“For the man who is truly good and wise, we think, bears all the chances of life becomingly and always makes the best of circumstances…as a good shoemaker makes the best shoes out of the hides that are given him, and so with all other craftsmen.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Aristotle loves to use analogies to the realm of arts or crafts to illustrate basic principles of the good human life. The context here is a reflection on whether a man can be truly happy even when he suffers serious setbacks in life.
Aristotle does not find in suffering the redemptive power that Christians find therein. Yet he does see a ‘meaning’ in suffering at least in this sense: the reality of great suffering does not threaten the conviction that at root all is well in human life—or at least will be well if we act with integrity. Indeed, he will argue that in great suffering the power and beauty of virtue shines through with special clarity.
Thinking about Aristotle’s words makes me wonder whether we sometimes err in asking so insistently about the specific meaning of our own suffering—as though we need to figure out precisely why this suffering is happening to me.
Perhaps we should remember the good shoemaker. Sometimes life presents us with fine leather with which to exercise the craft of living. Other times it presents us with material that is far from what we would have chosen. We can burn a lot of time and energy fretting over why our material is so sub-standard.
The good shoemaker, on the other hand, simply gets down to work, proceeding with his craft. One of the most remarkable aspects of the art of living is that there will always be material with which to exercise it. In reality, even a good shoemaker can find himself without the requisite material to produce some kind of shoe.
The good man, on the other hand, can always still ply his art, no matter what happens. What an astounding assertion this is: we really can become capable of bearing “all the chances of life becomingly.”
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.
Image: Thomas Protheroe, 1891
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