Aristotle’s Ethics in the Poetry of Joy Harjo

I like serendipity, especially serendipity in ideas. Today I was reading Prufrock, an email newsletter of sorts on arts and letters (I look forward to seeing it land in my inbox every morning – highly recommend subscribing.) The author, Micah Mattix, was talking about how he has finished a series of lectures on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I tend to frame the world as Aristotle did, so I will probably listen to the lectures too when I can find the time.

Anyhow, it was Mattix’s take on friendship in Aristotle’s ethics that intrigued me:

The final two [lectures] treat friendship and action. Friendship according to Aristotle is the “most necessary” virtue. I won’t go into Aristotle’s types of friendship (those founded on utility, pleasure, and virtue), but I appreciated his view that friendship is one of the foundations of civilization. It is what binds a city together. We see this idea in classical and modern literature, too. Friendship and hospitality (which is welcoming a stranger as a friend) are quintessentially human attributes in The Odyssey, for example, which are not shared by the gods or the sub-human cyclops. These two ideas—that friendship is the basis of civilization and a touchstone of humanity—are also found in Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Friendship,” which is obviously drawn from classical sources. Whatever “delights in solitude,” Bacon writes, “is either a wild beast or a god. For it is most true, that a natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.” It’s not that solitude is bad or unnecessary. It is that to live only in solitude is to live a sub-human life. Without friends, Bacon continues, the “world is but a wilderness.”

It seems to me that we’ve lost this high view of friendship as an aspect of human identity, which we now regularly confuse with personality or view as a discrete construction of the autonomous will rather than as something that is composed of universal attributes. So, it is no surprise that our lives increasingly look like those of the cyclops. We live in caves, in fenced-in back yards, and “consume” each other—on television, in movies, on Facebook and Twitter. And because our lives (I’m speaking generally here about American culture) are ordered around maximizing physical pleasure, not virtue, they must end in suicide when the body’s capacity for physical pleasure wanes. The opioid crisis starts with this low view of human nature and won’t end until a grander view is recaptured, which I don’t see happening any time soon.  

This topic has been on my mind a lot lately. I was talking to my brother yesterday about how shocking the brawl at a Little League game in Lakewood, Colorado – not far at all from where I used to live when I lived in Colorado – was. Suburban Denver has become something of a poster child for a specific sort of violence, and it’s ultimately a collective undoing of friendship in the Aristotelian sense. (Though this malaise is wrecking havoc on our country and world in general.)

Aristotle would be intrigued by how often this undoing is centered around educational institutions and ordinary family life. These are what he identifies as the foundation, or building blocks, of society. Dysfunction in them necessarily scales.

Anyhow, I moved on to reading poems by the absolutely sublime Joy Harjo, who is the first Native American poet laureate. (Though some might argue that honor belongs to William Jay Smith. Harjo is a member of the Creek.) It had never occurred to me how Aristotelian in spirit some Native American tribes are, but that sense of things shines in Harjo’s poetry.

On the topic of friendship, consider this poem, Once the World Was Perfect:

Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through—
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life—
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time—
To now, into this morning light to you.

One of the central themes in Aristotle’s ethics is that the flourishing of a society begins at the household/family level, builds to the community, and then to the nation. Thus, it is impossible to have a sound democratic society without first having stable and flourishing families.

Now consider this poem, Perhaps the World Ends Here:

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

I love that so much: “It is here” – at the kitchen table – “that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.” Have you ever seen someone summarize so neatly why people behave like monsters in the age of social media, smart phones, and binge-watching dystopian garbage on Netflix? We’ve stopped making families, stopped gathering in love and goodwill, and thus have stopped teaching future generations what it means to be fully human.

And this poem, Remember, on the importance of family and friendship, also very Aristotelian:

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Remember.