Aristotle vs. Urban Monk Round 2: Utilising Aristotelian intellectual virtues ethics for a life of excellence.

What would you do if you had a billion dollars?

Take some time and think about it. Not the initial surge of spending, but afterwards after the houses, cars, and parties, what would you do?

Perhaps a better question is: If you had no responsibility and all the time in the world, what would you do with the rest of your life?

What is your answer? If you have a passion; a life’s work that pushes you towards excellence, one that you would do freely for the simple love of it, congratulations. But if you couldn’t think of anything concrete, or you wanted to just bum around and drink margaritas, please read on to find out what you are missing.

This is Round 2 of Aristotle’s works on Happiness. It is based on the second statement that I have culled from his ideas that happiness is based on living a life of excellence, a life of virtue. Part 1 can be found here. If you enjoy this series, please take 10 seconds to support me by bookmarking my posts at your favourite services. StumbleUpon and Del.icio.us has given me the most traffic so far, thank you!

The life of luxury, or is it sloth?

Do you think a life of laziness and sloth is happiness? Most people would say yes until they have lived it.

I have been there before – after I went through depression, there was a long period of unemployment where I lived off my parents. They are fairly well off, and so they generously cared for me during my time of need. As a result, I purposely stayed an emotional and financial cripple a bit longer, even after I recovered.

They let me live the easy life – I could do almost anything I wanted, fully funded. I went out drinking five nights a week; I slept, played games and watched TV all day. This was the life I would be living if I were a millionaire; the only difference was that my surroundings, while luxurious, were not as glamorous.

“Sounds excellent to me!” I hear you say. Yes, it was great for the first year, but then I started having some strange feelings.

Why was the happiness disappearing? Why was there a nagging thought that something is missing? And why were these thoughts growing stronger everyday? Why did I feel like I was wasting away instead of living?

Statement Two Excellence and virtues

Can you guess? Aristotle was exactly right. Happiness comes not from pleasure alone, but from living a successful life. Success lies in fulfilling functions you love – functions that make full use of your virtues and develops them along the way.

There was no true excellence in my life at that point, comfortable though it was. The only thing I was excellent at was getting drunk and playing games on my Xbox (a video game console for those of you who don’t know). While it fulfils the first condition of happiness – loving what I do I was not using or developing any of my virtues by lying around in my underwear and tapping away at the controller.

Ethical Virtues

So: What are virtues? Aristotle splits them into two types; the ethical and the intellectual.

Ethical virtues are easy to define; they are the virtues of your character. These, according to Aristotle, are not innate. They are more like habits. You become truthful by acting truthfully. You become unselfish by acting unselfishly.

Like any habit or skill – you can’t switch from a selfish man to a selfless man overnight. You have to exercise the selfless “muscle” until it becomes second nature. On the other hand, if you act selfishly, your selfish muscle grows stronger and you have to work that much harder to become selfless.

I remember my teenage years, when I was exaggerating everything I did to look “cool” in front of my friends. It started out with small lies, and then soon developed into near compulsive lying. It took me a year of conscious work to become truthful again.

Without going into a discussion on ethics, here is a list of traits Aristotle has defined as moral:

– Courage
– Temperance
– Self-Discipline
– Moderation
– Modesty
– Humility
– Generosity
– Friendliness
– Truthfulness
– Honesty
– Justice

I wasn’t sure initially why truthfulness and honesty were separate entries. On research, I found out that honesty encompasses both actions and words. If you were given too much change, for example, returning to the shop and making good on it would be an example of honesty. Truthfulness refers only to the words that you speak.

A list of vices would include:
– Cowardice
– Self-Indulgence
– Recklessness
– Wastefulness
– Greed
– Vanity
– Untruthfulness
– Injustice.

Do you notice anything about these lists? Yes, they are exact opposites of one another.

Aristotle speaks of the value of temperance, or the “doctrine of the mean”. In fact, temperance is the basis of ethical virtue. It refers to knowing how much of a particular emotion or trait to display.

If someone tries to insult you, for example, it would wrong to display too much anger (by smashing his head in with a club). On the other hand, it would also be wrong to not stand up for yourself at all, letting yourself be pushed around and walked over like a doormat.

Temperance equals moral virtue in emotions and character traits that are not included in the lists. Let’s take lust as an example. Too much can drive a person crazy. Too little lust, and we won’t have any kids, and the human race will die out. Virtue in this case means knowing the mean the happy medium between too much and too little.

Intellectual virtues

What about intellectual virtues? Going too deeply into these is not necessary for our purposes; we are focused on the practical aspects of his philosophy. So here’s the list, with explanations that should be enough to allow you to apply them to your own life.

– Sophia – Philosophical wisdom. Knowing of the eternal and unchangeable. In the modern day, I would give knowledge of the law of karma as an example. You possess wisdom if you know that what you do will always come back to you.
– Episteme – Scientific and empirical knowledge. In the modern day, physics, chemistry, psychology, and so on. For example, this is the knowledge that friction causes heat and enough heat on the right material makes fire.
– Phronesis – Practical wisdom. How and why we should act to change things. This means applying the two virtues above. Knowing the law of karma, one might act on it by giving money to charity. Knowing about friction, one might apply it to make a fire if stranded on an island.
– Nous – Intuitive reason, or your intellect. This is what separates us from the animals – intelligence, knowing what to do, having choices, rather than simply reacting to our emotions and needs.
– Techne – Craft and Artistic knowledge. How to make things, or develop a craft. This can be handiwork skills that we use in our practical lives, such as fixing a computer or building a bookshelf. Developing a craft will mean making it into a area of expertise; enough to make a professional living out of it at least. This means moving out of a computer hobbyist into a professional IT person, for example.

Integrating the second statement into your happiness

To recap what we have discussed so far: Happiness does not come from a mere pleasure or contentment. It comes from living a life of success, a life of fulfilment. Human beings are the happiest when they are performing functions to the best of their ability, which involves using their virtues. By developing temperance, character, morals, skills and knowledge, we are leading a life of success and happiness. Looks like Aristotle was a personal development fan as well!

What about my life now? Do I wish I had time to kick back and play a few games? Sure I do. I often feel like shooting some zombie ass or slicing up some rebel ninja, like any red blooded male. But I have so much going on – boxing, my business, this blog, my pursuit of a psychology degree, that I haven’t touched my Xbox in a year, and I’m still having the time of my life.

Ding Ding! End of Round 2

Sounds like I’m agreeing with Aristotle all the way, don’t it? Well not exactly. I have a slightly different definition of happiness, although his makes perfect sense. Maybe we can all get along. Maybe we can’t. What do I mean? Stay tuned for Round 3, where I finally get to disagree with him.