Boring May Be Excellent

One of my college philosophy professors admired Aristotle. This professor, my mentor, was trained in the “analytic” tradition in philosophy, which took root in the early twentieth century. It arose alongside the tremendous advances in science that occurred at that time. Analytic philosophy sought understanding through the analysis of language. Aristotle admired scientific thinking; in fact, he invented it. Aristotle’s approach not only reflected a scientific methodology, it also reflected an appreciation for the power of language to decipher reality. As an undergraduate, I thought Aristotle’s work was somewhat boring. He often wrote about what others thought about an issue. Then, he analyzed their arguments and synthesized their views into something new. The result was a kind of commonsense philosophy which attempted to take into account a wide variety of positions about questions like: What is the best way to live one’s life? Not a boring question at all.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote about virtue, arguing that virtuous people exhibit a kind of natural (but not inborn) excellence. It is “natural” because being virtuous or excellent becomes a part of the person; it is the person’s character. The ideal life, on Aristotle’s account, involved being purposeful in life and making intelligent decisions. These decisions drew upon an understanding of the situation, a knowledge of one’s capabilities, and a moderate amount of emotion. For Aristotle, happiness came from living an excellent life. Happy people had to be raised right–a youngster had to learn self-control and had to have learned how to experience the appropriate emotions to the right degrees at the right times.

Happiness could not occur unless basic needs were being met. A minimal amount of money, for example, was necessary. True friendships were also required. An enjoyment of the life of the intellect provided a special kind of happiness, since abstract thought was humankind’s unique purpose in life. When children were raised correctly, had the basic necessities, and strove to be excellent, they became people of good character. Aristotle’s ethical theory has historically been unique, since it focused more on the character of the decision-maker than it did on the ethical deliberations a people make.

Aristotle did not seek to identify ethical principles to guide one’s life; instead, he assumed that a virtuous person would make good choices. There was no need, on this view, to write any rules for how people should behave. One just had to understand that there was much more to life than the emotions, and fulfill one’s purpose. This theory fell out of favor as subsequent ethical theories focused more on intellectual deliberation and the development of ethical principles. Some subsequent theorists focused on the principles involving the consequences of the act; others wrote about the intentions of the agent. Aristotle’s inclusion of the emotions in ethical considerations was dropped as the focus shifted to the intellectual calculations people make to determine whether an act was right or wrong.

In Aristotle’s time, the Ancient Greeks reveled in emotion, thinking that the best life involved experiencing emotions to the fullest. Aristotle countered that view, arguing that the excess or deficiency of emotions (like rashness and cowardice) were antithetical to happiness. Happiness arose when people were virtuous, i.e., when they had the appropriate feelings and they acted (bravely, for example) based upon the given situation and their capabilities.

Bertrand Russell, one of the founders of analytic philosophy, stated in his History of Western Philosophy, that Aristotle’s ethical philosophy was an old man’s philosophy. Excess apparently provided a pleasure Russell did not want to forgo. But, there is some truth in Russell’s criticism. Aristotle’s view of ethics was probably not appealing to young men or women. As I have grown older, I realized that old men are often wiser. As I look back on my life, I realize that there were some years when I did not have a purpose. And there were times I regret when I put pleasure ahead of friendship or acted cowardly or rashly. We can not let our emotions rule our lives, nor can we live like robots, secluded or intellectually distant. We do need a purpose in our lives. We have to let our intellect guide us, but we need a rich emotional life as well. We also need money and friendship, which is commonsense. (We won’t be happy if we are starving.) And when our life ends, we need to have died honorably, having lived a life where we at least tried to be people of good character.

Is Aristotle’s philosophy boring? It may be. There probably won’t be a TV show called “Being Aristotle” airing any time soon. Could you imagine the trailer? “Watch Aristotle explain the four different kinds of causes after he contemplates for twenty minutes about arete’ (excellence).” This show would not be as interesting to watch as a show about someone taking big risks, manipulating others, being a drama king or queen, living for money or power, or seeking sensual pleasure. But, a person who knows who she is, who has a purpose to her life, who tries to make the best decisions she can, and who values friendships, will ultimately be happier than those who pursue excesses or lives a life of deficiencies. It can seem boring to try to make things better by plugging along, doing the right thing, and living out of the spotlight. But, boring may be excellent.

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