If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad

A couple weeks ago, I read philosopher Jonathan Lear’s book, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand. If you are looking for a book that explains Aristotle’s philosophy in fairly straightforward terms, this would be an outstanding choice. Though I would obviously recommend reading Aristotle himself first.

Perhaps it is my Roman Catholic background, but I have considered Aristotle to be the authority on a life well-lived for as long as I can remember. (In the Catholic Church, Aristotle is regarded as The Philosopher, and was the subject of much scholastic criticism.) All this is to say, there are not many people who can make me view Aristotle through a different lens because Aristotle is the language my brain is programmed in. But Lear accomplished that, or at least made my code more efficient.

In his discussion of Aristotle’s Ethics, Lear says something that has stuck with me for a while: Ethics is not about adhering to an arbitrary set of rules. Ethics is about the proper organization of desires.

This is antithetical to the way we talk about ethics in modern society, mostly because we don’t care about establishing a metaphysical foundation for any beliefs nowadays. What is ethical is mostly a function of who is in power rather than what is good from an eternal perspective.

All of Aristotle’s philosophy comes down to his concept of the life well-lived as a sort of flourishing (the Greek εὐδαιμονία, sometimes poorly translated as the passive term “happiness,” rather than flourishing).

If you are living an ethical life, your desires are properly organized and that supports flourishing in a personal and social context. The logical corollary is that having desires that are in disarray makes you miserable.

A dear friend of mine who is gifted at needlepoint sent me some photographs recently of her latest (gorgeous) project, which involves stitching out the Ten Commandments. She told me that she thinks every family (within the Judeo-Christian wisdom traditions, I assume) should have the Ten Commandments on display in their house.

That remark had me thinking about how many people nowadays would perceive posting the Ten Commandments anywhere, even in one’s personal space, as inhospitable or archaic. Certainly most liberal Christians prefer some gooey caricature of Jesus in the New Testament to the legalistic notion of religion the Ten Commandments present. Lost is any concern that this was the actual cultural landscape that the real persona of Jesus was born into. They would like to think he obliterated the Commandments both literally and figuratively. Or, from a metaphysical perspective, they would like to believe that it doesn’t matter how you live – if you have the “right” emotions about God, you will ultimately be happy.

But imagine if you looked at the Ten Commandments through the lens of Aristotle’s Ethics. Instead of being arbitrary rules to follow chucked from the sky by a terse deity, the Commandments exist to help you organize your desires properly. They are divine wisdom regarding how to flourish in the world. In other words, they exist to save you from yourself. They are not a cage, but a gift.

Keep a day for meditation and to be surrounded by loved ones. Be loyal to your spouse, because it is impossible for you or your children to flourish if you do not keep your family intact. Respect your parents, otherwise you will regret being unkind when they are not around and you can see past events with mature eyes. Do not covet what other people have, because the rat race leads to a dead end. Instead, appreciate the real life that you and your family have built. Don’t be an unreliable narrator because unreliable narrators are not welcome in decent communities. These aren’t tedious rules. They are solid advice on how to live well, and that starts with having your desires aligned. To have a good life, you have to want good things. You have to care.

I think our culture probably did regard the Decalogue this way, but it’s now a core assumption of postmodern society that there is no one path to flourishing. Based on that assumption, folks like to deny the validity of ancient wisdom on the topic. “Wisdom” has become synonymous with “rules,” and rules are oppressive. And we have an increasingly strung-out world to show for it.

Part of the All Souls Deuteronomy, the oldest existing copy of the Decalogue.

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