Among other projects, I’m keeping myself occupied during quarantine by writing a book explaining Aristotle’s ethics to non-philosophers. Below is the first section from Book VII.
Let me know if you know anyone in publishing.
Book VII – Habits
Continence and Incontinence: Not Just about Peeing Your Pants
“We must now discuss incontinence and softness, and continence and endurance; for we must treat each of the two neither as identical with virtue or wickedness, nor as a different genus.” VII.1
Let me begin by introducing you to Some Dudes:
Some Dude number 1 is what you might call a rotten bastard; not only does he abuse his wife, he doesn’t think what he’s doing is wrong, and doesn’t feel bad for it.
Some Dude number 2 is a drinker, and gradually getting worse. He hates hangovers though, and every time he goes to the bar, he promises himself he’ll stop after the second drink. He just never does.
Some Dude number 3 just quit cigarettes a week ago. He hasn’t had a single puff since then, but he really craves one.
Some Dude number 4 finally got to the point where he looks forward to his daily jog.
Each of these Dudes is in a different condition related to each of the other Dudes. But the condition of each Dude is determined not by his relation to the other Dudes, but by his relation to himself. More specifically, the condition of each Dude can be described by his relationship to his own actions and his own feelings. Here is a chart comparing each Dude, but using Aristotle’s terminology rather than the word “dude:”
Yes, I’m boldly declaring that wife-beating is bad and jogging is good. If you disagree, plug in things you think are bad or good. If you still don’t think anything can be bad or good, feel free to stop reading. I’m also declaring that someone’s mind, choices, and feelings can also be good or bad, which is a little more complicated, but not much.
A mind is good that understands what’s right in whatever the scenario is. Dudes 2-4 can all think straight: they know what’s better and worse for themselves. Dude 1 can’t even do that, and is convinced in his mind that hitting his wife is okay.
A choice that is good is one that follows a good mind. Dudes 3 and 4 know what they’re supposed to do, and they do it. Dude 2 knows, but can’t help himself when the sweet sweet bourbon hits his palate.
A feeling that is good is one that follows a good mind and a good choice. Dude 4 not only knows and does what’s right; he enjoys it. Dude 3 does the right thing, but he still really wants to have that delicious menthol.
The goal for all of us is to become like Dude 4: to know the right thing, to do it, and to have fun doing it. This goes against what some of us grew up believing: that the more we suffer internally while doing good things, the better we are as people. It turns out that this is what is commonly called “Kantian Bullshit.” We suffer when we improve, yes, because we’re attached to dumb stuff that we shouldn’t want. But the better we become, the more we enjoy being good. Remember: virtue is about happiness. Anything else is a bunch of passive-aggressive martyr-complex garbage.
It’s worth saying that according to Aristotle, who seems to me to be right, the majority of us fit in the middle of the chart – we’re mostly either continent or incontinent, Dude 2 or 3. Not a lot of people are totally vicious, who don’t even believe wrong is wrong anymore (though plenty of people are confused, which is a different thing). And very few people are totally virtuous, and never have to struggle to do the right thing. Even rarer are two other Dudes that I didn’t even put on the chart: Some Dude 0, who Aristotle calls “beastly,” and who takes intense pleasure in inhumanly horrible activities (someone like a serial killer or country music fan); there’s also Some Dude 5, called “godlike,” who is so virtuous that he seems inhumanly perfect (like Captain America or House). Let’s leave these extremes behind and figure out how to get from Dude 1 to Dude 4.