One of the great thinkers, whom I spend a lot of time reading about, is Aristotle.
I recently picked up a copy of ‘Aristotle’s Way’ by Edith Hall — and I just had to highlight the last couple of paragraphs from her introduction. I’m already half way through the book, and will draft a more considered and structured post on my learnings and takeaways. But, I simply couldn’t wait to share these few:
At thirteen years old, and the daughter of an ordained Anglican priest, I lost my religion. The most difficult challenge to my fast- disappearing faith was the church’s insistence that being a good Christian required belief in supernatural occurrences and worshipping entities invisible and inaudible to my senses. I just couldn’t get in touch with the Invisible Friend I had previously called God any more. But coming to my secular senses left a big hole in my life. As a younger child, I was in no doubt that I would go to heaven if I was good. Now I felt like Antonius Block in Ingmar Bergman’s classic movie The Seventh Seal (1957), a religious sceptic during the fourteenth-century plague, desperate to find some meaning to life: ‘Nobody can live with death before his eyes if he thinks oblivion lies at the end.’ It may be no coincidence that Bergman was also the child of a Protestant priest. I no longer believed there was anyone or anything ‘out there’ in the cosmos who policed my life, or rewarded and punished me for virtuous and immoral acts respectively. I did not know what to put in His place. Yet I still longed to be a good person, live a constructive life, and ideally leave the planet a better place than I had arrived in it.
In my mid-teens I had experimented briefly with astrology, Buddhism, and transcendental meditation, and then, even more fleetingly, with more arcane phenomena including psychotropic drugs and spiritualism. I read Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948) and other self-help manuals, but was left still searching for a workable, interesting and fundamentally optimistic moral system. When, as an undergraduate, I discovered Aristotle, he supplied the answer. He explains the material world through science, and the moral world by human standards rather than imposed by an external deity.
Aristotle would have been the first to insist that no form of philosophical or scientific work can be purely theoretical. Our ideas, self-understand and explanations of the world around us are integrally bound to our lived experience. He lived in eight diverse Greek places, and in April 2016 I visited them all to better understand his experiences. I followed in his life’s footsteps and tried to get some sense of the real world lying behind the man, the paths he actually paced as he developed his philosophical ideas in response to the challenges and opportunities which life threw at him.
One of the greatest ancient commentators on Aristotle, Themistius, said that he was ‘more useful to the mass of people’ than other thinkers. It is still true. Philosopher Robert J Anderson wrote in 1986, ‘There is no ancient thinker who can speak more directly to the concerns and anxieties of contemporary life than can Aristotle. Nor is it clear that any modern thinker offers as much for persons living in this time of uncertainty.’
Aristotle’s practical approach to philosophy can change your life for the better.2