By Joshua Bruce
“Potato chips may be eaten, but only in moderation.”
The philosopher Aristotle said that.
Well, he didn’t exactly say that. But if Aristotle had known about potato chips and how good they are, he definitely would have said that about them. Which is why my son, a classically trained toddler, already well-versed in Aristotelian categories, always says the same thing when he is asking to eat his favorite snack. He says the one thing he knows will be guaranteed to get me to say “yes” to him. He says, “Daddy, I want to eat some chips. But remember Daddy. Chips, only in moderation.” And he’s right. Because chips should only be eaten in moderation.
I have to admit that the joy of hearing my three year old speak in Aristotelian terminology often overrides my parental concerns about him eating chips, in moderation or not. So I let him have some chips. (No judgment please.)
As a lifelong student of classics and historical theology, I’ve had a chance to facilitate some of Knox Theological Seminary’s online courses in the Christian and Classical Studies curriculum where these sorts of issues are discussed at length. It’s been a joy for me — mostly because that experience has convinced me of a very important fact. That if Aristotle were here today, he would agree with my three-year-old son. I know this because Aristotle actually had a chance to discuss ethical decisions in a discussion that was compiled and framed as advice to Aristotle’s own son, Nicomachus, advice that has come down to us as the Nicomachean Ethics (or just the Ethics for those pressed for time). And in the Ethics Aristotle said a lot of things that my son would like. He said that virtue is best understood as a balance between extremes, as a middle way of sorts between two vices. Of course, Aristotle does not mean the midway point as an exact “mean.” If cowardice is a 0 and brashness a 10, bravery is not a 5. Bravery may be closer to an 8. The idea of the “mean,” or the midway point between the two extremes, is that the virtue is the proper balance. So, for Aristotle, generosity in money is the proper balance between profligacy and stinginess. Moderation in food is the proper balance between gluttony and self-starvation. So, for example, well… potato chips. Moderation is snuggled somewhere between sixteen bags of potato chips on the gluttony end and that one, sad, crumpled, lonely, little potato chip looking up at you on the starvation end. Moderation is the perfect number of chips eaten. The number that speaks to you afterwards and says: “Aren’t you glad you ate those?” Chips — in other words — only in moderation.
Something that both Aristotle and my son could agree with.
Which is one of the things that I love most about classics like Aristotle’s Ethics and how those classics are being taught in programs like Knox’s Master of Arts in Christian and Classical Studies. Because whether you’re preparing a sermon, planning a class outline, or vacuuming your son’s potato chips out of the carpet (or doing all three at the same time), there’s something in Aristotle for you. There’s something in these books that still has relevance for us all today. But that’s not all. Because as Christians we worship a God who is the perfect embodiment of all true virtue: a God who took on flesh and perfectly modeled for us what virtue looks like. And that should justify some celebration. Perhaps you might celebrate by picking up some of Aristotle’s works and reading them. Or maybe you’ll take one of our classes at Knox where you’ll get a chance to talk to other students and to our professors about what we’re reading together in Aristotle and other great writers in the classical, Western tradition.
As for me. I know exactly what I’m going to do to celebrate all this.
But — of course — only in moderation.
Joshua is finishing his PhD in Historical Theology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. In between writing about St. Augustine and trying to stay warm in the freezing Scottish weather, he loves spending time visiting Scottish castles with his wife, Lindsay, and their two sons who are 4 (almost) and 2 (just). Joshua and his family will be returning to their home in South Florida in July where he will taking up a position as director of Knox Theological Seminary’s Master of Arts in Christian and Classical Studies.