Saturday, May 14, 2022

American Manifesto - Virtue

Aristotle (384–322 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher, student of Plato, and teacher to Alexander the Great.  In the Lyceum, which was a location where great thinkers of ancient Greece gathered to debate a plethora of ideas, Aristotle founded the Peripatetic philosophical school which taught the philosophies of Aristotle.  The various philosophies and teachings of Aristotle included, but were not limited to, his refined ideas on economics, science, political theory, mathematics, and ethics.  As far as Aristotle’s teachings on ethics, his most important contribution to ethics and his seminal work in the field is his book, Nicomachean Ethics (“Ethics”).   In what seems to be the world’s first “self-help” book, Aristotle’s Ethics delves into his ideas and conclusions on how to live a good, fulfilling, happy, and virtuous life and, to this day, influences our ever-evolving philosophical thought.

In Ethics, Aristotle posits that each persons’ main desire is happiness.  In the ancient Greek, the word happiness does not mean a simple joy or spontaneous bliss but being blessed and living a good life.  It is through this definition, eudaimonia in ancient Greek, Aristotle explains the nature of living a good life.  Through rational and conscious action and thought, Aristotle teaches that, by constantly and deliberately living a virtuous life, individuals can achieve this eudaimonia.  The key words in Aristotle’s conclusion are “consciously” and “deliberately.”  It is not enough to be virtuous by happenstance or only when it is convenient.  Aristotle’s ethical philosophy demands that individuals deeply and rationally and habitually contemplate each of their actions in order to assure that such action is virtuous thus leading to goodness and do so willingly.

These virtues, as outlined in Ethics are as follows:  courage, temperance, moderation, generosity, ambition, patience, courtesy, honesty, humor, modesty, and justice.  The common theme in all of Aristotle’s virtues is balance.  Aristotle posits that each of these virtues is the middle ground between two extremes.  For example, the virtue of courage is the mean between careless, thoughtless behavior and timidity.  A soldier who blindly runs into battle without conscious and deliberate contemplation is rash while the soldier who cowers in inaction is a coward.  Between the rash man and the coward is the brave man who is consciously aware of the consequences of his actions and rationally, voluntarily, and willingly accepts the risks thereof.  Likewise, the virtue of moderation is the average between over-indulgence and extreme thrift, and the virtue of courtesy is the norm between argumentative rudeness and obedient servility.  Aristotle argues that man is free, but at the same time, true liberty of man is defined as the ability of man to act freely but through virtuous self-restraint. 

As stated previously, Ethics reads as an ancient “self-help” book.  True happiness (and consequently self-esteem) is derived from within our minds and our hearts.  By deliberately behaving virtuously, we can achieve a self-worth by and through his conscious and purposeful actions.  Aristotle argues that such virtuous behavior should be taught to children at a young age in order to create good habits and that it is not enough to simply study the virtues, but one must continually practice living virtuously in order to be excellent.  

Being predicated upon a single human nature that is invariable across periods and cultures, Aristotle concludes that morality is dependent upon the situation and upon the realities of the human condition.  Since Aristotle's list of virtues may vary from one culture to the next, it is said that Aristotle lacks moral absolutes. This conclusion could be true but for two things.  First, while the lists of virtues may differ from one culture or time to the next, they won't differ much since all of them are grounded in a common human nature.  Second, such common human nature is the basis of the other aspect of Aristotle's ethic which natural law theory and a theory to be discussed at the later time. We all possess the same nature, seek the same goods for the satisfaction of our needs, and these goods all dictate certain rules of behavior for their fulfillment.  For example, Christians are taught that absolute moral truths do exist, and they are found in the Bible.  

Aristotle’s Ethics continued to be read and studied for over two millennia.  In the 6th century, Aristotle’s Ethics was taught in Byzantium, but for nearly 1,500 years, the writings of Aristotle, including Ethics, were generally lost to Europeans.  When Aristotle’s teachings were rediscovered during medieval period in Europe and translated into Latin, his philosophies were again highly read and studied in earnest in the western world.  Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century priest and philosopher, was deeply influenced by Ethics and even made efforts to synthesize Aristotle’s Ethics with Christian principles.   During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, John Calvin, a French theologian and Christian reformer, was also profoundly influenced by Aristotle’s Ethics which “continued to be the foremost authority for moral philosophy among humanists, including the French humanism of Calvin’s youth.”   Since Aquinas through the present day, Aristotle’s Ethics has survived the test of time and continues to be deeply influential in the field of ethics.

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