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Aristotle’s Finishing School vs. Epicurus’ Internet Connection

by on February 17, 2011

                As argued in favor of before, Aristotelian ‘Virtue Ethics’ seems to be the most practical foundation of ethics for achieving the ‘good life,’ as was sought as the sole purpose of philosophy. However, there is an aspect to Aristotelian ethics to which grave problems arise. This aspect doesn’t discredit the ethics so much as the place philosophy finds itself in society in general.  The stereotype of philosophy being an ‘ivory tower’ pursuit consisting in impractical questions which bear little or no significance is common amongst non-philosophers. This stereotype in fact has a very long history going all the way back to the Pre-Socratics in which a philosopher, while looking up at the stars in a lofty pursuit for ‘Truth,’ fell into a well because he wasn’t just looking right in front of him. I believe that the ‘application process’ of Aristotle’s Lyceum, most notably the stipulations in which to be eligible to live the ‘good life’ perpetuates this notion of philosophy as an elitist pursuit signifying nothing. In contrast to this, the Epicurean argument against Aristotle’s ethics provides a key step in making philosophy more egalitarian. To fast forward the arguments placed by the Epicurean pursuit of the good life; the internet may very well serve as a manifestation of the egalitarian placement of knowledge; thus leading one to pursue the good life.

                To begin with, Aristotle did not allow women, craftsman, laborers, slaves, sailors, or farmers to learn at the Lyceum. He did not allow the young either and this was due to a foundational knowledge that Aristotle called for. In some ways, as Martha Nussbaum argues in ‘Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics,’ this approach may in fact simply maintain the status quo of the polis. The students of the Lyceum would arrive with a more/less thorough knowledge of politics, rhetoric, and other disciplines to which the Lyceum may just serve to shave off the unnecessary trimmings of uselessness while keeping the bulk of it. Drawing further on the medical analogy of philosophy mentioned in the ‘Considering Categorical Contingencies,’ it would seem quite difficult to be a successful doctor if you only really treated those who were pretty damn healthy to begin with right? Aristotle felt that the young, as with the uneducated laborers listed above, without any of the ‘experience,’ or discipline involved in the dialectic (argument) of philosophy- how would one even really know how to approach the good life? In many ways I see Aristotle’s Lyceum as a kind of ‘finishing school’ in which one simply refines one’s pre-formed knowledge. If Aristotle’s teachings are for those whom already have a good upbringing, a solid education, then the goal of philosophy; namely, the healing of the soul, seems to be reserved for those whose soul is already in a pretty good condition.  Now, on to the Epicurean response to such conditions.

                Now, in an almost Rousseauian fashion(the noble savage), Epicurus places blame for the unhappiness of man on society itself and uses an ‘uncorrupted’ creature (a child perhaps, an animal) as the template of the uncorrupted man who is able to live the good life by not being distracted and corrupted by the illusory pursuits that society places on man. Right here we see the beginnings of the divergence between the two schools of thought. Remember that at Aristotle’s Lyceum, the students were already aristocratically educated, familiar with customs, traditions, varying political systems and constitutions; these are the very things that Epicurus attributes to the unhappiness of man. Such pursuits of power, fame, luxury, wealth, fine food, fine clothes, etc. are the ultimate cause of unhappiness because they are not based off anything ‘real.’ They are goals which themselves find no final conclusion or end. The rich man is never satisfied, nor is the man who sees food not as a biological necessity, but as a cultural refinement, the powerful man is hardly ever satisfied with his already attained power for he will always seek more.

                Now Epicurus, contrary to Aristotle, would have allowed a woman, a laborer, a farmer into his teaching in order to treat philosophy as an egalitarian treatment of the soul. Epicurus’ specific ethics may in fact be a bit extreme, may in fact be a bit impractical. However, it is the approach of curing all of those with ill souls that truly marks a more egalitarian approach to ethical philosophy.

                Epicurus is to the internet what Aristotle is to the private finishing school of today. The democratization of knowledge, the mass availability of knowledge at one’s fingertips serves as an ability for each person, or at least a considerable higher number of people, to cultivate for themselves the properties needed to live a good life. The stark distinction between these two’s approaches to philosophy in the simplest terms are thus: Aristotle sees the cultivation of education as a necessary requirement to then proceed in a philosophical setting the acquisition of the good life; Epicurus sees this as the problem itself. Epicurus encourages us to see things without all the cultivation, without all the theoretical knowledge, to discourage the acceptance of traditions merely on the grounds of it existing. It is the poor laborer, the slave, and the marginalized female gender that has the most to benefit from this in that they are less influenced by the cosmopolitan practices in a thriving society. Their vision is not fogged down by the illusory pursuits of fame and wealth and luxury. This is not to say that Epicurus demands an ascetic life necessarily. Again, it is not the ethical teachings themselves that are in question; for the virtue ethics of Aristotle are one’s that I strongly agree with. It is the eligibility and practice of philosophy that disconnects me from Aristotle. As Epicurus states, which Aristotle would disagree with on the grounds of his aristocratic leanings:

‘Let nobody put off doing philosophy when he is young, nor slacken off in philosophy because of old age. For nobody is either too young or too old to secure the health of the soul. And to say that the proper time for doing philosophy has not yet come, or has already gone by, is just like saying that the time for the flourishing life has not yet come or has already gone by.’

Furthering this argument, Epicurus, most likely in an attack on Aristotle’s peripatetic (walking and philosophizing/lecturing) philosophy, states:

‘What produces unsurpassed jubilation is the contrast of the evil escaped. And this is the nature of the good, if one applies one’s mind correctly and then stands firm, and does not go walking about chattering about the good in an empty fashion.’ (Italics added)

                Epicurus sees Aristotle’s ethics, his teachings of the ‘good life,’ as that lofty, elitist, even charming, yet impractical practice that one finds in the stereotypes of philosophy today. Philosophy needs to return to the egalitarian treatment of the soul if it wants to help more and more people. Just as the internet is available to rich and poor alike in many more countries than elite institutions of learning, Epicurus saw philosophy as a tool that anybody with an unhealthy soul could benefit from. Just as Aristotle saw each student possessing some grasp of knowledge, Epicurus sees the same thing in an individual but in different ways. The aristocratic teachings received by each of Aristotle’s students are the measure of the compatibility of exchange between teacher and student, whereas the beginnings of man before corruption are what shares in the compatibility between the Epicurean teacher and his students.

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