Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap
This year marks the 2400th anniversary of the birth of Aristotle (Aristotélēs). Who was this great and respected man whom Dante Alighieri, in La Divina Commedia, dubbed him as “the master of those who know?” (Inf. 4.131). Who was this man which, this famous epic poem, made other prominent philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, simply look up to him with so much honour?
Aristotle was born around 384 BC in the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia where his father was the royal doctor. He grew out to be arguably the most influential philosopher ever with modest names like the Master, and simply the Philosopher. His first big job was to train 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 undertook his intellectual endeavour on his own.
He founded a little school called the Lyceum, today French secondary schools, Les Lycées, are named in honour of this venture. He liked to walk about while teaching and discussing ideas. His followers were nicknamed “peripathetics”, the wanderers. His many books are actually lecture notes. Aristotle was fascinated by how many things actually work. How does a chick grow into an egg? Why does a plant grow into one place and hardly at all into another? And, most importantly, what makes a human life, a whole society, go well? Aristotle’s philosophy was about practical wisdom. There are four big philosophical questions Aristotle answered. First, what makes people happy? Second, what is art for? Third, what are friends for? Fourth, how can ideas cut through in a busy world?
Today I would like to principally concentrate on the first question, which, by and large, is in the interest of all of us: what makes people happy? In the Nicomachean Ethics, the book which got its name because it was edited by his son Nicomachus, Aristotle set for 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 get better at identifying what these are so that we can nurture them in ourselves and honour them in others. Aristotle zeroed in on eleven virtues. These are courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnamity, proper ambition, patience, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness and modesty.
Aristotle also observed that every virtue seems to be lying in the middle of two vices. It occupies what he termed “the golden mean”, between two extremes of character. For instance, in book 4 of his ethics he looks at ways people are good or worst at conversation. Knowing to have a good conversation is one of the key ingredients for a good life Aristotle recognised. Here Aristotle presents the two extremes of boorishness and buffonery. He argues that some people go wrong because they lack a subtle sense of humour. That’s the boor.The latter is someone useless for any kind of social intercourse because he contributes nothing and takes offence at everything. On the other side of the spectrum others carry humour to excess. The buffon cannot resist a joke sparing either himself or everybody 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, the tactful.
A particularly fascinating moment is when Aristotle draws up a table on too little (deficiency), too much (excess) and just right (mean) around a whole list of virtues. We can’t change our behaviour in any of these areas just at the drop of hat. But change is possible and gradual. Moral goodness, says Aristotle, is the result of habit. It takes time, practice, encouragment. Thus, Aristotle thinks that people who lack virtue should be understood as unfortunate rather than wicked. What they need is scolding, better teachers and more guidance.
Considering that Aristotle was pivotal in the shaping of European intellectual life and laid the foundations forthe idea of Democracy and the establishment of the European and North American Constitutions may this anniversary spur us to seek and lead a virtuous life. If this happens this anniversary will surely be unforgettable indeed!