For the Love of Wisdom

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How (and hardly a word on why) to learn the ethical views of Aristotle and Plato

Tips on the best guides to classical thought on virtue.

A prominent writer and opinion-maker told the following anecdote in a recent talk. He had ordered some take-out food, and the man delivering it saw books by Plato and Aristotle on his shelves and said "oh, we have the same interests." I guess the punch line depends on some elitism I just don't recognize as sound. Lots of people indeed have interests in Plato and Aristotle. And those who do might be thought of as, in some way, kindred souls, whether delivering your food or not (really, is this a reach?)  

They also might be thought of as people who have had the benefit of some very keen teaching.

I am sure they exist, but I for one cannot imagine the self-taught reader of Plato or Aristotle. In other courses you could puzzle things out after missing class, left with the problems or the text. But I recall, in my first class on Aristotle, the professor putting particular lines of the text up for debate. I felt like they were not in English (though they were). I could not understand a simple sentence of Aristotle, not even one put up there as a way to help us focus on something clear.

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Plato was similar. I am sure I read some dialogues through, but on my own, without distillation of the centuries of secondary work on his topics to assist me, I would have been left with but a few metaphors, ones I could not connect to much else. 

But slowly, through the guidance of professors, I began to get the gist. This meant when I returned to the text, things started to fall in place. Sentences began to make sense within chapters that began to make sense. The secondary literature I was directed to was crucial in this. 

And now. Aristotle. Plato. Sigh. I think of these authors as life-long companions. Reading them brings immeasurable pleasure, and I read them with the familiarity that makes every new thing I notice in their work resonant.

This is not to say they are for everyone. It is one interest among countless alternatives. But I do want to say this: this taste had to be aquired. And if you are a fan of Aristotle or Plato (or the Stoics, Epicureans, or Skeptics, or...), or meet (at your door with a delivery or not) a fan of this thought: lucky you. The things you can ponder over! The topics to discuss! Lucky you. And thank a teacher.

Why Learn the Original Accounts of Virtue Ethics

I'll be brief here. If you have to ask why read Plato and Aristotle-- again, these topics may not be for you. Of course, there may be some practical reasons to learn virtue ethics. Maybe you've run into the idea of virtue in more modern sources, and notice references to the older accounts. Maybe some of the terms "form of the good," "final end," "the mean," "akrasia," have been used in conversations you've been interested in. Even if it is just an entry on your "life list" to read some part of Plato, I've got suggested reading.

The Best Guides to Ancient Thought on Ethics

Whatever the case- whether you have the interest or think you might- I've been asked a fair bit about the best guides (short a College seminar) to ancient philosophical thought (in ethics), and I want to recommend Julia Annas's "The Morality of Happiness." It is the best guide I can think of to classic thought on happiness, morality, and agency. If you see no seminars on the subject in your future, you could not be in better hands when it comes to post-Platonic views.

It offers a chance to not just get one perspective on virtue ethics, but to access the views of Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Skeptics and later syncretic thinkers. Any term you've heard that put you off, "indifferents," the "mean," "final end": they are all explained. It is anything but a tedious read. A wonderfully brisk clip, but with no sense that anything, and I mean anything, has been left out.

When it comes to Socrates and Plato, I'd recommend Annas again. Her "Platonic Ethics, Old and New," is a similarly thorough guide. Based on her Townsend Lectures, this reading will leave you feeling confident as you peruse Plato. It is an incredibly engaging overview. She is very convincing on what might be able to find in him. 

These books are meant to be used by readers who have the primary texts on hand (of course, this now means- "has the internet" since the ancient texts are widely available online in various translations). So if you are interested, but not yet ready for that, try her most simple presentation: "Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction."

If you begin reading any of these books because they were mentioned here, please let me know how it goes!

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Baker, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston.

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