Aristotle and Ethics in a minute.

‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer’. This is a phrase from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which nicely alludes to his thought on happiness, meaning that he felt a few moments of pleasure don’t add up to true happiness. When we think of happiness we might think of holidays, chocolate or books but to Aristotle this would not have been enough for a good life, as for Aristotle, happiness is not so much about how you feel but more about what you achieve over a long period of time. It might be understood as the feeling we get at the end of the day when the sun is setting and we feel our days work is done.

Equally for Aristotle, virtue played a pivotal role in his concept of happiness or fulfilment. What Aristotle called the ‘magnanimous man’ was someone different from the Christian saint. quoting Bertrand Russell, ‘he should have proper pride, and not underestimate his own merits. He should despise whoever deserves to be despised.’ This justified Nietzsche’s criticism of religion as slave morality a few millennia later…

Similarly, Aristotle thought that virtue was the means between two extremes. For example, it is bad to not tell the truth, but Aristotle argues that it is also bad to be too truthful, namely, heavily criticising your grandmothers cooking!! Ultimately, Aristotle champions the philosopher and wished to create a society in which children grew up articulating the world with wisdom. This is what Aristotle meant when he said that ethics and therefore happiness was only open to the philosophers. Similar to the famous maxim of Socrates ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’.



Knowledge to be applied in our lives: Epicurus.

like most of the philosophies of Epicurus’ age, they aimed at securing tranquility for the individual. Epicurus is a great example for the universal applicability of Epicureanism as he himself was poor and suffered from ill health throughout most of his life yet still managed to live a life of great bravery and fortitude.

Pleasure:

Epicurus’ pleasure was not quite our modern day definition of pleasure or hedonism. Epicurus himself lived a very minimalistic life eating no more than bread and olives with the occasional slice of cheese, as Epicurus exclaims ‘the greatest good of all is prudence’. Similar to buddhism, Epicurus somewhat renounces the material world in an attempt to flee from the constraints of culture. amongst the prohibitions Epicurus noted an involvement in political life, sexual pursuits and marriage as difficult when attempting to pursue a life of peace. Essentially, for Epicurus his notion of pleasure was cynical, he didn’t believe in consumerist happiness and renounced a lot of what Aristotle or the stoics might have thought of when conceptualising the good life. Epicurus’ philosophy is a one of peace.

Friendship:

Above all however, Epicurus thought that the safest of social pleasures was in fact friendship. Having renounced most of his surroundings he recognised that one was not able to live without friends. This is what I believe we can learn from Epicurus, as he calls for a interconnectivity or a brotherhood of man that seems to be crucial to us as social beings. Although we may not agree with the austerity and asceticism that runs through Epicurus’ work, we can all agree that our social relationships dictate much of our lives and really ensuring these are meaningful to us is a mission worth working towards. But why is it so important?

Friends are their to comfort you in both joy and sadness. They can help you gain perspective when your life has gone astray.

Friends are integral for developing social skills, if we didn’t have friends we would never have been able to act out different personalities, styles and modes of behaviour that help us develop as young people. In the best cases, friends can act as a self-critical group that strengthen your sense of morality.

Making friends can break down social barriers. Making friends with someone of different skin colour, religion or sex is useful for us when expanding our circle of tolerance.

More selfishly, friends can help us with our health and longevity. Studies have shown that old people with friends generally live happier and healthier lives.

Conversations, fraternity, sorority and friendship are what we need if we are to unpack complex problems. Debates we seen on youtube or conversations we see on TV news could be greatly improved if we attempted to conduct our speech in the spirit of friendship.

Knowledge to be applied in our lives: On Liberty(Mill, J.S. 1859)

Freedom and eccentricity:

‘while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living’. This maxim from Mill’s On Liberty is a valid reason for why freedom of speech should never be prohibited as long as it doesn’t transfigure into violent acts. However, there have been debates over whether hate speech in fact propels violence, So I won’t try and answer the question on absolute free speech today, but I will demonstrate the relationship between the precious commodity of eccentricity and freedom.

In this book, Mill coins the ‘harm principle’, which in layman’s terms means that I should be able to do whatever I want as long as I’m not harming anyone, or better put, “my fist ends at the tip of your nose”. Mill also thought that free speech was heavily dependent on where you say it, for example, shouting “BOMB!” in a theatre full of people knowing their isn’t a bomb is a violation of free speech, yet speech to offend should not be prohibited, as sometimes forms of truth are not golden and shiny but instead, cold and frosty. Again, I’m not arguing whether this is patently right as we might be more enmeshed than Mills thought, but that at least there are aspects of importance here that can be applicable to our lives.

Mill gives us the freedom to live experimentally, trying different forms of behaviour and expanding our societies scope for creativity and eccentricity. Most people are content to live a life relative conformity and that is fine, but the idea of being creative, eccentric and individual should always be offered to people if needed. If we all hesitated to criticise someone for wearing a strange hat, walking the dog at 1am or being unusually awkward, we would in fact live freer ourselves as the realms of possible experience would expand, potentially leading us to live more original and interesting lives. Although moral laws are crucial for our collective consciousness, we must admit that freedom of being is yet to fully develop. It is necessary for this to happen for progress as some of the most enlightened adepts of all disciplines and occupations such as Nietzsche, Ghandi, Da Vinci, Wilde, Diogenes were able go lives that defied conventionality. Specifically, Da Vinci as a kid would go out, observe and ask questions about existence such as ‘what is the colour of a woodpeckers tongue?’. Ghandi, coming from a wealthy family ended living in robes usually worn by the poor and Wilde would dress flamboyantly in a time when this was unheard of. It is our job then to preserve this landscape of possibilities for ourselves and for the people who need it the most. Freedom of choice and speech must be seen as ongoing experiments that will at times offend us, but we should reflect on feelings of offence and ask, is it my lack of freedom that makes me externalise this uncertainty?

Knowledge to be applied in our lives(film): Embrace of the serpent(Guerra, C. 2015)

Forgotten lands:

Ciro Geurra’s dreamlike film, Embrace of the Serpent is full of sentiment, surrealism, terror and disarray. He does this by editing the film in an ethereal black and white haze of mysticism that casts a hypnotic veil over the audiences eyes. However for me, what this film more importantly shows is how the realm of mystical experience is rarely gazed at in the western world. We might think of the concept of the dream in this film as forgotten lands that still walk through our psyche’s at night, that still speak to us when reductionist materialism fails to generate feelings of wholesomeness. The central focus of the film is on a character called Karamakate who we are introduced to as a young adult and an old man. He is the last of his clan and seems to be the last person keeping the dreamscape alive and shows this by his faith in the dream but also by harbouring a cynicism of a world that may no longer exist. Quite aptly, the metaphorical destruction of the dream is shown through the destruction of his group due to the production of rubber, a material substance used for many reasons other than dreaming.

So what is the dream?

The dream represents the most precious aspect of religion. The ability to connect to phenomena in ways that are transportive and transfiguring. After all the word religion derives from the latin ‘religare’ which means to bind, to link and reconnect. I am not saying that this quality of experience is only a feature of religion or that any form of religious belief is necessary for this sense of transcendence, it is only that I Believe words like God, Religion and revelation have been useful polywords for a canon of experience that doesn’t have so much of a footing in the material world. In many ways Karamakate is symbolic of this effervescence that never seems to fully compute with the other main characters, two travellers from the west. Specifically, the scene in which Karamakate gives Yakruna to the traveller, he asks of the plant to show the man ‘everything it sees’ and ‘everything it feels’, which then cuts to a number of swooping birds eye view shots showing the majesty of the jungle and the interconnectedness of all phenomena that transcend appearances in consciousness. In the appearance of dualism there is every reason to, at times, know what it means to transcend this. Of course, I believe this has been the best use of religions but of course it often rarely features. crusades? slavery? fundamentalism? Yet lets not throw out the baby with the bath water. Lets promote freedom of choice, freedom of voice, fraternity and what the best of religion offers, a collection of transcendent experiences that all of us can attempt to have more of. Whether we call it God or religion does not matter.

Reasons to have meaning: Aeneas’ journey into the underworld. (The Aeneid. West, D. 1990)

At points in the Aeneid, the main protagonist Aeneas lacks resolve, he feels at the mercy of the Gods and his limbs have grown weak from the Journey. He can see neither where he left or where fate will lead him. It often seems as though Aeneas is in a perpetual battle between what he knows is right(founding Lavinium) and what is often most appealing, which is to retreat from the fated course of events. However, when he reaches the underworld and eventually leaves it he is a changed man full of resolve and vigour.

Meeting your mission/adversary:

When Aeneas reaches Italy he consults a Sibyl. The Sibyl tells him of many challenges and difficulties yet to come, she tells Aeneas of the second Achilles(A fearsome hero in the Trojan war) and wars that will leave the river Tiber teeming with blood. However, she does promise that the fate of Aeneas is to found a new city in Italy. Having set his mission after understanding what is required, he replies to the sibyl that he has lived this suffering all before. We can roughly compare this to a mission or goal that we could choose to adopt in our lives. Like Aeneas we could set goals for ourselves that fill us with a sense of nobility and prestige, A kin to the importance of Aeneas’ founding of early Rome. This can manifest in many forms, from attempting to reconcile family matters, to running a restaurant or perhaps running a country, each can have an individual purpose that adds meaning to the corner of the universe you inhabit, Aeneas Rome could be your mission.

Acceptance of suffering:

Notably, instead of fighting the suffering as he often does in the first four books, Aeneas eventually decides to integrate the innate suffering of the mission. This wise recognition of responsibility and fated events is a tremendously important point to use as a tool of knowledge. He gleefully accepts that founding Rome will lead to centuries of abundance, civility and piety so recognises that the suffering is worthwhile and in fact transformational, much of what Aristotle envisioned for his adoptees of Eudaimonia. This applies greatly to our lives. In comparison, the project of hedonism is one in which many work for unsuccessfully. Due to hedonisms very nature it does not lead to any tangible value but instead a series of transient feelings that can often leave us empty. Therefore, it is much better to find something that gives us a centrality of meaning in our lives that will bring suffering but more importantly the opportunity to transcend this and find fulfilment.

The symbolic meaning of the underworld:

Many myths speak of a hero journeying into the underworld and returning resolved. Literature professor Joseph Campbell conceptualises the idea of the Hero’s Journey which understands there to be a pattern in myth, the idea of going into the Unknown and death/re-birth are both examples of this. In Aeneas’ case he ventures to see his Father who offers him a revelation about the future greatness of Rome. We see this idea of re-birth replicated in every form of art, notably, the transformation of Gandalf the grey into the wiser Gandalf the white, the disintegration and then re-spawning of the Phoenix in Harry Potter. This shows a collective recognition that transformational suffering is a deeply meaningful event in ones life. Viktor Frankl, a Austrian Psychiatrist and the Grandfather of Logo-therapy endured months at a Nazi concentration camp and came to the realisation that what separated men who survived and those who didn’t was a felt sense of meaning in their lives that carried them through the darkest moments. Ultimately, what Aeneas and Frankl have in common is a realisation of a transcendent purpose that supersedes the difficulties faced along the Hero’s Journey. Interestingly enough, once Aeneas’ father prophesies the founding of Rome he is met with the option of leaving the underworld one of two ways, an easy exit through the gate of horns, or through the ivory gate which though the ‘powers of the underworld send false dreams up towards the heavens’. To me this symbolises the recognition of the utility of suffering, for if given the chance he would not take the easy exit without due respect for the underworld.

Knowledge to be applied in our lives(Why pleasure is not enough): Civilization and its discontents(Freud, S. 1930).

Freud in Civilization and its discontents¬†is pessimistic of the human condition in essence. His account of society is that most people follow the simple programme of the pleasure principle as a means for deriving meaning in life. Further, in Freuds view the ‘intention that man should be ‘happy has no part in the plan of creation’ but merely is an ‘episodic phenomenon’ that requires the universe to be tailored to your needs. However, Freud does not discount pleasure as something futile but recognises that the satisfaction of the ‘drives’ can be rewarding all the while understanding that such an ephemeral phenomenon like pleasure cannot be the sole basis for a meaningful and happy existence. Equally, looking at the state of western, consumer capitalism, there is no surprise such an agenda for meaning has been pushed. Namely, Coca Cola’s ‘choose happiness’ or Johnnie Walkers ‘Joy will take you further campaign’ have both played a part in the collective distortion that pleasure does simply equal happiness.

What this clears up is that pleasure is a fleeting, ephemeral form of joy that we can distinguish from happiness. However, once we admit this, many more possibilities arise that are not as closely related to the pleasure principle. Freud even offers a useful example of engaging in creative and intellectual pursuits, this is primarily because it is an endeavour that is stretched out over much time that cannot be achieved instantaneously and thus delays the gratification of pleasure. This is certainly a wiser pursuit than hedonism.

Yet, the reason why I have taken an interest in Freuds civilization and its discontents is not due to his own thesis’ on what makes for a good life but because of his excellent point made about the current state of wellbeing for many in the developed world. There is seemingly a great rise in living conditions and abundance(see: OurWorldInData), yet modernity seems to be malnourished when it comes to what accounts for a good life. This is not to say that many aspects of medical and technological progress have not improved our lives, they definitely have, but rather that there are crucial aspects of the past in which the developed world is lacking. Namely, Hegel states in the phenomenology of spirit that each epoch has had wise and important insights into the nature of experience. My goal is to recover these aspects of the past to inform individuals on how certain aspects of culture, thought and phenomenology certain communities in history fostered, can be useful tools of knowledge to live better in the present. Future posts will be aimed at addressing this through thought, art and film, as well as music.

Knowledge to be applied in our lives: Tao:the watercourse way(Watts, A. 1975)

Being like water:

Similar to the life Philosophy, Stoicism, the Tao, or the way is a method through which we can live to some degree, in accordance with nature. Underlying this is the Chinese principle of polarity. contrariwise, the Western religions have stressed dichotomies such as Good vs Evil, Material vs Immaterial and light and darkness which ultimately cultivates an idealism that attempts to dispose of the latter and keep the former. Watts draws on the project of western technology as a means to ‘keep the former'(Watts, A) yet with the advent of these technologies(Penicillin, nuclear energy and the internet), new problems have arisen and again retreat to polarity. In Taoism, this is called the Tao(way) which is the interdependence of opposites as well as a realisation that one’s self and nature ‘are one and the same process’.

Watts and the Taoists analogise the movement of water as akin to the way in which humans can experience an existence less dependant on fixed, oppositional ways of thinking that can often distort the arising and passing that inherently exists in the universe. Namely, water represents this flow which takes the path of least possible resistance. Namely, Watts quotes an ancient Chinese text that states:

The great Tao flows everywhere, to the left to the right, all things depend upon it to exist, and it does not abandon them. (103d).

This may not be scientifically accurate but it is beside the point to see it in a scientific context, the comparison of humans to water has utility when applied to our lives. It can remind us that attempting to control many situations in our lives is in contradiction with the flow of indeterminate experience that governs our existence. This is not to be passive but instead harness a calmness that is simultaneously aware of the dimensions of activity and decision making in our lives but also the chaotic nature of the universe that is mostly out of our control. Out of the great ‘mutual arising'(Watts, A) of chaos and order, good and bad, selling and buying, Watts and Taoism in still in us a way of living that is both active and decisive whilst being fully aware and accepting that the physical laws of the universe are playing out. In other words, ‘what goes on simply happens of itself’.

Wu Wei:

‘The Tao does nothing, and yet nothing is left undone’. These famous words from Lao Tzu imply a state of laziness, yet this is the opposite of what he hoped to infer. The phrase ‘Wu Wei’ roughly translates to ‘not forcing’ which is roughly akin to western phrases like “rolling with the punches” and “trimming sails to the wind”. I will try and explain this by using two of watts examples. The first is the sport of Judo. Judo is a sport in which the opponent is defeated by the force of his own attack, further, Watts attests to seeing a man thrown to the ground without being touched. The second example is that of a parable about branches laden with snow in winter. The pine branch, being rigid, cracks under the weight whereas the willow branch yields to the weight and the snow drops off. These a both metaphors describing a form of intelligence that knows ‘the principles, structures and trends of human natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy in dealing with them'(Watts, A). This is equally an unconscious intelligence of the mind and body or as Watts explains, ‘the innate wisdom of the nervous system'(Watts, A). In more detail:

‘Wu Wei is a combination of this wisdom with taking the line of least resistance in all ones actions. In Judo, for example, one uses muscle but only at the right moment, when the opponent is off balance or has over extended himself.’

Wu Wei shows us how we should be effortful in acquiring wisdom so that we are able to act effortlessly in the world.

Bibliography:

Alan Watts (1975). Tao: The Watercourse Way. 2nd ed. London: Souvenir Press. p18-106.