Intro. [Recording date: February 16th, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is February 16th, 2021, and before introducing today's guest, I want to share the results of our poll of your favorite episodes of 2020. I want to thank everyone for listening. I especially appreciate your kind comments about what EconTalk means to you. I'm so lucky to be able to do this. I'm grateful to Liberty Fund, Shalem College and the Hoover Institution for the support to let me do this and the incredible team behind the scenes of Rich Goyette, Amy Willis, Les Cook, and Katie D'Amour.
Here are your Top 10 Episodes of 2020.
First, two honorable mentions: L.A. Paul on Vampires, Life Choices and Transformation, and Vinay Prasad on Cancer Drugs, Medical Ethics and Malignant. They would have been in the top 10 if we had limited voting to people who had heard every episode.
Now, the Top 10.
Number 10, a tie between Yuval Levin on A Time to Build and Tyler Cowen on the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Number 9: Michael Blastland on The Hidden Half.
Number 8: Jay Bhattacharya on the Pandemic.
Number 7: Michael Munger on the Future of Higher Education.
Number 6: Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the Pandemic.
Now, the Top Five.
Number 5, Virginia Postrel on Textiles and the Fabric of Civilization.
Number 4, Glenn Loury on Race, Inequality, and America.
Number 3, Matt Ridley on How Innovation Works.
[Number 2 and Number 1:] And your favorite episodes of 2020--I'm honoring two episodes this year as your favorites, kind of cheating:
Steven Levitt on Freakonomics and the State of Economics, and Dwayne Betts on Reading, Prison and the Million Book Project.
The Levitt episode got the most votes. But, among people who heard every episode, Dwayne Betts was by far the biggest vote-getter. That split doesn't usually happen. So, this year, we're listing your favorite as a tie.
Russ Roberts: Now, for today's guest, author Leon Kass. Leon is Professor Emeritus at the Committee for Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and the recently named Dean of Faculty at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel. He's authored many books, including his latest, Founding God's Nation: Reading Exodus.
Our topic for today is The Life Well-Lived. We will draw on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and an essay of Leon's on the topic, "Human Flourishing and Human Excellence: The Truths of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics." This is an essay from an essay collection of Leon's, titled Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times. Leon, welcome to EconTalk.
Leon Kass: Thanks. Pleasure to be with you, Russ.
Russ Roberts: Where does the name Nicomachean Ethics come from? It's a daunting title for non-Greek speakers, I think. What does that mean? Why does Aristotle call it that?
Leon Kass: Nicomachus happens to be the name both of Aristotle's father and of his son. And, he has other works on ethics. This is the most famous. I don't know that he had in mind that this was somehow doing honor to his father, and giving his instruction to his son, but it does have that echo attached to a teaching which otherwise doesn't look particularly closely into family life.
Russ Roberts: Aristotle casts a very long shadow over Western thought. When did he live? And, say a little bit about his influence. We've talked in an episode with Mary Hirschfeld on Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages. He had a big rebirth and influence. So, he's kind of an important guy.
Leon Kass: Well, very. Used to be known in the Middle Ages as the master of those who know or as The Philosopher, Thomas Aquinas referred to him--not even by name. Aristotle was born in Macedonia in 384 BC; died, I think, 322, 321 BC. He lived half of his life in Athens. He was a student of Plato's; and unlike Plato, who was a student of Socrates and Socrates wrote nothing, Plato wrote nothing in his own name, but wrote Socratic dialogues.
Aristotle wrote what are thought to be treatises in his own name, on just about every conceivable subject: the history and the parts of animals, his logic, his rhetoric, his ethics, his physics, his metaphysics, and there are lots of his works that are lost. He really undertook to give an account of just about everything that was humanly thinkable.
His influence was, as you say, widely felt in the Middle Ages, not only Thomas Aquinas but also the Muslim thinkers, Al-Farabi and [inaudible 00:05:22] and in Jewish thought, Maimonides, picked up Aristotle and tried to produce syntheses between his thinking and that of their own scripture. And, he remains influential. I think his work on ethics, the one we're going to discuss, is probably the most famous work on ethics in the tradition, and people still read it now for what it has to offer.
Russ Roberts: What was he trying to achieve? What was his goal in this book?
Leon Kass: The goal in this book is--he's partly silently in controversy with his teacher, Plato, who addresses some of the same questions in The Republic, but that doesn't need to concern us here. He's basically taking up the large question. It's not asked straight up, but the large question is, how to live, and how to live in order to live well, or if you want to translate this, what's a good human life? What's an especially good human life? What might be the best human life? A subject that should be of interest to us. And, if we could lay out something about this subject, it might help the readers live better.
Russ Roberts: But, isn't it kind of strange for a modern reader to think that somebody 2,500 years ago, approximately, had something useful to say on this? I mean, really, come on, Leon. He lived in a time--first of all, he wore a toga, I bet. What the heck? Why is he someone we should turn to, in search of the meaning of life, or how to live well?
Leon Kass: Well, look, you begin by raising at least one of the obstacles that anybody would have today. I'm thinking that a dead white Greek--
Russ Roberts: Slave holder, I think, too?
Leon Kass: I don't know that he was a slave holder. He has, in the politics a defense of the natural slave, widely misunderstood. The natural slave might be such a category to call into question all conventional slavery. But, that's for another book and another time.
Here, slavery doesn't enter into this discussion. But, I think part of the argument would be look, times have changed, circumstances change, but there's certain fundamental things about human nature that might remain the same. The obstacles to living well, in terms of the passions that enslave us from within, are still with us. Whether it's fear, or excessive lust, or miserliness, or anger, or curmudgeonliness, these things are permanent possibilities of human beings, and he has something to say about how to deal with them.
And he has something to say about what some of the peaks of our humanity might be, in terms of fine character, in terms of friendship, in terms of the joys of learning and understanding.
And, I think the proof of the pudding as to whether this has something to say to us is to sit down and live with it for a while, take it seriously, talk about it with your friends, or talk about it in class, as I've done, or did for 20 weeks, four hours a week, probably a dozen times with undergraduate and graduate students.
They had to pretend that they were going to learn something from this at the beginning. But, all of them--I won't say all, but almost all of them found something really of value from studying this book and thinking about their own lives. I hope I can persuade your skeptical self of that in the time we have remaining.
Russ Roberts: Well, I have to confess I've never read any Aristotle. I did downloaded a Kindle sample of the Nicomachean Ethics, which I will turn to after this conversation if you convince me. But, right now, my full knowledge of Aristotle comes from EconTalk guest Mike Munger who likes to allude to him and your essay--which is quite beautiful. It does open me up to the possibility that I might learn something from Aristotle.
Russ Roberts: Now, we talk a lot on this program about human flourishing. That's a word that has a lot of potential interpretation. It's a little bit like happiness. It's what Marvin Minsky called a suitcase word--you can stuff a lot into it. Different people stuff different things into it. What did Aristotle mean by human flourishing?
Leon Kass: Well, this is, in a way, what is unfolded in this account. The term, and I use the term in reading the Ethics and in translating the Greek term, is eudaimonia. Made up of three parts: 'e-u' means well, 'daimon' is some kind of demon or deity, and the suffix 'i-a', ness. So, well demon-ness. Aristotle inherits this word from people who would say, 'Oh, a happy person is a person upon whom the gods treat well.' It's a person who prospers, because the gods smile on him and treat him well.
Aristotle takes this term, and Plato before him took this term, and tried to treat it really as the object of human aspiration. What do we all want? We all want to live a eudaimon life: we want to reach this form of flourishing.
I prefer flourishing to happiness, because in modern lingo, happiness cashes out to contentment, and it means having a good feeling about yourself and your life. Whereas in Aristotle's account, it's filled out as something much deeper and much richer. It is somehow the blossoming of the deepest aspects of our humanity in excellent form.
He gets at this by saying, 'Look, everybody says what they want out of life is to be happy, or to flourish.' But, it turns out, just as we now would treat it as a suitcase in which different people will fill it differently, Aristotle says people mean different things by it. And, you check the opinions of people, and they're all over the map.
But, if you don't want to just listen to the opinions, but you look at how they live their lives and discern from the lives that they lead, what they think human flourishing is, it turns out that basically, there are three or four lives.
And, this is in a way where--the point of departure is he begins by saying, 'Look, what's the good at which we all aim? Everybody says it's eudaimonia, it's happiness or flourishing. But, the many in the wise don't give the same account.' If you look at the lives that they lead, most people think happiness is having fun or indulging yourself in certain kinds of ordinary pleasures. The more refined people, the ambitious people, they say, from the way they live, it looks like they think life is gaining recognition or gaining honor, including honor in the sense of office.
And then there are some small group of people--we'll talk about them later--they think happiness is learning or understanding or becoming wise. And, 'Oh, by the way,' he says, 'there's a fourth kind of life. It's rather prominent. It's the life devoted to money-making. But,' he says, sort of tongue-in-cheek, 'that can't be the good life because money is just a means. It's a means to more enjoyment. It's a means to advancing your--getting more honor; or it takes care of the necessities of life, so you can enjoy your intellectual or artistic pursuits.'
So, they're basically according to Aristotle. There's three or four basic lives, and those sort of distinguish human beings according what the dominant passion in their soul is.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to review those. There's four--let me see if I can get it right. There's four types of people, four types of ways you might pursue well-being, happiness, flourishing. They are, 1. Fun, contentment, good feeling, good experiences, happy times, good stuff.
Russ Roberts: 2.--
Leon Kass: Honor, distinction, recognition, victory.
Russ Roberts: Right. So, this is the Adam Smith idea that man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely. Loved, meaning respected, honored, thought well of by people in your social circle, people you respect. This is clearly one of the drivers of human action: human activity in the world is to earn the respect of those around you.
Number 3. is learning, which is a rich term in and of itself, it doesn't just mean I think book--I assume it just doesn't assume book learning. It would include learning about oneself and one's place in the world.
And 4th is, we'll call it greed, lust, appetite--but for money, mostly in this case, right?
Leon Kass: There are appetites involved in all of them. They're all manifestations of desires. And, people are really distinguished by: What are the ruling desires of their souls? The desire for--the love of gain and the accumulation of wealth is a common life, not only in the ancient world that we had--
Russ Roberts: It hasn't changed, yeah.
Russ Roberts: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. But, we recently were talking, I was recently talking with Don Boudreaux and Michael Munger in recent episodes, about the fact that economists take preferences as given. As you say, we have actually urges for all those things--most of us do, all four of those things.
The economist tends to say, 'Well, this is the kind of person you are and you'll pursue this, and this is the kind of person you are, you'll pursue that.' But, I think what I was talking about with Don Boudreaux about James Buchanan, the economist's idea, and with Mike Munger about Aristotle and other related points is that: to some extent we choose our desires. We can decide. We can habituate ourselves to following certain goals and paths. We might have a natural desire for something; we might work at tempering it; we might work it resisting it.
So, of those four where we've got fun--I'm going to parody it a little bit here, sorry, simplify a little bit--fun, respect, learning, money. Whatever floats your boat. Whatever--just go out there and pick one of those and just do it well. That's not Aristotle's position, though.
And I assume he's going to encourage me to emphasize some over others. Why? Why shouldn't I just pursue in particular, the one that comes easiest to most of us, is that fun one. Don't I want to just have fun? Wouldn't that be good? Isn't that a good life? What's wrong with that?
Leon Kass: Aristotle is not a moralist. So, he's not going to condemn the life that you choose. But, he's inviting people into this book and saying, 'Look, do you want to live the richest--I don't mean, financially the richest--do you want to live the humanly richest life, a life that will exercise your capacities as a human being to the fullest? Do you want to know the best and the most complete life? Pay attention.'
And, at the beginning, he says, 'Look, this book isn't for everybody. It really--' In fact, he begins really by posing the great challenge to anybody offering any kind of teaching about what's better or worse. He says, 'Look, the noble and the just things vary from place to place so widely that people think they don't exist by nature, but just by arbitrary human agreement. So, basically, do as you please. And, in fact, the only thing that's common is that people love their pleasures. So, live the life of pleasure, high and low.'
But, he says, 'Look, young people are not fit here, as for this subject: they're led by their passions, they don't have much experience.' In order to be a good student of this class, this book, you got to be well brought up and already know that somehow the noble and adjust things are pretty good. You don't know why. 'Stick around, I'm going to show you why, and I'm going to show you why they're conducive to a really flourishing life, rather than a life that is of a lower level of contentment.' It's not an argument against the other. It's a demonstration, if you follow me along, you'll see that the teachings here--and he's going to give you a grounding of it very early on in human nature--the things that he's talking about, the excellences that he wants to cultivate, really release the greatest possibilities of human fulfillment in doing and making, in loving and befriending, in thinking and understanding that go to the core of who we are.
Russ Roberts: That's lovely. He says that happiness is activity, which is not a modern conception of happiness. What does he mean by that?
Leon Kass: Yeah. There's a chapter in which he tries to--he leaves the opinions aside and he says, 'Let's start in our own name, to say what happiness is.' He begins with an account that the human being has certain vegetative activities of nourishment and growth, and then there are the capacities to sense and to feel things. But, the thing that distinguishes the human being primarily has to do with things of the mind, and he doesn't mean just book learning.
In fact, there's almost nothing that human beings do, that isn't somehow suffused with the fact that we have reason and speech. Our very life is informed by opinions, our relations with people are informed by certain forms of understanding. So, somehow to live a human life means a life in which the human part is exercised and exercised well. And he reasons himself to this kind of formulation: the human good is an activity of the soul in accordance with excellence.
And that means being at work: not just having a virtue and not exercising it, but to human well--to human excellently using the deepest powers of our humanity fully--it's not enough just to have this kind of capacity, but it's got to be at work when you flourish. A basketball player flourishes only during the game. A scientist flourishes when he's doing his experiments, or writing his papers or thinking his thoughts.
It's in activity that we somehow realize who we are, and the contentment follows upon it, and the contentment is somehow colored by the activity. No one would want the contentment of listening to music without hearing the music. No one would want the contentment of friendship and never see your friend. You don't want the pleasure out of the bottle, you want the activity and the pleasure follows along. I think that's really one of the deepest truths of this book: To flourish is to be at work, who you are.
Russ Roberts: That phrase, 'at work,' is tricky, because I was reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins' line, I think I have it right, 'I am my work for that I came.' Which, I don't think he meant it the way Aristotle meant it; he may have. But, a lot of people think that the narrower sense of work, what I "accomplish"--the number of sales I make, the houses I build, if I'm a builder, the money I accumulate as a measure of what I've done, if I'm an actor in the commercial space--these are the things we draw our satisfaction from. We feel pride in our work.
And it's this kind of argument that causes me and others to worry about the idea of a Universal Basic Income [UBI], this idea that people would be able to be taken care of materially without contributing anything, without worrying about how their skills might serve other people. Right? There's a lot of different aspects to work, the modern sense of the word 'work,' in how we draw our satisfaction from it.
So, it's accomplishment, it's the use of our time, it's the serving of others. But, I'm getting from you that Aristotle sense the word is richer. It includes my inner work, my inner life, as someone absorbing ideas, and coming to understanding, and synthesizing things I've learned. Is that correct?
Leon Kass: Yeah, that's correct. The word that we translate into English 'activity' is, in Greek, energeia. It's a word Aristotle made up in order to--really made up in order to say what he wanted to say. Greek didn't have it. I don't want to be a pedant, but in energeia, the central part is E-R-G, erg, like in energy--to be in your work. Not your work as a tailor, although there is the activity of making clothes, which is satisfying, at least to people who do this as a craft. Anything in which you are fully engaged as who you are, whether it's in the arts, or in learning, or in parenting, or in befriending, where you are somehow expressing the deepest part of your being is a manifestation of yourself at work, not in the sense of toil, not in the sense of money-making. Those other things that we talk about, we take as external manifestations of the success of our work.
But, the satisfaction--if we're lucky; not everybody can be so lucky--but, if we're lucky, in the things that we love to do, the things that we really love to do, we find ourselves expressed to the work and the secondary gains, and the rewards that come afterwards, are really just secondary. The work itself is what's fulfilling for people who have the opportunity to express themselves.
And it's not just in what they make a living at, but they can express themselves in parenting, in love, in friendship. These are where we are, where our humanity is manifested actively.
Russ Roberts: That's really beautiful. I'm reminded of the episode with Azra Raza, where we talked about the art of dying: that people who know--we're all dying--but people who know that their end is near and face that with courage, and a sense of self, a sense of connecting with other people in that time, would be an example of the kind of work you're talking about that would be the non-obvious energeia kind of thing.
Leon Kass: Yeah. Aristotle is looking for the peaks in his book. He doesn't say very much about parenting and baking cakes and making meals and so on. In more democratic times, we could expand his term about activity, and its satisfactions to include the small things of everyday life, in which we do express our humanity in very rich ways. He's rather blind to that in this book. It's a shortcoming.
But, the idea of: To flourish is to be active, and not just busy and distracting yourself, but to be in those activities that express your character, your nature, your possibilities in a full and rich, and for him very important, beautiful way.
Russ Roberts: One phrase in English that captures a bit of that, but I think it's a bit paradoxical, is the praise 'to be in the zone'--to bring your artistry as, say, a basketball player, or a dancer, a performer in a musical, those are the obvious ways that we can feel that someone has literally lost an awareness of, they have a lack of consciousness in a beautiful way about what they're achieving. They've fully channeled their gifts or their essence.
When somebody performs on stage and exposes their vulnerability as a human being, even though--it's ironic--they're using the lines of an author, but they've thrown their essence into that character and revealed it to us, the audience, there's something extremely beautiful about that.
And at the same time, one would think that unconsciously doing that is not the full measure of bringing yourself--that at the same time, we might fail to bring our full self to a conversation because we're distracted, and we need to be, not in the zone--not oblivious--but rather focused on the sense of bringing ourselves. I think that's a real challenging conversation and an art. I don't have much more to say about it. What would you--
Leon Kass: Well, look, that's really lovely. I think the fullness of activity, when it goes swimmingly well--in fact, Aristotle would present, I think, this account, to be at work without impediment. To be at work without impediment, without distraction, without feeling obstacles to the full expression of one's soul. Those are things in which the activity and the agent are united. There's a line--I think it's Yeats:
O body swayed to music,
O brightening glance,
How can one tell the dancer from the dance?
In a really good conversation, time stands still. One is wrapped up in the thought of one's own, of one's partner, and one feels alive in a very, very rich way.
And, there are other activities that he will speak about. But, this is what it really means to be at work fully yourself without impediment. And the pleasure just follows. If you're thinking about the pleasure, you don't get it. If you give yourself over to the activity, that activity lights itself up in consciousness as it's going swimmingly.
Russ Roberts: Well, I love that phrase, 'without impediment.' I think, often, one of the challenges of modern life is, first is distraction. The idea that, 'Oh, I better cut this short. I've got to go take care of X. I've got to get this other thing done.' And so, I don't bring myself fully to the conversation, say, and that's an impediment.
Then there's the 'what's in it for me' impediment. A lot of times we go into a conversation, thinking, 'Oh, I've got to get this out of it; I want to make sure I make these points.'
The idea that to bring oneself to a conversation without impediment, without barriers is really a magnificent ideal.
Russ Roberts: Let's shift gears, and talk about a distinction that Aristotle makes between intellectual virtues versus moral virtues. I want to confess that all my life, I have been drawn to intellectual, smart people, high-IQ people, often who are not necessarily moral. But, I'm easily seduced by a good brain. And I find it--you mentioned in passing in your essay, a little bit of your own personal experiences of being attracted to people when you were younger who shared your values, but you now look for people with fine character. First, talk about the distinction between intellectual versus moral virtues. What does Aristotle mean by that, and why you changed in terms of what you value over time?
Leon Kass: Yeah, good. Let me do the personal part first, because it'll walk into it. I'm a first generation American. I grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home. My mother was a moralist; no formal education, but the most important thing was to be a mensch: considerate of others, do the right thing, and also live up to certain standards of self-command--don't make excuses for yourself, a certain sense of duty from oneself and to others.
And she told me, 'It doesn't matter how smart somebody is, or how many books they've written or something. It just doesn't matter.' So, I always grew up really with a focus on the moral side of things, and it was very out of fashion when I was in college. Nobody talked ethics at all. Positivism was in the air. Science was going to solve all problems of society and so on. The bloom is off that rose, but never mind, and ethics has come back, really now that we see we've got a lot of problems; and their problems are better and worse, and right and wrong and the like.
But, Aristotle is the first to--he says, 'Look, human flourishing means souling[?] excellently.' So, the next question is: What do you mean by excellent? Well, it turns out, he makes a distinction--he's the first to distinguish these things--between the excellences of intellect, and he will later discuss what some of them are: Scientific excellence, artistic know-how, practical wisdom, philosophical wisdom. Those are the perfections of the mind, of the intellect.
But the virtues of character, or the moral virtues or the ethical virtues--courage, moderation, generosity, gentleness, friendliness, truthfulness, wit, and one of the big ones that I discussed in my essay, greatness of soul--these are the virtues that have to do with our appetites, with the passions that could enslave us. Courage, dealing with fear. Moderation, dealing with lust and the appetite for excess. Generosity, having to do with the excessive love of money. Gentleness having to do with the danger of too much anger. Greatness of soul; and ambition having to do with excessive love, or insufficient love of honor and recognition.
There are a whole family of things. And, character for me, counts. C.S. Lewis has a nice line: he would 'rather play cards with a man who was very skeptical about ethics, but was brought up to believe that a gentleman doesn't cheat, than by a guy who could give you the ontological proof of the existence of God, but was raised by sharpers.'
Russ Roberts: A 'sharper' being somebody who teaches you to cheat at cards.
Leon Kass: Yeah. But, in any case, look, there's an initial disjunction between the virtues of character and the virtues of intellect. By the time he finishes, it turns out that the virtues of intellect need at least some virtues of character. You can't be drunk or on drugs all the time and do very well in physics. And, conversely, you can't really be ethically excellent in the best sense, if all you have are good intentions, but your judgment is terrible, and you're imprudent, and you can't see clearly about what the choices are.
So, at the peak, these things come together. But, at the beginning, it's worth distinguishing them.
Russ Roberts: When I was seven years old--I think I was seven, yeah. When I was seven years old, I threw a book, and my father saw me. It's one of the few times my father gave me a spanking. And so, books were sacred, literally sacred, in our house growing up. And I worshiped them, to some extent. The fact that I'm an author now gives me a lot of eudaimonia--is that how you say it? A lot of satisfaction and happiness.
I believe rationally that there are many things more important than being an author, but I do tend to idolize people who live the life of the mind. One of the reasons--this is a little bit of a challenge to the Aristotelian perspective, and the Kassian perspective, is that, the quality of character that the people around us have is so hidden from us.
Whether someone is a good spouse, a good parent, a good child to their aging parents, are things that are usually happening behind closed doors. People who are a mensch doesn't brag about those things either. So, they don't share those--my friends who are extraordinary people, don't share those things with me. Sometimes you discover those things, the acts that people do and the kindnesses.
But, it's interesting to me that one of the challenges, if we're going to leave virtue-signaling out of this calculus, which I would and I think you would, too--
Russ Roberts: Aspiring--to use Agnes Callard's word from her book, Aspiration--aspiring to be a mensch, aspiring to be a person of high moral character is a lonely task, to some extent. You might share it with your spouse. They might see you in action. Your children see you up close, of course. But, it's interesting that, to respect the people around you in the way that you're talking about is often difficult, because I don't see their moral CV [curriculum vitae]. I just see their career CV.
Leon Kass: I don't think, Russ, that's true. I mean, maybe in the intellectual world, that that's the case. But, I would say the following several things, and I want to keep Aristotle still present in this as well.
Russ Roberts: You don't have to. Go ahead.
Leon Kass: But, it's important, because his book, the primary audience for his book, not the people who are in Disneyland, but they're ambitious young people who want to do something prominent in public life. And, it's certainly true, if you leave the virtue-signaling and the people who are making platforms for themselves to be seen at a great distance: In public life, character shows. And, if you didn't think so before the last four years, you certainly think so now. We've had an example of what it means where people will be willing to overlook character to get certain results that they'd like. I don't want to say anything further about that.
Character shows in public life; and it's on the stage, even though people try to disguise it. But, character shows in all kinds of ways, not the big virtues of the ethics. You'll not see magnanimity displayed when you're dealing with the corner baker; but in all human relations, if you know how to look for it, and if you care about it, you will see it.
I mean, you'll see it if there is a dinner party, and you will see--and you have a hostess with a handicapped guest. If we ask ourselves, what are you supposed to do with a handicapped guest? Well, you talk about it a bit. You say, it's very simple, you try to be helpful without causing embarrassment. And, everybody can formulate the maxim, but there are only some people who really know how to do it. And if you've seen it done, and you've seen it done beautifully, you say, 'That really is very, very fine. That was just gorgeous.'
And we can see this in--if you care about these things, you can see it in a faculty department meeting. People's characters, and not just their opinions are on display. You can see how they deal with their students. And the students can tell the difference in a classroom. And you can see it whether somebody has intellectual courage to stand up when what everybody else is just going to go along, because it's easier.
No, the opportunities for the display of character in the fine, are just about every human encounter.
Russ Roberts: I'm reminded of a time someone I knew not particularly well, but someone I knew had had a child with some issues. It was not public what was challenging about this newborn, but it became known in the community that there was an issue. So, I went to make a visit to this family, and I was extremely uncomfortable. I was worried I wouldn't know what to say. In fact, I didn't particularly know what to say; and I did my best, but I don't think I provided much comfort. I just did what I thought I was supposed to do, and I don't think I did it very well.
As I was leaving the house, I saw the rabbi of our community coming my way heading to the same house, carrying an enormous bouquet of flowers. And he was beaming. I was just so in awe of that achievement--because there was trauma and stress that he was walking into. But, he knew that his role at that time wasn't to be a Pollyanna, but to bring some form of love, to be just simple about it, and affection and care into that room. I couldn't do that well, because I was afraid. I was inexperienced, also. I hadn't done it very much. He did it all the time, which, I'm going to take away some of the credit, but the fact is, that that's an art that is worth mastering, and I think that's an example of character that you're talking about.
Leon Kass: It's a lovely example, because what was impeding you was a certain kind of fear, a certain self-consciousness, a certain inexperience, and so on. And, if you could have mastered those things--if those inner distractions, in a way, and impediments are mastered, you're free from those impediments, and you're free for a kind of display of what it was you were hoping to go there to do, which was to offer support, encouragement, thoughtfulness, care, gentleness. And, in fact, I bet you do it better now because one learns to do these things, as Aristotle says, by doing them. It's the practice of facing these fears, or these uncertainties, which is the only way one gets experience in overcoming them and being able to do better.
So, the account of how the virtues are acquired is also really important. You don't make people better by talking at them, by giving them the right maxims. One has to have the practice of the activities in which one faces up to the things which are enslaving and learn somehow to educate them, and to elevate them and direct them in finer ways.
Russ Roberts: You call a habit--I think it's your language, maybe it's Aristotle's--an 'acquired freedom.' And I think that's an incredibly deep idea. We've talked on the program before about habituating yourself to good behavior. I alluded to it earlier in this conversation: that, we think of habits as things you're "stuck with." The idea that you could acquire a habit is an innovation in thinking about the human character. What do you mean, or Aristotle mean by that phrase--an acquired freedom?
Leon Kass: Yeah, look--a wonderful--the very first example of education to control your impulses, is toilet training. In the beginning, it's sort of against the toddler's grain. But, it's really nice not to have to regard that as a struggle. And for people who--Aristotle, he talks about a very profound human phenomenon, mostly connected with our love of sexual pleasure: People who know the good, but somehow, when the passion overcomes them, they sort of succumb. He calls that 'incontinence.' Well, the original incontinence, in fact, is, of when people lose command of that original toilet training. It's an acquired freedom: You don't have to worry about that stuff; you know what to do with it; you don't think about it.
The education of the child is really--if it's done: there are a lot of children who just grow up without being in a way reared--but the process of rearing through habituation, and praise and blame and reward and punishment, that eventually produces somebody who can, more or less take command of their own chariot and not worry about all of the things which would have been impediments to their going about living the life and enjoying the things that they are aspiring to do, that they're called to do, that beckon them.
Russ Roberts: Well, the idea that Dan Klein talked about in his episode on honest income, which I just love, was this idea that--it's not his idea, I think he was channeling Adam Smith, and I'm sure Smith was channeling Aristotle, if I had to guess. But, the idea was that economists tend to believe people do what makes them happy, or gives them pleasure or satisfaction, or our catch-all suitcase word is 'utility,' and we just use it to mean whatever floats your boat, whatever gives you a good feeling.
And, if you're not careful, I think you'll conclude that kind people aren't particularly good because, 'Well, of course, they're good. It gives them pleasure. They get pleasure from being selfless. Altruism is just a taste for them, like chocolate ice cream.
But, the point Dan was making, and I think it's an incredibly deep point, is that a lot of the moral tastes we have are acquired tastes. They are tastes we've worked at habituating ourselves to.
Self-sacrifice isn't pleasurable at first. But, it may become pleasurable if you work at it and experience it.
And I think that's an incredibly deep lesson about how to live. It's not easily absorbed. It's not easy to implement, right?
It's a nice idea. I've used it recently talking about finding a lost wallet: Do you want to be a person who feels guilty keeping the money, or do you want to be one who feels good returning it? And, if you're not careful, economists I think could badly conclude, wrongly conclude, 'Well, you don't want to have a conscience.' But, I think what Aristotle is saying is that, you can acquire a conscience. You can choose to have a conscience; and you'll be glad you did.
Leon Kass: Yeah. He doesn't put it in terms of conscience. He puts it in terms of--in fact, there is one really, really striking thing about his account of the virtues of character. He never talks about their usefulness to anybody else, even in talking about courage, even military courage; he doesn't talk about its usefulness to the safety of the city. He'll talk about these moral virtues as being for the sake of the beautiful or the noble.
That's unique to this book. It's unique to this book. It says if the moral life is a species of aesthetics, in which the goal is to make yourself--the Germans have a nice word for it, schoen, which means beautiful, but you'd also describe a schoene mensch, a beautiful human being. The aspiration is to make yourself a thing of beauty; and it is satisfying. You don't have to ask yourself, what comes of it?
It would be nice to be admired for it, yes, and people who have good taste, and they admire this, that's pleasing. But, that you've turned yourself into a kind of dancer in life, and dance finally in all respects of life, it's for its own sake. It has its satisfaction in itself. You don't return the wallet, because you'd feel guilty not doing so. You return it because this is somebody else's. He might need it. You're doing a good deed. It's a beautiful thing to do.
That's not maybe the way we're taught, but that's the Aristotelian take on this, that there's something--look, not everything you do in life has to be for the sake of something else. The whole notion of useful always points to useful for. If everything is useful for something else, what is the ultimate useful-for, that's not useful for, but is for itself?
Aristotle is trying to suggest that life is ultimately for itself, and it's to flourish in and for itself. So, you have to talk about things that are fulfilling in themselves, and not just what they lead to.
And, virtuous activity, excellent activity--and by the way, I have to correct the misimpression I gave before: the book finally celebrates not just the virtues of character, but the motion of the book is, by means of educating the reader to examine himself and his soul, to lead him to think that the really best life, the really best life is in fact, not the life of being a well-known citizen in town, but in fact, a life of learning and thinking and understanding of the sort that we're engaged in with his help in this book.
So, there is an invitation finally, to the life of learning, but which is also for its own sake, the kind of fulfillment that one would get from understanding something.
And, I think these are two different sort of peeks of what it would mean to say, when you've come to the end, not 'I've accumulated these and these trophies,' and not that 'I have so many people at my funeral.' But, 'I've been given this amount of time, and I've put myself into activity in ways that have been meaningful to me and others.'
And, if there's a bar of judgment, it's not that I'm going to be worried about being sent to heaven or hell, but I can say, 'I gave a good account of my time. I did something that was meaningful in itself.' It's not always useful for something beyond it. Otherwise, you're in an endless infinite regress of looking for the ultimate utile--what the heck is that?
Russ Roberts: My old joke on this program is the bar where it says Free Beer Tomorrow. 'Oh, great, I'll come back tomorrow.' The sign is still there. 'If I can just get this next contract, get this next sale, I get this next book, then I'll be content, because I'll have'--you know, the idea that your life--this sounds so pretentious; I have plenty of pretentiousness about me, but I don't mean this pretentiously at all. The idea that your life is an art form--and we talked earlier about dying; this is emphasizing the living part--it's a dissuader from too much time on Twitter, too much time watching mindless television.
And it's reminding you--Aristotle, it seems--that your time on this Earth is short; use it well; and here's what he thinks it means to use it well. And, if you follow that, you will come perhaps to agree with him. You want to say something to that?
Leon Kass: Could I add something? I mean, you and I, partly because we're democrats--small 'd'--and live in modern America and are trying also to make the case of the value of this for today and EconTalk listeners: We've domesticated and democratized the talk in ways that I think are perfectly appropriate.
But, I don't want to--I want to emphasize one of the things that Aristotle is also pushing us to think about, and it goes somewhat against the American or the contemporary American brain. And I think it should be, that strand of modern life should be leaned against with his help.
He's actually not just interested in 'I'm okay, you're okay' kind of self-satisfaction of artfully living our lives.
But, he wants us also to think about what we really would look up to. What would really be excellent and not just good enough. What would really be forms of human greatness and things which--we tend to be envious or disbelieving that there are really some people who are greater than others, or some things that are above us. But, in fact, to be in touch with greatness, to admire it, to really admire excellence, pays tribute also to the appreciator as much as it does to the ones who are excellent. It's like taste 'tis to genius. One Mozart, lots of Mozart lovers, the fact that we're Mozart lovers has done a world of good to us, to be able to appreciate it.
And it's important in the Ethics for him to go from common opinion about these things and really polish off some really splendid specimens. And when he takes you through what I call the Museum of the Beautiful, of the Virtues, he shows you a kind of refutation of the people who say, 'Aw, it's all relative.' He polishes off some of these figures, alongside the excesses and the deficiencies, and he's basically saying, 'Look, if you can't tell that courage is better than cowardice or rashness, or that moderation is better than being an ascetic or being a profligate,' or, you know, 'if you're--throw away your money or you're a miser, you can't see that a generous person is somehow superior,' there's something the matter with you. You're the equivalent of morally red-green colorblind.
So, he's showing us certain epitomes of virtues that, even if we can't reach them ourselves, we can lean towards them. We can admire them. The whole tone of life is lifted up by the fact that these things are appreciated.
We today could use more such examples and more of an interest in not just what's right and wrong, and who you should put in prison, but to talk really about elevated examples that young people could aspire to, and even see that they can appreciate.
Russ Roberts: And yet, in modern times--I'm fascinated by, in just thinking about how much, of course, of what you're saying is just embedded in our civilization. The fact that your mom raised you without--she didn't read Aristotle. She had a Jewish tradition, obviously, she was drawing on. And she was a Westerner, in some dimension, drawing on Aristotle without realizing it; and we're all in some ways embedded in that water. We're fish without realizing that we're swimming in these seas. Whether they're--some are religious, some are cultural, some are intellectual, we're talking about.
And yet in modern times, it's fashionable to tear people off those pedestals. They're not many people left on pedestals anymore. There's very little greatness. It's funny, Tom Brady just won his seventh Super Bowl. Our listeners know I'm a big Patriots fan. I was rooting for him. I love his devotion to excellence. At the same time, winning a Super Bowl, it's a zero-sum game. That meant someone else could win a Super Bowl. It's not like spending time with his kids, which for all I know, he doesn't--I have no idea how much time Tom Brady spends with his wife and family: maybe that's more important than winning a seventh Super Bowl. Yet, we honor his mastery of this very narrow, aesthetically beautiful thing. I mean, throwing a football is I think an act of beauty, but--under pressure.
But, it's interesting how little greatness is left in our lives other than these narrow slices of, say, sports where we can measure it, or quantify it. It still exists in certain of the arts of singing and other domains of human experience. But, the kind that you're talking about--excellence of character, greatness of character, greatness of activity--not so much. Not so much.
We often excuse those kind of failings, and I'm not sure we shouldn't[?should?]. I think judgment is tricky, right? We don't know the whole story, usually. So, I'm not sure how to take your point.
Leon Kass: Fair enough. You could say that maybe we went through a period where people were too judgmental. And, we've eased up, and who's to say what's better or worse, and who's to say what's fine, and your greatness is actually in my book, degradation. And we do this in order to make people feel comfortable about themselves.
But, it does seem to me in our public life, for example, it matters a lot, and it matters a lot that one can tell the sheep from the goats and care about integrity, care about courage, care about people with magnanimity, rather than being small-souled[?] and petty, and settle scores, and so on.
And, in the last--I don't think we need to talk about this, but this particular essay in the book, which begins with Aristotle and talks about his great-souled man, which is one of the peaks of the book, and the chapter my students just can't stand, because he really is, he really is, really is above them. And they say, you know, they don't want to have dinner with him, without thinking that the feeling might be mutual. But, the chapter ends with the reminder that in democratic times, there might come crises in which we might have a need for someone who is better than the ordinary.
And I give them the example of Winston Churchill, happening to arrive just in time, in May of 1940. And that is part of the job of teachers, it seems to me, of teachers who care about the public life, to show people the difference between greatness and smallness, between goodness and great wickedness, and to be willing to call a spade a spade. If we don't put that before people, they're lost, because there will be times when that distinction is absolutely crucial. And I would say that distinction is never irrelevant when we're talking about who governs and who leads. Whether it's small institutions, like Shalem College, or major nations, or what have you. I think these things matter.
Russ Roberts: Well, I have a lot of mixed feelings about that. We'll save for another time. What I will say is, I agree with a lot of it as well, which is, even though Winston Churchill did have a weakness for scotch and fine wine, and an appetite for those things, and even though he has been accused in recent times of certain colonial sentiments and failings in other ways, he did save Western civilization, which counts for something.
He didn't do it alone. It's easy to over-romanticize, to romanticize his role. But, it's also, I think, clear that if he had died in that car accident, which I think he was hit by a car on a visit to New York when he was a younger man, the world would have turned out very differently.
And I recommend to all listeners when the pandemic subsides, to visit the Churchill War Rooms in London, which is one of my five favorite museums in the world--it might be in the top two or three, maybe one--and see where Churchill and his colleagues led the war effort below ground. It's a particularly unpandemic-friendly place. It's very cramped, and they were cramped. It's also very unluxurious. It's a beautiful sight to see the bed that Churchill slept in when the bombings were happening. It's pretty modest. Doesn't look like anything out of The Crown or Downton Abbey.
He was--boy, did he use his gifts. If all he had done is right, he would have been an extraordinary man. But he did more than right. His work included a sense of leadership that--especially in times of crisis. I think where I struggle with your argument is that in so many non-crisis times, I'll accept a lot of flaws in my leaders for the right policies, but in crisis times, that tends to get washed away. So, I'll accept your argument there.
I want to close with two personal things, if you can talk about them. One is: How has teaching and reading Aristotle changed how you live? Obviously, you say you taught it a dozen times. For 20 weeks, you've been absorbed in it. You've read it in ways that most of us listening haven't read it. I like it when a lot of Buddhist and meditation teachers will say, 'Don't take my word for this. Just see if it works. See if it works.' So, I suspect you've tasted, more than just read. How has it affected you?
Leon Kass: I read it first in college. I thought it was boring. There were problems with my teacher--that was the problem with the translation. But I was too young, and I was too shallow. And I started to read it. When I finally had a question, and I thought maybe this book was going to help me with this question, and I thought I would find an Aristotle who was known to be a rationalist--I would find a rational deductive ethics, that would somehow give a grounding to the moral intuitions that I'd had from growing up, but that I didn't know how to ground.
And I was astonished. I discovered a book that wasn't about right and wrong, or benefits or harms, or duties and rights, but it was about character. The word 'ethics,' by the way, comes from a Greek word ethos, which means character. Ethics, technically speaking, is about the characters: better and worse, finer, and less fine. And I submitted myself to this book, not wanting just to learn about it, but to allow myself to learn from it. And you learn from it, especially when you try to help other people learn with you in class.
So, I never lectured on it. We would go through it line by line, chapter by chapter, discuss what does it mean? How could somebody in his right mind think this? Could this be true? If it's true, what difference would it make?
And, in the essay that we're talking about--this was originally a lecture to first year students reading The Ethics in Chicago--I came and gave a lecture to try to tell them, 'Give it a fairer shake than I gave it when I was in your shoes. And my testimony is, here are 10 things I've learned from this book, which I think are just true.' The thing about the three lives. The important thing is not race, class and gender, but what's the dominant ruling passion in your soul? Is it for having fun? Is it for recognition and honor? Is it for learning? Is it for money? That happiness is activity, the distinction between intellectual and moral virtue, the importance of character, how character is formed, the importance of practical wisdom, the importance of friendship, the true meaning of pleasure, and its relation to happiness. And, the fact that the friendship of sharing thoughts and speeches might be the most durable kind of friendship, because you're having more, does not diminish mine, but in fact, might increase it, and we might grow together through conversations like this.
These are things that have first been put before me in this book, and in some way, verified by the activities that we were going through together, especially these last points in conversation.
With time, I began to look at my students and say, 'You know, Aristotle presupposes that we've all been brought up well.' It's not so obvious to me that we are the same place as we were when I started teaching.
Maybe the students need to read something else with me, and maybe Aristotle has left out some other things that matter more to me these days, and maybe I'd go back and find out that, actually, my mother's teaching about menschlichkeit was not really the Aristotelian/Greek strand that has gone through the tradition, which has mostly been about beauty and philosophy, but it's been really more about reverence and righteousness and love of neighbor.
So, I started teaching Hebrew Bible, and now I taught that for a number of years--20 weeks, four hours a week. And it wasn't until you invited me today to talk about this: I haven't been thinking about Aristotle for probably a decade. But, I haven't forgotten what I've learned there. I'm rereading that for this conversation. I affirm what I've said there. But, the Jerusalem strand is as strong in me, if not stronger today than the Greek strand. It's good to be able to tip your hat in both directions and to see the power of what's there in both cases.
Russ Roberts: Let's close with a question that might surprise our listeners about you. It surprises me. You were trained in the sciences. You're a medical doctor, and you have a Ph.D. in biochemistry.
Russ Roberts: How did you become a faculty member teaching Great Books at St. John's College and at the Committee of Social Thought at the University of Chicago? You have no training in Aristotle. You're obviously a sham, a hoax, a fraud. How did you pull that off? That was a joke--for those not watching on YouTube.
Leon Kass: When people introduce me before a lecture, the person they describe sounds schizophrenic--a guy who didn't know what he was doing. He wandered into this and that.
From the inside, it's a continuous story. I've loved everything I've done. All the things I've done in my life, I've thrown myself into entirely. I went to the College of the University of Chicago, where I was exposed to the great questions and the Great Books. And in some way, I had a lifelong ambition that maybe someday I could teach at the University of Chicago, and do for my students what one teacher did for me--who woke me up and made me realize that there was actually a question for which the answer I was unthinkingly carrying around in my head, was inadequate.
This was my last year in the College. It was a little late to do much with it. I asked him, 'Should I study philosophy?' He says, 'Kass, go to medical school. If you want to philosophize, you could do that in your old age. Meanwhile, you'll learn something and you can do something.'
I did that. I did biochemistry. That was on the way to try to get back into the academy as a professor doing research.
And then I still had this dream: I would teach a course on the philosophy of organism on the side.
And then along came the biological revolution, and I began to see that there were large ethical questions coming through organ transplantation, genetic manipulation, psychotropic drugs, the control of aging.
And I was at NIH [National Institutes of Health], and I got started with this Hastings Center on Ethics and the Life Sciences. I went to the National Research Council to find out what was going on with the Committee on Life Sciences and Social Policy. Found out that they weren't doing anything because the staff person had been promoted. They offered me a job: 'Would like to leave the lab?' I come spent the year there. I did it.
So, I got to work on bioethics for a while. Then I realized these bioethical questions, they rested on deeper things. So, somebody gave me a chance to teach part time at St. John's College, where I began really to get an education in the Great Books.
And, I got lucky, people at Chicago wanted me to come back and teach bioethics.
But, by this time, I didn't think that people's tuition would be well spent reading articles by me and my contemporaries, but for a lifetime, they would be much better--their time would be much better spent and of greater, durable value, if they read some foundational texts. Foundational texts in ethics, foundational texts in the philosophy of science.
And, Chicago was just wonderful to me. You could teach books that you wanted to study yourself, to smart students who--this was the great pleasure of my life there. I didn't teach many different books. I would teach a course on one book or at most two. And I haven't read very many books in my life well. But, I was lucky in what I picked. And I lived with them, and they've informed me. And I think I've shown a whole bunch of students that if you read slowly, and spend time with what's best, you won't be sorry.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Leon Kass. Leon, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Leon Kass: Thanks for having me, Russ. Pleasure.