Aristotle's Way: A Review

2019-04-28

There is much to like about Aristotle's Way, a new book by Edith Hall subtitled "How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life". Hall does an excellent job of showing how Aristotle is still relevant today, which she does by drawing a sympathetic picture of ancient ways of life, by describing how she has applied Aristotelian insights in her own life, and by using examples drawn from contemporary fiction and film. Her explanations of Aristotle's views on human action and character are engaging and, for the most part, accurate. She even gives due consideration to Aristotle's biological works and to the Eudemian Ethics, the often-ignored little brother of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

I do have a few quibbles. Some of her extrapolations regarding how Aristotle might have felt back then, or what he might do were he alive today, strike me as fanciful. She engages in more politically correct virtue signalling than I would like (does a book on the deep and timeless philosophy of Aristotle need to include a British classicist's effusions over Barack Obama or her denigration of "climate change deniers"?). And several of her personal examples, while charming, are pursued at greater length than necessary.

More seriously, Hall misses the mark on a few key aspects of Aristotle's philosophy. For instance, she considers self-restraint to be a virtue, whereas Aristotle repeatedly says that a person of excellent character will not experience the sort of feelings (say, excessive anger or inappropriate sexual desire) that would necessitate self-restraint in the first place. Because ἀρετή is a matter of balanced action and reaction, the self-restrained person (ἐγκρατής), while well-behaved, is not completely good.

Furthermore and most fundamentally, she misrepresents Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia, which she translates as "happiness". As I shall explore at length in my forthcoming book Complete Yourself, for Aristotle εὐδαιμονία is the practice and activity of living well, not a feeling of subjective well-being. Hall, taking seriously our present-day conception of happiness as contentment or enjoyment, makes Aristotle relevant to people today but at the cost of trivializing his abiding contribution to the philosophical understanding of human flourishing. I, by contrast, recognizing how trivial our present-day conception of happiness is in many ways, will aim to show that Aristotle's deepest insights are relevant to serious people of all times. Hall democratizes Aristotle and thus brings him down to the level of the average person today by making him out to be a kind of self-help guru; although she meets you where you are, I will encourage you (even at the risk of sounding like an ethical elitist) to raise yourself up to Aristotle's level and thus to join the aristocracy of the human spirit.

All told, though, I recommend Aristotle's Way as a welcome contribution to the modern-day dialogue on the good life.

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