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“All people are good at making distinctions about the things they are acquainted with, and each is a good judge of those things. Therefore, good judgment goes along with the way each one is educated, and the one who has been educated about everything has it in an unqualified way. For this reason, it is not appropriate for a young person to be a student of politics, since the young are inexperienced in the actions of life, while these are the things about which politics speaks and from which it reasons. Also, since the young are apt to follow their impulses, they would hear such discourses without purpose or benefit, since their end is not knowing but action. And it makes no difference whether one is young in age or immature in character, for the deficiency doesn’t come from the time, but from living in accord with feeling and following every impulse. For knowledge comes to such people without profit, as it does to those who lack self-restraint; but to those who keep their desires in proportion and act in that way, knowing about these things would be of great benefit.”
This quote comes from one of the first three chapters in Book One of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, with which Aristotle intends to set as a prelude to his discourse regarding how it ought to be received as well as what the task is that “we have set before ourselves.”
I’m currently working my way through the readings in Hillsdale College’s online course covering the subject “Introduction to Aristotle’s Ethics,” and, while having reference to the Joe Sachs translation* used in the course (from which the quotes are taken), and having read a bit past the first of the recommended readings in Book One, I was struck by the line about the inappropriateness of the young person studying politics. (“For this reason, it is not appropriate for a young person to be a student of politics, since the young are inexperienced in the actions of life, while these are the things about which politics speaks and from which it reasons.”)
The line was especially apt in the context in which the online course is taught, which includes the professor (college president Dr. Larry Arnn) and students sitting around a table on camera, the students listening, answering, reading aloud, asking questions, responding, all of them very bright and mature, but nevertheless obviously young people, who, in another context might react to the assertion that they are too young to be studying politics.
It is precisely that ‘other context’ that comes to mind, thinking of the many examples of youthful politicians being glorified seemingly nightly in the media (television and otherwise) for the wisdom of their views on socialism as a preferred system of government, for their mastery of the preferences of the most politically astute and outrageous political opinions being bandied about on Twitter, Facebook, and what have you as the latest flavor of the month in governing. The youthful are not the only ones ascribing to these unwise views, but also many a seasoned politician (the Warrens’, the Sanders’, et al.), are more than willing to court their favor in lieu of having reasonable discussions, writings, or debates which would include not just people across their political aisle, but also considering the lessons of history.
Although apparently struck with a conundrum, I reconciled there was none in this case. Teaching Aristotle’s ethics is not wasted on the young, and indeed, it is not politics that is being taught here. The Ethics are about how to live a good life. To do that, which is to say to be a good human in the things that a good human is capable of, requires much in learning and persistent effort in making good judgments about what things are beautiful and just.
If you take the online course as I am doing, you will see in the faces of the students their recognition of just how serious of a pursuit this is, i.e., the gaining of intellectual understanding and development of character in being able to make sound and beautiful judgments in their own lives that lead to happiness. These young adults would not chafe at such an assertion that teaching politics would be wasted on the young.
To gain some additional context and insight into this quote, I will leave you with one additional quote from the Ethics, one which immediately precedes it in Chapter Three.
“One would speak adequately if one were to attain the clarity that goes along with the underlying material, for precision ought not to be sought in the same way in all kinds of discourse, any more than in things made by the various kinds of craftsmen. The things that are beautiful and just, about which politics investigates, involve great disagreement and inconsistency, so that they are thought to belong only to convention and not to nature. And the things that are good also involve some inconsistency of this sort, because harm results from them for many people, for before now some people have been ruined by wealth, and others by courage. So one ought to be content, when speaking about such things and reasoning from such things, to point out the truth roughly and in outline, and when speaking about things that are so for the most part, and reasoning from things of that sort, to reach conclusions that are also of that sort. And it is necessary also to take each of the things that are said in the same way, for it belongs to an educated person to look for just so much precision in each kind of discourse as the nature of the thing one is concerned with admits; for to demand demonstrations from a rhetorician seems about like accepting probable conclusions from a mathematician.”
*Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Joe Sachs (Newbury, MA: Focus Publishing/R. Pullins, 2002), 1–12.