Voices from the Past
By Dustin Rollins
Northern Essex Community College
It is easy to forget that humans living 2,400 years ago experienced the same difficulties that we face in our modern era. Despite repeated attempts by academics to place the Ancients in an historical context and treat them merely as historical phenomena, ancient Greek philosophy has revealed itself to contain immanent truths about the human experience that are transcending. An age as spiritless as our own engenders even in the most dedicated scientist the unfortunate habit of viewing everything as spiritless, i.e., as existing as mere content of spatial temporal relations. The Greeks on the other hand understood that beneath all phenomena there lies an essence that is eternal and immutable. This essence also serves as the ground of all possible phenomenal experience.
Does the human being today share an essence with the human being of ancient Greece? If so, what is it? Does the human will in both times seek to satisfy itself by means of the same objects? If so, by means of what objects and with what success? And, is the human will capable of being determined by the same faculties, motives, events, or circumstances? These questions are tantamount to asking whether or not the ancient Greeks were humans. Incidentally it can be argued that they were more human than the homo-sapiens of our era whose wills are perennially determined in accordance with their impulses.
This paper investigates the causes of the current economic crisis within the framework of ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotle’s political and ethical philosophy is utilized in order to arrive at an essential understanding of the root causes of the crisis. The paper concludes with a call to educators across America to remember why educators exist at all.
“Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for [humans] always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good” (Aristotle, 1941, p. 1127).
Aristotle maintains that that ultimate purpose of any political community is to promote the chief good of its members. Smaller associations exist within the larger community, and members of these smaller associations work together to promote the good of the association. The political community is comprised wholly of these smaller communities; but, unlike these smaller ones whose objectives are particular, the overarching objective of the political community is the chief good of every one of its members.
Within any community one finds a multiplicity of trades, some of which are subordinate to others. For example, consider the art of saddle making. The craftsman must consider several factors during production, including which breed of horse the saddle is intended for, the size of the rider, the types of activities that the rider wishes to do while mounted, which kinds of materials are paired best with which kinds of riders and activities, and so on... The important point here is that the particular craft of saddle making only has its meaning and purpose in the context of a higher craft, that of horsemanship. In other words, without the higher art of horsemanship the subordinate art of saddle making would be completely meaningless. Thus, some arts are subordinate to others.
In Ethics, Aristotle (1941) discusses which science or art has as its object the chief and final good (p. 935). The chief good is the good towards which all lesser goods are aimed. Lesser goods within a community can only be measured in how they relate to or promote the chief good. Aristotle contends that the master craft is political science. That is, all lesser trades, arts, and sciences and all of their particular objectives only have meaning within the context of the political art and its objective. What, then, is the chief good that political science--the master art--promotes or constructs? It is nothing else than happiness itself.
For Aristotle, any political organization that does not set as its ultimate goal the happiness of its members is inauthentic. Any regime that puts its own interest above that of the people is counterfeit. Individuals in power who use that power with the express purpose of preserving or further augmenting that power are sham political scientists. Plato says it best in the Republic (1989) by means of an analogy between the medical art and the political art (p. 592). The art of medicine entails, in essence, putting the interest of the patient first, and fulfilling this purpose is the reason why the medical art exists. A doctor may happen to make money while treating a patient, but to be a doctor does not necessarily entail making money. After all, one can practice medicine for free or for little compensation, and institutions such as Doctors Without Borders demonstrate clearly that some medical professionals consider money of secondary importance. A doctor ceases to be a doctor in the precise moment when he or she ceases to treat the patient’s interest as primary. Similarly, a political ruler ceases to be a genuine leader in the precise moment when he or she ceases to treat the body-politics’ interest as primary. For Plato, being a political ruler does not entail making money, nor does it mean that those in power can use their authority to further their own interests. Rather, the opposite is the case, and to be ruler means to always place the interest of those you rule ahead of your own.
To repeat, the objective of political science is to promote happiness in the state, and anyone who does not do expressly that is not a political scientist. Human happiness and political authority are therefore essentially interconnected. But, what is happiness? A critic of Aristotle might contend that happiness is an indeterminate concept, and as such cannot be the object of any particular branch of science. The great enlightenment philosopher Kant holds this view and says in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1996) that
it is a misfortune that the concept of happiness is such an indeterminate concept that, although every human being wishes to attain this, he can still never say determinately and consistently with himself what he really wishes and wills…In short, [the human being] is not capable of any principle by which to determine with complete certainty what would make him truly happy. (p. 70)
If Kant is correct that happiness is indefinable, then would it not be senseless for a political scientist to promote something that lacks any definite shape or form? Furthermore, the promotion of hazy ideologies can be counterproductive to the operation of the polity since ambiguity and indistinctness about what is good often leads to individuals working at cross purposes. If Aristotle cannot pin down the essence of happiness, then it would seem that the nature and objective of political science are in question.
Before proceeding to discuss what happiness is, Aristotle (1941) first says what it is not (p. 937-938). Happiness is not to be identified with pleasure, although the happy person would surely experience pleasure. No one calls a glutton happy, or an alcoholic, even though they experience pleasure. Being happy may indeed sometimes imply pleasure, but it is certain that to experience pleasure does not necessarily entail happiness. Some believe that honor and reputation are to be identified with happiness. Aristotle argues that these are too superficial to qualify as the chief good since they depend upon those who bestow rather than those who receive them. Those who bestow such awards are thus able to take them away. Honor and reputation depend upon recognition, and Aristotle maintains that the chief good is something proper to an individual and cannot be taken from him easily. Others believe that money is to be identified with happiness. However, Aristotle argues conclusively that money is never valuable in-itself but is “merely useful and for the sake of something else” (p. 939). By definition the chief good, happiness, is the good towards which all other goods aim. It is valuable in-itself and never for the sake of some further good. For this reason wealth cannot be happiness.
In order to completely avoid, or, if this is not possible, at least limit confusion about the nature of happiness and political science, it is important to note that if wealth cannot be the chief good, then the science which has wealth as its object cannot be the chief science. It has been said that economics is Queen of the social sciences. Aristotle would disagree. Economics and its object are subordinate to the master science and its object, and one must be careful not to confuse the chief good with one of its subordinates. Any government that promotes a subordinate good over the chief good, or any government that aims to substitute a subordinate good for the chief good, is directing its citizens away from the attainment of that chief good. Economics must not reign over political science, and wealth must not be confused with happiness. The moment when a lesser craft usurps the place of the master craft the political organization becomes counterfeit. For Aristotle, political science is the King that the rest of the social sciences must obey if the community is to reach its final goal: happiness.
Let us return to the problem of the happy life. At this point it is appropriate to introduce in a preliminary way Aristotle’s answer. Before one can understand the essence of human happiness, one must first understand the essence of what it means to be human. What is a human being? What is the defining characteristic of humanity? What sets humans apart from all other kinds of life?
Life is not the essence of humanity, since it is shared in abundance by other living beings. Therefore, there will be a fundamental difference between merely living and living well (Aristotle, 1941, p. 1140). Perception, like life, does not encompass the essence of humanity since it is shared with other animals. Similarly, all perceptual understanding (i.e. cognizance grounded in causal relations), cannot suffice to separate humans from other animals. After all, anyone who has attended obedience training with their pet knows that animals can understand causality on the perceptual level. It is also true that if one places a dog on top of a table it is afraid to jump off, even if it has never been in that situation on a prior occasion. For the philosopher Schopenhauer (2008) this was enough to conclude that the way animals and humans understand through perception is identical: perception depends upon spatial-temporal relations and animals are just as capable as humans when it comes to understanding things in space and time (pp. 49-56). The philosopher David Hume (2000) also believed that animals share perceptual understanding with humans (p. 119). In any case, perceptual knowledge and understanding cannot be the defining characteristic of humanity, and therefore the ultimate meaning of human happiness must be found outside of the boundaries of perceptual cognizance.
One must know what it is to be human before one can say what it is to be a happy human. What, then, if anything, can be said to define humans in their essence? Aristotle (1941) attempts to answer this question by means of his Function Argument, and he states that a “clearer account of [happiness]…might perhaps be given if we could first ascertain the function of man” (p. 941). Aristotle maintains that “for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the well [are] thought to reside in the function” (p. 941). That is, the good of any being is integrally connected to the performance of its activity. If humanity has an activity that can be said to belong to it, then the excellent performance of that activity will constitute the human chief good. For Aristotle, identifying the defining activity of the human being is the key to identifying what it means to be a happy human.
As stated earlier, life itself and perceptual cognizance do not qualify as the defining characteristic of humankind. What, then, is the defining element in human nature? Aristotle (1941) maintains that beyond life and perception there “remains… an active life of the element that has a rational principle” (p. 942). Or, as Harvard philosophy professor Christine Korsgaard (2008) says in her recent book, “The human good therefore is the activity of the rational part of the soul performed well, which is to say, in accordance with virtue” (p. 29). Korsgaard is correct when she traces Aristotle’s function argument back to Plato’s Republic. For Plato, the happy community and individual would be the ones where each of their parts performs its natural function to the best of its ability. Plato argued that the happy community and person would both possess four key virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Each part of the community or person performing its natural function is what promotes the cultivation of virtue on both the social and personal levels.
Despite their differences about metaphysics, Plato and Aristotle seem to agree that something’s activity is fundamentally connected to its identity, and that doing one’s job well directly defines something as good. A being’s function is an integral part of that being’s overall sense of goodness, and the performance of one’s proper function well constitutes one’s ultimate objective. For Aristotle, to be a happy human essentially means to be a human who performs his or her rational activity well, and to perform rational activity well is to perform it in accordance with virtue.
The profound connection between activity and essence is shown in the following section from Ethics:
the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. (Aristotle, 1941, p. 952)
The above passage demonstrates clearly that an individual’s actions build his or her character. In a very literal way our deeds define us, and if our actions are in conformity with reason then over time our character will also be in conformity with reason. The happy life will be the life that is determined in accordance with reason.
To help his readers understand how an individual performs rational activity well, Aristotle describes how someone can apply one’s rationality to the practical situations that he or she encounters in day to day life. Aristotle’s doctrine of mean states that the virtuous or excellent condition is located between two vicious extremes, and it is a person’s rational self that determines in any situation the virtuous course of action.1 For example, the virtue of bravery is located somewhere between the extremes of cowardice and rashness. Cowardness and rashness relate to an individual’s feelings of excessive fear or confidence, and in both cases one feels either fear or confidence too much and/or towards the wrong object and/or in the wrong way. It is when human beings balance their feelings of fear and confidence correctly and successfully put them into their proper ratio that they arrive at the virtue of bravery. This balancing act is the proper activity of human reason.
Similarly, whether or not something is or is not to be feared depends largely upon situation, and it is through education that one comes to understand the feelings, and in what ratio, that ought to apply to the situation at hand. Consider the example of a poisonous aggressive snake. If someone sees a stuffed snake on the wall and experiences an overwhelming sense of fear, Aristotle would say that he or she is feeling fear towards a right object but at the wrong time. It would be an irrational fear, and if the person screamed and ran from the room then he or she would be behaving in a cowardly fashion. If the individual continued to perform similar cowardly acts over time, then he or she would be forging a corresponding cowardly character. At some point, it may be possible to reach a point of no return where the individual permanently defines himself as a coward.2 Once this point is reached the prospect of the happy life diminishes.
On the other hand, if someone sees the same snake charging towards his or her position in a menacing fashion and experiences fear, then that fear would be directed towards the right object at the right time. It would be a rational fear, and the person would not behave cowardly if they sought refuge. If the individual repeated the behavior over time, then he or she would be forging a brave character. This process of determining the situation, of judging the variables, and of choosing the right course of action is nothing else than the rational activity of the human at work. Doing this activity well over the course of one’s life will promote virtuous actions which in turn will build virtuous character. An excellent character is one that possesses bravery, temperance, liberality, justice, wisdom, self-respect, and magnanimity.
It is through the exercise of human rationality alone that humans build themselves into virtuous people, and, for Aristotle, to build the virtuous life is to build the happy life. Only the virtuous may attain happiness. The project of a happy life is not easy, and, as Aristotle (1941) says, “men are good in but one way, but bad in many” (p. 959). With this in mind, should we agree with Aristotle that humans who do not spend their lives in pursuit of virtue are denied a share of the chief good? This is a question that each of us must decide for ourselves, but does it make sense to say that those lacking virtue are happy? The ability to determine oneself in accordance with virtue is what defines humans as human, and, in my opinion, it does seem nonsensical to say that the cowardly, intemperate, illiberal, unjust, unwise, self-hating and unmagnanimous person can attain the chief good. To live in accordance with human rationality is to be a good human, and to be a good human is to be a happy human. Let us be clear: for Aristotle any account of happiness that does not take into account the human function does not describe human happiness.
The Crisis in America
It is always easy in hindsight to say that a catastrophe was avoidable. In the wake of a disaster, what were once past unrelated events take on a new dimension, and it is the job of those in charge of the investigation to construct an image of what led up to the crisis. There is plenty of blame to pass around, and at the conclusion of the investigation it is found that there are so many parties potentially culpable that it is impractical to actually punish any of them. In a few years things will rebound, business as usual, and in the meantime the powers that be must do the best job they can to patch the raft until the nation as a whole reaches calmer waters. It might even be said that this “patching the raft” is the defining characteristic of American politics. After all, the motions of the invisible hand are cyclical, and if lawmakers can stay afloat long enough things are going to improve. They must improve.
Was the economic meltdown avoidable? In hindsight every disaster is avoidable. It is meaningless to ask now what particular steps led to the crisis unless one at the same time analyzes the general patterns or forms of which the particular steps form the content. Instead of asking which event precipitated the meltdown, it is better to ask what set of conditions or practices allowed the precipitating event to occur in the first place. Once these prior conditions have been identified, one must continue to examine the underlying values that established these conditions as normative. What is necessary is to get to the heart of the matter, and to reach the heart it is necessary to pass through both the precipitating event and the underlying conditions that led to it and arrive at the core values that constitute the ground of the society as a whole.
The FCIC (2011) report identifies “the failure of Lehman Brothers and the impending collapse of the insurance giant American International Group (AIG)” as the precipitating events that heralded a crisis of “seismic proportions” (p. xvi). The report identifies “a combination of excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency” (p. xix) as the underlying conditions that made the precipitating events possible. It is fair to add that the excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency were committed by all parts of the economic machine. Consumers as well as financial institutions were equally culpable on all heads. Much of the report focuses on the breakdown of the safeguards that were meant to protect the nation against this type of crisis. Failures on the part of credit monitoring agencies, the FED, and the treasury department were part of the problem, but it is irrational to attribute to these bodies the originating share of the blame. As the report states, “The sentries were not at their posts” (p. xviii), but this dereliction of duty was not the origin of the attack.
The report concludes that “there was a systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics” (2011, p. xxii). The underlying conditions of the meltdown identified above—the excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency—are here identified by the report as the key components of the ethical breakdown. The precipitating events, their underlying conditions, and failed attempts by regulatory bodies to patch the raft have all been discussed. It still remains for us to identify the core values that established the underlying conditions as normative.
The FCIC (2011) report contains the following statement:
THESE CONCLUSIONS must be viewed in the context of human nature and individual
and societal responsibility. First, to pin this crisis on mortal flaws like greed and hubris would be simplistic. It was the failure to account for human weakness that is relevant to this crisis. ( p. xxiii)
It is true that these conclusions must be viewed in the context of human nature and individual and societal responsibility. Here we return to Aristotle. What is human nature if it is not the ability of the will to determine itself in accordance with rationality? What are individual and societal responsibility if not the cultivation of both personal and civic virtue? It is likely that Aristotle would say that the vices of greed and hubris are exactly where the heart of the crisis is found because the core values of wealth and distinction by wealth are exactly what made the underlying conditions of the meltdown possible. Furthermore, it is altogether dishonest of the FCIC to pin the blame on a failure to account for human weakness by regulatory bodies or financial institutions. To be human is not to be weak as the above passage from the report suggests; on the contrary, it has been shown in our discussion of Aristotelian ethics that to be human is to possess the capacity for strength.
It is pertinent to note that there has been a dearth of research on which types of value systems are sustainable and which types are unsustainable. Most often it is the case that scholars focus on the manifestations3 of these values rather than upon the values themselves. It is useful to review book VIII of Plato’s Republic (1989) in order to see the unfolding in time of five distinct value systems4 that work to define societies and the individuals residing within them (pp. 772-798). There are both personal and societal aspects to each core value, and much of Plato’s argument hinges on the idea that the laws of a community are a reflection of the values that the individuals of that community hold. For example, if the individuals in any given society value freedom and equality above all else, then they will probably set up a democracy as their form of government. In this way, it can be said that a society’s laws and choice of constitution are the embodiment of the values held by the people. Plato maintains that only just constitutions and societies are sustainable and that all other forms of society will eventually implode. It is in the nature of injustice to self-destruct and burn out. Plato argues nicely that, just as certain forms of society self-destruct and cannot be sustained, there are by analogy certain self-destructive and unsustainable value systems. Thus, Plato aims to show that there are core values that are in themselves unsustainable as a way of life, and any society that is based upon an unsustainable value system will eventually decline and suffer from an internal collapse.
There was an ethical breakdown that lead to the financial crisis, but it is not contained in the FCIC report. The breakdown was not on the part of regulatory bodies or financial institutions; the truth is that risky lending and lack of transparency are consistent with the core values that they represent. Nor was the ethical breakdown on the part of consumers seeking homes they could not afford; after all, over borrowing and financial overextension are consistent with the core values that they represent. Wealth, and distinction according to wealth, equal happiness. This formula for the chief good is the source of the economic collapse and the financial crisis that our nation continues to experience.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Aristotle (1941) defines human happiness as “rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue” (p. 943). For Aristotle, the nature of any being does not lie merely in its origin; on the contrary, actualizing one’s potential is identified as fulfilling one’s nature. As he states in his Politics,
the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best. (1941, p. 1129)
Aristotle (1941) continues to say that it is only within the confines of society that a human being is able to fulfill his nature. “Man is by nature a political animal” (p.1129), and it is the responsibility of political scientists to promote and encourage members of the community to fulfill their nature. That is, it is the responsibility of political scientists to promote and encourage citizens to develop their rational self and determine their wills in accordance with it. For Aristotle, it is incumbent upon the authentic political scientist to promote virtue within the state.
Education is the greatest instrument wielded by the political scientist in his project to forge good character. Plato agrees with Aristotle about the role of the political scientist, and for this reason he has his guardian class undergo a rigorous program of study before they qualify for rule. The purpose of education in the Republic is to build good citizens, ones who possess the virtues of wisdom, bravery, temperance, and justice. It is through education that individuals fulfill their potential; it is through education that humans fulfill their nature. Both philosophers maintain that education is what allows humans to obtain the chief good. Any political organization that does not have the education of the children as its priority is severely diminishing the prospect of having a happy society.
With the above considerations in mind, it is now time to turn and examine our own society and discover whether or not it is working to promote our chief good. There are several questions to consider:
1.) Is education a core value within the American government?
2.) Is education a core value among the American people?
3.) Is American education actually promoting the chief good?
At the present moment a cursory glance at the front page of any local newspaper appears sufficient to answer the first question; but I will reserve final judgment on the issue for someone more adept in education policy. However, whether or not massive spending cuts in education are good or bad depends largely upon the values that educators themselves are promoting. I will add that President Obama’s efforts to reform the student loan industry are commendable.
With respect to the second question, a quick pole of my own students revealed that they view education as possessing instrumental value. Developing their rational self therefore is not an end in-itself but rather a means to another end. I fear that many would not attend college if they felt they could achieve their personal ends without a degree, which suggests that many students do not associate learning with happiness. Again, I will reserve final judgment for someone more adept in the psychology of the American people.
With respect to the third question, Aristotle would say that any system of education that does not expressly promote the character development of the student is inauthentic. The purpose of education within society is to promote happiness, and as stated earlier happiness cannot be attained without learning how to rationally determine the will in all situations. Thus, the purpose of education is to teach students how to rationally determine their wills in accordance with virtue. For Aristotle, the promotion of virtue and the happy life are the very reasons educators exist.
Do educators in America have this principle as their mission? I will reserve judgment of this question for someone more adept at understanding the heart of the American academic. I nevertheless will add that any confusion or ambiguity among educators about what constitutes the chief good necessarily diminishes the prospect of happiness for the American student and American society in general.
Aristotle. (1941). The basic works of Aristotle. R. McKeon, (Ed.). (B. Jowett, Trans. ). New York: Random House, Inc.
Hume, David. (2000) A treatise of human nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kant, Immanuel. (1996). Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals. In M. Gregor (Ed.). Practical Philosophy. (M. Gregor, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Korsgaard, Christine. (2008). The constitution of agency. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Plato. (1989). The republic. In E. Hamilton, & H. Cairns, (Eds.), Collected dialogues. (P. Shorey, Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. (2008). The world as will and presentation. R. Aquila, Trans.). New York: Pearson Education, Inc.
http://fcic-static.law.stanford.edu/cdn_media/fcic-reports/fcic_final_report_full.pdf. (n.d.). (2011)