by Tom McBride


Tom McBride


Aristotle can be put in the thick of the climate crisis. He was born fifteen years after the death of his teacher’s idol, Socrates, He lived during a time when nature had more predatory chances than even tofay. There were no cures for plagues and no mass relief for famines. Aristotle theorized that while the good life might be the advanced courses one could not possibly live it without the pre-reqs, and these included food, water, clothing, shelter, and sleep. 

He was never so foolish as to believe that one could live a life of happiness and excellence if one could get a good night’s sleep but had to go around naked the next day, or had fine togas but no water to drink. To think otherwise would be e like thinking you could do advanced calculus without understanding arithmetic or fly to the moon flapping one’s arms. 

     Still, Aristotle thought these were but pre-requisites. He understood that there’s a lot of moral luck in whether or not you have them. He would today be sympathetic to the idea that one cannot discover the higher things of life—moderation, justice, courage—if the desert is totally parched or the rivers flood the house on a daily basis. But it is both the necessity and the superficiality of these pre-reqs that cause all the trouble. The problem is that we confuse wants and needs. We want food and we need it. Bit how much of it do we need? True friends, it is said, do not leet true friends eat at Applebee’s. If you and I are ferociously eager to embrace the all-you-can-eat special, then we might be confusing the pre-reqs with the advanced courses. Just think of what we might accomplish if we didn’t have that buffalo wing stuck in front of our faces. 

     In addition to being an inveterate categorizer—already we have mentioned food, water, clothing, shelter, and sleep plus moderation, courage, and justice, and that’s just the appetizer—Aristotle was also a sort of self-help guy. He got that when we get to be a certain age, we start acting like Dustin Hoffman’s character in THE GRADFUATE. We feel pressure to have a plan. This involved—Aristotle got this, too—some notion of what are we good at and is it of value? These are so trite as to be nearly boring. You know: I’m good at tossing frisbees, but I don’t think I can make a living at it; or I’d really like to be an engineer, but I flunked trig. It gets a little better: I’d like to just become an Uber driver and read Aristotle on the side, but my parents would be disappointed in me. 

Aristotle wouldn’t have known about Applebee’s or uber, but he would know, for sure, that there are these incessant human questions about doing the right job versus doing the job right; and how hard it is to do the job right while also doing the right job. 

     So what about him and the climate crisis? Well, his attitudes are not imponderable. If a too hasty retreat from our current Ice Age, due to severely high carbon spewing into the atmosphere, threatens food, water, clothing, shelter, and sleep, then Aristotle would say that we’d better do something about that, since, once more, you can’t do the advanced courses without the pre-reqs, and drought is not such a hot idea if you need, say, food and water. He might add that if you are born into a climate crisis hot spot, you are far less likely to become the new Aristotle; or, for that matter, have the human privilege of wresting with the age-old questions of doing the job right and doing the right job. 

     But is that all he would say? 

     No. He might add something like the following: If this crisis is as critically devastating as some think it is, then one could do worse than to structure one’s life around preventing or moderating it. But why would you want to do that? Well, it could be a matter of both compassion and self-interest. Aristotle thought that justice was a matter of fair distribution. If anyone can pursue and live a good life, then everyone must have a requisite number of physical goods. We have bodies after all. If climate change threatens such a distribution, then it ought to be addressed and resolved. This is not really a matter of Christian charity or liberal yearnings for equality. It is just a matter of a just protection of the bodily pre-requisites. It is about that for Aristotle and not about romantic notions of the beauty of pristine streams.  Preventing the damage of climate change is not an end but a means to an end.  

      But what of self-interest? Aristotle would say yea to that motive, but it would not be a utilitarian self-interest—or not just that. It would be far more than “I want to save the Earth so that I can achieve my version of the good life in peace and prosperity.  Aristotle thinks happiness does not exist in the final product of a good life but in the ongoing process of living one. He thought we are what we do—today. Practicing good habits seems painful at first, but in time they get easier and then, one of these days, you can’t live without them. What you tought you desired you no longer need. And what you thought you didn’t want is what now you need and don’t want to live without. You would not want to live if you could not gain knowledge or learn from friends or apply the courage to do temporarily painful things for greater goods in time. Applied to climate change, you find, as a matter of ongoing process, that you NEED to acquire knowledge about the Earth, that you NEED to restrain your habits consistent with reducing a carbon footprint, and that you NEED the courage to speak out when all about don’t see what the problem is. But it is mot, really, to save the Earth. It is to save yourself. The Earth is merely the occasion for your pursuit of excellence and virtue. But happiness is not the arrival. It is the journey. 

     This is in some ways a pre-modern idea, perhaps strange to the ears of modern liberals. Take the pursuit of wealth. Say someone is quit4e good at making money and enjoys doing it. Where is the happiness in that? Is this not an unjust chasing after inequitable distribution? It could be. But that would only be if making money is the end in itself. If making money is the process of disciplined living, increased knowledge, opportunities for life-long friendships and exchanges, then Aristotle might well see such a life as one of virtuous happiness. Think Warren Buffet rather than Donald Trump. 

     This is not to say that Aristotle preferred oligarchies to other forms of government. Like many classical thinkers he wanted government to be run by the wisest, not the richest. But he also understood that there are many ways to have a good plan for a good life, many species of doing the job right in progression of the right job. There is the orator, the statesman, the lawyer, the carpenter, the poet, the doctor. But these different techniques (most of which Aristotle wrote about) are only occasions for living a good life. It is not being a good poet but the process of becoming one that makes one happy or not. Again, we are what we do. As long as one is alive, it is not too lae to change one’s habits to those of temperance and courage. It is not too late to stop drinking. It is ot too late to have that poignant discussion that you’ve been putting off but that is necessary to clear the fetid social air. it is not too late to drive less and walk more in order to save the planet. Well, it may be too late, to be sure, to save the planet. But it is not too late to save you. Not yet, anyhow. 

     These are the contributing features of Aristotle the humanist encountering climate change and recommending a planned life to us. But Aristotle did not start off as a humanist but as a biologist, and it was this that most separated his approach from that of the more mathematical and abstract Plato. Aristotle became a keen observer—and formulator—of natural categories. He assumed that nature would not us rational animals here just in order to fool us. Though he affected Alexander the Great very little during his famed tutelage of the warrior, Alexander remembered his old master and sent him species from distant lands for Aristotle’s study. It was Aristotle who divided nature into species, genus, and specific difference (cat/feline/domesticated), and ir was he who concocted a four-fold causation of material, formal, efficient and final. The problem with this side of Aristotle, when it comes to climate crisis, is to what extent a normative standard might creep into the analysis. It is obvious that a bridge is made of certain durable materials, takes on a certain form, is put up by bridge builders, and has as its final cause the enabling of various creatures to cross a chasm safely, or at al. Here a norm would seem both systematic and useful. If the bridge is made of crepe paper, for e example, it is made of the wrong materials. If it is made of steel but designed to stick up vertically all the time, its form is all wrong. No: a bridge must be a harmonious collaboration among four Aristotelean causes. 

     As great an early biologist and analysand as Aristotle was, an Aristotle confronting an overly-gassed Earth is a more perplexing matter. A bridge is “meant” to allow beings to cross the chasm, but is the Earth “meant”—in an exquisite harmony of four-fold causation—to support human life? And so is a violation of its atmosphere the breaking of some sort of natural law? Nature in its infinite wisdom has made women physically weaker than men. Does this mean they ought to be weaker? These are choppy waters. An Aristotle who thought women were half-finished humans might have also thought that there are inherently natural norms—that nature can show us what is right if we will only pay sufficient categorical attention to it. 

     This would be great environmentalist rhetoric: that we in trashing the Earth are in violation of some powerful Natural Law: reprehensible, as though we had just attacked the Mona Lisa with an assault rifle. But it probably won’t stand up philosophically, Just because the Earth supports humankind doesn’t mean it ought to, and through most of its existence it has not, Was the Earth “unnatural” during most of the extreme Ice Ages?Was that a four-fold collaboration gone haywire?  

     There is another approach to climate crisis and the philosophy of nature that comes from Daoism and from Laozi, who was Aristotle’s near-contemporary. This is a more pragmatic and relativist approach, not rooted in what is right or wrong but in what works and what does not.  Daoism broadly advises that our approach to nature be to go with the flow. And what is the flow? The flow is that ruling aspect of the world which everything becomes, and needs, its opposite. It is not the Other at first, but ineluctably It becomes its Other and the Other becomes It. The passive is not the active but then turns into it and cannot exist without it. This is not a matter of semiotics—nothing here about how we cannot tell X without Y as a contrast. No: this is the idea that in reality and not just in signs and symbols, It cannot exist without the Other. The wet cannot exist at all without the dry. This is not a matter of our perception but of governing reality. Accept the universe as varied but ultimately one. And so, yes, the Earth will burn but then it will freeze, and it is all the same Earth in the same universe. 

     This view of “It’s All One” may help us get through the depredations of climate change.  It has a good deal of Earth history on irts side. Aristotle, with his humanism of the good life and his implicit natural norms, would seem better to inspire us to action:  living a good life whatever the destiny of the Earth and trying to alter it to conform to a natural law, however philosophically spurious. 

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