Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Aristotle on Money and Happiness

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great, who lived in the fourth century, BC.  Contrary to Plato, he believed in freedom, although he was not overly fond of democracy. He preferred an ideal kingship, but recognized that few kings lived up to his ideal and that kingship typically turns into tyranny. Democracy, in his view the corrupted form of constitutional government, is not so bad a perversion as tyranny.

He was an advocate of the middle class.  He thought reason to be the way to greatest happiness and  happiness to be the ultimate good.  Morality was based, in his view, on virtues, habits or states of character in accordance with the right rule learned from childhood. Virtues include  moral virtues like courage, temperance and justice.  Other moral virtues include good temper, tact and interpersonal skills, generosity or liberality, the ability to virtuously make (or at least have) money, the magnificence of a generous man of great wealth,  and the ability to succeed in the political world of the Athenian democracy.  He views virtuous behavior as appropriate in a given situation, the mean or optimal way of behaving.  As well, Aristotle emphasized the intellectual virtues of philosophic wisdom, science, intuitive understanding, practical wisdom, and knowledge of crafts or skills.  Practical wisdom involves applying a particular to a general principle. Excellent deliberation succeeds in attaining the ends sought.  There is no conflict between success in what today we would call the economic sense and morality.  Rather, economic success would have been inconceivable to Aristotle as success were it not virtuous. 

Aristotle saw the highest virtue as a life dedicated to philosophy and thought.  But he was a realist.  He did not see money as the root of all evil. Rather, the virtues are a unity. For instance, one cannot be successful without being truthful. That is a far cry from today's post-Enlightenment world, where ethics and the ability to be successful are viewed as contradictory.

 In the final book of his Nicomachean Ethics he discusses the link between money and a life devoted to philosophical wisdom:

"But, being a man, one will also need external prosperity; for our nature is not self-sufficient for the purpose of contemplation, but our body must be healthy and must have food and other attention. Still, we must not think that the man who is to be happy will need many things or great things, merely because he cannot be supremely happy without external goods; for self-sufficiency and action do not involve excess, and we can do noble acts without ruling earth and sea; for even with moderate advantages one can act virtuously (this is manifest enough; for private persons are thought to do worthy acts no less than despots--indeed, even more); and it is enough that we should have so much as that; for the life of the man who is active in accordance with virtue will be happy.  Solon, too, was perhaps sketching well the happy man when he described him as moderately furnished with externals but as having done (as Solon thought) the noblest acts, and lived temperately;  for one can with but moderate possessions do what one ought. Anaxagoras also seems to have supposed the happy man not to be rich nor a despot, when he said that he would not be surprised if the happy man were to seem to most people a strange person; for they judge by externals, since externals are all they perceive. The opinions of the wise seem, then, to harmonize with our arguments.  But while even such things carry some conviction, the truth in practical matters is discerned from the facts of life, and if it harmonizes with the facts we must accept it, but if it clashes with them we must suppose it to be mere theory.  Now he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods. For if the gods have any care for human affairs, as they are thought to have, it would be reasonable both that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them...And that all these attributes belong most of all to the philosopher is manifest. He therefore, is dearest to the gods. And he who is that will presumably be the happiest..."

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