the echoing wisdom of the teacher’s teacher’s teacher
I’ve tried, now and then, to read Aristotle for pleasure. I would get the odd, frustrated feeling that there really ought to have been something pleasurable going on, but that some magical thread essential to the activity of reading was consistently eluding me. Well, I’m trying to read the Nicomachean Ethics again. And this time I have been enchanted by the winding path book i traces. I think maybe I used to imagine that Aristotle was like a box, with minute specimens in compartments in compartments, but not alive (I don’t know where I got this idea, maybe I heard someone going on and on about “the categories” of understanding, or some such thing) … and didn’t fully trust or realize that his teaching might itself be “a being-at-work in accord with virtue,” a folding and unfolding in speech, enshrining and embodying an aim at the good: an aim to which the teacher is indeed entirely given, yet an aim too fundamental to be entirely his own.
Here is a small but beautiful example (and also what we call humorous, I think) of Aristotle’s awakening his listeners’ wonder. This is from chapter 4, which begins characteristically–“now, taking up the thread again”–marking the easy meanders of his discourse which nevertheless seem destined, as if attracted by something of great weight, to hit upon what is needful at every turning:
But about happiness–what it is–they are in dispute, and most people do not give the same account of it as the wise. Some people take it to be something visible and obvious, such as pleasure or wealth or honor, and different ones say different things, and even the same person often says different things; when sick one thinks it is health, but when poor, that it is wealth, and when they are conscious of ignorance in themselves, people marvel at those who say it is grand and above them. And some people believe that, besides these many good things, there is some other good, by itself, which is responsible for the being good of all these other things.
One delightful aspect of this passage is how effectively the examples draw one in to the argument. We imagine and try them out for ourselves “when sick one thinks it is health, when poor, that it is wealth” … and consequently, at the next turn, we find ourselves imagining as our own condition precisely what the argument indicates our condition to be … “and when they are conscious of ignorance in themselves, people marvel at those who say it is grand and above them.” We have thus, perhaps, been readied to hear the account of the wise: that “besides these many good things, there is some other good, by itself, which is responsible for the being good of all these other things.” Aristotle will go on to refute various superficial versions of this opinion, at the same time developing the marvellous and at times vexed perplexities it introduces. Yet here he gives this famous opinion of his teacher the place of honor; it is the prize and hope of those “who are conscious of ignorance in themselves”–a phrase we might take as a reverent self-reminder of the peculiar wisdom his teacher’s teacher was possessed of.