Sunday, October 21, 2012

Aristotle visits Dublin: Some Highlights from Oakridge Philosophy Class's 9 Week Midterm

At Oakridge, my Philosophy class has been stretching their minds to understand the many metaphysical conundrums found in Aristotle’s highly complex system of ideas.  At times, Aristotle sounds like a hard-nosed, anti-Platonic physicalist; at other moments, his philosophy ventures into transcendental territory not too far removed from that which Plato explored decades before at his “otherworldly” Academy. More recently, we talked about Aristotle’s moral philosophy, and like his Metaphysics, Aristotle’s moral outlook is best described as teleological in nature. In other words, the morally good life is one that is goal-oriented and purpose-driven.  Every human act - according to Aristotle - is performed for some purpose, and that identified purpose is what makes the act “good” morally speaking.  

For Aristotle, the “examined life” constantly poses the following question: “what are you living for?” Donald Palmer in Looking At Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter expresses Aristotle’s point well: 

Either the totality of our acts is an infinitely circular series (we get up in order to eat breakfast, we eat breakfast in order to go to work, we go to work in order to get money, we get money so we can buy food in order to be able to eat breakfast, etc., etc., etc.) - in which case life would be a pretty meaningless endeavor - Or there is some ultimate good toward which the purposes of all acts are directed. If there is such a good, we should try to come to know it so that we can adjust all our acts toward it in order to avoid that saddest of all tragedies - the wasted life. (75) 

If you’re living solely in “the actual now” and not thinking about the more meaningful potential ends, your life is morally deficient in some sense.  Breakfast, work, money, these things are not valuable ends in themselves; they only have value in relation to other similarly less inherently valuable things (work has value in relation to money, or money has value in relation to breakfast...) Happiness, says Aristotle, is that one end toward which acts may be directed where happiness qualifies as a “good” end for its own sake.  But what is happiness? To this, Aristotle posits the virtuous life which acts in conformity with reason, and virtue here is being able to function excellently both intellectually and morally in all situations and dilemmas. Intellect is attained through education, he says, while moral effectiveness is only achieved through constant practice to act always according to “the golden mean of moderation.” (Wow, there’s a lot to unpack in the last few sentences, but I want to move towards our central focus for the present posting...)

Aristotle makes another interesting point when discussing the path of the morally good life. He emphasized that certain material conditions must be met for such self-realization to be possible. He mentions friends, wealth, origins of birth, physical characteristics, one’s role in society, to name just a few such conditions.  The choice to live the good life, therefore, becomes highly problematic and complex when one takes seriously certain environmental factors.  This is why the “good life” seems more attainable in Athens than say Northern Europe of the same period. 

My question is this: what happens when we consider Dublin? (Specifically, Dublin at the dawn of what Eric Hobsbawm called “the age of extremes” - an age when “the golden mean of moderation” seems far from the behavioral norm)

Thinking about Donald Palmer’s above quote, were the characters of Dubliners trapped in a morally deficient cycle of nearly purposeless decision-making? 

Should we consider Aristotle’s caveat about the necessity of certain material conditions being met for moral self-realization to even be possible?

This week, at The Oakridge School, we posed these very questions and wrote down some thoughts. Here’s some highlights (and PLEASE add your own thoughts...):

David R. on “Araby”:

In the story of “Araby,” the boy follows the Aristotelean moral philosophy. He is extremely goal oriented; he wants to get the girl. Mangan’s sister is his “virtuous goal” for achieving happiness. For him, their love would break the cycle of walking alone, not talking to her, eating, sleeping, and so on...

In order to achieve this love, according to Aristotle, certain material conditions must be met. Confidence is necessary to talk to the girl, [but]... he falls short in the area of having riches... In fact, he tries to show that he has riches by traveling to an exotic bazaar to buy a gift for this girl...

Lukas G. on “Araby”:

In Dubliners, we see people reaching for or desiring happiness, but the material and physical conditions are deficient to non-existent. The boy in “Araby” does not have a “good” family in the sense of allowing him to pursue his goal of love. Also, the love he feels is not “virtuous” in the way that Aristotle uses the word because his wisdom is too primitive at his young age to realize the intellectual virtue of this love...

Daniel C. on “Araby” and “A Little Cloud”:

“Araby’s” narrator is perhaps the closest to Aristotelean happiness. He has a singular goal in the course of the story... He gives his life a certain purpose in his quest to go to the mystical Araby and bring back a treasure. Yet due to his low power of action and own interior conflict, he is unable to achieve any happiness, instead receiving “anguish and anger.”

Little Chandler of “A Little Cloud” has seemingly searched for happiness (in various ways) for his entire life but has been let down by circumstances.... An example of Little Chandler’s (and his wife’s) pursuit of happiness is the anecdote of the blouse that he bought for her. In saving to buy it he thought he had found a true means to happiness, but because he could have spent the money elsewhere his wife is angry. Not unlike the symbol of “the eyes” for his wife, the blouse anecdote represents their marriage in nutshell - the hopeless pursuit of an ideal through common, corrupted means.

Maren M. on “Eveline”:

Had Aristotle been able to read Joyce’s short story “Eveline” he would have realized long before the story’s end that Eveline was doomed to be unhappy. According to Aristotle, happiness is derived from a goal oriented life, something Eveline clearly lacks. While Eveline is debating whether or not to flee with Frank she reveals the mundane cycle of her life to the reader. She is a shop girl forced to care for her abusive father after the deaths of her mother and favorite brother. It is her lack of any goal for her life that makes her want to leave with Frank....

Eveline’s choices would not be virtuous to Aristotle because they both lay on opposite ends of his moral spectrum. Her sudden decision to leave with Frank is foolhardy, while her sudden decision not to leave with him is the result of cowardice. Eveline swung from “excess” to “deficiency” without arriving at her mean, courage...

Bessie B. on “Eveline”:

Dubliners, especially the story of “Eveline,” shows how when certain needs are missing, happiness cannot be attained.... Eveline has fallen into a cyclical life. She works, cooks, gives her money to her father, and prays that she isn’t beaten every day. Her only “goal” is to keep her father sated... However, when she is offered a way out, her lack of a goal leaves her stranded on the docks, rather than with her lover.

In Eveline’s defense, material conditions were never given to her... Her mother died when she was young, and her brother fled Dublin, leaving her to struggle to survive. Perhaps worst of all, according to Joyce, she has been born in Dublin, a city that seems to paralyze anyone and everyone who inhabits it.

Ben F. on “Eveline”:

The main problem with the characters of Dubliners from an Aristotelean standpoint would be threefold: their lack of philosophical knowledge, their lack of material wealth and good standing, and their lack of a goal.

Eveline cannot decide because she didn’t have a clear concept of love, family, duty, country, patriotism, etc., etc. If she had had a clear concept of love, it might have been easy for her to leave her father.... From this lack of knowledge comes a lack of a goal, and she can’t decide what to do because, like the reader, doesn’t have enough information.

One could ask how an abused, working-class girl would have the time or capacity to question what she knows... Perhaps that’s what Aristotle meant when he said one must have some wealth to be happy...

Lejla K. on “Eveline”:

In Dubliners, each story ends very ambiguously. Readers never truly know whether or not the characters live happily ever after. What is clear to the readers, however, is that Eveline has been living her life day by day with a humdrum routine.... At one point in the story, readers do feel that Eveline is going to finally make a change in her life, but when she doesn’t act, she leaves not only herself without a conclusion but readers as well.

Aristotle’s ideals on achieving happiness helps one understand why Eveline doesn’t necessarily get a happy ending.  She doesn’t really have any friends, and she doesn’t live a very luxurious life. Also, Eveline doesn’t have a goal to help her carry on. She is scared of the change most likely because she doesn’t know any better. All she’s ever known is to have to care for her father while experiencing the loss of everyone she’s loved - specifically her mother and favorite brother...

Caitlin W. on “Eveline”:

Many of the characters in Dubliners don’t have what Aristotle says one must first have in order to be happy... Eveline, for instance, many of her friends have left; she isn’t particularly rich, and she doesn’t really even have the power to make decisions about her own life.  Aristotle also says one must have goals in their life. Eveline seems to have had one, to leave and start over, but she can’t make up her mind if she wants this goal or not.

Taryn S. on “Eveline”:

Eveline is stuck in an unhappy life, one where she is fearful of change and of making choices. Aristotle’s moral philosophy relates to Eveline’s position, for if one never makes any choices, one can never meet a goal. Because Eveline doesn’t make a clear choice for herself, her life becomes a meaningless feat, a life wasted... She was afraid of change, afraid of her life crumbling away into something worse, and in this, she set aside the search for happiness.

Jonathan C. on “Eveline” and “Araby”:

An obvious example of a character who does not have direction in their life is Eveline. She even has an opportunity to give her life direction and meaning; in the end, however, Eveline does not make a choice, does not give her life direction, and lives a meaningless life... The boy from “Araby” tries to give his life direction, but his goal is too short term.

Joyce’s portrait or Dublin as a bleak, hopeless place also makes it a place where Aristotle would say that there is little means for having direction... Most have little money, little satisfaction, no power, and I would assume that all perform some kind of labor-related job. Aristotle may say that they are incapable of happiness.

Landry L. on “Eveline,” “After the Race,” and “Araby”:

The failure of many characters in Dubliners seems to be due to their inability to reflect upon themselves and break from the repetitive cyclical life they lead by deciding upon goals. Eveline has not choice which will lead to her happiness. She could either stay in Dublin or leave it, and either choice could bring happiness if they were the culmination of a goal. Eveline’s failure is that she has not reflected on her own life and set goals for her own happiness, an is instead making decisions without much thought or reflection...

Aristotle’s view that certain material conditions must be met in order to achieve happiness manifest itself in Dubliners as the city of Dublin itself.... Since Dublin so holds down its citizens materially speaking, none are able to achieve happiness... But Joyce can read in a way that strongly rejects Aristotle’s elitism in favor of the idea that happiness truly comes from the self, without requiring material plenty. In “After the Race,” the protagonist, though not lacking in money, is certainly not happy.... The closest to happy we see is the young boy from “Araby.” He sets a goal and overcomes many obstacles to achieve it, despite being of low means. Ultimately, the young boys fails in his goal because of himself, his disillusionment and fear.

Adam S. on “After the Race”:

Jimmy of Joyce’s “After the Race” is a prime example of a failure of an individual to live in accordance with Aristotle’s definition of virtue... Jimmy possesses sufficient wealth (although it is technically his father’s); his father is a respectable individual, [and] he certainly does not perform manual labor... and has numerous companions of superior stock and quality. But he lacks influence and control much like the Irish nation he represents. Jimmy is without any objective other than a more perverted (or “deficient”) pursuit of happiness... [H]e lacks a legitimate reason to exist as he is unable to rationalize a proper conduct for happiness. He vies to emulate his old money companions and flaunts what wealth he has. When that is lost, so too shall be every other basis for happiness, save his familial origin of birth. Whatever should happen to Jimmy, he shall always retain his past, but what is the past without an objective for the future?

-I love the last comment. In Aristotelean terms, what value or meaning can we give to a set of material causes - for a given act - if the final cause remains out of view?

Nathaniel P. on “After the Race”:

I believe Aristotle would be most disappointed with Jimmy from “After the Race.” Jimmy has everything going for him: he is relatively wealthy and from an newly prominent family; he’s attractive and has influential friends. However, he squanders his prospects. He wastes his time at Cambridge, makes no investments in a career and ultimately seems to have no direction in life, content to “go with the flow.” This lack of direction is contrary to what is held as “good”  by Aristotle’s moral theory and is made only more disappointing by the fact that the character has the means but chooses to squander them.

Thomas M. on “After the Race” and “Two Gallants”:

Throughout Dubliners, many characters fail to find meaning or happiness because they do not set goals for themselves and are unable to actively set themselves free... The main character of “After the Race” is a good example of a purposeless, meaningless life. Although he has the material conditions needed, he cannot escape being dragged into the cycle of impressing wealthy friends and losing money. He is even encouraged to scrounge his youth on meaningless activities by his father and cannot therefore set for himself a goal.

Ironically, the only characters achieve their goals are ones that would be considered despicable. The “two gallants” are to make easy money and by the end of their story have succeeded brilliantly. Aristotle would not see their acts as virtuous, however, because they lack what he calls “practical wisdom.”

Justin W. on “After the Race” and “A Little Cloud”:

It seems that the paralysis of the characters in Dublin is a “lack of goal setting” that keeps the Dubliners from experiencing happiness in life. Little Chandler doesn’t do much besides working and caring for his family. He doesn’t much to better himself, however, which keeps him from the happiness he sees in the man he meets up with (Gallaher). When he goes home he sees his family and realizes that the dreams or goals he had cannot be achieved because of the limitations he put on himself...

The protagonist in “After the Race” forgets about bettering himself and instead tries to act happy to impress his French friend.  He also does not use moderation as he spends all his money in one night. He says he will pay the price tomorrow, which just reinforces the idea that he is living very circularly.

Charles H. on “A Little Cloud” and “The Dead”:

In “A Little Cloud,” Little Chandler struggles mightily to find fulfillment and happiness. He has a steady job, a wife and child, at least one “good” friend (Gallaher), yet he can’t help but be unsatisfied. He yearns for more (i.e. poetry). Aristotle’s prerequisite material conditions are especially apparent in “A Little Cloud” in the contrast between Little Chandler and Gallaher. Gallaher is fulfilled; Chandler is not. Gallaher went to England; Chandler is trapped in Ireland. This sentiment is echoed in “The Dead” when the party guests are discussing renowned singers of past and present. During the discussion, the comment is made that it seems as though fine culture has fled Ireland - that in order to attain the next level of “excellence,” one must go where the material conditions are optimal and therefore away from Ireland. 

-If the moral life is one defined by purpose, then there is great irony in the story, “A Little Cloud.” Chandler is perplexedly concerned with the moral depravity of the European capitals, but he does not recognize Dublin’s own moral deficiency due to its paralysis of purpose.

William B. on “Counterparts,” “Araby”:

In “Counterparts,” Farrington does the same thing everyday. He goes to work (making copies), drinks, comes home, and sleeps. His life is mundane and not oriented towards any goal. Most of the stories in Dubliners have protagonists that don’t really have a set goal. (In “Araby” the boy had a goal to buy Mangan’s sister a present, but he does not fulfill it.)

Roark M. on “Counterparts”:

The representation of Farrington as the corrupted man in Joyce’s story illustrates the “saddest of all tragedies.” Farrington is a man who hates his job and is terrible at it. His life seems to be a forsaken chain of events without any happiness other than the solace he finds a the bottom of a bar glass... Farrington does anything he wants in the story, with no thoughts of repercussions. By following his carnal intent for what makes him happy, (jeopardizing his job, pawning his watch) he only finds himself in a darker place than ever before... It is obvious that getting drunk and disregarding employment are not Aristotle’s ideas of “the proper function of the human soul.”  Farrington does not grasp that function, and he is chronicled as the epitome of the wasted life of Dublin’s crippling routine.

Trey W. on “Counterparts”:

In “Counterparts,” the main character lives the opposite of Aristotle’s ideal life. He has no major goals; he has a repetitive job, his family is poor, inhabiting the lower class, and  he drinks excessively, which goes against Aristotle’s theory of moderation. The only thing the main character has that fits Aristotle’s theory is his family, and he ruins that by being abusive.... It seems many of the stories in Dubliners show the reader how not to live the ideal moral life as posited by Aristotle.

Connie T. on “A Painful Case”:

In “A Painful Case,” the main character in the story is a man who lives a routine life. He lives each day the same way. In relation to Aristotle’s moral philosophy, he lives in a never-ending cycle of meaningless acts and that it appears he has not reached his full potential.  He does not appear to be happy with his life until he crosses paths with a woman. With a new development in his life, he breaks out of his routine... Mr. Duffy truly enjoys Mrs. Sinico’s company.

Mr. Duffy makes choices during “A Painful Case” that breaks his habits.... Mrs. Sinico is married to another man, which causes him to think that he has made the wrong choice. He then chooses to end his intimate friendship with her. I believe that the true reason behind his decision was not that he was feeling guilty or fearful of their close relationship but that it brought a refreshing change to his cycle and that terrified him... He does not believe that he can find happiness, so after Mrs. Sinico passes away, Mr. Duffy resumes his daily routine, eternally trapped in a tragic cycle.

-I wonder if Aristotle would see Duffy’s attempt to break the cycle as an “excessive” one - namely, developing a relationship that potentially could destroy a marriage. Does this explain Duffy’s disgust for the youthful “excess” he witnesses at the end of the story?
Adam R. on Dubliners in general:

The characters in Dubliners could be described as not living a balanced life in Aristotle’s terms. A general theme throughout Dubliners is the relationship of religion and society where religion seems to shackle the city of Dublin. Aristotle might say religion ironically works to keep dubliners from living the ideal form of the moderate, goal driven life... The Dubliners may have achieved one ideal form, however: the perfect dystopia... So perhaps Aristotle could have used Joyce’s Dublin as the perfect example of the opposite of ideal conditions for achieving the form of happiness.

What wonderful insights! Great job! Here’s some comments I’ve noted after reading all your fascinating answers:

-Is it impossible to live the purpose-driven, morally fulfilling life in the social space of Dublin? In Platonic terms, paralysis prevents the rationalist ascension towards transcendental enlightenment. There’s “no exit” intellectually speaking in the dystopian cave of Dublin. Aristotle might add that paralysis also prevents purpose, forever imprisoning its inhabitants in a cyclical rat race of disappointment that is their lives.

-Many of you mentioned Aristotle’s notion that it’s necessary to have a certain level of intellectual knowledge to live “the good life.” The contemplative life is closest to the path of happiness, but such a leisurely life also remains a privilege materially speaking. Many students mention Eveline’s deficient knowledge of love, for instance, suggesting that improved understanding of the concept would have made it easier for Eveline to leave. I suggest that it potentially could have made the opposite decision easier as well. (Did she really love this Frank character?)

-Some students made the observation that the only characters that achieved their goals were ones that we would also want to label morally despicable. Remember Aristotle’s notion of “the golden mean of moderation.”  Maren illustrated the point well when she described Eveline’s choices as being either too deficient or too excessive. The two gallants, for instance, live a life that strays far from the mean of moderation. This is why their life, according to Aristotle, fails to qualify as “the good way of living.”

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