About This Blog

Welcome to James' Philosophical Agora - James' Meeting Place On-Line. (Updated September 2017)

This blog is the place where I write in a more personal way on various areas of philosophical interest. Please be careful when I say 'philosophical' because this does not often mean about purely academic or abstract subjects and ideas; but rather like much of the philosophy of Socrates, it means an investigation of some fundamental things that have a very important baring on the way we live our lives as individuals and as communities.

I have a separate blog where I share my enthusiasm for the specific philosophical tradition and ideas of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle Plutarch and others at: Socrates 4 Today However, this blog James' Philosophical Agora expresses mostly personal viewpoints and so I prefer to have two separate blogs.

Please feel free to comment on any of the blog posts, or add some thoughts of your own to the subjects discussed. You can also contact me personally if you would like to discuss any particular items further at: jamesdelphi2000@gmail.com

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Thoughts 4 Today – Arete – and Living with Virtue and Excellence

Part 1.

Dear George,

I hope you are keeping well old friend. 

Well, I did say that I wanted to write to you about that matter we discussed on Skype last week – that of using spare leisure time more productively – as advised by Aristotle – if we wish to be as happy as possible and live “the good or best kind of life possible”. Now there is a chap call A E Taylor, who is a respected academic who has written this very interesting little book called simply ‘ARISTOTLE’ – and he gives an easily read summary for enthusiastic but slightly lazy people like me on Aristotle's main areas of influence. One of these areas is “practical philosophy” – that of making either ourselves and/or our communities better in some way.

Aristotle believes that the two are closely connected – communities only being the sum of the parts i.e. individuals like us. We cannot improve our communities until we improve ourselves in other words – well at least according to Aristotle anyway.

One of the points of Aristotle I mention in my regular “practical philosophy” talk is: Leisure time as the best use of life –and not work for works sake…. I also quote from Taylor’s book as follows:

[According to Aristotle…] ‘… leisure time calls into play the very highest of our own capacities as intelligent beings, and for that very reason the active living of it is attended with the purest of all pleasures. In it, moreover, we enter at intervals and for a little while, so far as the conditions of our mundane existence allow, into the life which God enjoys through an unbroken eternity. Thus we reach the curious paradox that while the life of contemplation is said to be that of our truest self, it is also maintained that this highest and happiest life is one which we live, not in respect of being human, but in respect of having a divine something in us.

     When we ask what this life of contemplation includes, we see from references in the Politics that it includes the genuinely aesthetic appreciation of good literature and music and pictorial and plastic art, but there can be no doubt that what bulks most largely in Aristotle's mind is the active pursuit of science for its own sake, particularly of such studies as First Philosophy and Physics, which deal with the fundamental structure of the universe. Aristotle thus definitely ends by placing the life of the scholar and the student on the very summit of happiness…...’

Of course George, it does not have to be scientific studies that give us the most pleasure – as Taylor believes is what pleases Aristotle most; it can be all manner of artistic, musical, or practical things; some people love gardening, fishing, walking, reading, acting or whatever George . The point is – it’s no good having lots of leisure time if we are not going to enjoy that time – and feel fed up and bored all the time - and wish we had something to do.

Looking forward to our next Skype.


Part 2

Hi George,

I just wanted to add 3 or 4 short paragraphs to that previous note I sent you on Aristotle and using leisure time better – hopefully without repeating myself too much. Be sure George – that while it may appear that I am giving you advice here – it is much more accurate to say that by articulating these important “essences” of philosophers like Aristotle to you – it is helping me to clarify them myself and then keep them fresh in my own mind as well.

Well this ancient Greek idea of ARETE – is basically about developing VIRTUE and EXCELLENCE in various aspects of our life – and in particular during that aspect of life over which we have most control LEISURE; which as mentioned above is what Aristotle sees as the most important part of life. We should work to live he believes – and not live to work. I wonder what Angela Merkel would have to say about that :) 

However, if we are not going to waste our leisure time – and use it productively and indeed wisely – and in time use it with virtue and excellence – then we need a way of measuring it and assessing how we are doing in the process. Now to review how we are doing in “specific” areas of our leisure and spare time (as opposed to that part of the week/month we obliged to earn a living) it is helpful to have a “doable” measurable list of 'specific' items you would like to achieve by say a certain date – e.g. “within the next 3 or 6 or 12 months”. 

A very practical and easy example might be the moderate fun marathon runner who wants to knock 20 minutes off his time; or old James going to the gym who wants to lose 6 kilos in 3 months and wants to up the weights by 10% in the same time frame. All are easily “doable” with just a little routine and minimum extra effort – providing we can up the self-discipline a bit. I have chosen physical examples – but I can add intellectual activities to my list as well – e.g. read a minimum of 6 books a year – try to write a short blog post every month to each of my two blogs, attend four good lectures in a year, see one good play and a concert every 6 months.

Now the important thing about my example “TARGETS” above – is that they all reflect MILD IMPROVEMENT (i.e. are all very doable) – and I can accurately assess my targets – since they are clear, specific and measurable.

The tiny extra bit of self-discipline required might be more easily improved if I see the whole process as a “sacred” or at least “spiritual and philosophical” endeavour.

Socrates advises us to KNOW THYSELF – and after we get some way towards this we must then try of course to BE OURSELF – or the person we at least think we are or ought to be. This is often not easy at all at first – especially with the outside pressures of the modern consumerist world requiring our time and physical plus mental energies . We most likely will get things wrong for some periods of time. But after a while we will start to get better at it – this excellent way of living which gives us ARETE and feelings of happiness and well being. (Greek: Eudaimonia) We begin to see the results of our efforts. 

Then comes the last challenge in this area - of keeping it all going – which is made easier with sensible and moderate targets in the first place. (e.g. How many people loose 10 kilos at the gym one year - simply to put it all back on again the following year.... )   Aristotle says we want to achieve a “settled” condition of character and soul – where we are not “trying” too hard after a while – it all becomes natural and just the way we are. That is; we will actually start to be our self on a sustained and effortless basis – which is all part of living with virtue and excellence.

In short we have to stop faffing about at things and wasting time – and especially leisure time. We need to get on with what we have to do for a few hours a day – or days per week – and then stop worrying about them and do something we enjoy doing – and then try to do it well - or a little bit better.

I guess that this is basically the “essence” of what Aristotle is on about when it comes to ARETE and living with VIRTUE and EXCELLENCE. I will take a more formal look at the four virtues of Aristotle another time – but it is the “essence” of the matter that is the most important think to grasp…..


For a more formal look at Virtue and Excellence and how this plays on the psyche and soul in Socratic and Platonic philosophy see the post on my other blog at:

The Three Powers of the Psyche (Soul) and their Virtue

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