Aristotle on Vacation
From the Meaning of Life to the Golden Mean
Twas a week of powerful rum punch and a commitment to disconnecting. The two go together well, although I gotta admit I’m not a natural in the pursuit of doing nothing (while my fondness for a good cocktail is something I tell myself I should monitor - after the pandemic, after the holiday, after the summer…). In general, my preferences in most things lean towards extreme moderation. I learned this week that makes me a born Aristotelian, an unknowing devotee of the philosopher’s ‘golden mean.’ I learned more about the latter between the punch and the pool.
What! Quoting Aristotle in the opening paragraph of a blog about vacation? How pretentious! Michael Schur’s How to Be Perfect: the Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, however, avoids all pretension and does everything in its power to demystify the greatest hits of Philosophy 101 – while getting the essence of their punch lines across. Not an easy task, but one he tackles with dizzying, demonstrative delight. He’s like a wise-cracking SNL comic rewriting the canon. In fact, that’s exactly what he is. The writer of several TV shows, from Saturday Night Live to The Good Place, Schur waltzes through a couple of thousand years of philosophy. He’s on a hunt for how to live a good and ethical life and finds solace in the number of (mostly) men who’ve worked hard to provide humans with a roadmap. His goal is to liberate their wisdom from the impenetrable prose they buried their genius in.
He does a remarkable job. He’s funny, relatable and eminently human (if a little too fond of cute digressions about almost anything). Husband, daughter and I lapped him up between laps in the pool. He lumps philosophical thought into three big “blobs” – Aristotelians, Utilitarians and Kantians - and then builds a bridge between contemporary dilemmas and long-standing moral conundrums, like the Trolley problem (remember? If you saw a runaway trolley rushing down a hill towards 5 workmen on the track, would you pull a lever to save the 5, sacrificing the single workman on the track you switched them to? Easy – most people say yes. But what if that one person were your son? Or suppose the only way to save the 5 was to push a very fat man into the trolley’s path to derail it? People start sweating here, though it still saves lives). If you’ve long flirted with wanting to read philosophy but got derailed by page 10, this is likely to be the most entertaining overview you’ll find.
Vacations are wonderful moments to mull philosophically about life while rubbing in the sunscreen or whipping up some guacamole. There’s nothing like removing yourself from your day-to-day rhythms and thoughts to get a better view of the whole. Doing it from the hilltop of a tiny Caribbean island (and yes, counting blessings) adds a glorious perspective - and some pretty kick-ass punch. Not to mention the nightly humblings, gazing at stars so bright and numerous they blitz all the mulling into irrelevance. And yet. Frolicking with philosophers, swimsuit-clad in the shade of the astonishing orange-blossomed Poinciana tree, debating the Trolley choice with also-horizontal daughter lying by my side, adds a piercing sweetness to the pursuit of enlightenment. Sun helps too (especially after the frigid weeks Bostonians call spring). After a couple of days, you think the turtles ceaselessly criss-crossing the garden are looking a bit stressed out.
My week’s most enjoyable book ties in neatly with any rumination of what in the world we are doing in our brief sojourn on this small blue ball. It’s a novel by award-winning author Anne Griffin, When All Is Said. An old Irish widower sits in a bar and decides to drink one last toast (one chapter per carefully chosen brew) to each of the five most important people in his life. It’s a glorious ode to imperfection, family and the wounds that each generation hands on to the next – indelibly painful scars coursing through blood lines, secrets and loves lost or denied. Good preparation for visiting mom next week for her 97th birthday.
Every family has their tales and torments. In mine, siblings seem to be the recurring challenge. They struggle to stay united. My mother lost her only sibling, an older brother, to the Nazi death camps. My eldest brother was my torment, and there were many times I yearned for a trolley to knock him from my life, until pancreatic cancer did it instead (I swear I didn’t pull any lever). He imprinted me with a profound suspicion of male power and taste for dominance – and explains a good bit of my devotion to gender balance. My kids seems to be reproducing the pattern in their own relationship and generation, despite (or perhaps because of) my best efforts at finding a golden mean between them. Just as my mother tried to do – unsuccessfully and repeatedly – with me and my brother. It feels like an imprint from generations prior, an incomprehensible emotional force which erupts from deep within their DNA, and leads to tears getting mixed into our punch.
Got sibling stories? You may appreciate The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett (you can tell what I do on holidays). Twin sisters grow up in a town devoted to reproducing generations of very light-coloured black people. After watching their father get brutally murdered despite his denial of his own blackness, the sisters try to escape their destiny. But each makes a very different decision about how. One sister ‘passes’ over and becomes ‘white,’ the other reluctantly returns home. The novel traces the impact of these choices on their relationship, their mother, but most especially on their daughters – who struggle their entire lives with the weight of wars not their own. Daunting stuff!
I’m becoming a believer in epigenetics, the increasingly validated theory proving the traumas of your ancestors get programmed into your genes. They can lie dormant, but often get triggered by current crises, eliciting reactions that swell beyond the storm walls of your consciousness, flooding you in dark forces you are completely incapable of understanding.
Tim chimed in with an excerpt from his poolside reading, The Journey of Humanity, by Oded Galor. He shared the theory (first put forward by Danish economist Ester Boerup) that different cultures’ choice of the hoe vs. the plough impacted gender roles centuries later. If they adopted the plough (influenced by soil requiring animals), the work was heavy and required upper body strength more common in men, precipitating a separation in gender roles. If soil and crops favoured the hoe, men and women shared agricultural labour more equally. This, Galor argues, had (among other forces) a profound cultural impact in differing attitudes to women in the workforce (and politics) hundreds of years later as countries moved into the industrial age. Social attitudes set in cultural concrete through historic agricultural practices.
Whether we are trying to gender balance the world, heal our familial wounds, or build agreement on the ethical foundations of a good life, we are working on ground riddled with complexity, trauma and tribes. We aren’t likely to sort it in any lifetime, no matter how much punch we throw at it. But a week staring at the stars, or embracing Aristotle, helps nudge us towards our own golden mean.
Mine? Do the best you can, most days, for most. Forgive yourself the rest. Have some more punch. Yours?