Basics of Ancient World Cosmology
Before getting into Aristotle and his understanding of the virtuous person, it is important to understand the cosmology 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) had a very similar cosmology. Cosmology is the term used to cover the ancient understanding 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 shaped like a 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 (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). 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, and the good of the whole is to be placed above the desires of any particular part. 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, 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 Islamic thought and from them on Medieval European thought. While Aristotle 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 Europeans as a founding father, but Muslims also considers him one of their own and he is depicted in different ways depending on who does the illustrating, as shown in this Islamic image that portrays him as a very dark skinned holy sage for an interesting counter to Renaissance paintings. Aristotle, on the right with a sage-like halo that emanates from his powerful mind, contemplates with a similarly haloed student, likely Al-Mamun, an Islamic caliph who was a great patron of the arts, science, and philosophy.
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, which can also be called intelligent design, is very big with more traditional people today (including evangelical Christians) but modern Philosophy and Science have broken from this view.
For Aristotle, having oneself in 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, reason, 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. Virtue is a capacity of the human being, an ability to follow one’s true nature. This is similar to Kant, whom we will cover next, but at odds with Mill, who 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 human nature, but happiness is secondary and the hopeful byproduct of being virtuous and serving one’s 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 outspoken critics of the subjugation of slaves and women. For Mill, rather than argue that particular people have a natural place, we should simply try to make everyone happy. Aristotle would respond that being in accord with nature and putting people in their proper place is the best recipe for everyone’s happiness.
To compare Aristotle’s idea of virtue to other concepts we will cover next, consider the example of lying. The moralist would say that lying is wrong in and of itself, like Kant who argues that lying goes against objective reason. The Utilitarian, like Mill, 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 righteous and proper human nature. The advantage of virtue as an ethical concept is that it is neither bound to strict rules, nor is it entirely dependent on consequences. We will return to Aristotle briefly when we consider balance as an ethical concept.
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 two major dueling ethical positions. Recently, however, there has been a revival of virtue theory that rose along with increasing individualism and criticism of 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 and mind. 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. 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 we will concentrate on his thought, while mentioning Aristotle, in considering balance.
As a final note, a counter position to virtue, consider the Jains, the ancient Indian forerunners of Buddhism, and their negative theory of karma. 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, such as carrots and potatoes, as it requires uprooting and killing the whole 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 to become powerful.
Kant, Principles & Morals
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that morals and laws should be followed universally, in all situations, times and places. His position is opposed by John Stuart Mill, who believed that morals are only in the service of getting good consequences and making us happy. Do the ends justify the means? Should we create morals and laws and always stick to them, or should we do whatever results in the best consequences? This remains one of the biggest oppositions of perspective in ethics. There are positives and negatives, benefits and problems, with both positions. As Europe rose in the 1600s and 1700s, science had begun discovering many new truths about the world, aided much by mechanical innovations from the Tang and Song dynasties of China and algebraic math from the Islamic Golden Age. These new discoveries created an opposition between Rationalists, who argued that the world has absolute laws that we can know certainly by reason, and Empiricists, who argued that we use reason to form assumptions that could always be wrong.
One of the most famous Empiricists was David Hume, who argued that one can only assume that one billiard ball causes another billiard ball to move, and causation is an idea and assumption created by the mind. Kant famously wrote that he was “awoken from his dogmatic slumbers” by Hume’s skepticism. Kant wanted to balance Empiricism with Rationalism, but he comes down more on the Rationalist side. In all knowledge, including ethics, Kant believed we must use our reason to figure out universal laws of our rational and ordered universe. Notice that Kant trusts that the world and the mind are reasonable and that there are universal laws for us to grasp.
The central example we consider is the moral Do Not Lie. Kant believed that if we use objective reason, we will come to the conclusion that one should never lie, which reason can show us this with certainty. He argued that we seek unconditional and universal laws in ethics, as well as every area of human knowledge, which Kant also calls the categorical imperative. Kant argues that one should only act in a way that one could expect everyone to act everywhere at all times. If everyone lied all the time, then society would collapse. Therefore, Kant argued, it is one’s duty to not lie and hold to this moral and law in all situations, regardless of consequences. Like the British sea captain who goes down with the ship, Kant believes we should always do our duty.
Consider the Guy with the Butcher Knife thought experiment, not an idea of Kant’s but an illustrative example used in ethics classes today. Let us say you are at home, and the doorbell rings. You answer it, and your friend runs in looking afraid and hides in your kitchen. A minute later the doorbell rings again, you answer it, and a scary guy with a butcher knife asks you where your friend is.
Kant would not be against shutting the door and saying nothing to the scary guy, but Kant would argue that it is wrong to lie to him and say you don’t know or that your friend took off down the street the other way. Even though we can assume that if you lie it would improve your friend’s chances of living in good health, Kant would argue that this would be wrong, even if your friend ends up killed by the guy you could have lied to. For Kant, it is always wrong to lie, regardless of the consequences. We can contrast this with the position of Mill and Utilitarianism we will study next, which would argue that in some circumstances the lie is the lesser of two evils and one should seek the greater happiness of yourself, your friend and society rather than stick dogmatically to principles and laws.
An interesting factor here is that moralists like Kant believe that one should anchor ethics in good beginnings while empiricists and skeptics believe one should anchor ethics in good ends. Kant believes that one must start with good intentions and principles no matter the consequences, while Mill believes that one should aim at the best consequences no matter the principles or intentions one has. As usual, both sides agree that one should have good intentions, principles and consequences, but they come down on opposite sides when arguing for what is really the essence or importance of the matter.
While Kant’s position is strong in its universalism, never wavering from principle, it has its drawbacks. Few would argue that it is never acceptable to lie, even if it means saving human lives. Most, when faces with the butcher knife guy thought experiment, find it acceptable to lie if it means improving the chances of living for one’s friend. One recent philosopher, Bernard Williams, who taught at UC Berkeley, even went so far as to accuse Kant and other moralists of moral self-indulgence, valuing the preservation of principle over the preservation of human life. Of course, Kant and other moralists would argue that sticking to principles is the essence of what makes life truly valuable and meaningful, and if we compromise our principles depending on the situation, we put our value of human life in danger itself.
We can also think of situations in which traditional principles are wrong, and new situations bring this to light. Unfortunately, like many scientists of his day, Kant was quite racist, and argued that there were separate races of human beings and they should not be mixed. Recent discoveries in genetics has thrown this centuries-old picture out, but many still cling to these antiquated notions. What happens when our principles and ideas of purity and universality are shown to be wrong, or harmful to others? In these cases, sticking to one’s principles seems quite wrong indeed.
There is another problem with Kant’s position. Kant assumed that human reason, when pure and objective, can determine morals and reasons that were entirely non-contradictory, as he assumed about logic, mathematics and science as well. What happens in situations when our morals contradict themselves? There are two possible cases of contradiction that can arise given a set of morals that are supposed to be followed universally.
First, two morals can contradict each other. We can see this in the thought experiment of the guy with the butcher knife. If we have two morals, such as Do Not Lie AND Preserve Human Life, we can find ourselves in situations where if we do not lie we fail to preserve human life. Which moral takes precedence? Which do we follow at the expense of the other? If we are supposed to follow each and every one of our morals universally, regardless of situation, we should not have to choose. Isaac Asimov, the celebrated science fiction author, explored this issue in his novel I, Robot (which was later turned into a movie starring Will Smith that barely resembled the book I loved as a kid). While robots are programmed to preserve the lives of humans, follow human orders, and preserve their own existence, situations arise in which these cannot all be followed that the programmers cannot anticipate. What happens if a robot is ordered to do a task that will destroy itself, but it knows that this will mean it cannot later save human beings or follow further orders?
Second, a single moral can contradict itself. We can see this in the example of the trolley car thought experiment. What if a trolley is going to hit ten people, unless we pull a lever that will make it change course and kill only one instead? Either way, people will die, and the only way to preserve life is to act in a way that will kill someone else. In Asimov’s I, Robot, there are situations where two humans give conflicting orders, and the robot must determine which order to follow and which to ignore.
Humans in ancient times recognized this dilemma. The central and most celebrated part of the Mahabharata, the ancient Indian epic, is the Bhagavadgita, the story of crown prince Arjuna hesitating before fighting a civil war against his family and former friends and teachers. He is counseled by Krishna as an incarnation of Vishnu that as a warrior it is Arjuna’s duty to fight the just fight even if is against everyone else. In the peak moment, Krishna reveals his true self to Arjuna, which is so dazzling, complex and monstrous that Arjuna trembles with fright. Krishna teaches Arjuna that if you do your duty not for yourself but for the cosmos, you are free of doubt and death. In this case, Arjuna is supposed to obey the god and his duty to the cosmos above obeying and preserving the lives of his family and friends.
Aristotle similarly argues, while discussing matters of logic, that it is never right to kill your father, but among the Triballi tribe, the gods sometimes demand it. Since the gods are one’s super-parents and one’s obligations to them supersedes one’s obligations to one’s parents, he says that the Triballi rightly sacrifice their fathers. Once again, obedience to the gods, one’s super-parents, trumps obedience to one’s parents.
We find a similar tragic dilemma in the ancient Greek play Antigone by Sophocles. Antigone has two brothers who fight over the title of King of Thebes. After both slay each other, Creon takes the throne and declares that one brother is to be honored as a hero but the other is to be refused burial and left to decay on the battlefield. Antigone, drawn between obeying the dictates of the state and the honor of her family, defies the new king and tries to bury her brother and is condemned to death in court. Antigone is loyal, but she must make a choice: Which is the greater loyalty, family or state? Either way, loyalty to someone is disloyalty to someone else, just as freedom for someone is limitation for someone else.
We examine the pros and cons of Mill’s position next. Another contrary position to both Kant and Mill is Nietzsche, who we will also hear from soon. Nietzsche does not trust human reason, cultures or institutions entirely, so he trusts neither Kant nor Mill. Nietzsche argues that people who believe they know the true morals and people who say they know what led to the best consequences for everyone are capable of deceiving themselves and thinking they know what is best for everyone. Unfortunately, there are studies that show those who are most self-certain are often the least self-aware. Neither Kant nor Mill’s position completely protects us from denial and projection, so it is a good idea to attempt a balance between the two positions, as well as consider opposite points of view and information that does not fit with our judgements and reasoning.