Juggling and Aristotle


Watching a juggler manipulate objects is mesmerizing and delightful. She lobs them through the air with an impressive amount of control, consistency, rhythm, anticipation, and dexterity. If it’s done well, it can look like magic: the juggler seems to be barely touching the objects, then catches and throws them again before you realize there was a switch.

“…juggling is simple yet magical, accessible yet perplexingly captivating; it’s the circus distilled.”  –Duncan Wall, The Ordinary Acrobat

You can read about people learning to juggle in various biographies and circus memoirs such as (the one we’re reading in class) The Ordinary Acrobat by Duncan Wall.

Yet I recommend trying to learn how to juggle yourself, in real life. This may seem silly. But acquiring the skill can be used to prove a bigger philosophical point. So take 5 minutes. Take 10. I know, I know. Life is busy and full of VERY IMPORTANT THINGS. But set aside some time to learn how to juggle. I’m serious.    

There are numerous on-line tutorials here here, and here. There are numerous books and kits you can order here and here.

You can also reach out to jugglers in your area – jugglers are usually more than happy to show others how to juggle. They often have ‘juggling jam’ sessions where you can learn the skill for free. Do a little google-ing, reach out to your local circus gym or flow arts community. I bet you will find some jugglers in your area who would be happy to show you some juggling basics.

Or you can take my class, where we will spend several class periods learning how to juggle.

Why do I recommend taking some time to actually learn to juggle yourself? Because I want us to fully explore the idea that being a good person, like juggling, is crucially an activity. Some philosophers (like Aristotle) defend the idea that in order to be a good person, you have to do it, participate in it, practice it – not just think about it. This idea will have much more impact if we explore it in tandem with juggling, which is also something you have to do to understand.

Also, one of the more general goals of bringing circus and philosophy together is to embrace the idea that education is multidisciplinary in the fullest sense; it gives us a unique glimpse into how physical activity can (and possibly should) be taught in tandem with intellectual pursuits, and the other way around. Exploring the intersection of circus and philosophy allows us to combine lessons in athleticism, anatomy, aesthetics, physics, geometry, performance art, intellectual reflection, analysis, and critical thinking – all in one fell swoop.

So: do it. Go juggle. After you’ve tried it, read or re-read Aristotle on moral virtue.

Aristotle: Moral Virtue and Habits

When I suggest to people that they should learn how to juggle, the reaction I most often get is: “I could never do that! I am so uncoordinated! I have no dexterity!”

But here’s an interesting fact about juggling: no one ever begins to juggle knowing how to juggle.

Everyone who has started to juggle has found it awkward, annoying, and exhausting – beginners drop the balls more often than they catch them. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Of course people who have never juggled are are terrible at juggling. They haven’t learned how to do it yet! No one knows how to juggle out of the womb.

Now go ask someone to be a good person. Did anyone resist? Did anyone say: “I’m so unethical already. I’d be terrible at being a good person!”

Chances are they didn’t. But why not? Do they think they already know how to be a good person? Is being moral something that they think is easy, or something that comes naturally to them, or something they already know (and have known) how to do since birth? Do they think that being a good person is  something they can easily do without practice? Perhaps.

It may also be that people don’t generally think that being a good person is all that hard. Most people, if asked, would think that being a good person in general just means not being a jerk.

And most people, if asked, don’t think that they themselves are jerks (although they probably think that plenty of other people are jerks).

But what makes someone not a jerk? Is it just a matter of going around and not doing jerky things – things like lying or stealing or deceiving or manipulating others? But what about the positive good things like being kind or generous or forthright or charitable? Doesn’t it take a little bit more than just not-being-a-jerk to actually be a good person? What makes someone a truly good person, and not just not-a-bad person? Is it something that people just know, naturally?Are we born knowing right from wrong?  Do we know how to be a good person out of the womb?

Aristotle thinks we don’t.

He thinks there are two kinds of virtues: intellectual and moral. Intellectual virtues are things such as theoretical or practical thinking – logic, math, problem solving, etc. These are purely intellectual disciplines that need to be taught. You usually learn them in a classroom or after some quiet period of thoughtful, introspective study.

In contrast, moral virtues come about by habit. When something comes about by habit, Aristotle explains, it is not something that it is in our nature to do (or not to do). We aren’t born knowing how to be good.

Anything that comes about by nature, Aristotle argues, is unable to be trained or habituated to do otherwise. You can toss a juggling ball a million times up in the air but the ball will never be able to train or habituate itself to stay up. The nature of the ball, together with the laws of gravity, necessitate that it will always come back down.

Moral virtues are different than this, Aristotle claims. With some practice, human beings are able to change their behavior. They can habituate themselves to have certain character traits (being kind, for example) or they can habituate themselves out of other character traits (being mean or petty).

“Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit…. From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times;…nor can anything else that by nature behaves in one way be trained to behave in another. Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature to the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.” — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Book II)

No matter how hard a juggling ball tries, it can never train itself to stay up in the air.

Fortunately, you are not like a juggling ball. You can train yourself to be kind or generous or honorable or brave. It may take some work and some messing up and a lot of practice. But you are not committed to having the moral character that you think you have innately. You can change it, and habituate yourself to doing otherwise.

Moreover, no one ever begins to be a good person knowing how to be a good person.

People who start out trying to being a good person may initially find it awkward, annoying, and exhausting – beginners will likely mess up more often than they don’t. But this shouldn’t be too surprising. Of course people who have never been a good person before will be terrible at being a good person. They haven’t learned how to do it yet! No one acquires moral virtue out of the womb, Aristotle thinks.

Acquiring moral virtue is much like learning a craft or an art form: you have to do them and try them before you can learn how to do them. No one knows how to build a house or play the guitar or paint a picture until they are given the building materials, musical instruments, artist supplies and they try it. It is only after doing the activity a bunch, and practicing it often, that someone becomes a builder, musician, painter – or, according to Aristotle, a good person.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” — Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Book II)

If you want to become just, or temperate, or brave, you must go out in the world and do a lot of just, temperate, or brave acts. You are what you do, and what you do often. You are not what you just say or merely think about.

“Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.”  — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Book II)

Aristotle thinks that moral virtues partially arise out of habits that we develop – habits which are ideally formed early on in life. This is why, he thinks, it matters a great deal (or: makes all the difference) the sorts of activities we engage in and habits we set for ourselves when we are younger.

I have heard from adults who lead relatively sedentary lives that they wish they would have learned how to exercise regularly in their youth. It is much harder, once you have formed the habit of not moving or exercising, to then try to make exercise a daily habit. It is certainly possible to adopt such habits later on in life, but it is much harder.

It is similar with other desirable habits: keeping a healthy diet, regular self care, cleaning the house, being financially responsible, etc. These are all activities that can become habitual routines if the activity is practiced. It is even easier if they are practiced when we are very young – we simply grow up with the habit of eating healthy or saving money without much thought about it.

Aristotle thought that being a good person and displaying any of the moral virtues – e.g., being just, temperate, kind, brave, etc. – was similar. We are better off habituating ourselves to virtuous activity at a young age.

But we need to be a bit careful here: it is not just by merely acting in accordance with moral virtues that we become morally virtuous.

Suppose I tell you that in order to be a kind person you need to give a certain percentage of your income to charity, you need to donate blankets and food to local animal shelters, help the needy, and do at least 3 selfless acts a day. And suppose you do all these things. Does that make you kind? It depends. Have you done these things because they are the kind thing to do, or because you will impress someone if you do them? Do you really care about doing kind things, or are you only doing them so that other people might think that you are kind? Are you doing them because you want to be a good and kind person and you think that these are the sorts of things a good and kind person would do, or are you doing them as part of a 30 day challenge, which you will be posting about on social media, and hoping to get a lot of likes and followers because of it?

“…if the acts that are in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain character it does not follow that they are done justly or temperately. The agent also must be in a certain condition when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character…Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such that the just and temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them.”  — Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Book II)

Aristotle claims that being morally virtuous not only requires doing morally virtuous activities, but also making sure that the person doing the activities knows that he is doing morally virtuous acts, is choosing them because they are the morally virtuous thing to do, and because that’s what a truly morally virtuous person would do.

Aristotle also thinks that being fully morally virtuous is a combination of forming the appropriate habits together with practical wisdom (or: phronesis). We do not have the time to get into this latter point today (or many of the other details of Aristotle’s ethics). But it will be enough for us (for now) to know that, for Aristotle, being a good person is crucially an activity – something that needs to be done and then practiced and then practiced again, over and over, until we form the appropriate habits.  

Summing Up

Next week, we will be discussing the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic values. This will help us understand why Aristotle thinks that there is one (and only one) highest good: eudaimonia or  eu zên or happiness. According to Aristotle, the highest good is not only valuable in itself, but it is also not valuable for the sake of something else, and all other things are valuable for the sake of it.

Moreover, for Aristotle, happiness isn’t just a virtue – happiness is a virtuous activity. Having a good life and being a good person requires doing, not just thinking or theorizing or being a certain way.

Many people (or: philosophers) think that being a good person is something that you can just sit in room and think about to understand. What’s worse: some think that being a good person is something that you can just sit in a room and think about to be. But this would be as ridiculous as thinking that you can just sit in a room and think about juggling in order to understand juggling. Or – even worse – that you can just sit in a room and think about juggling to learn how to juggle.

“But most people…take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy.”  — Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Book II)

As you reflect on these thoughts, make sure to take it beyond mere thoughts. Try being a good person like you might try juggling. Go out and do it, in real life.

I know, I know. Life is busy and full of VERY IMPORTANT THINGS. But set aside some time. Practice being a good person, as you would practice juggling. I’m serious. Try doing some virtuous activities. After you’re done, come back and let me know how it went. Did it get easier with practice?

A cautionary head’s up: between juggling and being a good person, juggling is way easier. Hang in there.


Suggested Reading

                                                             Sarah’s Scribbles


**Originally published on Sept 10, 2017; updated Aug 31, 2018.

Got thoughts?