February readings for the Great Books Reading Project

Our readings this month are:

PLATO: Republic [Book I-II]
ARISTOTLE: Ethics [Book I]

I will be posting my thoughts on the first reading by mid-month and on the second shortly thereafter. I look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts on these two great works. Happy reading!

What is a human being?

One of the most basic and important questions that must be answered by any philosophy is “what is a human being?” It is only once this question has been answered that one can proceed to venture answers to the other central questions of philosophy, such as what are the value and meaning of human life. One of the earliest attempts to offer a full answer to this question is found in the work of Aristotle, and the answer he gives is one that most moderns would find both shocking and distasteful.

According to Aristotle, the defining characteristic of a human being is his reasoning faculty. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that “reason more than anything else is man” (Book X, Chapter 7). This assertion leads him to explicitly exclude slaves, women, children, and barbarians from fully humanity. In his Politics, Aristotle says that “the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature” (Book I, Chapter 13).

Throughout his writings, Aristotle enlarges upon the lack of humanity of those in each of these categories. On slaves, Aristotle alleges in his Politics that they along with “brute animals … have no share in happiness or in a life of free choice” (Book III, Chapter 9). In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle comes close to a recognition of the humanity of the slave, but equivocates in the end. In Book VIII, Chapter 11 he says that it is possible for one to be friends with a slave “in so far as he is a man.” Later, in Book X, Chapter 6 of the same text, he says that “no one assigns to a slave a share in happiness — unless he assigns to him also a share in human life.” Aristotle’s ambiguity on the humanity of a slave, though, serves only to strengthen his more frequent assertion that full humanity requires freedom. On women, Aristotle is exceedingly clear; in his On the Generation of Animals, for example, he asserts that “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male” (Book II, Chapter 3). Similarly, Aristotle’s opinion on the humanity of barbarians is also clear; in his Politics Book I, Chapter 2 he identifies all non-Greeks as “a community of slaves” fit only to be ruled over by the Greeks.

Even the lower classes of Greek society are excluded by Aristotle from a full share in humanity. In his Politics Book VII, Chapter 9, Aristotle says that the “life of mechanics or tradesmen … is ignoble and inimical to virtue.” In his Nicomachean Ethics Book I, Chapter 7, Aristotle identifies “human good” with the “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” If the mechanic and the tradesmen cannot attain virtue, they cannot attain to the full realization of their own humanity. Similarly, Aristotle excludes the poor from full humanity in his assertion later in the same book (Chapter 8) that “external goods” are necessary to the same fully human life.

The biblical tradition presents a starkly different description of the humanity of all of these various classes. The full humanity of women, for example, is clearly stated at the outset in the story of the creation of humankind; Genesis 5:1-2 (ESV) states that “when God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” Slavery, in the biblical narrative, arises as an accident of history and as a result of human sinfulness. The humanity of the various ethnicities and of the poorest is never questioned, but instead assumed and celebrated.

It is, of course, this biblical understanding of man that has become the predominant understanding today, having overturned and replaced the Greco-Roman vision seen in the ideas of Aristotle. From such a perch, it is difficult to sympathize with the misogynistic and ethnocentric views of Aristotle which would exclude the greater portion of the human species from participation in full humanity. In spite of Aristotle’s bias for the status quo, however, a bias that is shared nearly universally by all but a small and great minority of remarkable thinkers, Aristotle’s efforts in setting out a definition of humanity are a worthy, even if tentative, first step in the direction that would finally culminate in a complete and universal vision of humanity. This vision is perhaps better expressed nowhere than in the founding document of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, which states, in a manner borrowed from the Greek philosophy of which Aristotle is one of the most outstanding examples, that it is “self-evident, that all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” This is the vision of man, a synthesis of the Greco-Roman and the biblical, that has become the basic modern assumption about the definition of humanity in the modern day.

Happiness according to Aristotle and Christ

Aristotle identified the highest end and aim of man as happiness. According to Aristotle, happiness is both what men naturally aim to attain and is their greatest attainment. It was this idea that shaped his ethical theories as he formulated his idea of values as the means by which to attain happiness. According to Aristotle, attaining perfect virtue is the means by which to attain perfect happiness. In addition, Aristotle’s theory of virtues sees virtue as a mean between two vices, one of defect, the other of excess. For Aristotle, then, happiness is seen primarily as a state of equanimity rather than one of passionate pursuit of pleasure as, for instance, the hedonist might claim. Most of the specific content of these values that Aristotle claims as leading to the greatest happiness are, much like his assertions about happiness as man’s highest end which begin his ethical theories, little more than attempts to articulate and provide a justification for the conventional values of his time. This is the greatest point of weakness in his ethics, and in his philosophy as a whole, and the point from which he has been criticized by feminists and can be seen as fundamentally flawed in the light of a multicultural perspective.

Aristotle, like most Greek men of his time, was possessed of a prejudice which saw the values, beliefs, and ways of his own time and place as the best and the norm by which all others were to be judged. It is this prejudice that in large part inspired and informed the Greek disdain for non-Greeks as “barbarians” who, according to Aristotle in his Politics, lack the capacity for reason and are intended by nature to be slaves ruled by the Greeks. This presupposition on the part of Aristotle exposes him to an attack for which he seems to offer no good answer, in spite of some rather haphazard attempts, namely the question of why we should prefer the Greek values of Classical Antiquity over any other set of values from any other time or place.

Although the two were certainly unfamiliar with each other, Aristotle’s Chinese contemporary or near-contemporary, Chuang Tzu, offers just such a critique of a similar set of ideas to Aristotle’s, as found in Confucianism, in his writings. Just as Aristotle assumed the values and norms of contemporary Greece were the standard and perfect values and norms, Confucius made the same assumption about the values and norms of China, even identifying them with the Way of Heaven, the eternal order of things. The Taoists, including perhaps most notably Chuang Tzu, opposed this Confucian idea with the belief in and practice of a radical renunciation of social expectations and cultural mores. For the Taoist, it was in fact a rejection of conventional values that allowed one to discover and faithfully follow the Tao, or eternal order of things. In other words, in contrast to the Confucian and Aristotelian identification of a certain set of cultural values as eternal values, for the Taoists renouncing the values of one’s culture was among the first steps toward discovering and following the eternal values.

Many thinkers, especially among feminists, have also seen much that is lacking in Aristotle’s ideas and offered criticism of them on similar grounds. Eve Browning Cole, for example, sees Aristotle’s ideas regarding a perfect society as resting essentially on the exploitation of women and other marginalized groups as laborers while freeing a minority of aristocratic men for a life of the mind, which Aristotle views as the only fully human life. She concludes that although Aristotle’s belief that slaves and women lack reason and therefore lack the ability to function in a fully human way contradict other elements in his philosophy and reveal an inconsistency in his thought, it was necessary to the social order that he sought to justify to continue the subjection and exploitation of women and slaves. In essence, Aristotle’s thoughts on women and slaves are question-begging at its worst: women and slaves are seen as ignorant and lacking in reason, which assessment is, in turn, used to justify the status quo practice of denying them the very education and leisure time to apply that education that would correct their deficits in knowledge and reasoning.

I think perhaps the greatest counterargument to and undermining of the thought of Aristotle, and in fact of the Greco-Roman world in general, is the thought of the early Christians. Although they adopted the word and idea eudemonia, the state of happy equanimity which Aristotle had set as the aim of his ethics, the early Christians found this state in a very different set of values. Using the word makarios, a word Aristotle also uses occasionally in his Nicomachean Ethics, rather than eudemonia, for instance, the Gospel of Matthew (5:3-12) records Jesus exclaiming the happiness of those who are “poor in spirit” (verse 3), “meek” (verse 5), and “persecuted” (verse 10), a very different set of values from those found in Aristotle’s ideal of a magnanimous Greek aristocratic as the possessor of the greatest virtue. These values are, I believe, a set of values that have proven superior to those of Aristotle and the other Greeks of a similar mind both in their effect on human history and in embracing a significantly wider swathe of humanity and the human experience in their applicability.