Aristotle was born around 384 BC in the ancient
Greek kingdom of Macedonia where his father was the royal doctor.
He grew up to be arguably the most influential philosopher ever, with modest nicknames like
‘the master’ and simply ‘the philosopher’. His first big job was tutoring 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 branched out on his own. He founded a little school called
the Lyceum. French secondary schools – ‘the lycees’ – are named in honour of this venture.
He liked to walk about while teaching and discussing ideas. His followers were nicknamed ‘peripatetics’
– ‘the wanderers.’ His many books are actually lecture
notes Aristotle was fascinated by how many things actually work: how does a chick grow in an
egg? How do squid reproduce? Why does a plant grow well in one place and hardly at all in another? And – most
importantly – what makes a human life, and a whole society, go well?
For Aristotle, philosophy was about practical wisdom.
Here are four big philosophical questions he answered.
One : what makes people happy? In the ‘Nicomachean’ ethics (the book
got it’s name because it was edited by his son, Nicomachus) Aristotle set 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 should get better at identifying what
these are, so that we can nurture them in ourselves and honour them in others. Aristotle
zeroed in on 11 virtues Courage
Friendliness Modesty Aristotle also observed that every virtue
seems to be bang in the middle of two vices. It occupies what he termed ‘the golden mean’
[a perfectly balanced plank on triangle] between two extremes of character.
For example, in Book IV of his Ethics, under the charming title of ‘Conversational Virtues:
wit, buffoonery and boorishness’, Aristotle looks at ways people are better or worse at
conversation. (knowing how to have a good conversation is one of the ingredients of
the good life, Aristotle recognised). Some people go wrong because they lack a subtle
sense of humour: that’s the “boor”, someone “useless for any kind of social
intercourse, because he contributes nothing and takes offence at everything.’ But others carry humour to excess: ‘The
buffoon cannot resist a joke, sparing neither himself, nor anybody 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, but tactful. A particularly fascinating moment is when
Aristotle draws up a table of ‘too little’ ‘too much’ and ‘just right’ around
the whole host of virtues. We can’t change our behaviour in any of
these areas just at the drop of a hat. But change is possible, eventually. ‘Moral goodness’
says Aristotle ‘ is the result of habit’. It takes times, practice, encouragement. So,
Aristotle thinks, people who lack virtue should be understood as unfortunate rather than wicked.
What they need is not scolding or being thrown in prison but better teachers, more guidance. Two: what is art for? The blockbuster art at that time was tragedy.
Athenians watched gory plays at community festivals in huge open air theatres. Aeschylus,
Euripides and Sophocles were household names. Aristotle wrote a ‘how to write great plays’
manual: the Poetics. It’s packed with great tips.
For example, make sure to use: peripeteia – a change in fortune, when for
the hero things go from great to awful [in Titanic, Leonardo de Caprio gets Kate Winslow
(great) then they hit the iceberg (awful) and
anagnoresis – a moment of dramatic revelation when suddenly the hero works out their life
is a catastrophe But what is tragedy actually for? What is the point of a whole community coming together
to watch horrible things happening to the lead characters? Like Oedipus (in the play
by Sophocles) who by accident, kills his father, gets married to his mother, finds out he’s
done these things [on screen: anagnoresis!) and gouges out his own eyes in remorse and
despair. Aristotle’s answer is Katharis – which is
greek for … Catharsis. Catharsis is a kind of cleaning – you get rid of bad stuff. In this case cleaning up
our emotions, specifically our confusions around the feelings of fear and pity.
We’ve got natural problems here: we are hard hearted: we don’t give pity where it
is deserved. And we’re prone to either exaggerated fears or not getting frightened enough Tragedy reminds us that:
terrible things can befall decent people including ourselves): a small flaw can lead to a whole
life unravelling and so
we should have more compassion (or pity) for those whose actions go disastrously wrong.
We need to be collective re-taught these crucial truths on a regular basis. The task of art
– as Aristotle saw it – is to make profound truths about life stick in our minds.
Three: What are friends for? In books eight and nine of the Nicomachean
Ethics Aristotle identifies three different kinds of friendship.
There’s friendship that comes about when each person is seeking fun; their ‘chief
interest is in their own pleasure and the opportunity of the moment’ which the other
person provides. We need other people to have a nice time around. We need pleasant companions. [on screen, beer drinking festival]
Then there are friendships that are really strategic acquaintances: ‘they take pleasure
in each other’s company only in so far as they have hopes of advantage of it.’ [on screen: faux-jovial business meeting]
Then there’s the true friend: Not someone who’s just like you. But someone who isn’t
you – but about whom you care as much as you are about yourself.
The sorrows of a true friend are your sorrows to, their joys are yours. It makes you more
vulnerable – should anything befall this person. But it is hugely strengthening: you are relieved
from the too small orbit of your own thoughts and worries, you expand into the life of another,
together you become larger, cleverer, more resilient, more fair minded. You share virtues
and cancel out each other’s defects. Friendship teaches us what we ought to be. It is – quite
literally – the best part of life. Four: how can ideas cut through in a busy
world? Like a lot of people, Aristotle was struck
by the fact that the best argument doesn’t always win the debate or the battle. He wanted to know why this happens and what we can do about it. He had lots of opportunity for observations:
in Athens lots of decisions were made in public meetings (often in the Agora – the town square);
orators would vie with one another to sway popular opinion. Aristotle plotted the ways audiences and individuals
are influenced by many factors that don’t strictly engage with logic or the facts of
the case. It’s maddening. And many serious people
[especially Plato] can’t stand it. They avoid the marketplace and populist debate. Aristotle was more ambitious. He invented
the art of what we still today call Rhetoric: the art of getting people to agree with you.
He wanted thoughtful, serious and well-intentioned people to learn how to be persuasive – to
reach those who don’t agree already. He makes some timeless points: You have to
recognise, acknowledge and sooth people’s fears. You have to see the emotional side
of the issue – is someone’s pride on the line, are they feeling embarrassed – and edge
round it accordingly. You have to make it funny – because attention
spans are short. And you might have to use illustrations and
examples to make your point come alive. We’re keen students of Aristotle.
Today ‘Philosophy’ doesn’t sound like the most practical activity. Maybe that’s
because we’ve not paid enough attention, recently, to Aristotle