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)
Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE), the most famous of Greek philosophers along with his teacher Plato and Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was born in Strageira, north of Athens. His father was the personal physician of Amyntas, King of Macedon. Later, Aristotle would become the tutor and advisor to Alexander the Great, himself a Macedonian monarch. When he was old enough, Aristotle traveled to Athens to join Plato’s Academy. He studied with Plato for twenty years until Plato’s death. Tradition has it that the Academy was taken over by Plato’s nephew Speusippus even though Aristotle was more qualified, possibly because Aristotle had come to disagree with Plato’s theory of ideal forms, and so Aristotle left. In this Islamic image above, the great caliph and patron of philosophy, science and the arts, Al-Mamun dreamed that he spoke with Aristotle. Both are portrayed with halos, the fire of the mind and insight, Aristotle is portrayed as much darker in skin than the Muslim ruler, and there is a Chinese-style book that folds in the middle which did not exist in Aristotle’s time but still does in our own, for now.
Aristotle traveled and studied in Ionia and Asia before King Philip of Macedon invited him to tutor his young son Alexander, thirteen at the time, who would go on to conquer and unify ancient Greece within his brief empire along with Egypt and Persia. Aristotle also tutored Ptolemy and Cassander, who after Alexander’s death would take over parts of his divided empire. Aristotle founded his school in Athens in 335 BCE, holding meetings of his students at a public gymnasium named the Lyceum after a form of Apollo as a wolf god. The Lyceum had seen earlier philosophers give public talks, including Socrates and Plato, and it continued to be the meeting place for followers of Aristotle until Athens was sacked by the Romans 250 years later. The followers of Aristotle became known as the Peripatetics, the “Walk-about-ers”, as Aristotle enjoyed walking as he lectured, taught and answered questions. In the mornings, he would walk with a select number of advanced students in detailed, advanced seminars, and then in the evening give general talks open to any who would gather. A study at Stanford has shown that if one wants to retain knowledge through study, one should sit, but if one wants to stimulate critical and creative thinking, walking outside is best.
After Alexander died, Aristotle feared being killed by the Athenians as he was not only a barbarian foreigner and a Macedonian but the tutor of Alexander, who was not loved by the Athenians. After he was accused publicly of impiety towards the gods, showing little in Athens had changed since the death of Socrates, Aristotle left Athens saying he would not allow the Athenians “to sin against philosophy twice”, recalling the death of Socrates due to similar charges. Aristotle, like his teacher Plato “the broad”, wrote on a great number of subjects. Many of his writings are now lost, and scholars debate which of his works are his own or the notes of his students. Diogenes Laertius wrote in Roman times about the work of Aristotle, though none of the works he mentions are known today. It is also possible that many of the texts we have are lecture notes, either Aristotle’s or his students’, and may not have been intended to stand as texts in their own right.
Aristotle believed that humans have a purpose which is the fulfillment of human nature, the aim of the good life. While many goals in life merely lead to further additional goals, such as the goal of making money leading to the goal of pleasure or security, Aristotle that there must be a final goal, an end in itself. What is this final goal, which should be universal and common to all of humanity? Sappho, the famed ancient Lesbian poet, from the island of Lesbos, wrote that each person has something, often different things, that make them happy. For Aristotle, this subjective relativism is not good enough. If we are to understand human nature and the form of the good life, we must find something which is pursued for its own sake and universally valued. This is similar to Socrates in Plato’s Meno, who argues that the good must be the same for all in common. It is reason, the work of philosophy and science, which is the realization of the human, the fulfillment of human nature.
Like his teacher Plato, Aristotle argues that each of the three parts of the soul can be virtuous in their own way. The lowest center of desire, situated in the stomach, is virtuous when it promotes bodily health, what Aristotle calls nutritional virtue. The second center of spirit, situated in the chest, is virtuous when it promotes discipline and justice, what Aristotle calls moral virtue. Finally, the highest center of reason, situated in the head, is virtuous when it promotes study, investigation and contemplation, what Aristotle calls intellectual virtue. Aristotle believes that intellectual virtue leads to moral virtue, and moral virtue leads to nutritional virtue. When we are wise, we are moral, and when we are wise and moral, we are healthy. When we are unhealthy it is because we are undisciplined, and when we are undisciplined it is because we are unwise. A healthy person may not be wise or disciplined, like a talented artist who is neither courageous nor wise, in which case they will likely not remain healthy or talented for long. Similarly, a spirited and disciplined person may be healthy but not be wise, like an athlete or warrior who does not consider the larger picture before acting, in which case they will likely not remain disciplined or healthy for long.
At first, human individuals are neither wise nor disciplined. They must be taught wisdom and discipline by others who are already rational and moral, and then through practice develop what they receive from others to become rational and moral themselves. In acquiring intellectual, moral and nutritional virtue we find that a balance between extremes is best, what Aristotle calls the Doctrine of the Mean. ‘Mean’ here is the middle, not ‘mean’ as rude or aggressive. In all things, we must chart a middle course between excess and deficiency, too much or too little, the two opposite extremes. Aristotle uses the example of gymnastic exercises, which make an individual strong when there is neither too little or too much. Similarly, we should not eat too much or too little if we want to be healthy, as well as not study too much or too little if we want to be wise. Wisdom tells us when we are being too brave or too cowardly, fearing too much or too little.
Aristotle argues that there are many virtues, each a mean between a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. Courage is the mean between haste and cowardice. Temperance is the mean between being too sensitive and too insensitive. Nobility is the mean between vanity and lack of self worth. Sincerity is the mean between boastfulness and self-deprecation. Wittiness is the mean between being too silly or too somber. Modesty is the mean between being too bashful and too shameless. Just like Aristotle’s categories, some of these are interrelated, not categorically distinct, and Aristotle is only somewhat successful at distinguishing them from each other. Like Aristotle, Buddha and Confucius argued that virtue is a balancing act between extremes.
Like virtue, Aristotle believes that justice is itself a balancing act. Agreeing with Plato’s form of the soul found in the Republic, which holds that justice is the lower put in check by the higher, Aristotle emphasizes that this is achieved by moderation. Justice has two sides, distribution of rewards to those who do good, which Aristotle calls distributive justice, and punishment to those who do wrong, which Aristotle calls corrective justice. Distribution and correction, also known as “the carrot and the stick” in the British folk tradition, is used to direct society, planned rationally by the philosophers and implemented courageously by the police.
Conflicts of desire, like social conflicts in the city, result in imbalance, in excess and lack. Socrates argued in Plato’s Republic that no one would knowingly do evil, as they would see that it is not in their best interest, so a conflict in desires can lead to ignorance and a lack of courage or wisdom. For Aristotle, it is possible for a person to knowingly do evil when they are conflicted, as they can see what the wisest or courageous choice would be but are too overwhelmed by an excess of desire or honor to do what they know to be right. In these cases, when our desire for pleasure outweighs our wisdom, we can knowingly do the wrong thing. Socrates, like the Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming, would say that if a person does not do what is right, then they may say they know what is courageous or wise but they in fact do not know, cannot be said to see what is good, and are merely telling others what they expect they want to hear.
Miguel Leon-Portilla argues in his Aztec Thought and Culture that the Aztecs and Mayans had theoretical philosophy like the Greeks, and that a central ethical concept similar to Confucius in China and Aristotle in Greece is “You are my other self”. Aristotle argues that to be ethical is not only to love oneself in moderation, but to love others and the cosmos in moderation, sharing your life in common. Like the Nous of Plato’s Timaeus, which simply contemplates in itself, justice and virtue, like friendship between individuals and scientific comprehension of the cosmos, is sought not because it is pleasurable but because it is an end in itself, a purpose above which there is none higher. While pleasure does follow from science and friendship, these are pursued for their own sake even when they do not result in pleasure, even when we learn truth we find unpleasant or must deal with situations we find difficult. By relating to others through friendship and to the cosmos through investigation and contemplation we complete ourselves, fulfill our human nature and achieve our highest purpose.
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.