The Internet has no shortage of moralists and moralizers, but one ethical epicenter is surely the extraordinary, addictive subreddit called “Am I the Asshole?,” popularly abbreviated AITA. In the forum, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this summer, users post brief accounts of their interpersonal conflicts and brace themselves for the judgment of online strangers: usually either YTA (“You’re the asshole”) or NTA (“Not the asshole”). A team of moderators enforces the rules, of which the most important, addressed to the supplicant, reads “Accept your judgment.”
A few recent ones: Am I the asshole for “telling my brother that he is undateable?” For “asking my girlfriend to dress better on a date night?” For “refusing to resell my Taylor Swift Tickets?” Some posts have become famous, or Internet famous, like the one from a guy who asked an overweight seatmate on a five-hour flight to pay him a hundred and fifty dollars for encroaching on his space. The subreddit promises, in its tagline, “a catharsis for the frustrated moral philosopher in all of us.”
What’s striking about AITA is the language in which it states its central question: you’re asked not whether I did the right thing but, rather, what sort of person I’m being. And, of course, an asshole represents a very specific kind of character defect. (To be an asshole, according to Geoffrey Nunberg, in his 2012 history of the concept, is to “behave thoughtlessly or arrogantly on the job, in personal relationships, or just circulating in public.”) We would have a different morality, and an impoverished one, if we judged actions only with those terms of pure evaluation, “right” or “wrong,” and judged people only “good” or “bad.” Our vocabulary of commendation and condemnation is perpetually changing, but it has always relied on “thick” ethical terms, which combine description and evaluation.
This way of thinking about ethical life—in which the basic question is who we are, not what we do—has foundations in a work of Aristotle’s from the fourth century B.C., known as the Nicomachean Ethics. A new translation and abridgment, by the University of Pennsylvania philosopher and classicist Susan Sauvé Meyer, comes with a new title: “How to Flourish: An Ancient Guide to Living Well” (Princeton). The original text, Meyer explains, has been whittled down to “Aristotle’s main claims and positive arguments, omitting digressions, repetitions, methodological remarks, and skirmishes with opponents.”
The volume is part of a series of new translations of ancient texts. Aristotle’s Poetics, for instance, is now “How to Tell a Story: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Storytelling for Writers and Readers,” and Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War” is now “How to Think About War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy.” You can debate whether these name changes are kitschy or canny, but the title “How to Flourish” isn’t that much of a stretch, because the Nicomachean Ethics is one of the handful of texts chosen that might plausibly be considered a guide in a sense we recognize today. Still, if Aristotle’s ethics is to be sold as a work of what we call self-help, we have to ask: How helpful is it?
We know only a few things about the man who claimed to know how to flourish. He was born in 384 B.C., in a Macedonian city in what’s now northern Greece. His mother came from a wealthy family on the island of Euboea; his father was a court physician to a Macedonian king. Aristotle was seventeen when he left his native land for Athens, where he evidently encountered Plato and his Academy—the legendary circle of scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers. When Plato died, in 347, Aristotle left Athens. About his reasons we can only speculate: one theory is that Aristotle was moved by the perennial anxieties of the immigrant without citizenship in a time of political strife. Outside on the streets, the orator Demosthenes was decrying the wickedness of Macedonians.
A few years later, Aristotle was engaged to tutor a young Macedonian prince, who would later be known as Alexander the Great. One of the more vivid depictions of the philosopher appears in Mary Renault’s “Fire from Heaven,” the opening volume in her splendid trilogy of novels about Alexander’s life. First laying eyes on his tutor, the prince sees “a lean smallish man, not ill-proportioned, who yet gave at first sight the effect of being all head.” A second look “revealed him to be dressed with some care and with the elegance of Ionia, wearing one or two good rings. Athenians thought him rather foppish. . . . But he did look like a man who would answer questions.”
He was certainly that. During an extraordinarily fertile career, he raised, often for the first time, questions in science and philosophy that he treated so thoroughly it was many centuries before anyone could improve on his answers. In ethics, at least, there’s a decent case that no one has improved much on them.
“How to flourish” was one such topic, “flourishing” being a workable rendering of Aristotle’s term eudaimonia. We might also translate the term in the usual way, as “happiness,” as long as we suspend some of that word’s modern associations; eudaimonia wasn’t something that waxed and waned with our moods. For Aristotle, ethics was centrally concerned with how to live a good life: a flourishing existence was also a virtuous one.
For first-time readers of the Nicomachean Ethics, though, the treatise is full of disappointments. It is not, strictly, a book by Aristotle; a later editor evidently stitched it together from a series of lecture notes. (Aristotle’s father and son were named Nicomachus; the title may have honored one of them.) There are repetitions and sections that seem to belong in a different book, and Aristotle’s writings are, as Meyer observes, “famously terse, often crabbed in their style.” Crabbed, fragmented, gappy: it can be a headache trying to match his pronouns to the nouns they refer to. Some of his arguments are missing crucial premises; others fail to spell out their conclusions.
Aristotle is obscure in other ways, too. His highbrow potshots at unnamed contemporaries, his pop-cultural references, must have tickled his aristocratic Athenian audience. But the people and the plays he referred to are now lost or forgotten. Some readers have found his writings “affectless,” stripped of any trace of a human voice, or of a beating human heart.
It gets worse. The book, though it purports to be about the question of how to flourish, is desperately short on practical advice. More of it is about what it means to be good than about how one becomes it. And then much of what it says can sound rather obvious, or inert. Flourishing is the ultimate goal of human life; a flourishing life is one that is lived in accord with the various “virtues” of the character and intellect (courage, moderation, wisdom, and so forth); a flourishing life also calls for friendships with good people and a certain measure of good fortune in the way of a decent income, health, and looks. Virtue is not just about acting rightly but about feeling rightly. What’s best, Aristotle says, is “to have such feelings at the right time, at the right objects and people, with the right goal, and in the right manner.” Good luck figuring out what the “right time” or object or manner is.
And virtue, his central category, gets defined—in a line that Meyer’s abridgment culls—in terms that look suspiciously circular. Virtue is a state “consisting in a mean,” Aristotle maintains, and this mean “is defined by reference to reason, that is to say, to the reason by reference to which the prudent person would define it.” (For Aristotle, the “mean” represented a point between opposite excesses—for instance, between cowardice and recklessness lay courage.) The phrase “prudent person” here renders the Greek phronimos, a person possessed of that special quality of mind which Aristotle called “phronesis.” But is Aristotle then saying that virtue consists in being disposed to act as the virtuous person does? That sounds true, but trivially so.
To grasp why it may not be, it helps to reckon with the role that habits of mind play in Aristotle’s account. Meyer’s translation of “phronesis” is “good judgment,” and the phrase nicely captures the combination of intelligence and experience which goes into acquiring it, along with the difficulty of reducing it to a set of explicit principles that anyone could apply mechanically, like an algorithm. In that respect, “good judgment” is an improvement on the old-fashioned and now misleading “prudence”; it’s also less clunky than another standby, “practical wisdom.”
The enormous role of judgment in Aristotle’s picture of how to live can sound, to modern readers thirsty for ethical guidance, like a cop-out. Especially when they might instead pick up a treatise by John Stuart Mill and find an elegantly simple principle for distinguishing right from wrong, or one by Kant, in which they will find at least three. They might, for that matter, look to Jordan Peterson, who conjures up as many as twelve.
Treated as a serious request for advice, the question of how to flourish could receive a gloomy answer from Aristotle: it may be too late to start trying. Why is that? Flourishing involves, among other things, performing actions that manifest virtues, which are qualities of character that enable us to perform what Aristotle calls our “characteristic activity” (as Meyer renders the Greek ergon, a word more commonly, but riskily, translated as “function”). But how do we come to acquire these qualities of character, or what Meyer translates as “dispositions”? Aristotle answers, “From our regular practice.”