Lecture on Aristotle, Virtue and Merit
Basics of Ancient World Cosmology:
Before getting into Aristotle and his understanding of the virtuous person, it is important to understand the world view of the ancient world. Many ancient cultures (including the Babylonians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, and even the Hawaiians) have a very similar cosmology. Cosmology is the term used to cover the ancient study of the world, which included physics, psychology, biology, medicine, philosophy, religion and most areas of study all together as a single study by the educated and the wise.
The world was thought to be like a big person (making the individual person a microcosm or mini-cosmos within the larger cosmos or world). The elements, including fire, air, earth and water stacked from lightest on the top (fire and air) to heaviest on the bottom (earth and water). This was not only observed in nature (star fire above, winds next, then earth above water) but also in humans (the mind is fire and visions of light, which heats and activates the breath in speech like orders and commands, and the water in the lower regions and functions of the body which often was identified with chaos). Order and reason were identified with the higher elements (fire and air, mind and breath) and chaos and desire were identified with the lower elements (earth and water, flesh and fluid). When the stack of elements is in order the cosmos and the individual are in order, and when the stack of elements are out of order the cosmos and individual are out of order. The higher elements were believed to be eternal just as the cosmos itself and Being are eternal, and the lower elements were believed to be temporary like the individuals and beings are temporary.
One can find in religion and philosophy in ancient cultures (including Christianity, Buddhism, Indian Philosophy, Greek Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy) the same message repeated again and again: reason and the mind must be placed above and in charge of desire and the body. The eternal way of things is to be placed above the temporary ways and wants. This gains the individual wisdom, reason and insight into the workings of the cosmos. When the lower elements are in charge, there is ignorance and destruction. This framework is important for understanding each individual system of ancient thought as well as their overall similarities and differences.
Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
Plato’s student and the tutor of Alexander the Great and Ptolemy, Aristotle is one of the most famous and influential of Greek philosophers. He was primarily interested in biology and speciation, but his works on the soul (mind, self), Logic, Ethics and politics became more important than his works on the animal kingdom. He was a central influence on the origins of Christianity, Islamic thought and European thought in the middle ages. While he is sometimes called the first scientist and the first logician, his views on these subjects expanded ancient world cosmology and were not the birth of these subjects. Aristotle has been claimed by the West as a founder, but the Islamic world also considers him one of their own and he is depicted in different ways depending on who does the illustrating (see the beautiful Islamic image in the Wikipedia article that portrays him as a very dark skinned holy sage for an interesting counter to Renaissance paintings).
Aristotle’s conception of virtue and human purpose is entirely in line with ancient world cosmology. He believes that everything has a single purpose for which it is intended. It is as if the cosmos, Being itself, is a big mind that creates things for particular uses, and individual beings thrive if they are serving their purposes (ergon in the Greek, or “work”, “job”). We are reasonable to the degree that we see the purposes of things, serve our own natural purpose and use things in accord with their natural purposes. This is known as the teleological view, as the study of purpose is called teleology. Notice that teleology is very big with more traditional people today (including evangelical Christians) but modern Philosophy and Science have broken from this view and find it quite antiquated.
For Aristotle, having oneself in the proper stack and order is being in accord with one’s nature, and this means putting theory and soul/intellect on top and putting each lower element of our minds and bodies in the service of the highest part of the mind, the intellect, which corresponds to the highest good of the cosmos itself. Just as the intellect should be pursued because it is the best and highest part, the good itself should be pursued simply in itself and for no other purpose. This is similar to Kant and Moral theory, but absolutely at odds with Mill and consequentialism which believe that good is the end of things but would not say that intellect should be pursued in itself without regards to the consequences and practical ends. Aristotle does believe that the human individual will naturally flourish and be happy if they are stacked up right and in accord with the human purpose of intellectual activity, but this is secondary and the byproduct of serving ones purpose.
Similarly, in matters of politics, Aristotle believes that the city is not primarily a living arrangement but rather for producing the elite and the virtuous. Thus, the city is not for making people happy but having each individual do their natural job. Just like his teacher Plato argues in his Republic, Aristotle argues that each person must have one thing they do best and it is therefore best for them to do that thing and that one thing only. Unfortunately, both Plato and Aristotle argued that slaves and peasants are meant to serve the aristocracy and women are clearly meant to serve men (Mill will strongly criticize these views, one of the first and few outspoken critics of the subjugation of slaves and women).
Consider the example of lying. The moralist would say that lying is wrong in and of itself, like Kant argues that lying goes against our reason by categorical necessity. The consequentialist would say that lying has bad consequences and results in pain and unhappiness. The virtue theorist, however, would argue that the purpose of the mind and human being is truth in and of itself and so lying is not in accord with human nature (or rather, righteous and proper human nature).
Modern Virtue Theory
While Aristotle’s virtue ethics and teleological theory were popular in the middle ages in Europe, there was a decline during the 1700s and 1800s as science rose to prominence and questioned teleology. Kant’s laws and Mill’s consequences became the dueling positions of ethics. Recently, however, there has been a revival of virtue theory that rose along with increasing individualism and criticism of positivistic conceptions of science. If we become critical of the idea that there are simple laws that can be known, it opens a space for a return to the idea of the virtuous person beyond airtight moral laws or the complete calculation of consequences.
However, if we do not believe that things have simple and singular purposes just as we have grown critical of laws and calculation, virtue ethics has a problem: what virtues should the virtuous person have? Often these virtues are mental: intellect, wisdom, reason, and understanding. This has been neglectful of the physical body (the home of the physical brain, of course). Another issue that has come to light is the interpersonal aspect of virtue. Virtue has typically been described as personal, but the individual is naturally social (curiously Aristotle argues this when justifying his political views of the city and its proper organization). Confucius, one of the great moral geniuses of the world, has a very interpersonal view of ethics and thus we will consider his views next under the concept of balance (such as the balance of self and other).
As a final note, consider Jain (the ancient Indian forerunner of Buddhism) anti-merit theory:
In Hinduism and Buddhism, karma can be positive (merit and blessing) or negative (demerit and sin). Thus, karma can either help you up or drag you down. For Jains, karma is ALWAYS NEGATIVE, always weight that keeps you down, always division or blockage between you and the ALL. Thus, one tries best to avoid accumulating karma and to destroy the karma one has already accumulated. Jains are famous for their doctrine of the negativity of karma and the radical nonviolence that follows from this principle. Jains wear masks to prevent insects from flying in their mouths, sweep the ground to avoid killing insects (even though the killing would be unintentional, it would still be an accumulation of karma), influenced other Indian thought in promoting vegetarianism, and even don’t eat root vegetables as it kills (up-roots) the whole plant rather than that plucked from the plant. Thus, any accumulation of virtue or merit is distinguishing and distancing oneself from the whole. Sharing much with ancient cosmology and Aristotle, Jains would argue that the purpose of the individual is to join the whole without distinction and therefore we should work to LOSE merit and karma, not gain it.