Who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?
July 3, 2018 9:12 AM   Subscribe

Modern self-help draws heavily on Stoic philosophy. But Aristotle was better at understanding real human happiness...

Classicist Edith Hall writes, "[A]uthentic ancient Stoicism was pessimistic and grim. It denounced pleasure. It required the suppression of emotions and physical appetites. It recommended the resigned acceptance of misfortune, rather than active engagement with the fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving. It left little room for hope, human agency or constructive repudiation of suffering.

Less familiar is the recipe for happiness (eudaimonia) advocated by Aristotle, yet it has much to be said for it."

A particularly noteworthy passage from the Nicomachean Ethics:
Nobody would call a man ideally happy if he has not got a particle of courage nor of temperance nor of decency nor of good sense, but is afraid of the flies that flutter by him, cannot refrain from any of the most outrageous actions in order to gratify a desire to eat or to drink, and ruins his dearest friends for the sake of a penny …
Previously, in happiness and unhappiness
posted by praemunire (31 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
.... Plato!
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:37 AM on July 3, 2018 [21 favorites]


Modern self help doesn't really draw on Stoicism though, does it? In my experience, it draws on a whitewashed distillation of Buddhism which probably looks like Stoicism from a distance.

Also, just a reminder that Aristotle thought seals were "deformed quadrupeds".
posted by selfnoise at 9:44 AM on July 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


Modern self help doesn't really draw on Stoicism though, does it?

There are passages from Marcus Aurelius that sound exactly like cognitive behavioral therapy.
posted by asterix at 9:48 AM on July 3, 2018 [21 favorites]


Indeed, Albert Ellis (one of the founders of CBT) was explicitly influenced by Stoicism.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:04 AM on July 3, 2018 [8 favorites]


Thanks for posting this link. Edith Hall is really wonderful.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:04 AM on July 3, 2018


The problem I have with Aristotle and the stoics is that they favor Eudaimonia--with its attendant emphasis on such Statist principles as "virtue" and "action" -- over Ataraxia, which is fundamentally a subjective, internal state to be known and judged by one's self.
posted by Chrischris at 10:16 AM on July 3, 2018 [7 favorites]


> Also, just a reminder that Aristotle thought seals were "deformed quadrupeds".

I can't tell if you're tossing out an amusing factoid or a hot take. If it's the latter, you could've opted instead to cite one of Aristotle's not-even-subjective errors in physics and biology, some of which had helped knock western civilization off its rails for centuries due to being treated as infallible truths (which, to be fair, wasn't really Aristotle's fault, he was usually doing the best he could manage). Or his endorsement of slavery on grounds that some people are genetically destined to be slaves. Or his various writings made newly-relevant thanks to trolls like the flat earthers grasping at straws and finding a wad of his work on geology and cosmology crumbled in their sweaty palms.
posted by ardgedee at 10:16 AM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


Modern self help doesn't really draw on Stoicism though, does it?

The article references something by Dale Carnegie, but what came to mind for me was Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, and his Tao of Seneca project, which sort of makes your point about watered down Asian philosophy too.

FWIW, I ran across Epictetus when I was 14, and it was exactly what I needed at the time. It wasn't hard to understand, it didn't rely on religion, and it came at a point when things weren't good and there wasn't a lot that was in my control.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:31 AM on July 3, 2018 [10 favorites]


No take meant, I just laughed when I read that years ago.

Can't figure out what the fuck a seal is? No problem: a seal is a bullshit dog.

If I wanted to rip Aristotle, I would have pointed out that he also viewed the female gender as a deformity.

On the other subject, does CBT = modern self help these days? I've never consulted a CBT therapist, but every time someone hands me a self help book it's literally just Buddhism. But maybe when you drain the detail from both philosophies you end up at a similar place.
posted by selfnoise at 10:32 AM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


a seal is a bullshit dog

I judge pretty much all animals by how far short they are of the canine ideal.
posted by praemunire at 10:42 AM on July 3, 2018 [9 favorites]


first of all it's a dog mermaid.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:49 AM on July 3, 2018 [38 favorites]


But seals are quadrupeds, and had qauadruped ancestors, and a basic study of anatomy gives good evidence for this fact.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetrapod

It's actually a pretty solid insight based on the evidence at hand, not a laughable mistake.
"a seal is s bullshit weasel" would be a better paraphrasing of the current understanding, but that's being a bit pedantic :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:50 AM on July 3, 2018 [11 favorites]


So, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is, in its original 1980s form, more or less stoic-influenced - via the Albert Ellis connection mentioned by kevinbelt. However, in the 1990s and more or less with the emergence of DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy), EFT (emotionally focused couples therapy) and other "third wave" behavior therapies, we saw the incorporation of more mindfulness/buddhist ideas into behavioral psychotherapy. There are still plenty of other models for therapy (eg psychodynamic and psychoanalytic therapies to name a few families) but they have lost some prestige as the definition of what makes a therapy useful has come to lean more on research studies and an evidence base.
posted by sirvesa at 11:06 AM on July 3, 2018 [9 favorites]


I'm not seeing how successfully conceiving and performing the most outrageous actions in order to gratify a desire to eat or to drink is not a legitimate source of happiness.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:54 AM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


I couldn't read the initial post without hearing SMAC voiceovers in my head.
posted by tavella at 12:14 PM on July 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


Sticky Carpet, that's because you are using a different, metaphorical definition of "outrageous," rather than "actions that are so horrible they make me uncontrollably angry just to think about them."

Donald Trump would probably claim that he is "happy." Aristotle would disagree.
posted by straight at 12:18 PM on July 3, 2018


The way Aristotle's concept of happiness probably differs the most from the way most people use the word in our culture is that for Aristotle, happiness is a more objective quality. He would say it is possible for a person to be wrong about whether they are happy or not.
posted by straight at 12:28 PM on July 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


He would say it is possible for a person to be wrong about whether they are happy or not.
And from there, it's a very small step to imposing "happiness " on others.
posted by Chrischris at 1:56 PM on July 3, 2018


The idea that internal states must be manifested in approved performative actions to be considered legitimate is some serious bullshit. Aristotelian Juche.
posted by Chrischris at 2:04 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


But seals are quadrupeds, and had qauadruped ancestors, and a basic study of anatomy gives good evidence for this fact.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetrapod

It's actually a pretty solid insight based on the evidence at hand, not a laughable mistake.


Kind of getting into derail territory here, but I don't think that Aristotle is saying that the seal is a quadruped varient when he says it is deformed. He is saying that the seal is a defective quadruped. For example, when he says that the lobster is deformed, it seems to be because the lobster does not use its claws solely to grasp, which is the natural function according to Aristotle. I don't think modern science would argue that seals are defective.
posted by selfnoise at 2:06 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


Aristotle had seal issues.
posted by ardgedee at 2:18 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


And from there, it's a very small step to imposing "happiness " on others.

The idea that internal states must be manifested in approved performative actions to be considered legitimate is some serious bullshit.


I think the idea that certain internal emotional or cognitive states are necessary for a life to be worthwhile can also be serious bullshit and that Aristotle's point of view can be a corrective to that. But I agree that at the social/political level it is very dangerous to allow anyone to prescriptively define for other people which actions or thoughts or feelings constitute true happiness. But I think there are probably situations in which it is good for people to reconsider together the adequacy of the list of actions/thoughts/feelings they are using to evaluate the happiness (or satisfaction or whatever you want to call it) of their lives.
posted by straight at 2:25 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: but that's being a bit pedantic :)
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:04 PM on July 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


Roman emperors who were raised or tutored by Stoics: Nero, Commodus.

Two data points is enough for me.
posted by clawsoon at 4:42 PM on July 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


I liked the bit about the political environment in which Aristotle was writing, and how it led him to his conclusions about the importance of virtue for happiness:
For part of his life, Aristotle lived in the Macedonian court tyrannised by the decadent and ruthless Philip II, whose lieutenants and concubines resorted to plots, extortion and murder to further their self-advantage. He knew what an immoral person looks like, and that such people were often subjectively miserable, despite the outward trappings of wealth and success. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he wrote (all translations my own):
Nobody would call a man ideally happy if he has not got a particle of courage nor of temperance nor of decency nor of good sense, but is afraid of the flies that flutter by him, cannot refrain from any of the most outrageous actions in order to gratify a desire to eat or to drink, and ruins his dearest friends for the sake of a penny…
Y'know, this does sound like a message appropriate to our time.
posted by clawsoon at 5:01 PM on July 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


Aristotle had some interesting ideas about living which are worth considering critically, the entire point of the Aeon essay. We can look at his writing for what is relevant, and we can note/discard/critique what isn't. He also got many things wrong, he was a product of his time with dated inherent biases, and many of his odd natural science notes were re-iterating the common received wisdoms of the time, for which he is criticized for not yet engaging with modern concepts of scientific testing and experimentation (there's also a hilarious short story by L. Sprague de Camp about this;)

Yeah, but you know who really was a jerk: if Plato were alive today, he would be famous at the TED talks, spouting a hip modern version of his inane bullshit platitudes to adoring crowds.
posted by ovvl at 5:53 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


The idea that internal states must be manifested in approved performative actions

"Performative" has really come to be a thought-terminating cliche.
posted by praemunire at 6:55 PM on July 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


I found when reading Nicomachean Ethics that well-being was a much better translation of εὐδαιμονία than happiness. In that case, this mostly wasn't a problem because although we were reading Aristotle in translation, we all were also studying Attic Greek and had the standard lexicon at hand for clarification.

But for some reason there's a tradition in English to choose happiness as the translation. I think this is very misleading because that connotes something much farther on the axis toward pleasure, joy, and euphoria than what Aristotle was aiming for. He is at pains to define what he means by εὐδαιμονία in this context: for example, he points to an expansive notion of what that means by asking whether one would prefer one's descendents to be less immiserated, or not. At the beginning of the book, Aristotle takes a lot of care, as Plato did, to start with naive ideas of what we might call "happiness" and show that a very expansive conception of this very quickly follows by necessity.

In my opinion, Ethics is most valuable in its emphasis on habituation. By self-selection, almost everyone who reads moral philosophy is inclined toward deliberation. It is easy to believe that one is virtuous if one deliberately seeks virtue... even if habitually one does not. Indeed, I think this is a common and self-serving delusion -- that if we experience ourselves as being deliberatively virtuous, we are. But most of what we do is not deliberative, it is unthinking habit.

Not only does Aristotle locate virtue (mostly) in action, not character, but he places it largely within the realm of prosaic daily life. In my opinion, this is essential.

This is also one of the more interesting (and telling) things about Chidi in The Good Place. Despite being a professional moral philosopher, and despite on several occasions demonstrating a familiarity with Aristotle's Ethics, Chidi is relentlessly mired in drawn-out, dithering episodes of deliberative virtue while never examining his habits and how they impact those around him. Even when he learns he's in the Bad Place, he can only imagine that he must have been wrong in his analysis -- for Chidi, moral virtue is an endless Socratic dialogue in his head with himself, about himself, and discovering he's in the Bad Place doesn't make a dent in his self-absorption.

What does change him is the very practical task of helping Eleanor try to be a better person. Eleanor is forced by circumstance to change her habits; in doing so she pulls the entire group along with her until their habits are changed as well.

"He also got many things wrong, he was a product of his time with dated inherent biases, and many of his odd natural science notes were re-iterating the common received wisdoms of the time..."

Common recieved wisdom of our time is that Aristotle is the prime example of nonsensical pre-Enlightenment natural philosophy.

This is doing Aristotle an injustice. It's arguably about as wrong as it could be, because he was the closest we get to something like an ancient empiricist. For example, while Democritus' natural philosophy (via Lucretius and others) can seem astonishingly prescient to the modern audience, it wasn't empirical -- it was mostly arguing from intuition and first principles.

Aristotle's natural philosophy is very confusing to read today, especially for those of us with some background in science. He seems alternately surprisingly empirical and then stupendously fantastical. It's strange. But he came from an intensely anti-empirical tradition; that he went and looked at anything, as opposed to exclusively reasoning through the dialectic, is in context a great achievement. By our standards, he wasn't a good empiricist -- by those of his time and place, he was exceptional so.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:55 PM on July 3, 2018 [21 favorites]


I'd favorite your comment twice if I could, Ivan.
Not only does Aristotle locate virtue (mostly) in action, not character, but he places it largely within the realm of prosaic daily life. In my opinion, this is essential.

I don't even disagree, but this is actually something I hate about contemporary virtue ethicists. They damn near break their arms patting themselves on the back for being so down-to-earth and not having any sci-fi examples.
posted by This time is different. at 7:46 PM on July 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


One of the things I loved about Deadwood was the moral trajectory that Swearengen followed from evil to not-so-bad-actually. David Milch, Deadwood's showrunner, gave some interesting and (in the terms of this discussion) relevant context for this trajectory. He argued that we more or less see virtue as an inside-out phenomenon. People have inner virtue and, as a result, they behave morally. Milch claims that in the Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle argues that the reverse is true. Right action produces virtue.

That's how Swearengen evolves. The pursuit of his own self interest in the particular social context in which he finds himself leads him to more and more frequently choosing the "right action" and over time he inexorably becomes more virtuous.
posted by kaymac at 7:32 AM on July 4, 2018 [2 favorites]


Ivan Fyodorovich: Common recieved wisdom of our time is that Aristotle is the prime example of nonsensical pre-Enlightenment natural philosophy. This is doing Aristotle an injustice.

Coincidentally, I read this just last night:
Aristotle's scientific reputation, however, has fluctuated over the centuries. Many, like Charles Darwin, admired him: "Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods ... but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle." Darwin's endorsement was no guarantee of protection and in the 1980s Nobel prize-winner Peter Medawar and his wife Jean disparagingly described Aristotle's works as a "tiresome farrago of hear-say." They singled out his writings on the sexual behaviour of birds, in which he said that some birds like the barn door cock are "salacious", while others like "the whole tribe of crows" are "inclined to chastity", denouncing them as mere gossip. The Medawars, however, were not ornithologists, and their rejection of Aristotle's comment on avian copulation was premature, for paternity studies based on DNA fingerprinting in the 1980s confirmed that what Aristotle had said was true.

(Tim Birkhead, The Wisdom of Birds)
I've never read any of "old Aristotle", but writers whose viewpoints I admire keep mentioning him. I'm getting the impression that it wasn't his attitude to knowledge that was the problem, but the medieval attitude to his knowledge. He had to be debunked in order for people to stop treating his facts as holy scripture and move on to discovering facts for themselves, but his view that the facts matter remains an essential counterpoint to those who think they can start with two half-facts and reason their way to the universe.
posted by clawsoon at 4:13 PM on July 4, 2018 [1 favorite]


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