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Aristotle’s Poetics – The Science of Tragedy

by December 17, 2017

Aristotle probably would have liked Titanic. He might have even compared it to Sophocles’ Theban Plays, celebrating Jack and Rose as one might appreciate Antigone and Oedipus. We can’t be sure, of course, but in all likelihood Plato’s student would have praised the late 90’s sob story as an exemplary specimen of tragedy. Maybe that’s the reason Aristotle’s treatise on Poetics runs into a few icebergs of its own.
His first Titanic-sized mistake was equating poetry to science. Aristotle tried to dissect plays and the art of tragedy as if they were a pickled frog in high school biology class. He applied his consistently rational mind to a sphere of ideas which are usually assigned to the emotional and, at times, even irrational.
Titanic fits nicely with Aristotle's Poetics

Jack and Rose in Titanic

In Poetics, Aristotle outlines what he sees as the essential components of tragedy, along with a few interesting literary devices that can be thrown in to spice things up. These legislations on literature went on to have a significant influence throughout the ages and, in fact, remained prevalent and often unquestioned until the 19th century.
Of course, some of his ‘rules’ do work… but when fully applied, you end up with a James Cameron cry fest.
Before anything else, Aristotle defines ‘tragedy’. It is something, says he, that evokes pity, fear and emotion in us. It is a katharsis, a cleansing of feeling. Interestingly, we can only feel so much for these characters because of another attribute of tragedy; mimesis, or the idea that the actions that occur are possible and relatable. It doesn’t have to be realistic, per se, but it has to be something we can imagine…
This is important precisely because the events are not actually happening, but still inspire deep emotion within us. Therefore, we can cry and feel better without having to contemplate too much the real tragedies that exist all around us.
Now for Aristotle’s rules on what makes a tragedy as “good” as Titanic.
His first posit regards plot, or mythos. Plot is more important than Character, according to Aristotle, as it drives a course of actions that captivates the audience, no matter what teenage heart throb is the mouthpiece.
These series of events must occur in order and in a sequence that makes sense, argues Aristotle. There must be a beginning, a middle and an end. The ship can only start sinking once it has hit a block of ice. In addition, a tragic story must move from happiness to desolate sadness, such as a sunken vessel and a dead lover.
The actions have to be complete and fully contained within the story. We don’t care where Rose went to school or if Jack has a pirate tattoo. All the essential plot points occur within the tale, with nothing unnecessary added nor anything important missing. This is also crucial for the Unity of the plot. It should be something that nicely ties together with a big bow at the end.
Aristotle’s next regulation concerns the magnitude of the art itself. It must, he assures us, be consumed as a unity, within the eye’s spectrum or an audience member’s patience. The never ending works of Wagner and crop circles, only visible from the sky, would hold little value for this philosopher. The two and half hours it takes for the Titanic to capsize, however, fits the bill perfectly.
Then Aristotle throws a bone to the writers of the world. He gives them the “rule of possibility”, allowing them to write whatever they want if it makes the story more compelling. Aristotle believes, after all, that poetry is more significant than history because it speaks more universally.
Did Rose and Jack actually walk the boards of that famous ship? Probably not. But does their moonlight traipse tell a nice story of class struggle? Sure, why not.
Then there are the clever ways of stirring up the plot’s pot. Elements such as ‘Recognition’, where someone discovers some great unknown, can change the course of action to its finale.
Old Rose

Old Rose at the end of Titanic

‘Reversal of the Situation’ is another fantastic way to swiftly switch things around. At the close of the art, the audience should be surprised, while still believing the possibility of what happened. For instance, we may not have expected to see an elderly Rose reveal that she has had the jewel all along! But it is, by no means, outside the realm of possibility.
Admittedly, Titanic was a blockbuster. It was clearly a very successful film, one of the most recognized movies of our time. It adheres to a plethora of Aristotle’s prescriptions… down to the ever popular Greek theme of Hubris, as witnessed in the initial description of that unsinkable ship.
Then surely Aristotle must be right, describing exactly what poetry in tragedy should be. Following that logic, Titanic is everyone’s favorite sad movie because it encompasses all the qualities of the ideal tragedy. Unfortunately, Titanic isn’t universally appealing. While some people love the emotive film, other individuals hate it.
This inconvenient truth disrupts Aristotle’s literary laws because art is not as rational as a chemistry set. Art is subjective.
In the end, tragedy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Throughout history, critics and theorists have tried to put rules around artistic endeavors and have failed. The impressionists, for instance, broke all the regulations according to the French academy…and yet their masterpieces now adorn the walls of the very best art museums.
So then, what was the point of Aristotle’s Poetics? What did he achieve?
He actually accomplished a lot.
Aristotle was sticking up for art by rebelling against Plato. In his teacher’s famous work, The Republic, Plato admonishes the creative pursuits, insisting that it has no value. According to Plato, life as we know it is just an imitation of the things that truly exist. Why, then, would you want something that is an imitation of an imitation?
Aristotle countered this accusation head-on in Poetics. We know art is an imitation, and yet we are still moved by it. Why?
Aristotle believed that we are naturally attracted to poetry and art. He observed that imitations of things have the power to fascinate and enthrall us, while the real thing might in fact leave us disgusted. So too can we learn from art forms, an act that in and of itself brings us pleasure. Likewise, art has the power to inspire feelings, states of mind and awareness of abstract, general ideas.
To Aristotle, the emotive arousal, the acts of katharsis, the release of sentimental tensions are, indeed, good for us. This is probably why blockbusters, like Titanic, do so well.
After all the rules, definitions and posits, can we say that the scientifically minded Aristotle understood tragedy? We aren’t certain, but we do respect that this unlikely champion was the first to even think about art critically… and stand up for it.
“Aristotle’s Poetics – The Science of Tragedy” was written by Anya Leonard

Aristotle and the Myth of Political Justice

by March 1, 2016

Are there warring factions in any political society? We wonder.
Is that where all our problems stem from?
The idea that the few, wealthy oligarchs are constantly at odds with the disadvantaged masses is nothing new. In fact, if we were to read Aristotle’s The Politics, we might see that it’s been going on for millennia.
Besides, civil conflict and struggle arise between the common people and the prosperous. The result is that the side that happens to beat the opposition does not establish a system that all can share in fairly, but grabs the top place in a political system as a prize of victory. –Aristotle (The Politics, Book IV, Chapter 11)
It’s worth noting that the Aristotle, like all of us, was a product of his time. His understanding of a political society, as a result, is slightly skewed from our own.
For starters, there were not countries as we understand them today. Rather there were insulated city-states (polis) that acted as autonomous nations, independent of any larger governing body.
The Politics, by Aristotle
Classical Wisdom Weekly edition
Additionally, Aristotle constructed his idea on political justice with the assumption that there were those in a society who were, inherently, unequal (women and slaves).
For these reasons we must approach The Politics cautiously, humbly. Not all of Aristotle’s ideas will gel with our own modern sensibilities, but there is enough meat there that we would be foolish to abandon our pursuits all together.
So, where were we?
Aristotle portrayed the never-ending battle between the haves and have-nots in terms of oligarchs vs. democrats (those who would benefit from a direct democracy).
You can imagine the oligarchs and democrats in terms of classical society, farmers and laborers vs. well-educated aristocrats. However, we could just as easily recast this fight in the 21st century. Picture young lefties fresh out of their liberal arts college picketing outside some prestigious Wall Street hedge fund where the traders wear Brooks Brothers suits and winter in the Hamptons.
Like I’ve said before, history can sometimes be so unoriginal.
All disagreements stem from inequality…
The combatants, Aristotle says, disagree on the true meaning of justice. All political conflict, he writes, springs from competing definitions of equality and all the bickering that follows is essentially a philosophical disagreement that plays out in the forms of campaign promises and, in the words of our CEO, “political claptrap”.
For everywhere conflicts arise because of inequality, whenever unequals do not receive their proportionate amounts. –Aristotle (The Politics, Book V, Chapter 1)
The disadvantaged masses believe justice to be numerical equality. The oligarchs see equality in terms of proportions; those who contribute more deserve to have more.
The consequence of such an altercation is that each party will vie for political control. The masses, should they achieve success, will be
“You can imagine the oligarchs and democrats in terms of classical society, farmers and laborers vs. well-educated aristocrats. However, we could just as easily recast this fight in the 21st century. “
swept in to office and proceed with a massive redistribution of wealth. The oligarchs, should they have control, will tighten the purse strings; make sure they hold on to as much as they can.
Aristotle, to his credit, does not seem to have a dog in this fight. He does his part as a, mostly, impartial observer. He comes to the conclusion that both sides have their merits.
But here’s the kicker- they’re both wrong.
What’s good for me is good for you… well, at least it’s good for me.
The problem stems from the confusion that what appears just to us, represents, unequivocally, true Justice. What seems good to us must therefore be Good.
What’s good for me is good for you, and even if it’s not good for you, at least it’s good for me.
Redistributing wealth might seem like justice to the poor, but this leads to conflict between the citizens. True justice, since it is a virtue, would never lead to such strife. The only justification then seems to be that such actions appeared to be just to those in power.
Aristotle, author of The Politics
But let’s be clear, Aristotle isn’t painting the oligarchs as the poor rich kid on the playground who is bullied because his parents can afford expensive cars and designer shoes.
Should the oligarchs hold control, Aristotle says, they will “confiscate and plunder the possession of the masses.” The justification, again, is that this appears just to those in power.
When you get right down to it, Artie seems to be saying that both parties are aiming in the right direction, but neither one have hit the mark.
The fight for the soul of political justice
In order to really grasp why any of this matters, we must first understand what Aristotle believed to be the goal and ultimate end of a political society.
The Aristotelian state was the vehicle through which a citizen would achieve a self-sufficient
“When you get right down to it, Artie seems to be saying that both parties are aiming in the right direction, but neither one have hit the mark.”
life that was “happy and fine”. The currency in such a state was justice, true justice, which would lead to the larger goal- a happy and virtuous life for the citizens.
The conflict between the oligarchs and the democrats, therefore, is significant because they are both fighting for the soul of political justice, an integral part of achieving the ultimate function of the political state.
The political good is justice, and justice is the common benefit. Everyone thinks justice is some sort of equality, and hence to some extent they all agree with the philosophical discussion in which we have determined these ethical questions. They say that what is just is relative to the people involved and that it must be equality for equals. –Aristotle (The Politics, Book III, Chapter 11)
So the battle rages on, each party pursuing their own idea of justice while never really coming across true justice.
You may be wondering, what’s a philosopher to do? Pick a side and batten down the hatches? Abandon all hope and go along with the claptrap?
Maybe not…

Four Important Lessons from Aristotle’s “The Politics”

by October 2, 2015

Viewed as a whole, Politics is a rather intimidating piece of work. No mere political treatise, it is an examination of the origin of society, the meaning of political justice, the fundamental elements of the state, and the responsibilities of the ruling class to the citizens and vice versa.
Politics, when you get right down to it, aims at uncovering “the ideal state”. The more astute of you may already have realized that this was also, more or less, the goal of Plato’s magnum opus, The Republic.
However, while Plato devoted much of his time in Republic to establishing the credibility of an unseen realm of forms, Aristotle instead focuses on that which is empirical, observable, and makes use of the numerous forms of political systems that were practiced during the age, discussing their strengths while uncovering their blunders.
Aristotle and Plato both attempted to define the “ideal republic”. However, they each came to dramatically different conclusions.
The result is a piece of philosophical literature that does occasionally focus on the theoretical and the hypothetical, but also gives us practical and applicable advice when it comes to living in a political society.
As it turns out, there are a number of lessons found within Politics that we might do well to listen to. For instance, did you know that…
The Importance of Private Property and Self-interestedness
The first lesson comes to us when Aristotle actually critiques the ideas that his mentor laid out in Republic. For in Plato’s work, the philosopher argues that the state should be happiest if the citizens are as unified as possible.
Plato makes the claim, somewhat capriciously, that all the wives of the rulers ought to be shared. Additionally, fathers ought not to think of a child as being their own son or daughter. Rather, the citizens should view all children of the state as being their own.
Taken literally, and Aristotle sees no other way to take it, this sort of thinking would effectively eliminate private property and would revert all things in the state, including women and children, to shared ownership.
But shared ownership simply is not the way to go, Aristotle tells us. The sharing of property and children will make the friendship in the city “watery”. It is human nature that when responsibility (the responsibility of raising child for instance) is divided among many (the entire state) the result is that nobody truly pays any attention to the responsibilities at hand.
Aristotle insists that private property is essential to the wellbeing of the state.
Everybody simply assumes that somebody else will care for these matters and the people become lax, uninterested in managing any affairs. Aristotle compares this to a dinner party that runs more smoothly when there are a few servants attending to their own affairs rather than numerous servants attempting to tend to the entirety of the responsibilities.
The benefits of having private property are similar. For people are most interested in tending to and facilitating that which belongs to them or that which might benefit them. If all property is shared, there is no incentive for the citizens to maintain or develop the lands and properties of the society.
Self-interest, Aristotle tells us, is human nature. The philosopher writes as much in Nicomachean Ethics when he declares that the goal of a human life is to achieve our individual happiness through an understanding and application of virtue.
And so we see that the ownership of private property, as well as the self-interestedness of the citizens, is actually beneficial to the state as a whole.
“Evidently, then, it is better if we own possesions privately but make them common by our use of them…Further, it is unbelievably more pleasant to regard something as one’s own. For each persons love of himself is not pointless, but a natural tendency.” –Aristotle (Politics, Book II)
Aristotle and the Middle Class
It is not uncommon for Aristotle to apply the lessons of virtue pertaining to the individual to the lessons of virtue within civic life. It is not coincidence that Politics follows Nicomachean Ethics. Once Aristotle has established happiness, virtue, pleasure, etc. for the individual, it is only natural that these same lessons be applied to the polis as a whole.
Aristotle describes virtue as being a mean, a balance, between two extreme characteristics. Courage, for instance, is a balance between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. Generosity, similarly, is a balance between the extremes of miserliness and over-generousness (giving away all of your money and possessions).
The philosopher tells us that it is unavoidable to have within a society those who are overly prosperous and those who are overly disadvantaged. It is unfavorable for the state to allow either of these parties to rule. The prosperous, because of their good fortune and lavish upbringing, are not willing to be ruled. The needy, being overly abased, do not know how to rule or do not posses the resources to enable themselves to learn to rule.
Aristotle claims that these two factions, if allowed to rule, would destroy the justice of the polis. The prosperous, having no empathy for the poor, would rule over the citizens as a master
Essentially, Aristotle becomes one of the oldest advocates for a strong middle class.
might rule over a slave. This would appear common in an oligarchy. The poor, despising the rich, would enact laws to seize the property of the prosperous and in doing so, commit a grave injustice and damage the friendship within the state. This, it would seem, is common among “majority rule” democracies.
The compromise is that there must be an “intermediate class of people”. These intermediate people, embodying a balance between two extremes, would be able to appreciate the value of hard work, of earning a wage, while still having enough resources to educate themselves and learn the ways of virtue so that they might one day be just rulers.
Essentially, Aristotle becomes one of the oldest advocates for a strong middle class.
This middle class, ideally, should outnumber the combined numbers of both the prosperous and the needy. This strong middle class is the backbone of the society, providing just and compassionate rulers while counteracting the polarizing effects of the needy and the overly prosperous.
“Clearly, then, the political community that is in the hands of the intermediate people is best and the cities capable of having a good system are those in which the intermediate part is numerous and superior…” –Aristotle (Politics, Book IV)
We Must Avoid Political Extremes
In keeping with the idea of finding an intermediate between two extremes, Aristotle warns us of the dangers posed by political extremes. We mentioned previously that self-interestedness was beneficial to a society. An excess of self-interest, however, leads to selfishness and propagates ideas that are harmful to the citizens and the polis as a whole.
The partisan citizens within a society must not be allowed to achieve political relevance. For they assume that that which is of interest to them is the only interest, and therefore demand it in excess.
The consequence is that laws that are overly democratic or overly oligarchic will be enacted. Aristotle gives, again, the example of equality of property that is often enacted when the needy citizens gain too much influence within a state.
The overly prosperous, if allowed to rule, will enact laws that degrade the poor, laws that do not allow the needy to improve their station in life.
While both parties believe that these policies are just, for they are indeed in their best interest, such laws breed discontent and hatred among the citizens, damaging the concord of a society.
Aristotle compares the degradation of the state at the hands of the political extremists to the deformation found on a body part. A nose, Aristotle tells us, might have certain imperfections. It might be hooked or snubbed, but it is, unmistakably, still a nose. However, when the nose deviates further it will first lose its proper proportion. If it continues to deviate, the nose, or any body part, will be unrecognizable.
Similarly, political systems are never perfect. However, if we allow them to be held hostage by political radicals, the political system will diverge so far that it will become something unnatural.
“…an oligarchy or a democracy may be in good enough condition even though it has lapsed form its best order; but if someone takes either system to further extremes, he will make the political system worse and finally make it cease to be a political system at all.” –Aristotle (Politics, Book V)
Education Must Support the Political System
This final tidbit from Aristotle can be found in Book V of Politics. Even though it is only a few paragraphs long, I have always believed that this passage was of supreme importance.
Because most people believe that philosophy and “the real world” never overlap. They are mutually exclusive. Philosophy goes one way and reality goes the other, and never the twain shall meet!
Aristotle quoteThe philosopher claims that, in order for the political system to survive, we must educate ourselves and our children in the aims and ideals of the political system.
But Aristotle gives clear evidence that such thinking is incorrect. The philosopher claims that, in order for the political system to survive, we must educate ourselves and our children in the aims and ideals of the political system. A government cannot long stand if the citizens are ignorant of the principles of a society.
What, for instance, are the aims and ideals of a democracy? Is it a system that aims at egalitarianism? Personal freedom? Majority rule? We must answer these questions adequately if we wish for our society to long endure.
Aristotle states that two features, at least during the age of classical Greece, define a democracy: control by the majority and freedom.
But what do we mean by “freedom”? Does possessing democratic freedom mean that we are able to do whatever we please, to live however we wish? Is this the goal of a democratic society?
Aristotle rejects this. Such a society would never survive.
A political system should aim at fulfilling the needs of the many while still protecting the individual and creating an environment that facilitates the growth of virtue. Remember, an active expression of virtue is the highest good for a human life. And the state must be the medium through which this virtue is established.
Education then must fit the ideals of the political system. This is not only suggested, it is necessary for the continued survival of the state.
“…we ought to think that living in the way that fits the political system is not slavery, but preservation.” –Aristotle (Politics Book V)

Aristotle and the Art of Friendship

by May 4, 2015

How many friends do you have? Are they really your friends? Is it possible that your friends are using you for utility or pleasure? If you have never thought about these questions, then you really should. Aristotle certainly did.
Aristotle addresses the question of friendship in Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII. Friendship, Aristotle tells us, is of supreme importance. Moreover, it is essential to our happiness. As the philosopher says,
“No one would choose to live a friendless existence, even on the condition of having all other good things.” –Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII)
It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor; friendship is essential to our lives. Aristotle tells us that if we are rich and prosperous, then we will need friends to partake in our beneficence and to help protect our prosperity. Conversely, if you are poor, friendship is viewed as one of the only refuges from misery.
The young need friendship to keep them from error and to teach them the ways of the world. The old need friendship to care for them and support them when their bodies fail to weakness.
Perhaps most surprising, friendship is not only important to the individual, it is necessary for the continued existence of the state.
“Moreover, friendship would seem to hold cities together, and legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than about justice. For concord would seem to be similar to friendship and they aim at concord among all, while they try above all to expel civil conflict, which is enmity.” –Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII)
AristotleWhile friendship is indeed important, there are so many questions about friendship that we must answer. What types of people make good friends? Is it true that similars attract, hence the phrase ‘birds of a feather’? Or are similar people like “the proverbial potters” who always quarrel with one another?
Interestingly, Aristotle actually appeals to the philosopher Heraclitus, whom we just spoke of, to give credence to the idea that opposite forces create beautiful harmony out of struggle. Perhaps then it is opposite types of people who become the best of friends.
Putting all these considerations aside for the moment, Aristotle comes up with a general account of friendship as being reciprocated goodwill between people for reasons of usefulness, pleasure, or goodness.
Amusingly, Aristotle takes the time to inform us that we cannot be friends with inanimate objects. Objects cannot reciprocate our goodwill and love. So no matter how much you might wish it, and I swear to god he says this, you can’t be friends with your wine.

Aristotle continues by telling us that there are essentially three types of friendships. For just as causes differ, so do the types of living and types of friendship. The first two types of friendships are based on utility or pleasure.
This seems obvious enough to us. Those who love for either utility or pleasure do not love the person for their character or virtue. Rather, they love the person based on what is either good or pleasant for them.

If you were to give yourself some time to think, you certainly would be able to name friends who love you only insofar as you provide them with utility or pleasure.
Aristotle gives the example of a relationship between a host and a guest as a type of friendship based upon utility. And the friendship between young lovers typically is a friendship based upon pleasure.
While these types of friendships are commonplace within society, and occur frequently throughout a lifetime, they have the tendency to dissolve rather quickly. A friendship based upon utility or pleasure, obviously, ceases to exist once the individuals in the relationship are no longer advantageous to each other.
Aristotle tells us that these superficial friendships are common amongst young people. Young people, largely, are guided by their emotions and they pursue, above all, that which is pleasurable or that which is expedient.
It is not surprising then that so many youthful friendships have the tendency to dissolve rather quickly once the youths grow and their ideas of what is pleasurable or useful changes. They do not, in short, tend to create lasting friendships.
nic ethicsSo is there a way to attain real, enduring friendship? Are we doomed to live with false friends who only love us so long as we are useful to them?
Aristotle tells us that there is a third type of friendship. It is this friendship, more than any other, which we should seek out in our lives.
The third friendship is a friendship based on virtue or goodness. This type of friendship occurs when two people with similar understandings of true virtue meet and come to love one another for each others character or virtues. Moreover, the friends in this relationship wish goodness upon their friends for each other’s sake, and not because it might benefit themselves somehow.
These friends are friends most of all and their friendship may last as long as they are good and their virtue is enduring. Interestingly, while this friendship is based on altruism, it also provides the friends with both utility and pleasure. For it can be said that having a true friend is useful in that it makes us better people, and it can be said to be pleasurable because it gives us a true companion to share life with.
While this type of friendship is truly good and virtuous, Aristotle tells us that these friendships are the most rare of all. True friends take time to know each other. Often times they must partake of hardships together so that they might truly appreciate the other’s companionship. Aristotle says that true friends must sometimes “share the peck of salt” before they can sincerely know each other.
This might be a good time to take stock. How many friends do you have? More importantly, which of those friendships are based upon pleasure or utility? And which ones are the third type of friendship, a friendship based on mutual, altruistic love?
You might be unsurprised to find that your list of true friends is relatively short. Aristotle concludes this section by telling us that this is to be expected. While the wish for friendship might come quickly, true, lasting friendship does not.

In Defense Of Aristotelian Ethics

by August 18, 2014

By Van Bryan
Bertrand Russell once said that one quality that made Socrates a great philosopher was his ability to not become angered or annoyed even when his philosophical sparring partner was outright mocking him. And if we are judging good philosophers by that standard, then I am a terrible philosopher.
XXX If you ever want to see me get slightly annoyed, discuss ethical philosophy with me and make a case for absolute ethical relativism. If you want to see me get outright angry and attempt to strangle you, justify your position with the statement “Well, that’s just my opinion”.
Such an incident actually did occur while I was studying at my university some years ago. A friend of mine put it to me that there was no truth behind the idea of Justice (with a capital “J”), there was no Wisdom (with a capital “W”), and that there was no such thing as Goodness (with a capital “G”).
When I asked him to support his position, he responded by saying “Well… that’s just what I believe.” And it was all I could do to not scream at hime for committing such a terrible sin against philosophy.
The problem with being a philosopher, you and me are philosophers by the way, is that we are not entitled to our opinions. We are only entitled to what we can argue for. And we must, no matter how difficult it may be, acknowledge when a position has become indefensible and abandon the belief altogether.
Oh sure, you can have your own opinion about what type of ice cream flavor is best or which New York bar has the best happy hour drinks (It’s Barbounia on 20th and Park). However, when it comes to discovering answers to rather important questions, like how to live the best life in our case, not all opinions are created equal.

That might be difficult for some of us to swallow, but there it is. Some beliefs are better than others.

Martha Nussbaum uses the example of thunder in her paper “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach”. When examining thunder, we might wonder what it is that exactly causes it. One man might come forward and say that thunder is the result of the rapid expansion of XXX
air that occurs when lighting strikes. Another man might come forward and say that Zeus and his friends are up on Mount Olympus doing some bowling.

Now, while both explanations could account for observable phenomenon of thunder, one of them certainly seems more plausible. The second explanation, as cool as it sounds, is ultimately indefensible and must be discarded.
Another example is that if I were to have a toothache, I would probably go see a dentist. I would not, however, go to my favorite hot dog vendor and ask if he was interested in giving complex dental work a shot. You know, give it the old college try.
However, I digress. We are not talking about Zeus’ bowling habits or dental work or even hot dog vendors today. We are talking about the Aristotelean idea of non-relative virtues and the counter position which is referred to, by and large, as ethical relativism.
You see, my friend, the one whom I wanted to strangle, is what you might call an absolute ethical relativist. He holds the belief, despite my objections, that anybody’s idea of virtue is just as good as the next one. This means that the Aristotelean subject of non-relative virtues, the idea that there is an objective standard for good human behavior, is absolute nonsense.
It is worth noting that very few people are absolute ethical relativists. Many people are what we might call “cultural relativists”. This simply means that they believe every society holds different ideas of virtuous actions, and each of these ideas should be considered equal within the realm of ethical philosophy.
And this is where we often get into a bit of trouble. Ethical philosophers are often considered insensitive if they criticize a society’s practices, historical or otherwise. They are labeled as being ethnocentric, or culturally insensitive and, as a result, many people would prefer not to discuss the topic at all.
However, we must remember that even Aristotle, in his Politics, criticized his own culture and made notice of the ethical progress that the Greeks have undertaken over the centuries.

Politics “The customs of former times might be said to be too simple and barbaric. For Greeks used to go around armed with swords; and they used to buy wives from one another; and there are surely other ancient customs that are extremely stupid.” -Aristotle (Politics)

And so we must not be afraid to recognize that ethical progress exists and that we as rational beings ought to, in Aristotle’s words,

“…not seek the way of our ancestors, but the way of the Good.” -Aristotle (Politics)

If we are to make a defense for non-relative virtue, as well as the broader Aristotelian ethical philosophy, against the more contemporary ideas of ethical relativism, we must find a way to establish a universality between all cultures when it comes to the subject of virtuous behavior and a good life. This is a task that Aristotle is more than willing to undertake.
It is within The Nicomachean Ethics that Aristotle lays out very plainly the various realms of human life that ALL people will inevitably have to deal with. Within these spheres we are given a choice, to act virtuously or basely. Aristotle lists the corresponding virtues that ought to be followed.

Sphere Virtue
1. Fear of danger, especially death Courage
2. Bodily appetites and their pleasures Moderation
3. Distribution of limited resources Justice
4. Attitudes and actions regarding one’s self worth Greatness of Soul
5. The planning of one’s life and conduct Practical Wisdom
It is undeniable that every society, historical or otherwise, has had to deal with these various spheres of life and others. Every human being has or will have to face the prospect of death. Every person has an attitude towards the consumption of food and the experience of bodily pleasures. And it is undoubtedly true that every society has had to confront the reality of limited resources and respond accordingly.

“The point is that everyone makes some choices and acts somehow or other in these spheres: if not properly, then improperly.” -Martha Nussbaum (Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach)

Aristotle painting
Undoubtedly, people will disagree on exactly which actions within these various spheres makes a person virtuous or base. However, the Aristotelian has scored a small victory here. For if the relativist is arguing between which actions are best within these spheres, then they are no longer arguing for the nonexistence of objective virtue. Instead, we are grappling for a proper definition.

Just as we have progressed in the realm of scientific understanding, Aristotle tells us that we have similarly progressed in our understanding of ethical perfection. There was once a time in Greece when women were bought and sold as cattle. Aristotle points to this as a custom that was clearly stupid and base.
And so just as we prefer the heliocentric model of the solar system rather than believing that the earth is still flat as a means of conceptualizing the structure of the cosmos, so to must we recognize that the buying and selling of women is not a plausible action to arrive at human flourishing and ethical perfection.
From this we see that cultural traditions are not all viable options; that is to say that not all societal customs are equally plausible within the realm of ethical philosophy. Instead, we must recognize them as competing answers to the same question, the question of virtue.
And so we can conclude two things. The first is that not all behaviors within the spheres of life are equal, some are better than others. The second is that there most certainly is an absolute virtue that corresponds to the various spheres. We may not know precisely what it is, but we never stop trying to find it.
For this reason, Aristotle tells us that we ought to make it possible for laws to be changed when it is agreed upon by the people that a law is no longer corresponding with the idea of Goodness. However, the laws should not be so easily changed lest our legislation fall prey to impulsive opinions and prejudices of the populace.
Aristotle school of AthensThe ethical relativist is correct, however, on one small point. There exists many customs across many different cultures. And while they vary greatly, there is no doubting that these customs all partake of the same virtues, whether it be bravery, justice, or hospitality.
If you were to visit a friend in London, you might be greeted with a pot of tea and biscuits. However, if you were to travel to ancient Athens and sit with friends, you would fall under the ancient cultural practice of Xenia, a ritualized system of hospitality between guest and host. You might be served wine and olives. Perhaps you would even be offered a bath and receive a gift.
Even though the two customs would appear to differ greatly, and the practice of them are separated by thousands of years, there is still an idea of hospitality that is adhered to. There is the idea of well wishing, of mutual respect and friendship. In short, both customs partake of the same virtue, a virtue that is universally understood.
I never was able to convince my old friend of the existence of non-relative virtue. It is possible that he is still out there somewhere, viewing mass murder and charitable donations as being equally acceptable actions.
I have never been able to condone, or even understand, such thinking. It may seem compassionate of us to allow everybody their own opinion of virtue, of ethical soundness. However, in doing so we deny them the chance to arrive closer to true morality, to true goodness. I believe Aristotle would agree.
Further Reading

The Pursuit Of Virtue: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

by June 17, 2014

Nicomachean Ethics - Book IIIPlato’s dialogue, as is common, leaves us with more questions than answers. What is virtue? Well, it is something akin to wisdom, but it is not quite wisdom itself. Rather, it is guided by wisdom and made profitable through the practical application of wisdom.
Okay then. How do we attain virtue? Well, at least according to Plato, it can’t be taught. The reason for this is simply because Plato can’t seem to adequately identify a group of teachers who could instruct us in the ways of virtue.
Instead, true virtue comes to us as a gift from the gods. True virtue is, in many ways, only attainable by appealing to higher realms of existence, such as Plato’s cerebral world of Forms.
Rather than elucidating the idea of virtue, we are left with murky definitions and possibly unnecessary appeals to otherworldly plains of existence. And while we certainly can’t say that we “know” virtue to any discernible degree, at least now we know that we do not know and are freed from the curse of living in unabashed ignorance.
But my goodness, perhaps there is some merit to the old adage that ignorance is bliss. Plato doesn’t necessarily argue in circles, but his dialogues don’t seem to go anywhere fast. And in truth, they aren’t meant to.
The platonic dialogues were to be used as examples of how we ought to interact with other philosophically minded individuals. We are meant to discuss, consider, and then refute our own ideas of virtue, and in doing so, reveal our own ignorances. Plato’s dialogue, therefore, is not so much a guide to moral virtue, but is a blueprint for the act of Socratic dialogue, which was, according to Plato, the proper way to practice philosophy.
While such things are indeed beneficial for those of us who practice philosophy, The Meno does lack a particular immediacy, a conciseness that we might long for when considering the way in which we ought to live. It is a good thing, therefore, that Aristotle’s brand of philosophy is readily available.
Precise, unwavering, sometimes considered to be a bit terse, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics explores the topic of human virtue in a way that is distinctively Aristotelian. With short, concise sentences and always with the idea of practical application, The Nicomachean Ethics is a far cry from Plato’s The Meno. If you are looking for answers, you have come to the right place.
Part 2: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
It is within Book II of The Nicomachean Ethics that Aristotle lays out his plan of action for us…

“Our present inquiry does not aim, as our others do, at study; for the purpose of our examination is not to know what virtue is, but to become good, since otherwise the inquiry would be of no benefit to us.” -Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics Book II)

AristotleProving, once again, his preference for the pragmatic rather than the theoretical, Aristotle intends to not only inquire about the nature of virtue, he plans on making us good people. No mere philosophical pondering, The Nicomachean Ethics, very literally, is a step by step guide to becoming a better person. So where to start?
We first must understand that there are two types of virtue, virtues of the intellect and virtues of character. Intellectual virtues mainly consist of wisdom and independent thought, while virtues of character refer to ideas such as bravery, temperance, and generosity.
Virtue of the intellect grows from teaching, as we might expect. Virtue of character, on the other hand, is formed form habit over time. Aristotle takes a moment to consider the idea that virtue is, by nature, within all people.
He tells us that while habitation will develop virtue of character, the potentiality for all virtue exists within our souls. A stone by habit moves downward. No matter how many times you may throw a stone into the air, you will never habituate a stone to travel upwards. Similarly, our potentiality for virtue is requisite if we wish to cultivate these virtues within our lives.
Within the first few paragraphs of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle has concluded that all people have the potentiality for virtue and that we develop these virtues by performing virtuous acts. We become brave by behaving bravely, we become just by acting justly.

Aristotle statue
We might be happy to call it quits right here. However, Aristotle aims at making us good people, so the topic of virtue must be explored a bit more.

First, we must understand what virtue is. Aristotle tells us that virtue is a balancing of sorts, a perfect median between deficiency and excess. When considering bravery, cowardice, and rashness, we might say that an individual who is deficient of confidence within situations will be considered a coward. However, an individual who possesses too much confidence will be rash, impulsive and hard headed. From these two extremes we can come to understand that the perfect middle ground is bravery, a true virtue.
Finding this perfect middle ground, however, can sometimes be quite a challenge. We can not assume that there will always be a mathematical, objective standard for every virtue. The act of donating $100 to charity might seem virtuous. However, if the man giving the money is very wealthy, we might assume that he is not being virtuous at all, but is actually rather greedy. And if the man donating the money were a beggar, we might consider him rather foolish for giving away money that he so desperately needs.
And so in this way we see that there is no consistent standard for virtue. Every situation varies and so we must make an effort to judge which actions are virtuous and which are not.

“In this way every scientific expert avoids excess and deficiency and seeks and chooses what is intermediate-but intermediate relative to us, not in the object.” -Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book II)

XXXAdditionally, Aristotle tells us that we must recognize that virtue is a state of being rather than a feeling or a capacity. It is because of our virtues and our vices that we are praised or blamed, and it can not be rightfully stated that we are blamed or praised for our feelings or our capacities for feelings, so it stands to reason that virtue is a state.
Finally, we must understand that simply performing virtuous actions is not enough. Acting bravely does not make us brave people any more than pounding on piano keyboard makes us brilliant musicians. In order to truly become virtuous, we must do the following:
  • We must know that what we are doing is virtuous
  • We must decide to do virtuous actions and decide to do them for the sake of their own value
  • We must do these virtuous actions from a firm and unchanging state.
And so we see that there are quite a few rules we must follow in order to be virtuous. Sticking with the musician comparison, any individual might strike a few keys on a piano and occasionally will produce some beautiful sounding notes. This, however, does not make us a skilled musician. Similarly, we can not simply perform virtuous actions. We must possess the intention to be virtuous, we must have an understanding of virtue, and we must perform these actions for the sake of virtue alone.
Aristotle’s account of virtue differs slightly from other moral philosophers because it at no point makes an argument for why we should want to be virtuous. It does not take into consideration the possibility that it might be advantageous to be vicious or deceitful.
Additionally, Aristotle gives no real account of which dispositions should be considered virtuous or vicious. He never tells us, precisely, which actions will make us brave, or temperate, or just. This need for a justification is even more pressing for a modern reader whose understanding of virtue might differ greatly from a well-educated, well-bred, Athenian aristocrat.
Still, even with these detractors in mind, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics stands as one of the most inspired sources for philosophical enlightenment. A guide to self betterment, we can thank Aristotle for his ideas on virtue and how best to attain it.