Forgetting Aristotle

by Dwight Furrow

For many of the ancient philosophers that we still read today, philosophy was not only an intellectual pursuit but a way of life, a rigorous pursuit of wisdom that can guide us through the difficult decisions and battle for self-control that characterize a human life. That view of philosophy as a practical guide faded throughout much of modern history as the idea of a “way of life” was deemed a matter of personal preference and philosophical ethics became a study of how we justify right action. But with the recognition that philosophy might speak to broader concerns than those that get a hearing in academia, this idea of philosophy as a way of life has been revived in recent years.

However, if philosophy is to be successfully conceptualized as a way of life, it will have to overcome that legacy of modern moral philosophy which has little to say about life as lived. You can sift through the works of Hume, Kant, Mill, and their heirs without discovering much that is practically useful. Of all the mainstream views in ethics, one has to return to the ancient philosophers, most notably Aristotle, and their modern interpreters to find discussions of the nature of human flourishing, practical wisdom, and the qualities of character required to achieve it. But alas, it seems to me, even that return to Aristotle is not sufficient to make the argument for philosophy as a way of life. Despite Aristotle’s laudable sensitivity to practical concerns, his work is afflicted with idealizations that limit its value for everyday moral reflection.

Aristotle’s account of human flourishing begins in the home. If one grows up in a good society within a family that encourages common decency and habits of self-control—what Aristotle calls “natural virtue” –one can lead a good life as conventionally defined. But such a life would fall far short of the best life for human beings, according to Aristotle, because it would lack a deep and comprehensive understanding of human flourishing and the reasons why moral and intellectual virtues are necessary to achieve it. Only philosophy can supply that understanding. Thus, for Aristotle, philosophy was not only a way of life but the best life to which we can aspire. It is the highest expression of our most characteristic function—reason.

Thus, Aristotle’s formula for a good life is the natural virtues but shaped and corrected by practical wisdom, an intellectual virtue that required a theoretical understanding of human flourishing and the various virtue concepts, such as justice, honesty, and courage, as well as the practical ability to apply that understanding to the circumstances of our lives. Only a lifetime of practicing the virtues under the guidance of such a philosophical understanding would constitute genuine flourishing.

However, questions about how one should live emerge from the messy circumstances of ordinary life. Deliberation is limited by resource and time constraints. We are often dealing with people we don’t know well or whose patterns of behavior are wildly inconsistent. Their motivations may be opaque and influenced by contingent circumstances of which we are unaware. Our own motivations may be unavailable to us and wildly inconsistent as well. You don’t have to be a Freudian to believe that our motivations are largely unconscious, a fact unknown to Aristotle. A consideration that in one context counts in favor of an action can in another context count against it or be irrelevant. Not only does each situation present distinct factors that must be weighed and evaluated but the moral weight and relevance of each factor changes depending on context.

Most importantly, when confronted with a situation in which moral deliberation is required, it’s almost always the case that some new factor we’ve never encountered provokes the need for deliberation. In summary, in everyday deliberation, we are confronted by particulars—unique, non-repeatable factors and unknowns to which generalizations are unresponsive and past experience of questionable value.

The problem for Aristotle’s view is that virtues are qualities of character that have become habitual through practice. As habits, they are based on past experience, and thus it’s an open question whether those patterns of action and feeling can accommodate unique or novel particulars. Furthermore, as Aristotle pointed out, the theoretical understanding required for practical wisdom is based on generalizations about human behavior that apply only “for the most part.” There are exceptions to every generalization regarding how one should live. Aristotle was aware of how contingent circumstances condition ethical judgments. Thus, he posited that part of practical wisdom is the ability to see what the facts of each situation demand and respond to them in a way that advances flourishing, an ability he called “phronesis.”

But what precisely is this skill that enables us to gather novel facts of a case and routinely do the right thing, in the right way, in the right amount, and for the right reason? If the routines of habit that constitute the virtues are based on the past, and philosophical reflection on the good for humanity is based on generalizations, neither of which reach the contextually defined, novel particulars, how do we acquire this magical ability to respond correctly to them? Furthermore, those contextually defined particulars may require a modification of the theoretical concepts that govern practical wisdom. The moral relevance and salience of particulars may be so anomalous as to force changes in our concepts, in which case the practical tail is wagging the conceptual dog.

Aristotle was vague regarding what kind of skill phronesis is. But apparently, it isn’t skill in argument. Neither deduction, induction, nor abduction explain phronesis because these require relations of similarity between cases that are not present in the anomalous cases. By definition, anomalies exceed the boundaries of conventional concepts whether they be theoretical or embodied in the practice of virtue. Thus, Aristotle’s conceptual architecture—flourishing, the virtue concepts, and the goods we seek in order to flourish—is a moving target disrupted by the exigencies of circumstance.

Practical decision making is often more stochastic than teleological with little connection to ultimate goals such as flourishing. Aristotle argues that the pursuit of a good life is about the pursuit of excellence. But that surely doesn’t describe modern life. Even under the best of circumstances, life isn’t a steady climb of recognizing the good for human beings and then successfully building the intellectual and moral habits to achieve it. Much of life is about preventing loss, quietly abandoning plans or at best accepting sub-optimal outcomes. We are constantly confronted with predictions gone wrong, the opacity of others, even those we “know” well, and the utter opacity of our own motivations. Even in healthy personalities, this dissipation is neither predictable nor the result of well-established patterns of feeling or behavior. The leakage is like water always finding a new and singular fissure to exploit. It’s these particulars that make decision-making fraught. There are an infinite number of ways of being sub-optimal and we’re very good at finding new ones. And unknowns afflict any decision we make with singular, unpredictable interruptions.

This erosion of our plans and pursuits isn’t necessarily the result of catastrophes but happens in slow motion, the daily opportunities missed or ignored that build up until we find ourselves bereft of purpose. We make connections but then forget how to be something for someone. We have elaborate mechanisms of self-sabotage and end up in places that are confusing and confounding, preventing us from moving forward. Flourishing is more about finding ways of stopping the accumulation of low stakes losses than it is perfecting the moral or intellectual virtues. More than anything we need ways of managing our dreams once it becomes evident how difficult or impossible they are to achieve. To be sure there can be courage in that but too often whether you accept your fate or fight back does not matter at all. Disenchanted, delusional, but indefatigable is the condition of most lives at some time or other. These circumstances build character but not the finely formulated virtues that Aristotle describes.

When an ideal is unattainable is it any longer regulative? Is the patron saint of lost causes a figure to emulate? Aristotle’s conceptual architecture doesn’t provide a well-marked road map through a landscape of loss.

So what does this more realistic moral character look like? Knowing when to settle, what the acceptable level of “not bad” is and how to deal nobly with inevitable loss without resentment or hopelessness are crucial elements of it. The ability to feel guilt without being consumed by it, to persist in trying to be kind despite the infinite needs of others and learning to accept failure without becoming depressed set the necessary emotional resilience. There is courage, justice, and honesty in this. But they are neither excellences nor perfections. They are about testing for blockages, parrying the self-sabotage, and probing for new directions.

Phronesis, then, is the ability to find a new path that stops the bleeding, that breaks the patterns that would otherwise sustain the downward momentum. It is the active search for anomalies but not just any anomaly. It’s the one that presents an avenue out, the anomaly with legs, the right action, the right tone, and the right amount of pressure that breaks the spell of dissipation and rediscovers hope. If philosophy is a way of life, we need a form of philosophical reflection that allows us to identify the promise in a sub-optimal situation, the trends and tendencies that indicate change.

Is this a distinctly philosophical skill? Conceptual innovation is essential in making sense of anomalies. Although philosophers have no monopoly on conceptual innovation, it is essential to the practice of philosophy. As noted, it isn’t really via argument by which philosophy contributes to phronesis because argument must remain wedded to conceptual precision and firm identities. It’s the ability to see conceptual potential in making new connections, to see relations among concepts that had seemed unrelated, that constitutes practical philosophical skill.

Aristotle gave us an inspiring vision of human perfection. But a life cannot be lived through inspiration alone. If philosophy is a way of life it will have to grapple with the persistence of imperfection. For that purpose, Aristotle is of little help.

For more on philosophy as a way of life visit Philosophy: A Way of Life