Archive | November, 2020

Don’t blame Aristotle for Boris Johnson

18 Nov


Boris Johnson 2

You don’t get to choose the people who admire you, and the Greek philosopher Aristotle has inevitably acquired some unfortunate followers. He wasn’t best pleased with the later activities of Alexander the Great, for example, one of his former students. But that’s nothing compared with the disgust you might feel if you were revered by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Johnson’s perverse behaviour alone would have made him anathema to a thinker who saw rationality as the defining characteristic of the human race. But even worse, in my view, is Johnson’s invocation of Aristotle’s definition of happiness in support of some outlandish opinions on the work ethic and on health and safety regulations.

In a Spectator article of 23 May 2007 Johnson repeatedly attacked Gordon Brown, who was about to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister, for his Puritanism and his ‘worship of work’. Clearly, back in 2007, Johnson saw exertion and self-restraint as obstacles to our achievement of happiness. And, infuriatingly, he cited Aristotle as an ally in this shallow notion:

Every skill and every pursuit and every practical effort or undertaking seems to aim at some good, says old Aristotle, my all-time hero, and that goal is happiness.

Gordon Brown, he insisted, should stop inventing new taxes and read Aristotle’s Ethics instead.

How appallingly ironic it is that a man like Johnson should lambast one of his predecessors for a hatred of frivolity and aversion to risk-taking. The scorn he pours on the Labour Government’s health and safety legislation is particularly abhorrent, not to say prophetic. Rules about smoking, snacking, smacking, observance of cycle lanes, booster seats in cars – stuff all that, Johnson proclaims. Measures like these stem from a laughable control-freakery and ‘Puritan bossiness’.  Earlier this year he probably felt the same way about an early lockdown and an effective test-and-trace system: just sad examples of the killjoy mentality which his brand of Toryism sets out to suppress.

Johnson is at least quoting Aristotle correctly, more or less. The philosopher does indeed say that every skill, pursuit, effort and so on seems to aim at the achievement of some good, and the great majority of people agree that this good is happiness. But he goes on to say that what actually constitutes happiness is a matter of dispute. And Boris Johnson’s definition is quite at odds with the one Aristotle himself puts forward. As the ex-Tory-Minister Rory Stewart writes in the course of a blistering onslaught on his former boss,

Johnson’s notion of happiness seems a much thinner thing than Aristotle’s life of honour and virtue. It is more akin to pleasure, and insufficient to provide a rich, flexible or satisfying purpose to his political life.

     Times Literary Supplement, November 2020

Equating the pleasure principle with the achievement of happiness is neither disreputable nor new. But the adherents of this philosophy  – people like Epicurus, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill – tended to be sophisticated thinkers. Boris Johnson isn’t one of those – he just prefers having fun to working hard or showing respect for rules. Or he did. Right now he may be having a hard time engaging with the ‘risk, pleasure and bunking off’ way of life he was once so keen to promote.

As for Aristotle, he’s a complete stranger to Johnson’s belief system. In his ethics the philosopher argues that our possession of a rational soul is what distinguishes us from other animals. This capacity to guide ourselves by the use of reason is the ‘telos’ or end to which our essential humanity commits us. All of us have reason to one degree or another; but we have to train ourselves to use it well. If we can manage that, then we are living well as human beings. And by fulfilling ourselves in this way we attain ‘eudaimonia’ or happiness. As far as Aristotle is concerned, this doesn’t mean lying back and basking in our own cleverness.  Rather, it involves doing something – pursuing those activities which satisfy our fundamental rationality. Vitally, this means pursuing virtuous activities, and maintaining those activities throughout our lives:

To be happy takes a complete lifetime; one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or brief period of happiness does not make a person supremely blessed and happy.

 Nicomachaean Ethics 1098a

And, he adds, most of us will find it harder to live rational and therefore virtuous lives if we don’t have friends, money or political power. The use of reason isn’t easy if circumstances are against us.

I’m writing this piece the week after the UK became the first European country to record over 50,000 deaths from coronavirus. Reflecting on happiness in this situation may seem beside the point. But if Aristotle is right – and I suspect that he is – then happiness is probably still the end which most of us are seeking but are finding it increasingly difficult to reach. If only our PM had been a true follower of his ‘all-time hero’ Aristotle, then he might have realised a long time ago that the freedom to break rules has little part to play in a rational commitment to our nation’s well-being.