I’ve been meaning to read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for some time now, but it’s a tough slog (unlike Plato which I found much easier to understand), so like the typical human being I am, I’ve just put it off. The reason I’ve been so non-eagerly eager to read it is because I’ve heard one of my favorite people in the world, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, say too many times to count how it’s his favorite book and that he reads it every year. One of the reasons Dr. Arnn is so highly esteemed by me is that when he talks I hear wisdom. It’s odd because he doesn’t sound terribly intellectual or sophisticated, and in fact maybe the opposite (Tim Keller has this affect on me as well), but his insights about life and people and the nature of reality ring truer and deeper to me than most other people. Part of the reason for this, I am convinced, is his passion for an education that is classical focused. Thus his constant promotion of Aristotle’s Ethics.
I found early in my reading why Aristotle and classical education is so important in our postmodern, relativistic cultural moment. Today the idea or concept of truth is problematic at best, and in the realm of religion and morals (anything metaphysical) most people don’t believe truth with a capital T exists at all. Most Westerners embrace (whether they could articulate it or not) some form of, “What’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me.” A more absurd notion is difficult to fathom, but that’s what you get with the triumph of the subjective where the sovereign self gets to define its own reality. One of our own Supreme Court Justices, Anthony Kennedy in a decision could not have put this mindset any better:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.
That’s some heady stuff! You wonder what happens when one’s own concept of existence comes up against another’s concept and the two are diametrically opposed to one another. Who’s the arbiter or judge of which concept wins? Ultimately, who is stronger, or in Nietzschean terms, the will to power, might makes right. Here is the bottom line, and you can take this to the metaphysical bank: If there is no truth, all that we have to determine right and wrong and meaning is power. Inevitably life is lived among persons, so all that stuff that Justice Kennedy thinks is so all sovereign self, is most definitely not.
This is why the biblical and classically Greek view of truth is so important in our cultural moment. As Christians we have to stand for the reality of Truth, and stand against the irrational idea of a sovereign self. Aristotle is an ally in this battle. His commitment to Truth is established from the first pages of the Ethics:
But no doubt it would be admitted to be better, indeed to be necessary when keeping the truth safe is at stake, even to abandon the things that are one’s own, both for other reasons and because we are philosophers; for while both [the truth and one’s friends] are loved, it is a sacred thing to give the higher honor to truth.
Sacred indeed! The very idea of Truth is inextricably tied to the existence of God. Without him, if all we are is “lucky dirt,” then truth is only what we make it, and that leads only to misery and death (see the history of the 20th century). But if Truth exists outside of us, exists in the fabric of reality, as Aristotle and the biblical writers knew, then we have something to appeal to beyond our own wishes and desires, our own innate inclination to want to “be like God.”