Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Good, the Evil and the Stupid

I shocked someone the other day by telling him I was an Aristotelian. People usually look at you with puzzlement--what religion is that?--or surprise. In the history of science, Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC) is usually cast as the bad guy. This is probably because there were few real advances in scientific theory since he, pretty much, invented the concept of science (not to mention biology, botany, meteorology, geology, physics, logic and ethics as a field of study) way back in the 4th century BC. By the 16th and 17th centuries, when science was taking off, it was the tradition of Aristotle that seemed to the young scientists to be what they were opposing. The reality was that it was the uncritical ossification of Aristotle that they were battling.

Aristotle himself was the remarkable student of Plato: the two of them laid the foundation for much of the thought of Western Civilization. In some areas, such as aesthetics and ethics, Aristotle's ideas seem to be as fresh and alive as the day he put pen to scroll. Virtue for Aristotle is the activity of aiming at what is good, true and beautiful. A good life is one that aims at realizing one's capacities to do good things and the end is happiness. 'Happiness' is how the Greek word eudaemonia is often translated, but perhaps a better translation is "human flourishing". For human beings the ultimate good or happiness (eudaemonia) consists in perfection, the full attainment of their natural function, which Aristotle analyzes as the activity of the soul according to reason (or not without reason), i.e., activity in accordance with the most perfect virtue or excellence.

It is hard to define excellence because, like good and evil, it is one of those words that is used to define other words. It is so often used in a weaselly way, to sell products or puff up someone's CV, that it is easy to forget that we know excellence, and good, and evil, when we see it. Every day presents us with fresh examples. I'm writing this because this week presented us with some stark examples.

I think we can admire this example because it is someone realizing in action her capacity for beauty and excellence, neither of which has to be serious or dull:

Opposed to this is the horrific example of James Eagan Holmes, who chose to murder the innocent at a movie premiere. If you want an example of evil, this will do.

Then, there is stupidity and we have a suitable example of that this week as well. Twenty-one people were treated for burns after trying to walk on 2000 degree coals at a 'motivational' event.

Choices are important in life. It's pretty simple, really.

Sorry for this departure from my usual exclusively musical postings, but I was struck by the starkness of these examples and wanted to share them.

Now we will return to our usual programming which is the considerably more difficult and subtle task of distinguishing between the good, the bad and the stupid in music.


RG said...

Holmes: those deaths and injuries might have been at least largely avoided if only citizens had been present. Here's how it works out then

Bryan Townsend said...

Hmm, well, and this is probably why gun control is not too popular in the US. Still, I think we would prefer not to have to go to the movies packing a piece.

I'm just grateful to be living here in Mexico where all I have to worry about is narcotraficantes, not random, psychopathic Batman fans.