Cultural Psychology

Posts Tagged ‘Virtue

The Esoteric Origins of ‘Chutes and Ladders’

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Game of Snakes and Ladders (India, 19th century)

C HUTES and Ladders is a popular board game for young children.  Players compete to traverse a series of 100 consecutively numbered squares laid out in a 10×10 grid.  Each turn a player spins a dial, and moves their token forward the number of squares indicated.  Some squares, however, are connected to ladders and chutes.  Upon landing on a square at a ladder’s foot, one then move ones piece ahead several squares or rows to the ladder’s terminus.  Conversely, landing on a chute square requires the player to move their token back several spaces or rows.  The game has a mild moral message, with ladders and chutes corresponding to simple virtues and ‘vices’ relevant to young children.  For example, in the square at the foot of one ladder a young student is shown reading a book, with the ladder’s end showing the student wearing a graduation cap and gown.

Snakes and Ladders (UK, ca. 1890)

Chutes and Ladders is a simple modification of the game Snakes and Ladders, which enjoyed success in Great Britain from the 1890s through the 1920s (snakes serving the same function as chutes).  Snakes and Ladders, in turn, was imported from a similar dice game played in India for several centuries.  The Indian version, sometimes called gyān caupaṛ (Game of Knowledge) had a more explicitly moral (and adult) meaning.  It was played throughout India in many versions, including ones adapted to Sufis, Jains and Hindus.  The game’s central principle is to gain liberation from bondage of passions and to ascend from lower levels of consciousness to higher levels of spiritual enlightenment.

Cībhāḥ kāsā. Nepal, 18th century

Yet the history of this intriguing game goes back still further — much further.  The earliest ancestor was a game played in ancient China (circa 5th century) called shengguan tu (Table of Bureaucratic Promotion). The purpose of this game was to simulate the advancement of a civil servant within the complex administrative bureaucracy of the Chinese state; acquisition of virtues and abandonment of vice — in ways aligned with Confucian philosophy — were understood as central to this.

Xuanfo tu (20th century)

Within a few centuries, a new version of the game emerged with more explicitly religious (Daoist) meanings.  By the middle ages, Buddhism had largely supplanted Daoism in China, and a Buddhist version of the game, xuanfo tu (Table of Buddha selection) was developed. The Buddhist game traveled to Tibet and Nepal (there called sa gnon rnam bzhags or ‘ascending the spiritual levels’), and likely to India also, where, presumably, it evolved into the Game of Knowledge.

As shown by the example above, the basic framework of this board game lends itself to many variations and, in some cases, considerable detail.  Hence it became not only a means of recreation, but a didactic tool for summarizing moral, spiritual and psychological advancement according to Buddhist teachings.

Modern versions still exist, and according to Ngai (2010; p. 129) there is currently an online version associated with the Pure Land Buddhism sect!

Given the longevity of the game, one wonders if a suitably modernized version might still appeal to philosophically and spiritually minded people in the West.

Schlieter (2012) has aptly noted how this type of board game resembles a Markov chain (named for the Russian mathematician, Andrey Markov).  In a Markov chain, a system or object may exist a in any one of a finite number (k) of states. Associated with each state is a set of probabilities of it transitioning to each other state, or remain in the same one.  That is, in a Markov chain there is a k matrix of transition probabilities, p(i, j), which govern the chances that, given that the current state is j, the next state will be j (for i = 1 … k and j = 1 … k).

Perhaps one reason for the game’s appeal is that it parallels a certain Markov chain-like feature of human consciousness.  Like the game, our consciousness can exist in any one of a set of states; and from that state one may transition to any other (or remain the same) with certain probabilities.

If nothing else this is a useful conceptual tool for understanding changes in consciousness.  Things like ascetical training, spiritual exercises and rituals/liturgies could be understood a mechanisms for advantageously changing the structure of our transition probabilities.  For example, if we’re in the state, “feel hunger,” we could train ourselves to transition to “engage in contemplation” instead of “eat.”

Some Markov chains also have the property of absorbing states.  This occurs when the probability of remaining in the same state (as opposed to transitioning to some other) is very high.  Absorbing states of consciousness might be negative – like getting stuck in a state of negative thinking. However higher, spiritual states could, in theory, also, say through practice, become absorbing.  In that case we’d be less likely to fall from a higher to a lower state of consciousness.

Playing a game like xuanfo tu, therefore may help us better recognize the Markov chain-like nature of our own consciousness and make us more alert to its transition patterns, positive and negative.


McGuire, Beverley Foulks. Playing with karma: a buddhist board game. Material Religion 10.1, 2014; 4−28.

Ngai, May-Ying Mary. From Entertainment to Enlightenment: A Study on a Cross-Cultural Religious Board Game with Emphasis on the Table of Buddha Selection Designed by Ouyi Zhixu of the Late Ming Dynasty. Dissertation, University of British Columbia, 2010.

Schmidt-Madsen, Jacob. The Game of Knowledge: Playing at Spiritual Liberation in 18th-and 19th-Century Western India. Dissertation, University of Copenhagen, 2019.

Schlieter, Jens. Simulating Liberation: The Tibetan Buddhist Game ‘Ascending the [Spiritual] Levels.’ In: Philippe Bornet &, Maya Burger (eds.), Religions in Play: Games, Rituals and Virtual Worlds, Zürich, 2012 (pp. 93−116).

Topsfield, Andrew. The Indian Game of Snakes and Ladders. Artibus Asiae 46:3, 1985, pp. 203−226.

Topsfield, Andrew.  Instant Karma: The Meaning of Snakes and Ladders. In: Andrew Topsfield (ed.), The Art of Play: Board and Card Games of India. Mumbai, 2006; pp. 75−89.

Seneca – Quotes on Adversity

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HE Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65) knew a thing or two about adversity.  He was beset by adversity even when he tried to commit suicide after Nero turned against him. Here are some of his quotes on the topic I’ve collected over the years.  Seneca’s Moral Epistles make for great reading. Especially to recommend are On Anger and On Providence.

Unimpaired prosperity cannot withstand a single blow; but he who has struggled constantly with his ills becomes hardened through suffering, and yields to no misfortune.
~ Seneca, On Providence 2.6

Do you wonder if that God, who most dearly loves the good, who wishes them to become supremely good and virtuous, allots to them a fortune that will make them struggle? For my part, I do not wonder if sometimes the gods are moved by the desire to behold great men wrestle with some calamity.
~ Seneca, On Providence 1.2.7

It is the unexpected that puts the heaviest load upon us. Strangeness adds to the weight of calamities, and every mortal feels the greater pain as a result of that which also brings surprise.  Therefore, nothing ought to be unexpected by us.
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.3-4

Chance chooses some new weapon by which to bring her strength to bear against us, thinking we have forgotten her.
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.5-6

Oftentimes a reverse has but made room for more prosperous fortune. Many structures have fallen only to rise to a greater height. [Multa ceciderunt, ut altius surgerent.]
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.13

Let the mind be disciplined to understand and to endure its own lot, and let it have the knowledge that there is nothing which Fortune does not dare.
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.15

Nevertheless, you should not believe those whose noisy clamour surrounds you; none of these things is an evil, none is beyond your power to bear, or is burdensome. It is only by common opinion that there is anything formidable in them.
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.19

Beware of aggravating your troubles yourself, and of making your position worse by your complaints.  Grief is light when not exaggerated by the idea, and if we encourage ourselves, saying “it is nothing,” or at least, “it is of small moment; let us endure it, it is about to stop,” we render pain light by thinking it so.  Yes; pain becomes light when we are able so to look at it, when we do not draw concentric circles around it, such as my patient ingeniously described; when we do not multiply it by fear.
~ Seneca, Epistle 68

Virtue alone affords everlasting and peace-giving joy; even if some obstacle arise, it is but like an intervening cloud, which floats beneath the sun but never prevails against it.
~ Seneca, Epistle 27.3

Allow any man who so desires to insult you and work you wrong; but if only virtue dwells with you, you will suffer nothing.
~ Seneca, Epistle 71

The wise man, indeed, overcomes Fortune by his virtue.
~ Seneca, Epistle 71

But no wall can be erected against Fortune which she cannot take by storm; let us strengthen our inner defences.
~ Seneca, Epistle 74

Call it Nature, Fate, Fortune; all these things are names of the one and the self-same god.
~ Seneca, On Benefits 4.8

So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, — for the reward is not a garland or a palm or a trumpeter who calls for silence at the proclamation of our names, but rather virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time, if Fortune has once been utterly vanquished in any combat.
~ Seneca, Epistle 78

The acquisition of riches has been for many men, not an end, but a change, of troubles.
~ Seneca, Epistle 17

If a man is to know himself, he must be tested.
~ Seneca, On Providence

God hardens, reviews, and disciplines those whom he approves, whom he loves.  Those, however, whom he seems to favour, whom he seems to spare, he is really keeping soft against ills to come.
~ Seneca, On Providence

There is no such thing as good or bad fortune for the individual; we live in common.  And no one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbour, if you would live for yourself.
~ Seneca, On Quibbling

What was grievous to endure is sweet to  remember.
~ Seneca. Hercules Furens, Act 3, 656.

Shall I tell you what the real evil is? To cringe to the things that are called evils, to surrender to them our freedom, in defiance of which we ought to face any suffering.

There are more things to alarm us than to harm us, and we suffer more often in apprehension than reality.

He who is brave is free.

It is more fitting for a man to laugh at life than to lament over it.

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.

When the odds are matched, blows fall light;

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.

A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.

Brave men rejoice in adversity.

Constant exposure to dangers will breed contempt for them.

No untroubled day has ever dawned for me.

Nothing is so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness is it to be expecting evil before it comes.

The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man struggling against adversity.

The pressure of adversity does not affect the mind of the brave man… It is more powerful than external circumstances.

There is nothing in the world so much admired as a man who knows how to bear unhappiness with courage.

We become wiser by adversity; prosperity destroys our appreciation of the right.

You learn to know a pilot in a storm.


Written by John Uebersax

January 23, 2020 at 1:20 am

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

A Better Diagram of the Cardinal Virtues

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RECENTLY I noticed some diagrams of the traditional four cardinal virtues of prudence (phronesis), temperance (sophrosyne), courage (andreia) and righteousness (or justice; dikaiosyne) arranged as a square. Such a configuration is problematic in that it ignores the unique relationship that righteousness has with the others.

Another more general issue is that Plato — from whom the tradition of cardinal virtues originates — arguably proposed five, not four.  A new diagram above attempts to redress both issues.First, the lower half of the diagram helps show the affinity of the usual four cardinal virtues to Plato’s famous tripartite model of the psyche that distinguishes the (1) rational, (2) appetitive and (3) spirited elements of the soul.In Plato’s system, courage is the excellence (or right-tuning) of the spirited element, temperance the excellence of the appetitive element, and prudence of the rational element. Righteousness, in turn, is the harmonization of the three other virtues.  Hence it makes more sense to place righteousness in the center of the other three.

Second, while Plato sometimes lists these four cardinal virtues, other times he mentions a fifth: piety or holiness. In fact, he seems almost deliberately vague about this — but we also know that Plato sometimes reveals his most important points subtly.

Writing a few centuries later, Philo, the famous Jewish Platonist of Alexandria, was more explicit. In his in his influential allegorical interpretation of Genesis he saw the Garden of the Eden a symbolizing human virtues generally. The four rivers that surround and water Eden, he suggested, correspond to prudence, temperance, courage and righteousness: these nourish the other virtues.

The Tree of Life in the center of the Garden is theosebeia (θεοσέβεια), or reverence towards God’s goodness. This, he says, is  “the greatest of the virtues, by means of which the psyche is made deathless”  (i.e., it does not ‘die’ by lapsing into sin; On the Creation of the World, 154).

This virtue of perfect piety, godliness and ongoing trust in God constitutes the apex of the spiritual life.  It is a progression beyond purification and illumination to what mystics call the unitive life: assimilation to God, erasure of the distinction between self-will and divine will, and the Reign(ing) of God in ones soul.

Praying the Beatitudes as a Spiritual Exercise

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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).