A funny old game…

It’s a funny old game; the game of life… After a two months of feverish activity I find myself:

1) in a very promising and already rather nice new family home;

2) through the worst of some work travails;

3) a full stone lighter than at the end of May and the trimmest I’ve been since schooldays;

4) two days into a relaxing and rather lovely family holiday in Holland;

5) Downloading a dead German Catholic philosopher’s ‘Four Cardinal Virtues’.

It all goes to show that philo sophos (philosophy’s enduring charms) can be driven into abeyance by the busyness of life; but they are what I come back to when I am at rest.

Josef Pieper came to my attention via Wednesday’s (1st August) chapter of the Daily Stoic. As life progresses and reasonableness seems the only lasting solution to anything, I liked this Pieper quote:

“he alone can do good who knows what things are like and what their situation is.”

The wisdom of the ages in that one.

What better than a German Catholic on a Dutch beach holiday – surely Thomas Aquinas would have approved.

Office 2016

  

Further proof this week (were it needed) that not thinking about things, actually helps you think about things…

After ten days off for Christmas; scarcely thinking at all about work, I arrived in the office on Monday a little dazed and confused. A colleague asked with a smile if I had any blinding new insights to share? I could only answer slightly sheepishly “Nope”

But then, thanks to the miracle of the empty mind, I scribbled with a scratchy pen, on a couple of discarded misprinted sheets of A3 off the printer: the entire scope of my job; and the purpose for me at work for 2016. 

It had all became clear, because I hadn’t been thinking about it…

Later that same day (at bedtime to be precise) the few remaining work-related knots in my head, were smoothed out by a simple but super article in ‘Philosopy Now‘ by Peter Adamson. 

Adamson reminds us that Aristotle gave us the clinching argument against “the proposition that the good life lies acquisition of wealth.” 

He continues: 

Whatever else we say about the happy life, happiness is surely something we deserve for its own sake. You don’t seek to become happy for some further goal. 

Money by contrast, is not something that can sensibly be desired simply for itself. It is valued only for what we can acquire with it, such as security, pleasures and the opportunity to show virtue. 

Therefore a life that seeks to pile up wealth with no other end in view is incoherent.

He continues 

Aristotle has a similarly persuasive case to make against the life devoted to honor: we wish to be honored not just for any old reason, but because we deserve to be honored. 

At most, then, honour comes as a kind of bonus on top of what we really want, which is to be or to have achieved something worthy of the honour.  

Out of the contenders for a happy life, that leaves the life of virtue. And virtue is complemented by pleasure, because the virtuous person takes pleasure in being virtuous; and by honor too, at least if one’s fellow citizens apportion honor rightly.

Of course Aristotle was nothing if not also practical: 

Although Aristotle insisted that the good life is the virtuous life, he cautioned that we need money as well. You can hardly hope to be virtuous without money, if only because generosity is a virtue: you need wealth to give it away.

Common sense also tells you that such things as health, a flourishing family, and friends, belong to the good life, and Aristotle wasn’t against common sense on this score. 

But it’s Adamson’s conclusion which is the clincher:

In these days, when whole countries are faced by economic disaster, ancient advice remains useful: accept money and use it wisely when it comes, but do not sacrifice virtue to get it – and remember that there are things in life compared to which money, in any currency, has zero value.

In sum, don’t seek money or honour for their own sakes; and if they come as a by-product of hard work and a good character, use them wisely.

A timely reminder for 2016 from Adamson that Aristotle’s Ethics are a more than decent guide to working (as well as wider) life.

  
  

Montaigne on Virtue

20120410-112035.jpgThree hundred and one dailylit.com episodes of Essays in and Michel de Montaigne serves up another view I 100% agree with, five centuries on. When it comes to ethics the the answer is staring you in the face – in the bathroom mirror.

To ground the recompense of virtuous actions upon the approbation of others is too uncertain and unsafe a foundation, especially in so corrupt and ignorant an age as this.

“What before had been vices are now manners.” – Seneca

You yourself only know if you are cowardly and cruel, loyal and devout: others see you not, and only guess at you by uncertain conjectures, and do not so much see your nature as your art; rely not therefore upon their opinions, but stick to your own:

“Thou must employ thy own judgment upon thyself; great is the weight of thy own conscience in the discovery of virtues and vices: which taken away, all things are lost.” – Cicero

Or as my son’s preferred sage Master Yoda might say: the keeper of your own conscience are you.

Of Angels

20111105-201745.jpgSmarting from the accusation I seldom read the source, I’m wading through Aquinas at present. Corblimey he’s obsessed with some things well beyond my interest. But that’s because I’m reading him for his ethics, and he’s writing a science book as far as he’s concerned.

Summae Theologica is, I come to realise, describing Aquinas’ views on how the world, universe, animals, minds, substance and energy all work – the lot.

Not surprising then he spends considerable time on causation – what causes what, what is primary, what is secondary and what is ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, what is an ‘operation’ what is a ‘state’.

His method is famously rigorous: three or four well sourced views on a theme, his own judgement and an answer to the opening views.

I think he quite carefully integrates a humanist perspective with a religious one. At times he acknowledges tantalisingly what ‘would’ be the case if there was no God – Aristotle ‘would’ be right on human happiness for instance he says.

After Aristotle, he concurs that our ‘end’ is indeed happiness. But we achieve happiness imperfectly in our mortal lives. We achieve it most in contemplation. In contemplation of what though?

For Aquinas, of course, that would be God. But contemplation of God is, he acknowledges, tricky. Not least as He is infinite and Our reason is finite. We’re snookered from the off.

What to do? It could be worse. Animals are even further from God than we are. They lack our intellect and capacity for reason and thought and so can’t contemplate God at all.

Aquinas explicitly acknowledges that nature has fitted us and animals with desires and emotions to further our own survival and that of our species – positively Darwinian. But they are ‘beneath’ us and we are a rung down from – you guessed it – Angels.

God tops Angels of course, but each in the chain comes closer to ‘perfection’ and achieves ‘happiness’ most by ‘touching’ the one above.

I’m not sure how many farm animals would agree they are ‘perfected’ and happier ‘touching’ humans. Perhaps a well trained sheepdog. But we humans can attain greater happiness in the use of our more ‘perfect’ power, namely contemplation. And among the things we can happily contemplate are Angels.

Now this is a thought I can honestly say I have never had. Beyond the one on top of the Christmas Tree and my daughter in the school nativity, I have never spent any time contemplating Angels. Perhaps I should?

But the point I take from Aquinas and Angels is this: contemplation, seeing beauty around us and perfecting and developing our human capacities, skills and aptitudes is where Earthly happiness lies.

Csikszentmihalyi comes to mind. As I said to someone last weekend it’s all about adding ‘relevant complexity’ to our lives and personalities.

And I think this is what Aquinas is getting at too. A life of virtue, self-improvement and integration of the body, soul and mind might mean at the end of it all, the ‘bottled essence’ of us – probably in frail and wizened form – is a shimmering soul ‘touching’ that of an Angel.

Crystallisation

At the core of Aristotle’s account of ethics and virtue is ‘Prohairesis’ – the central moral character.

I increasingly think of it like a copper sulphate crystal growing on a piece of thread. When you do the classic school experiment, knotted threads provide the core around which a copper sulphate crystal can form, from a saturated solution. But you often get several smaller crystals and imperfections in the main one.

In my thesis, the central moral character forms – like a copper sulphate crystal – when choice and actions start to cohere around a central narrative of who we are and what we stand for. The sub-crystals are alternate versions of ourselves and the imperfections are just that – out of character behaviours, foibles and failings.

Last week I gave a talk where I owned up to once having ‘presentational positions’ on most aspects of work. They were largely free floating from any common ethical foundation. I had ethics ‘in the mix’, but no core crystal.

Expedience, presentational benefit and plausible deniability were as likely to inform my public utterances as beliefs, values or virtue. Not these days. I have Prohairesis – a central moral character which, on my better days, informs and guides my choices.

But to meet Aquinas’s test of virtue I have one major challenge left – slowing down. Talking to a friend at the weekend it transpires that one of the strengths of ‘clever’ people is they are quick. This means they can quickly weigh options and decide on the best action. But the challenge to ‘capable’ people as they progress in life, and into more complicated situations, is to use this processing capability to judge more wisely – not more quickly.

Aquinas has it that a man can make ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moral choices without any guiding core moral character, but they cannot be truly ‘virtuous’ without ‘Prudentia’ – practical wisdom – as the unifying prism. As Herbert McCabe says deliberation should be long and considered, action sharp and decisive. Sometimes I am too quick to decide.

I have Prohairesis forming in a nice crystal on the thread of my life. I’m not bad on Prudentia these days either. But like copper sulphate crystals these things take time to grow, so I should take my time too.

Incandescence

This week, I advanced my new theory – to a gently sceptical friend – that the brain works (at least partly) like the electronic ink screen of an Amazon Kindle. Blending in the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, my sweeping conclusion was he should get angry more. Here’s why.

Since buying a Kindle, I’ve been impressed that the screen, when you switch it off, maintains a complex picture – a person, a constellation, a painting etc – using no energy at all. It’s simple but impressive. Like a screensaver, but without power. Information and knowledge are thus available to be viewed, at any time, at no energy or processing cost. My theory is the brain has the same capacity.

A few years ago I read that neurones aren’t permanently ‘charged’ like little lightbulbs or LCD pixels but store information passively – more like a physical switch or dial. Energy is used to ‘charge’ them with information, but once they have been ‘set’ with information they store it passively until changed. Good job too, or, given the number of neurones we have, we’d need a nuclear generator to power our heads.

So my emerging thesis is we can ‘poll’ in computer lingo, or rapidly access a snapshot our entire accumulated summary of knowledge and experience in an instant. And in that instant we can act or react subconsciously informed by that summary.

My guess is that none of this requires much in the way of conscious cognitive processes. Like a finger recoiling from a nail or a smile drawing a return smile, we can immediately and effectively respond to people and situations against this dataset. I’m not saying it is innate or preloaded. We are constantly checking, updating and rearranging our vast neuronal data-set. But at any instant, my thesis is, it lies latently ‘there’ encrypted in neurones like the patterns which make a rich picture, or a page of words, out of electronic ink.

Of course we can intervene, ignore, debate or challenge our accumulated data. Any instant ‘gut’ reaction, or action, it may recommend can be overruled. In complex or nuanced circumstances the higher cognitive functions kick in – at least most of the time.

And this connects to my ongoing conversation with my friend on Aquinas’ support for ‘ira’, and the set of passions which include anger. Like Aristotle – in fact far more than him – Aquinas was pro anger in the right circumstances. Surprising for a theologian.

He thought the passions were intrinsic parts of who we are. He thought they were forms of reason, not lower ‘animal’ or ‘bodily’ sensations to be suppressed by our purer ‘mind’ or ‘soul’. Thus, our passions come from our instincts, blended with our default ‘Kindle screen’ summary of experiences, beliefs and our lifetime of accumulated and refined knowledge. They all inform each other.

I’m with Aristotle that we are what we repeatedly do. So we are constantly refining and tuning our passions, our experience dataset and our virtues through action – only some of that helped by conscious reflection. I’m increasingly with Aquinas too, that it all comes together in complex single holistic system – an ‘anima’, aka a person, not a dumb body and a smart, reasonable mind.

As Herbert McCabe points out: for Aquinas the good life is a passionate life; not achieved by the repression of passions, but by passions guided by virtues. Perhaps there’s more to be said for trusting our ‘gut’, allowing moments of ‘ira’ and the occasional incandescence of righteous anger. Once you’ve lived a few decades and developed a bit of virtue, it’s pretty well informed.

Elemental

The late Herbert McCabe wrote with almost scientific beauty on Aristotle and Aquinas. There is a tightness and precision which bespeaks a lifetime’s reflection and contemplation.

The international physics community has just acknowledged two new superheavy elements – 114 and 116 – which can only be made by man. In his book ‘On Aquinas’, McCabe has fused together all the elements in philosophical symmetry from the two historic heavyweights: Aristotle and Aquinas.

He manages some lighter metaphors though. Describing the difference between following rules and developing virtue he draws on football. Learning the rules of football won’t make you a good player, practice alone makes perfect. Similarly our ‘friends’, in the Aristotelian sense, are our purpose, practice and team-mates. Here’s what he has to say:

From the point of view of moral philosophy the game is friendship (philia) in the sense which Aristotle described it as that relationship by which people are fellow-citizens; and it is more than justice. Justice is the minimum proper relationship with foreigners, but, in addition to this, citizenship demands a concern for the flourishing of your friends, a concern, therefore for their virtues and their concern for my virtues. Friendship is both the aim of all the virtues and also the necessary means by which virtues are cultivated, sustained and developed. Virtues can only be taught by friends. Friendship can only be sustained by virtues.

Past thinkers have discovered all the elements of the ethical periodic table. But McCabe showed there are still elegant and beautiful new ways to bring them together.

The Good Life

I used to be a strict Act Utilitarian – the moral act is the one that produces the most overall happiness or least harm. The undergraduate philosophy case studies all seemed clear cut to me.

Knowing what we know now, would I have assassinated Hitler in 1934? Sure would. If a sadistic Generalissimo passed me a gun to kill an innocent in exchange for the lives of several others, would I pull the trigger? Under duress and with no alternatives, reluctantly, yes.

To my untrained late-teen moral mind, rational calculations seemed to provide a better framework than the rules of religions and imperfect man-made moral codes. Undergraduate philosophy taught me how to ‘reductio ad absurdam’ any nuance or shade of grey. Life was black and white. Add it up, make the call, don’t expect to be understood, live with the consequences.

But the pointer on my my moral compass started twitching in my mid-thirties. Act Utilitarianism can feel calculating, look immoral and set bad precedents. A good outcome is a bad justification for a rotten process. Some things shouldn’t go under the wheels as we drive hard to a destination. We have to stand for some things, or we stand for nothing. Sometimes what the head can justify sickens the heart.

Enter Aristotle in my Forties. Eudaimonia, arete and telos – flourishing, excellence and fulfilling our innate potential – they feel like the ingredients of a good life to me. There are some rules and a handful of prohibitions in Aristotle’s Ethics. But ‘moderation in all things’ is the basic gist. Thinking and talking about Aristotle this week, I have a clearer idea why I prefer the life’s work of ‘eudaimonia’, to the instant gratification of ‘happiness’, as a moral end.

Happiness is a mental ‘state’. In eras where life was nasty, brutish and short it must have been pretty rare. Perhaps no surprise then that ‘happiness’ bubbled to the surface with Bentham and Mill as the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ were robbing people of eudaimonia and the ‘telos’ of crafts and village life. William Blake, whose poems I’m reading at the moment, gives a flavour of this in ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’.

But in the affluent, materialist, 21st century Western world, I fear happiness is a false god. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll put transitory hedonistic pleasure on an altar. Thinking about this, I was reminded of another undergraduate philosophy ‘thought experiment’ – the brain in a vat. What if all my sensations are fed me by a mad scientist thorough electrodes plugged into my brain?

Here in the ‘real’ world we are closer and closer to being able to live purely for audio-visual, digital and chemical pleasures without needing a mad scientist. People need to participate in their lives not plug in, switch off and get high. This is substantially Csikszentmihalyi’s case for embroidering our lives with varied challenges, new skills and personal growth.

Aristotle gives life an achievable and worthwhile end – to be the best of who we are. It is an optimistic, forgiving, perfectible, self-improving and thoroughly ‘open system’ – in his nutshell: ‘we are what we repeatedly do’.

Virtues and excellence grow with our actions, a little reflection and lots of practice. There’s plenty of room in Aristotle for happiness – especially through friends. There’s an explicit acknowledgement of ‘flow’ – the work of the harp player is to play the harp, and of the good harp player to play the harp well. But above all the good life is the one we lead every day by growing, improving, refining, learning, reflecting and acting.

I think Aristotle trains core moral strength better than the rational calculation of Utilitarianism. Better to act, learn, feel and constantly improve than use intellectual brute force to calculate the answers. Life is more Bayesian than arithmetic, more non-linear than deterministic. It’s a life’s work to work on the answers for myself – and to enjoy the journey.

The Harp Player

In pursuit of the good life, Aristotle has sent me in a couple of very important directions recently. First the harp. He says that the work of the harp player is to play the harp, and of the good harp player to play the harp well. That way fulfilment lies.

He suggests we all have different ‘virtues’ or capacities which it is our life’s work to bring to excellence. Doing what we are good at ‘excellently’ gives us pleasure in the moment and fulfilment over time. An Aristotelian life is a balanced life though. There are eleven different virtues to cultivate not to mention the welfare and good of the many, politics, as he defines it. It’s a lot to fit in and doesn’t leave much time for pleasure. Or does it?

As Aristotle says: To each is pleasant of which he is said to be fond: a horse, for instance, to him who is fond of horses, and a sight to him who is fond of sights: and so in like manner just acts to him who is fond of justice. So then their life has no need of pleasure as a kind of additional appendage, but involves pleasure in itself. 

In fact Aristotle considers the highest human achievement and pleasure lies in contemplation. I now realise that there are many harps I play well enough to give me eudaimonia. I’m good at work, a decent leader and manager. I’m a good father, I love my kids and love being with them. But, above all, I am a good thinker. A life of thought is a pleasant life for me.

This leads me to the second idea, friendship. Aristotle spends a full fifth of his entire work on ethics in defining and describing the nature, types and specificities of friendship. There are transactional friendships and friendships for fun and frivolity. But the highest form of friends are friends for contemplation. These are friends whose excellence of thought, virtue in action and sheer interestingness in what they have to say draw us to them. And the same draws them to us.

Seeing these two things together is a revelation. We all care about our friends, but Aristotle reveals that our highest order friendships define us, enrich us and enable us to engage in the very highest of human achievements and pleasures – contemplation. As a friend of mine said recently ‘friends are a rich indicator’. They are indeed.

This week I told two of my ‘friends in contemplation’ at work how much I now understand they mean to me. I will seek and tell others in other parts of my life. As one of them told me in return, the great American Thomas Jefferson would always ensure he had his truest friends no more than an hour’s ride away. I now understand why. 

The intellectual harp is a wonderful instrument. But it takes a lifetime of practice to master and the company of fellow harp players to play it well.

Magnificence

I’ve talked to a lot of people about the Aristotelian virtue of Magnificence in the last two weeks. Magnificence feels a bit strong as a virtue one might aspire to these days, and indeed the good news is that most of us needn’t bother according to the great Greek. 

Magnificence lies in ‘fitting expense on a large scale’. Although ‘fitting’ is relative in Aristotle’s view, it does require significant means. A poor man cannot be a Magnificent man, as he lacks the means to spend ‘largely and yet becomingly’. 

On a trip to France last week I encountered a good deal of magnificence. I visited the British Embassy in Paris and saw the throne room, Napoleonic bed, victorian silver and cutting edge modern art which is a reminder that although less so these days the UK was and still can be magnificent from time to time. A walk through Paris reminds one that France has been and can still be too. So there’s potentially a lot to like about magnificence. But it’s also potentially problematic. 

Minor Magnificence may not be impossible for many in the developed world today – a simple ball or cup is a magnificent gift for a small child as Aristotle points out – but it is surely impossible for the vast majority in most of the world. Magnificence is exclusive and most people are excluded.

So should I resent the few who or born to or acquire the means to be truly magnificent. Should I despise those with the wealth to equip a great house, give a public spectacle or patronise the arts? If you’d have asked me a few weeks ago I fancy I would have said on balance yes. Even though many of the Magnificent men and the fewer Magnificent women of our times give greatly to good causes I would have begrudged them their wealth on grounds of excess and privilege. 

But now I’m not so sure. First begrudging or despising the Magnificent hurts me not them. Second it’s not necessarily their fault they are rich. And third, even if it is, the virtue of Magnificence is a tough one to pull off ‘fittingly’.

According to Aristotle, with his pleasing circularity which invites us to use our own powers of introspection and intuition: it is characteristic of the Magnificent man to do magnificently whatever he is about. I know a Magnificent man who has great wealth and does do pretty magnificently whatever he is about. I was puzzled when I first encountered his wealth as to why I didn’t really resent it. It is because he keeps a great house, gives public spectacles, patronises the arts and gives to good causes – fittingly. He does Magnificently what he is about. 

If everyone with great wealth did as he does there would be less poverty and inequality and more aestheticism and eudaemonia in the world. It feels strange not to be a ‘class warrior’ on this or decide ‘if you can’t beat them joins them’ as I tried to for some years when I slavishly pursued pay rises myself. But I’m more relaxed on this now. 

Magnificence on an Aristotelian scale is a virtue I don’t have to worry about but I now have a constructive and positive frame to assess the virtue of people of great wealth. And this means I can be around Magnificent people without resentment,  anger or jealousy. I can enjoy them doing Magnificently all they are about and feel enriched and not diminished myself.