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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.

When we’re 64

2 Mar

Men and women in the UK are still officially at their happiest when they reach the fabled age of 70 – and from 64 onward they’re gradually building up to it. A study of the Office for National Statistics’ wellbeing data for the years 2010-17 (the entire input since the surveys began) has confirmed what the individual annual reports have already indicated (see this blog, Feb 2016 ): it’s worth hanging in there till you’re in your late 60s, because for most people life gets so much better then.  With any luck the kids have left home,  you’re probably working fewer hours,  you need less money, and you may even have learnt a thing or two about how to live. 

old lady southwark

David Cameron, when he introduced the happiness surveys in 2010, remarked, ‘There’s more to life than money. It’s time we focussed not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing.’

Easy to say that, of course, when you’re so wealthy you can afford to shell out for a glorified shed a sum (£25,000) which exceeds many people’s annual income. George Bangham – a policy analyst with the Resolution Foundation, the thinktank which carried out the study – provides a useful corrective. The quest for wellbeing, he says, ‘should complement, rather than replace, priorities such as income redistribution, better jobs and secure housing. The data shows that there’s more to life than a country’s GDP, but that the employment and income trends that lie behind our economy can make a big difference to our wellbeing too.’  (Guardian, 13 Feb 2019)

OR as Aristotle told us over two thousand years ago (this blog, February 2019), ‘flourishing’, or eudaimonia, requires an effort of the human will –  and it isn’t necessarily easy to achieve it if you haven’t got sufficient money or power. 

Aristotle meets the Dalai Lama

1 Feb

Aristotle-Face1 Dalai Lama 2

Generally speaking, in spite of the fuss we make about its onset, January is not a month for happiness. Personally I’m not sorry it’s over. However, its early stages are often marked by discourses on the happiness theme, and one of them was provided by Mark Tully in Something Understood, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on January 6. This is the date when Christians celebrate the festival of the epiphany – meaning revelation or ‘bringing to the light’.

According to Tully the Dalai Lama (not himself a Christian, of course) believes that  the purpose of our life is to seek happiness – that the whole motion of our life is towards it. But is this a reasonable goal? Yes, the Dalai Lama replies. We can attain happiness by training our minds. Inner discipline helps us to transform our attitudes – our approach to living. We need to identify the factors in our lives that lead to happiness and those that lead to suffering, and then gradually eliminate the latter, and cultivate the former. 

Although I’m not in general a fan of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ idea, I’m really not disagreeing with any of this. I do want to be happy, and unlike some of the friends I talk to I believe that happiness is something we can work at. Some people have made the decision not to aim at happiness, and I respect them for this – it’s a reasonable and I think in some ways a moral point of view.  But most of us seek it, and this is probably a necessary thing, and possibly even a good one, provided it doesn’t lead to complacency (which I suspect is not something we can accuse the Dalai Lama of). But I do feel strongly that the pursuit of happiness is a personal endeavour – a product of the principle of individualism – and that it isn’t going to change the world. As a species we might even be better off without it. 

One reason why I’m inclined to favour the Dalai Lama’s views is that they seem to be quite close to those of Aristotle, although I do find Aristotle a bit more convincing. In the Nicomachean Ethics the philosopher argues that what distinguishes us humans from other animals is that we have a rational soul: our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason is our distinguishing feature – our ‘telos’ or end. So if we use our reason well, we are living well as human beings, and this is what our happiness (our ‘eudaimonia’) consists of.  Living well means doing something, not just being in a particular condition – it means pursuing those lifelong activities which will satisfy the rational part of our being. But Aristotle also makes it clear that in order to be happy we need other things as well – such as friends, money, and political power –  because our capacity to live in accordance with reason will be diminished if we lack these advantages.

“This gives rise to the question, can happiness be learnt, or acquired by training? … or is it bestowed by some divine dispensation or even by fortune?  Well, if anything that humans have is a gift from the gods, it is reasonable to suppose that happiness is divinely given … Still, even if happiness isn’t sent to us from heaven, but is gained by virtue and by some kind of study or practice, it does nevertheless seem to be one of the most divine things that exists.”    

(Nicomachean Ethics 1097b-1099b ). 

Does this mean that we also have a duty to be happy, as one of Tully’s other contributors – theologian Christopher Kaczor – was arguing? I’m afraid that it might, but for the time being I’m resisting the idea.  When you’re feeling depressed, the last thing you need is someone standing over you, saying, ‘Come on, snap out of it! You’re under a moral obligation to be happy, don’t you realise that?’ This approach, I find, isn’t remotely helpful.