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Dr. Larry Arnn On Aristotle’s Ethics And The Kardashians

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HH: Time for our weekly Hillsdale Dialogue, today with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. Once a week, I sit down with Dr. Arnn or one of his colleagues on the faculty and staff of Hillsdale College to talk about one of the great works of the West. Last week, we plunged into Aristotle, and we’re going to stay there for a few weeks, and for good reason. Dr. Arnn, a good Friday to you, how are you?

LA: I’m very well. How are you, Hugh?

HH: I’m good. Before we go back, I have a first question for you that occurred to me as I was preparing to go deeper and deeper into The Ethics, and it’s this. Would Aristotle have reasoned to the same conclusions had Plato not written what he wrote beforehand?

LA: Well, he didn’t think so, although he differed from Plato on some important things. The human understanding is discursive. What that means is we go from thing to thing. If you imagine how we know things, you can also imagine a being that didn’t know them that way. One of the accounts of God is that God knows everything all at once. He can see all time and everything, and it’s just like one, big, flat canvas that He can take in all at the same time, whereas we humans, we have to put things together. We ruminate, and that, you know, let me ruminate about that, and that comes from a Latin word that describes a cow chewing its cud, and predigesting it before it swallows it and fully digests it. So Aristotle had, you know, a world historical great teacher, and that must have been very helpful to him.

HH: But as we talk today about temperance and about different virtues and the different kinds of virtues, and eventually in The Politics, the different kinds of states, these are exercises in Aristotle’s reason.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And I was wondering, wouldn’t they have to be the same even if he hadn’t had that great teacher beforehand, if he’s exercising pure reason.

LA: Well, and my response to that, I understand, yeah, and that’s good, and thank you for making it plain, but my response to that is how far along would he have got without a teacher who also had a teacher who got along?

HH: Okay.

LA: When I became a teacher in my life at Hillsdale College, I learned a wonderful lesson for me that’s been extremely good for me to know, and that is you don’t teach them, they learn. The students have to work really hard. And it was revealing about me, because my account of myself was that I’d had these really great teachers, and so I knew some stuff. And only later did I understand that it took so much work by me, and not everybody who studied with these people I’ve studied with did the work, meaning many did, but not everybody, not even most. So Aristotle had a leg up, and these things that Aristotle knew, and I argue that he knew, he had to figure them out. And it was a step by step process. And he might not have gotten so far figuring them out except for the help he had from his teacher.

HH: All right, now that makes sense. Now here’s the second half of that question. I was preparing for this outside of a hotel near an airport. I was smoking a cigar, ruminating, not chewing grass, but smoking a cigar, as the airplanes took on and off, and I thought to myself, I wonder if Aristotle would reason to the same conclusions today about the same virtues. Now that, he’s already at the top of the stairway that he climbed, but of course, we’re surrounded by 2,300 years of economic technical progress. I’m not going to argue intellectual progress, but a lot of progress. Do you think it would impact his understanding of the virtues and the disciplines that we’re about to talk about as we get deeper into The Ethics?

LA: Help me remember when we get to the Politics that in book one, we have to talk about the question of slavery.

HH: Oh, that’s, yeah, definitely, yeah.

LA: Because there in that book, we have a direct comparison to some strange and modern thought. And what I think is the answer to that, the question you just asked, is if you read the Ethics, and I invite our listeners to ponder this, the Ethics purports to be an account of how a human being, with a human nature, should understand itself and seek to live, how life should be for it. And I believe that that claim, these claims by Aristotle, are not bound by time or place. If you can live well, you must live in this way. The Politics is different, because there are some fundamental things that are unchangeable, in my opinion, some insights that are extremely valuable in The Politics, but I think I can show you where in the Politics Aristotle was aware of the possibility of modern politics. But he didn’t see modern politics. And they’re different than ancient politics in some important respects. And you can learn a lot about our politics today by understanding Aristotle’s approach to analyzing political regimes or countries, and also comparing the conditions in the ancient world to the conditions of the modern world, and you can see the modern world much better by doing that.

HH: But that is as to the Politics, which we’ll come to in a couple of weeks. As to The Ethics, though, and the individual life and how it’s supposed to be lived, it’s the same.

LA: I think so, and I think it’s very beautiful. I’m advocating this book to people. I think they should think on this book and read this book, because it will be good for them.

HH: Now I go back, because it’s good to go back and review what we did last week, and it reads pretty well, by the way. Duane goes and he types up our conversations, and it reads pretty well, and here’s the key line from our last Hillsdale Dialogue. Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas say the good and being are convertible terms.

LA: Right.

HH: It is by seeing the good of a thing that we recognize that it is a thing, and that is the faculty that permits us to talk with one another. So for the benefit of those who were not here for the last Hillsdale Dialogue, unpack that again as we go into this hour.

LA: Well, today in the modern world, we think that the goodness or badness, the rightness or wrongness, the morality or immorality of things is subjective. And we think that there are values, and we can never really fully know them. And we think, for example, we think the claim that I happen to have my feet up on a table right now, Hugh. I’m in Washington, D.C., and I’m holding up my feet toward the government of the United States to show it what I think of its current operations. And this table is hard. It holds up my feet. But we think that in fact, the table is not hard. We think that it’s a mass of swirling atoms, and that there’s no real physical connection among them. And we think that’s an objective fact, whereas we think that Hugh and Larry ought to appreciate our wives to whom we’ve pledged our lives, and they’re better than us. We think that that’s subjective. And the claim is opposite in Aristotle. Aristotle believes that the operation in our souls that permits us to see what kind of thing things are, what a cow is, although each cow is different from the next, what a dog is, each dog different, what a cup is, what a saucer is, that faculty that lets us name those things, which lets us talk, depends on our perceiving two things that are the same thing about each thing – the good of the thing and the being of the thing. And that means the conception of a good man, there are two ways to understand that conception. One of them is if you can look at it and call it a man, that means it has some of the goodness of the man. But that’s the first step. And the second step is what if you could get a more refined understanding of that? What are the details that make some men better than others, although all are men or women? And that is what the Ethics is about. But it starts with the perception that we are seeing the good in everything, and that’s how we know what things are.

HH: And I go back, one more quote, that is a quote from our last conversation, quoting you. The basis of the human capacity, from it rise, first of all, a radical kind of sociability.

LA: Right. That means that you know, you’re married to Betsy and I’m married to Penny, and we know them very well, and they’re wonderful women, and why did they ever marry us. And we can describe them to all these people who never met them. And they can learn something about them. And no horse or dog or any other kind of being can get that close together as we can. This ability to speak, which is the same as our ability to reason or think, is a shared ability that draws us together. And that is why we are more gregarious than bees or herd animals.

HH: It allows us to talk about the good things and the chief good thing, which is happiness. And when we come back from break, we’re going to dive into that.

— – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, these are interesting in what they provoke. They provoke great allegiance and great enmity. People love them, and they want more of them, and they look for the transcripts, or I get the email why aren’t you talking about the issues of the day. But of course, we are talking about the issue of the day, chief among them how to lead a happy life. That’s in the Ethics. And you are in Washington, D.C. as we talk, a city full of fame and money and honors. And Aristotle begins his discussion of happiness by saying that’s not what happiness is.

LA: Well, he actually starts out by saying that certain things, it’s very Socratic, very specifically Socratic the way he starts, there are certain things that are thought to be happiness. Do they work? And pleasure and gain or money and honor are among the things he lists. And he is able to show pretty simply, as Socrates is often able to show in the Dialogues, that those things don’t quite work out as happiness, because you can be rich and you can be miserable, and you can be highly respected and you can be miserable, or even hateful and terrible. I mean, that happens pretty often. And those things don’t work out. And pleasure itself can be destructive of you. So he eliminates those, and he’s looking for what it is that makes a human being fully what it ought to be.

HH: Well, I want to put the brakes on for one second as a lot of people don’t believe what you just said and what he wrote long ago. They really do think money will do it, and fame will do it, especially in this age. This is the Kardashian age. There are millions of people who long for that. And do you think he’s as persuasive today in a celebrity-drenched culture in proving that that’s not happiness, when so many people want it?

LA: The culture’s not different today in that regard. There were famous people then, and they were widely admired, and you know, there were celebrities of all kinds. But we know, I mean, I don’t watch late night television, but a friend of mine sends me the late night jokes along with a bunch of news. And whenever the Kardashians come up, the humor is not anything except aren’t they sort of contemptible?

HH: Yes.

LA: Of course, they are. And doesn’t everybody know that? I mean, you know, and I don’t actually even know anything about them.

HH: Neither do I. That’s so funny.

LA: Yeah, I mean, my son was telling me the other night about this Star Trek series, Deep Space something [Nine]. And he said, he told me who the villains were, and it sounded like Kardashians. And I said is that who those people are? And he said Dad, you’re really stupid. No, I don’t think anybody, I mean, let’s put it this way. No significant number of people want their children to grow up like, because I understand those people are, they live for celebrity alone, they’re attractive, I think, but there’s no particular talent among them.

HH: Do you think they know they’re unhappy, because by Aristotle’s definition, they are.

LA: Yeah, well, remember, doubtless, you know, unless they’re insane, or so wholly corrupt that they have driven the longing for virtue out of themselves, don’t you think that once in a while, they hear a story, and remember, I don’t know these people. I don’t, you know, what do I care? But they exist in my mind as a symbol of empty celebrity, which is why you brought them up, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: And is there a TV show? I’ve never seen it. But if that is in fact what they are, then do you doubt that they have from time to time exposure to something really great, and wish they could be more like that? Because don’t we all do that?

HH: Right. Yes.

LA: And so Aristotle says that voice talking to you, that is your sense of the good, and it calls to you very powerfully, and to everyone who is not completely ruined himself. So yeah, of course, that’s not good enough.

HH: Now he also says, for the benefit of people who want to rebuke Larry Arnn and Hugh Hewitt at this moment, happiness is not intelligence or learning, or even the appearance of intelligence or learning in my case, or the reality of it in Arnn’s case. That’s not enough, either.

LA: No, that’s right.

HH: Why not?

LA: Well, you have to understand how the intellectual virtues work, but there’s a virtue that’s called cleverness in Aristotle, and that’s extreme high ability at calculating things, and that means like Hitler was a very clever man. Hitler was extremely good at relating ends and means, and at guessing what was going to happen, and at looking at people and seeing what they might do. That decayed with him over time. But he had a lot of that, and you know, he just made himself into something tremendous in a very short period of time. So he had that, but that was, in that case, in his case, that was not connected to the good. He was not obedient to the good in any way. And of course, all of his fondest hopes were disappointed, and he ended up his life blaming the people that he had named throughout his career as the people carrying the great message of progress for the future, a people, by the way, he distorted his own personal history to make himself one of those people, because he wasn’t even born in that country.

HH: Right.

LA: So was that happy? That’s a terrible, a cursed existence that Hitler had. And it doesn’t make any different what Hitler thought about it, although you know, he had got himself, and this is real vice that we’re talking about. Remember we said last time, that’s a rare thing. But what Hitler needed by that stage in this life was somebody to shoot him, and he was good enough to do the deed himself.

HH: For himself, yeah.

LA: But if he could have been, you know, like here’s something that happened. These Nazis were incredible believers in power alone. The will is everything. You’ve got to have power. You’ve got to, you know, and if you’re the Volk, the Germans, and you have the will, then you will grow more powerful. Well, they got captured, a bunch of them, a bunch of the leaders. And in general, they groveled at their trial. And at first, Churchill didn’t want them to be tried. He wanted them to just be shot unceremoniously by the troops when they came across them, you know, all those guys, Goring and the whole bunch of them.

HH: Spengler, you bet.

LA: And Martin Bormann got away.

HH: You bet.

LA: And he wanted, he just wanted them to be quietly shot. But once they were arrested and they were going to their trials, and they were groveling, he said hey, this is really good. Well done, you know, and then people got to see that they were distorted human beings.

HH: And all that cleverness did not amount to anything genuinely admirable.

LA: No, and that means that rare gifts can be abused and ruined, and they can even make one worse than he would be if he didn’t have them.

— – –

HH: So Dr. Larry Arnn, we’re in Aristotle. Happiness is not intelligence or learning, it’s not fame, it’s not money, it’s not honors. It isn’t brief. It has to last for a long time. It’s virtuous, it’s rational and it’s energetic. How do you get it?

LA: Well, first we have to define what virtue is. And there are two kinds of virtues. There’s virtues of thinking and virtues of doing. And the virtues of doing are doing the right thing for the right reason. And you have to think of the human being. In Aristotle, the human being is radically a thing in activity. Indeed, for Aristotle, all being is an activity. For Saturn up there, being Saturn is, that’s an activity. Saturn is radiating Saturn. The Moon is radiating the Moon. Human beings are active beings, and they have to do things and think things. And there’s no rest for them. Rest is death. And then Aristotle imagines that, or he argues that the activity goes on in a different way. So…and here’s what the activities are like. In human beings, there are always two things going on. There’s always thinking, and there’s always desiring. We want things, and we do things, by the way, but that’s not the end, because we’re always thinking. And what we want and what we do is never dispositive. We want a thing, you know, like there’s a bank near here. I would like to have all the money in the bank. I know what I would do with it, right? And it would be, you know, it’s like that Jack Handy from Saturday Night Live philosophy. It’s easy wanting other people’s money. That’s what I like about it. So you’d like to have all that money in the bank, because you know, I’m a man of many purposes. And there’s things I could do with the money that I regard as good, and I’m so blessed that so many people do give money to the college. And I give money to the college myself to permit those things to be done. And they’re done on a large scale. And of course, if I had more, I’d do more of them. But why don’t I go rob that bank? What if they just left the money there by chance? Would I pick it up and carry it off?

HH: Even to do a good thing.

LA: If I did, I would feel bad about it, and it would take a very complicated argument for me to persuade myself that it was okay. And there are certain people that I might meet that I would be ashamed to hear myself making that argument just being in their presence. Like I will confide in you, a great symbol of rectitude for me in my life is a great public servant I happen to know named Clarence Thomas. And he’s a wonderful human being, in my opinion. And I’m not a friend of his. He’s a great man. But I happen to know him, and I admire him very much.

HH: And do I, as do, I think, anyone who has any idea of his life and accomplishment and character.

LA: What kind of guy, he’s a character, remember that word character. We have to talk about that word, right? And I knew him before he was a judge, right, even before he was a justice or a judge. And I just…so the point is I notice around him I mind my P’s and Q’s, you know, because you know, I want to be worthy of knowing him. And you see, that’s something very serious in human beings. We all have that. Now since virtue involves, because human life involves thinking and doing and desiring, and those things don’t always fall into accord, virtue has to do with bringing them into accord. So doing the right thing for the right reason is really important.

HH: Now he gives, and this is a practical, practical book.

LA: Isn’t it?

HH: This is not, and this is not a self-help book in the sense that modern thinking would understand self-help, but it is really an assist to living virtuously. Is that a fair statement?

LA: That’s right. In other words, you know, I teach the book. And here’s the effect of reading the book on students, very commonly. I’ll name a particular good student of mine. There’s a fellow named Ryan Walsh, who you probably know him, Hugh. Anyway, he’s a clerk now for O’Scannlain in California, and he’s about to be a clerk for one of the Supreme Court justices next year. And he’s a very bright boy and a really good kid. I admire him very much. And it’s great to have him in class, and he has a tremendous sense of humor. It’s even wicked, but underneath it, a big sincerity. And one day, we were reading the Ethics, and he clenched his fist. Did I tell the story already?

HH: No.

LA: And his elbows were on the table, and we’re starting to have a break? I’ll tell it when we come back.

HH: We’re having a break. All right, then, that is a tease. Oh, I love the radio side of Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, when we went away, you were talking to us about young Ryan Walsh, now a lawyer in the making, soon to be a key part of the governing law of the United States for a year that he serves on the Court. But when he encountered the Ethics in your seminar, he would, he’d put his elbows on the table. And what would happen?

LA: And his fists were clenched beside his face, and he was excited and tense. And his head was down. And he said okay, this is stupid, but I have to say it. What, Ryan? And he said how do we do this? And I said do what? You know, this was a class of about 15-20 kids. And he said all of this. And I said, I showed him where to turn in the book, and I said Aristotle’s case is this. Everything you do all the time should be a labor to do the right thing for the right reason. And if you practice that all the time, you’ll make mistakes. Mend them. You’ll always be thinking what is the right way for me to act, and to choose your actions because it is the answer to that question, virtue is doing good against the many obstacles that confront us for the sake of doing good. So I said that the two main obstacles in human life, the first two that come up in the Ethics, and the first two that we confront in our lives all the time, are pleasure and pain. And pleasure is seductive. We want more of it. Too much to eat, too little to eat, those are both virtues of, and vices of gluttony. Immoderation, right, there’s a whole bunch of virtues and vices that have to do with pleasure. And having the right disposition to pleasure, and apart from defining character, we also have to remember to talk about how pleasure becomes the purpose of human life, because that happens in the Ethics. And the Ethics is written so that at the beginning, pleasure is suspect, to be shunned. But at the end, once your education is far enough along, then pleasure is liberated, because you know, and have trained yourself in what to take pleasure.

HH: And so you don’t end up being an aesthetic, you don’t end up being a prude, you don’t end up being lifeless and dried up and horrible to be around. That’s not what this is about.

LA: No, you grow up happy, and you become happy. And you take pleasure in things that increase and sustain your happiness, and are the most self-sufficient things. And you learn to do that. And you know, once you, we’ll make a description of it, and everyone is going to want that. I promise. That’s, everybody actually wants to live that way.

HH: And does that happen to your students over the course of, first of all, tell people, the seminar you teach extends for a semester or a year? And how often do they gather? And what happens to not just the Ryan Walsh’s, assuming a particularly gifted student at Hillsdale, but all of them?

LA: I’ve never had a student in the Ethics that didn’t think it was profound experience. And I’ve taught it four, five times at Hillsdale, I’ve taught it seven, six, seven times, something like that. And it’s 15 weeks, three hours a week. And usually, we have extra sessions, because they don’t want to, you know, I told them early on, my teacher, Harry Jaffa, was a brilliant teacher, but also not the most disciplined guy in the world. We never got out of book one.

HH: I know. You told that last week.

LA: My students won’t put up with that. They, you know, if…they don’t want to go fast, but if it gets toward the end and we’re not finishing, they want to have class on Saturday morning, and we do, because you know, Dr. Arnn, we have to over that.

HH: So are there some people for whom this does not impact, that this does not influence, and that you, this is not a moral judgment, though you might make it one, for whom it’s simply pearls before swine?

LA: I think in all the times I’ve taught Aristotle, and you know, I teach in a special place, but I think all the times I’ve taught Aristotle, I’ve had one student who didn’t get much out of it, and that student, who’s been ill, has written me lately and says he wants to take it again in the fall, this coming fall.

HH: Okay, and so what happens when someone doesn’t get in? You know, it’s interesting to me. This is, obviously you can only do it with 15 students, but I assume it’s a seminar to which there is oversubscription, and people can’t get in.

LA: Yeah, yeah, that’s true. And the answer is they can’t get in. They have to go find something else. But you know, I happen to be very fond of this book, and am well known to teach it. And so you can’t teach them all, but there’s a lot of good things, and I do think at the college, you know, if we could perfect the college, and we’ll never get that done, although it’s excellent and getting better, everybody would have to study this book, you know, right through. And everybody does study the book. Everybody reads excerpts from it. But, and oh, I’m sorry, we send this book to all of our incoming freshmen, and ask them to read it over the summer, and we have seminars over it in the first week of our orientation for every student who comes to Hillsdale College. It’s amazing I forgot that, but that’s what we do.

HH: And every student?

LA: Yes.

HH: And so who teaches those seminars?

LA: I do, David Whalen does, he’s the provost, a couple of other guys.

HH: Are they confused and scared and not coming for…it’s not an easy book, unless you have a good teacher. And it takes a long time to walk through it, and some of them aren’t prepared. It’s our last minute until next week. What do you tell them when they begin to say I don’t get this?

LA: Man up. What do you think you’re doing here?

HH: This is not your father’s Oldsmobile. You’re coming to college. Dr. Larry Arnn, we will return to the Ethics. Next week, ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to get into the specifics of temperance and courage and liberality and magnanimity and all the other different virtues and vices about which Aristotle writes at great length. So if you thought I was going, if that was, what Arnn did in the last segment was a tease, that’s a week-long tease. Don’t miss it when we return. In the meantime, catch up to where we are by going to, or, or the link is right up on top at Thank you, Dr. Larry Arnn. We’ll be back next week with the next Hillsdale Dialogue.

End of interview.


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