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How to Get Over a Break-Up… and Other Love Tips from Lucretius

by September 20, 2019

By Alex Barrientos, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom Weekly
Being lovers of Classical Wisdom, you are likely familiar with Epicurus and his school of thought. His remedies to deal with the fear of death, his description of what the blessed life consists of, and his praise of friendship, among other things, makes him a lovable figure in the history of philosophy.
Titus Lucretius Carus (~94-50 BCE), slightly less well known, is responsible for carrying on the torch of Epicureanism into the Roman world. The teachings and maxims of Epicurus were preserved by Lucretius in his philosophical poem On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura). In this work Lucretius captures not only the Epicurean approach to life but also explains the Epicurean approach to studying the natural world, as well as the underlying metaphysical and epistemological views that formed the Epicurean method of inquiry.
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

Translation of On the Nature of Things, by John Creech, 1683.

Lucretius also had some advice to offer on love. Now, you might be wondering, what could an ancient Roman philosopher-poet have to say about love that would be of any relevance to us today? Well, plenty as it turns out… in fact, reading this back in high school might have saved me a lot of troubles!

Origins of Love

According to Lucretius, the body is the source through which the “mind is pierced by love.” Think, for instance, of how the wounded person falls “in the direction of their wound”, how the “blood spurts out towards the source of the blow”, and how the “enemy who delivered it, if he is fighting at close quarters, is bespattered by the crimson stream.” Similarly, Lucretius tells us, when someone is “pierced by the shafts of Venus”, that person “strives towards the source of the wound and craves to be united with it and to transmit something of his own substance from body to body. His speechless yearning is a presentiment of bliss.” This yearning, this striving to be united with the source of the wound, is the very origin of love — “that drop of Venus’ honey that first drips into our heart, to be followed by numbing heart-ache.”
So, basically, love hurts, because we love what hurts us.
Viewing the body as the source of love makes sense too when we reflect on how much the feeling of love impacts the body. Think of those early days when love first sparks; how we feel “butterflies” in our stomach, how our heart starts racing, how we blush and even sweat in the sight of the object of our love. Further reflections like these suggest that Lucretius is right, that the experience of love is not entirely a mental experience, it is one that is very much rooted in the body.

The Bitterness of Love

From the very heart of the fountain of delight there rises a jet of bitterness that poisons the fragrance of the flowers.

Though we are apt to think of love in positive terms, Lucretius did not have so rosy a view of it. According to Lucretius, love is insatiable, accompanied by pain, heart-ache, bitterness, and other mental disturbances. Love, he tells us, “is the one thing of which the more we have, the more our breast burns with the evil lust of having.” Whereas we can satisfy hunger and thirst by eating and drinking, the cravings of love are only multiplied.
Bacchus and Ariadne

Bacchus and Ariadne, Guido Reni (1575 – 1642, Bologna). Italy, circa 1619-1620.

Even when love comes to fruition, in the moment of lovemaking, all is in vain:
Then comes the moment when with limbs entwined they pluck the flower of youth. Their bodies thrill with the presentiment of joy, and it is seed-time in the fields of Venus. Body clings greedily to body; moist lips are pressed on lips, and deep breaths are drawn through clenched teeth. But all to no purpose. One can glean nothing from the other, nor enter in and be wholly absorbed, body in body; for sometimes it seems that that is what they are craving and striving to do, so hungrily do they cling together in Venus’ fetters, while their limbs are unnerved and liquefied by the intensity of rapture. At length, when the spate of lust is spent, there comes a slight intermission in the raging fever. But not for long. Soon the same frenzy returns. The fit is upon them once more.
This passion of lovers, this passion that cannot be satiated, is “storm-tossed, even in this moment of fruition, by waves of delusion and incertitude.” Delusion perhaps about what that moment might be like, what it might feel like, perhaps deluded by the façade the lover put on; Uncertain of one’s own performance, uncertain of one’s own feelings or the feelings of the lover. And, thinking delusion and incertitude might dissipate with the climax, there is instead only “a slight intermission in the raging fever” before it comes roaring back.
Nor does it end with the carnal aspect of love. Indeed, the curse continues even in the absence of the lover. As Lucretius puts it, “Though the object of your love may be absent, images of it still haunt you and the beloved name chimes sweetly in your ears.” And then there is the bitterness that arises in the presence of the lover. Lucretius writes,
Perhaps the beloved has let fly some two-edged word, which lodges in the impassioned heart and glows there like a living flame. Perhaps he thinks she is rolling her eyes too freely and turning them upon another, or he catches in her face a hint of mockery.
That the beloved can say something that stings in a way that no words from another could, and that insecurities arise in our minds concerning the beloved that don’t arise in the presence of others, are just some of the many bitter aspects of love.

Baby Don’t Hurt Me

Whether it is the infirmities of mind that arise during lovemaking, in the absence of the beloved, or even in their presence, these are only the “evils inherent in love that prospers and fulfills its hopes.” How much more apparent, then, are the evils that accompany “starved and thwarted love.”
Thus, Lucretius advises us to avoid the passions of love altogether:
Thrust from you anything that might feed your passion, and turn your mind elsewhere. Vent the seed of love upon other objects. By clinging to it you assure yourself the certainty of heart-sickness and pain.
This might seem a bit extreme. However, given the pains that are inherent in love, according to Lucretius, it makes sense that he would caution us against it. It is also the case, he thinks, that avoiding the snares of love is easier to do then to break free once you are enmeshed. We must be on our guard beforehand.
But not all hope is lost for those of us whose hearts have already tasted Venus’ honey! For, “be you never so tightly entangled and embrangled, you can still free yourself from the curse unless you stand in the way of your own freedom.” What can we do to break free of the curse? This is where Lucretius begins to offer what can, I think, be rightfully termed as break-up advice.
Venus and Love

Friedrich Rehberg (1758-1835), Venus and Love, 1808. Munich, Germany.

The first method of getting over our beloved is to,
Concentrate on all the faults of mind or body of her whom you covet and sigh for. For men often behave as though blinded by love and credit the beloved with charms to which she has no valid title.
I am sure we can all, men and women alike, think of things we attributed to the mind or body of past loves that, in retrospect, we came to see as attributes not truly belonging to the person. Whether it was honesty, beauty, intelligence, humor, kindness, wit, etc., we have likely reflected on past relationships and thought, “Why on earth did I ever think my beloved ever was any of those things?” Following these reflections we might feel a sense of regret or shame for being duped. Yet these are exactly the type of delusions that love inherently brings with it. If we keep these disappointments in mind regarding those we desire, and those we once desired but sigh over now, we can both avoid future pains and overcome present ones.
If that doesn’t work, well, Lucretius tells us, we are to remember that there are others, that there was a time in life where we carried on fine without the beloved before, and that the beloved shares much in common with others of their sex. Or, as Lucretius put it,
Even so, there are still others. Even so, we lived without her before. Even so, in her physical nature she is no different, as we all know, from the plainest of her sex.
In modern terms: there’s other fish in the sea! So cry me a river, build a bridge, and get over it!
Well, you get the point.
But perhaps, dear reader, you find all this unsatisfying. After all, is love really so terrible? Sure, sometimes we experience the terrible things Lucretius speaks of, but there are also aspects of love that outweigh all that. Is it not only certain types of love, perhaps not even deserving of the title, that carry with them these pains? Yet, even when love is accompanied by such things, even when we feel crushed under the weight of grief, do we not still hold that it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? Sure, it might sound nice to avoid the heart-ache in the first place, but then we would be missing out on all the beauties that love has to offer us as well!
As mentioned above, I’ll leave its relevance up to you, dear reader. But however you feel after reading these love tips from Lucretius, it is humbling to reflect on the fact that someone who set out to understand the nature of the universe, stopped along the way to understand the nature of love.

Love and Strife: Empedocles’ Universe

by September 13, 2019

By David Hooker, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Who hasn’t looked up into a sky full of stars and wondered what our place is in this vast universe? What is the nature of this environment we find ourselves living in? Are there underlying substances to this “stuff” that makes up our world? For the contemplative among us, there are all too often few satisfying answers, yet an endless list of questions. This is especially true for those of us who have cruised around our sun on planet Earth for many years, as when we were younger we seemed to “know” everything! A revered professor of mine once said that as we progress in age, that is precisely the trajectory: as we go along, the “answers” become fewer and the questions accumulate, until we have pretty much nothing but questions! Perhaps that is a bit cynical, but not far off the mark in my opinion.
Empedocles, an ancient Greek philosopher, was one such man who contemplated these essential questions. Born in Acragas (now Agrigento), Sicily, sometime during the early 5th century B.C., and dying in 444 B.C., he belongs to a remarkable group of philosophers we call the pre-Socratics. Among this group are many incredible thinkers such as Thales of Miletus (with whom is normally reckoned the beginning of this era; born in 624 B.C.), Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Heraclitus, and the list goes on up until Socrates (born 470 B.C.).
Empedocles, 17th-century engraving

Empedocles, ancient Greek Presocratic philosopher. From Thomas Stanley, (1655)

I liken this period to the “Big Bang” of Western philosophy, since so many of the questions that have occupied the philosophic enterprise from that day until now were articulated, pondered, debated, and written about during those nearly two remarkable centuries before Socrates. The role of the senses in knowledge, the nature of reason, morality, religion, the gods, the soul, and what kind of stuff the universe was created of, are just some examples. The questions asked then, as well the methodologies and schools of thought that developed in order to answer them, have persisted to this day (with variations of course).
What we today call “Greece” was then a far flung set of city-states and islands throughout the Mediterranean, modern (western) Turkey, the Aegean Sea, etc. This was a time when these various geographic locations were the hubs of trade routes, aiding the transportation not only of goods but of a plethora of cultural, religious, political, and philosophical ideas.

What is This Thing Called Nature?

Empedocles was a poet, and his only surviving major works (in fragments and written in hexameter) are On Nature (Peri Phuseos) and Purifications (his later religious-themed work). Being that I could write all day about Empedocles and the implications of his thought (and you likely have other Classical Wisdom Weekly articles to attend to, don’t you, dear reader?), I will attempt instead to give a brief overview of On Nature.
For many of the pre-Socratics, their approach to philosophy consisted of trying to get at the root of things, beginning with the universe at large and then moving inwards from there. Empedocles posited four underlying substances, or “elements” comprising nature (phusis): Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. These he considered to be the “roots” of the “stuff” which we perceive and interact with every day. This view of nature remained prevalent in western thought down to the Renaissance. (It still survives today in some circles, especially in neo-Pagan thought.)
Of course, today we generally have a far different understanding of the word “elements,” or the underlying “stuff” of the natural universe. Our modern understanding of “all that is” (for Materialists, anyway) comes down to the 118 elements (as of 2017) arranged on the periodic table. (Catalogued in this fashion beginning with Mendeleev in 1869.) The air that we breathe, for instance, is comprised of several gases, primarily nitrogen (78%), oxygen (nearly 21 %), and argon (nearly 1%), along with other trace elements.
As the entire philosophic enterprise is often referred to as a millennia-long “conversation,” individual philosophers, such as Empedocles, are often seen as in conversation with, or as reacting to, other thinkers of their time (or immediately preceding). From Parmenides, Empedocles accepted the fundamental principle “that nothing can arise out of nothing,” nor can anything perish into nonentity. Sound familiar?! (“Matter is neither created nor destroyed” – 18th Century French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier) Whereas for Parmenides this meant that all motion and change must be illusory, Empedocles admits that there is a real process in nature: “the mixture and separation of things mixed.”
Empedocles' four elements/roots

A wood engraving of Empedocles and the four elements/roots.

Since the elements are four (rather than a monistic “One”), Empedocles then is able to explain natural change as the result of the combination, separation, and regrouping of these indestructible entities. Moreover, in Empedocles’ thought, these four interact continually under the influence of two cosmic powers on the other: Love and Strife. These two function as forces of attraction and repulsion. The power of Love, for instance, functions first by bringing together “like” together with “like,” (earth to earth, fire to fire, e.g.), but also assimilates the four elements one to another, creating a homogeneous compound of organic unity.
Strife, on the other hand, is seen as a force of differentiation and repulsion for the elements, one that creates great diversity in nature. This is really what we mean by the statement that the Universe (humanity as well) is “dynamic” (think plate tectonics, volcanism, impact events, etc.) – nature seems to be both “fixed” in the sense that matter is neither created nor destroyed, yet always in flux by forces molding and shaping the reality we perceive. It is not that the universe itself undergoes any fundamental change, but that the forces of Love and Strife, with their constant bringing-together and forcing-apart, create what we see as “change” over time. Here is a chart roughly depicting Empedocles’ view:
The Cycle of Love and Strife

A graphic depiction of the cosmic functions of Love and Strife as envisioned by Empedocles

What is This Thing Called Love?

Sometimes charts just don’t quite cut it. If you asked me to show you what love is, dear reader, you would likely be disappointed if I returned with a chart like the one above. Thus, along with the chart I have decided to appeal to this great song from the popular American music composer Cole Porter, because I believe it will further aid us in envisioning exactly how Empedocles conceived of the universe.
Cole Porter penned many songs that have been adapted by jazz musicians over the past nearly one hundred years, with “What is this Thing Called Love” being one of the most popular (it now belongs to the pantheon of classic tunes from the “Great American Songbook” that Jazz musicians love to play and improvise over). Jazz musicians love to rearrange the chord structures of popular songs (called “substitutions” – often thought to be “hipper” and more accommodative to improvisation on instruments such as saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, They also love to change the underlying rhythm (resetting it to Latin rhythms, swing feel, ballads, etc.) and tempos (faster or slower). It is a real art to do this in a way that both pleases the players and the audience, and to come up with something “new” and relevant to the occasion.
As I continued to think about Empedocles, it occurred to me that the jazz musicians’ art could serve as an analogy to Empedocles’ understanding of Love and Strife. Though western music utilizes 12 different tones (in a chromatic scale), it’s all in how they are juxtaposed that makes something “new” out of the underlying, unchanging substances, or notes (a new melody, new set of chord changes, rhythms, etc.) of music. As is the case with Love and Strife, acting on the four primal Elements in various ways, the 12 different tones are constantly being brought together and forced apart in various ways by musicians, while, like the products of Love and Strife, beings still dependent on what underlies them. As Empedocles put it,

Now there grows to be one thing alone out of many; now again many things
separate out of one.

Hopefully you have found this analogy helpful in understanding the way Empedocles viewed the universe. Music, like Nature, has shown itself to be a constant source of new creations. This is no surprise, as music is a product of Nature’s many creations. For Empedocles, it is the forces of Love and Strife that make the universe so dynamic. As a result, life is dynamic, and it is this very dynamism that makes it so joyful to contemplate. Empedocles, along with his fellow pre-Socratics, set Western philosophy on a journey of contemplating the cosmos. Friends: we are most fortunate to be able to continue their enterprise. Let us not take it for granted.

Christianity and Stoicism

by September 5, 2019

By Rodrigo Ferreyra, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
It is no secret that the origins of Christian thought are closely related to other Mediterranean philosophies and religions. Already determined by its Jewish heritage, Christianity additionally borrowed for itself different elements such as the Golden Age myth, the fatalism of living in a fallen world, and Zoroastrian duality. Greco-Roman influence is no less present. It was Stoicism, however, that held a remarkably special position in early Christianity.
To the recognition of the Stoics as “ecclesiastical writers” by church fathers like Saint Ambrose and Saint Jerome, we shall add the apocryphal correspondence maintained between the Latin writer Seneca and the apostle Saint Paul. Sadly, these documents, which have reached us in the format of fourteen letters, have been proved false. This does not, however, dismiss the fact of an existing bond between the Stoic school of thought and the genesis of Christianity.
Michael Pacher - Altarpiece of the Church Fathers

Michael Pacher – Altarpiece of the Church Fathers

First of all, we are to immediately notice how broadly linked their discourses are… This is especially so in their understanding of philosophy as lecturing on ethics, that is, the idea of a practical philosophy that is composed to assist one on how to act.
At the same time, they both developed an ethic extremely interested in self-improving by detachment from the mundane activities of the mind and body. Christianity finds its grace in salvation personified in the resurrection of Christ. The Christian life, as a sum of practices, guides to it.
Seneca by Vorsterman

Seneca by Vorsterman, Lucas
Datierung: 1610 / 1675

The Stoics, for their part, found guidance in being in harmony with nature throughout their everyday lives. Although these ethical positions seem to invite virtue to be part of our beings, it is interesting to notice how the Stoics ‘deal’ with these virtues. In On the Tranquility of Mind, Seneca writes:
I like for my servant a young house-bred slave without training or polish, for silverware my country-bred father’s heavy plate that bears no maker’s stamp, and for a table one that is not remarkable for the variety of its markings * or known to Rome for having passed through the hands of many stylish owners, but one that is there to be used, that makes no guest stare at it in endless pleasure or burning envy.
Seneca’s renouncement of commodities as fulfilling what he understands as the true nature of life does not show any disagreement with his attachment to slaves. From our modern point of view, it would not be stoic at all to own slaves. It wouldn’t be very Christian either. And yet, Pope Gregory I the Great (540-604), one of four Fathers of the Western Christian Church, was indeed both a stoic at heart and a slave dealer.
Saint Gregory the Great. Engraving by A. Hogenberg

Saint Gregory the Great. Engraving by A. Hogenberg after D.

Nevertheless, Seneca admittedly defended slaves as humans and preached for a just and kind behavior in dealing with them. As a matter of fact, in both Seneca and Gregory’s writings slaves are integrated into their ethical safeguard judgments: They too are to reach salvation/harmony.
How come, then, that these two schools of thought have shown a similar hypocritical ethic or, at least, no signs whatsoever of impugning the social order with their own ethical judgments?
In his Phenomenology, Hegel argues that the historical development of Stoicism was a movement from a collective to an individual consciousness: the “freedom of self-consciousness”. It was after the fall of the Roman Republic that the most influential Latin Stoics appeared. Stoicism was a response to the ending of the institution in charge of society’s mind. The Republic was replaced with a ‘State’ in which these new thinkers had no part.
Epicurus in Thomas Stanley History of Philosophy

Epicurus in Thomas Stanley History of Philosophy

Yes, both servants and slaves are free owners of their consciousness, but at the same time, they are unable to address critical thinking in order to change any nature nor salvation they may be pursuing. Judgment remains solely within the “rational”, that is, the Latin or Christian social order. Control always remains in the self without reaching, as Hegel states, the further skepticism required for the true realization of this freedom: Where mere self-discipline and awareness find its limit.
We can acknowledge, then, that both Christianity and Stoicism preached ‘self-improving’ as a means to an end. And while their purpose was certainly different, the adepts of both philosophies identically adopted a passive role over the world in which they lived to achieve it.

The Illogic of Contradiction – Metaphysics by Aristotle

by September 1, 2019

by Joel Bowman
Don’t tell the politicians, Classical Reader, neither on the left, nor on the right. In the non-trivial jurisdiction of the metaphysical, there’s simply no such thing as a contradiction. At least not for Aristotle. The Father of Logic even went so far as to propose a law (more about which below) expressly forbidding it. But first, let us take a step back in order to afford ourselves a wider, grander view of the “world” of metaphysics.
We might begin our inquiry in the following manner: What is metaphysics and what is it like? Indeed, one would be hard pressed to conduct even the crudest analysis of anything without the service of these two, basic questions. And, in a way, it is precisely these questions which metaphysics itself seeks to answer…what is there? (what exists, the fundamental nature of the world and of being) and what it is like? (the characteristics that help us to describe these very natures).
Metaphysics by Aristotle
Although the prefix “meta” actually means “beyond,” leading many scholars to misinterpret its meaning as the study of what is “outside of” or “beyond” nature, Aristotle himself used the term to describe what he saw as the “first philosophy.” For him, it was physics, then the basic questioning of and about them: metaphysics. The subject, to which Aristotle referred to as “Queen of the Sciences” was, and in many ways still is, the primary means by which we delve into both the existence and essence of all that is.
Kindly, and with the fastidious scientific exactitude for which he was known, Aristotle divided the study of metaphysics into three distinct (at least they remained so at the time) categories. They were:
1. The Universal Science – The study of first principles, the very method of inquiry itself and the correct procedure by which would be illuminated;
2. The Ontological – The study and (again, meticulous) classification of beings and entities, including those of both physical and mental nature, and the changes these beings and entities undergo and;
3. The Study of Natural Theology – All things germane to religion, creation, the divine and the endless and, perhaps, ultimately unknowable workings and motivations of the gods.
Having not ourselves confidently progressed past the first of the first (of the first…) of these principles, we shall confine our comments to that of the Universal Science category. By way of introduction, let us examine Aristotle’s three Laws of Thought, the basis of what is often called Term (or Aristotelian) Logic.
Painting of Aristotle

Aristotle and the bust of Homer by Rembrant

In the first such law, Aristotle gets what ought to be obvious out of the way with the Law of Identity (A = A). Of course, the question “why is an apple an apple?” is, in itself, meaningless. By being an apple, it cannot, logically, be something other than such. That a something is what it is – and not something else – ought to be apparent from the outset, says Aristotle. “The fact that a thing is itself is the single reason and the single cause to be given in answer to all such questions as why the man is man, or the musician musical.”
The second rule, as we’ve discussed, is the Law of Non-Contradiction, which holds that opposing statements cannot be both true in the same sense and at the same time. Eg. The claims “X = Y” and “X ≠ Y” are mutually exclusive. Indeed, Aristotle himself reasons, “One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.”
Complement to this second law of thought is Aristotle’s Law of Excluded Middle. Here the mighty inquirer sets out to eliminate compromise – at least in the metaphysical sense of the word. Simply put, something must either be…or not. A proposition is true, in other words, or its negation is.

Confused yet?

Of course it may be the case that a fleck of ambiguity of terms muddies the waters. This is not the point, however, but rather an underscoring of why precise definitions matter from the outset.
Aristotle, here from Metaphysics:
“It is impossible, then, that “being a man” should mean precisely “not being a man”, if ‘man’ not only signifies something about one subject but also has one significance….
…[It] will not be possible to be and not to be the same thing, except in virtue of an ambiguity, just as if one whom we call “man”, and others were to call “not-man”; but the point in question is not this, whether the same thing can at the same time be and not be a man in name, but whether it can be in fact.”
And from the sturdy moorings of these three Laws of Thought, Aristotle sets off into the oceanic philosophical undertaking ahead of him.
What is? he wonders, And what is it like?
We can’t say for sure why the Greeks took it upon themselves to embark on such a formidably exhaustive examination of all things under – and including – the gods, but we are certainly glad they did so. Without Aristotle’s Heraclesian efforts in paving the way in this, the first of all philosophies, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be so very confused by the subsequent minds who have tackled the subject.
Indeed, the ever insightful Voltaire put it thus: “When he to whom one speaks does not understand, and he who speaks himself does not understand, that is metaphysics.”
But again, Classical Reader, we must do all we can to keep these historical insights from our politicians and their mischievous ilk, lest we deny ourselves their incessant pursuits of circular logic and self-contradiction. If such public figures begin to make sense, any sense at all, they will surely lose all comedic value. And who will make the gods laugh then?

The Goal of Happiness: A summary of Nicomachean Ethics

by August 5, 2019

The achievement of happiness, according to Aristotle, is the end goal of every man.
His reasoning is thus: All human activities are done in order to attain something that is good. We don’t do something because we think it will be bad for us. In addition, most of these activities are not the main objective, but rather a means to a higher end. Consequently, the activity that is an end in itself, writes the prolific philosopher, is the highest good, and that good is happiness. We aim at happiness for its own sake, not because it will achieve something else. Happiness, therefore, is our greatest mission.
Supposing this to be our aim, Aristotle then proceeds in his Nicomachean Ethics to figure out how best to achieve this goal.
Aristotle starts with the claim that happiness is dependent on virtue. He describes virtue as a disposition, rather than an activity. The individual needs to be naturally a ‘virtuous’ person, rather than just acting accordingly. This exemplary man finds doing virtuous acts pleasurable, which is presumably why he does them.
But then, what is ‘virtuous’?
At this moment our scientific philosopher is uncharacteristically vague. Virtue exists somewhere in the mean, and therefore is subjective. The right path lies between excess and deficiency. The man should not be a coward nor rash. He shouldn’t be wasteful, nor stingy. He shouldn’t be described as boorish nor acting as a buffoon. The pattern is quick to reveal itself.
Plato’s student then clarifies that one’s actions can only be judged as praiseworthy or blameworthy if they are voluntary. Oedipus sleeping with his mother unknowingly, therefore, was not sinful. The decision to act must come from the rational and deliberating agent who executes the action, and not from some outside third party. This definition does get a little tricky, unfortunately, when considering actions committed under duress or severe threat.
summary of nicomachean ethics by aristotleIn true Aristotelian fashion, he then proceeds to outline and categorize all of the virtues and vices as he sees them. It’s good to be patient, for instance, when facing anger, but every now and then, it’s advisable to display a small amount of wrath yourself. It’s recommended to have the social virtues of wit, amiability and sincerity. Modesty is most appropriate among the young, and so on.
We now come upon the issue of Justice, which Aristotle comments, encompasses all of the other virtues. This is because we need to exhibit the full range of proper behavior in order to be deemed ‘just’. This term is further examined and dissected into two primary forms of justice: distributive and rectificatory. The former, which at first appears socialist, addresses the need to distribute wealth and honors among the people… but only according to merit. The latter justice is concerned with the exchanges between two or more people. It aims at maintaining a sense of balance and equality among those involved.
The philosopher then asserts that it is impossible to treat oneself unjustly or to suffer injustice willingly. Afterwards he concedes that while the law is a suitable guideline, it is by no means exhaustive. At times men must discuss the issue and come to an agreeance.
Moral virtues, unfortunately, aren’t quite enough. The ideal man also needs the intellectual virtues. These are described as calculative reasoning, such as art or technical skill and prudence. There is also contemplative reasoning, which is detached from from human affairs. This includes scientific knowledge, intuition, and wisdom. With these abilities we can rationally choose what is the most virtuous thing to do.
What about the people who know what is good, some might ask, but lack the self-will to do anything about it? Aristotle assigns them the special category of “incontinent”. Incontinence is not desirable, but it is also not quite as bad as actual vice. This is because it is deemed partially involuntary.
Nicomachean Ethics - Book IIIAristotle’s investigation then takes a huge right turn into the arena of friendship. While it is realm of ethics not usually explored in modern times, our ancient greek philosopher took it very seriously. He began by separating out the different types of friendship: Those based on utility, on pleasure and on goodness of character. Not surprisingly, the latter is the most preferable. Friendship based on goodness will last because it is between two people who love each other for who they are, not for what they can gain from each other.
Justice and friendship are closely connected, says Aristotle, because the state needs its citizens to be friendly with each other. He proceeds then to outline the three different types of political institutions based on friendship, nominating monarchy over aristocracy and timocracy as preferable.
Aristotle then employs what we now think of as the ‘oxygen mask first’ principle. When we are on a plane, we need to apply our own oxygen mask first, before assisting others. Likewise, we have to love ourselves before we can love another. Therefore self-love, argues Aristotle, is considered higher than friendship. While a fully self-sufficient person can technically be happy, he will have with a better, more contented life if he has true friendship.
Finally Aristotle advocates a life with as much contemplation as possible. This is because doing good things will make good people happy and rational thought is the highest good. The practical sciences, therefore, should be pursued. They will enable us in finding the right path in life, as well as help with the practical issues that consume our time and attention. Essentially, go to a park… but remember to take a book.
It is here that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics ends, and as many argue, his Politics begins.

Marcus Aurelius and the Sophists on Justice

by August 2, 2019

Stoicism and the “Great Discourse” of Protagoras by Donald Robertson, author of “How to Think like a Roman Emperor”
What is it, then, that arouses your discontent? Human wickedness? Call to mind the doctrine that rational creatures have come into the world for the sake of one another, and that tolerance is a part of justice… (Meditations, 4.2)
The virtue of justice is one of the main themes that runs throughout The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. For Stoics, this is a less formal concept than the English word implies and really refers to social virtue in quite a broad sense. Justices entails the exercise of wisdom, kindness, and fairness in our relationships with others both individually and collectively. However, it’s also bound up with Stoic pantheism, the belief that everything in the universe, including every human being, is part of a sacred whole. We’re all in this together as citizens of a single world-city – a notion sometimes referred to as ethical “cosmopolitanism”. More than that, though, the Stoics believed that nature intended human beings to actively help one another. We’re fundamentally designed to co-operate for our own mutual benefit – and malice or conflict between us, though common, is against our true nature.
Marcus Aurelius on Horseback

Marcus Aurelius on Horseback

Marcus, like other Stoics, assumes that human nature is inherently reasoning – we are essentially thinking creatures – and that we therefore have a duty to apply reason consistently to our lives. Doing so would culminate, of course, in the virtue of wisdom. However, there’s a less well-known assumption in Stoicism, which holds that humans are not only essentially rational but also social. “Now every rational being,” writes Marcus, “by virtue of its rationality, is also a social being” (Meditations, 10.2). From this it follows that in order to truly flourish and fulfill our own natural potential, we should excel in terms of our social relationships. Doing so would culminate in the virtue of justice. Humans are naturally rational and social creatures – the Stoic wise man (or woman) is therefore someone who excels in both regards, exercising both wisdom and justice consistently in his (or her) life.
Marcus tells himself that the supreme good of every creature lies in the goal for which it is naturally constituted and that the supreme good for a human must consist in kinship with others, and the exercise of social virtues such as justice, as it has “long been proved that we were born for fellowship” (Meditations, 5.16). Indeed, he goes as far as to say that whoever commits an act of injustice acts impiously against the most venerable of gods “since universal nature has created rational creatures for the sake of one another, to benefit their fellows according to their deserts and in no way to do them harm” (Meditations, 9.1).
He therefore reasons that as he is part of the social system, his every action should be dedicated toward improving society, which he tends to call the goal of seeking “the common welfare of mankind”. Any action which does the opposite “tears your life apart”, in a sense, by alienating us from the rest of mankind and preventing us from experiencing a sense of oneness with the rest of humanity – “as does the citizen in a state who for his own part cuts himself off from the concord of his fellows” (Meditations, 9.23).
Bust of Marcus Aurelius

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

Indeed, Marcus repeatedly argues that because humans are essentially social creatures our individual welfare necessarily depends upon the welfare of our society, and ultimately the welfare of our species – the great city or society of humankind as a whole. “What brings no benefit to the hive”, he says, “brings none to the bee” (Meditations, 6.54). Elsewhere he explains more literally “What causes no harm to the city causes no harm to the citizen” (Meditations, 5.22). He actually advises himself to respond to every impression of having been harmed by affirming to himself that: “If the community is not harmed by this, neither am I”. He adds that if the community really is harmed he should not be angry with the person who is responsible but rather show him what he has failed to see.
Elsewhere Marcus goes further and states that only what harms the laws can truly harm the city presumably if they are rendered unjust (Meditations, 10.33). He reasons that those things the majority of us ordinarily complain about as misfortunes in life – such as illness, poverty, or persecution from others – do not themselves corrupt the laws, and can therefore bring genuine harm neither to the city nor to its citizens.
If I remember, then, that I am a part of such a whole, I shall be well contented with all that comes to pass; and in so far as I am bound by a tie of kinship to other parts of the same nature as myself I shall never act against the common interest, but rather, I shall take proper account of my fellows, and direct every impulse to the common benefit and turn it away from anything that runs counter to that benefit. And when this is duly accomplished, my life must necessarily follow a happy course, just as you would observe that any citizen’s life proceeds happily on its course when he makes his way through it performing actions which benefit his fellow citizens and he welcomes whatever his city assigns to him. (Meditations, 10.6)
Protagoras of Abdera /Painting by Ribera -

Protagoras of Abdera, Painting by Ribera

Although Marcus undoubtedly inherited these ideas from his own Stoic teachers there’s also a much earlier source for the notion that humans are designed to work together by exercising social virtues such as justice, kindness, and fairness to one another. It comes from a speech called The Great Discourse by the first great Sophist thinker, Protagoras. It originated about six centuries before the time of Marcus Aurelius but remained very well-known in the ancient world because Plato recorded a version of it in his dialogue named after Protagoras. What follows is a rough paraphrase of the speech’s content…
The Great Discourse of Protagoras
At first there were gods but no mortal creatures. When the time came, the gods fashioned countless animals by mixing together the elements of fire and earth. Zeus commanded the titan Prometheus to assign different abilities to each living thing.
Some creatures were slow moving and so to make up for this he gave them great strength. Others were weak and so to these Prometheus granted speed. Some he armed while others were given various forms of protection. Small creatures were granted the capability for winged flight or for concealing their dwellings underground. Large beasts had their size for protection. And he took care to grant all creatures some means for their own preservation so that no species should be in danger of elimination by others.
Prometheus creates man

Prometheus creates man

Having equipped them to survive among each other in this way Prometheus then granted them protection against their environment and the harshness of the seasons. He clothed some with dense hair or thick skin, sufficient to endure the heat of summer and ward off the cold through winter months. To some he gave strong hooves, to others claws and hard bodies that were not easily wounded. And every creature was assigned its own source of food. Some pastured on the earth, others ate fruits hanging from trees or roots from beneath the ground. Yet others were predators who fed upon certain types of animals for their meat. To the predators he assigned fewer offspring whereas their prey were more abundant so that there would always be enough to serve as food.
Once he had finished assigning to each species its own special capabilities, however, Prometheus was left with the realization that he had nothing left to give the race of man. Humans are born naked, unshod, unarmed, and with no bed in which to lay their head and rest safely. They were more vulnerable than other creatures and seemed bound to perish. Not knowing what else to do, in desperation, Prometheus stole the technical expertise of the gods Hephaestus and Athena and gave that to mankind, along with the gift of fire.
Once human beings were granted these divine gifts, however, they sensed their kinship to the gods and began praying and building altars to them. They invented clothing, bedding, dwellings, agriculture, and even the use of language to express their thoughts and acquire learning. Men lived apart at first but finding themselves beset continually and harassed by wild beasts they sought to build cities for their own mutual protection.
Prometheus steals fire

Prometheus steals fire

However, the wisdom that concerns our relations with others belonged to Zeus alone, king of the gods and patron of friendship and families. No sooner than men gathered together trying to save themselves, being lawless, they began instead to wrong one another and fighting broke out among them. Scattering once again from their failed cities, they continued to perish in the wild.
Looking down upon this chaotic scene with dismay, Zeus feared for the destruction of the entire human race. He therefore sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to teach mortals about justice and also to instill in them a sense of shame concerning wrongdoing as a deterrent against injustice. By this means Zeus now granted mankind a unique capacity to unite themselves in cities governed by law and the principles of justice, maintaining order through the bonds of friendship and fostering their sense of community.
Hermes asked Zeus whether he should distribute justice and the various social and political virtues among men in the same way as technical knowledge concerning the other crafts had been shared. One man who possesses the knowledge of medicine, for example, was enough to benefit many other men. However, Zeus decreed that every human being must be granted at least some rudimentary knowledge of justice and the arts needed to unite society. He even laid down the law that anyone who was found unable to respect justice and the rule of law should be put to death to prevent them from becoming a pestilence in the city.
Statue of Zeus

Statue of Zeus

For this reason, said Protagoras, although we seek the advice only of those few who are experts with regard to crafts such as medicine or carpentry, concerning justice we allow every citizen to have his say. Further, if someone boasts of being an expert in playing the flute or some such art but is found to be nothing of the sort then he is merely ridiculed as a fool. However, anyone found incapable of respecting justice should be expelled from society because each and every citizen is expected to share at least somewhat in this capacity, so that he may live harmoniously in the company of others.
The Sophist Protagoras originally expressed this doctrine that humans are naturally social creatures in the guise of a myth. According to the tradition that followed, we are obliged to realize our potential for wisdom by exercising the gift of reason to the best of our ability. So we are also obliged, as Marcus Aurelius said many centuries later, to fulfill our natural potential for friendly collaboration with others by exhibiting the virtue of justice.