Dr. Larry Arnn Concludes Aristotle’s Ethics…Sorta
Email to a FriendX
HH: It’s that time of the week when the Hillsdale Dialogue appears, my weekly conversation with Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, where he is the president of Hillsdale College, or with one of his colleagues there, one of the extraordinarily talented members of the faculty or staff at Hillsdale College, about one of the great works of Western Civilization. All these many weeks, we have been talking about one book – Aristotle’s The Ethics. This is the last week in which we are going to devote ourselves to the Ethics, next week, to the Politics. But Dr. Arnn, I go back to our very first conversation about the Ethics, and I’m quoting here from the transcript, and as I said long ago, they read very well. You said the end of the Ethics points to the beginning of the Politics. But when you get to the Politics, you learn that the last chapters are about education, and they’re built on the view that you can’t have good laws without good people. And that means these two subjects are profoundly connected. And that takes us to the part in the Ethics where he transitions. Aristotle transitions from the virtues, and we talked last week about courage and temperance and magnificence and liberality, to where he begins to talk about justice in book five. And it’s surprising, because until then, it’s been about personal living. And it’s been about reaching for the good and the happy life via the adjustment of your behaviors, that they are the mean between the extremes, and that they are virtuous. But then all of a sudden, off he goes into justice. Is this the beginning of the transition into the Politics?
LA: No, because something intervenes between that and the transition into the Politics, which is a restatement of pleasure. What comes after justice is the intellectual virtues, and then a restatement of pleasure, and then the sublimest of human associations, friendship, which has three kinds, and then the transition to the Politics. But justice is a public virtue. And it has to do with two main kinds of things. But essentially what it means is people getting what they deserve. And the virtue of justice in a person is giving to others what they deserve. And that means regardless of what it means for you, you see? Now…
HH: So…go ahead.
LA: Go ahead.
HH: Well, it’s not the justice of the city, then. It’s the justice of your individual life, and that’s a…
LA: The two are connected. Of course it is the justice of the city. In the city, it’s the distribution of offices and honors and punishments and rewards in a public way, according to the law. Who gets the best jobs, who gets stuff, and then also who’s punished. That’s public justice. But that’s like personal justice, though. And the statesman who does public justice is doing the work of the city, but he has the virtue of justice. And that means that it’s not just decided by what he wants or his own interest, it’s decided by the good of the city. And justice breeds harmony, by the way, because even people who are harmed by justice, there’s always a reason for it, and that reason is located in them. And one reason why clear laws are good, and clear punishments for violations are good is because then the culprit chooses his own punishment. And we have a right to that, see?
LA: The law, and by the way, as we substitute rehabilitation for punishment, we are vaguefying what the state can do to you, because under a system of punishment, where the laws are clear and relatively few so we can all know them, and where the punishments are named in advance, then the active agent is you. Whereas if it’s a system of rehabilitation, then they can work on you as long as they think it’s right until you are what they want you to be.
HH: But now what is confusing to me is that justice is not a mean. I mean, justice is justice.
LA: Yeah, it is.
HH: Well, you can’t go on either side of it. You’re just going to be unjust on either side of it.
LA: Well, that’s right. Too much and too little are both unjust, right? And that just means that there’s a term that covers both the excess and the deficiency. And so justice, injustice, Hugh, would be in your part, let’s say that…
HH: Allowing a murderer to go free is unjust.
LA: That’s right. Yeah, and also torturing a petty thief is unjust.
HH: Okay. An excess…okay, I got it. Then he goes on, and now I’m going to skip on to the intellectual virtues, because I want to get to friendship.
HH: The intellectual virtues are laid out in, I thought, more cursory fashion than he typically does. Is this because he’s going to assume that scientific knowledge is either you’re going to get it or you’re not going to get it? Or technically skill is obviously going to be obvious to you, or not going to get it? Is it easier to understand these than the others?
LA: No, I don’t think any of those things. I don’t even know, it never occurred to me that he lays them out in a more cursory fashion. You mean, there’s one book about them? But here’s what you have to know about them. Let me say that, and then we’ll go back to your question or your point. First of all, there’s two kinds of intellectual virtues. There’s ones that have to do with choosing an action, and ones that have to do with knowing, ones that have to do with things that change, and ones that have to do with things that don’t change. There’s practical judgment, and there’s wisdom. And practical judgment is picking what to do in the middle of circumstances. We all exercise prudence all the time. Great statesmen do it, you know, when they decide whether to fight Hitler or not. And that is a very important virtue, because it works this way. Go back to our example of courage. You’re on a battlefield, and what you want to do is roll up on a ball or run away, and that would be cowardice. And then if you conquer those, the next idea might be just charge, and that would be rashness. But you don’t have either of those two things. You gain possession of yourself. And now you want to do the right thing, the effective thing, the best chosen thing to make a beautiful action. All of a sudden, intellectual virtues come in. What is that thing? And then you have to calculate about the battlefield and what’s the effective thing to do. And that’s a thinking virtue. And that virtue is the natural partner of every moral act, every moral virtue. And so…
HH: And now…
LA: Go ahead.
HH: There are different kinds of knowledge. For example, is it easier to be a doctor or a legislator, because the doctor is just applying science. I know the doctors are mad at me now who are listening. But the doctor gets the right symptoms, the right inputs, he or she should be able to make the right calculation. A legislator doesn’t get that. There isn’t, and I thought he averred to that. I thought he said look, there’s, wisdom is a hard thing. You’ve got to balance and judge and do a bunch of different things. It’s different from scientific knowledge.
LA: Well, first of all, doctoring, you know, to defend the medical doctors a little bit, or as my children used to say, my dad is not a real doctor, there’s a lot of judgment that goes into medicine, because it’s partly science and partly art. And good doctors, in my experience, tend to be people of good character, and also pretty good judges of character, because that comes up all the time. But having, to make your point, engineering might be a good example.
HH: Okay, okay, yeah.
LA: And the answer is, it’s higher and harder to be a legislator than to be an engineer, because legislators have the question whether to build the bridge or not, which is above the question how to build it. And that’s one reason why education is a mess today, and why the common core, the new thing they’re coming up with, is a bad thing, because they leave out of account consideration of ends. And the legislator, in making his practical judgments, is closer to the ultimate ends of life.
HH: Now pause. I would have thought there was at least a 50/50 chance you would say the common core, the value of it, depended upon what was put into it, that if, for example, you have a common core for your incoming freshmen. You make them read this book.
HH: So couldn’t a common core be good?
LA: Yeah, it could be. But the new one, and you know, the new one’s still a-forming, so maybe they’ll rescue it. But knowing the people in the government, it’s not likely. I was describing it today to somebody. Imagine a row of buttons, and they’re arranged horizontally. And one button is philosophy, and one button was English, and one button is vocational training, or how to do your, pay your bills. And that’s one way. Imagine a row of buttons, and they have the same labels, but they’re arranged vertically, the highest on top. The common core is a bunch of horizontal buttons. And the argument is the highest good is up to you.
LA: And so it looks to me like that’s what they’re doing. And you know, a bunch of my guys are working on this on the faculty. They tell me uniformly that that’s what it’s like. So that’s…
HH: That is not a good thing. All right.
— – -
HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, in the three segments we have left on the Ethics, I’d like to make sure we cover the three bad states of character, and then talk some about friendship. But I want to make sure we do it at the pace that you want to do it. I think the conversation about incontinence, and what it means, is very important to the era in which we live. But I also think friendship is important. So how do you want to go about that?
LA: Well, I think we should summarize that first thing about these states of character.
LA: And you know, there are four, right? And one of them, I just remind people, and you know, if you think about it, you can see this makes sense. It seems to be a description of things we see. At least it does to me. There are a rare number of people, and they’re vicious. And what’s happened to them is they have, all through their lives, always with some information in the back of their mind about what they ought to do, chosen to do the wrong thing over and over again. You know, in Faust, in that story about the man who sells his soul to the Devil, that’s a big choice. And you can see how that would ruin you. But Aristotle’s claim is it’s the accumulation of many, many choices that ruins the soul to the place where it cannot be recovered. And that’s rare. And more common is somebody who is still longing to do the right thing, but does not have the discipline to do it. And that’s somebody who’s sinking, right? Because remember, Aristotle’s claim is except in rare, distorted cases of people raised like animals, or suffering some disability that’s impairing fundamentally, except in rare cases like that, we know the good and we’re drawn to it. And the question is what do we do about that drawing? And in the case of incontinent people, what’s happened to them is, and they’re not beyond repair. What happens to them is they feel bad about it, but they keep doing the wrong thing.
LA: And then there’s continent people, and they feel powerfully tempted to do the wrong thing, and mostly they don’t. And they’re always putting up a fight, and mostly are successful. And Aristotle says that’s a long way from being at the best state of soul, or hardly even a good one, because life is a struggle in a way it ought not to be, because you have not learned to put the wish to do good and beautiful things as the first aim of our life in action and thought. And then finally, there’s that other rare thing, and that’s people who when confronted with danger, their thought is okay, now I will do something fine here. Confronted with difficulty of every kind, confronted with pleasure, they will find a way to turn it to some great good. And the pleasure and the danger have in common that they will not compel their actions.
HH: And confronted with illness, they will not despair or complain. They’ll endure with dignity.
LA: People will have a fine death, so far…and you know, they will long not to lose control of themselves, you know, physically, because they’re impaired by their illness so that they can’t govern their behavior anymore. They’ll even pray not to have that happen, because it’s the business of the human being to use the powers it has for good, and to be a representative of the good, to be a good human being, a beautiful human being. And so that’s how those things work. And I’ll just say before we talk about friendship that to the listeners, that Aristotle’s case is if you can just get these basic structure of human life into your mind, you can work on it, and it’s marvelous what you can do for yourself. It’s a self-help book in that sense. And so that’s one of the first things. I love the book, as I said, because it so readily calls immediately into question this academic pretense that we actually know the answer to the question what is the good. The answer is there is no good, we just make it up for ourselves. This drives that out very powerfully.
HH: Yeah. We do, and we ought to choose it.
LA: Yeah, and then the second thing is there’s a way to get working on your character. And you can make yourself a better and happier soul. And there’s a way to do it. And it’s hard work, but it’s actually much better than the alternative, and doable.
HH: Now I’m curious in the capacity of president of a college, and perhaps this is more for the dean of men and the dean of women, but you will admit a thousand students, or however many come in on a freshmen class, and there’s going to be a spectrum of character there. How long does it take you to recognize who are in each of those four categories, if indeed you have any in the worst category, and whether or not they’re moving up or moving down, and what do you do about those who are in the lower end of the spectrum and moving down?
LA: Well, first of all, you know, we’re very lucky at Hillsdale, because the people who come, they really want to be there, and they’ve got the right notion, and they’re dying to do a great job, almost all of them. If they’re not, there’s a hundred ways to tell, and it happens pretty soon. And you know, there aren’t very many of such people, but you know, they’ve got their head down, or they do stuff they shouldn’t do, and then when you talk to them about it, they’ve got, like one common thing is well, you know, what’s that to you? And I always say nothing at all, it’s just you chose to come to college here, and here’s your signature on this paper, and what about all that? So we have those conversations, but not very many. But you also have to remember that young people, Aristotle says, and one can observe it at Hillsdale, are changing very fast. And it’s one reason why they’re not ready to exercise the greatest responsibilities. They’re still maturing. I like to say of them, they can do anything I can do. They just never have.
LA: So every big thing that’s happening in their life is happening for the first time.
LA: That’s what their life is like. And of course, it’s extremely revealing and formative. Big things are happening at a rapid pace with them, and we watch it carefully, and we hold out the greats literature that Hillsdale College reads, and the structure of the college, and the religious commitments of the college, as a guide to them. And the great majority of them make wonderful progress.
HH: And if they don’t?
LA: Well, if they don’t, then…
HH: Do you try again? That’s what I’m getting at. Do you try again and again?
LA: Oh, yeah, of course. We don’t, like you know, we very much believe at the college, because you know, on the one hand, it’s strict and all that, and it’s very, compared to other colleges, most of them, but on the other hand, we’re not here to hurt these kids. I like to say them, especially, you know, if they’re contrite about something they did, well, this is the place where you get to make mistakes without getting shot. And you know, they’re just kids, and so it’s very important with them that you’re giving them latitude. You know, we give them control of the college along with us. And it’s very important that they get to make mistakes, but it’s very important that if they want to fix it, you’re there to help them for as long as they want to fix it.
— – -
HH: Larry Arnn, there are three orders of friendship that Aristotle talks about – those that are utilitarian, those which are just simply fun or full of pleasures, and then the highest sort, the virtuous friendship. Talk about each of them and lay them out, and then let’s make sure we spend the most time on the best sort.
LA: Okay, well, friendships of utility are, we all have those, and we know what they are. We like people when they’re useful to us, right? At Hillsdale College, you know, we have many vendors. You’ll never be able to figure out who this is, but we had a vendor who worked with us for years, and loved us and talked about how great we were, and you know, and we let the vendor go, because they weren’t doing a very good job. And the vendor, Lord help us, is going around trying to spite us all the time. And you know, that’s a friendship of utility, and Aristotle says understand those, right? And you’ve got to have them. And by the way, the free market works on the basis of them.
LA: And you’ve got to, they’re very important, right? But they are what they are. And they last as long as the utility lasts.
HH: A fellow selling you a car is likely to go to dinner with you, and you’re going to have a good time with him.
LA: That’s right. That’s right. And by the way, order steak, because after you’ve bought the car, you might not get the steak.
HH: You’re not going to get the steak. You’re absolutely right. Okay, that’s very easy to understand.
LA: That’s it. Those kind are easy. The next kind are pleasure. And people who are fun, people who you have sex with, all kinds of, you know, I mean, don’t you know people that you just love to be around them?
HH: Oh, you bet. You go drinking with them, you go out to plays with them, the pleasure, pleasure is enhanced by the company of two, often more, but at least two, you bet.
LA: Yeah, and that’s, to Aristotle, that’s much higher than friendships of utility, right?
HH: You know who’s written about that? Joseph Epstein has written about that at great length, about the people that he enjoys the enjoyment of art with, as being friends of great pleasure. But he only sees them for that purpose. He sees them to go to plays or to concerts, or readings. That’s interesting. He’s been a guest at the college on occasion.
LA: Yeah, and that, and by the way, that laps over into the last thing, right?
LA: Because when we’re talking about pleasure, pleasure works kind of funny in Aristotle’s Ethics, and it’s one of the keys to the way the book is constructed, because in the beginning, it’s all bad, right? And you’ve got to watch that danged pleasure. It’s always messing you up, and be careful about it. It’s like, and I didn’t go to Catholic school, but it’s like the nuns who are supposed to slap your wrists, or your hand with the ruler all the time, right?
LA: Don’t do that, you know. And later, pleasure is the whole point, but that’s because you have now learned in what to take pleasure, because some pleasures are elevated and abiding, and these pleasure involve the intellectual virtues of wisdom and contemplation, and they involve the beholding of the ultimate and unchangeable things, and the accumulation of knowledge of those things. So when Joseph Epstein says he likes to go to plays with a guy, you know, there’s a couple of plays that I am just terribly fond of, and I just never think of them except with great pleasure and also with what I think are revelations of profound truth. And the people I know who I learned about those plays with, those people are my friends of life, right? I mean, you know, Hugh, you and I, the reason we’re doing these dialogues is I’ve always had a soft spot for you. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. You’ve got a good sense of humor, and you’re just hilarious and foolish, but also, you have respect for things that are ultimately the most respectable things. And I’ve always thought that about you, and you always tell jokes about how you don’t know anything about those things, but you do. And that’s because you care for them, right? And that kind of friendship, Aristotle says, people who are driven by a love of the best and ultimate things, those are the friends that you keep. And they matter the most, because they reveal, and remember, about those things, because I said at the beginning, or I reported Aristotle to say at the beginning, that everything you look at in the universe is in hierarchy. Everything points up. What’s at the top? And how do you spend time with that?
— – -
HH: And what’s interesting about what you said in the last segment, and I’m very appreciative of what you said, Dr. Arnn, I’ve always thought of you as my teacher, and yes as a friend, but can a teacher be with a student that highest kind of friendship? Or don’t you have to actually, you’re a whole bunch smarter than I am, and I have often said that about a bunch of people, and don’t want your head to get too big, but that’s true. And what does Aristotle say about that? Don’t you have to have that highest sort of friendship with the people who understand the same things at roughly the same level? Maybe they understand different things to different levels of depth, but on those things in which they share in common, don’t they have to be equal?
LA: Well, friendship is for equals. That’s true. But there’s a sharing that goes on, too. So think of this for a minute. C.S. Lewis, by the way, writes beautifully about what I’m about to say. C.S. Lewis believes that in every soul, there are certain ways where we have our particular insights into what is most beautiful and abiding. He thinks that this is an evidence that we’re made for Heaven. But don’t you ever, once in a while, and doesn’t everybody listening to this once in a while, hear a piece of music or see a scene, or smell something, and they have a sense of some love beyond what they know? And you know, people who think a lot, and study great things, sometimes they have moments where everything is clear to them, and they’re looking up to a very high place. And Aristotle teaches that there are two phenomena that can explain that. One is over time, when you seek that, and accumulate knowledge about it, you develop wisdom. You know a lot about that kind of thing. And you carry that with you as long as you keep it alive. And knowledge, by the way, is a kind of activity. Everything is an activity with Aristotle, and so it’s not just a possession. You don’t just get it and know it. You keep it alive. It’s a way of living. But then, also, Aristotle says that there’s something purer than that, something that’s a grasping that happens right now. And it’s, and you become one with the thing that you’re beholding. And that’s called contemplation. And what friends can do is they can help each other with those two things, and share in those two things. And their gift of speech solidifies and connects them to those experiences and to each other at the same time. That’s why a seminar can become, you know, once in a while, every year, more than once, a seminar will end, and we will have built something. Once it happened, I was trying to describe what John C. Calhoun thought, who’s, in my mind, a bad man, very complicated theoretician, apostle of the old South. And the class, for some reason, just took off, and we were writing, I was writing on the board, and for some reason, that day, I was writing just the right things down, and they were mostly things they had said, because one of my favorite things to do is to write down things they say and put their initials beside it so we can test it, you know, and see if people agree or not. And we built this tremendous understanding, to my mind, of the disposition on government, which is an account of the human soul that’s connected to slavery. And it was really great, and you know, this was a bunch of freshmen, and these freshmen just graduated, I’m remembering right now, and we did all that, and the class went like 30 minutes too long, and nobody moved. And then I sat down and I looked at it, and I was just sitting among them now, and looking at it, and I said okay, have we got that? And there was this sort of a yeah, and I said was that okay? And everybody was saying yeah, that was good, you know?
LA: Well, the point was we had seen something. And it showed us a mistake that human beings can make that could lead to slavery. And you know, Calhoun, it happens, fancied himself an Aristotelian. And we being that class that I teach on the Constitution by reading some Aristotle, and from the Politics and the Ethics, so they can know what politics is and the good is when you start studying the American Constitution. And then we get to Calhoun, and Calhoun thinks he’s an Aristotelian, and we just were able to explain why he wasn’t.
HH: You got to the source code error?
LA: That’s it, and it was beautiful.
HH: Wow. That is cool.
LA: And you see, and the point is, that was a great thing to have done, and we’re fond of each other to this day, because we did that together. Well, friends, you know, when I was in graduate school with Tom Silver, who’s dead, and where my wife and I raise his kid now, and Peter Schramm, and Chris Flannery, we started the Claremont Institute. And Peter and Chris and I used to keep on our desk a phrase from Aristotle’s Ethics. koina ta philôn, which means the things of friends are in common. And we believed that it was wrong of us to hold anything back in our studies, or even in money. And you know, we started, we were pretty good, we thought, and we weren’t as good as we thought, but we were very loyal to each other And we learned a lot together because of that, because we were just working on it all the time.
HH: That is good and rare. I have to conclude by asking you, we’ve got a minute. We talk about often Washington, Lincoln and Churchill. And did those three have those sorts of friends? And what did those sorts of friends share in common? We may have to come back to that when we get to Plutarch, but does anything occur to you that you can state and refashion?
LA: Yeah, well, they all had teachers, people they loved, and people that they thought revealed things to them. So of course, they did, all of them did.
HH: But did they share, did those sets of people share anything in common, friends of the greatest souled people we’ve talked about? Hold that question in abeyance for another week, Dr. Larry Arnn.
HH: I’ll come back to it. The Hillsdale Dialogues are all available at www.hughforhillsdale.com. www.hughhewitt.com links you to it, or you can find everything you need to know about Hillsdale at www.hillsdale.edu, including all of these dialogues, and all of their lectures on Western Civilization.
End of interview.