Eating Hay

"Reading Aristotle is like eating dried hay."
-Thomas Gray
Yesterday was a disaster in the freshmen honors seminar. I was doing something at the board and in all of an instant I knew I was tanking. I didn't have to turn around. I didn't have to hear a single yawn. I just knew the students weren't following any longer. Worse, they had lost the will to extend me the polite fiction that they should be following. I can always tell when I've reached this point. There's a lethargy that enters the room. Sometimes, too, there's this look that comes over their eyes that seems to ask "What in the world does this have to do with anything that I could ever possibly care about?"

Why should they give a hoot about the Aristotelian concept of the human soul or on what grounds Aristotle rejected Plato's theory of ideal forms? More importantly, why do I think it's so damned important that they do? Unless I can answer this, I'm sunk. Okay, so why should they bother to understand what Aristotle was putting down about human nature 2,300 years ago? Well, it's worth knowing because it is the root of a question still very much on the table about humanity: is there a purpose to human life? For Aristotle the answer is yes, absolutely, but it's not a purpose immanent in the universe; rather, it's specific to us.

His logic on this point is humorous in a way. He first points out that all things have a purpose. For example, the purpose of an axe is to cut. Reasoning from this, he says that a human being must also have a purpose, for it is absurd to think that an axe has one but a human being does not.

It's important to note here that Aristotle never attempts to support this analogy. After all, we impose the function on a axe, but we do not know with equal certainty that human beings were created with any specific purpose. Nevertheless, the entire argument of The Ethics hangs on this simple, unsupported assumption about humanity. The teleological move Aristotle makes in the opening pages of the Nichomachean Ethics gets made over and over again. Indeed, many of my students made this very move in their initial definitions of human nature last week. But what if it' s wrong? What if we are a species with no particular place to go? Then, as Hamlet asked, "What should such fellows as [we] do crawling between earth and heaven?"

In a few weeks, my students and I will be out on that storm-drenched heath with Lear and Edmund and seriously entertaining the possibility that the heavens are not as just, well-ordered, or purposeful as we might assume. That heath is a disturbing place. That way lies madness, but that's where we have to go.

Sometimes I hate this job.


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