Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Review: If Aristotle's Kid Had an iPod by Conor Gallagher

If Aristotle's Kid Had an iPod: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents by Conor Gallagher

A popular internet parenting meme is "Steve Jobs didn't let his kids have an iPad." I've never taken the click-bait since I don't have any idea whether Jobs was a good parent or not. Sure, he's a brilliant entrepreneur and a smart guy, but that doesn't make him a good dad. Then I saw the title of this book and knew I wanted to read it. Aristotle did have a son, Nicomacheus, for whom his Nicomachean Ethics is named. Unlike Jobs, Aristotle does have a legacy of human education and perfection. But is it relevant in today's times?

Conor Gallagher argues that Aristotle's legacy is relevant today. He follows the Nicomachean Ethics but uses modern scientific studies and pop culture to show the validity of Aristotle. Gallagher cites various fascinating psychological experiments from the 1960s (including Milgram's Experiment, where people kept delivering electric shocks to strangers just because they were ordered to, and The Stanford Experiment, where students volunteered to role play a prison for two weeks and those playing guards became abusive and authoritarian while the "prisoners" broke down) showing how people can make rapid shifts in their moral behavior based on external circumstances. He explains Aristotle's four moral characters (the virtuous, the strong-willed, the weak-willed, and the vicious) by showing how Socrates, Frodo Baggins, King David, and Darth Vader are examples of each.

Gallagher shows the relevance to parenting too. Aristotle's system depends on developing virtues (which are good habits of acting) and fostering true friendships (where friends seek the good of the other, not their own good). Children are bundles of passions that need to be guided by reason. At first, they don't have enough experience or education to think things out on their own, so parents need to guide them. Reason and passion should work together for the true good, not just for personal pleasure (a la Tony Robbins) or the most pleasure for the most people (a la John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism). A great help in achieving that good is finding friends who aren't just useful to some end or fun to hang out with, but who really want the good for their friends. Such friendships are not frequent but are important. Parents need to keep an eye on their friends and encourage the best friendships.

The book ends with some fun quizzes and resources for further research if parents are interested. Overall, this book is a great introduction to Aristotle's moral theory and a great help in applying that theory to raising kids today. The style of writing is more personal and less academic, making it easy to read (much easier than reading Aristotle, I assure you!).

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