Edith Hall Book Review

Edith Hall Book Review

A bust of Aristotle
Review of Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life
Edith Hall, Penguin Press, 2019
by  Bernard E. Rollin, University Distinguished Professor, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado.
I must admit to some degree of shock when I encountered Dr. Hall’s Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life. The idea of a “self-help” book based in Aristotle’s writings struck me as bizarre.
But upon reflection, it dawned on me that in my earliest writings on animal ethics, finding myself dissatisfied with standard ethical theories, including both Utilitarianism and Kantian deontology, I eventually settled on the Aristotelian account of telos as the most comprehensive categorical scheme for embodying what I wished to express about our moral obligations to animals. In many ways, Aristotle represents the archetypal, commonsense philosopher, solidly grounded in the real world, having no patience with Plato’s locating of ethical Forms in a super-sensible realm.
It is easy to believe that what we imprecisely call “human nature” has not greatly changed since the time of Aristotle. When we combine this fact with his commonsense approach, it is easy to see how and why Dr. Hall chose this project. The most impressive part of her book is the degree to which she makes Aristotelian ideas come alive for today’s citizens.
One such insight is Aristotle’s claim that we can choose to be happy. Perhaps this is better articulated in terms of our ability to choose not to be happy. I myself, unfortunately, have a tendency in that direction. Arguably, the happiest time in my life was during the period when I was raising my son. Never before or after did, I experience such joy. But during that whole period of time, I fretted about the fact that he would be leaving home at 18 to go to college. That realization cast a pall over all the joy I was experiencing, even when the feared event was 10 years distant. I have a similar dark tendency with regard to aging, thereby creating a self-fulfilling state of anxiety that interferes with my ability to be happy. What I have just described represents a paradigmatic example of Aristotle’s shrewdness regarding human psychology.
One concept rightly stressed by Hall is the concept of dynamis or potential, something that is possessed by all intelligent people but may need nurturing and development. It is a fundamental role of education to help develop one’s potential. In many cases, there is a multitude of pathways provided by one’s potential. One may, for example, possess native musical talent but also be gifted with innate athletic ability. Either of these or sometimes both can be nurtured by education and training, depending on the circumstances in which one finds oneself. The majority of people probably possess diverse talents; the tragedy is when they fail to pursue them.
An animal’s potential is more circumscribed than that of humans, given human rationality. A human who finds him or herself in circumstances devoid of musical stimulation, given the above example, may pursue the development of one’s athletic ability. It appears that animal potential is more limited, determined as it is by the animal’s inherent biological and psychological nature, ortelos. In my view, this provides an essential reason for those concerned about animal well-being to accommodate the animal’s biological and psychological well-being. Animal telos lacks the plasticity and flexibility of human nature. An imprisoned person may live in a highly impoverished environment but still be capable of turning his or her attention to creating poetry or other forms of literature. In fact, the history of literature is peppered with such examples. An animal unable to express its telos has no “fallback” on which to rely in order to live an actualized life. Though I have worked in animal ethics for four decades, this latter point did not occur to me until I had read Hall’s book, which provided me with an excellent but hitherto unnoticed insight into animal ethics.
Aristotle’s account of decision-making, as recounted by Hall, is once again extremely timely. The principles recounted as developed by Aristotle are absolutely correct, even recognizing that even the most careful and scrupulous decision-making is subject to disruption by ill-fortune. As Robert Burns sagely remarked, in his poem “To a Mouse,” “the best-laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley.” The point that Aristotle makes regarding bad luck is not that it can be avoided, but that it can enter into the contingencies one deliberates upon when planning.
What is known today as “virtue ethics” was first explored by Aristotle. As Hall points out, ”virtue” and “vice” are fairly poor translations of the Greek concepts of aretai and kakiai respectively.  ”Virtue” and “vice” now have Victorian connotations of chastity and priggishness, that were not present in Aristotle’s Greek, where they simply referenced good and bad human qualities. Any ethic, such as Utilitarianism or Kantianism, that does not feature an emphasis on such virtues, is the poorer for that lack. These virtues are essentially habits that are developed over the course of a lifetime. They represent, as Plato taught, a “mean” between extremes. Thus, courage is the mean – i.e. the appropriate balance – between cowardice and foolhardiness. When I taught my son to ride a motorcycle in the hills, he informed me that it frightened him and he did not wish to do it. I explained to him that anyonewho does not feel fear is a fool unless you are invulnerable like Superman. True courage, I further explained, means overcoming the challenge in spite of your fear. That Aristotelian message was an invaluable life lesson for him.
Moral concern for the environment lends itself perfectly to Aristotle’s virtue ethics, far better I would argue that ethical theories focused on persons or even on animals. It encourages the development of habits respecting our environment in all our actions.
We live in a time where ethics is being rapidly extended – to animals, to traditionally disenfranchised humans, and to the environment. As I have argued in my own work, the wisdom of Aristotle remains highly relevant in animal ethics and indeed has been a major basis for my own work. And Aristotelian virtues serve us all well in any area of ethical endeavor.
This is a superb book! Not only does Dr. Hall understand Aristotle with great clarity, but she also has the gift of explicating his ideas to non-philosophers in a manner that is intriguing to readers. Her writing style is wonderful. The book is peppered with small anecdotes that make the text (and the author) come alive. I will certainly seek out her other books and assuredly devour them with the same gusto I did this one.