01 October 2016

Virtues Then and Now

Last Saturday's post noted that Aristotle identified some specific virtues or excellencies that a good man must develop. He divided them into intellectual virtues and moral virtues.  

When one reads his list, some items appear to be more about manners, especially those desirable for a gentleman living in a fourth century BC Greek city-state like Athens. In fact, Aristotle suggested that the average farmer or day laborer did not enjoy the opportunities to cultivate these virtues. Moreover, as men devoted to long hours of manual labor, they did not possess the leisure time to exercise these virtues in public life--participating in a leadership role. An individual of any background can--and should --cultivate Aristotle's virtues for the sake of living a good life.

Notions of virtue, however, change over time.

The rise and spread of Christianity introduced different thinking about virtues.

Catholic teaching recognized Seven Christian virtues. The first four cardinal virtues came straight from the pre-Christian and pagan classical era: 

1) temperance




To which the Church added the following:

5) faith

6) hope

7) charity

Some of the Christian virtues make sense only if one presupposes an afterlife--where cosmic justice will reign. 

Then there are those virtues somewhat inaccurately described as the Protestant work ethic. The list below is a version by Benjamin Franklin. Some reflect the light of Aristotle across the centuries. Some of them, however, describe not Aristotle's generous man of leisure, but the thrifty, hardworking, man of the middle class:

1) Temperance- Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation. 

2) Silence- Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. 

3) Order- Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time. 

4) Resolution- Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve. 

5) Frugality- Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing. 

6) Industry- Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions. 

7) Sincerity- Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly. 

8) Justice- Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty. 

9) Moderation- Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve. 

10) Cleanliness- Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloths, or habitation. 

11) Tranquility- Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable. 

12) Chastity- Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation. 

13) Humility- Imitate Jesus and Socrates

Again, it seems only common sense to acquire these virtues for the sake of living "the good life." 

Now Aristotle and Franklin differed in their approach to "the good life." For Franklin, one purpose of developing these virtues was a pragmatic and utilitarian one. The virtues listed here and his proverbs of Poor Richard suggest that material prosperity is the primary goal.

Aristotle differed, of course. He believed that the cultivation of virtue fulfilled our nature as human beings. For him, becoming a certain kind of person was the goal. 

Aristotle noted,however, a connection between virtue and material well-being. Aristotle observed that "mankind does not acquire or preserve virtue by the help of external goods, but external goods by the help of virtue."

As will be shown, the connection between virtue and material prosperity divides conservatives from modern progressives.

                                                    Ben Franklin--scientist and ethicist

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