Satyagraha

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Aristotle: Contemplative Life is Divine and Happiest

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Leo von Klenze (1784-1864), The Acropolis at Athens

ARISTOTLE wrote two works on ethics (that we know of).  The greater of these has come down to us with the name Nicomachean Ethics — evidently either because he wrote it for his son, Nicomachus, or the latter edited the work.  In the Books 7 and 8, Aristotle explains the benefits of the Contemplative Life.  Book 7 gives several specific reasons why Contemplation (θεωρεία; theoreia) contributes uniquely to human happiness.

Perfect Happiness is that activity which most fully exercises the virtue of our best part. Our best part is Intellect, and its most virtuous exercise is Contemplation.

7. 1. [1177a11] But if happiness [εὐδαιμονία] consists in activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part of us. Whether then this be the Intellect [νοῦς], or whatever else it be that is thought to rule and lead us by nature, and to have cognizance of what is noble and divine, either as being itself also actually divine, or as being relatively the divinest part of us, it is the activity of this part of us in accordance with the virtue proper to it that will constitute perfect happiness; and it has been stated already* that this activity is the activity of contemplation [θεωρητική].

Εἰ δ᾽ ἐστὶν ἡ εὐδαιμονία κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν ἐνέργεια, εὔλογον κατὰ τὴν κρατίστην· αὕτη δ᾽ ἂν εἴη τοῦ ἀρίστου. εἴτε δὴ νοῦς τοῦτο εἴτε ἄλλο τι, ὃ δὴ κατὰ φύσιν δοκεῖ ἄρχειν καὶ ἡγεῖσθαι καὶ ἔννοιαν ἔχειν περὶ καλῶν καὶ θείων, εἴτε θεῖον ὂν καὶ αὐτὸ εἴτε τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν τὸ θειότατον, ἡ τούτου ἐνέργεια κατὰ τὴν οἰκείαν ἀρετὴν εἴη ἂν ἡ τελεία εὐδαιμονία. ὅτι δ᾽ ἐστὶ θεωρητική, εἴρηται.

*Aristotle never stated this exactly, but in 6.7.2-3 said that Wisdom [σοφία] is the most perfect mode of knowledge. A wise person must have a true conception of unproven first principles and also know the conclusions that follow from them. “Hence Wisdom must be a combination of Intelligence [Intellect; νοῦς] and Scientific Knowledge [ἐπιστήμη]: it must be a consummated knowledge of the most exalted objects.”  Contemplation is that activity in which ones νοῦς intuits and delights in first principles.

Reasons why the Life of Contemplation is happiest: (1) contemplation is the activity of our highest part; (2) it is the most potentially continuous of our activities;

2. And that happiness consists in contemplation may be accepted as agreeing both with the results already reached and with the truth. For contemplation is at once the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects with which the intellect deals are the highest things that can be known), and also it is the most continuous, for we can reflect more continuously than we can carry on any form of action.

ὁμολογούμενον δὲ τοῦτ᾽ ἂν δόξειεν εἶναι καὶ τοῖς πρότερον καὶ τῷ ἀληθεῖ. κρατίστη τε γὰρ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐνέργεια (καὶ γὰρ ὁ νοῦς τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ τῶν γνωστῶν, περὶ ἃ ὁ νοῦς)· ἔτι δὲ συνεχεστάτη· θεωρεῖν [τε] γὰρ δυνάμεθα συνεχῶς μᾶλλον ἢ πράττειν ὁτιοῦν.

(3) it is our most pleasant activity;

3. And again we suppose that happiness must contain an element of pleasure; now activity in accordance with wisdom is admittedly the most pleasant of the activities in accordance with virtue: at all events it is held that philosophy or the pursuit of wisdom contains pleasures of marvellous purity and permanence, and it is reasonable to suppose that the enjoyment of knowledge is a still pleasanter occupation than the pursuit of it.

οἰόμεθά τε δεῖν ἡδονὴν παραμεμῖχθαι τῇ εὐδαιμονίᾳ, ἡδίστη δὲ τῶν κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν ἐνεργειῶν ἡ κατὰ τὴν σοφίαν ὁμολογουμένως ἐστίν· δοκεῖ γοῦν ἡ φιλοσοφία θαυμαστὰς ἡδονὰς ἔχειν καθαρειότητι καὶ τῷ βεβαίῳ, εὔλογον δὲ τοῖς εἰδόσι τῶν ζητούντων ἡδίω τὴν διαγωγὴν εἶναι.

(4) it requires only oneself;

4. Also the activity of contemplation will be found to possess in the highest degree the quality that is termed self-sufficiency [αὐτάρκεια]; for while it is true that the wise man equally with the just man and the rest requires the necessaries of life, yet, these being adequately supplied, whereas the just man needs other persons towards whom or with whose aid he may act justly, and so likewise do the temperate man and the brave man and the others, the wise man on the contrary can also contemplate by himself, and the more so the wiser he is; no doubt he will study better with the aid of fellow-workers, but still he is the most self-sufficient of men.

ἥ τε λεγομένη αὐτάρκεια περὶ τὴν θεωρητικὴν μάλιστ᾽ ἂν εἴη· τῶν μὲν γὰρ πρὸς τὸ ζῆν ἀναγκαίων καὶ σοφὸς καὶ δίκαιος καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ δέονται, τοῖς δὲ τοιούτοις ἱκανῶς κεχορηγημένων ὁ μὲν δίκαιος δεῖται πρὸς οὓς δικαιοπραγήσει καὶ μεθ᾽ ὧν, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ὁ σώφρων καὶ ὁ ἀνδρεῖος καὶ τῶν ἄλλων ἕκαστος, ὁ δὲ σοφὸς καὶ καθ᾽ αὑτὸν ὢν δύναται θεωρεῖν, καὶ ὅσῳ ἂν σοφώτερος ᾖ, μᾶλλον· βέλτιον δ᾽ ἴσως συνεργοὺς ἔχων, ἀλλ᾽ ὅμως

(5) it is an end in itself;

5. [1177b1] Also the activity of contemplation may be held to be the only activity that is loved for its own sake: it produces no result beyond the actual act of contemplation, whereas from practical pursuits we look to secure some advantage, greater or smaller, beyond the action itself.

δόξαι τ᾽ ἂν αὐτὴ μόνη δι᾽ αὑτὴν ἀγαπᾶσθαι· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς γίνεται παρὰ τὸ θεωρῆσαι, ἀπὸ δὲ τῶν πρακτικῶν ἢ πλεῖον ἢ ἔλαττον περιποιούμεθα παρὰ τὴν πρᾶξιν.

(6) it is the most leisured activity;

6. Also happiness is thought to involve leisure; for we do business in order that we may have leisure, and carry on war in order that we may have peace. Now the practical virtues are exercised in politics or in warfare; but the pursuits of politics and war seem to be unleisured — those of war indeed entirely so, for no one desires to be at war for the sake of being at war, nor deliberately takes steps to cause a war: a man would be thought an utterly bloodthirsty character if he declared war on a friendly state for the sake of causing battles and massacres. But the activity of the politician also is unleisured, and aims at securing something beyond the mere participation in politics — positions of authority and honor, or, if the happiness of the politician himself and of his fellow-citizens, this happiness conceived as something distinct from political activity (indeed we are clearly investigating it as so distinct).

δοκεῖ τε ἡ εὐδαιμονία ἐν τῇ σχολῇ εἶναι· ἀσχολούμεθα γὰρ ἵνα σχολάζωμεν, καὶ πολεμοῦμεν ἵν᾽ εἰρήνην ἄγωμεν. τῶν μὲν οὖν πρακτικῶν ἀρετῶν ἐν τοῖς πολιτικοῖς ἢ ἐν τοῖς πολεμικοῖς ἡ ἐνέργεια, αἱ δὲ περὶ ταῦτα πράξεις δοκοῦσιν ἄσχολοι εἶναι, αἱ μὲν πολεμικαὶ καὶ παντελῶς (οὐδεὶς γὰρ αἱρεῖται τὸ πολεμεῖν τοῦ πολεμεῖν ἕνεκα, οὐδὲ παρασκευάζει πόλεμον· δόξαι γὰρ ἂν παντελῶς μιαιφόνος τις εἶναι, εἰ τοὺς φίλους πολεμίους ποιοῖτο, ἵνα μάχαι καὶ φόνοι γίνοιντο)· ἔστι δὲ καὶ ἡ τοῦ πολιτικοῦ ἄσχολος, καὶ παρ᾽ αὐτὸ τὸ πολιτεύεσθαι περιποιουμένη δυναστείας καὶ τιμὰς ἢ τήν γε εὐδαιμονίαν αὑτῷ καὶ τοῖς πολίταις, ἑτέραν οὖσαν τῆς πολιτικῆς, ἣν καὶ ζητοῦμεν δῆλον ὡς ἑτέραν οὖσαν.

7. If then among practical pursuits displaying the virtues, politics and war stand out preeminent in nobility and grandeur, and yet they are unleisured, and directed to some further end, not chosen for their own sakes: whereas the activity of the intellect is felt to excel in serious worth, consisting as it does in contemplation, [1177b20] and to aim at no end beyond itself, and also to contain a pleasure peculiar to itself, and therefore augmenting its activity: and if accordingly the attributes of this activity are found to be self-sufficiency, leisuredness, such freedom from fatigue as is possible for man, and all the other attributes of blessedness: it follows that it is the activity of the intellect that constitutes complete human happiness—provided it be granted a complete span of life, for nothing that belongs to happiness can be incomplete.

εἰ δὴ τῶν μὲν κατὰ τὰς ἀρετὰς πράξεων αἱ πολιτικαὶ καὶ πολεμικαὶ κάλλει καὶ μεγέθει προέχουσιν, αὗται δ᾽ ἄσχολοι καὶ τέλους τινὸς ἐφίενται καὶ οὐ δι᾽ αὑτὰς αἱρεταί εἰσιν, ἡ δὲ τοῦ νοῦ ἐνέργεια σπουδῇ τε διαφέρειν δοκεῖ θεωρητικὴ οὖσα, καὶ παρ᾽ αὑτὴν οὐδενὸς ἐφίεσθαι τέλους, καὶ ἔχειν τὴν ἡδονὴν οἰκείαν (αὕτη δὲ συναύξει τὴν ἐνέργειαν), καὶ τὸ αὔταρκες δὴ καὶ σχολαστικὸν καὶ ἄτρυτον ὡς ἀνθρώπῳ, καὶ ὅσα ἄλλα τῷ μακαρίῳ ἀπονέμεται, τὰ κατὰ ταύτην τὴν ἐνέργειαν φαίνεται ὄντα· ἡ τελεία δὴ εὐδαιμονία αὕτη ἂν εἴη ἀνθρώπου, λαβοῦσα μῆκος βίου τέλειον· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἀτελές ἐστι τῶν τῆς εὐδαιμονίας.

(7) and it is the activity of the divine in human beings;

8. Such a life as this however will be higher than the human level: not in virtue of his humanity will a man achieve it, but in virtue of something within him that is divine; and by as much as this something is superior to his composite nature, by so much is its activity superior to the exercise of the other forms of virtue. If then the intellect is something divine in comparison with man, so is the life of the intellect divine in comparison with human life. Nor ought we to obey those who enjoin that a man should have man’s thoughts and a mortal the thoughts of mortality, but we ought so far as possible to achieve immortality, and do all that man may to live in accordance with the highest thing in him;* for though this be small in bulk, [1178a1] in power and value it far surpasses all the rest.

* see Plato Timaeus 90b-c; cf. Theaetetus 176a-b.

ὁ δὲ τοιοῦτος ἂν εἴη βίος κρείττων ἢ κατ᾽ ἄνθρωπον· οὐ γὰρ ᾗ ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν οὕτω βιώσεται, ἀλλ᾽ ᾗ θεῖόν τι ἐν αὐτῷ ὑπάρχει· ὅσον δὲ διαφέρει τοῦτο τοῦ συνθέτου, τοσοῦτον καὶ ἡ ἐνέργεια τῆς κατὰ τὴν ἄλλην ἀρετήν. εἰ δὴ θεῖον ὁ νοῦς πρὸς τὸν ἄνθρωπον, καὶ ὁ κατὰ τοῦτον βίος θεῖος πρὸς τὸν ἀνθρώπινον βίον. οὐ χρὴ δὲ κατὰ τοὺς παραινοῦντας ἀνθρώπινα φρονεῖν ἄνθρωπον ὄντα οὐδὲ θνητὰ τὸν θνητόν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐφ᾽ ὅσον ἐνδέχεται ἀθανατίζειν καὶ πάντα ποιεῖν πρὸς τὸ ζῆν κατὰ τὸ κράτιστον τῶν ἐν αὑτῷ· εἰ γὰρ καὶ τῷ ὄγκῳ μικρόν ἐστι, δυνάμει καὶ τιμιότητι πολὺ μᾶλλον πάντων ὑπερέχει.

(8) which is the true self. Therefore the Life of the Intellect is the happiest.

9. It may even be held that this is the true self of each, inasmuch as it is the dominant and better part; and therefore it would be a strange thing if a man should choose to live not his own life but the life of some other than himself.

Moreover what was said before will apply here also: that which is best and most pleasant for each creature is that which is proper to the nature of each; accordingly the life of the intellect is the best and the pleasantest life for man, inasmuch as the intellect more than anything else is man; therefore this life will be the happiest.

δόξειε δ᾽ ἂν καὶ εἶναι ἕκαστος τοῦτο, εἴπερ τὸ κύριον καὶ ἄμεινον. ἄτοπον οὖν γίνοιτ᾽ ἄν, εἰ μὴ τὸν αὑτοῦ βίον αἱροῖτο ἀλλά τινος ἄλλου.

τὸ λεχθέν τε πρότερον ἁρμόσει καὶ νῦν· τὸ γὰρ οἰκεῖον ἑκάστῳ τῇ φύσει κράτιστον καὶ ἥδιστόν ἐστιν ἑκάστῳ· καὶ τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ δὴ ὁ κατὰ τὸν νοῦν βίος, εἴπερ τοῦτο μάλιστα ἄνθρωπος. οὗτος ἄρα καὶ εὐδαιμονέστατος.

So the Life of Contemplation is the happiest.  In 8.1-12, Aristotle gives further reasons we should prefer it.  These include that it needs little wealth and few external goods, animals don’t engage in Contemplation, and divine beings do. For the last reason he concludes in 8.13 that the person who lives for the Intellect must be dearest to the gods, and is therefore happiest.

8. 13. [1179a25] And it seems likely that the man who pursues intellectual activity, and who cultivates his intellect and keeps that in the best condition, is also the man most beloved of the gods. For if, as is generally believed, the gods exercise some superintendence over human affairs, then it will be reasonable to suppose that they take pleasure in that part of man which is best and most akin to themselves, namely the intellect, and that they recompense with their favors those men who esteem and honor this most, because these care for the things dear to themselves, and act rightly and nobly. Now it is clear that all these attributes belong most of all to the wise man. He therefore is most beloved by the gods; and if so, he is naturally most happy. Here is another proof that the wise man is the happiest.

ὁ δὲ κατὰ νοῦν ἐνεργῶν καὶ τοῦτον θεραπεύων καὶ διακείμενος ἄριστα καὶ θεοφιλέστατος ἔοικεν. εἰ γάρ τις ἐπιμέλεια τῶν ἀνθρωπίνων ὑπὸ θεῶν γίνεται, ὥσπερ δοκεῖ, καὶ εἴη ἂν εὔλογον χαίρειν τε αὐτοὺς τῷ ἀρίστῳ καὶ συγγενεστάτῳ (τοῦτο δ᾽ ἂν εἴη ὁ νοῦς) καὶ τοὺς ἀγαπῶντας μάλιστα τοῦτο καὶ τιμῶντας ἀντευποιεῖν ὡς τῶν φίλων αὐτοῖς ἐπιμελουμένους καὶ ὀρθῶς τε καὶ καλῶς πράττοντας. ὅτι δὲ πάντα ταῦτα τῷ σοφῷ μάλισθ᾽ ὑπάρχει, οὐκ ἄδηλον. θεοφιλέστατος ἄρα. τὸν αὐτὸν δ᾽ εἰκὸς καὶ εὐδαιμονέστατον· ὥστε κἂν οὕτως εἴη ὁ σοφὸς μάλιστ᾽ εὐδαίμων.

Sources

English: Rackham, H. (tr.). Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Rev. ed.  Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Greek: Bywater, J. (ed.) Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894.

first draft: 15 Oct 2018

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Plato Not a Moral Absolutist (or a Relativist)

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PLATO is often wrongly associated in people’s minds with moral absolutism — that is, with the position that there are definite, absolute rights and wrongs, and, as a result, that human morality involves universal rules for things we should always or never do. However this view is mistaken. Plato’s moral theory, in fact, relies intimately on the principles of balance and proportion. Although Aristotle is usually considered the originator or populizer of the concept of virtue as a golden mean between opposite extremes, this principle is prominently featured earlier in the works of Plato, his teacher.

In the Republic, Plato’s magnificent and magisterial work on personal morals (civil politics is by no means its central theme), he supplies an important summary at the end of Book 9.  The entire preceding discussion was aimed at answering two questions: (1) who is the righteous person? and (2) is the righteous person happier than the unrighteous?  In his summary Plato supplies this key principle:

When the entire soul accepts the guidance of the wisdom-loving part and is not filled with inner dissension, the result for each part is that it in all other respects keeps to its own task and is just, and likewise that each enjoys its own proper pleasures and the best pleasures and, so far as such a thing is possible, the truest. (Republic 9.586e−587a; tr. Shorey; italics added; cf. Philebus 64d−e).

What he means is that, for example, if one emphasizes sensory pleasures or gratification of biological appetites too much at the cost of, say, work or intellectual activity, one creates inner disharmony and strife.  To illustrate this is the whole point of the elaborate city-soul analogy of the Republic; the idea is that our soul is like a city with many factions, and if one faction is overindulged, strife results.

Besides being bad in itself, inner strife has the result, Plato tells us here, of diminishing all pleasure.  Disproportionate indulgence has the effect of blunting and dulling ones experience of the pleasure.  For example, although drinking a small glass of rare wine may be a genuine pleasure, to consume half a bottle dulls the senses, lessening or eliminating the pleasure.  But on top of that, intentional overindulgence may produce inner, mental strife, and this agitation, which reduces our clear and focused attention, will further lessen the pleasure.  On the other hand, if we make a discerning choice to indulge an appetite to the exact right measure, then we may experience the best and truest form of the associated pleasure.

Hence our goal at all times should be to reach and maintain a state of harmony and balance within our soul, so that we may both (1) have the fullest level of mental integrity and clarity, meting out pleasures with wisdom and discernment, and (2) then to enjoy well-measured pleasures fully.  Seeking pleasures is natural and normal, provided they not subvert the more fundamental need to maintain a healthy-minded and virtuous disposition of ones psyche:

The entire soul, returning to its nature at the best, attains to a much more precious condition in acquiring sobriety [sound-mindedness; sophrosyne] and righteousness [dikaiosyne] together with wisdom [phronesis] . . . Then the wise man will bend all his endeavors to this end throughout his life; he will, to begin with, prize the studies that will give this quality to his soul and disprize the others . . . but he will always be found attuning the harmonies of his body for the sake of the concord in his soul . . . He will . . . keep his eyes fixed on the constitution in his soul, and taking care and watching lest he disturb anything there either by excess or deficiency. (Republic 9.591 b−e; tr. Shorey; italics added)

Nor is Plato a Relativist

Nevertheless, neither can it be said that Plato is a moral relativist. His ethics, in fact, offer a third alternative (tertium quid) to moral absolutism and moral relativism.

What is non-relative is his overriding principle that harmony and sound-mindedness, and other such things which promote clear perception of justness and rightness, are absolute and objective criteria for right action.  While the same action (e.g., to drink a glass of wine) may be righteous or unrighteous in different circumstances, the overriding principle by which it may be deemed just and right — i.e., the promotion of inner harmony and ability to see truth, justice and beauty relative to circumstance — does remain the same. And this is much different than moral relativism.  Justice as harmony for Plato is understood as an objective and immutable cosmic principle.

This fits generally with Plato’s marvelous integrality, such that he is able to resolve and find answers to life’s pressing existential questions by transcending dichotomies.