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Nancy Sherman

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[…]

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

Question: What canrnAristotle teach us about ethics?

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

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And that’s great news for a soldier because there’srn so muchrnthat is not in your power.  Whenrnyou’re coming home, when are you going to redeploy, will your wife stillrn lovernyou?  Will your boyfriend be therernwhen you come home?  All of thosernare so risky.  So being in chargernis an amazing thing.  Suck it up,rnsuck it up, suck it up was the mantra of the Naval Academy when I was rnthere,rnand always is.  But Aristotle isrnthe counter-voice and he’ll say, “It’s important to grieve because you rnare, byrnnature, a social creature, and you’re attached to other people and you rnare... you know, virtue is in your capacity... in the matter of your rneffort and in thernmatter of your resolve, but a lot of whether you’re going to do well in rnthisrnworld has to do with luck and has to do with people that are outside rnyou.  So, Aristotle reminds us of that.  He reminds us also that anger is a goodrnthing because... the right kind of anger. rnBecause if you never felt righteous indignation, you would never rnrecordrnthe injuries and indignities that people suffer.  Yourn would be indifferent to them.  So, you should rnfeel some anger, the right anger, the rightrntime, toward the right people. 

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Similarly, don’t feel anger so much that it makes rnyournservile that you are a slave to your own anger, but in a right way.  So he’s very sensitive to the role ofrnemotions in the good life.  Andrncertainly I think and have been arguing in the past 10, 15 years throughrn my work thatrnthe role of emotions in a soldier’s life can’t be emphasized enough.  They need to grieve; they need tornrecognize that they may feel betrayal, and that they have to reconnect rnwithrntheir families when they come home. rnOne of my soldiers said, “No one ever told me how hard the war rnafter thernwar would be.”  Meaning, the innerrnbattles he has to face. 

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So, accepting and owning and working through the rnpositivernand negative emotions of war I think it an Aristotelian kind of lesson. rnAnd I’mrnvery sympathetic to the Stoics, and the Stoic warriors.  Irn felt myself talking to them the wholerntime and I’d interviewed Admiral Stockdale, who was a Senior POW along rnwithrnMcCain, John McCain, in the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, North Vietnam.  And he had memorized Epictetus, thernStoic philosopher, in order to get through—he resonated with it and itrnbecame his consolation in 7 ½ years of prison, 2 ½ in solitary.  And I think that’s an important voice,rnthe idea that you will never be a "slave to your passions," let’s say, rnEpictetus, or "Only those thingsrnwithin your willpower can you really claim as your own." rn But it does have a downside of thinkingrnthat you can really be unaffected, that you can be invulnerable.  And I think that’s a real, realrnhazard.  It’s a moral hazard.  Arn real moral risk.So, Aristotle would correct us rnon that one.