Dr. Larry Arrn Continues On In Aristotle’s Ethics
HH: It’s that time of the week when the Hillsdale Dialogue unfolds before you. Once a week, I spend a radio hour with either Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, or one of his colleagues, talking about one of the great texts of Western Civilization. For the past few weeks and for the next couple of weeks, we are in Aristotle, primarily the Ethics. WE will also get to the Politics perhaps next week or the week thereafter. Dr. Larry Arnn, welcome, it’s great to talk to you. I want to go quickly back to where we were last week for people who were listening, perhaps on the iPods, and they’re rushing ahead. Last week, you were talking about the fact that you teach this in seminar form to 15 students often at the college of Hillsdale. And I am curious if you videotaped that, would it change the way it unfolded?
LA: We’ll we’re going to teach an online course on Aristotle’s Ethics sometime. Probably I will do it, and it will be good, I think. People seem to enjoy our courses. But here’s what I think gets changed. If you get 15 or 20, 20’s a lot, but I think I’ve taught 22 or 23 once, everybody can see everybody. And everybody can contribute, and we learn better that way, because we’re made to talk, remember. And the seminar is the classic way, and you know, Aristotle’s claim is, and also Plato’s claim is the seminar on the right subject is one of the highest possible human experiences, because everybody…like here’s a thing that happened one time. There’s a kid named Wegman, who’s a married man now and works here on Capitol Hill, James Wegman, and I said something once, and he stirred at his seat and grimaced, and then relaxed. And I said I know what you think, and he said what, Dr. Arnn. And I said you think that what I just said was an aberration and an excessive demotion of politics to which you are very attached, and then you thought no, it’s Dr. Arnn. He didn’t make that mistake. And then you relaxed. And he said how did you know that, and I said I know you, James. So the point is, in a seminar, we can all learn together, and things become clearer to everyone, because you know, it would be better if these listeners that you referred to last week, the ones who love the thing, and then some of them who you say do not love the thing that we’re doing here, and you know, it’s a pain in the tuches to both of us, so maybe we should just shut up about it. But if they would come in and talk, that would be better…
LA: Because then you can answer the points. And so somebody’s going to learn something, and probably everybody is. But if you teach an online course, then you can explain, and we’re pretty good at explaining, because that’s what we do for a living, and then people can send in questions, and they can have discussion boards with each other. And there’s value in that. I don’t think it’s as great a value, but value.
HH: But value. I’ve only been in one seminar outside of our conversations, long ago and far away at Harvard with a fellow named Edward Banfield. I don’t know if you ever met him.
LA: I knew him well, great man.
HH: Did you really?
LA: Oh, yeah.
HH: I didn’t know that. And he was very generous with two students, Regina Pisa and myself, very generous. And we would meet in his office, and he would do this. And you didn’t really know what you were learning until it was done. And even then, you just glimpsed it. So it is a very high form. So I am hopeful that people have that opportunity to at least observe it. I think it will go well when you do that, if you somehow find a way of retaining the intimacy and the exchange. Now let’s go back to the Ethics. There are, there is in the Roman Catholic world a rite familiar to those who are observant Catholics, the rite of penance. It’s a sacrament. And before you receive the sacrament, you’re supposed to examine your conscience. And it’s a rather elaborate process that you learn when you’re young, and you get better at it, and it culminates sort of an Ignatian spirituality where you really do examine your conscience. And as I read the Ethics again, I thought of that, thinking for the non-Christian, this is about, it’s almost involuntary as you move through the Ethics and his catalogue of virtues, vices, the mean, and that which is on either side of it, to engage in that. And so it’s almost a self, a forcing of a self-examination. Is that common in your seminar?
LA: Oh, yeah, of course. You know, everybody wants to be good. And once it’s explained to you that that is the purpose of human life, then of course we’re all…like a big moment in the Ethics is when Aristotle says things that makes one deduce. He never quite says this thing I’m about to say, but you can see that he means it. Most people are in the middle, right? Very few people are very vicious, and very few people are really very virtuous. Well, everybody perks up when they hear that, right, because they want to know where they are.
LA: Of course, you know. And it’s not, by the way, that teaching is not in any sense at odds with Christianity.
LA: Because Christianity invites you to do the same thing. And so yeah, that’s what they want to know, see, because it is a way…I said this before, but I’ll say it again. One of the reasons I love the book, among so many reasons I do, is because this idea that the good is not just known but is the faculty, the knowledge of it is the faculty by which we operate as human beings, is tremendously challenging and also liberating, because we can shrug off all this talk that nobody can know what the good is, you just make it up for yourself, and we can get to work figuring out what it is. And that is the work of civilization. That is the work of ethics. And so the book is wonderfully liberating for that, and the students find that liberation and enjoy it immensely.
HH: Now the three practical rules of conduct that Aristotle lays out early in the book, I think it’s in Book 3 of the book – avoid the extreme that is farther from the mean, notice what errors you’re committing repeatedly, and try and not do them, and be wary of pleasure. So that third one, yeah, that’s going to be a problem, because basically, every advertisement that comes along on the radio show in between our conversations is an advertisement for a pleasure of a sort, one way or the other. So those hold true over time, and they are far more easily stated than they are practiced. But you are, there’s really, it’s just a matter of fact. It’s just the statement of how it is.
LA: Yeah, and let me explain, because let’s use courage, and we’ll explain about the mean and the extremes, and about what constitutes the middle.
HH: And he begins with courage. Well begun there.
LA: Yeah, and so courage is vivid. Courage is easy to see, right? Like eating strawberry pie or chocolate cake, that’s, you know, a challenge to moderation. But courage is clearer to that in a way, because in courage, on the battlefield, and courage has a lot to do with war. All kinds of danger, but war is the archetype. And think on a battlefield, right? What do you want to do? There are two things you want to do, and one is run away, and the other is roll up in a little ball.
LA: And everybody wants to do those things. It’s loud, it’s an incredible cacophony, and it’s very dangerous. And there’s so much chance involved if bullets are whistling all over the place. So you want to do those things. And if you do either of those two things, that’s cowardice. That’s what we call the deficiency of courage. There’s not enough of it there. Now there’s another thing that people do sometimes, and that is sometimes, they just get up and charge, screaming at the enemy, because they can’t stand it anymore. And they often get killed doing that. And once in a while, and especially in bad movies about war, they present that as heroism, and it’s kind of accidental. That’s what Aristotle calls rashness, too much of it, right? And courage is the place in between those two obstacles or temptations. And that’s when you feel the fear, but the fear does not dominate. You must be afraid to have courage, but the fear is not what controls your action, or, in the case of sublimely courageous, the fear is not the thing that dominates your thinking, so you can be wonderfully effective. I mean, I told the story before, but, I think on your show, but Churchill once got in an armored train under artillery and light arms fire, loose, and it got away. And he was out in the open. Several people were killed, and several dozen were wounded, and the fire was persistent and dense. And he walked around upright with people watching him, and they were staggered by the spectacle of it. They couldn’t believe it. And later, he confessed that he was frightened to death. There was no sign of it whatsoever. And also, his calculations were superb. And he did get it free. And so he was not just defying the fear, he was responding to something else. And that means he didn’t go to, not far enough in courage, and he didn’t go too far. He went the right amount.
HH: He went to the mean.
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HH: Dr. Arnn, in the last segment, you say, you noted that many war movies attempt to get this right. And I think the finest war movie is Saving Private Ryan. And in the first 20 minutes of it, without any music, just the landing at Normandy, the chaos and the confusion, and Tom Hanks’ character, Captain John Miller, is obviously both afraid but brave, not rash, but also not cowardly, in having to move through danger head up and alert, and make decisions. In fact, the best line in the whole movie is when he’s blown up and he’s concussed, and a private is yelling at him where’s the rally point, and he says anywhere but here. He kind of summarizes the need to get off, but to get off in a way that saves their lives. It’s hard to actually capture courage the right way. It’s always overdone or underdone. But that is the mien that Aristotle then uses to move to all of the other virtues.
LA: Yeah, and there’s one more thing to know about it that makes it really courage, and it’s actually, it’s actually the central point, and we haven’t named it, yet, because the virtues in Aristotle are a mixture always of thinking and desiring. It’s not just what you think, it’s what you want. And courageous actions, and this is a terribly important thing to understand all virtues, is that courageous actions are done for the sake of the beautiful. In other words, they’re not done just to be effective on the battlefield, and they’re not done to avoid shame, although that’s coincident with this thing I’m saying. They’re done because to do them is to commit a good or especially a beautiful act. And it can’t be a beautiful act just to rage and throw your life away, and it can’t be a beautiful act to retreat. In fact, it takes very close calculation in a war situation, and I’m going to say in any kind of situation, to discover what is the beautiful action. And of course, most only high opportunities present. And I want to say what this word beautiful means in Aristotle, because Aristotle says everything aims to the good, and we define that word and identified it with the human faculty. But the highest form of the good, the goods that are chosen for their own sake, those are the beautiful things. And so we long for those things. Like we, these Kardashian girls, I gather, are beautiful. I’ve actually seen photographs of them. I’m not completely cut off from humanity. And as I recall, they’re beautiful, although they didn’t strike me as the most beautiful. But this kind of beauty that I’m talking about is more beautiful than physical appearance, although the physical appearance can be very beautiful. It’s a kind of beauty that when we see it, we long for it. You know, my example on a battlefield is George Washington at Princeton, where he marched through his own fleeing soldiers to actually save, it’s one of three or four times in his life when in the war, when Washington saved the American Union and founded it. And what he did was he walked his horse at the pursuing British at a steady pace without looking left or right, and just his sword sticking out toward the British. And he didn’t have any way to know. There’s a record of this by an agitate named Fitzwilliams who was with him. He didn’t have any way to know whether anybody was turning to come with him. He was walking at the British alone. And they formed to fire. And he was giving the orders to fire. And there was an enormous cascade of musket fire, and he was shrouded in smoke. And Fitzwilliam covered his face with his cap and said I can’t bear to look at it. And then when the smoke cleared, Washington was still on his horse, and it was still striding purposefully toward the British, and the Americans had formed behind him, and they ran from him, the British did. And that’s what made, that’s what preserved the victory at the Battle of Trenton, and kept the United States in the war to get founded for another year.
HH: You know, I haven’t heard that before. I’ve never heard that story.
LA: Everyone who saw that thought that is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life.
LA: And think of the way that Washington was trusted for the rest of his life. They could not hold the Constitutional Convention without him agreeing to go. They could not design the executive except with him in mind to hold it first and set the example. And it was because they had, and remember, Washington was not a great speech maker, and he did not write many of his greatest speeches himself. Madison wrote many of them. But people had seen him do that, and that was an operation of a human being so high and perfect that it was beautiful.
HH: You know, I’ve been reading, as I told you before, the account of 1940 and ’41 in Great Britain, and Churchill would go out each night and drive his people crazy, because he would go to the sound of the bombs, and then he would poke around in the bombs, and he would go to the searchlight. And who was his personal detective? Thompson, who was beside himself all the time, and that displaces, as Douglas MacArthur. They called him Dugout Doug, but he often exposed himself to extraordinary risk…
HH: …as did, I think, probably most great leaders in war.
LA: That’s right, and that’s…and it’s not done, and see, when you think about it, maybe they’re showing off. And there’s a great story about Tipper Gore when she was the vice president’s wife. They went down to somewhere where there was a flood, and she walked down the street with a shovel to get a shot of her shoveling some stuff to get, to help clean up, you know, wherever this flood was. And she kept stopping, and the press, you know, finally after she was out of the job, somebody wrote it up, because the press have a kind of code. They don’t write things like this up. But she kept stopping at the wrong door and saying is this the place where I’m supposed to shovel, you know, for the TV cameras? And then when she went into her tent to spend the night, you know, on the scene helping overnight, she zipped up the tent, and then the cameras went off, and then she zipped it down and went and checked into a hotel.
LA: So that was…
HH: That’s not the real thing.
LA: That wasn’t beautiful.
HH: So now we have why it’s beautiful, and we have courage as the mean between these things. So having established that, Aristotle moves off immediately to temperance.
HH: Is that also because it’s easy?
LA: Yeah, well, temperance is less an immediate scene of noble and beautiful action than courage. It’s just necessary, and it is a direct preparation for the most beautiful kind of action, because if you just think what temperance means, it just means you want things, and you can’t have them, or you ought not to have them. And how do you manage that? And Aristotle’s account of temperance is that in a way, it is more fundamental and goes further than courage, although courage is terribly important, because with temperance, as with courage, it’s not just a matter of denying yourself. It’s a matter of shaping your wishes.
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HH: I confess to being way behind. I have, my plan for attack on the Ethics is completely blown up, Dr. Larry Arnn, because I’m way behind. It was originally going to be two hours. It’s up to four. It could go longer. I suppose this is what you averred to when we began this. You said just leave a lot of time for the Ethics. And so on temperance, let’s go back and reset what we said before the break. Aristotle brings it up as the second virtue to be explored after courage. It’s a little bit more difficult to understand, because it involves wanting. But it also doesn’t involve complete denial of that want.
LA: No, because you know, and this is in courage. There’s an excess and a deficiency, so in pleasures, there are excesses in deficiencies. And so all of the pleasures that are famous, eating and you know, whatever, they’re all natural. We like them for a reason. And so we should have them, but having them in the wrong amount would be destructive of us. And you know, obviously if you eat too much, you get fat. And so you have to dispose yourself in the right way toward pleasure. It’s not just getting the right amount. For example, it wouldn’t be virtuous if you put yourself in a cage and hired someone just to put the right amount of every pleasure before you and not let you have any more, because what goes on in the soul is terribly important, and a preparation for something much higher that we’ll get to at the end, and that is you have to not want too much, because what you want, the desires, have to be shaped toward the beautiful. And so if it’s craven to do anything, you must be repelled by it. You must not just not be tempted by it, you must find it repulsive.
HH: But you know what, I’m going to jump ahead just to one of the great men we’ll study in Plutarch, Caesar, of enormous appetites of every kind, and of great accomplishments, the greatest probably of any man in the ancient world in terms of simple accomplishments. And what would Aristotle say of that, that he both, he sinned greatly and he accomplished greatly, and that that was just his nature?
LA: Well, you know, an easy thing to say to undercut your claims about Caesar would be didn’t his appetites get carried away with him just a little bit? I mean, even in regard to his greatest accomplishments, because he took an army across a river that involved an upsetting of the Roman constitution. And you know, it’s an ambiguous story. Maybe he had to do that. It was a world of very hard choices, and their regime had declined. But Aristotle would certainly say he ought not to be carried away by his appetites. And you know, Aristotle was a man capable of enormous self-denial. There’s a statue, a famous statue of Aristotle. Aristotle used to say, and I don’t want to encourage people not to sleep, because you’ve got to sleep. But he used to say that sleep is an ignoble state, because it’s the smallest difference between a good man and a bad man when you’re asleep. And Aristotle did experiment. He would hold a ball, a metal ball in his hand, and a brass ball was a symbol of the universe for the Greeks. And he would hold it in his hand, in his left hand, and let it droop. And when he fell asleep, it would fall and hit a metal plate and wake him up, which means that the grasp of the universe was keeping Aristotle awake. Well Aristotle, he’s like James Madison about this. He experimented how much he needed to sleep, because he wanted some independent knowledge of that apart from how much we wanted to sleep.
HH: Wanted to sleep. Oh, interesting. I’m not sure he was a lot of fun to be around, Dr. Larry Arnn, but…
LA: Well, no. Yeah, he was a genius, right? And about him, a lot of these things we have, one of the accounts of the things we have from Aristotle, because many of the texts are not very good, is that these are notes taken by students, or prepared by him. Aristotle was very much a teacher. And that must have been wonderful. I would have loved to have done that.
HH: He appreciated amiability and wit, correct, as we go to break?
LA: Oh, yeah.
HH: He was fond of those things which make a teacher a great teacher.
LA: Oh, yeah. Yeah, and he was inspiring, you know. People loved him. And wit is a virtue, and it’s not a major virtue, but it’s a virtue. And Aristotle, remember, you have to get it in your mind, because there are two things that go on in the Ethics. One is they take these particular things apart, and look at them, things you have to do all the time. So in one way, it’s like reading a self-help book, but really good. And I’ll tell you the other one when we come back.
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HH: Just before the break, Dr. Arnn said there are two things going on here. You take apart these very specific things, some of them small, some of them larger, into smaller parts and examine them very closely, what is the second thing, Dr. Larry Arnn?
LA: Well, so the small things in the example is ambition, how much ambition is right, how do you know, gluttony, how much eating is right, how much all kinds of appetites, right? The grand thing is a structure of life is put together that involves the relationship between the moral and the intellectual virtues, the virtues of doing and the virtues of thinking. And in this relationship is found a hierarchy that points to the best way for human beings to live. So what kind of life overall is the best life? And how do the various kinds of life that are worthy, and there are more than one that are worthy, how do they rank? And one gets the tools to think about that by reading this book. And so apart from coaching about daily life situations, there’s also kind of career counseling going on.
HH: Interesting. I want to go back to that coaching about life situation in our last segment. Next week, we’ll come back, and I promise the audience, whether we’re done or not, we will be done with the Ethics next week, because we have to get to the Politics eventually. I want to talk about money, and his conversation about liberality and magnanimity, because as a college president, you have to talk about money all the time with people. You have to talk about it with students who have to pay some to come to Hillsdale, you have to talk about it with donors who have to contribute to Hillsdale to build the great institution you have built there, and you have to talk to people about money, and you have to talk to your children about money, and your spouse about money, and your students about their daily lives. Does this still work, what he says about it?
LA: Oh, big time, and I’ll give you two examples of, two kinds of examples. I’m going to name two people by name. Generosity is giving away money for a good cause for the right reason, for the sake of the beautiful. That is the say you’ve got some money, and you give some significant part of it to Widow’s Might. And the Bible would be an example, but any gift of normal size is an example, and that’s a very worthy thing to do, according to Aristotle. And you know, it’s a form of self-rule, by the way, to do that, and it’s amazing and wonderful about the United States that it is the only country with huge middle class philanthropy, because we’re all governors. We’re all rules, and we feel like we are, and we give money to things. But then there’s another thing beyond generosity, also very great, and its only difference is really a difference of scale. It’s called magnanimity, which is the Latin words that mean great soul. No, I’m sorry, it’s not called magnanimity. It’s called magnificence. What’s wrong with me? And that comes from the Latin word meaning great means, something like that. And that’s somebody who gives huge gifts. And I’m going to name two great somebodies. The largest two gifts we’ve ever had in Hillsdale College history are from people who wish to remain anonymous. But both of them never wrote that down, and I told them if they wrote it down, I would never use their names. But if they didn’t, I would. They said, and they said, well, we might not leave you the money then, and I said it’s your money, in both cases. But if you leave it to me, I’m going to talk about it unless you specifically forbid me to do it. And their names are Dorothy Moller and Cortlandt Dietler. And they both left us north of $45 million dollars.
LA: And they didn’t tell me how much, before they died, and they didn’t want us to name anything. I’m putting something up about both of them on the campus, although they said I don’t want that. And I said do you really not want that, because that’s a mistake? And they said well, I don’t want it. And I said you have to write that down in a document you give the gift, and then I won’t. But if you don’t, I’m going to take this as a mood. So it’s easy for you to fix it, I said, but you’d better fix it if you really mean it, and they didn’t. So I’m telling everybody about them, and they didn’t want anything. They didn’t want me to thank them in public. They didn’t tell me how much money beforehand. That’s magnificence. That’s awesome, right? And it was a gift they could give for the sake of the beautiful, in both of their cases, and they didn’t, you know, I mean, it’s just awesome what they did.
HH: It is, and why do we admire that?
LA: Well, because it’s selfless and grand. In other words, all of the virtues, because let me describe to you how Aristotle describes a virtuous soul. A virtuous soul is open to the world, because it has cultivated all of these ability to address the many obstacles to human life that distort it and harm it. It is a soul that can see things as they are, and that can take pleasure in the good things, especially the beautiful things, and in fact is wholly committed to them, and is not affected by the bad things. Such a soul, if you meet such a person, they’re wonderful people to meet, because there’s nothing small about them. And they’re, if you yourself have enough virtue in you to perceive it, you want to be around them, because they make you sit up straighter, and they point out things to you that you should have seen all along and taken pleasure in. And you know, one reason this book is good for me, it’s like the Bible about this, is I work too hard. I have a job that’s demanding and overcomes me sometimes. And I get to the place where I’ll say you know, this is a wonderful things to be doing, but there’s just too much of it. And that’s a real thing, but on the other hand, what is life for? And if you read a book like this, it reminds you of that. It reminds you that there are beautiful things for the sake of which you are to fight. And you know, those two people who left that money to us, and you know, many others who have left large sums and small, I’ve had the pleasure to talk with them about the college and what it does. And in those cases, I could tell that they were evaluating me, and was I a serious man or not. And I try to be a serious man, and I know they thought so. And they gave for the serious things we both love. Not to me, for those things.
HH: When we come back next week, we will continue on in Aristotle, the Ethics. Don’t miss the conclusion of our many part series on the Ethics on the next Hillsdale Dialogue.
End of interview.