Sunday Lifestyle

Fancy cars and Aristotle

MANO-A-MANO - Adel Tamano -

Following Aristotle is a pain in the gluteus maximus. Specifically, obeying Aristotle’s concept of what is good and virtuous. The reason that it is so difficult is that the Aristotlelian view of virtue is all-encompassing; it is a fully unified vision of doing good and living a good life. Meaning that to be virtuous is to be completely so, which means to have virtue in all aspects of one’s life. His concept of virtue — and perhaps why it appeals to me — is similar to the Islamic concept of Tauhid or oneness: an integrity or wholeness of what is good and ethical in all aspects of life. In Ethics, Aristotle tied the idea of happiness to living an ethical and virtue-filled existence. Happiness to him was not an emotional state but a moral one. Thus, to be happy, a person had to strive to become a better person instead of just doing things that would give them pleasure. But the kicker is that for Aristotle, a virtuous person — and thus a happy person — should always be engaged in virtuous action and contemplation. It’s the “always” part that is difficult because I, for one, at times, fall short of living a virtue-filled life.

Let me give a simple example of my not living up to this standard: this week, my two brothers and I visited our sibling who was in the hospital. Afterwards, when we left the hospital, I saw my brothers drive away in their cars. As they sped off, I realized that my car was, compared to those of my siblings, the cheapest and most unimpressive. My older brother rode in a brand new, high-end German automobile. My other brother was the passenger — he had a driver — in a Japanese car that would fall in the executive class segment. I, on the other hand, drove home in a multi-purpose vehicle, similar to an AUV, and not even the top of the line version. I’m embarrassed to admit this and certainly most of the time I am very grateful for all my blessings but, at that point in time, I felt a bit like a loser. Here I was, a lawyer with, modesty aside, a successful legal practice and media work and I don’t even drive a fancy car. At that moment, I was a shallow, ungrateful, and petty person. Certainly very far from the ideal of Aristotle’s virtuous man.

So since the Aristotlelian ideal seems too difficult to achieve, do we just chuck his whole ethical system out the window? No and particularly because, upon deeper reflection, Aristotle doesn’t insist on human perfection and instead, in my understanding of his ethos, deeply comprehends that we will all eventually fail. This is why for him virtue refers not only to always doing what is right and ethical but, more importantly, contemplates a complete life. This is why he talks of “not only complete virtue, but a complete life.” For me, this means that one’s standing as a virtuous person and as a moral person can only be assessed after the completion of a life. Accordingly, it is the sum of a person’s actions — the good and the bad — that makes one moral or otherwise.

In fact, the reason why I don’t drive a fancy car is also the sum of my past actions, which upon closer inspection, shows that my priorities and my values are sound. From my own income and my wife’s income, I think we can afford to buy a better car than the ones I use on a daily basis, which are the aforesaid MPV and a Japanese sub-compact. However, part of my income is given to charity, specifically to family and friends who need financial support. Also, part of our income is put into savings particularly since our eldest son, Santi, has autism, and so we are trying to build a financial buffer for him, which he will need when my wife and I will no longer be around to support him. Add to that the costs of providing therapy and medical management for my son’s autism and our combined salaries seem to be just adequate to live a comfortable, but simple life. Put another way, sure I would love to have a fancy car, a status symbol of financial success, but charity and family are far more important than personal status and, thus, my simple cars, instead of being symbols of failure are instead badges of genuine success.

Success in keeping my priorities straight.

But wait, this doesn’t mean that I don’t aspire to own these status symbols because not only do I hope to have a fancy car someday, but I firmly believe that there is no inconsistency in living a moral and virtuous life and having great financial success. One thing that I like about the Greeks, save for the few philosophers who were ascetics, is that they didn’t view the world as fundamentally a place of suffering and they saw no inconsistency with enjoying life and being moral. Again, this is similar to the Islamic concept that man should seek out God’s bounties and that there is nothing un-Islamic about being rich. So I do want the expensive car, I’d like to own some expensive watches, I’d like to travel the world, first-class if you please, and I do want to live in an upscale-gated community. And there is nothing immoral about that. As long as the means to achieve these things are virtuous and moral.

In fact, when my children and I pray together at night, before their bedtime, I always include a prayer for wealth. I’m conscious of the fact that, to some people, teaching children at an early age to value wealth may be wrong but again personally I believe that there is nothing un-Islamic or immoral about it. Certainly my children are being raised to know that there are many things far more important than money or material wealth, such as love for God, patriotism, and family. But I also want them to know that there is also nothing wrong with wanting to have a comfortable life. And my children are being taught that wealth can — and should be — used to help others. That is really the true function of money: to help your family and your community.

So as I drive my non-fancy car to work, I give thanks to Aristotle for reminding me that it is natural, truly human, to make mistakes and despite these moral failures, one should continue to strive to be a moral and virtuous person. Equally important, I thank him for reminding me that my own value — and my happiness — are not predicated on the kind of car that I drive but rather is a function of the type of human being that I am and the kind of person that I aspire to be.












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