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Gentlemen, And Trace Adkins

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So.  I’ve been up forever, and it isn’t six o’clock yet.  Work is not going well.  Or at least, it isn’t going well for today.  I keep having to stop myself from ripped up the entire last 100 pages.

Of course, I could be just wasting time.  If I’m going to rip it up, maybe I should just rip it up, and get on with it. Spinning my wheels for a week isn’t likely to be getting me anywhere.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading the Loeb edition of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and I’ve been coming to some conclusions.

One of those conclusions is that Aristotle’s Great Souled Man is  not at all like what we think of as Great Souled today.

As far as I can tell, our modern use of the term connects vaguely to Gandhi. 

To be Great Souled is to be enormously wise and compassionate, or something like that.

Aristotle’s Great Souled man in only sort of wise and not at all compassionate.  To be Great Souled in Aristotle’s sense is to be born to greatness and to know it–and therefore, to be properly contempuous of the people beneath you.

Although, the Great Souled man doesn’t show his contempt except with his social equals, because to be openly contemptuous of inferiors would be “base.”

In other words, Aristotle’s Great Souled Man is one version of the rich jerk–and you have to be rich to be Great  Souled in Aristotle’s sense, because if you are not you will have to worry about  money, and worrying about money is itself “base.”

Then there is the entire second  half of Book V, in which Aristotle is at pains to “prove” that it is impossible to suffer injustice voluntarily.

This is,  if you think about it, a fascinating premise, especially considering the intensity of respect with which Medieval Christians had for Aristotle.

Christianity, after all, is the story of a man who suffered injustie voluntarily–even willingly.

I checked the Aquinas commentary to see how he handled it, but from what I can tell he handled it by ignoring  it.  Which is too bad.

But the real curiosity here has been something the translator, H.R. Rackham, said in the introduction.

The introduction dates from 1926, which is the year the translation was published, and one of the things Rackham makes a point of is that the Nichomachean Ethics represents an age-old Code of the Gentleman.

While I was wandering around this morning looking for (apparently nonexistant) information on Rackham,  I found several references to comments of the same kind made by the young Winston Churchill.

There are a lot of snobbish connotations to the word “gentleman,” but I read a lot of Gertrude Himmelfarb, and she has made me aware that the word had two senses even deep in the Victorian era.

One of them fit Aristotle’s rich jerk, but the other was an expression of what Jefferson would have called a “natural aristocracy”–in that form,  it was entirely possible for a laborer to be a gentleman when a minor baronet was not.  It was a definition that put Right Feeling and Noble Behavior ahead of formal social class rank.

The problem, for me, is that I don’t believe Aristotle’s rules for right behavior could be successfully adapted to that second definition of “gentleman.”

In the first place, Aristotle himself didn’t believe it could be adapted to what he persistantly calls the “lower orders.”

A lot of Aristotle’s virtues require a certain amount of solid money to practice. Artisans and small farmers, traders and small businessmen, can’t afford not to have their eye on the money.

Most people need to make money to live.  And no matter  how magnanimous it  might be, most people can’t afford to high-mindedly ignore the situation when they are being cheated, even if the person cheating them is one of their friends.

Even more, a lot of Aristotle’s virtues require not just having money, but having  had it–being used to it.

Only being used to it, and being very unused to going without it, can produce the unaffected casualness about all things financial that Aristotle demands for his virtuous  man.

It’s not just slaves and women who can’t meet Aristotle’s standards.  It’s pretty much everybody except for a deliberately restrict group at the very top, and even those comprise  only the men capable of virtue,  not the virtuous  men.

Of course, a lot of individual virtues can be practiced by just about anybody–prudence in one’s material affairs, for instance, or temperance in the use of food and drink.

I’d include courage in battle here, except that Aristotle is one of those people who think “courage” means never feeling fear, and I figured that one leaves out just about everybody.

In the end, though, what really bothers me is that it is all so small–in an odd way, it’s the modern therapy version of how we should live.

There are a couple of rhetorical  hiccups in the direction of  the idea that some societies are unjust, but in general the justness of one’s own society is assumed, and all the effort is spent training  men in how to adapt to it.

Of course, I’m only halfway through.  There may be something in the second half that gives a broader and a deeper vision of the possibilities for a human  life.

But I’m willing to bet that won’t be there.  Too much effort is being expended on shoring up the ideal of the Perfect Mean to allow for anything radical, and the kind of thing I’m talking about would be radical.

Or it would be radical from Aristotle’s perspective.

And then, on top of that, the listed virtues leave out so much of what we’ve come to think of as necessary to a morally good human being.

It leaves no room, for instance, for Trace Adkins.

For those of you who don’t know, Adkins is a country music singer, one of the true superstars of the genre. He hits all the bells and whistles: came up pretty  much from nothing,  had a life that reads like a white trash soap opera, left wives strewn across the landscape from one end of the South to the other.

He’s also six three,  has more wattage than Brad Pitt, and is the first person you think of when you want to hire somebody to play the Angel of Death.

I like a lot of Trace Adkins’s work–especially the “Trace songs,” like “Honkytonk Badonkydonk.”

Which I may be spelling incorrectly.  But  it’s hysterical.

But I’m bringing up Adkins here because he did a very interesting thing.

As with any  other country singer–or rock and roll singer, or rap singer, or movie star–you can buy Trace Adkins official t shirts and baseball caps and whatnot, some of it specific to specific t0urs.

Unlike the stuff you buy from other singers, Adkins’s are made in the US by American workers.

And they’re priced the same as the stuff that comes from China because Adkins contributes a cut of his own earnings to make up the difference.

That is, I think, an honorable act, made by an honorable  man, in spite of the wife that shot him and the trip through alcoholism and the speech patterns that probably  made his old English teacher tear out her hair.

There is, as far as I know, no virtue in Aristotle’s list that would cover such an act, and in no sense (either Aristotle’s or Churchill’s) would Adkins be counted a gentlemen.

But I’d rather have a dozen or so people who think like that than an entire country of people working diligently to maintain the Golden Mean.


Written by janeh

August 13th, 2013 at 7:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Gentlemen, And Trace Adkins'

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  1. Maybe not Aristotle, who matches well today’s “international” or “cosmopolitan” intellectual, but Socrates would have understood well enough a bone-deep loyalty to one’s polis, and might, I think, have understood a polis a continent wide.
    Or it might be so deep in Aristotle he saw no need to mention it. His off-hand “no one speaks of a good adultery” continues to intrigue me. First, it says something of our own culture, where “speaking of a good adultery” is a literary sub-genre if not a genre. More importantly, it suggests a range of virtues and vices Aristotle assumed but did not discuss.
    But there is also the problem of moderation, and I think that’s a greater difficulty in a man from central Greece whose experience of foreigners was talking to Macedonians, because moderation is culturally defined. The mean of courage between cowardice and recklessness is placed rather differently among the hoplite class than it would have been among the wild Irish, who went to battle naked and regarded armor itself as cowardly. I don’t think the proper mean in the consumption of food and drink would be found at the same point even in Athens, Corinthia and Sparta.
    Which is not to say that Aristotle is wrong to be concerned with what constitutes the practice of virtue, nor to see that vice is often found in immoderation. It IS to say that one who goes to the Nichomachean Ethics for a complete and universal code of human behavior is searching for something Aristotle didn’t write.
    Go forth and Gregor.


    13 Aug 13 at 8:53 am

  2. So Aristotle’s Great Souled Man is Donald Trump? Ick. I mean, just Ick.

    Anyway, I find it interesting that in the age of digital writing, you still speak of “ripping it up.” The same kind of anachronism as “dialing a phone.”

    As the spouse of a writer, I suggest you save the questionable section separately, delete it from the current work, and write from there. You’ll soon enough know if it’s better out or in.

    I hope. Writing frustration is the worst!


    13 Aug 13 at 12:55 pm

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