Monday, March 10, 2008

Is it March already?

You can probably, if not definitively, decipher that I am a college student. If for no other reason, you can tell because I wrote on my first blog that I would follow-up with a blog the following day, which turned into a few days....and a few weeks. It's called procrastination, which is not a virtue, but rather a vice I will write about one of these days....if I get around to it. (laugh, that was a joke!) I actually feel like I have a huge wealth of information now that I wish to blog on, I have heard several speakers in the last weeks, have been doing more reading for my Catholic Studies course, and some independent reading, and finding a thread of virtue in all of it!! This is good news. I want to begin with Nichomachean Ethics because I think Aristotle does a fantastic job of explaining the virtues in a forward manner that explains why we should even pay heed to them and their role in human happiness. I am just going to recap a few key points, but I encourage you to read the full text as this is good stuff.

Here is the link to Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics text online!

In Aristotle’s first book of Nichomachean Ethics, he writes:

“Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.” (Book I, Chapter 7)

Happiness, then, is our key objective. It doesn't matter if you are young, old, religious, non-religious, intellectual, athletic, female, male; each one of us strives for what we perceive will bring us happiness. Happiness, by its very nature is an end. It is not the means to another end product or good. What is interesting, is that I think we often get confused about what happiness means. Why? Because the definition of happiness is defined by the type of life a person leads. So how should we define happiness? Is it an accumulation of wealth? Not a chance. What about winning awards and accolades for our successes? Nope. For the sake of this blog, since I want to focus on happiness as found through the exercise of the virtues, I will define happiness as Aristotle defines it:

"Happiness is an activity of the soul expressing complete virtue" (Book I, Chapter 13)

Now it is important to also define virtue, borrowed also from Aristotle:

"Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean" (Book II, Chapter 6)

For those of you who are a little rusty on your math...(or just don't enjoy it!) a mean is an average of 2 or more numbers. So the mean of 2, 4, and 6 would be 4 because the sum of the three numbers, divided by 3 equals 4. In the same way, a virtue has both an excess and a deficiency which are both vices. The virtue of generosity (in which the virtue is the mean) has the excess of ostentation and the deficiency of stinginess. In order to reach the mean of generosity, Aristotle advises us to shoot for the less contrary extreme. Which would it be? Honestly, in the case of generosity, and with many of the other virtues, I think this involves doing an examination of oneself to identify where your weakness lies. I know that I tend to be more stingy than ostentatious...more likely to be reluctant to give, than one who gives to others out of pride. So then, by aiming towards ostentation, Aristotle would say I will hit the ballpark of generosity. However, I think a great question to ask now..and I am sure I will bring it up again is: Are idealistic virtues setting us up for failure or success? If we assume that perfect virtue can never fully be attained, why strive for it?

I think that is a good place to take a break from Aristotle for the time being. Now for a little story from NPR:

take a look!

I came across this article which is taken from NPR. I have supported my local NPR Station, WFYI TV/Radio ever since my sophomore year of high school when I began helping coordinate volunteers from my school to answer phone calls during pledge drives to raise money for public broadcasting. I consider NPR a very reputible news source which has provided great family programming, unbiased news about interesting topics that are essential to becoming a better global citizen. Anyways, the article below is written about a family that has formed a group in Falls Church, Virginia to teach preschoolers from many different faith backgrounds about virtues; this week's lesson focuses on helpfulness. What is my response to this? I'm ecstatic. Teaching preschoolers about virtues is not only bound to develop their character to be better formed for their childhood and early school years, but this also proves that while religion is an advantageous and praiseworthy way to teach morals to the young, it is not restrictive to only religion. I think this relates to our discussion of aristotelian virtue because Aristotle approaches virtue from a much different stance than a theologian would...while he certainly referred to the gods in his written work, he is considered a non-believer. Yet, the way Aristotle puts into words the rational and truth found through human reasoning is the foundation for St. Thomas Aquinas' great work, Summa Theologiae. The principles of virtue are indeed found through natural law and reasoning, and is one of the wonderful blessings of the human intellect. As a Christian, I am convicted that divine revelation picks up where human reasoning and intellect leaves off. Anyways...what are your reactions? Are preschool virtue groups helpful or harmful to society? If you had or have children, would you participate in such a group?

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

Mary, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us!


Ronak said...

I have attempted on many occasions to start a blog of thoughts and treatises, but thought better of it each time (ergo, I became lazy, started more thoughts than I could finish, and instead resigned myself to vocalizing them instead, out of hopelessness and sloth). I will try to provide you the motivation to continue forward against the storm of ennui through incessant comments. Huttah!

The pursuit of happiness seems to be bottled into a flask of hedonism to often, I think. At least, hedonism in the most banal sense--a quest for immediate pleasure and quick highs. I wish to use the word hedonism in what I think to be a grander sense, under which religious ecstasy, altruistic virtue, nationalist pride, revolutionary fervor, timeless love, epic romance, and even self-righteousness could also fall.

Virtue, and therefore the method of hedonism, are relative to the individual, no doubt. The virtues for a Basque separatist is far different from the virtues of a Marxist guerrilla in Chile, is far different from a right-wing Islamist paramilitary. Yet I tend to think that quasi-omniscience is attainable, a comprehensive understanding of human nature, its origins, and its products. Looking from the perspective of that omniscience, I believe there is only one virtue present. At the point of complete understanding, there is no call for hate, for divisions, or anything else of matter, but only for forgiveness. At that point, the only course of action is to impart knowledge to every other being, in order to allow them the path to achieve the same sight of virtue.

This is a strange, messianic method I am attempting to solidify and work from. It seems similar to the methods of Christ and Buddha and Krishna and Zoroaster and other prophets, doesn't it? And as mere humans we are probably incapable of achieving that omniscience. But by looking at our prophetic examples, perhaps we can jump past Nirvana, assume that it can be achieved but relinquish the opportunity for sake of time, and move directly to the courses of action taken by our prophets. Forgiveness, understanding, education.

I believe this to be the method of achieving perfect virtue, and therefore, happiness. Now, this requires intense manipulation of cognitive dissonance, since essentially a man must think himself as a prophet, a servant of virtue. He must temper his ego to preserve his will to serve, simultaneously tolerating all of humanity and desiring to mold the species differently through education.

I'm not sure if I'm making sense or not, but hopefully that was coherent?


Ronak said...

I forgot to provide an ends to this means!

Happiness, virtue, and an end to human suffering?

Perhaps. Either that, or ennui that results from world peace. Maybe we will direct our attention to maintenance of entropy and protection of the environment, instead of placing humans in the category of enemy.

Darrol said...

I started reading Nichomachean Ethics. I am intrigued by the idea that happiness/acting excellently is seen as a political virtue.

I notice that your are "convicted that divine revelation picks up where human reasoning and intellect leaves off." I will be interested in how you give this conviction content. Of course for me with my protestant background, "divine revelation" equals the Bible (with a few quirks from my specific denomination). I realize that for you it may mean more? than this?

Can the seam really be identified between human reason and the Bible (etc.)?