A Child’s Birthday

raphael-and-grandpaI remember thinking on my birthday: how can all these people just be going about their business today? Don’t they realize? But the fact was that the key people around me did realize; and they acted like it.

And so a child learns. This is a day of celebration. Because of me.

The day of birth is not the absolute beginning; but as the unique day of ‘arriving,’ it is when we say ‘yes!’ and ‘thank you!’ for this very life itself. Year in, and year out, without cease.

For this child is a gift that is permanent, irrepeatably enriching our lives–no matter what ever happens.

And on this day we remember. And we take the opportunity to try to convey the most important thing a child needs to know.

Son, those around you might have to go about their normal business today, at least to some extent. But this day is not, and never will be, a normal day. It will always be the day on which Mama and Daddy first got to see your face, and to hold you. And we are grateful beyond words.

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Looking to Others, Naturally

feeding-the-young

“The liberal man…does not value wealth for its own sake but as a means to giving.
…for it is the nature of the liberal man not to look to himself.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Studying ethics is not so much about seeing what you should not do. It’s about seeing what you can become.

The notion of ‘nature’ is at the center of Aristotle’s worldview. Humans have a nature; that is, we exist in a certain way, a way that implies a not-yet and a can-be. Part of this nature is that we form ‘habits,’ which themselves constitute a kind of ‘second nature.’ And these second natures are either the completion of the can-be of our given nature, or they are not.

When a habit is a true completion of our given nature, it is a called a virtue. It is a reality of stunning beauty. To see such a thing is an opportunity for insight into our very selves.

I too can do such a thing. Indeed, I will not have become who I really am, until I do.

So reading through the Nicomachean Ethics is a unique adventure in self-discovery. Liberality—‘liberal,’ from the word for ‘free’—here names a virtue that refers to a habit of profound generosity with wealth. It implies that one has discovered and lives out the true value of wealth.

One day I could be so free; so myself; looking, by second nature, to others rather than to self. What a thrill to imagine it.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.

Image: Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875), Feeding the Young

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Drama Like No Other

Woodcutters Lunch

“It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

It is not unusual, especially when we’re studying ethics, to have dramatic moments in the classroom. Indeed, no story in literature is ever as dramatic as the problems of actual human life.

It can happen very naturally when we’re following the thoughts of a master like Aristotle. Vistas, sometimes terrifying in their implications, open before our eyes. At times like this, it is the role of the teacher to try to steady the communal gaze, that the moment of insight might not be lost, and might bear some lasting fruit.

Last week we were considering Aristotle’s observation of the human propensity to form habits. Human actions bring about corresponding dispositions in the soul. To do an action of a certain kind is already to begin to form a habit of that kind. And habits are, in a sense, who a person really is. A simple truth, so fraught with implications.

I saw the light go on in this student’s eyes; I think I even felt the shiver go down his back. His arm shot up, and I called on him. Then came the thunder clap.

“But what if a child forms certain habits even before he is really responsible for what he is doing?”

The question emerged from the depth of human experience. A teacher could not hope for more. You cannot fabricate such tension.

The Philosopher himself had anticipated this question; a partial answer is in the words quoted above. The lasting influence of a child’s upbringing is truly awesome.

I don’t think that Aristotle intends to diminish the role of human freedom; no matter how we are raised, we remain free and responsible for our actions. But, the simple truth is that how a child is raised is of transcendent and lasting importance. The child’s likes and dislikes, and the other habits at the center of who he is, are already being formed before his freedom is even engaged.

How can we express in words the profound and terrifying duty of parents? In many ways the present and future happiness of their children is at stake in their actions: what they allow, what they forbid, what they encourage, what they discourage, whom they invite, whom they exclude…  and the actions they pattern.

Have we not seen it happening? From the beginning our children are becoming who they will be. For better, or for worse.

The manner of a child’s upbringing is not the only factor in life–but it can still make ‘all the difference.’

~ ~ ~

I love how this Image by Leon Lhermitte (1844-1925) Le Dejeuner du Bucheron, (The Lunch of the Woodcutter), portrays a father spending time with his young child, and his wife, while taking a midday break from his labors.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.

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Vulnerable Happiness

an-elderly-couple

“That the fortunes of descendants and of all a man’s friends should not affect his happiness at all seems an unfriendly doctrine, and one opposed to the opinions men hold.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle has just argued for one of the cornerstones of his worldview: human happiness most of all consists in living virtuously. Living virtuously does not yield happiness as some sort of reward; to live virtuously is to be happy.

And while his understanding of happiness places great emphasis on a person’s responsibility to choose well and to be intentional about forming good habits, Aristotle remains deeply aware of a truth that can be somewhat alarming.

Our happiness is also dependent on the actions of others.

Aristotle argues for instance that while happiness consists in something that a person does—again, virtuous actions performed voluntarily—nonetheless happiness should also be seen as a gift of God.

But the fact that Aristotle suggests that our happiness, or at least some degree of our happiness, is somehow connected to the fortunes of our friends and family—even those who come after we are gone!—is especially provocative. This raises a cluster of theological questions I am not competent to address. But one thing especially strikes me in Aristotle’s suggestion.

While I feel a strong desire to control my own destiny, at the same time something strikes me as fitting that my own happiness is not simply my own affair. Perhaps I go too far, but I am inclined to say that if my family and friends are not happy with me, then I don’t want to be happy.

I hold by faith that a human person could theoretically be happy in heaven were there no on else but that person and God. This is a profound truth. Yet in the concrete, has not God woven my life so deeply with the lives of others that in some sense it cannot be unwoven without tearing the fabric?

We learn as we move through life that the more we live and love the more we make ourselves vulnerable–deeply vulnerable–to the sufferings and joys of others. When I think of how vulnerable I am, in and through those that I love, my knees can grow weak.

Yet among other things, in those moments I might recall that even Aristotle had confidence that it is all for the good. Indeed, would I trade my vulnerability for anything else in the world?

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.

Image: by Ludwig Knaus (1829-1910)

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If Desire is Not in Vain

Old Man and Child

“…for at that rate…our desire would be empty and vain.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

The insights of Aristotle never cease to amaze. Assiduously avoiding rash assumptions and unsupported conclusions, he nonetheless boldly makes claims that lesser minds would not dare assert.

A man of vast human experience, Aristotle cannot be accused of being naïve. He is well aware, for instance, that there will always be people ready to argue, from their own experience, that human life is nasty, brutish, and short.

How many of us have wondered at certain times whether there is some cruel power at work in the fact that we have such deep-seated desires for love, and relationship, and peace… desires that themselves cause agony when unfulfilled. Why is such suffering a regular accompaniment of the efforts of even the best of men?

Aristotle does not blush. He looks the problem square in the face. Even the worst cases of cruel twists of fate do not make him flinch. The deepest and truest of human desires are not in vain. There is a fulfillment, a happiness, in which they can be fulfilled; and it is within reach. An honest analysis of the data of human life should yield no other answer.

But some will refuse to be convinced. And perhaps even this can be for the good. Maybe their very desperation remains a clarion call for others to see anew the ever mysterious drama that is human life, the human endeavor to become ourselves.

Nay more: their agony is a call to enter into their suffering, to walk in their shoes. Then mysteriously, both of us might see once more, as never seen before, the astounding truth, that the deepest human desires, and consequent suffering, are not in vain.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.

Image: by Albert Anker (1831-1910)
One might wonder: how does this image fit with this reflection? When I look at this painting I see an older man who has struggled to overcome his fear for this child, perhaps his grandson. He wonders in his heart: can this dear child endure what life has demanded that I endure? Will he have another person to be with him in his moments of agony, long after I am gone? Will he have the insight and the patience, and the love, to come to see: all will be well?

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Making Brave Men

Leonidas Monument, Thermopylae

“Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.”
Spartan Monument at Thermopylae, as recorded by Herodotus in The Histories

Few stories in our history so capture the imagination.

One king with three hundred men, another king with three hundred thousand. Spartan King Leonidas, hand-picking those to go meet the advancing Mede and Persian hordes in Attica, made sure his men all had living sons—so no household would be left desolate. There was no illusion as to what might lie ahead.

Xerxes, on the other hand, could not see what was coming. Confident that the Spartans would retreat in the face of his countless army, he waited. And waited. His spies reported that the Spartans weren’t retreating; some were engaging in gymnastic exercises, others were grooming their hair. Confused, Xerxes sought someone who could explain these Spartans to him.

“Earnestly do I struggle at all times to speak truth to thee, sire,” began his adviser, “and now listen to it once more. These men have come to dispute the pass with us; and it is for this that they are now making ready. ‘Tis their custom, when they are about to hazard their lives, to adorn their heads with care.”

These Spartans were a different kind of men, as Xerxes and his men were about to find out. But they weren’t born that way. Spartan education was a concerted effort with a relentless focus: courage and honor. Aristotle, an Athenian, wrote these remarkable words of praise for a rival city: “But it is in the city of Sparta alone, or almost alone, that the legislator seems to have been careful about people’s upbringing and pursuits. In most cities such matters have been neglected, and each person lives as he wishes…”

One thing that can be said for Sparta: people did not simply live according to their own wishes. They lived according to a shared understanding of certain higher goods–an understanding in which they formed their youth. So they lived, and so they died.

There could have been no question in the minds of these citizen-soldiers: they would be remembered by the people of Lacedaemon (the region of which Sparta was capital). Both friends and strangers aplenty would tell, that obeying her behests they fell.

In that mountain pass remote from their homes, three hundred Spartans and their king died as they had lived, committed to the values and the common good of their homeland. And the world still stands in amazement.


Herodotus (484-425 BC) was an early Greek historian and came to be known as the ‘Father of History.’

Image is of the current monument at Thermopylae.

 

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The Opposite of the Most Disgraceful Thing

Mounted Archer

“Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their twentieth year, in three things alone—to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth.”
“The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie.”
Herodotus, The Histories, (writing about customs of the Persians)

Though the ancient Greeks considered Persians to be ‘barbarians,’ they still found in them things worthy of emulation. And so might we.

It is remarkable, and heartening, to see again and again in history how human persons across all cultures have certain common insights into who we are, and who we should be.

We are to be truth-tellers. Eyes are for seeing, and lips for speaking the truth, for saying aloud the truth we have seen. To be able really to know the truth: this is an honor reserved for persons. Other animals can perceive things that are true. But they do not know that what they perceive is true, and thus they do not really know the truth, as such. One consequence is that even if an animal can communicate something that is true, it can never really lie.

But wonder of wonders: we humans can know that our thoughts have captured reality as it is. We can know the truth: the correspondence of mind and reality. And we can speak it. Or not.

It seems that even those committed to truth-telling sometimes spend too much energy wondering: can I ever legitimately say something I know is not true? The precise details of the morality of truth-telling do need to be properly worked out, and this will include that sometimes truths can be left unsaid. But these details can only be rightly understood, and practiced, in a context where the root approach is that of the Persians. To tell a lie is simply disgraceful: it undermines our relationships, and who we are.

Yet how often, even in little ways, are young and old alike tempted to speak what is not true. We need to habituate our children, and ourselves, to be truth-tellers.

This is at the core of human life and community. It is an excellence of a high order.


Herodotus (484-425 BC) was an early Greek historian and came to be known as the ‘Father of History.’

 

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