‘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’.
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?