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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.


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


The Beatitudes as Stages of Spiritual Growth

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The Sermon on the Mount (detail), Heinrich Hofmann; German, 1824–1911; date unknown.

By William Pryse

THE Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3−10) are literally and thematically at the center of the Sermon on the Mount.  They mark successive steps of the upward course of the spiritual life to its full and final perfection. Each beatitude grows out of all that precede it, and occupies a necessary place in the progressive series. There is not a grace, excellence, experience or duty of the moral life which does not find its place within this series.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Poverty of spirit refers to those who have awakened from their self-righteousness to the fact of their self-poverty. Without this conscious and heartfelt awareness of ones limitations and shortcomings, there can be no start, much less progress, in the spiritual life. And it is gloriously significant that with the first step is promised the end: namely, attainment to the grace-led and blessed manner of life which the Gospels call the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Poverty of spirit leads directly to mourning for sin. One who has become sensible of spiritual destitution soon recognizes the cause of ones inward need. One perceives that it is egoism and selfish attachments which deprive one of happiness and spiritual good. Thus one becomes increasingly sensible of the evil of sin, and sensitive to the miseries resulting from it, in ones own life and in the world at large. In other words, one becomes a penitent mourner for sin in oneself, and a sincere mourner over the dreadful reality and destructive work of sin in human life and society.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Out of conscious poverty and penitent mourning grows the meekness of the third beatitude. This meekness is the modest, self-denying and self-restrained spirit which evinces itself in gentleness and forbearance toward others in one emptied of pride and self-sufficiency.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

These three experiences naturally lead to a supreme valuation of and desire for righteousness — that is, to think, act and live rightly, in right accord with ones own true physical and moral nature, with the Cosmos and Eternal Order, with God, and with ones fellow human beings. And to desire this good above all things else.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

As the next stage of spiritual progress, the heir of the heavenly kingdom becomes merciful toward ones fellow men. All ones previous experiences conspire to awaken in one a clear sense of their lost condition, their trials and sorrows, their need of sympathy and help. Ones consciousness of ones own infirmities teaches one charity toward the infirmities of others. Ones sense of the supreme importance of salvation from unwisdom and unvirtue prompts one to efforts for their spiritual and eternal good. A realization of ones own imperative need of the divine mercy quickens in one the same spirit of mercy toward all others.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Purity is a composite of all the previous graces, freedom from all their opposites. Each of the five contributes to it. In it is the love of all things good, the abhorrence of all things evil. As such it carries with it the vision of the true Good. It is the clearing away of the mists from the soul, and the cleansing of the films from the spiritual eyes.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

It is easy to see how such qualities as humility, penitence, meekness, desire after righteousness, mercifulness and purity become elements of peace in the soul and influences for peace in the life. They invest the character with an effective power to prevent strife and allay discord. They are the very elements and conditions of peace, whether internal or external. There can be no peace where they are absent; there can be no strife where they prevail. Their opposite qualities are the direct causes of all strife and dissension, and they who are swayed by them are necessarily strifemakers. But the graces of the beatitudes are, each and all, potent solvents of discord, and they who possess them are necessarily also peacemakers, both through conscious effort and unconscious influence. To seek and promote this peace, inward and outward — peace within oneself, peace with God and Nature and peace among men — becomes a free impulse, urge and ordering principle of their lives.

Based on the writings of Rev. William Stratton Pryse (1849−1928).

Righteousness (Δικαιοσύνη)

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1. CONFUSION about what ‘Justice’ means is a major source of psychological and social problems today.  The basic argument herein is that the cardinal virtue usually called ‘Justice’ in modern English is more accurately termed Righteousness.

2. It’s vital to understand that Justice itself is something much greater than mere retributive justice (punishment, revenge, etc.) or equity (treating all people equally). While Justice itself — like Truth and Beauty, to which it is related — can be experienced and intuited, it is not easily defined.  We should therefore try to look at it from various angles, hoping to reveal its true moral meaning meaning.

3. First we consider the etymology and cognates of ‘Justice’.  Doing so we notice a variety of words and phrases in which the root, just, has a meaning that refers not to laws, but to exactness and perfect measure.  For example, we routinely use phrases like ‘just in time,’ ‘just right,’ ‘just as I hoped,’ and so on.  Here is our first clue: that what we call justice might be more accurately called just-rightness, arightness, or the like.

4. We should also seek out ancestral wisdom on a matter of such enduring and central importance to human welfare as Justice.  Accordingly let us consult various sources.

5. In Greek mythology we find that Justice and retribution are distinct: the former is represented by the goddess Dike; and the latter by the goddess Nemesis.  These are two separate entities, and separate principles.

6. Justice/Dike is often represented as holding golden scales.  Justice is associated with scales not because ‘the punishment must fit the crime’, as some suppose; rather, a much broader and beautiful meaning is alluded to:  that, for everything in life, indeed for everything in the Universe, there is a perfect mean or measure — neither too much, nor too little — in which amount, it contributes harmoniously to the cosmic symphony.  In Egyptian religion, this cosmic meaning of Justice is even more apparent, where the counterpart of Dike is Ma’at, goddess of Measure and Balance.

7. Justice, as a personal virtue, is a main concern of the New Testament, where it is termed in Greek, dikaiosyne, and commonly translated into English as righteousness. An indication of the central importance of righteousness in the New Testament is that it figures prominently in not one, but two of the nine Beatitudes:

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. (Matt 5:6)

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:10)

8. A few lines later are these words:

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

Most Christians are familiar with the phrase, seek ye first the kingdom of God, but perhaps few realize that they are instructed as well to seek his righteousness — which we may understand as meaning to seek to understand and know what divine righteousness is, and to possess this virtue in our own life. This fits exactly with previous comments on the kingdom of God

9. But in equating Justice with righteousness, have we solved anything?  What does righteous mean?  There is some confusion here also, as indicated by the phrase, righteous indignation.  This phrase is internally contradictory: righteousness and indignation have little affinity for each other, and, in fact, are almost diametrically opposed.  A truly righteous person is more characteristically patient, long-suffering, charitable and meek — not indignant.

10. Thayer’s Greek Definitions, a definitive biblical reference, relates the primary meaning of dikaiosyne with “integrity, virtue, purity of life, and rightness and correctness of thinking, feeling and acting.”  It thus means a person who is right (in the sense of ‘just right’, well measured, or harmonized) with God, with him/herself, and with the Universe.

11. We find that dikaiosyne is a principle concern of St. Paul’s epistles as well.  He frequently emphasizes a distinction between legalism (slavish adherence to fixed laws) and righteousness — an ethical orientation in which ones choices are spontaneously guided by Conscience, our innate spiritual sense of rightness.  Seeing this helps us understand one of St. Paul’s most famous doctrines: that one is justified (i.e., made righteous) by faith in Jesus Christ.  This could be understood psychologically to mean that the act of turning ones heart to Jesus re-aligns ones moral apparatus, reconnecting one to ones spiritual Conscience — thereby permitting one to act and think in accord with God’s will, and putting one again in harmony with all creation; one becomes, that is, ‘aright’ again, regaining a state of natural bliss and attunement.

12. Plato devoted his greatest dialogue, the Republic, to the question, what is righteousness?; the ancient subtitle of the Republic, in fact, is ‘On the Righteous Man.’  That Plato wrote a lengthy dialogue on this topic indicates that he considered this question an important one, and that (as today), ordinary notions of what Justice means were confused or mistaken and needed clarification.  In the Republic, Plato explicitly rejects a definition of righteousness as mere equity (‘giving to each man his due’), in favor of a meaning of right measure that contributes to Harmony, Balance, Order and Beauty.

13. Plato also considered Justice (righteousness; dikaiosyne) to be one of the four cardinal virtues, along with Courage, Temperance and Prudence.  Of these,  Justice is the greatest, as it is necessary for the others.  Each of the other cardinal virtues is a rightly measured mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is the right mean between cowardice and rashness.  We need dikaiosune to judge what the right amount of some specific virtue is that a given situation demands.

14. Plato concludes the Republic with Socrates confidently announcing that the righteous person is the most happy — where happiness means a certain divine state of mind.  This agrees with the Beatitudes, where we are told that the righteous person will attain the condition of bliss or blessedness (makarios).

15. Considering all the preceding — what may we infer?  We know that righteousness brings happiness, and that this righteousness is far removed from anything like revenge or retribution.  Likewise is does not consist in mere performance of social duties, including important ones like helping the needy — though these, of course, would usually be part of the life of a truly righteous person.  Specific actions are important —  but not as important as the very means by which we may discern what actions would be most truly beneficial, productive, beautiful, harmonious and ‘just right.’

16. Therefore while it’s clearly important to relieve the oppression, mistreatment, poverty, hunger and sickness of others, we should not, in the process of pursuing these things, whether through anger, indignation, agitation or disturbed thinking, disconnect ourselves from our own righteousness, nor act in ways that oppose Divine Harmony.

17. This true meaning of righteousness is conveyed in the following lines of Orphic Hymn 62, To Dikaiosyne (in Greek mythology, the goddess or spirit Dikaiosyne was righteousness personified, a daughter of Dike):

O Blessed Dikaiosyne, mankind’s delight,
Th’ eternal friend of conduct just and right:
Abundant, venerable, honor’d maid,
To judgments pure, dispensing constant aid,
A stable conscience, and an upright mind;
For men unjust, by thee are undermin’d,
Whose souls perverse thy bondage ne’er desire,
But more untam’d decline thy scourges dire:
Harmonious, friendly power, averse to strife,
In peace rejoicing, and a stable life;
Lovely, loquacious, of a gentle mind,
Hating excess, to equal deeds inclin’d:
Wisdom, and virtue of whate’er degree,
Receive their proper bound alone in thee. (Thomas Taylor, translator)

18. Occupying the deepest level of our moral consciousness, Dikaiosyne is potentially related to the symbols of the angel guarding the gates of Paradise, the Pythogorean Y at the entrance to the Isles of the Blessed, and the ancient mystical allegory called the Choice of Hercules.

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19. Let us not emulate the unvirtue of those who hold up angry signs at public demonstrations that say, “No Justice, No Peace!” or the like — making, in effect, a threat, and expressing a sentiment as far removed from the true meaning of Justice as it is from Peace.   We should, rather, remind ourselves, “No Peace, No Justice!”  Peace removes the mental agitations that distort our thinking and impede our ability to see the right course, and the way of Truth and Beauty.  Conversely, whatever opposes Peace, opposes righteousness, by producing discord, enmity, and disturbed and erroneous thinking.

20. To summarize, what emerges is that Justice/righteousness is a state of mind, a cosmic principle, and an attribute of Deity — one with much in common with Truth and Beauty.  Justice is the joyous and glorious Divine Harmony of an all-good God.  It is something which, the more we understand, the more we love.  Indeed one could easily argue that divine Justice and divine Love are virtually the same thing.

21. Well may we reflect on the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, where, in speaking of authentic charity (agape), he may just as well be describing the sublime virtue of righteousness:

[1] Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

[2] And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

[3] And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

[4] Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

[5] Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;


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Third-Party Voting and Kant’s Categorical Imperative

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ONE of Kant’s great contributions to ethics is his statement of the principle known as the categorical imperative. This asserts that, for an act to be moral, one must be able to wish that its “maxim could be made a universal law of nature,” or, in ordinary terms, one must do only what one believes nature (meaning here the entire universe) would want everyone to do in similar circumstances. The categorical imperative is not without difficulties in practice — there are exceptions and questionable cases — but these notwithstanding it is a remarkably powerful principle.

How might it apply to voting in an American presidential election? Consider two alternative strategies, which we’ll call (1) voting the lesser evil, and (2) voting on principle.

Voting the lesser evil has become virtually the norm today. The Democratic and Republican parties nominate horrible candidates. The task is therefore not to vote for the candidate you like, but against the worse of the two, to prevent that candidate from winning. Since both of these candidates are bad, why don’t people simply vote for a third-party (e.g., Libertarian or Green) candidate? Because the races are so close: each voter figures that his or her vote may be decisive in preventing the more feared candidate from winning, so that opting for a third party might tip the balance unfavorably. If one is terrified of a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton winning, then this strategy has a certain utilitarian logic. But is it moral as judged by the categorical imperative?

Let’s see. If everybody did this, then the two big parties would have a perfect way to keep the public in perpetual slavery: keep nominating wretched candidates, and select issues that split the public down the middle, 50/50. That way in every election 99% of voters will continue to cast their votes for the Democratic (or Republican) candidate, to keep the Republican (or Democrat) from winning. If we suppose, not unrealistically, that both parties front the same Wall Street power elite, then this is a perfect racket by the ruling interests. There is no end in sight, and little hope for improvement in our lives. We’ll remain serfs in a gradually worsening economy, with continually eroding quality of life. Therefore voting the lesser evil cannot be moral according to Kant’s categorical imperative.

What about voting on principle? That would mean voting for the candidate whose platform best conforms to ones authentic beliefs and values, without worrying about who will actually win. If only you vote this way, granted, it may have little practical effect, except, perhaps, to register as dissent to the power elite and your fellow citizens (although these things aren’t trivial). But consider the categorical imperative: what if *everybody* voted this way? Then we would break the Republican-Democrat hegemony. We could end US military imperialism, environmental exploitation, a life of perpetual debt, and so on. In short, we could achieve or collective hopes and aspirations to produce a truly just, wise, and happy society. Without question, voting on principle does satisfy the categorical imperative, and therefore is moral.

The argument seems pretty clear. A further consideration is that voting itself ought to be regarded as a deeply important and inherently moral duty — something sacred. Our democracy is only as good as the moral conscientiousness of voters. Presidents and parties come and go, but a moral action is forever.

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