Edith Hall: Aristotle: Self Help Guru

Edith Hall
Edinburgh International Book Festival

Edith Hall

Aristotle (383-321BC) was one of those incredible thinkers who was an expert in many different fields of study, some of which he invented himself.

His Poetics is a cornerstone of Western drama on stage and screen, but he also had a great deal to say on logic, philosophy, rhetoric, science, ethics, politics and much more. Not only that but, as leading classicist Edith Hall said in this session, he never really got going with his influential writings on any of these subjects until the age of 49, and he died at 62.

Having reached the age of 60, Hall said she thought it was time she wrote about the man she first came across in her second year at university while she was still able to do so. Although she said she couldn't have written this as a student as, according to Aristotle, learning only comes through daily encountering and making major life decisions.

Despite the title of the session, she bristled at the suggestion that she has written a self-help book, but Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life is an attempt to translate Aristotle's philosophy into something practical that we can use in our everyday lives. She said she wanted to translate some difficult Ancient Greek texts into a form that her (then) 16-year-old daughter would understand. She said Aristotle was the first philosopher to detach ethics from the religious and the macro-political, asking the question: what is the point of being alive if there is no interventionist deity and no afterlife?

Where most philosophers came from the point-of-view that human base emotions are something to learn to control and suppress, Aristotle began with the premise that we are all animals (more than two millennia before Darwin) and that an emotion such as anger isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as it is the right amount of anger to make you take action.

She spoke of how each decision must come through logical analysis of both sides of the argument and of how the state of magnanimity is when this process becomes automatic, habitual, a kind of moral autopilot (I think I've got this right—I couldn't find her book in the Festival bookshops). His 'teleological' viewpoint assumes that we all have just one ideal self towards we we should aim, and that the wrong decision would take us away from living our ideal life; session chair Stuart Kelly seemed as unconvinced as me on this point.

Aristotle took a materialist, rather than a metaphysical, approach to taking the evidence of all of our senses to come to a logical decision. On the question of education, Aristotle argued that they were taught to fight with their bodies and should also be taught to fight with words. His rules of rhetoric were a set of skills with which to argue a case from a logical application of first principles.

This was a fascinating session from someone who showed a great deal of enthusiasm for as well as knowledge of her subject.

Edith Hall's Aristotle's Way is available now in hardback, published by Bodley Head.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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