Public Virtue

By temperament I’d probably prefer an Epicurean life. As Wikipedia has it:

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia: peace and freedom from fear and aponia: the absence of pain and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. 

Following Alain de Botton’s lead, I think of this as seeking ‘The Garden’; an idealised  Mediterranean retreat surrounded by carefully selected friends, passing days in contemplation -with occasional breaks for olives, bread, jamon y queso and other light delights… 

But working and family life – especially the middle years – aren’t quite like that are they.

And given I’ve taken Aristotle as my guide, his ‘good life’ comes with a much higher bar; what I’ve come to think of as a life of ‘public virtue’.

Here’s a list of 11 things an Aristotelian life of public virtue requires, in a blend of my words and his; re-found last week looking at those ‘to do’ lists from 2010:

A life of Public Virtue

Courage: does my courage suitably balance fear and confidence?

Temperance: am I self-indulgent or unduly ascetic?

Liberality: am I generous, profligate or mean?

Magnificence: do I visibly give my time and money to good causes?

Pride: am I vain or unduly humble; do I step forward or stand back from noble actions and undertakings?

Honour: am I sufficiently ambitious or am I too unambitious?

Good Temper: am I good tempered, irascible or too meek?

Friendliness: am I friendly, obsequious, a flatterer or quarrelsome?

Truthfulness: am I boastful or mock-modest about my achievements?

Wit: do I sparkle or am I dull?

Friendship: am I generous in my friendship, a loner or spreading myself too thinly?

Tough tests these. 

Based on this higher Aristotelian standard, I’ve pushed myself this week: more courage, less obsequiousness and ‘mock-modesty’ – and a spot of irascibility too; telling a couple of people to b#%%€r off. 

In sum: standing for, standing against; and not just standing by on some things which need to be better.

Public virtue requires a bit of courage and a bit of oomph; a public life can’t always be a peaceful one free of fear and pain.

Good also to remember, this week of all weeks, what US ‘Founding Father’ John Adams had to say on the importance of public virtue:

σοφία

  

As modern Greece struggles with its economic problems, it’s worth remembering: there isn’t a decent concept for living we don’t have the Greeks to thank for.

With help from Wikipedia, try: 

Prohairesis – προαίρεσις

The ‘moral character’ or prohairesis, was brought to the world by Aristotle in the eminently readable Nicomachean Ethics (which first inspired this blog five years ago). Prohairesis is the capacity to reflect, and not be carried away by what our senses serve up.

For the stoic Epictetus, life is all about prohairesis; separating what we experience from how we choose to feel about it:

“Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses or hits you, but the judgment that these things are insulting.”

“So when someone irritates you, realise that it is your own opinion that has irritated you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be carried away by the impression; for if you once gain time and respite, you will find it easier to control yourself.”

Prosoche – προσοχή

In the Platonic Academy, prosoche referred to the discipline of “attention” – noticing the judgements that we make about ourselves and the world. 

Once observed, the next step is observing whether or not these judgements are in ‘conformity’ with the reality of our situation; and correcting them as needed so as to maintain appropriate behaviour and equilibrium (ataraxia). 

Prosoche is broadly equivalent to the Buddhist disciplines of ‘mindfulness’ as developed through meditation.

A Greek ‘prosoche’ poem sums it up: 

Give me the Serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.

Areté – αρετή

For Aristotle, bravery is the first virtue. It came up at work this week. 

It is, quite simply, consciously choosing to walk the difficult tightrope between fear and courage:

“A brave man is one who faces and fears what he should for the right reason, in the right manner and at the right time. A brave man performs his actions for the sake of what is noble. Those who err by excess with regard to this virtue are called rash, but one who is exceedingly fearful is called a coward.”

“Men who show courage because they are optimistic and they think they will win are not brave, because they do not act for the right reasons, and when the situation does not turn out well, they end up being cowards.”

“Men who are ignorant of danger are also not brave, but only appear to be so because they have no knowledge of the danger.”

Prohairesis, Prosoche and Areté: character, consciousness and choice, all come together in sophia σοφία; the title above, and Greek for ‘wisdom’ – the root of philosophy φιλοσοφία philo-sophia.

Whatever the state of their οἰκονομία (economy), Greeks deserve our enduring thanks; for all they invented in the life of the mind.

The Eaves

Cycling to work every day I get a regular soaking. Decent waterproofs help. But there are days, when looking out of the kitchen window, I don’t fancy it much. A number of years ago in the book ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ I read a quote from the Hagakure – the Japanese Book of the Samurai. It advised stepping out from the eaves:

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

I was reminded of this, in the week, by Montaigne’s similar write-up on the Roman Legions:

Their military discipline was much ruder than ours, and accordingly produced much greater effects. The jeer that was given a Lacedaemonian soldier is marvellously pat to this purpose, who, in an expedition of war, was reproached for having been seen under the roof of a house: they were so inured to hardship that, let the weather be what it would, it was a shame to be seen under any other cover than the roof of heaven. We should not march our people very far at that rate.

I don’t mind being rained on, but I’ve often thought I’d last about five minutes on a proper Roman or Medieval battlefield. Some glum milling about before, and then probably a spirited moment of excessive unavoidable bravery early doors followed by a sharp death. That sounds about my fate. I can only assume my forebears were quick to procreate, as I don’t reckon we’d have lasted long.

But my other pet theory is we were scouts and messengers. Sharp eyed endurance runners with a precise tongue. Who knows. The Hagakure is admirably clear on the matter: ‘Bravery and cowardice are not things which can be conjectured in times of peace. They are in different categories.’

Some Hagakure quotes are positively Aristotelian, take:

‘Intelligence is nothing more than discussing things with others. Limitless wisdom comes of this.’

But like Aristotle, with his theories on biles and humours – and posture, character and beards – not everything in the Hagakure is to modern tastes. As ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ also highlighted:

When one departs for the front, he should carry rice in a bag. His underwear should be made from the skin of a badger. This way he will not have lice. In a long campaign, lice are troublesome.

I’ll step out from the eaves in GoreTex and Lycra, but I draw the line at the skin of a badger.

Courage

I’ve been working in the USA this week – same language, quite different working cultures. Still Brits talking to Americans is easy enough. But add Germans, South Africans, Sudanese, Cameroonians, Central African Republicans, French, Colombians, Turks, Japanese and Koreans – and an age range from 18 to 70 and you have plenty of difference to accommodate.

The very different people I was working with cared about very different things. They wanted to talk about different things and wanted to do different things. My job was to facilitate and find a collective conclusion. Enough to give me a thumping headache. But not this time. Why?

Usually on overseas work trips the combination of travel, missed sleep, wall-to-wall meetings, some sort of set piece event to speak at and produce an outcome from – plus lunch meetings and formal dinners – gives me a throbbing headache by 3pm on day one. It then goes on to throb the whole time I’m away. But this time, no headache. Why? Mainly thanks to an Aristotelian virtue – drawing my courage a little more from confidence than fear.

When I first read: “Courage is the mean between confidence and fear” it didn’t seem a particularly significant insight. My first thought was Aristotle was on about ‘courage’ in the sense of ‘fight or flight’ – there was after all a lot of fighting in ancient Greece. Given the clank of metal and the clash of swords is rarer these days, I didn’t think much about Aristotelian courage – one for the battlefield I thought. Who knows whether I’d stand and fight or run into a hail of bullets. Hopefully I’ll never find out. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see Aristotle’s point with ‘courage’ is as much about motivation as action.

I’ve come to realise that from school to university to the bigger world of work, I’ve used fear of failure as my prime motivation to perform. And it has always worked. Fear failure, worry the detail, think of what might go wrong, fire up the adrenaline, run flat out on intellectual broadband and the job gets done – and well. But at what cost? Stress, tiredness, raggedness, fraught, strung out and brittle.

So, thanks to Aristotle, once, a few months ago, when I started to feel the rising tide of anxiety and the throb of the vein in my head – the feeling of spotting and galvanising myself for another tough challenge – I stopped myself. I stopped myself from firing up my fear generator: what might go wrong, might I fail, what will people say, will I look like a duffer – and the killer: will someone say I did a bad job?

Instead I fumbled in my kitbag for something else – confidence. This could go well, I know how to do this sort of thing, I’ll be fine, who’s better than me to do this – and if someone says I did a bad job, so what, I’ll learn from it. The first few times I tried to do it I’d readily flip back to fear. I’d have to concentrate hard to find the courageous ‘golden mean’ with confidence. But with practice I’m learning how to plug in and stay more connected to confidence. And the courage to do new things with a smile flows from there.

As Aristotle said:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence [arete in his words], then, is not an act, but a habit.”

To help me form the habit, I’ve started to think of Aristotle’s courage as a choice between two different forms of energy. One is red, electrical, crackling and spitting like lightning or charge sparking from a Tesla coil – fear. The other is blue, pure, unwavering like a beam of laser light – confidence.

Both work. Both help me get the job done. But the red form is hot, sparky, volatile and the toxic by-products pollute my environment. The blue form is cool, reliable and powers me with clean reusable, renewable and sustainable energy.

In the USA I was running on ‘blue energy’ – better mastering myself, enjoying the experience more, enjoying the different people, performing and getting the job done. No headaches, heartaches, worries or lost sleep. I came home quietly pleased, quietly satisfied and with a spot more confidence to draw on.

Day to day courage, like the battlefield kind, is the mean between confidence and fear. Developing Aristotelian virtue and excellence is simply developing good habits. And, I’ve come to realise, what is at stake, is developing the courage to live a confident happy life – not one haunted by the spectre of constant fears, real or imagined.

Corporate Punishment i) Questions

I’ve decided to begin an irregular series on ‘corporate’ behaviours which one encounters in large organisations.

Most of these start with the germ of a good idea from some management book or coach. Some are learnt through imitation and emulation. Taken to excess or with the wrong intent they stymie progress, sap energy and scupper decision making. A common feature is they are safe and look clever but often aren’t. As with so much in life, too much or too little is a vice – only the golden mean is a virtue.

Number one in the series is always asking questions and not stating your own view. Aristotle (not himself a man to beat around the bush) quotes a prior Greek, Hesiod, on this topic.

Hesiod is pungent as an old sock in his critique:

“He is best of all who of himself conceiveth things; Good again is he too who can adopt a good suggestion; But whoso neither of himself conceiveth nor hearing from another layeth it to heart; — he is a useless man.”

It takes Aristotelian effort to develop a new insight and the courage of Achilles to present a new idea. Listening, thinking, improving, adapting and adopting is what you want in return. Questions are too easy.