Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Aristotle, Confucius, Ethics and Happiness

This is an essay I wrote whilst a student after I read Aristotle’s Ethics, one of the true classics. Anyone can buy it, even in paperback – it’s still in print, thanks to Penguin.

It’s quite incredible that the ruminations of thinkers from 500 to 300BC are still relevant today, yet despite the fa├žade that we present, is humanity any more civilized today than it was then? I think, that as long as hypocrisy dominates integrity in politics, civilization will struggle to achieve its unstated goal.

Even slavery still exists, though in a more insidious form. At least, back in Aristotle’s time, a slave was called a slave, whereas today they are called ‘illegals’ or ‘indentured’ in cases where it has been legalised. For the sake of clarity, I call slavery the practice of ‘bonding’ an ‘employee’ with a debt they can’t pay off, so they effectively work for nothing. It’s much more common than people realise, and it’s not just prostitutes or the underworld who are involved.

I’m slightly off track, but it’s a detour that makes relevant my belief that, though history makes us more aware, it takes an unclouded eye to see the truth up close.

The essay originally had the title: What is the connection between happiness and moral behaviour? Those who have read my post on Human Nature will recognise that I’ve lifted the reference to Plato’s dialogue on the ‘just and unjust man’ straight from this essay.

This is not a comparison, by the way, between Aristotle and Confucius, which I understand has been done by others, though I don’t know who those others are. Nevertheless, both men saw themselves as teachers and both had an influence that spans well over 2,000 years. Leaving aside the world's three most famous mystics: Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed; arguably, only Pythagoras’s legacy has had a greater influence on the global cultural evolution of the past 2,500 years (read Kitty Ferguson’s The Music of Pythagoras).

Below is the original essay (I've removed all the references, but most of the quotes are either from the Penguin edition of Ethics or, for Confucius, from Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Whilst no one would consider happiness and morality as mutually exclusive, there has been a tendency, both from our Christian traditions and Freud’s pleasure principle, to consider them as a necessary compromise. However as early as the 4th Century BC, both Aristotle, and to some extent Plato before him, challenged this most pervasive view of humanity. Leaving Plato’s arguments aside for the time being, Aristotle’s treatment in his Nichomachean Ethics is by far the most comprehensive and leads the way in developing a philosophical nexus for happiness and moral behaviour.

It is a central theme of Aristotle’s Ethics that happiness is the greatest ‘good’, and while this is discussed specifically in Chapter vii, Book I, it reoccurs in his discussions on Virtue, Friendship and Contemplation. Like most seminal works of the intellect, Aristotle’s Ethics is significant not only for what it contains, but for what one believes is missing. It is in filling in the gaps that one grasps the greatest insights and inspiration from his work. I will attempt to elucidate on what I perceive are the strengths of Aristotle’s arguments, as well as discuss the Ethics’ shortcomings in light of what others have contributed to the subject.

Firstly the word happiness is less than ideal as a translation for 'eudaimonia' as many point out, including Jonathan Barnes in his introduction to the Penguin edition. In fact many use the term: ‘the good life’, but it too is less than ideal. To quote Barnes: ‘... the eudaimon is the man who makes a success of his life and actions, who realises his aims and ambitions as a man, who fulfils himself.’ But later in the same passage he confuses us by saying: ‘It will not, of course, do to replace “happiness” by “success” or “fulfilment” as a translation of eudaimonia...’

But leaving Barnes comments aside, in the aforementioned Book I it is obvious when Aristotle is talking about happiness, he is talking about a lifelong event: it is in effect the sum of a person’s life. ‘One swallow does not make a summer... Similarly neither can one day, or a brief space of time, make a man blessed and happy.’ He makes it clear he is not talking about fleeting moments of pleasure that we all experience; he is talking about achieving our highest potential as human beings. ‘..happiness demands not only complete goodness but a complete life.’ In his concluding Book X, he goes further and gives this attribute an almost religious significance.

It seems to me that there are two aspects of Aristotle’s happiness or eudaimonia, and they are intrinsically related. One is to do with our day to day conduct and the pursuit of personal goals, and the other is to do with our interaction with others. It is obvious that these two facets of living cannot be separated, yet Aristotle fails to make this connection explicit.

The central tenet of Aristotle’s treatise on virtue is the much discussed ‘golden mean’. He gives examples, from how to manage money to bravery. A man too deficient in courage behaves cowardly, but the man too confident in his own abilities is foolhardy. I found Aristotle’s elaboration and exposition on ‘the golden mean’ longwinded to the point of being tiresome, but there is one brief passage which everyone can relate to, and which encapsulates the concept of eudaimonia as it arises in our everyday lives.

‘By virtue I mean moral virtue since it is this that is concerned with feelings and actions.... But to have these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is to feel them to an intermediate, that is to the best, degree; and this is the mark of virtue.’

Aristotle considered this passage so important that he virtually repeats it in his summing up of Book II. The point about this passage, and its reiteration, is that it brings together both aspects of eudaimonia that I alluded to above: as a means of living one’s life and relating to others. Aristotle makes the additional point that this constitutes a moral virtue, but that is better understood when one reviews his thesis on friendship. It is in regard to friendship that I find the two aspects of eudaimonia most closely aligned.

The thrust of Aristotle’s discussion is that true friendship, as opposed to utilitarian friendship, is in itself a moral virtue, and that a friendship of this quality is dependent upon an individual’s moral character. Aristotle was aware that one cannot obtain a good friendship unless one is oneself a good person. In some respects, Aristotle used his particular concept of friendship as a measure of a person’s goodness or moral character. I believe this is the key to Aristotle’s philosophy, because living requires by necessity an interaction with others and the quality of that interaction by and large determines the quality of our lives. Whilst this is as much psychology as philosophy, it is the essence of both living a ‘good life’ and of being a ‘good person’.

If Aristotle’s discussion on friendship is his most accessible and most readily appreciated, his discussion on contemplation is probably the most vague and the most open to diverse interpretations. He concludes the Ethics with a discussion on contemplation, raising it as the highest goal for philosophy and life in general. In this regard it takes on religious significance. Barnes criticises Aristotle’s thesis because Aristotle argues that it is only acquired knowledge that is worth contemplating not research, but I think this misses the point completely. There are two other philosophers who can throw light on this subject: one who influenced Aristotle and one who did not.

Appendix A by Hugh Tredennick of the Penguin edition provides a synopsis of Pythagoras’s philosophy and influence with particular reference to his religious views. Pythagoras is best remembered as a mathematician who first perceived and quantified the relationship between mathematics and musical tones. But Tredennick points out that he was first a religious teacher, who believed in the transmigration of the soul ‘...his view of philosophy as a way of life, a contemplative activity for the emancipation of the soul’; shows the influence Pythagoras apparently obtained from his travels in the East (according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1989, but Ferguson, 2008, says that this belief came from Orphism, not Eastern influences as many believe).

Tredennick also makes the point that this view no doubt influenced Plato and Aristotle. Here we have the idea of contemplation as a means of not only achieving virtue but of achieving immortality in a religious sense. But it is another philosopher who lived in Pythagoras’s time, whom I believe, provided a better exposition of contemplation as a form of self-realisation.

One cannot help but perceive similarities between Aristotle’s Ethics and the teachings of Confucius who lived approximately 2 centuries earlier, as both were concerned with the moral character of individuals and the application of ethics in political life. But Confucius’s ideas on contemplation are closer to contemporary ideas in psychology than Aristotle’s and therefore are more accessible. His view of contemplation is looking inward at the deepest inner self. Confucius (in Chinese, K’ung-fu-tzu) was a strong believer in self-knowledge and self-examination as a path to moral rectitude.

This view is probably best expressed in the modern idiom as soul-searching, whereby one attempts a higher degree of self-honesty, which is not only echoed in modern psychotherapy, but also in Sartre’s idea of ‘authenticity’. Confucius also understood the significance of our relationship with others in achieving enlightenment of the soul or self. From the annalects: ‘A man of humanity, wishing to establish himself, also establishes others, and wishing to enlarge himself also enlarges others. The ability to take as analogy of what is near at hand can be called the method of humanity.’(6:30)

But unlike Aristotle, Confucius would have argued that eudaimonia in the form of success and fulfilment is possible even when a man faces adversity and misfortune. Confucius knew this from personal experience. (He spent 12 years in self-imposed exile, and was unemployed and homeless, but during this period his circle of students increased and his reputation flourished.)

It is also the theme of innumerable narratives, some fiction and some not, that continue to inspire us. But if we take either the Pythagorean or the Confucian view of contemplation, then Aristotle’s argument for making contemplation the best means for an individual to achieve the highest ‘good’ starts to acquire validity. It could be argued of course that Aristotle’s conclusion fails to make this clear, but I at least can see a valid argument even if I have to construct that argument myself.

As I intimated in my introduction, it is what I believe Aristotle left out of his Ethics that contributes most to a nexus of happiness and morality. This is best understood I believe by contemplating Plato’s dialogues on the ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ man. The basic argument is that the unjust man can get away with whatever he wants if he’s in a position of power or persuasion, and being unjust has no negative consequences for him, only for others. On the other hand, under these circumstances a just person can never be happy because he can simply never win and therefore will always be the unfortunate one. Plato’s argument is that the just man is temperate and can curb his appetites and desires with his rational abilities.

There is a great deal that can be contended with this point of view, and it doesn’t address the issue of happiness and morality as being concordant, but to focus on this aspect of Plato’s dialogues would be a digression. The essential element missing from Plato’s argument, and unrevealed in Aristotle’s thesis, is the social consequence of being just or unjust.

To put the argument another way, one should consider rewards as a criteria for happiness or beneficence. What are the rewards for being just compared to the rewards for being unjust? Simply put, the rewards for being unjust are material rewards assuming one can get away with it. The rewards for being just are less tangible but they are related to the notion of a social contract. Not the social contract of the 19th Century but the more intimate social contract inherent in Aristotle’s friendship. The rewards for being just are friendship, loyalty and trust. It can be argued that these rewards also exist for the unjust man but they are contingent on his material possessions, wealth and power - in other words they are utilitarian. For the just man these rewards extend beyond immediate close associates and they are based on the man’s character, nothing else.

There is another negative effect resulting from being unjust which is more subtle. The unjust person must necessarily create a distorted perception of his or her world. The unjust man or woman suffers from a dishonesty to the self not unlike Sartre’s notion of mauvaise foi. The unjust person believes that his or her rewards are justifiably earned and the fate of those less fortunate are self-inflicted. Even Hitler believed that what he was doing was for the betterment of our world. The unjust person often believes, contrary to the perceptions of others, that his or her view of the world is completely just. This psychological component of the just and unjust person is not considered by Plato, or Aristotle for that matter, possibly because of the distorted perceptions that existed within their own society. After all, no one at that time, no matter how enlightened, would have taken into consideration the plight of slaves in a discussion of what was just and unjust, or of what constituted a ‘good person’.