“Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly every action and rational choice, is thought to aim at some good […] the end of medicine is health, that of shipbuilding, a ship, that of military science, victory, and that of domestic economy, wealth.” -Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Here’s something I said recently: “This summer was about revising my book.” It seemed to make sense when I was saying it. I mean, I did spend a lot of time writing. But the statement also reflects a way of looking at the world, a way I think I put together from the Nicomachean Ethics. And it’s not a way I like.
The Ethics suggests that all actions aim at some “good,” some end that we want. I take medicine for good health. I go to the grocery store to get food. It suggests that lots of ends are steps along the way to something else: eating and medicine are both part of having a body that can wander around and explore and meet people in parks to talk. When I read the Ethics for the first time, I read it as constructing a pyramid: everything I was doing, all the lines I was drawing, led up to some point. Some peak. Some final good that is the measure of living well. The Ethics sets out to find that peak so we know what we’re aiming for.
Here’s something else I could say about the summer: it was warm, and humid sometimes. I met people. Lost touch with others. I wrote toward a book, and visited muskrats, and read lots of graphic novels. I started volunteering online. I laid in the grass, too hot in the sun, and cooled by the breeze. I listened to music I’d never heard before, and after all my dance lessons last year, I felt that music moving. (That’s a surprise for me. Often I’ve just felt frozen). What if, instead of building toward the point of a pyramid, we scattered like the twigs and leaves of a tree? Instead of looking for the one task, one central Good, what if we each tried to be deeply, directly involved with as many of this fall’s falling leaves as we could? The Ethics is built on hierarchies: shopping for groceries, groceries for a meal, a meal for a nourished body, a nourished body for some other aim. But there’s something wonderful in shopping itself, in chatting with the checker and seeing all the onions. In cooking there’s the snap of the oil when I drop the onions in. In a step, the wave of a hand, there’s a fluid solidity that used to sometimes hold me with its symphony. Instead of this for this for this, I want to try this and this and this. I want to try to be involved with different moments. What if each moment, each on its own, is a breath to breathe deeply?