Monday, February 16, 2015

The Path to Excellence

Earlier posts noted how Aristotle defines happiness—the end, purpose, or goal of life—as a rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue or excellence.

Moreover, he identifies specific virtues or excellencies that a good man should acquire.He notes that these virtues reflect that right balance between intellect and desire, reason and emotion, or head and heart. Right reasoning must be accompanied by right desires.

So how do we actually acquire these virtues?

Aristotle gives a strange answer, one that is counter-intuitive to most people.

Using the example of the virtue of courage, Aristotle writes that the path to become a courageous person starts with performing courageous acts.

Wouldn't someone have to possess courage already to perform a courageous act? Wouldn't someone already have the ability to act bravely under a sudden attack or persevere and overcome the fears that often accompany disease or poverty or some other challenge?

To a point, yes. Aristotle, however, conceives of virtues not as a one time or occasional manifestation. He sees them as parts of a person's permanent character. And that comes through habituation. When one performs that first act of courage, that makes is easier to perform a second, and a third, etc. Soon courage will become an ingrained habit.

The same goes for other virtues as well.

For example, everyone knows people who seem always to be always there for others in a time of need. Sometimes we say they have the gift of compassion, as if they came into the world that way. Not really; they have the habit of compassion. They responded to some one's need that first opportunity and then repeated that response again and again. Soon it became a habit. Now they do even think about it anymore.

Again, everyone knows people who respond to crises with fits of rage. They curse, they throw things, and they hit things (or people). How did they get that way? They made it their habit. They may at one time have reacted in frustrations in all kinds of ways. Through repeated fits of rage, however, they eventually made that their habit. And now people who know them, when a crisis arrives, come to expect a display of a fit of rage.

From the perspective of the big picture, it gets back to the question of human nature.

Everyone has an opinion about what is exactly human nature. Some people, especially liberals, seem humans as essentially good. Others, like Christian fundamentalists, refer to human nature as “sin nature.” Many anthropologists, aware of the endless diversity of customs around the world, deny that humans have a nature at all.

If someone asked Aristotle, he might answer that human nature is potentiality. And we actualize our potentiality through the choices we make by our reason and will. Unlike animals driven by instinct, humans must use reason to reflect upon what kind of persons they will be. In that sense, we are the only creatures that make ourselves.

So through our choices and repeated actions, we create habits good and bad. Many actions or habits become so ingrained that we do not even think about them. They become second nature.

So when our reasoning is right and the desires are right, human virtues or excellencies become part of our character through habituation. When they do, Aristotle evaluates that person as morally virtuous.

Likewise, when the reasoning or desires are wrong, human vices likewise become part of our character through habituation. Aristotle calls people dominated by these vices the morally vicious.


CW said...

Well that’s interesting.

I have often said (to the point of annoying everyone I know, I’m sure) that the trouble with liberals (or leftists or progressives, whatever you want to call them) is that they are driven by the wrong motives, which is why any attempt to reason with them or persuade them with logic and facts always proves to be an exercise in futility. Barack Obama is interested in securing power for the Left, transferring wealth to his voting base and reinforcing his own sense of self-importance. Every action he takes is to satisfy these motives. The consequence of a president being driven by such motives instead of wanting to protect and nurture this country as a POTUS should is that he must constantly lie, trick and manipulate the public to achieve what he wants. I don’t know if that’s the sort of thing Aristotle was referring to but I like to think we’re kind of on the same page.

RightDetour said...

Hey CW!

Aristotle came at this from another angle. He classified governments into rule by one, rule by the few, and rule by the many.He wrote that any of these governments is true or legitimate if the goal is the common good of all the citizens. He called the three types monarchy, aristocracy and polity. They become defective, however, when the governments rule for the benefit of themselves or a class interest. A monarchy becomes a tyranny when he rules for his own benefit. An aristocracy is rule by the best. They are usually the more wealthy. An aristocracy becomes defective when they begin to rule in the interest of the wealthier citizens and becomes an oligarchy. A polity degenerates for the same reason. It is rule by the many. When a constitution includes everyone, the poor outnumber everyone else. And if the government under such a constitution begins to use power for the benefit of the poor rather than the common good, a polity degenerates into a democracy.

RightDetour said...

That is the original definition of democracy. Aristotle did not define a democracy as one in which all the citizens--rich and poor--make the laws directly like we think of democracy today. In a polity, all the citizens--rich and poor-make the laws, but they do so in the common interest. In a democracy, rich and poor also make the laws. But when the more numerous poor outvote everyone else in their own interest instead of the common interest, Aristotle calls it a democracy.

RightDetour said...

He writes, "In democracies the rich ought to be treated with restraint. There should be no redistribution of property nor of income, such as goes unnoticed in some constitutions."

That is problem with progressives: they want to make laws for the benefit of the poor rather than for the common interest of all. And that includes redistribution of wealth.

CW said...

Thanks for the great explanation, V.L., and may I say that you are much less cynical than I am when it comes to the motives of progressives. I happen to believe that the motives of progressives follow a bell-curve distribution, with a small number (the Obamas, Reids, Pelosis, et al) driven purely by lust for power/control and self-importance; another small fraction driven by a sincere desire to help the poor (these are people such as nuns who actually walk the walk); and the vast majority whose primary motive is to own the APPEARANCE of altruism and thus feel good about themselves with no concern for what it costs others. But IMHO it’s not noble to help the poor at the expense of someone else when you don’t even bother to examine the reasons for someone’s poverty, or allow those paying the bill to do so. Aristotle had it right when he said, “There should be no redistribution of property nor of income.” Wish I knew how we could get there.

RightDetour said...

We are not as far apart as you might think. The poor vote for progressives, so that they will make laws exclusively for the benefit of the poor. You are correct, to note, the appearance of altruism. Progressives will keep supporting redistribution because it wins them elections and keeps them in power, even when they are shown how the policies do not improve the condition of the poor and/or are fiscally unsustainable. In that sense, progressives act like Aristotle's tyrants, ruling for the benefit of themselves. Keeping their party in power means more than principles or the common good.

CW said...

Very well said, V.L.