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. Read more »