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Virtue and Happiness


One of Aristotle's signature claims in ethics is that virtue and happiness go hand in hand. To our ears this sounds questionable at best, because we think of virtue as a matter of following rules and doing your duty, whereas we think of happiness as a matter of having fun and experiencing pleasure. "Do your duty and you'll have lots of fun?" Um, no!

Because Aristotle was one of the most brilliant people who ever lived, it's doubtful that he would have adopted and passionately defended such a ridiculous position. This prods us to dig beneath the surface and understand what he really meant.

If we render ἀρετή as "excellence" or "thriving" of character and εὐδαιμονία as "flourishing" or "fulfillment" across a person's lifetime, then we can begin to see that true fulfillment depends on completely developing your capacities, fully maturing as a person, and guiding your life based on real self-knowledge and a deep understanding of human nature. Suddenly the gap doesn't seem so wide, does it?

Naturally, this is the merest sketch - fleshing it out in detail is a lot of work. I'll devote quite a few pages to delivering on this promissory note in my forthcoming book on Aristotle's conception of human fulfillment.

(Cross-posted at


Scholē is Wasted on the Scholars


Exactly five years ago today I published a brief research report on the ancient Greek concept of σχολή. Illustrating the twists and turns that words can take over the millennia, for the ancients scholē meant leisure, but centuries later it also served as the root of our word 'school' - not a place that we associate with leisure!

One commenter on my post the other day about deep reading noted the novelty of re-reading books. Isn't reading the same book two or three times something that only scholars do, for instance when working on a Ph.D. thesis?

Well, the word 'scholar' too derives from σχολή, so if we think it through perhaps we can uncover a different, more humane form of scholarship that's open to everyone, not only the professionals who profess to know.

We often hear about the decline of the humanities, typically measured by the percentage of undergraduate students who major in fields like literature, history, and philosophy. Yet the humanities aren't the sole possession of professors and students; they should be broad enough to include what happens when you read a novel or go to a play or have a great conversation with an insightful friend of yours. These are the kinds of seriously leisured and actively contemplative pastimes that make life worthwhile.

Moreover, it's far from clear to me that academic scholars - living as they do in a status-driven world of ever-narrowing specialization and (even worse) overt political and ideological activism - truly understand the serious purposes to which leisure ought to be put. Indeed, I'd hazard that those who end up preserving the humanities will be folks like you and me who ask the big questions and work hard to understand the human condition - often, though by no means exclusively, by reading and re-reading and discussing great works of world literature, history, and philosophy. To my mind, this informal yet earnest pursuit of wisdom is scholē as its best.

(Cross-posted at


Deep Reading


Recently someone asked me how I approach the reading of timeless books, so here are a few thoughts; perhaps you'll find this post helpful in your own reading practice. (I read "timely" books differently, but it's the timeless ones that I care about most.)

First, when I want to truly understand a book, I read a physical copy. Yes, I maintain a large website of books in the public domain, and I'm continually posting old books there, which I read on my phone (e.g., I'm doing that these days with Shakespeare). But when I want to go deep, invariably I do so on paper so that I can focus on the text without distractions, pore over passages, flip back and forth, etc.

Second, timeless books reward multiple readings. With some books I'll read a chapter and then re-read it a day or two later; this is how I'm currently reading Heidegger's Being and Time because it's difficult to figure out his meanings. With others I'll read the book several times over a span of years; I've done this with essayists (e.g., Montaigne), playwrights (e.g., Ibsen), novelists (e.g., Hugo), poets (e.g., Dickinson), and philosophers (e.g., Lao Tzu).

Third, if the author originally wrote in a language other than English, I often consult several translations. This is especially important if I don't know the source language, as with Montaigne and Lao Tzu. And if I do know the source language, I try to check key passages against the original text.

Fourth, when I'm working through an author that I'm encountering for purposes of writing a book of my own, I read everything they've written, note key passages, and pay particular attention to those passages the second time around (I've done this especially with Nietzsche, Thoreau, and now Aristotle).

Fifth, I've become more comfortable with marking up books. In days gone by I treated them as sacred objects, but now I willingly apply pen and pencil to paper. Here, for instance, is a passage in Book II, Chapter 2 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics:

Here you can see that I've marked up this passage on three separate occasions: the first time in pencil, the second time in red ink, and the third time in blue ink. That's intensive re-reading!

Sixth, I sometimes write summaries or blog posts about books that strike me as especially significant; this helps me to recall what I've read and to formulate my own thoughts in response.

Finally, I'm quite choosy about the books I read this deeply. To me, it's more important to have truly meaningful encounters with relatively few books than to check off every item on some arbitrary list of the greatest books in world history. This gives me the leisure and luxury of reading slowly, deliberately, intensively, passionately. If you ask me, timeless books deserve no less.

(Cross-posted at


Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics II.5-9


Following up on his initial inquiry into ἀρετή, Aristotle digs further into thrivings of character. Are they feelings or emotions like anger, fear, and jealousy? No, because those are ephemeral motions in the psyche that we experience without having chosen them, which is why people aren't praised or blamed for what they happen to feel. Are they capacities or predispositions? No, because although an irritable person (say) might be predisposed to be annoyed, irritability is something like a temporary mood founded in a capacity that everyone has. Are they stable traits (ἕξεις)? Yes, because traits are formed through a long series of actions and commitments and therefore can be described as chosen; this is why people are responsible for their character. It is the serious (σπουδαῖος) thrivings and unworthy (φαῦλος) failings of character that cause us to actively conduct ourselves well or badly in relation to the feelings, all of which involve either pleasure (e.g., affection) or pain (e.g., hatred).

Every thriving of character brings the psyche into a better condition and a state of completion, since it activates the relevant human capacities (such as rationality and sociality). It also makes such a person's activities serious (σπουδαῖος), since a thriving of character comes fully to life and to completion in action. The underlying principle is that when we conduct ourselves badly in relation to the feelings, we overdo it (e.g., feeling too much pity) or underdo it (e.g., not feeling enough confidence) and this pushes us off balance, whereas reacting proportionately preserves and reinforces a good condition of the soul. When we attain this kind of balance-point, we get things right (κατορθοῦται).

Tangentially, Aristotle notes that this kind of account (λόγος) might be true in general, but it's especially important that we apply it to particulars. Thus in II.7 he goes beyond the traditional Greek "four virtues" - courage, moderation, justice, and wisdom - by briefly previewing a whole list of thrivings such as generosity, gentleness, and truthfulness. (We need not dwell on these now, since he will go through them in great detail later on.)

Given the many domains of action and feeling in which we might need to find the balance-point between falling short and going too far, developing good character could be difficult; indeed, Aristotle implies that it's the task (ἔργον) of a lifetime. Yet he does offer a few suggestions at this point, such as deliberately aiming away from your natural tendencies (as for instance I've done over the years in order to cultivate greater empathy) and paying close attention to particulars so that you can correctly size up the situations you find yourself in. As we'll see, policies of this kind are part of practical wisdom or what we moderns might call situational judgment.

This concludes our walk through Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics. Next time we'll look at Aristotle's analysis in Book III of what makes human actions voluntary, willing, and chosen.

(Cross-posted at


The Sweet Milk of Adversity


As I work my way through all the plays of Shakespeare, I've had an idea for another book, entitled The Sweet Milk of Adversity: On Shakespeare and Philosophy. It turns out that philosophical insights figure significantly throughout the plays. The title comes from Romeo and Juliet, in which Romeo and Friar Laurence have the following exchange:

O, thou wilt speak again of banishment.

I'll give thee armour to keep off that word:
Adversity's sweet milk, philosophy,
To comfort thee, though thou art banished.

The image of the milk (and armor) of philosophy comes from The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, in which the character of "Philosophy" herself says:

'But the time,' said she, 'calls rather for healing than for lamentation.' Then, with her eyes bent full upon me, 'Art thou that man,' she cries, 'who, erstwhile fed with the milk and reared upon the nourishment which is mine to give, had grown up to the full vigour of a manly spirit? And yet I had bestowed such armour on thee as would have proved an invincible defence, hadst thou not first cast it away.'

So far I've identified philosophical themes in every play I've read, from comedies like Measure for Measure to histories like Richard II to tragedies like Julius Caesar. This could be a fun project! But I need to finish my Aristotle book first...

(Cross-posted at

Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics I.13-II.4


In Book I, Chapter 13 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle turns in earnest to an investigation of ἀρετή - traditionally translated as 'virtue', more recently by some scholars as 'excellence', and by yours truly as 'thriving'. I have my reasons for this novel rendering, among them a similarity between the ancient Greek verb ἀρετάω (attested several times in Homer's Odyssey) and the core meaning of the English verb thrive as "to grow or develop well" (OED). Interestingly, the OED points out that thrive can also mean "to be successful or eminent in arms or war", which is akin to ἀρετή in the sense of martial strength and excellence (cf. Latin virtūs).

Thus to acquire and apply the thrivings of mind and character is to grow and develop well in your mental and behavioral traits and practices. Just as physical exercise gets your body in great shape, so intellectual and ethical exercise gets your soul in great shape.

But what is the basic nature of the soul or psyche - i.e., your essential aliveness as a human being? Aristotle argues that although human faculties are inseparable from each other in nature (i.e., in actual human beings), we can distinguish three "parts" or aspects of human aliveness. The first is directed to the meeting of physical needs like growth, nutrition, and metabolism; this part, which we have in common with plants and animals, is entirely without thinking-and-speech (λόγος). The second is directed to perception, locomotion, the satisfaction of impulses and wants, the pursuit of pleasure, the avoidance of pain, etc.; this part, which we have in common with other animals, can in humans be guided or persuaded by λόγος to do the right thing. The third engages in the guiding and persuading of the second, which it can do because it has a conceptual understanding of the sources and causes of human nature and the human good; this is thinking-and-speaking pure and simple, i.e., reason.

The development of mind and character is closely bound up with several phenomena we'll be exploring as we walk with Aristotle through the Nicomachean Ethics. Here he emphasizes the roles of learning by doing, experience and maturation over the course of your lifetime, and the formation of habits or practices through enculturation during childhood (which, he says, makes all the difference). Although later he will strongly feature choice, commitment, deliberation, and wisdom, even early on he talks about the importance of sizing up and adapting your behavior to a particular situation; this gives the lie to those scholars who have claimed that habituation or enculturation is a mindless process of rote imitation. For Aristotle, no truly human activity can ever be mindless.

In II.2 and II.3, he further observes that over time the development of mind and character can be stunted and impeded by going beyond or falling short of what's proportionate in each situation, while feeling and acting in proportion can produce, develop, and preserve the relevant traits. The key is to be satisfied with the enjoyment that inherently accompanies the activity itself, whereas avidly pursuing pleasures or cravenly avoiding pains in isolation from those activities will inevitably lead you astray. As we saw in our discussion of Nicomachean Ethics I.7, activity (ἐνέργεια) is central to human fulfillment (εὐδαιμονία). Further, it is by engaging in the right sorts of activity that you strengthen your ethical muscles, just as the person who engages in physical exercise makes themselves more fit for such exercise.

Finally, in II.4 Aristotle wonders how it is that one acquires a thriving of character. Don't you need to be temperate already (for example) in order to act in a temperate way? Well, he says, it could be as it is in the crafts, where you slowly learn the craft under the guidance of someone who has already acquired the relevant skills. Yet character traits differ from crafts because knowing what to do is the least of the matter: more importantly, you need to commit to temperate actions in themselves (not in order to impress people or whatever) and you need to do so steadfastly, such that you're not easily swayed from acting temperately. You become this way by consistently performing temperate actions: there's no way you can become temperate by not acting temperately.

Yet Aristotle says most people in fact do try to avoid acting temperately and justly and so on - they'd rather talk than do. Even worse, they think that they're living philosophically and taking life seriously by engaging in idle talking and theorizing, whereas what they really need to do is apply the right treatment (θεραπεία, whence our word 'therapy') to themselves so that they can get their soul in good shape.

In the next few chapters, Aristotle will provide a more complete analysis of the nature of character traits - a topic we'll turn to next.

(Cross-posted at


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