Review and Critique of Book 3 of the Eudemian Ethics

Please note that I have switched to the Oxford World Classic version of Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics for ease of reference and my preference for a paper copy. This version is translated by Anthony Kenny.

Aristotle continues his enquiry into ethics by referring to the Moral Virtues. As we saw in Book 2, Aristotle developed his concept of the relative mean in virtue by contrasting excess with deficiency to define the middle and best state – the relative mean. Book 3 provides a definitive argument of these virtues. We shall let Aristotle himself lead us into our review, “In general terms it has been stated that the virtues are the middle states, and that these virtues themselves and their opposing vices are states that find expression in choice. We have listed them; let us now take them in turn and discuss them one by one. First, let us speak about courage.”

Aristotle then proceeds to define the following virtues in detail;

• Courage
• Temperance and Intemperance
• Gentleness and Cruelty
• Liberality
• Pride
• Other Good and Bad Qualities of Character

So let us continue.

Courage

Aristotle gives an account of what courage is and then goes on to list the five different types. The aim of this particular enquiry is to determine which particular type of courage is taken for the sake of some end, for if we remember from Book 1, “Everybody able to live according to his own purposive choice should set before him some object for noble living to aim at – either honour or else glory or wealth or culture – on which he will keep his eyes fixed in all his conduct.”

Firstly, Aristotle explains why he has chosen courage as the relative mean. He gives cowardice as the deficiency of courage and foolhardiness as the excess of courage, “It is evident, therefore, that people who are thus characterised will similarly be contrasted with each other, that is to say the coward (who is so called from being more afraid than is right, and less daring than is right) and the foolhardy (who is so called as the kind of person who is less afraid than is right, and more daring than is right). So that since courage is the best state of character in relation to feelings of fear and daring, and people should neither be like the foolhardy nor like cowards it is evident that the middle condition between foolhardiness and cowardice is courage, for that is what is the best state.” This ‘more afraid than is right’, and its contrary, ‘more daring than is right’ references some condition that has yet to be defined. That is, ‘than is right’. What is right? To Aristotle it is reason and the aim to which one acts. For example, “There remains this problem. To a courageous man is there nothing that is frightening? Is he incapable of fear? Surely there is nothing to prevent him from feeling fear in the manner we have described. For courage is a way of following reason, and reason tells us to choose what is noble. For this reason a person who endures what is frightening, but not for that reason, is either mad or foolhardy; only the person who does so for the sake of what is noble counts as courageous. The coward fears what he ought not to fear, the foolhardy dares where he ought not to dare; the courageous man does both as he ought to, and thus he is a mean, for he is daring and fearful exactly as reason commands. But reason does not command the endurance of painful and life-threatening things unless it is noble to do so. The foolhardy man, then, dares even when reason tells him not to; the coward does not dare even when reason tells him to. It is the courageous man who dares only when reason tells him to.” It is apparent to Aristotle that virtue, reason and nobility are all intertwined. Reason relates to some noble goal, whether that be honour, glory, wealth or culture. The relative mean in virtue is a rational choice which helps accomplish that aim. Thus any action which jeopardises that goal, be it cowardice or foolhardiness, is a vice.

Aristotle now goes on to list five types of courage which are;

• Civic Courage
• Military Courage
• Ignorance
• Expression of Hope – Drunkenness
• Irrational Passion

The exact wording reads, “There are five kinds of courage, so called because they resemble courage in being endurance of the same dangers; but the endurance is for different reasons in the different cases. One is civic courage, which is based upon a sense of shame; another is military courage, based upon experience and on knowledge – not knowledge of the dangers (as Socrates said), but rather of ways of coping with them. The third rests on inexperience or ignorance; it makes madmen ready to face anything, and makes children handle snakes. Another kind is an expression of hope, which makes people face dangers if they have had a number of lucky escapes, or if they are drunk – for wine is a great purveyor of hope. Another kind arises from irrational passion: love or rage, for instance.” I have no criticism of this list. Yet Aristotle himself is not satisfied that any of these forms of courage count as the relative mean in virtue because they do not pertain to some noble end. Rather Aristotle rejects all of the above as forms of true courage as they hold some obligation other than deliberative choice for the sake of some end. Consider the following passage, “But true courage is something different from this, and from all the others, even though it resembles them, as does the courage of wild beasts which rush in rage to meet the blow. A man should stand his ground not because he fears disgrace, or is enraged, nor because he does not think he will die, or because he has effective protection, for in that case he will not think there is anything to be afraid of. But since every virtue implies choice (in the manner earlier explained: it makes a man choose everything for the sake of some end, and the end is what is noble), it is clear that courage being a particular virtue will make a man endure what is frightening for the sake of some end. Instead of making him do it in error, it will make him judge rightly, and instead of doing it for the sake of pleasure, he will do it because it is noble.” Thus, our definition of courage reads, ‘the relative mean in virtue between an excess; foolhardiness, and deficiency; cowardice, in relation toward some noble end’. I believe this statement satisfies all other enquiries into the various best states in virtue so that a generic version would read, ‘Good is the relative mean in virtue between both excess and deficiency in relation toward some noble end’. Let us continue to see if we are correct.

Temperance and Intemperance

Aristotle now reviews temperance and intemperance. From his table in Book 2, Aristotle lists temperance as the relative mean in virtue with excess called intemperance and the deficiency called insensitivity. Aristotle’s argument here relates to the indulgence of the senses and the pleasure derived from sensation. Consider, “Temperance and intemperance have to do with the two senses that alone have objects that are felt by, and give pleasure and pain to, animals other than ourselves, namely, taste and touch. With regard to the pleasures of the other senses – harmony and beauty, for instance – they seem to be pretty much totally insensitive.” To elaborate further an excess of pleasure derived from taste would lead to gluttony, whilst deriving no pleasure from consensual sex would be deemed insensitive. In conclusion, Aristotle states, “So if temperance is the best state in respect of the intemperate man’s sphere of activity, the mean state with regard to the aforesaid pleasures of the senses will be temperance, a mean between intemperance and insensitivity.” It appears to me that Aristotle is advocating restraint in relation to excessive pleasure-seeking activities which lead to detrimental effects upon the physical and mental state of being rather than deriding the case of insensitivity, but regardless it is a relative mean in virtue.

Gentleness and Cruelty

Next on Aristotle’s list is the relative mean of gentleness which les in between an excess, called cruelty, and a deficiency, called servility. Form Aristotle himself, “In our chart we made a contrast between irascibility, cruelty and savagery (all such being forms of the same disposition) and the characteristics of the servile and the milksop. Such are the kind of names we call those who are not moved to rage when they ought to be, but accept insults cheerfully and are humble in the face of contempt.” I would just like to draw the reader’s attention to that last sentence which conflicts with another major moral code – Christianity. Quoting the New Testament, Matthew 5:38-40, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” It is clear that Aristotle would not make a very good Christian. Aristotle arrives at gentleness as the relative mean in virtue through the following statement, “And since there is here, as we said in other cases, excess and defect (for the cruel man is the one who feels anger too quickly, too violently, too long, at the wrong time, and with the wrong people, and with too many people, while the servile man is just the contrary), it is clear that there is also some character at the midpoint of this scale. Since, then, both these states of character are wrong, it is clear that the midway between them is correct: such that a man gets angry neither too soon nor too late, and he does not get angry with the wrong people or fail to get angry with the people who deserve it. So since the best state of character in respect to these emotions is gentleness, gentleness would be a mean, and a gentle person would be in the middle between a cruel person and a servile person.”

Liberality

Aristotle’s definition of the term ‘liberality’ is as follows, “Liberality is the mean in regard to the getting and spending of wealth.” Aristotle’s inquiry into the nature of liberality concerns the feelings of the one who acquires and utilises wealth. Consider, “We speak in two different senses of wealth and its acquisition, for there are two ways of using a piece of property, such as a shoe or a cloak: one is its proper use, and the other is its coincidental use.” He continues, “Now, a miser is someone who dotes on money, and for him money becomes a matter of possession rather than coincidental use. An illiberal man may be prodigal with respect to the coincidental mode of making money, since what he wants to maximise is the natural pursuit of wealth. The prodigal man goes short of necessities, but the liberal man gives away his surplus.” What really concerns Aristotle is the reckless spending of money and its converse which is the fixation on acquiring never-ending amounts with a view to fraud as a means of acquisition. I find this relative mean to be vague because Aristotle has elsewhere stated that the pursuit of wealth is considered to be one of the noble aims hence his caveat; “If his illiberality amounts to injustice then he is a fraud and a cheat.” Rather than being an outright vice it is conditioned with regard to a further act. Regardless, the principle behind this particular relative mean is to ensure a man is neither reckless in his spending; prodigal, or ruthless in his acquisition; illiberal, and that he attains the middle and best state which is to spend only his surplus; liberality.

Pride

I find Aristotle’s views on pride to be particularly interesting because whilst it establishes a relative mean between vanity and diffidence it also highlights some of the foundations underlying his entire philosophy on ethics. Aristotle even gives prominence to this view by listing the necessities of pride before conducting his review into the relative mean. Consider, “We speak of the proud man, in accordance with the derivation of the corresponding Greek adjective, as having a certain greatness of soul and faculty, and so he seems like the friendly man and the magnificent man. Pride does indeed seem to accompany all of the virtues.” Furthermore, “Each particular virtue distinguishes correctly between the greater and the lesser in its own area, following the prescription that a wise man and his virtue would give. Thus, all the virtues go with this virtue, or it goes with them all.” And finally, “… so that there is no virtue without greatness. Each virtue, then, as we have said, makes someone a proud person in respect of those matters that fall within its sphere.” Clearly it is essential to Aristotle’s virtue-bound ethics that the individual is a proud person otherwise he lacks both the will and the ability to determine what greatness is and how to distinguish between greater and lesser acts in relation to the relative mean. Without these clear distinctions he has no knowledge of how to pursue and exercise greatness.

Now let us examine pride as the relative mean in virtue. As mentioned, Aristotle holds pride to be the relative mean between diffidence and vanity. Consider, “Of the contraries as shown in our diagram, claiming great things when one does not deserve them is vanity (for it is precisely the people who think they are worthy of great things when they are not whom we call vain), while deserving great things while not claiming them is diffidence (for if a man in possession of deserving qualities does not think himself worthy of anything great, he is diffident). Hence it follows that pride is the mean between vanity and diffidence.” I have no refutation to offer regarding these points.

Other good and bad qualities of character

Aristotle continues to list other virtues such as magnificence and righteous indignation as relative means and gives reasons for their classifications. It is not necessary for us to investigate these further as the pattern is consistent with that listed above. Described in this final section is the generic rule, “The mean is more opposed to the extremes than the extremes are to each other, because it does not occur in combination with either of them, whereas the extremes often occur together.” An example given to clarify the point reads, “Sometimes the very same people are foolhardy cowards, or are prodigal in some things and illiberal in others, and in general their badness gets out of bounds.”

Critique on Book 3

Aristotle’s enquiry into the relative mean in virtue is both exhaustive and transparent. It is clear that he aims to establish that goodness lies in choosing a noble end utilising the relative mean in virtue to attain that end. My interest lies in the contrast between Aristotle’s virtues and the vices laid out in other ethical codes, in this particular case it is Christianity. It is clear that Aristotle holds pride to be virtuous whereas in the Old Testament, Proverbs 11:12, it states, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” And in the New Testament, Luke 14:11, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The whole purpose of this study is to contrast the different ethical codes and discover which shall transcend any obligation to the current age. In regards to this I side with Aristotle’s view that pride is a virtue for it is an honest acknowledgement of one’s talents whereas humility seeks further acclaim through debasing one’s merit so that it avoids intimidating any prospective audience.

On Chimp Bashing (also referred to as Government)

Chimp-men elect the greatest organiser among them to increase the effectiveness of their chimp-bashing abilities.

In primitive societies this would be the chimp-man who has asserted his prowess through combat. All other chimp-men within the collective recognise this authority based upon a sensual evaluation – that is, all would be challengers have been defeated in an open contest before the eyes of all the other chimp-men in attendance. With this contest won the strongest chimp-man can then organise the chimp-men under his command to bash other, less effectively organised, chimp-men and steal their chimp-ladies. This is a Tribal government.

As societies grow larger it is impossible for every chimp-man to view the combat which determines who is the strongest chimp-man. And, besides, complex societies require a greater level of logistical understanding (read bureaucracy) to organise effectively owing to the various needs of the participants. The next contest is settled through ‘Right to Rule’, ‘Mandate of Heaven’, etc… This utilises Man’s ability to form abstractions to construct an ethereal system of idols which reflect various beliefs in the physical world – fertility, war, well-being, etc. The chimp-man which best fulfils these rituals asserts his authority upon the collective by appealing to their need to be recognised by a primordial creator and the perceived advantages such things confer. This method can reach a wider audience compared with Tribal government owing to language and rumour. Internal chimp bashing increases the cohesion of the collective by either eliminating or coercing dissidents while externally it is free to bash chimp-men from other belief systems. This is a Theocratic government.

Societies which reject the superstitious pretence of a primordial creator yet adhere to the ‘Right to Rule’ principle represent a Monarchy (read feudal hierarchy). Rather than settle the matter of master chimp-man through the ability to perform rituals a bloodline is declared. In this system the ‘Right to Rule’ is passed from kings to heirs and is maintained as long as there are no substantial claims to the throne or a complete rejection of the system. This feudal system imposes severe restrictions upon each chimp-man based upon his status. Chimp-Serfs are bashed by Chimp-Vassals. Chimp-Vassals are bashed by Chimp-Lords. Chimp-Lords are bashed by Chimp-Monarchs. The higher the rank of the individual the less bashing occurs owing to a need to preserve cohesion. (Chimp-Serfs may frequently starve to death without attention but if the same fate were to befall a Chimp-Lord then the integrity of the system would be challenged). Chimp-Monarchs can still suppress Chimp-Lords but this is much subdued compared to the suppression reserved for Chimp-Serfs unless the word ‘treason’ is muttered. Externally speaking a Chimp-Monarch may then decide what he really wants to do is to bash another Chimp-Monarch for some perceived (and no doubt deserving) offence. When this happens the Chimp-Serfs must create surplus to support the war effort and then go and die in it along with the Chimp-Vassals and Chimp-Lords, and maybe even the Chimp-Monarch. This is a Feudal government.

Once a society rejects both the ‘Right to Rule’ and Tribal principles it elects a Chimp-Ruler through ballot. Crudely speaking, the majority of voters elect a Prime Chimp-man who will bash less organised opponents to confer advantages upon the electorate. This can include land rights, working wages, tax breaks or a welfare system depending upon who the right to vote is extended to. Once a Prime Chimp-man is sworn into office he or she may legitimately reduce or rescind the rights of minority groups declaring, with much gusto, that they represent the majority. This is a Democratic Government.

The pinnacle of our chimp bashing system has to be the ability to bash chimps that aren’t even born yet. This method of chimp bashing occurs through national debt. This regime of chimp bashing requires that the chimp-men of today extract more money from the government than they pay in taxes plus money received from all operational licences which the government grants. Various interests groups from corporations to parasitical citizens lobby the government for favourable conditions to increase their revenues. As a result the government takes on more debt than it can possibly hope to pay back. This outstanding balance is recouped from unborn chimp-men when they eventually enter the labour market. Crony Capitalism and National Debt are our most refined forms of chimp bashing. But, alas, both are still chimp bashing.

On Strife

To these Godly souls I should lead them away from all base existence. But alas, what words of mine would evict their base desires? That common bond of depravity! Such have I lived! Such have I tasted! That bitter sensation of the youthful soul, not strong enough to nourish itself! That it must drink from others! Then I say this, who has courage to sip from this joyful chalice? For too long it has simmered, now from the mount does it spill. All was concocted within me and only now do I erupt! Only at my hour do all know me! By what other hour could I be known? That I did wander through my loneliness to make myself known to – myself! For what truer virtue exists other than the virtue of oneself! So I say this also, “Make oneself of one’s own virtue!” For only then can you know what you ought to love. I make that the only law of the Noble Virtue, the Noble soul. Through it I give my unreserved love to those who stand before me. To those whose virtue is at odds with order, the demanded virtue, the expected happiness. For there exists no greater measure of virtue than he who suffers for his virtue. And no greater strength than he who smiles through bitterness.

On Youth

Where is your zest, young man? Youth has been maligned, corrupted, conspired against. And now you come of age – for what? To inherit your own boredom! How obedient we have made Man, how worthless. When those instruments of efficiency swallow your education how will you bargain for your happiness? How shall we, in our acquiescence, ever arise to the most lofty of ideals – the creation of our values? Dignity has acquired a sense of equality – the taming of all aspiration – for it does not do to undermine the esteem of men. But what has Man’s timidity brought? Has he ever viewed himself through his own eyes? Could he survive his own verdict? Only if society had raised him to its baseness. Only if he had not compromised some part of himself in the acceptance of these values. But where is our overcoming, our youth? Why does it learn to be afraid? Why does it learn to submit? Why does it grow – old?

On the Ideology of Power

Power is the dominion of a single representation. There can exist no plurality in its manifesto. As such it is dependent upon a simple, rigid ideology that allows no room for manoeuvre. Anything else would undermine its legitimacy. But how does a single representation come about and how does it come to dominate?

Power is the means to gain recognition for either a person or an abstraction. Once recognition is obtained actions that were previously criminalised can be legitimately undertaken in its name. This legitimacy has two parts; firstly the person committing the act, secondly the observer witnessing the act. Once an ideology is established the person committing the act will always consider the act to be lawful if it satisfies the goals of the ideology. The act only gains legitimacy for the observer if it passes a threshold of acceptance. This threshold of acceptance will consist of many forms. Some will accept it as popular opinion, others will accept it by some deep-seated prejudice that the ideology satisfies. Some will settle that it is an unwanted but necessary alternative to the current situation. Some will accept it based upon what they can gain from it. Others will accept it if it conforms to reason. It is doubtful that the ideology will satisfy all of the above and thus will never achieve universal acceptance but universal acceptance is not required. If the ideology passes the threshold of acceptance then power allows any executive to coerce or threaten the reluctant parties. Given that our threshold of acceptance is a subjective quantity based upon people and environment we shall focus our attention on the source of power in the hope that we may give a just account of it.

Power is expressed through a single representation of life. A single representation is the ultimate declaration of being in the sense that it rejects all other external representations, i.e. that of another conscious perception, as invalid concerning the justification of existence. Indeed existence only has relevance if it serves and promotes the ideology. As such, anything than opposes or runs contradictory to this ideology must be suppressed and eliminated. That is how it comes to dominate and only through excessive effort is it sustained.

But how does this singular representation arise? Recognition. A being is dissatisfied with the current interpretation of existence and proposes a different set of values based upon his inner beliefs – that is, his esteem. He believes that his interpretation is a necessity that only he can provide. Thus he rejects all dissent as meaningless arguments based on incorrect values. Where he strides others shall follow, he shall create peoples along with a legitimacy through his will – that is, the outer manifestation of his inner beliefs. He surrounds himself with people who affirm his inner valuations creating a dangerous feedback loop. Anything that contradicts the ideology is now willingly misinterpreted so as not to offend the values of the system constructed. But a loss of causality – that is, the link between cause and effect – means that the ideology cannot correctly identify underlying causes with physical effects. Eventually the physical opposition to the system overcomes the spiritual strength of power and the ideology collapses.

On the Energy Expended to Ensure Conformity

Mankind is not uniform. His valuations do not amount to universal consensus on existence. Privacy is essential for this reason, it provides a quiet retreat away from collective judgements – that is, a common consensus on how a person should behave when in company. For some these collective judgements provide a necessary scale on how to measure one’s success and worth, for me they are a farce. I always ask myself if it didn’t exist would I create it, in most cases the answer is ‘no’. If I am at odds with the spiritual evaluation of a human being then I am not satisfied, or impressed, by any subsequent achievement that this system recognises. And equally, nor will my achievements and failures be recognised by this collective valuation. Man is interred by a reward system that came before his existence, to maintain this system requires excessive energy to prevent a human being from reverting to type – that is, without inheriting a system of values the person in question would be forced to form their own abstractions and subsequent recognition system. This is disobedience – a reluctance to honour the previous system imposed upon human worth. But the system has only gained legitimacy because it came first – that is, it is the most archaic system devised. In it everything presupposes obedience to a higher assessment, God, nature, the town, the nation, the race. Everything is made to feel larger and more important than the individual. He is asked to play his part, mutual cooperation, assimilation, indeed anything that prevents him from discovering who he is. Dangerous things begin to happen when an individual losses touch with his sense of community. He begins to reassess what is important through the only mechanism available – himself. His questions go unanswered, namely on two counts – one because only he understands the question and two because people don’t understand the aim of the system. He refutes the exploitation of either his intellect or his virtue or his effort. At this point the system rallies and expends a significant amount of its resources to ‘correct’ or ‘re-educate’ the dissident. He has neither asked for this attention nor sees the value in it. But he is sure of one thing, he is a failure by the measures inherent in the system because he has not satisfied the key value of it – blind obedience. Before accepting any truth he dares to ask, ‘what does it mean to me?’ There exists a simpleness in him, not through a lack of intellect but through an abundance. His interests turn to other, less valued, pursuits. But replacing one set of nonsensical values with another set achieves no victory worth mentioning. After this period of disillusionment comes the real worth of being – the judgements cast against any dissident lead him to revaluate what is necessary about his existence; what does he find joy and despair in? How does he attain validation if the herd cannot bestow him with worth? The energy the system expends to undermine the individual’s valuations eventually succeed but they succeed too well. The dissident, cut off from these reward mechanisms, now seeks validity in reason and takes his place amongst wiser counsel. He sees that the greatest minds have experienced the same reluctance to embrace the herd instinct and once here he is never going back.