When talking seriously became rude

With us, the democratic assumption work more gently. It easily prevails by sheer force of numbers. Whatever is alarmingly different or superior is leveled off like the froth on the glass of beer. Go to the friendliest social dinner, and the conversation will run exclusively on current events and common experiences — so much so that after dinner the men and the women form separate groups and talk business in one, domesticity in the other. The correct mixture of passion and detachment about beliefs, which makes of conviviality something more than eating and drinking together, is less and less attainable. To speak of religion — which once furnished a common background of moral feeling and literary allusion — is widely considered the most pretentious bad manners. Even politics has lost its intellectual content and has become undiscussable except with hand grenades. The effort to avoid misunderstandings and offense reduces the pleasure to zero. One feels as if one were walking on eggs inside one’s brain. In short, talking seriously is as rude as making private allusions which only the members of the family understand.

Jacques Barzun, Begin Here, pp. 211-12

Happiness according to Aristotle and Christ

Aristotle identified the highest end and aim of man as happiness. According to Aristotle, happiness is both what men naturally aim to attain and is their greatest attainment. It was this idea that shaped his ethical theories as he formulated his idea of values as the means by which to attain happiness. According to Aristotle, attaining perfect virtue is the means by which to attain perfect happiness. In addition, Aristotle’s theory of virtues sees virtue as a mean between two vices, one of defect, the other of excess. For Aristotle, then, happiness is seen primarily as a state of equanimity rather than one of passionate pursuit of pleasure as, for instance, the hedonist might claim. Most of the specific content of these values that Aristotle claims as leading to the greatest happiness are, much like his assertions about happiness as man’s highest end which begin his ethical theories, little more than attempts to articulate and provide a justification for the conventional values of his time. This is the greatest point of weakness in his ethics, and in his philosophy as a whole, and the point from which he has been criticized by feminists and can be seen as fundamentally flawed in the light of a multicultural perspective.

Aristotle, like most Greek men of his time, was possessed of a prejudice which saw the values, beliefs, and ways of his own time and place as the best and the norm by which all others were to be judged. It is this prejudice that in large part inspired and informed the Greek disdain for non-Greeks as “barbarians” who, according to Aristotle in his Politics, lack the capacity for reason and are intended by nature to be slaves ruled by the Greeks. This presupposition on the part of Aristotle exposes him to an attack for which he seems to offer no good answer, in spite of some rather haphazard attempts, namely the question of why we should prefer the Greek values of Classical Antiquity over any other set of values from any other time or place.

Although the two were certainly unfamiliar with each other, Aristotle’s Chinese contemporary or near-contemporary, Chuang Tzu, offers just such a critique of a similar set of ideas to Aristotle’s, as found in Confucianism, in his writings. Just as Aristotle assumed the values and norms of contemporary Greece were the standard and perfect values and norms, Confucius made the same assumption about the values and norms of China, even identifying them with the Way of Heaven, the eternal order of things. The Taoists, including perhaps most notably Chuang Tzu, opposed this Confucian idea with the belief in and practice of a radical renunciation of social expectations and cultural mores. For the Taoist, it was in fact a rejection of conventional values that allowed one to discover and faithfully follow the Tao, or eternal order of things. In other words, in contrast to the Confucian and Aristotelian identification of a certain set of cultural values as eternal values, for the Taoists renouncing the values of one’s culture was among the first steps toward discovering and following the eternal values.

Many thinkers, especially among feminists, have also seen much that is lacking in Aristotle’s ideas and offered criticism of them on similar grounds. Eve Browning Cole, for example, sees Aristotle’s ideas regarding a perfect society as resting essentially on the exploitation of women and other marginalized groups as laborers while freeing a minority of aristocratic men for a life of the mind, which Aristotle views as the only fully human life. She concludes that although Aristotle’s belief that slaves and women lack reason and therefore lack the ability to function in a fully human way contradict other elements in his philosophy and reveal an inconsistency in his thought, it was necessary to the social order that he sought to justify to continue the subjection and exploitation of women and slaves. In essence, Aristotle’s thoughts on women and slaves are question-begging at its worst: women and slaves are seen as ignorant and lacking in reason, which assessment is, in turn, used to justify the status quo practice of denying them the very education and leisure time to apply that education that would correct their deficits in knowledge and reasoning.

I think perhaps the greatest counterargument to and undermining of the thought of Aristotle, and in fact of the Greco-Roman world in general, is the thought of the early Christians. Although they adopted the word and idea eudemonia, the state of happy equanimity which Aristotle had set as the aim of his ethics, the early Christians found this state in a very different set of values. Using the word makarios, a word Aristotle also uses occasionally in his Nicomachean Ethics, rather than eudemonia, for instance, the Gospel of Matthew (5:3-12) records Jesus exclaiming the happiness of those who are “poor in spirit” (verse 3), “meek” (verse 5), and “persecuted” (verse 10), a very different set of values from those found in Aristotle’s ideal of a magnanimous Greek aristocratic as the possessor of the greatest virtue. These values are, I believe, a set of values that have proven superior to those of Aristotle and the other Greeks of a similar mind both in their effect on human history and in embracing a significantly wider swathe of humanity and the human experience in their applicability.

Being polite to God

Ask this question: Does the salvation of the world truly depend on the letter that you are writing, the copper you are cleaning, the sentence full of wisdom that you are in the midst of pronouncing? Did the world not exist for millions of years before you said or did this or that? Will it not still live millions of years without your continuing to be a useful presence? So give it a chance now to enjoy your absence. Settle peacefully and say: ‘Whatever happens, I will not budge.’ Say to all those, visible and invisible, who come to disturb you: ‘I am very sorry; I am here, but not for you! …’ This is what we are always doing: suppose we are in conversation with someone and another person knocks on the door, you answer: ‘I am sorry, I am busy.’ If you are busy with God, you do not say: ‘I am sorry, go away.’ What logic, what common sense is there in this? It is not even a matter of contemplation, it is a matter of being polite!

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, God and Man, p. 106

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Triumph of capitalism, decline of culture

The southern attack on northern materialism was more difficult. Several historians have recently suggested that many ante-bellum northerners were themselves disturbed by the increasing materialism and selfishness of their emergent capitalist society, and turned in admiration to the gentility and ease of the southern aristocracy. There is no question that some Republicans, particularly upper-class conservatives, looked favorably upon the southern character. Richard Henry Dana of Boston, for example, admired the aristocrats of both North and South, and wrote his wife after a visit to Virginia that he had been favorably impressed by he “true gentility” of the slaveholders and the “patriarchal side” of slavery. He even told a Free Soil audience in 1848 that they should avoid expressions of hostility toward the South because “there is much to admire in the Southern character; there are some points in which it is superior to our own.” Young John A. Kasson had similar reactions when he visited Virginia in the 1840’s, and even William Cullen Bryant wrote friendly reports about southern life in the 1840’s, praising the civility and manners of the aristocracy and their genteel charm.

Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, pp. 67-8