Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Aristotle for Inspiration

We concluded the semester in my "Search for Values" class with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Specifically, we ended with the end of the Nic Ethics, Book X, in which Aristotle defends the life of contemplation as both the highest achievement for human beings and the "truly" happy and virtuous life. I always find that Book X provides an excellent opportunity for us (philosophy professors, in particular) to be the kind of inspirational pedagogues that we all try to be.

When we read the sections in which Aristotle describes the immense, almost "pure," pleasure that comes along with a life of study, I always ask my students whether or not that is also their experience of study/contemplation. Initially, many of them don't find much congruence between Aristotle's description and their own experience. (This is especially the case if you happen to be teaching the Nic Ethics at the very end of the semester, as I am, when students are stressed out about papers, exams, grades, etc.) But I always ask my students to consider that the reason they no longer find contemplation pleasurable is because they have been habituated to think that way. That is, the structure of the educational system as it is now de-habituates them from just the sort of virtue that Aristotle is describing because we make study/contemplation just a means to some other end, thus taking away both the pleasure and the virtue of it. Students are not really stressed about studying or contemplating, or so I tell them, but rather about the various so-called "ends" to which they believe that activity is directed. So, I ask them to reconsider whether or not contemplation would in fact be pleasurable to them if these conditions were removed.

My experience has been that, when given the opportunity to think about it this way, students actually do like to talk about their love of contemplation. This little thought-experiment also gives them the chance to consider Aristotle's claims at the very end of Book X (in preparation for his Politics) that in order for human beings to really live a happy and virtuous life, they must live in a polis that provides the kinds of structures that encourage its citizens to develop happy and virtuous habits. I ask them: Does the current education system provide that kind of environment? And if it doesn't, what can you do to "decontaminate," so to speak, the environment in which you think from all of those conditions that habituate you to think that contemplation is not pleasurable?

In reference to the conversation we had earlier in the semester regarding "studenting" vs. "learning" (which sparked a great conversation on this blog here and here), I think that Aristotle provides the best kind of interpretive frame. So, I left them with this:

Be a thinker, not a student. You'll be happier.


kgrady said...

I've got to say, I'm living about as close to the life of contemplation that Aristotle describes as I probably ever will, and I have no complaints. Of course I have an enormous and monolithic goal guiding most of my thinking, but it's pretty easy to forget that most of the time.

But then I recall how Aristotle also emphasizes the importance of friendship in the contemplative life, and I'm actually feeling kind of jealous of your students for getting to talk Aristotle with you.

The end of the semester, already? Man, that was fast.

Steven Thomas said...

Considering your previous post about race, I'd be curious what you think of Aristotle's position on slavery -- since he was sometimes quoted in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries by the slave-traders and slave-ownders as an authoritative justification for the "peculiar institution."

Doctor J said...

Kyle: You have NO IDEA how fast this semester went. Ack. And, for the record, I'm also jealous of you. I remember those days of diss-writing fondly. There was something "purely" pleasurable about it.

Steven: I always think the questions about Aristotle and "natural" slavery are difficult. I general, I don't find the actual passages in Aristotle's text all that interesting or that surprising, as Aristotle seems committed to the belief that some people are capapble of rationaliry (and, consequently, virtue and happiness) and others are not. Children, animals, women and barbarians/slaves fall into the latter category, as you know, so Aristotle's support of human-imposed slavery is just an extension of the nature-imposed slavery in which these wretched souls are already bound.

Now, some of my (Straussian) friends tell me that Aristotle's position on slavery is more complicated than that... but that's what Straussians always say. I will grant this, though: it is clearly anachronistic to try and inflect Aristotle's slavery with something like "race," which makes its uptake by 17th and 18th C defenders of *chattel* or *heritable* slavery dubious.