I recently finished reading Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. This is a true classic. It’s one of the most influential books of all time. It has been famous through different eras especially during the middle ages. Aristotle was referred to during this time as “The Philosopher”.
The book is most likely titled in honour of Aristotle’s father Nicomachus. His son’s name was Nicomachus and was involved in editing the final manuscripts that formed the book that we know today. The work was completed some time during the 4th Century BC.
Aristotle postulates the highest human good is “eudaimonia” or what is probably best translated into English as “flourishing” but often unfortunately translated as mere “happiness”. A substantial component in the path to such human happiness is acting with the appropriate virtues over the course of an entire lifetime. The details of these Aristotelean teachings form the Nicomachean Ethics, one of the most influential works in the entire history of Western Civilisation.
As a way of sharing a small example of Aristotle’s extensive philosophy outlined in these pages, I will focus on Book IV Chapter 8 where this brilliant ancient Greek philosopher addresses the virtue of being witty, sensitive to others, discerning and perceptive, particularly when we are at our leisure.
Here are six Aristotle quotes and some thoughts:
“Since life includes rest as well as activity, and in this is included leisure and amusement, there seems here also to be a kind of intercourse which is tasteful; there is such a thing as saying- and again listening to- what one should and as one should.”
Aristotle’s focus on time spent outside of work, what we nowadays refer to as ‘leisure time’, makes this section of his ethical teachings particularly relevant for us today, most especially since we are bombarded by a nonstop barrage of advertisements, store signs and billboards. Some obvious, others not.
“The kind of people one is speaking to or listening to will also make a difference.”
It is paramount who we associate with both at work and outside of work. Aristotle is positive that we can actively participate in society and exercise discrimination as we develop wisdom to speak as we should and listen as we should. In contrast, another Greek philosopher, Epicurus, was not so optimistic on this point. Epicurus judged conventional society as blind and dumb, particularly as it pertains to men and women expounding values regarding such things as riches and fame and what constitutes our true human needs. The answer for Epicurus: withdraw into a separate community with like-minded friends and philosophers.
“Regarding people’s views on humour there is both an excess and a deficiency as compared with the mean. Those who carry humour to excess are thought to be vulgar buffoons, striving after humour at all costs, and aiming rather at raising a laugh than at saying what is becoming and at avoiding pain to the object of their fun while those who can neither make a joke themselves nor put up with those who do are thought to be boorish and unpolished.”
Aristotle is optimistic that someone who aspires to philosophic excellence, virtue and the mean (maintaining a centrist position between two extremes) can live among buffoons and boors without being pulled down to their level.
“The ridiculous side of things is not far to seek, however, and most people delight more than they should in amusement and in jestingly and so even buffoons are called ready-witted because they are found attractive; but that they differ from the ready-witted man, and to no small extent, is clear from what has been said.”
Aristotle observes how buffoonery can easily lapse into the social norm. Thus our challenge is how to retain our integrity when surrounded by slobs and buffoons.
“To the middle state belongs also tact; it is the mark of a tactful man to say and listen to such things as befit a good and well-bred man; for there are some things that it befits such a man to say and to hear by way of jest, and the well-bred man’s jesting differs from that of a vulgar man, and the joking of an educated man from that of an uneducated.”
Aristotle’s overarching observation on how the wisdom of the middle way between two extremes applies here. It’s not good to find yourself at either extreme, being a boor or being a buffoon. Unfortunately, speaking and otherwise communicating in a buffoonish or boorish way is in no way restricted to the uneducated or dull. We’ve all witnessed numerous instances of buffoonery and boorishness among the highly educated and intellectually astute.
This book is an essential part of the Western canon and well worth its place there. Give it a read and let me know what you think in the comments.