We Can Still Learn From Aristotle

Nancy Sherman is a Distinguished University Professor in the Philosophy Department of Georgetown University. She received her BA from Bryn Mawr College, her PhD from Harvard, and her MLitt from the University of Edinburgh. From 1997 to 1999 Sherman served as the first Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the US Naval Academy. She has taught at Yale, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Maryland, and has trained in psychoanalysis at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. Since 1995 she has consulted for the U.S. Armed Forces on issues of ethics, resilience, and post-traumatic stress, lecturing at the Uniformed Services University, Walter Reed Army Hospital, the National Defense University, and elsewhere. In October 2005, Sherman visited Guantanamo Bay Detention Center as part of an independent observer team, assessing the medical and mental health care of detainees. She has served on the Board of Directors for the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. 

Sherman's books include "Aristotle's Ethics: Critical Essays on the Classics," "Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind," and her most recent, "The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers," published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2010.
  • Transcript


Question: What can Aristotle teach us about ethics?

Nancy Sherman: Aristotle is one of my heroes, as you say, so who’s a lifetime companion for you?  Sure, it’s my husband and my son and daughter, but it’s also Aristotle, he’s with me all the time.  And we have kind of imbibed his lessons, as you say, but we’ve also—he sort of teaches us that, well one thing he teaches us is in contrast to the Stoics.  I’ve also written—the last book was called "The Stoic Warriors," about the Stoic ethos of the military.  And they say no place for anger, no place for grief, no place for the kinds of feelings that make you vulnerable; detached, detached, detach so that you can become strong and self-sufficient.  And so you know what’s in your power and if those things are not in your power, let them go, leave them alone. 

And that’s great news for a soldier because there’s so much that is not in your power.  When you’re coming home, when are you going to redeploy, will your wife still love you?  Will your boyfriend be there when you come home?  All of those are so risky.  So being in charge is an amazing thing.  Suck it up, suck it up, suck it up was the mantra of the Naval Academy when I was there, and always is.  But Aristotle is the counter-voice and he’ll say, “It’s important to grieve because you are, by nature, a social creature, and you’re attached to other people and you are... you know, virtue is in your capacity... in the matter of your effort and in the matter of your resolve, but a lot of whether you’re going to do well in this world has to do with luck and has to do with people that are outside you.  So, Aristotle reminds us of that.  He reminds us also that anger is a good thing because... the right kind of anger.  Because if you never felt righteous indignation, you would never record the injuries and indignities that people suffer.  You would be indifferent to them.  So, you should feel some anger, the right anger, the right time, toward the right people. 

Similarly, don’t feel anger so much that it makes you servile that you are a slave to your own anger, but in a right way.  So he’s very sensitive to the role of emotions in the good life.  And certainly I think and have been arguing in the past 10, 15 years through my work that the role of emotions in a soldier’s life can’t be emphasized enough.  They need to grieve; they need to recognize that they may feel betrayal, and that they have to reconnect with their families when they come home.  One of my soldiers said, “No one ever told me how hard the war after the war would be.”  Meaning, the inner battles he has to face. 

So, accepting and owning and working through the positive and negative emotions of war I think it an Aristotelian kind of lesson. And I’m very sympathetic to the Stoics, and the Stoic warriors.  I felt myself talking to them the whole time and I’d interviewed Admiral Stockdale, who was a Senior POW along with McCain, John McCain, in the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, North Vietnam.  And he had memorized Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, in order to get through—he resonated with it and it became his consolation in 7 ½ years of prison, 2 ½ in solitary.  And I think that’s an important voice, the idea that you will never be a "slave to your passions," let’s say, Epictetus, or "Only those things within your willpower can you really claim as your own.But it does have a downside of thinking that you can really be unaffected, that you can be invulnerable.  And I think that’s a real, real hazard.  It’s a moral hazard.  A real moral risk. So, Aristotle would correct us on that one.