THE WISDOM OF ARISTOTLE
A. Even a student in middle school today has a better understanding of the nature of the world than some of the most knowledgeable famous philosophers and wise men of the ancient world, not to mention those who wrote the Bible.
1. For example, that middle school student will know that the Earth goes around the Sun, not the Sun around the Earth. But Aristotle, who apparently knew more about every field of knowledge than anyone else living in the 4th century BC, did not know that central fact of astronomy, and neither did any of those who wrote the Bible between the 4th century BC and the 2nd century AD.
2. So, why should we today pay attention to the ideas of ancient writers who were so ignorant of what even contemporary young people know about the world?
3. The answer is that though these writers may be lacking our modern scientific understanding of what the nature of the world is like, their writings may still provide us with some valuable insights about metaphysical issues such as whether there is any bigger purpose to our existence and ethical issues such as how we should interact with others and what makes for a good life. Even when we cannot accept their ideas as presented, we may still be able to find some helpful suggestions.
B. Today I want to talk about the ethical views of Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers of all time. He was born in 384 BCE and died at the age of 62 in 322 BCE, just a year after his most famous student, Alexander the Great, whose empire included all of the eastern Mediterranean region and extended all the way to India. That Empire provided the foundation for the Hellenistic Age, a period of Greek dominance in that area lasted at least 600 years.
C. Aristotle's father was physician to Philip II, the rather successful emperor of Macedonian. Aristotle was hired at the age of 40 to serve for three years as tutor to Philip's son, Alexander. It is not clear how much Aristotle influenced Alexander's thinking, but we do know that a few years later Alexander had his soldiers collecting plant and animal specimens to send back to Aristotle so that he could study them. Many of these plants and animals were previously unknown in Greece, and biology was of particular interest to Aristotle. His detailed study of the embryos of chickens was a model of close investigation carried on long before many others took careful examination of the physical world seriously.
D. But Aristotle did not limit his investigations to biology. He knew so much about everything that he was essentially a walking encyclopedia. He was particularly good at classifying things, and many of his classifications are still accepted today. More than fifteen hundred years later, Thomas Aquinas referred to Aristotle simply as "the Philosopher" while a hundred years after that Dante still referred to him as "the master of those who know."
E. Aristotle usually began his investigations by reviewing the history of previous beliefs and findings concerning that subject rather than just starting from scratch. He was very tuned in to the general beliefs of ordinary people, to what we call common sense. Aristotle avoided extreme views and was a great advocate of moderation and "sensibleness" in all things.
II. A central feature in Aristotle's examination of the good life for humans is his analysis of wisdom, that is, useful knowledge. As I go along I will show exactly how his analysis of wisdom fits into his ethical view about what constitutes an ideal life.
A. It is obvious that some knowledge is of a very trivial nature, such as how many coins I now have in my pocket. There is no danger of equating that kind of knowledge with wisdom. Wisdom refers to knowledge about things that matter.
B. Aristotle distinguishes between 2 kinds of wisdom or useful knowledge that can be acquired by humans.
1. The first kind of wisdom, theoretical wisdom, consists of possessing knowledge of what reality is like, of knowing what is true and what is false. This theoretical wisdom includes not only having scientific knowledge of the general features of the natural world such as whether light consists of separate particles (photons) which make up a beam of light or whether light consists of a wave in some kind of medium but also knowing the answers to philosophical/metaphysical questions such as whether anything does or can exist beyond the physical space-time world, whether we humans (or other animals) have life-after-death, whether we have any free will to be other than we are, whether the universe itself has some purpose or goal and if so what it is, and so on. Thus theoretical wisdom includes the part of philosophy called metaphysics as well as what today we would call the sciences.
a. It is the scientific part of this theoretical wisdom, the knowledge of what the world of nature is like, that our children of today have which Aristotle lacked.
(1) Of course, he didn't know that he lacked it. In fact, knowing so much more about the world than others of his day, he was rather confident about the extent of his own theoretical wisdom despite his great ignorance from a modern scientific point of view.
(2) With regard to metaphysical issues, it is debatable to what extent we have any more real knowledge about them than Aristotle had.
b. Aristotle believes that even God or the gods, which he views as essentially disembodied totaly rational minds, have theoretical wisdom. Unlike humans, the divine beings are not seeking such knowledge because as perfect beings, they already have it.
2. The second kind of wisdom distinguished by Aristotle is practical wisdom. It consists of knowing what ought to be done, of knowing what makes life good.
a. This kind of knowing about what ought to be done, this practical wisdom, can be further divided into ethics (knowing what is a good life for individual persons, that is, knowing what individual persons should do with their lives), and social philosophy (knowing what is good for the wider human community, that is, knowing how the society should be organized and what it should be striving for).
b. Practical wisdom is important to humans but not to non-physical divine beings since such beings do not need to concern themselves with bodies that have physical needs and which must interact with the physical world and other physical beings.
III. These two kinds of wisdom are related to the two kinds of virtues or excellences humans may have, but in a somewhat complex way.
A. One kind of virtue or excellence which humans may have is what Aristotle calls "intellectual virtue." This consists of having knowledge of both kinds, theoretical wisdom about what is true and practical wisdom about what is good. In everyday language we would say that intellectual virtue consists of being smart in all areas of inquiry. A person with intellectual virtue would be an expert in science and in metaphysics and in ethics and social philosophy. This is the kind of excellence that we associate with academics whose knowledge we see displayed when they are interviewed on the radio or TV.
1. For Aristotle, this intellectual virtue is more important than the other kind of virtue still to be discussed because it is more "divine." The capacity to have knowledge is the god-like aspect of human beings.
B. The second kind of virtue which humans may have is what Aristotle calls "moral virtue." This consists of conducting one's life well, of doing what practical wisdom requires. People with moral virtue not only live exemplary individual lives but also assist in dealing with the problems of the communities in which they live.
1. There is a definite relation between having practical wisdom and having moral virtue, but these are not the same thing. Moral virtue requires practical wisdom, but having practical wisdom does not guarantee that one will have moral virtue. It is quite common for someone to know what should be done but nevetheless not do it. This is what Aristotle calls "weakness of will" and what in everyday life is known as giving in to temptation. We all know what Aristotle has in mind here. One resolves not to eat so much, to get more exercise, to stop smoking, to not lose one's temper, and so on. We know very well what is the right thing to do, but we nevertheless don't do it.
2. At the same time Aristotle argues that without practical wisdom you can't have moral virtue. That is because in his view one must not only live a good life as an individual and as a member of the community but one must do it in the right way at the right time and for the right reason.
3. Furthermore, if the practical wisdom is really ingrained, it will help in overcoming temptation. Aristotle recognizes that what we truly and firmly believe influences our behavior. If we have really internalized the practical wisdom and thought about the reasoning to support it, we will be more likely to exhibit moral virtue.
4. According to Aristotle moral virtue comes as a result of habitually doing the right thing. One becomes just by habitually doing just things. One becomes courageous by habitually doing courageous things. One becomes liberal by habitually giving the right amount to the right persons in the right way for the right reason.
a. In general moral virtues are a matter of hitting a mean between two extremes, both of which would be undesirable, but this mean is not the same for every person in every situation. (To say that everyone should give 10% of their income to charity is not sound reasoning. One needs to take account of the whole situation. Also, it is not just the amount that is given but also how it is given, to whom it is given, when it is given, etc.) Furthermore, it is also necessary to have the correct thinking (practical wisdom) behind the actions. Doing the right thing by accident is not moral virtue.
b. Emotions in and of themselves are neither good or bad. What is required for moral virtue is that our desires be controlled and directed and moderated by practical wisdom.
IV. For Aristotle both intellectual virtue and moral virtue are central to a good life. One cannot have a good life without them. But other factors are also relevant to whether one in fact has a good life or not, factors that are largely a matter of luck.
A. For example, what kind of community you live in, whether you have talents or disabilities, what kinds of accidents may befall you, whether you have children and what kind of children they are, whether you are good-looking or not. (Aristotle indicates even that what happens after you die, for example, what your children or grandchildren do, can influence our judgment of whether you had a good life.) But in general good luck and bad luck usually balance each other out, while virtue consistently moves one toward a good life. The situation is something like a card game where luck may play a big role but where in the long run the skill of the better players is displayed in their better scores.
B. Aristotle also believes that one should aim for a good life that does not depend too much on others because they might let you down.
C. A perfectly good life would be a life that could not be better in any way. All actual lives fall short of such perfection. Something could always have been better.
A. What about Aristotle himself? In his life he seems to have rather successfully realized his ideal of a good life. Taking into account the time at which he lived, he had a substantial amount of intellectual and moral virtue accompanied by a fair share of good luck. For example, he seems to be one of the few very famous philosophers who was happily married.
B. Let me conclude by reading a paraphrase of Aristotle's own plea for the intellectual life of philosophy and having knowledge (theoretical wisdom) as more divine, and thus more desirable, than even the best conceivable life of public service based on practical wisdom (though public servants may be more admired by other people). I doubt that Aristotle would want to have changed places with Alexander the Great or any other great political leader or public servant. Here is his plea for the intellectual life based on his view that by definition a human is a rational animal, so the essence of being human is to be rational.
But a life consisting completely of intellectual activity would be too high for a human being: for it is not insofar as we are human that we will so live, but insofar as something divine is present in us; and by so much as the divine element is superior to our whole composite nature, by so much is knowing truth superior to bringing about other good things. If contemplation of eternal truth is divine in comparison with the whole range of human activities, then the life of reason is divine in comparison with ordinary human life. But we must not heed those who advise us, being human, to think only of human things, and being mortal, only of mortal things. We must rather, so far as we can, make ourselves independent of time and change, and strain every nerve to live in accord with the best part of ourselves. For even if it be a small part of us, much more does it in strength and worth surpass everything else. Our intellect would seem to be our true self, since it is the authoritative and better part of us. It would be strange indeed if we were to choose to actualize not our essential selves but some other accidental part of our nature. And what we said before will apply now: that which is proper to each thing is by nature best and most plesant for that thing. For we humans, then, the life of the intellect is best and most pleasant because the intellect, more than any other aspect of our being, is our essence. The intellectual life is therefore also the most perfect.