Yesterday: The Song of Roland Tomorrow: The Theory of Moral Sentiments
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We saw yesterday the murderous exchange between the villain Guenelun and the protagonist Roland in the greatest French epic. I mentioned two ways in which to look at it, through the lens of heroism and the lens of Roland’s intelligence, but I left out a third: notably, if we deem their behavior as inappropriate, what kind of behavior would have been considered acceptable or intelligent? For this I turn to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, easily the greatest ethical treatise ever written.
Aristotle begins the meat of the work by defining happiness, which he considers to be the conformity of action with virtue on a consistent, enduring basis.
I will digress here to note that one thing I will be teaching this school year in my course on classic essays is that great writers must define their terms, and by “their terms” I mean anything that might be considered ambiguous in their thesis. This is one of about six things that great writers do. (To find out more please contact me through this blog, I am looking to have 100 students by next summer for continuous programs running 45 weeks out of the year; to Aristotle one who knows they need this kind of education and yet does not enroll is not virtuous, to say the least!). In this case the word that must be defined is virtue, which Aristotle notes right off the bat as being a topic of debate.
Thus most of the bulk of the remainder of the treatise is dedicated to a systematic exploration of the nature of virtue and, on the opposite side, vice. To Aristotle virtue is divided into two kinds or categories, namely intellectual virtue and moral virtue. Moral virtue, which is a matter of deliberate choosing, lies in selecting means as opposed to extremes; for instance, a soldier who rushes headlong into battle against the orders of his general is not heroic but instead is rash and disobedient, and one who fails to go into battle or rushes in the opposite direction fleeing the conflict is cowardly, so virtue in a soldier rests in a mean of solid bravery, which consists in following the orders of officers and staying tough in the face of the enemy. Courage does not rest in confidence based on past success, on a temporary surge of bravery brought about by the heat of the moment or some narcotic, or on ignorance of the situation. Even a courageous man will feel fear, but he will be able to suppress that fear because he has engaged in habits that sharpen his mind to the task at hand. On the one hand rash behavior marks an excess, and on the other cowardly behavior reflects a defect. It is in finding the proper place between excess and defect that we can find virtue.
He gives similar analyses for temperance, liberality, magnanimity, ambition, anger, friendship, honesty, and wit. He then focuses on two particular virtues which are more difficult to assess and on which he focuses much more minutely, namely justice and fairness. While I will not go into specific details about this–you must actually read this work as it is among the greatest volumes ever written–I will note that Aristotle does not favor retributive justice (crime deserves punishment). To Aristotle justice involves multiple people and multiple ideas of good and bad, and so it is a much more fine balancing act to find the proper mean between extremes.
Then he moves on to intellectual virtue, which consists of some combination of five elements: art, knowledge, practical judgment, wisdom, and intellect. When he finishes with that, he goes on to examine different ways in which a man can lack virtue, namely through vice, through incontinence, and through falling into the habits of beasts and being less than human. To guard against the latter two, Aristotle advocates self-mastery, including guarding one’s self from an excess of bodily pleasure (though in and of itself Aristotle is clear that pleasure is a good and not an evil).
As a last virtue Aristotle then considers friendship. There are, to him, three kinds of friendship: friendship of advantage, friendship of pleasure, and friendship centered around what is good. The former two are not virtuous; friendship of advantage involves too much of eating at others, and friendship of pleasure is reliant on something that is, ultimately, fleeting. Friendship around what is good requires character and deliberation, and to Aristotle that is the highest form of friendship.
In the last book Aristotle considers pleasure and happiness, concluding with a passage on the need for good education and good laws. It is a fitting end to a masterful work. And we can see immediately the appropriateness of it in the present era, where these are both lacking.
We can see why Roland and Guenelun find themselves in so much trouble. Neither follows Aristotle’s lessons for how to behave ethically, and both are involved in choices and actions which speak to something in them that is less than excellent.
The Nicomachean Ethics is, like most I have presented, short. In the Great Books of the Western World (1952) set it is 98 pages, so it would be roughly 150 in a normal version. That makes it two or three days of solid reading, nothing too extraordinary. I will be covering ethical treatises in a couple years, so I will teach it then. I would of course highly encourage all to take a look at it. It is easy to see why Aristotle captivated so many men of thought, and why the RCC was fixated on his ideas. He is so precise and so demonstrative that it is next-to-impossible to refute him as a humanist (this speaks nothng of his scientific tendencies, which have been discredited). And on top of this he is the last man to know everything about everything, as the knowledge of the world expanded greatly after his death when his student, Alexander the Great, conquered the known world.
Or, I should say–he was the last man to know everything about everything. Until I came along.