positive emotions (eupatheiai) endorsed by the Stoics. For example, Marcus Aurelius frequently refers to such joy. He even specifies several psychologically insightful means of cultivating this healthy emotion. I doubt most modern followers of Stoicism would say that Stoicism is any more “grim and pessimistic” a philosophy than Aristotle’s is. It doesn’t really advocate the “suppression of emotions” any more than cognitive therapy does but rather the transformation of unhealthy emotions into more natural and healthy ones by disputing the irrational beliefs underlying them.
The ancient Stoics also didn’t really recommend the “resigned acceptance of misfortune”, in the negative sense Hall appears to have in mind. Rather they taught that emotional acceptance of events beyond our direct control should be combined with a commitment to practical action in accord with justice and other ethical values – something Epictetus calls the “Discipline of Action”. For instance, when the Marcomanni and their allies launched a massive invasion of Pannonia, and penetrated into Italy, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius didn’t respond with “resigned acceptance” and inaction. Instead, he “donned the military cape and boots”, rode out from Rome to lead the counter-offensive, and ended up commanding the largest army ever massed on a Roman frontier throughout a series of wars that lasted nearly a decade. Indeed, the Stoics were well-known for actively (even stubbornly) engaging in various political struggles and military enterprises, often risking their lives in doing so. They were definitely not passive doormats.
Likewise, the Stoic attitude toward pleasure is more nuanced than Hall perhaps implies. Pleasure (hedone) isn’t “denounced” but classed as an “indifferent”, neither good nor bad. In fact, denouncing pleasure as bad would be a fundamental mistake according to the Stoics. On the other hand, it’s true that indulging excessively in pleasure by treating it as something more important than wisdom or virtue was a vice denounced by the Stoics. On the other hand, as noted earlier, the Stoics place considerable importance on a healthy form of cheerfulness or joy (chara), which complements the exercise of wisdom and virtue. So the Stoics weren’t joyless; it would be much closer to the truth to say they thought we shouldn’t treat bodily pleasures (and things like flattery) as if they were the goal of life. These pleasures aren’t bad in themselves but rather craving them to excess is a vice, especially if we do so at the expense of more important things.
Of course, there are some ambiguities in these ancient texts and there’s scope for reading them in more than one way. I’m somewhat more inclined to favour Stoicism and read it in a sympathetic light. Hall’s bound to do the same with Aristotle. For example, she acknowledges she’s somewhat sidelining his problematic views about the inferiority of slaves and women, although this arguably has wider implications for the modern reception of his ethical philosophy. I think the most important thing is that dialogue continues between Stoic, Aristotelian, and other philosophical perspectives. We have the most to gain by encouraging an intelligent comparison between these ethical perspectives, especially given the growing number of modern readers interested in applying them in their daily lives. As it happens, Marcus Aurelius, though a Stoic, mentions Aristotelian ideas favourably and one of his closest friends and advisors, Claudius Severus, was an Aristotelian philosopher. Marcus praised Severus in The Meditations, mentioning how grateful he was for the opportunity to learn about politics from him. Indeed, I suspect that whether someone engages with Stoicism or Aristotelianism, or Epicureanism, they’re likely to end up better off than someone who doesn’t think about ethical philosophy at all but rather goes along uncritically accepting some of the values prevailing in modern society.
I want to talk briefly about an Aristotelian concept that’s long been associated with psychotherapy. Hall mentions that Aristotle’s Politics refers to “a certain catharsis and alleviation accompanied by pleasure”, which has been taken as the inspiration for Freud’s theory of emotional catharsis. A “cathartic” in medicine is a purgative, a drug that supposedly cleanses poisons from the body by inducing defecation, a bit like a laxative. Freud originally believed that venting strong emotions had a cathartic effect, somehow purging them from our minds. However, although he endorsed emotional catharsis in his first book on psychotherapy, Studies on Hysteria (1895), Freud actually abandoned the method before long. He concluded that venting alone was of little therapeutic benefit unless accompanied by insight into the source of our emotions. In the 1960s and 1970s, several psychotherapists, such as Arthur Janov the founder of Primal Scream therapy, attempted to rehabilitate the notion of catharsis as a psychological therapy. However, it ultimately it failed to gain clinical support. Indeed, Freud and Janov developed their ideas without any scientific evidence, prior to the use of clinical trials in psychotherapy.
It’s beyond question that venting (catharsis) of emotions such as grief or anger often makes clients temporarily feel better. However, feeling better and getting better are two very different things. Researchers have been unable to find robust support for emotional catharsis having genuine long-term psychological benefits. Indeed, in relation to both grief and anger, studies have shown that repeated venting is sometimes more likely to do people more harm than good. It seems that venting an emotion can simply reinforce it, like exercising a muscle or repeating a habit, rather than “getting it out of our system”. In other words, if Aristotle really believed in a psychotherapeutic mechanism of catharsis, as Freud initially did, it seems he may have been mistaken. Perhaps his Golden Mean could be applied here: a little bit of emotional venting is natural and harmless, and suppressing our feelings is often unhealthy, but venting too much or too often isn’t usually therapeutic also be unhealthy.
I really enjoyed this book and I’d definitely recommend it to other people. Even though I’m more partial to Stoicism, I found it interesting and valuable to compare what I’ve learned from Stoicism and cognitive therapy with what Hall says about the ethical and psychological guidance found in Aristotle’s philosophy. It’s very easy to read and that’s quite an achievement with a topic of this nature. I don’t remember Aristotle ever being quite as much fun as this when I was a student. It does read like a mixture of what you’d expect from a conventional self-help book and what you might obtain from a good introduction to classical philosophy. These elements are combined very well, though, and I think it will satisfy people approaching the book from different perspectives: whether they’re more into ancient philosophy or the self-improvement aspect.
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