Prof Rahul Gupta Choudhary
 

    Associate Professor

Marketing, Strategy&General Management

Aristotle in his book Nichomachean Ethics propounds the term Eudaimonia. What he meant by that is all human beings strive to ‘do well and live well’. According to him, the term is as close to happiness as one can get. That means every human being must try to live the best life. Now, the obvious question is what the best life is. Unlike the modern thought processes of here and now, Aristotle was clear that there is indeed a superior life which satisfies the criteria of the ‘best life’ and is not subjective at all. According to him the best life is the life lived in accordance with reason and is not at all sub-optimal in any way. The criteria he put forth for the best life are: (1) be pursued for its own sake; (2) be such that we wish for other things for its sake; (3) be such that we do not wish for it on account of other things; (4) be complete, in the sense that it is always choice worthy and always chosen for itself; and finally (5) be self-sufficient, in the sense that its presence suffices to make a life lacking in nothing. These are a set of stiff criteria which many accomplished people over the centuries since, may not even qualify. So, a life led for experiencing pleasure or even a life led for the sake of honor will not be able to satisfy all the criteria laid down by Aristotle.  

Many scholars conclude that the only thing that satisfies all the criteria is happiness. Herein comes the challenge. How would you describe happiness? The route to happiness and the attainment of happiness are, as understood by us, differ from individual to individual and hence, are necessarily subjective – which is quite contrary to the assumptions forwarded by Aristotle. Many scholars has suggested that happiness may be equated with ‘flourishing’ – the modern equivalent of prosperity. This argument gets disqualified in the first instance as it does not satisfy the criteria. So, Aristotle says that this ‘happiness’ is best attained through the process of self-actualization – the process by which a human being fully realizes his nature and his human capacity (similar to ‘potential’ in modern terminology). Now, the nature and the capacity endowed on a human being differs and is not under his control in any conceivable manner. So, the dichotomy remains – the methods of achieving Eudaimonia is diverse, and yet, at the same time, it cannot be subjective. At the same time, most human beings would agree that their ultimate aim in life is to be happy and that this is the best life for them – even though their definition of happiness are quite different from each other.

The Greek philosophers always believed that people take to philosophy only when they are confronted with a puzzle which they cannot solve. So, initially, the universe presented them with smaller puzzles which gained in size and complexity thus stretching the human mind. This is actually the flourishing ground for philosophy keeping in mind the modern concept of bounded rationality of human beings put forward by Herbert Simon (in Economics). Aristotle, however, solved this puzzle through the help of some theories which actually, at that point in time, were dialectics and not part of the so-called concrete epistemology or established and accepted knowledge base. The scientific method as postulated and understood in the medieval era was still some distance away.

Aristotle, for this purpose, delved more in to the purpose of existence of human beings. He said that human beings has a function and these functions has a characteristic action. The human existence is neutral and is not identified through the function or profession, as espoused in modern terminology. So, a child born today grows up to become a teacher or a carpenter. Otherwise, the growth is common to plants and animals as well. He discarded the notion of life through the perceptions as that holds good for animals also. So, he concludes that human beings exist for a ‘life of action belonging to the kind of soul that has reason’. It is pertinent here to understand the definition of the human body and the soul. According to the theories propounded at that point in time and then further refined by Aristotle, the body is organic in nature and has a function with the atypical characteristics of that function. The soul, as envisaged, is the source and cause of the living body. The body is unidirectional and has a single end, with the soul as the final cause of the body. So, soul is defined as ‘the first actuality of a natural body which has life in potentiality’.

So, happiness results from a life led with rational as its centrality. This is necessary but not sufficient. Along with rationality, human beings – in order to lead a happy life – has to lead a virtuous life or a life of excellence. Here, we have to keep in mind that the word virtue does not have the same meaning as the English word virtue. It is not about only moral values. Rather the word virtue encompasses every action that has the characteristics of excellence. So, the activity of the rational soul with every action executed excellently results in the happy life. So, the good life is a life filled with activity. This is because the deductive logic says that we are all praised for living good lives and we are also praised for things that we actually do. This then brings us to the question as to what virtue stands for and what does excellence mean in respect to the concept of Aristotelian virtues.  

It must be appreciated here that these concepts originate from pre-Socrates time and was further developed by Plato. Aristotle refined and polished the entire concept and espoused the four cardinal or moral virtues and overall a set of twelve virtues, which many term as intellectual virtues. The most remarkable concept espoused by Aristotle is that of the ‘golden mean’. That means, in order to lead a happy life (Eudaimonia), an individual must possess the cardinal virtue in exactly the mean position between absolute deficiency and absolute excess. For example, when we talk of courage, it should be somewhere between cowardice and foolhardiness. The same concept applies to all the virtues. Now, what is very important to note is that the virtues are a direct result of upbringing or the entire socialization process within the family. This is particularly true for the moral virtues – and also holds good tenuously for the intellectual virtues as well. However, upbringing is not the only source for possession of moral virtues. Moral virtues can also be learnt through practice. For example, if an individual thinks that honesty is a virtue which he should pursue, then he can make it a part of his character by sheer practice. So, moral virtues can also be partially inculcated through training – but, we must remember that it is very difficult if it is not ingrained in the individual during his upbringing in the family. This has implications not only for individuals but also for the society at large especially in the domain of public policy and societal behavior of citizens of a country.

Let us now have a quick look at the virtues as espoused by Aristotle. The four cardinal virtues are: Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. Prudence is considered as the mother of all virtues and is very close to wisdom. It enables us to take the right decision at the right time in a given situation. So, simultaneously, prudence is also a function of many other virtues. Fortitude stands for courage and is the ability to face any inclement situation – to conquer fear, even the fear of death. So, there should not be any irrational fear as well as overcoming the appetite to become reckless under certain circumstances. Temperance stands for restraint or self-control. A temperate person is assumed to have a sound mind. Primarily, temperance stands for restraint of physical gratification. Justice stands for fairness. It also means righteousness or the capacity and the willingness to be fair with others and in all dealings. There are various forms of justice, but, according to Aquinas, justice is a constant willingness to extend to each person what he or she deserves. These definitions originated in classical antiquity, but is still held valid in the modern times. It is important to keep in mind that each virtue or vice in us arises because of the appetite or desire we have within us. In all, there are twelve virtues, including the moral or cardinal virtues, which are depicted in the following table:

 

Desire

Vice of Deficiency

Virtuous Mean

Vice of Excess

Fear of danger

Cowardice

Courage

Rashness

Pleasure

Insensibility

Temperance

Over-indulgence

Small giving

Stinginess

Generosity

Extravagance

Great giving

Pettiness

Magnanimity

Vulgarity

Honors

Timidity

Self-confidence

Conceit

Achievement

Under-ambition

Proper ambition

Over-ambition

Anger

Impassivity

Good temper

Ill temper

Truth

False modesty

Truthfulness

Boastfulness

Amusement

Humorlessness

Wittiness

Buffoonery

Social life

Unfriendliness

Friendliness

Flattery

Fear of disgrace

Shamelessness

Proper shame

Excessive shame

Resent injustice

Malice

Righteous Indignation

Envy

 

It is not that this theory is without criticism. Grotius is of the opinion that there are many virtues which cannot be expressed as a mean. Kant has criticized it by saying that without moral principles, misapplied virtues become vices. Mill is of the opinion that morality involves judging actions and not character traits. However, all said and done, the theory of moral (and intellectual) virtues gives us all a fair idea of how to lead our lives and achieve Eudaimonia.

 

References:

1)      Stanford Enclyopedia of Philosophy (July 29, 2015).

2)      Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 2.

3)      Stedman, James M; Aristotle’s Cardinal Virtues; Practical Philosophy, 2010/2011.

4)      Cardinal Virtues of Plato, Augustine and Confucius, theplatonist.com, Archived from the original, 2016.

5)      Fieser, James; utm.edu; 9/1/2017

6)      Aquinas, Thomas; Moral Philosophy; 1225 – 1274, iep.utm.edu

7)      Aristotle and the Virtues – Oxford Scholarship - Oxford