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Traits of Mind


Following up on my recent post about Plato's Laches and Aristotle's Ethics, I've continued to ponder the need they identified to provide an account for how you live. Although I'm still researching the relevant texts, it appears that Aristotle at least identified such a need in all five of the traits of mind that he discusses: craft, understanding, insight, wisdom, and sagacity (see my Aristotelian glossary for more about these terms). Here is a sketch of my findings so far.

Let's start with craft or technē (Aristotle's examples include shipbuilding, medicine, and music). Such crafts are passed down from generation to generation through teaching, emulation, and a community of practice; they have their lore, their shop talk, their handbooks, their theories; and if you ask a skilled practitioner why they do things a certain way, in all likelihood they will be able to provide an account of their methods and intentions.

As to understanding or epistēmē (sometimes translated as "science" but that's too narrow), almost by definition it is the ability to reliably explain why things are the way they are, which necessarily includes providing an account for their properties and causes.

Insight or nous might seem like a more intuitive process, wherein you simply "see" that two or more entities are so similar that they deserve to be grouped together under the same kind. Yet here too it's reasonable to provide an account for the induction you've made, as for instance biologists do in their classification schemes when they specify that certain differences are quantitative rather than qualitative.

Because wisdom or phronēsis is the process of thoughtful deliberation that leads to conscious choices and commitments, it too seems to presume that you can account for why you decided as you did.

Finally, sagacity or sophia is, according to Aristotle, a combination of understanding and insight, so it simply inherits the qualities of its underlying components.

Thus these traits of mind help to establish a lifelong practice of accounting for your conclusions, commitments, and actions - and, ultimately, for the way you live your life.

However, unlike Nikias in Plato's Laches, we don't have Socrates to goad us into living an examined life and to prevent us from engaging in rationalization, wishful thinking, and just-so stories. More on that next time.

(Cross-posted at


Pair Reading


Over the last few months I've taken up a new practice: reading with friends. The concept is simple: choose a friend, choose a book, slowly read it, and share thoughts on each chapter as you go along. It's kind of like pair programming for intellectual exploration.

So far I've been reading (or I'm about to start reading) the following books:

That might sound like a lot, but since we read slowly (a chapter every week or two), it's easy enough to make leisurely progress.

As to why I'm not reading books in larger groups as you might find in a college seminar or the Catherine Project, I feel that the one-to-one interaction (e.g., the choice of books to read) is more tailored to my relationship with a specific person and thus approaches more closely what Emerson in his essay on friendship called "the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one".

Naturally, in parallel I'm maintaining my own "single reading" (currently focused on Aristotle's Metaphysics), but I find the pair reading even more rewarding.

(Cross-posted at


Called to Account


In Plato's dialogue Laches, Lysimachus and Melesias are searching for someone to teach their sons about courage, so they engage the Athenian generals Laches and Nikias in conversation, with Socrates participating alongside. Socrates encourages Lysimachus to seek an account (logos) of virtue from Laches and Nikias, since they are older and presumably wiser than Socrates himself. When Lysimachus agrees that this is a good idea, Nikias makes a fascinating observation:

You strike me as not being aware that, whoever comes into close contact with Socrates and has any talk with him face to face, is bound to be drawn round and round by him in the course of the argument - though it may have started at first on a quite different theme - and cannot stop until he is led into giving an account (logos) of himself, of the manner in which he now spends his days, and of the kind of life he has lived hitherto; and when once he has been led into that, Socrates will never let him go until he has thoroughly and properly put all his ways to the test. (187e-188a)

Yet Nikias does not object to this rather rough handling: "[T]o me there is nothing unusual, or unpleasant either, in being tried and tested by Socrates."

The verb βασανίζεσθαι, translated by W.R.M. Lamb as "being tried and tested", can also mean "being closely examined" (with a clear connection to "the examined life") or even "being questioned under torture" ... rough handling, indeed!

There is a further connection to Aristotle's exploration of the kind of wisdom (phronesis) that guides our actions. As discussed in my post some weeks ago about understanding what you know, Aristotle holds that understanding (episteme) must be "accompanied by an account" (meta logou) in order to be complete. Likewise, complete wisdom (phronesis) and excellence of character must also be accompanied by an account; this implies that you must be able to explain why you act as you do by grounding your conduct and commitments in the universals of human nature and experience. It is precisely this kind of account that the rich and the powerful, the famous and the fortunate believe it is beneath them to provide. (The ancients had a special word for this: hubris.) By contrast, the person who endeavors to live an examined life is always willing and able to give an account of how they live - not necessarily a flawless account of a flawless life, but a well-reasoned account of a reasonable life.

Here are a few brief examples. As Aristotle describes matters, the decadent person has made a thoroughgoing commitment to always pursue whatever pleasure presents itself at the moment; yet that policy cannot be defended with a well-reasoned account of how they live because it does not activate core human capacities for, among other things, long-term relationships and deliberative action. Similar stories can be told about people who crave ever more of things that have no natural limit, such as money, power, fame, and prestige: because they have set no reasonable limit to their actions and emotions, they cannot give a well-reasoned account of how they live.

Returning to Socrates, notice that in Plato's Apology he is quoted as saying "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being." It is not that someone who can't give an account of their life cannot remain alive or even be successful by some conventional standard, but instead that they are not living in a way that is worthy of the best within us.

As I wrote almost five years ago in a short review of Edith Hall's book Aristotle's Way, Aristotle (along with Socrates and many others) does not talk down to us or give us a few simple life hacks; instead these great thinkers exhort us to join the aristocracy of the human spirit. That level of excellence is rare and difficult (as Spinoza put it), but eminently worth striving for as a human ideal.

(Cross-posted at




Aristotle is well-known for having pioneered our vocabulary of potentiality and actualization. An especially meaningful form of human potentiality or capacity is what he calls a hexis: a stable, voluntarily acquired trait that, when applied, results in reliable activity of a certain kind. Aristotle identifies three such primary traits in human life: virtue or excellence of character (aretē), knowledge or understanding (epistēmē), and craft or skill (technē).

For Aristotle and the ancient Greeks more generally, both knowledge and virtue were ends in themselves, whereas the end of a craft was not the exercise of the craft but whatever the craft might produce outside of itself. Thus, for example, the end of shipbuilding is the ship, the end of medicine is the health of the patient, and the end of music-making is the performance. Significantly, a craft - unlike a virtue - can be used for good or for ill; that purpose is determined by the virtue, or lack thereof, of the person who uses the product of the craft (e.g., a ship can be used for peaceful commerce or for murderous piracy).

In the modern world we have reduced all of these traits to one: technē. For us, as loyal heirs of Francis Bacon, knowledge is no longer an end in itself but primarily a means to gaining power over nature or, increasingly, other people. Similarly, virtuous activity is no longer an end in itself but primarily a means to getting ahead or feeling happy.

The result of reducing knowledge and virtue to crafts is a crafty instrumentalism that cannot question the boundless pursuit of power, wealth, status, fame, and pleasure. Those simply must be valuable because so many people seem to value them, and the only value of knowledge or virtue is to help us attain even more of them.

Yet there exists an older, wiser alternative. Unfortunately, because technē is the ocean we swim in, it's hard to see how to square the ideal of a more contemplative life with the requirements of modern society. To my mind, finding the beautifully right balance here is one of the main tasks of the examined life in this day and age.

(Cross-posted at


Does Everyone Have a Philosophy of Life?


In the spirit of questioning my beliefs and reducing the number of opinions I hold, lately I've been wondering about something I've always assumed: that everyone has a philosophy of life.

To start with, few people study and pursue philosophy or religion in a formal or systematic way. (For the purposes of this journal entry, I'll posit that a religion is a kind of philosophy.) This implies that for the vast majority of people, if they have a philosophy then it's implicit.

Yet what could it mean for a philosophy to be implicit? By its very nature, philosophy - the love and practice of wisdom - is a serious intellectual endeavor that requires a great deal of thought and reflection, well beyond merely accepting a predigested worldview. Imputing a philosophy to everyone seems to significantly dilute the meaning of the word.

Here's another question: if everyone has a philosophy of life, when do they acquire it?

Does it happen when you're a child? That doesn't make sense, because at that point you haven't yet reached what used to be called the age of reason - and, if nothing else, philosophy requires reasoned understanding and assent.

Does it happen when you're an adolescent? For some people, perhaps - after all, that's the time of life when you differentiate yourself from your family and culture, so forming your own philosophy of life might be part of the process of individuation. Yet it seems odd if your philosophy of life could be fully formed when you've had so little experience of life; that's a thin basis on which to generate something so momentous.

Does it happen in your early twenties? It's said that the brain doesn't fully mature until around age 25, and that might be necessary in order to define a philosophy of your own. Yet, here again, you've had limited experience in all the major domains of life (love, friendship, family formation, the workplace, community, etc.).

Does it happen in your late twenties or your thirties, after you've perhaps married, had children, started to build a career, and the like? This seems more plausible. Indeed, supposedly Plato discouraged the study of philosophy before the age of forty, and Aristotle states that it's a waste to introduce young people to philosophy because they haven't had the requisite experience yet. So this might be the time of life to give shape to your views on life.

Does it happen in your sixties or seventies, after you've seen and done most of the things you'll experience in life? This is a time for reflection and "putting it all together" in the search for greater wisdom, so your philosophy might still be changing and growing at this point.

Or consider this: does the task of formulating and refining your own philosophy of life never end?

Although the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, these musings might lead me in precisely the opposite direction of my initial assumption: that is, to the notion that very few people engage in the kind of earnest, lifelong reflection and self-examination necessary to articulate and consistently apply their own philosophy of life.

To be clear and for the record, I'm certain that I haven't arrived there yet myself!

(Cross-posted at


Truth, Goodness, Beauty


As I've noted before, the unity of truth, good, and beauty is close to the heart of the Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian tradition. That's because the highest thing we can know or understand is not the world or even ourselves, but the good. Socrates realized this when he turned away from natural philosophy to the consideration of human affairs. For Aristotle, an understanding of the human good is the key to avoiding the extremes of foolishness and cunning, and thus achieving wisdom or φρόνησις; and an understanding of the divine (the good in its purest form) is the key to avoiding the extremes of ignorance and sophistry or deception, and thus achieving sagacity or σοφία.

This implies that epistemology is inherently ethical - that you need to be good in order to correctly and fully understand why things are the way they are. Indeed, it seems to me that all of the virtues apply not only to action but also to inquiry (for inquiry too is a form of activity). Thus in order to come at all close to wisdom or sagacity, you must have the intellectual courage to pursue truth wherever it may lead, the intellectual moderation or temperance to steer clear of partisanship, the intellectual generosity to give freely of your own insights, the intellectual mildness or gentleness to not get angry in the face of disagreement, the intellectual honesty to admit or even ferret out when and why you are wrong, the intellectual benevolence to care about other people's thoughts and conclusions, the intellectual compassion to see the world from other people's perspectives, the intellectual dignity to not manipulate people into agreeing with you, the intellectual justice or fairness to accurately represent other points of view, and so on. Thus truth and goodness are tightly intertwined.

What of goodness and beauty? For Aristotle, excellence of character had to be founded in a steadfast commitment to what is beautifully right or καλός - a phenomenon that straddles the fence between the ethical and the aesthetic. The best, most beautiful actions and feelings have a rightness about them, they are proportional to the situation you find yourself in, they fit seamlessly together, they don't leave out anything important, they are well ordered, they bespeak a certain personal stature, and they are significant and meaningful to the people involved. These nominally aesthetic qualities are all in play when we say to someone, "That was a beautiful thing you did."

Although Plato and Aristotle didn't draw out all the implications of these connections in their writings, they might have done so in their philosophical communities (the Academy and Lyceum), which you likely couldn't have joined unless you were already a good person. And, following Socrates, they firmly held that the love of wisdom and the pursuit of truth were best done with people you care about and who care about you. Ultimately this means that truth and goodness and beauty are not merely abstract ideas but intimately and irreducibly personal. Thus what has seemed faraway all these millennia might be much nearer than we ever thought possible.

(Cross-posted at


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