The typical denizen of modernity sees in the notion of virtue a curious and antiquated notion that is, at best, a remnant of a prudish and stringent moral absolutism. Instead of virtues—perhaps most succinctly defined as personal characteristics that are good everywhere always for all—contemporary popular thought speaks of values— that is, personally-defined preferences that are almost certain to differ from one individual to another. The idea of virtue, however, plays a central role in the philosophies of both Plato and Aristotle, among other ancient and premodern philosophers. For both philosophers, virtue is essential both to the individual in his formation and in the attainment of his happiness as well as to the functioning of people collectively in societies. Given the significance of these philosophers in the development of Western thought, it is undoubtedly worthwhile to consider their thought on virtue and whether it has a place in the modern world.
First, it is necessary to define the term virtue, a term of Latin origins most frequently used to translate the Greek term ἀρετή (arete). The Greek term, however, does not, in its origins, possess the moral connotations that immediately come to one’s mind in response to the English word “virtue.” Rather, arete refers to any excellence in anything whatsoever. In The Republic, Plato, for example, is able to refer to “the virtue of dogs . . . [and] horses” nearly in the same breath as he refers to “justice” as “human virtue.” Similarly, in The Apology, Socrates refers to “the virtue of a judge” as the ability to determine whether things “are just or not” and the virtue “of an orator” as the ability “to speak the truth.” Of course, the universal moral virtues of prudence and honesty can easily be extrapolated from these virtues specific to certain vocations, but each remains singly the excellence pertinent to its domain.
Defining virtue as the excellence proper to human nature, then, Plato sees justice as its realization and end. Significantly, Plato applies this equation of virtue with justice to both individuals and societies. The premise of The Republic as a whole, after all, is Socrates’s notion that “perhaps there would be more justice in the bigger and it would be easier to observe closely” so that it is profitable in a discussion of the nature of justice to “first . . . investigate what justice is like in cities” and “then . . . consider it in individuals, considering the likeness of the bigger in the idea of the littler.” The individual and his society are, then, alike in that their excellence, or virtue, must tend toward justice. A just society must, in fact, according to Plato, consist of virtuous individuals.
Why it should be so that justice and virtue are necessary to individuals and societies leads to the axioms inherent in Plato’s ethics. Ultimately, Plato begins with the basic assumption that all humans have a concern for their own self-interest and a desire for happiness. Ironically, it is one of Socrates’s interlocutors, Thrasymachus, who introduces this assumption into the discussion in The Republic. Thrasymachus is the first to use the word εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia), a Greek word referring to a state of happiness or well-being. Perhaps more ironically, Thrasymachus introduces this key term in the midst of his defense of an ethic of “might makes right,” in which he claims “those who are ruled do what is advantageous for him who is stronger, and they make him whom they serve happy but themselves not at all.” It is only after this point—beginning with his responses to Thrasymachus but continuing throughout the rest of the book—that Socrates takes up the language of happiness. It can perhaps be inferred from this that Plato takes up and builds upon this concern as a foundation because it is one that is so basic as to be common both to those of his own position and, simultaneously, to those quite different modes of thought. It is the common basis upon which he is able to build his particular philosophical vision.
While Aristotle departs from or builds upon Plato in a number of ways, the student remains committed to his teacher’s assertion of an inherent link between virtue and happiness. Like Plato, Aristotle too holds happiness to be the end toward which human activity naturally aims and that virtue is the means by which this end is achieved. “None of the human works is anything so secure as what pertains to the activities that accord with virtue,” he writes in the Nicomachean Ethics. Indeed, “those who are blessed live out their lives engaged . . . in these activities.” Such an individual, he continues, “will be such [that is, a happy person] throughout his life.” Virtue, then, is, according to Aristotle, the means to human happiness for the individual.
Aristotle’s thought also resembles that of Plato in his insistence on a link between virtue and the well-functioning society as well. According to Aristotle, “the good of the individual by himself is certainly desirable enough, but that of a nation and of cities is nobler and more divine.” It is the case, therefore, he goes on, that his inquiry into the best sort of life is in fact “a sort of political inquiry.” One aspect of Aristotle’s attempts to define virtue, in fact, is the need for laws that will help “to make the citizens good” and thereby form a just society. Virtue, then, is a social as much as it is a personal necessity according to the thought of Aristotle. And, just as it is productive of happiness for the person, it is productive of the well-functioning society.
If, as Aristotle and Plato hold, virtue is the means by which to attain personal happiness and social harmony, it is undoubtedly worth considering whether overlooking this link between virtue and well-being is a significant factor contributing to our contemporary troubles. The link between the abandonment of the belief in the concept of a universal good in human behavior and the lack of fulfillment and social cohesion among denizens of modernity may indeed be a causative one. If Plato and Aristotle are correct in their assessments, we may in fact have created unhappiness for ourselves.
The problem of modernity has been variously identified as the alienation of the working class, according to Marxist philosophy, to, in Freudian thought, the development of neuroses and other mental illnesses as a result of the failure to adequately sublimate primitive instinct to the demands of civilization. And the solutions proposed have been as various, including the need for a reformation of the economic and social order to the need to explore and repair the unconscious of the individual. Perhaps, however, it is worthwhile for moderns to consider that the apparent ethos of the modern world—including especially the relativity of the modern world and the notion of radical individualist self-determination—are the primary sources of modern malaise. And it may be necessary to look to the thought of earlier periods for the wisdom it can impart to guide us toward a happier, more complete life both singly and collectively.
It is tempting to view the eponymous main character of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens as a good man gone bad. Shakespeare seemingly presents Timon as a generous man who finds that others are not as generous as he when he, his resources exhausted from his spree of giving, finds himself in a time of need. As a result of the hardhearted behavior of his ostensible friends, from perspective, Timon turns his philanthropy into misanthropy, retreating into the wildness to nurse his newfound hatred of mankind. It is possible, however, to see the play, rather than as a movement from love to hatred or generosity to miserliness, instead as a commentary on two different but related types of intemperance.
Immediately upon entering the stage in the first scene of the play, Timon’s first actions are to begin giving away money to those around him. He hears that someone he knows has been imprisoned because of a debt he owes and, without another question, offer the money to pay for his release and to continue supporting him even after he has been released. “‘Tis not enough to help the feeble up, but to support him after,” claims Timon. Timon then turns to offer more money to help his servant marry the woman with whom he desires to build a household.
Each of these cases appears to be an act of charity performed by Timon out of kindness. Each of them is also, however, an example of intemperate dealings in money. The man whom Timon helps to pay his way out of prison is clearly a man who has not well managed his wealth and so cannot be expected to deal honestly with Timon’s money either. Similarly, the servant Lucilius to whom Timon provides the money to marry is almost certain to end up in debt once again by marrying a woman and beginning a family it is clearly beyond his means to support.
Timon’s intemperance continues into the second scene of the play as he hosts a sumptuous banquet for the men of Athens. The exorbitance of Timon’s banquet is proclaimed by the god Cupid himself, who announces to Timon that “the five best senses / Acknowledge thee their patron; and come freely / To gratulate thy plenteous bosom.”
It is this intemperance, rather than any sort of generosity, that presents a contrast with the sort of person Timon becomes in the second half of the play. After he is denied help by his friends once he himself falls into financial need, Timon leaves civilization behind, going to live a cave. There, he discovers a large reserve of gold which he provides to Alcibiades and two prostitutes with him to help them bring on the destruction of the city of Athens, proclaiming “I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind.”
Just as Timon’s seemingly generous behavior early in the play was an example of excess, so now is Timon’s reaction to having been slighted by those he believed were his friends. He turns from a philanthropism that lacked temperance to a misanthropism equally lacking in temperance. What has not changed, however, is that deeper aspect of Timon’s personality that has motivated both his love and his hatred, namely, his intemperance.
I have found when reading Aristotle with young people that his emphasis on virtue is one of the most difficult things for them to understand. Perhaps most difficult for them to fathom is the idea that virtue and happiness are intimately linked. They have in large part been so thoroughly trained in some form of “enlightened self-interest,” so to speak, that they are unable to comprehend the idea there is are eternal and immutable truths about goodness and about human nature. Happiness is most readily identified today with intense but momentary physical pleasures of various sorts.
This has perhaps been the understanding of happiness among the majority of the youth of any generation, including, no doubt, that of Aristotle. Yet, it is an understanding that is supposed to pass away with age and wisdom. The cult of youth which predominates in modern popular culture, however, prevents the notion from passing. Rather, the aging cling to it with a perverted tenacity that defies reason.
Aristotle is certainly a philosopher from whom the modern age has much to learn.
But thus I counsel you, my friends: Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had — power.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, “On the Tarantulas”
The anonymous fourteenth century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells the story of a member of Arthur’s Round Table who is faced with certain death at the hands of an incredibly large and diabolical Green Knight. As the knights are celebrating the Feast of Christmas one New Year’s Day, the Green Knight enters the castle with a challenge: he will allow one of the knights to strike him with a battle axe, but the knight must allow himself to be struck with it by the Green Knight in return. After some hesitation, Gawain rises to the challenge. He takes up the axe and, with one strong swing, decapitates the Green Knight. The Green Knight, however, promptly picks up his head, mounts his horse, and rides way. Gawain, to keep his end of the bargain, must come to the Green Knight’s chapel on New Year’s Day the following year to receive his blow.
A year later, on his way to the Green Knight’s chapel, Gawain is taken in by “another” knight who lives in the woods near the chapel. The knight agrees to host him for the week from Christmas to New Year’s and, on New Year’s Day, to lead him to the Green Knight’s chapel. At the castle, however, Gawain undergoes a series of temptations from his host’s wife and plays a game of exchanging gifts with his host, all of which eventually leads Gawain to sin in an attempt to save his own life from the Green Knight.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight combines a great many elements that make for an outstanding story: there is an element of mystery and fear, an element of action and courage, an element of sex and love. Perhaps most importantly the story is a human one. It is not, as some may be tempted to believe, merely a story of chivalry. If virtue and sin are things that really do exist and so really apply in all ages and places, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as a story that is, at heart, about virtue and about sin, has a perennial quality about it. As a story of man (not justa) facing inevitable and ineluctable death, it is a story for and even about each of us. In his attempt to escape from death, Gawain falls into sin, demonstrating the truth of St. Paul’s words in Romans 5:12. The lesson being taught is not merely for the chivalrous knight of the fourteenth century; it is also for the man who desires to live a virtuous Christian life in the 21st century.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in a great story with an inexhaustible wealth of timeless wisdom to be derived from it.