“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Everyone in the US knows those words, but how many think about them? Life is pretty obvious. It’s the state or condition of being alive. Liberty again is obvious, but “the pursuit of happiness;” what is that? Because it’s related to the idea of pursuit, it’s a goal, a telos. So happiness is a goal. The other two items are conditions that are necessary to reach that goal, to be alive, and to be free, whether in the sense of not being a slave, or in the sense of being free to choose. The original draft was something like “life, liberty, and property.” Property, however, is not a goal, it is a means. My house is the means by which I obtain shelter from the elements. The things in my house are the means whereby I cook my food, store my books, sleep, entertain myself, write, or whatever. Likewise with money, it is a means by which I fulfill my purposes. By switching from property to happiness Jefferson, Franklin, and the others made a switch from something that was solely about means to a document that made a statement about moral purpose, the achievement of happiness.
Jefferson, et al. did not define happiness, that was left to the individual to define, or pursue, and the individual is left free to make bad choices in that pursuit. The individual may feel the 60s triumvirate of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” is the path to happiness, or money, or a clean house, or any other thing. Aristotle considers at least some of these things (sex and money) as goods. (He says nothing about recreational drugs, and rock and roll hadn’t come around.)
Aristotle has some words here and in the Nicomachean Ethics, on what constitutes happiness. It should be pointed out at the beginning that he considers that all men aim to be happy, You could say that just as Vatican II postulated a universal call to holiness that Aristotle postulates a universal call to happiness. Now holiness in this life leads to happiness in the next, at least in the views of believers. Non-believers, or those who do not accept the immortality of the soul obviously aim for happiness in this life. In either case the aim is the same. Both believer and non-believer are united in seeking happiness through the same means. This is true within the context of Aristotle’s ethical approach. It may not be true in other contexts, or in other systems. For the nonce, however, lets bury the hatchet and assume that both believer and non-believer can use Aristotle’s ethics in the pursuit of happiness.
The eight books of the EE deal with a variety of different topics, which are summarized in the table of contents thusly:
Happiness the Chief Good Virtue, Freedom, and Responsibility The Moral Virtues Justice Intellectual Virtue Continence and Incontinence: Pleasure Friendship Virtue, Knowledge, Nobility, and Happiness
Aristotle considers that the chief good is not the procurement of any particular good, such as money, sex, friends, or anything of that sort, but the overarching concept that each of those things is supposed by some people to produce, happiness.
Aristotle roots happiness in virtue. Now modern post-structuralist types like to suppose that there are binary opposites, such as hot/cold, brave/coward. Aristotle sees virtue as occupying a middle ground between two different kinds of vices. One vice is defect, not enough of something, and the other is excess. He then presents a table that lists 14 virtues, their excess qualities, and their defects.
￼ This version of the list comes from the translation over at the Perseus project. The translation by Anthony Kenny uses softness, toughness, and hardihood for 11, and so on, but the reader should be able to cope with the small differences.
This, rather than the Nicomachean Ethics, may be the source for Spenser’s comment that The Faerie Queen was to exemplify Aristotle’s twelve virtues. Spenser, however, exemplifies Holiness and Chastity, which are not part of Aristotle’s list.
Aristotle, despite listing 14 virtues, does not discuss 14, or 12, as Spenser claimed, but 6 moral virtues, which are discussed at some length, and a final chapter in Book 3 on assorted good and bad qualities of character.
Each virtue is discussed in terms of its excess and its defect. Now virtue gets a pretty bad rap in most art and literature. Bad girls and bad boys tend to be more interesting than people who are never tempted. It’s really hard to dislike Mozart’s Don Giovanni as set forth in da Ponte’s libretto. The Don gets a lot of good, spritely music, and we’re rooting for him to finally get the girl. His final damnation may satisfy our moral sense, but wouldn’t we all like to flirt with pretty peasant girls on their wedding day? Aristotle’s point, however, is that while vice is easy, virtue is a balance between those two extremes. Some things, however, such as the Don’s predilection for married women, are wrong in themselves. There can be no moderation in adultery because it is wrong in itself. Aristotle also makes a passing reference to male homosexuality (1148b) which he sees as bestial. Presumably he sees it, in the passage referred to, as being inherently wrong.
Most things in life are not matters such as adultery or homosexuality, they’re more likely to be things like how much wine can I have with dinner; how much should I eat; am I right to get angry over this; how should I feel about this, and other matters that are questions of habitual action. So it’s a question of building up the right habits, of being courageous, of being temperate. These things are capable of being measured by degrees.
Courage exists in the mid-ground between cowardice and recklessness. What Aristotle does not address is the question of bravery in the pursuit of a bad cause. There were a lot of brave men on both sides of the American Civil War, and generals like Lee, Longstreet, Jackson, Stuart, and Forrest were better generals than Burnside, Hooker, and just about everybody except Grant. Eighty years later you’d find capable German generals like Rommel and Manstein, and some vainglorious poseurs like Clark on the American side. How does the wrongness of their cause affect our evaluation of their courage? When the 9/11 hijackers flew the planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were they brave or rash? (I rather think they were deluded and stupid. If someone suggested I fly a plane into a building, I’d be inclined to say, “You think that’s a great idea. You do it.”) As I think about it I’m inclined, in the case of the 9/11 hijackers, to believe that they were rash. There was no hope of survival, and they did injury to people who were not warriors, and who could not fight back.
Aristotle also does not address cases in which courage involves other men. Evan Thomas in Sea of Thunder recounts the actions of Cdr. Ernest Evans at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Evans’ actions involved his whole ship, a destroyer, part of Taffy 3, in attacking heavier ships (battleships, cruisers, etc.) Evans actions involved not just himself, but his crew. Does his bravery, and his willingness, to confront heavier ships justify taking his ship and his crew into that danger? Was it really bravery, or was it recklessness because it endangered others? Evans was honored by the military for his actions, and most of the crew survived, while he did not.
Aristotle’s views on ethics are more complex than the tri-partite breakdown of defect, virtue, excess that we’ve been discussing, and we might find an answer in a further breakdown that he gives later on.
Aristotle addresses liberality, which should not be confused with liberalism, but is more in line with generosity. Liberality is referred to the getting and spending of wealth. Some people see the acquisition of money as an end in itself. They want to have x million or billion dollars. The usual person wants to have money to do something with it. I might like, given unlimited funds, to have a Bugatti Veyron ($1,705,769 list). In my actual circumstances, however, that would be prodigality. The mere acquisition of money with no thought given to putting it to actual use is meanness. When Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol, refuses another slice of bread because it’s a ha’penny extra, that’s meanness. His lack of furniture in his room, and his threadbare bedclothes are again signs of meanness. When he’s undergone his conversion we’re supposed, I think, not to take it as swinging to the extreme of prodigality, but to the middle path of liberality so that he gives the servants something that serves as recompense for his past hardness, and as a guarantee of future liberality.
Some years back I was on retreat and a fellow retreatant, a priest, told me a story that had made a spiritual bouquet, essential a card listing devotions that will be made for a person, for someone. It was quite beautiful. The mother superior asked her if she was proud of it. She said she was, and the mother superior tore it up. I was horrified. That’s not what she meant, she didn’t mean the sin of pride, she meant that she was satisfied with it, and that it was the best she could offer. The priest agreed with me. Aristotle sees pride not as a defect, but as a virtue. In Aristotle’s case though what he sees as the vices are those given in 12 up above. Vanity and meanness of spirit are the vices associated with the virtue of pride. Vanity is closer to what most of us, including the mother superior, think of as pride, while smallness of spirit is more like the mumblings of Uriah Heep, who is quite “umble.”
￼Magnificence is a strange choice for a virtue, but it, like liberality, involves spending money. Andrea del Castagno’s Portrait of a Man, captures that feeling of nobility and pride, perhaps an excessive amount of it by our more modest standards, but, while not as lavish as that shown in later portraits of popes and emperors, the man’s clothes suggest that a fair amount of money was spent, and the mere fact of having a portrait painted at all conveys an indication of the man’s wealth. ￼Sebastiano del Piombo’s picture Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, His Secretary, and Two Geographers likewise suggests a man who is able to maintain a somewhat lavish lifestyle. The ornate table, the expensive book open on the table, and the three scholarly types in the background suggest support of the arts, and the maintenance of a retinue of hangers-on.
Aristotle sees magnificence as a public display of wealth that is appropriate for the situation. To give a loved one a shabby wedding is inappropriate. To host a breakfast catered by Maxim’s or The Four Seasons for the man on the street, unless you’re campaigning, is also inappropriate. This is perhaps the most obviously public of the virtues, outside of justice, that Aristotle discusses. Giving the queen of a major allied power an iPod full of your own speeches conveys not magnificence, after all she can afford the $200 to $400 for an iPod, and to fill it with your own speeches is just vanity, rather it conveys meanness.
Among the other virtues that Aristotle discusses is justice. This is in Book IV, which along with Books V and VI is also found in the Nicomachean Ethics. Artistotle makes the division into distributive and retributive justice that many of us may be familiar with from our high school religion classes. Aristotle also makes a distinction between voluntary and involuntary interactions, and those are further subdivided into clandestine and violent. His list of involuntary violent interactions is interesting. At 1131a he identifies the following as belonging to that group: “assault, false imprisonment, murder, kidnapping, maiming, defamation, and insult.” He doesn’t clarify why he regards the last two as violent, possibly because they lead to violence, or because they do violence to the honor of the person.
It is interesting to reflect that our political climate of the last forty years or so has been marked by the violent interaction of defamation:
Lyndon Johnson—accused of murdering JFK. (See the play Macbird.) Richard Nixon—”Tricky Dick.” Gerald Ford—”Can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.” Ronald Reagan—”Ronnie Raygun.” Stupidity. Alzheimer’s. George H. W. Bush—Amazed at supermarket scanners. Bill Clinton—Killed Vince Foster. Killed Ron Brown. George W. Bush—Bush-Hitler & variants. Stupidity. Liar. “Without honor or integrity.”
All of this is a form of violence upon the person and honor of someone who is entitled to a modicum of respect and decent treatment.
Book V focuses on intellectual virtue, and Book VI on continence and incontinence. It is in Book VI at 1145a that we get not a tripartite breakdown but a six step continuum that runs “brutishness—vice—incontinence—continence—virtue—heroism.” It is here that we might find a solution to my question about Cdr. Evans. Ordinary courage would have been to engage the enemy, and to retreat once it was determined that he had superior forces. To face the enemy despite the overwhelming odds in order to achieve a more favourable outcome, or even despite the certainty of destruction, as Evans did at Samar, or as Leonidas did at Thermopylae, is heroism. It is thus at the extreme of virtue.
Book VII focuses on friendship. There is a line in Paradise Lost that goes something like, “Devil with devil damned firm compact holds.” When I was going to Catholic high school the brother, a Christian Brother, not a street dude, who taught one of the religion classes said that wasn’t the way it was in hell. The bad are incapable of forming true friendships.
Is it true that the bad are incapable of forming true friendships? In any situation where people are enclosed and forced to live together, whether it’s in a hospital, in a prison, in a barracks, or on a ship, there’s a tendency for temporary friendships to form. These tend to be based not on virtue, which Aristotle considers the sine qua non of true friendship, but on either utility or pleasure, the other two grounds of friendship. I haven’t spent a lot of time in prison, but I was arrested once, and spent a short time locked up. I formed temporary friendships with some of the guys around me, but after I was released I never saw any of them again. I don’t think I knew any thoroughly evil people. I’ve known some people that I didn’t like, and that I thought treated me unfairly, but I don’t know if that should be credited toward malevolence or stupidity.
The worst people that I know of, outside of historical characters such as Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, etc., are gangsters, fictional and real. In a gangster film such as Little Ceasar the characters come to a falling out, and their friendship breaks apart as they go on different paths. In a film such as Manhattan Melodrama, however, Jim Wade (William Powell) prosecutes Blackie (Clark Gable) out of a sense of duty, but it is still evident that there is a bond of affection that exists between the two. A crucial difference perhaps may lie in the fact that Blackie is not wholly gone in the path of vice. He has a number of qualities that are attractive, including his willingness to die for his friend. In Angels With Dirty Faces there is a similar dynamic work. Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) share a similar background, but have taken different paths. Jerry winds up helping Rocky go to the chair, and Rocky is willing, perhaps, to go down as a coward in order to help his friend. Again the gangster character, Rocky, is not without good qualities. In more recent films, such as Godfather II, we see that Michael’s immersion in the world of crime has robbed him of the ability to love. He orders the murder of his brother Fredo. He shuts the door on his wife. He enters a state of total alienation and isolation that is hell.
In real life we see this playing out in the various betrayals that have marked the decline of the mob in America. Joe Valachi betrayed his bosses. John Gotti was betrayed. These men were not bound to each other by their virtues, but by their usefulness to each other. When that came to an end they were free to betray each other. When Al Capone found that Anselmi, Giunta, and Scalise had ceased to be useful, he took a baseball bat to their skulls.
Politics, I think, is where the utilitarian friendship is most evident. Consider this: a politician chooses a church because its politics are race based, and will appeal to his constituents. He becomes friends with the pastor, has the man baptize his kids, and dedicates a book to the holy man. When he runs for national office, and the preacher’s racist sermons come to attention, he disavows the preacher, and severs ties with the church. None of these actions indicate friendship based on virtue. The only basis for friendship that’s evident is the preacher’s utilitarian value to the politician. Once that’s gone, the preacher is under the bus as it backs up and flattens him into the street.
I’m sure there are other instances, including some from the other side of the aisle, but that should indicate the said state of friendship among pols.
The final book has more about luck than anything else. It’s very brief, and I don’t think it’s as interesting as the rest of the book.
Aristotle rejects the sentimental emphasis on feeling, which nowadays goes by the name of “empathy.” Back when I was Piling Higher and Deeper I read an 18th century story, possibly by Sterne, about his encounter with a man and his donkey. The author was moved to tears by the poor man and his donkey, and he congratulated himself on his nobility for being moved by the incident. But he did nothing to help either man or donkey. Samuel Johnson had this to say, “Sir, don't be duped by them any more. You will find these very feeling people are not very ready to do you good. They pay you by feeling." David Brooks more recently had this to say about empathy “In the early days of the Holocaust, Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it. Subjects in the famous Milgram experiments felt anguish as they appeared to administer electric shocks to other research subjects, but they pressed on because some guy in a lab coat told them to. David Brooks, in a recent column, had this to say about empathy, “In the early days of the Holocaust, Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it. Subjects in the famous Milgram experiments felt anguish as they appeared to administer electric shocks to other research subjects, but they pressed on because some guy in a lab coat told them to.” The important thing is not feeling, with all the ickiness that implies to a guy, but action. It’s what you do that’s moral, and that you will be judged on.
Anthony Kenny makes that point in his introduction, which is worth reading, that much of what Aristotle says would appear today to be self-centered. It struck me at once this is the kind of criticism that is leveled at Ayn Rand. Even people who should know better and are capable of forming their own opinions choose, when it comes to Rand, to form their opinions based on things like Dirty Dancing. Rand, despite her atheism, is a favorite of some in the Tea Party. Now she has a reputation as a crypto-Nietzschean, based on her fondness for heroic male characters, but the philosophers that she indicates the most admiration for are Aristotle and his followers, including to some extent Aquinas. As I was reading the EE it struck me that her ethical system, insofar as it can be deduced from her novels, was not Nietzschean, but Aristotelian, and that may account for why her philosophy can be reconciled so readily with the Christian beliefs of Tea Partiers. Aristotle has been absorbed, and baptized into Christianity for the past 8 or 900 years, so a philosophy that re-instantiates Aristotelian ethics is compatible with Christianity, despite Rand’s own strictures. Rand makes the same call that Aristotle makes, to pursue happiness through virtue. In her case the highest virtues are those that produce goods and services. Friendship, which Aristotle sees as having three roots, virtue, utility, and pleasure, is in Rand based on an exchange of values, seeing in the other person a value that is shared. This would seem to correspond fairly well to Aristotle’s concept of virtue based friendship.
Both Aristotle and Rand emphasize the call to happiness, and both put it firmly in the pursuit of virtue.
Next up is James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. That will be followed by Kalidasa’s Sakuntala, and the part of the Mahabharata that comes after the Bhagavad Gita.