Aristotle, from John Watson

December 14, 2009 |

 Aristotle once said, "All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind" Is there any way of quantifying this, and are there any implications in the markets, life, and trade?

Aristotle also said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit." Does this extol the virtue of practicing until we get it right? How does one know if they are getting it right, and if they have the proper tutor.

Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics "It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen." I've been wringing my head trying to figure out all of the different philosophers who have borrowed this idea, and have come up with a list of at least 20. Any help in compiling a complete list would be appreciated.

He also wrote in Nichomachean Ethics, "It is possible to fail in many ways…while to succeed is possible only in one way." I would like to disprove this as there are more than one path to success.

Kim Zussman replies:

Do a twin study:

Find pairs of identical twins (same genes) with different employment histories. Best would be congressman vs. doctor. Failing that, find pairs with large differences in total hours worked to date.

Perform intelligence testing on the pairs, and use paired t-test to check for difference as a function of high vs low prior work/brain wear.

A related study could be done on the productivity effects of wearing robes and fondness for little boys.

Jim Sogi writes:

At the risk of disagreeing with Aristotle, excellence is a constant struggle. At least for me it is. Habit implies some sort of easy continuation. Constant vigilance is very very difficult. Excellence also connotes superiority over others. Thus there is a the constant pushing and straining to excel over others who try even harder.

J.T. Holley replies:

I don't think Mankind or Aristotle (all thought is a mere footnote to him in Philosophy circles) should be given a break at their points in time now that we've evolved Capitalism to the point it is today. Seems to me that the most important principle here is that what was shared by Susan Niederhoffer the other day "everyday seek out knowledge". In the agrarian society that was around in Ari's time we can certainly understand that doing some "meaningless paid job" took away from the devotion, persistence, focus and the ability that Ari had at driving forward to thought and knowledge. He is reluctant to realize though that the underlying power of Capitalism and his own mind freed him up to pursue his own thoughts and not degrade his mind.

"We are what we repeatedly do."

I happen to agree with this but not in totality. His teacher Plato spoke of to paraphrase "to know the good is to be the good". Much more objective than Aristotle's "do do the good is to know the good" of which leans towards being subjective. I think both are acceptable in "being". Case in point is Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Being tied to the post the man competed and "repeatedly" learned to beat his peers at guessing at the shadows, but once freed and outside the cave he saw the light! The objective in this allegory trumped the subjective that was thought to be the truth. The objective with the subjective seems to be balanced though if we apply Aristotle's "golden mean" that he also mentions in Nich. Ethics. A wonderful balance of both instead of just one or the other.

"Nicomachean Ethics," he said, "It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen."

Kierkegaard found and wrote of this as well. He found great power, strength, and lessons in the paradox and hypocrisies of life. His three stages of life's way is a good example of this with the movement from aesthete to ethical to final religious. In the final stage of religious for Kierkegaard he used the Paradox of Abraham to find his strength. Being told by Gawd to go to the mountain and sacrifice his son what thoughts must have been in his mind and that of his town or family? He was either a lunatic by most or the most devout believer in Gawd's word. Kierkegaard spoke of the "fear and trembling" that must've been going on as the knife was thrust to the air to the point to where it was almost at apex to come down into his young son's chest. "good man" or "good citizen"? "religious" or "crazy"? Of course as the passage goes he didn't have to ultimately sacrifice his son but the lamb. The paradox was there though when thought and decision was made to be true to himself.

He also wrote in"Nichomachean Ethics," "It is possible to fail in many ways…while to succeed is possible only in one way"

to quote the Chair "The best way to achieve victory is to master all the rules for disaster, and then concentrate on avoiding them." Trial and error is important in life and speculation. The pain from failing can often lead us to being better individuals and profit takers.

Nigel Davies writes:

GMI think there are a number of problems in discussing 'ancient wisdom', for example culture, language and context. One might ask what defined paid and unpaid work in Aristotle's time? I'd argue that to really understand what he was saying one would have to be a several thousand year old Greek.

As for the internalization of excellence (i.e. habits), the valuation of such may depend on whether one prefers 'reason' to 'intuition born of vast experience (ie habits)'. Taking a different angle on this, does an inexperienced but opinionated newcomer deserve to win against an old hand? Humans value their reason, but maybe this is just vanity talking.

Peter Grieve adds:

I bow to no man in my admiration for the literature of classical Attica, but Nigel has put his finger on a weakness. The surviving philosophical writers did tend to value reason over experience. This may be why they made tremendous progress in mathematics, but were dreadful scientists and mediocre engineers (Archimedes came later, and was a Syracusean). Their mathematics was largely intended to support astrology, for heavens sake. This is in line with their feeling that people who actually produced anything were of a lower order. Apparently people were amazed when Socrates spoke to artisans in an attempt to find answers. Aristotle's attitudes about paid work may reflect this bias.


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