Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Is Aristotle Too Egoist?

It is the fashion today to privilege the notion of "altruism" over the notion of selfishness. Things done for another, in the right way at the right time for the right reasons, are considered worthy. Things done to liberate a group of victims of exploitation are beyond reproach. But things done for ourselves, particularly when performed by businessmen and patriarchs, is tainted with the stain of egoism. This Manichean system, stripped of its veil of illusion, is a system, naked, brutal and direct, to privilege government and political action over those of private citizens in the economic sector and civil society.

Thus some may criticize Aristotle's celebration of eudaimonia of the good man in a life of virtue to be "objectionably egoist."

But we should pause for a moment and consider what might be meant by "objectionable egoism." For when Aristotle speaks of "love of self" in Nichomachean Ethics IX-8 he opens the discussion only to differentiate between the self-loving man "who is grasping" with regard to "wealth, honours, and bodily pleasures" and the man who strives for the noblest deeds, and what "is best for itself" and who "does many acts for the sake of his friends and his country". The latter self-loving man is clearly a horse of a different color.

Perhaps we should extend Aristotle's distinctions in self-love further. Both his ideal types are egoists, but the former is clearly a crude egoist, driven merely by "the irrational element of the soul". The other is a rational egoist, who does things for himself according to practical wisdom, in the right way for the right reason at the right time. It is invidious to call the latter an "objectionable egoist" just as it is pointless to dignify the crude selfishness of the man of appetite with the epithet "objectionable."

Perhaps, in Aristotle's time, there were no objectionable egoists. Evidently, our time is different. So who is this "objectionable egoist?" He is not the man of simple appetite; we call him a selfish bastard, and so he is. Nor is he the naïve egoist, the seeker after a successful career in business or the libertarian follower, perhaps, of Ayn Rand. Anyway such a man at least follows a rational principle, and can justify his egoism with the philosophy of sentiment from the Scottish Enlightenment. No, in our time the "objectionable egoist" can be none other than the government university professor or the liberal NGO activist. For these are people that trumpet to the world their selfless altruism while living a life of utter egoism. Nothing can be more objectionable.

Aristotle has a notion of egoism (to the extent that egoism is possible before the separation of body and mind in Descartes) rather different in mind for his eudaimonia, the life of happiness, conducted as a pursuit of virtue adding up to practical wisdom, doing the right thing in the right way for the right reason at the right time. This individual eudaimonia, Aristotle makes clear, this life of happiness, does not occur in a selfish vacuum, but in a life of full social and political connection. The good man does not love himself as a narcissist might, but in the fullness of practical wisdom, acquiring his happiness through his social contribution. The Aristotelian virtues are not what we would now call strategic or instrumental; they are social virtues, and the good man, in acquiring excellence in these virtues—at an appropriate mean between defect and excess—acquires a social excellence, a facility to contribute to the happiness of his friends not for his sake but for their sake, and to his polis because the practice of political science, next to philosophy itself, is the final end and purpose of individual virtue.

In setting up his argument in Book 1 of Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle defines "happiness" as the one thing we choose for itself, for every other good we choose "for the sake of happiness." But this happiness does not exist in a vacuum, sufficient for a solitary man, but occurs in a social context, and includes "parents, children, wife, and in general... friends and fellow citizens, since man is born for citizenship." Thus "the function of man is activity of the soul which follows or implies a rational principle", in accordance with the best and most complete virtue. And that activity extends to "a complete life."

Aristotle does not require that this happiness, this activity of the soul in accordance with virtue over a complete life, occur in a state of self-denial. He looks for a happiness issuing from a complete human flourishing, He sees happiness identified with virtue and with virtuous activity, for "in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete". And this life is "pleasant," for "the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant." Virtue, as we say, is its own reward; it "has its pleasure in itself." Aristotle does not see the world as illusion, and practical activity meaningless. He sees happiness issuing from a real life virtuously led in a real family in a real society in accordance with practical wisdom.

Aristotle does not consider that happiness comes unearned, merely as a gift from the gods, although, he twinkles, if it were a gift of the gods, it would be appropriate, "inasmuch as it is the best." Happiness, he asserts, "comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning and training", the "prize and end of virtue". Happiness is not something that just comes to you; it is the reward of effort and practice.

The practical ethics of Aristotle, celebrating a life of practical wisdom at the virtuous mean between excess and defect, does not satisfy those who yearn for a more salvific meaning of life. From Plato's Republic to Buddha's enlightenment to the Christian idea of poverty to the modern secular religions that define themselves against ordinary human flourishing, Aristotle's eudaimonia represents at best a low bar to aim at and at worst an "objectionable egoism." Plato calls for the destruction of the family and the raising of children by the state. Buddhism calls for a radical departure from ordinary human flourishing as the only way to overcome suffering, and Siddhartha Gautama set the tone by dumping his noble inheritance, his wife and children for a life of contemplation and teaching. Christianity called for complete separation from worldly goods and pursuits, and has ever after wobbled on the edge of an extreme asceticism that rejects the workaday world. The modern secular religions set themselves against the bourgeois ambition and domesticity. They want to bury all egoism and mobilize the entire population in the service of the state, recreating the Prussia of which Mirabeau said it was "not a state with an army, but an army with a state." Even philosophers like William James have found themselves hankering after the moral equivalent of war, celebrating a suspension of normal domestic life in the cause and excitement of moral emergency.

Whatever may be the merits of these utopian fancies, they have not delivered on their promises except when implemented as shadows of themselves. Humans as social animals combine in a mysterious mixture the selfishness of egoism and the selflessness of altruism. They serve others to serve themselves, as Adam Smith declared. Everyone understands that untrammeled egoism is derisive, but not a few imagine that social cooperation means nothing unless it means altruism. Aristotle's life of practical wisdom is a healthy mean between the extremes of selfishness and selflessness. He takes the world as it is, a world of families, of activity, of friendship and politics, and proposes a method not to transform it but to shake a little of the slackness out of it.

It is natural that the good and happy man should "be a lover of self (for he will both himself profit by doing noble acts, and will benefit his fellows)". But he will not shirk his duties as a citizen in his bath of self-love. He does not live congratulating himself on his virtue, for his self-love is a consequence of his happiness, and his happiness a consequence of his living a life of practical wisdom, living the right way for the right reasons at the right time. He is consequently ready to sacrifice his equanimity "for the sake of his friends and his country", ready to "throw away both wealth and honors... gaining for himself nobility" in the activity of the soul following its rational principle.

A man of his times, Aristotle does not worry much about the happiness of women and slaves. But then what modern elitist worries that marriage is collapsing among the white working class and the minority underclass?

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