Book Summaries Philosophy

Aristotle’s Ethics (A History of Western Philosophy)

There are two kinds of virtues: intellectual and moral, corresponding to the two parts of the soul. Intellectual virtues result from teaching, moral virtues from habit. To create a virtuous society, you must create laws that cause citizens to acquire good habits. With time, pleasure comes from performing these good habits. 

The Golden Mean

The Golden Mean Doctrine of Aristotle stated that every virtue is a mean between two extremes (each of which is a vice).
Courage is a mean between cowardice and rashness. Liberality between prodigality and meanness. Proper pride between vanity and humility. Ready wit between buffoonery and boorishness. Modesty between bashfulness and shamelessness. Some virtues do not seem to fit into this scheme, such as truthfulness.

Aristotle says that this is a mean between boastfulness and mock modesty but this only applied to truthfulness about oneself, not to truthfulness in a wider sense. Aristotle thinks that ethics is an extension of politics. A magnanimous man can only be so if he occupies an exceptional social position. It would be laughable if normal citizens attempted to be magnanimous. It is not surprising that Aristotle believed that monarchy was the best form of governance and aristocracy the next best. 

This brings up an ethical and political question: can we regard as morally satisfactory a community by its constitution confines the best things to a few and requires the rest of the community to be satisfied with the second best things. Plato, Aristotle, and Nietzsche say yes. The Stoics, Christians, and Democrats say no. 

Moral merit has nothing to do with ability, but only with choosing the right actions. 

Pain is bad, thus pleasure must be good. Some degree of good fortune is necessary for happiness. Pleasure is good or bad depending on man’s activities. And there are things that are more desirable than pleasure. It is not a good idea to go through life with a child’s intellect, even if it is pleasant to do so. 

Contemplation is preferable to practical work because the former allows for leisure, which is essential for happiness. Of all the humans, the ones closest to God are the philosophers, for they exercise their reason and cultivate it.When one compares Aristotle’s moral views to ours, we notice that he has no trouble with inequality. He accepts slavery and the unequal distribution of power in society. He accepts the superiority of the husband to his wife and children, and the superiority of the proud man and philosopher to everyone else.

Kant’s Objection

To Aristotle, most of society are simply means for the well-being of a few great men. Kant would maintain that each person should be treated as an end in himself, a Christian idea.

But the problem with Kant’s worldview is that there is no way of reaching a decision when the interests of two men clash. There must be a principle that has to do with the community so that this conflict may be resolved, it would have to be the principle of justice. Russell’s analysis of Aristotle’s ethics is that it is too tepid and smug, too lacking in emotion. It will only appeal to certain comfortable men who lack passion, but to no one else which makes his ethics less important than it is famous.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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