A friend told me gloomily that he had no idea what he wanted to do when he graduated. I bought him a drink and told him about Alexander the Great and Aristotle.
By the time he was an old man, Aristotle knew a thing or two about politics. He had witnessed the collapse of the once great Athenian democracy, and the myriad subsequent failures patched together out of its ruins, none of which quite had the strength to survive. His solution was the Lyceum, a school that trained young men to live well and therefore lead well.
He wrote an ethical treatise for his students, among whom was Alexander the Great, which argued that whatever character they wished to project upon becoming kings, they would have to practice all their lives. He explained that small acts of courage, like standing up for a friend, would prepare the spirit for greater ones, like going into battle. It followed logically, he said, that the harder the challenge, the stronger the character it forged.
Young Alexander was enamoured of the idea. He told Aristotle he was going to conquer the known world. Aristotle was not exactly impressed; his glory-hungry charge had not understood the full story.
Aristotle had wanted Alexander to practice a particular kind of personality; a happy one. Happiness he said, was the result of actions consistent with a set of virtuous principals. By doing happy-making deeds, a person becomes happy, and so do the people around them, meaning they become even happier. How did he, and subsequent philosophers like Kant, judge if a principal was virtuous or not?
By how much it helped the community.
Aristotle came to this conclusion with the following logic: whether the Gods exist or not, it is up to each of us to choose a purpose in our lives, for it is the act of choice that makes us human. Most people, when offered this choice, would opt to pursue happiness. This was something all the Greek philosophers agreed upon, but they each had a different way of getting happy. Aristotle considered all their ideas, and came to the conclusion that there were three main paths to happiness.
The first is a life of pleasure, the instant gratification of all our physical and emotional desires. But this soon becomes unhappiness because such pursuits invariably lead us into conflict with others in our community.
The second, then, is a life of learning, the endless pursuit of beautiful knowledge. But this too becomes unhappiness, for as we arrange our knowledge into ever more tidy sets, we stray further from real experiences, and thus further from the truth we were seeking. The third life, meanwhile, takes the problems of the first two and tackles them head on. Aristotle called it the “political life”, suggesting that if serving yourself or compiling knowledge makes us unhappy, then serving others and using knowledge would probably have the opposite effect. In other words, use the things that we learn about your community to solve whatever conflicts arise in it. Yet the political life is also the most difficult, with so many challenges to address. And that, of course, is the point. As he had explained to Alexander earlier, the bigger the challenge, the bigger the personality that comes out of it. You become a better leader through leading, the community becomes better for having a better leader, and you become better for living in a good community. A virtuous cycle ensues, as individual and community grow together. No wonder Aristotle wanted his young king to be happy.
My friend finished his drink and smirked, “so you think because I’m a cynic, that if you explain it to me rationally I’ll want to go and feed starving orphans. You think because I’m intellectual, that if you say some old Greek guy told me to do it, I’ll help you save the rainforest.”
“No,” I replied. “I was only trying to make you happy.”
Aristotle’s age-old dictum states “we are what we do”; to become great, we must take on great challenges. The epic magnitude of climate change should forge characters at least as great, if not greater, than Alexander’s. The parallel is forever being drawn between World War II and climate change, because nothing else matches the emotional and economic effort “total climate war” entails. Living through World War II, there was an acknowledged sense of history hanging over all. People were situated on a timeline, part of a lineage stretching out in both directions to the past and future.