Aristotle’s Way – ancient wisdom as self-help

Sam Leith in The Guardian:

It’s hard to imagine, at this distance, how it must have been to be Aristotle in his own time: cutting-edge rather than foundational. We see him standing at the beginning of western philosophy and surveying something like virgin territory. Did it feel like that at the time? He didn’t know, obviously, that he was an Ancient – at the start of things, as we now see it, rather than, say, at their end. He was interdisciplinary before there were really disciplines to worry about. Look at him, romping across the territory of possible human knowledge like a big dog snapping at butterflies, or Theresa May running through a field of wheat. One moment he invents literary theory. At another he formulates the rules of human persuasion. Whoops: politics. Bang! Catharsis! Hello: musicology. Ethics! Psychology! And while we’re at it who wants to know how a cuttlefish works?

The range and subtlety of his thought are almost inexpressibly thrilling, and it’s a mark against Edith Hall’s mostly lucid trot through what Aristotle can do for us that, in modernising and domesticating him, and making him instrumental in a self-help format, some of that thrill is lost. Mind you, it may be that this wasn’t the book on Aristotle she wanted to write so much as the only one she could publish. The fuse was probably lit for the highbrow self-help boom by Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life in 1997. In the two decades since, the puckish irony of De Botton’s title has burned off like morning dew. “How X Can Change Your Life” is publishing boilerplate these days. That’s not to write off the whole genre. As De Botton and his compadre Roman Krznaric have argued, lots of ancient philosophy was self-help, and the Nicomachean Ethics – with its inquiry into how best to live – certainly answers that description. Though, as Hall makes clear, Aristotle is everywhere preoccupied with the question of how we live in relation to others, rather than offering life lessons as the spiritual equivalent of a selfie-ready workout in the gym.

More here.