We Can Still Learn From Aristotle

Question: What can\r\nAristotle teach us about ethics?


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


And that’s great news for a soldier because there’s\r\n so much\r\nthat is not in your power.  When\r\nyou’re coming home, when are you going to redeploy, will your wife still\r\n love\r\nyou?  Will your boyfriend be there\r\nwhen you come home?  All of those\r\nare so risky.  So being in charge\r\nis an amazing thing.  Suck it up,\r\nsuck it up, suck it up was the mantra of the Naval Academy when I was \r\nthere,\r\nand always is.  But Aristotle is\r\nthe counter-voice and he’ll say, “It’s important to grieve because you \r\nare, by\r\nnature, a social creature, and you’re attached to other people and you \r\nare... you know, virtue is in your capacity... in the matter of your \r\neffort and in the\r\nmatter of your resolve, but a lot of whether you’re going to do well in \r\nthis\r\nworld has to do with luck and has to do with people that are outside \r\nyou.  So, Aristotle reminds us of that.  He reminds us also that anger is a good\r\nthing because... the right kind of anger. \r\nBecause if you never felt righteous indignation, you would never \r\nrecord\r\nthe injuries and indignities that people suffer.  You\r\n would be indifferent to them.  So, you should \r\nfeel some anger, the right anger, the right\r\ntime, toward the right people. 


Similarly, don’t feel anger so much that it makes \r\nyou\r\nservile that you are a slave to your own anger, but in a right way.  So he’s very sensitive to the role of\r\nemotions in the good life.  And\r\ncertainly I think and have been arguing in the past 10, 15 years through\r\n my work that\r\nthe role of emotions in a soldier’s life can’t be emphasized enough.  They need to grieve; they need to\r\nrecognize that they may feel betrayal, and that they have to reconnect \r\nwith\r\ntheir families when they come home. \r\nOne of my soldiers said, “No one ever told me how hard the war \r\nafter the\r\nwar would be.”  Meaning, the inner\r\nbattles he has to face. 


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

What the philosopher can still teach us about grief versus stoicism and "the role of emotions in the good life."

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