P>Professionalism and Happiness: Some Lessons from Aristotle...

David O'Connor

(The reflections below are excerpted and adapted from David K. O'Connor, "Professionalism and Happiness: Some Lessons from Aristotle," ACCA Docket 16, no. 3 (1998). The article is based on Dr. O'Connor's address to the American Corporate Counsel Association's 1998 Legal Leadership Summit Professionalism in Practice: Taking the Lead, February 11-12 in Marina del Rey, California.)

I'm a professor of philosophy, and my world is far from the stressful, action-oriented world of business executives and corporate lawyers. I think of myself as a kind of tourist, visiting your exotic land and offering my observations on your native customs. I hope what I've observed will show you something interesting about yourselves you might otherwise overlook. An observant tourist can notice things so much a part of your everyday world you hardly see them at all. Twenty years of immersion in the thought of the ancient Greeks, especially of the philosopher Aristotle, have in effect given me a rather bizarre form of eye transplant. Instead of young corneas, I've gotten corneas that are about 2400 years old. Although I don't require that you undergo an operation quite so extreme, I do ask this: Try on some spectacles that will permit you to see the status of lawyers in the corporate world as Aristotle might have.

On a visit with Notre Dame students to Stratford, Ontario's annual Shakespeare Festival, I discovered popular T-shirts in the gift shops emblazoned with a frightful slogan (from Shakespeare's Henry the VI, Part 2): "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." These shirts, it turned out, were especially popular with aspiring law students. Perhaps this was all a harmless joke --none of the lawyer wannabes seemed suicidal on my visit. But this negative attitude toward legal professionals is widespread in today's corporate world, even if it is usually expressed more politely. From an Aristotelian point of view, this is a very bad situation. It is bad in part because it underestimates the contribution legal professionals make to the larger goals of corporations. But even worse, Aristotle would say, is the way this pervasive attitude undermines legal professionals' own sense of the meaning of their work, or what Aristotle would simply have called their happiness.

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." The character to whom Shakespeare ascribes this horrible judgment on the legal profession is one Dick the Butcher, a rebel leader in Jack Cade's peasant rebellion. Ignorant and uncouth, the Butcher seems an unlikely hero for the law students and other cultivated professionals who attend the Shakespeare Festival. But Shakespeare used Dick's murderous rallying cry to give voice to a utopian temptation as old as the law itself, a temptation to which few are completely immune: the dream of a world unencumbered by the need for law. This ancient dream seduces us with the promise to liberate our lives and energize our relationships, letting the spirit of humanity take the place of the law's dead letter. "How happy we could be," this dream sings to us, "if only we did not have these irksome specialists around, spouting their arcane lore and enforcing their dusty demands!" It is not just students who are tempted by this lawless siren's song. It also affects the corporate world's perception of the legal profession. Dick the Butcher's view presents law as nothing but constraint, and lawyers as little more than impediments to action, sand in the corporate gears.

I want you to try on some Aristotelian spectacles and see how allowing Dick the Butcher to go unchallenged cuts off the legal professionals in your midst from a deep source of meaning in their work. In particular, I want you to take a fresh look at the importance of honor in happiness.

The source of meaning in a professional life that Aristotle simply called honor we might call public image and recognition. Lawyers were once more highly respected in our society than they are now, but that older public recognition has eroded. Should lawyers simply learn to live with this? Can they? Aristotle would have said "no." He rejected the view that reputation is merely an appearance that does not touch the reality of who we are. Honor, the public recognition by our peers and others of the value of what we do, increases our energy for our most meaningful and challenging projects, and this energy is who we are. The word "energy" comes from the Greek words "en", which just means "in", and "ergon", which means "work". For Aristotle, our energy is just our being "at work," fully engaged in the activities that define us. And energy so conceived is catching, like a flame: our sense of being valued is a crucial part of what keeps us devoted to being valuable.

It is sometimes comforting, especially when recognition is lacking, to think that intrinsic rewards in a job well done are enough for happiness. And it is true that a job well done but unrecognized is of deeper meaning than the superficial popularity of the crowd-pleaser. But Aristotle's view of the connection between honor and energy suggests the success of the man or woman who must persevere in obscurity, or even through hostile misunderstanding, is actually diminished. On the other hand, the honor based on true appreciation of our professional excellence goes to the core of our happiness, and we should not shrug off its denial as some minor irritant. Nor should we lightly think that dishonoring the work of another man or woman is a harmless joke.

The best current example of a professional who upholds the honor of his way of life is Michael Jordan. The entire NBA owes him a debt. Jordan certainly brings good P.R. to his profession, but there is much more at stake than that. By being an ambassador for the game, he enriches basketball for all its practitioners, and defends it against attacks by would-be Dick the Butchers. Jordan is a good example of Aristotle's general view of the connection between honor and happiness: a fully professional life must also be a professing life, a life lived on the public stage as a representative of that way of life. No matter how good you are at what you do, no matter how high your level of expertise, if you are unwilling to go on the public stage and defend the meaningfulness of your profession, there are sources of meaning you will never tap. Dishonor is a threat that should be taken on whenever it rears its ugly head. That means part of the struggle of lawyers inside the corporate world is to help their clients see the contribution their professional excellence makes to corporate goals. And whether you are a lawyer yourself or merely an honorable bystander, you cannot let the slanders of Dick the Butcher and his peasant horde go unchallenged.


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