June 10, 2019
by Jared Eckert
This Thursday marks the launch of Windrose’s first-ever student book club. Most young people who join a book club expect to go through a popular best-seller like Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules of Life or even a modern classic like C. S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. But instead of these sorts of books (which we should certainly read!), our team has decided to discuss a work of pagan literature written 2400 years ago: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—and for at least three reasons.
New is Not Necessarily Better
Today, it is widely believed that books written before the last 100 or so years are no longer relevant. They are too old to be relevant, too old to engage the problems facing our world today. How can Aristotle’s Ethics, written over 2300 years ago, possibly speak to us today? If we lived in ancient Athens or if we still thought Platonism was a convincing explanation of the world, perhaps then Aristotle would have something relevant to say.
However, defying the “chronological snobbery” of our day, many pre-modern works prove themselves extremely relevant for us today when we look at them closely. Because writers like Aristotle wrote before post-modern writers like Sartre and Nietzsche, it is assumed that he has nothing to say in response to moral relativism or subjectivism. Indeed, many believe that relativism and subjectivism have won the philosophical debate. Yet, a closer look at a work like the Ethics reveals that Aristotle was not only familiar with a sophisticated form relativism but had also deliberately rejected it. For Aristotle, if man was “the measure of all things”—that is, if the value and definition of everything that exists is merely determined by the experience and perception of the individual—then there is only opinion. And if there is only opinion, and not some ultimate truth or good, then “all human longing is finally ‘empty and pointless.’” Thus, Aristotle, by inquiring into true happiness (which is the ultimate good for mankind), deliberately rejects this idea and attempts to provide a viable, common sense philosophy that can uphold an objective notion of meaning, goodness, and happiness for the human.
Ultimately, then, pre-modern works like Aristotle’s Ethics may provide a response and an alternative to post-modern ideas about truth and ethics. They are not outdated or irrelevant simply because they old. Rather, when we take a closer look, we’ll find that a good number of these old literary works have something to say in response to the problems and ideas of our day.
Pagan Literature Helps Pave the Road to Faith
Others who refuse to take post-modernism seriously because of their Christian faith may be tempted to reject ancient pagan literature because it has nothing to teach them which Scripture does not already tell them.
This temptation isn’t anything new. As early as the second century A.D., church leaders were arguing that pagan wisdom “pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it”.[i] For them, Athens had nothing to do with Jerusalem, the former symbolizing human wisdom and the latter symbolizing divine wisdom.
Others, however, argued that pagan knowledge could prepare the way to truth.[ii] According to them, philosophy in itself neither produced vice nor leads humans away from the faith. Rather, a closer look at pagan philosophy would reveal that God had allowed the Greeks to arrive at “partial” and “dim” truths which ultimately prepared the mind for the fullness of truth found in Christ Jesus.
Scripture backs up the latter of these positions. In Romans, Paul argues that, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”[iii] Here, Paul is saying that human reason can ascertain divine and transcendent realities through the created world. That is, truth is not only found in divine revelation; it can be perceived in and through the natural and physical world. Thus, pagans, though they lacked the Scriptures, could have accessed the truth—at least in part—through their study of the natural world. If this interpretation is correct, then pagan thought is redeemable and is worth studying.
Better Than Self-Help Books
Having shown that pre-modern books are worth reading for both the post-modern and the person of faith, how should we should read this literature? There is tendency to read something like the Ethics as an ancient form of self-help. For example, take Edith Hall’s book, Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life. She clearly thinks Aristotle is worth reading. Yet her work misinterprets Aristotle. For Hall, Aristotle is interested in “subjective happiness” for the human person.[iv] All that matters for her Aristotle is the acquisition of lasting contentment by accomplishing one’s self-determined goals.
This way of reading Aristotle, however, diminishes the full scope and impact of Aristotle’s ethical teaching. Aristotle isn’t interested in people becoming the “best version of themselves,” at least not in a purely subjective sense. He is after something weightier, something more universal, in his inquiry into happiness—namely, what fulfills human nature at its core. Thus, Aristotle isn’t saying that happiness looks different for different people. He’s actually saying that human happiness looks like one thing—namely, contemplation—and not like another.
The point here is that after we have been convinced of the value of reading pre-modern works of literature, we must not read them through our post-modern lenses. Instead, when we let an old text speak for itself, we often find that it tells us something more profound about humanity (and thus about ourselves) than any contemporary self-help book ever could.
Unlike many of our contemporaries, we here at Windrose do not believe that modernity is superior simply because it is new. Nor are we scared of being corrupted by the pagan wisdom of the past. Rather, we believe that timeless wisdom of great value has been passed down through the ages in what many have called the Great Books, and it is to be salvaged wherever it is found. The wisdom in these writings—whether pagan or Christian, scientific or religious, secular or sacred—does not furnish the mind with mere conjecture, relative to some time, place, or culture, but instead offers insight into the human nature we all share with an aim to teach us what it means to live well. Others would try to reject such wisdom and generate their own. But we would rather stand on the shoulders of giants and drink deep from the source. And so we read Great Books, like the Ethics.
[i] Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by A. Roberts and J. DOnaldson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903), III: 246.
[ii] Cf. Clement of Alexandria, On Philosophy I.5, in The Writings of Clement of Alexandria, translated by William Wilson (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1867), 366. Cf. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, in The Works of Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, edited by Marcus Dods (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1892), 75-76.
[iii] Romans 1:19
[iv] See the description of Hall’s book on its Amazon page.