After years of doing it, I finally feel that I’m getting somewhat good at teaching Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  That might sound like a rather strange thing to say.  I’ve never struggled, of course, to articulate Aristotle’s thesis that the good life, happiness, is the life of virtue, or that virtue is the mean between excess and deficiency, nor that we form our character through habit or repeating virtuous actions.  I’ve never struggled to link Aristotle’s ethical conception of the subject to his account of the four causes, so as to explain why he would say something as odd as the claim that the virtuous life is the happiest life (why not the life of pleasure or wealth or fame or intense experiences or something else besides).

I’ve never had difficulty teaching these things.  Aristotle is quite organized and has the virtue of clearly stating his arguments.  No, I think teaching these things well is something quite different.  Good teaching of a philosophy, I think, entails bringing out what is unspoken and unsaid in a text; what is so self-evident, so taken for granted, that the thinker felt no need to even articulate it (and perhaps could not have even articulated it).  But that’s the least of it.  I think we teach a philosophy well when we animate or dramatize it, bringing it to life as something we might live and as a set of problems we might encounter in our own life.  In the case of Aristotle, this above all means making sense of his mysterious open pages where he matter of factly, without blinking an eye, claims that political science is the highest of the sciences.  Good teaching here entails bringing out the essential strangeness of this claim, how odd it sounds to our contemporary ears, how foreign it sounds, and then to show how this is not a madness of Aristotle’s part, but rather that the term has a very different meaning than the worn coin so many people use today when they evoke the word “politics”.  It then consists in using this claim is the master key for interpreting the ethical problem (for Aristotle) par excellence, using it to decipher the virtues (especially the surprising ones pertaining to conversation, humor, and righteous anger or indignation), and that Aristotle is above all talking about the relationship of the person to her or his fellows in the city.  It then consists of a sort of phenomenological archeology of the vices of excess and deficiency in each case, tracing them back to our affective responses to excess and deficiency when we encounter people who suffer from these excesses and deficiencies.  That requires dramatization and performance.

Today I laughed maniacally in class out of the blue.  I could be heard all the way out in the foyer.  My students jumped in their seats and said “what the hell, man?!?  Why did you do that?”  And I said, that is excess.  Look at how unsettled you all are!  That is his point!  Now apply it to the junky or the person in the grips of an addiction, or the child having a tantrum, or the glutton, or the humorless person who turns every joke made by another into a moral outrage or the pedant or the person without love or desire, or the person that who has no indignation when faced with an injustice or the person who is always “on” like Robin Williams in interview who dominates all the discussion with his jokes and impressions or the person who is a workaholic or who does nothing at all or the madman.  Think of all of these people and how you relate to them and react to them.  They responded, “how long were you planning that laughter, how long were you building up to it?”  A professor of philosophy, I think, is a special sort of chameleon that becomes each philosopher she is teaching, embodying it and making it a form of life for the time that it is teaching, rendering its problems and concepts present in the flesh of speech and the body.

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