ARISTOTLE AND FELIX MENDELSSOHN
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, born in 1809, was one of the major German Romantic composers. Mendelssohn showed a surprising gift for composition at an early age. He wrote his famous overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was seventeen; by then he had also written twelve symphonies for string orchestra.  The same elfin delicacy and diaphanous texture of the Overture, evoking a fairy kingdom with so sensitive a touch, is found in another important work which Mendelssohn wrote that year, his Octet for Strings. "Not even Mozart or Schubert," wrote John Horton, "accomplished at the age of seventeen anything quite as astonishing as this major work of chamber music." 
Aristotle's Self-Realization Theory is an example of Virtue Ethics,
an approach to ethics that has been overshadowed for the last few
centuries by an alternate approach, typified by that of utilitarianism
and Kant's Rational Consistency Theory. Rather than describing ethics
as a process of applying a set of rules to situations to determine the
right action, Virtue Ethics focuses on how one should live in order to
become a good person with integrity and character.
Aristotle combined Virtue Ethics, the concept that an individual's focus should be on what kind of person he becomes, with an idea that closely resembles Maslow's hierarchy of needs which ranks the needs of a living being in the order in which they must be satisfied. Maslow theorized that the lower, physical needs and then the emotional needs must be satisfied before the higher, intellectual needs can be considered. Only after the higher needs have been satisfied can one reach the top of the hierarchy, Self-Actualization. Aristotle held that this final need, which he referred to as Self-Realization, is the good. That is, the good for each entity is in attaining its full potential which is the only path along which happiness can be achieved.
Aristotle believed that the lower needs had to be controlled through
discipline so that one could move on to satisfying the intellectual
needs. Aristotle referred to the techniques of self-control used to
assert reason over emotion as the moral virtues. These moral virtues
allow us to satisfy our appetites and passions just enough to move on
to the intellectual virtues. This point of moderation between
deficiency and excess is called the Golden Mean. Aristotle also
observes that virtue alone is not sufficient to obtain Self-Realization.
He cites luck as an important ingredient for overcoming the troubles of
life to finally become all that one can be. If one is fortunate and
has means such as money, power, or beauty, one can use these tools to
achieve the desirable end-state of Self-Actualization. However
Aristotle cautions that these tools can not be end-states in themselves.
Like self-control and reason, these tools are only stepping stones to
Self-Actualization and happiness.
In order to evaluate the life of Felix Mendelssohn from the perspective of Aristotle's theory, we must first examine the necessary conditions to begin the ascent of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. He was sufficiently lucky to avoid the problems that plagued other composers, lack of money and recognition. Mendelssohn was born into a rich family which guaranteed him financial security for his entire life. He was widely admired and enormously popular, and his death was mourned throughout Europe. Mendelssohn clearly had well-developed moral virtues, and his high degree of self-discipline enabled him to avoid the first level of pitfalls and move on to the intellectual virtues.
His personal motto, "What is worth doing at all is worth doing well", suggests that Mendelssohn spent his life working to improve his skills in the areas that he considered significant, to be all that he could be. However, this perfectionist attitude and the indication that excessive work contributed to his demise raise the question of whether he was truly living his life according to the Golden Mean. Was it a compulsion to work that cut his life short, and did it prevent him from achieving his potential?
"Overworking" was Mendelssohn's habit throughout his life, and his death cannot really have been caused primarily by this practice. Considering that he had experienced ill health on several occasions and that the death of his sister was an unexpected blow which coincided with his sickness, it was really a final reversal of fortune that led to Mendelssohn's early death. His policy of constantly pushing himself to his personal limit was not a lack of moral virtue but was instead an indication of his unyielding pursuit of Self-Actualization. So how can the criticisms of Mendelssohn's work be reconciled with the other evidence in terms of Aristotle's theory?
Translating the main criticisms into the terms of Virtue Ethics, Mendelssohn has been accused of being too inflexible, too conservative to achieve his full musical capacity which was suggested to be possibly greater than Mozart's early in his career. The critics suggest that while most err on one side of the Golden Mean, Mendelssohn erred on the other, living, thinking, and composing in such a narrowly-defined way that he was unable to enhance his music with the emotional depth needed to be considered a first rank composer. One of the implications of this sort of criticism is that the very smooth and comfortable nature of Mendelssohn's lifestyle which allowed him to thrive also inhibited his artistic growth, a notion that conflicts with Aristotle's theory.
In the end, an Aristotelian analysis of an individual's life can not be based upon the standards of others which is what invalidates these external assessments. Mendelssohn's untiring search for perfection in each piece shows that by his standards he was able to achieve his potential. Further evidence is given by his virtually invariant happiness, a result of his satisfaction with his progress toward personal goals. Indeed, he became unhappy specifically when his progress was stifled. For most of his life, Mendelssohn was a happy man in the truest Aristotelian sense, in a way that can be completely explained by Aristotle's theory. Felix Mendelssohn's life seems to be the perfect demonstration and confirmation of Aristotle's Self-Realization Theory.
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Copyright ©1996-1999 by David Walker. All rights reserved. I mean it.