Four things a man must learn to do,
If he should make his life more secure.
To think without confusion clearly,
To love his fellow men sincerely,
To act from pure motives only,
To trust in God and heaven securely.
I got this poem from John Wooden, legendary NCAA coach who would lead the UCLA Basketball team to 10 NCAA championship wins in 12 years and a record number of consecutive wins. His wisdom is rooted in what some of his fellow team players described as, “old fashioned.” But really, what is so old fashioned about timeless wisdom?
This poem, with its “timeless virtues” that it extolls reminded me of a very ancient book that still applies to us today, just like Wooden’s wisdom. I recently read through Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, an incredible book which I recommend everyone to read (though you can skip the chapter on Magnificence -there’s nothing quite magnificent about this tedious philosophical discourse). There was one particular idea that has struck me deeply which I think resonates well today:
That living a good life requires education, discernment and experience. That a good life cannot be achieved through our natural instincts alone.
Let me unpack this because there’s A LOT going on this statement. One of the great sins of our time, I believe, is the belief that we can determine for ourselves whether something is good or not through our feelings. Now, there is some truth to this. To some extent, we are all able to innately tell whether something is good, like helping a person in need, or terribly evil, like murder.
Unfortunately life has more gray areas than 50 shades could muster. It can be sometimes difficult to tell what is good, and what is evil. How would we know what to choose? Our feelings are not exactly a benchmark whereby we can judge properly: have you ever seen a judge decide a case because he just “felt like it”?
To view it from another angle, it is difficult to tell, especially for younger people, to know how to act and how to feel. I mean, how to properly act in whatever situation, and what should be the “right way” to feel about others. It is easy to go into extremes. For example, being in traffic really stresses me out, and I can be easily tempted to flip off or curse at people who go too slow in front of me or cut me off in my lane. Instead, I decide to swallow my anger and drive peacefully. In another example, someone takes advantage of me by ripping me off in a sale, but I don’t want to seem uncharitable so I let the person do it and just let it pass by. In both cases, extremes of emotion and action were displayed, and were not the proper response to take.
Aristotle teaches us that we should find the “mean” of every circumstance. That is, the measured, middle way to respond to every circumstance. Only then can we properly guide our emotions and actions to virtuous effect. Now, not all situations require a “middle approach.” I man rapes my wife and I see him walking down the street, I’m not going to simply communicate my displeasure of his action. A more extreme action will be taken to incur justice. The point is that there are some times where extreme acts an emotions are necessary and sometimes they are not. The question then becomes, how would I know how to properly react? What would be the circumstance required? Therein is the crux of this whole issue I’ve been trying to bring up.
To be continued in another chapter.