Remembering Plato

For a long time, Christians in the West have had a greater openness to Aristotle’s philosophical thought than to Plato’s.

It was never really a fair contest.

We had little enough of either Aristotle’s or Plato’s writings in the early Middle Ages of the Latin West. When we did recover more of their texts, we received Aristotle quite a bit earlier than Plato, and for the interpretation of Aristotle we had in St. Thomas Aquinas a thinker of unquestionable brilliance and holiness.

Plato was restored to us at a later time, after Aristotle had come to possess a great philosophical importance for us, and Plato came associated with Western interpreters who were not named as Doctors of the Church, or even, for the most part, as canonized saints.

Besides all this, there is something about Aristotle that is not so troubling for the religious mind, compared to Plato’s writing.

Aristotle’s thought is able to be isolated, to focus on one topic at a time. This means we can learn from Aristotle’s wisdom without being forced to wonder what relationship these insights might have to the faith we profess.

The nature of Plato’s approach to philosophy, by contrast, makes it is always no more than one or two steps removed from questions about morality, God, the afterlife, and the invisible realm. Furthermore, explicit answers to these questions are frequently being proposed, many of which will seem strange or even abhorrent to the person who finds a home in Christian doctrine. Early on, reading Plato can be a very unsettling experience for the religious reader. I speak from experience.

Now, I’ve touched on too many interesting controversies for me to try to give an account of them all in this one blog post. Instead, all I want to do is leave this reflection as a reminder of the perpetual imbalance in our philosophical heritage.

When we look to Greek philosophy, if we look to it at all, we do so with a bias against Plato, and toward Aristotle.

If we wish to approach the study of philosophy at all philosophically, we should seek to counterbalance that bias.

Let’s remember that Plato will feel more foreign to us than Aristotle, for historical reasons, and that we have more of a tendency to reject the strangeness of Plato’s philosophical mythmaking. Let’s just remember that truth, and respond to our bias with a renewed effort at being open to the instruction that proceeds from one of the most insightful and charming thinkers that the world has ever produced.

Taking Shortcuts

A stitch in time saves nine, they say. More haste, less speed.

These are worthy proverbs, and it’s good to be mindful of them. Most often, as they teach us, an attempted shortcut will end up costing more time than it saves.

Just the other day I was in a hurry to get home, so I took what I thought would be a faster route. Sure enough, I found my way blocked before long, and I had to retrace my steps and then follow the path that I always took.

I agree that most of the time, it is worth doing things the right way rather than just trying to get them done the fast way. Most of the time, but not always.

There is one major exception, in my mind. Virtue.

When it comes to virtue, it is always worth it to take the shortest, fastest path.

Any choice that brings to closer to being the most virtuous person you can be, any decision that increases your share of virtue, is a good decision, and the faster, the better.

It’s not laziness. It’s not carelessness.

It is honourable to grow in virtue, no matter whether you make it hard for yourself or easy. The person who becomes perfectly chaste in a convent is no less honourable than the person who pursues chastity within the walls of a brothel.

There’s no shame in making your path to virtue as easy as possible. In fact, the person who designs a life that will help them become the virtuous person, a life that will decrease the probability of growing in vice, is taking the most honourable and praiseworthy path I can imagine.

Greatness of Soul, or Magnanimity

An important aspect of the journey toward virtue is the understanding of what is called greatness of soul, or from the Latin, magnanimity, or in the Greek, megalopsuchia.

For a significant portion of my young adulthood, I lived in or around the city of Moose Jaw, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. The name does not suggest a beautiful city, but it is one.

When I lived in Moose Jaw I didn’t have a car, and I walked anywhere I needed to go when I didn’t have access to a ride, even though the walk could be an hour or more in a single direction.

For the most part I didn’t mind the walking. It was, as I’ve said, a beautiful city, full of good people. One person in particular sticks out in my mind.

I never met him. I only ever saw him from a distance. He was a young person, around my age, in his twenties or at most his thirties, and he was a giant of a man. I’m not short, but my best guess is that he was at least a head taller than I am.

Whenever I saw him, it almost seemed to bend reality. He was like an optical illusion, making the buildings around him smaller than they ought to be.

This is because he was proportionate. He wasn’t the sort of tall man you’ll meet who’s all gangly limbs, or with a head that is too large or too small, or a torso that is oddly slender or carrying all its weight in the belly. No, his proportions were the same that you would see in a five-foot tall boxer, or a five-and-a-half foot tall rower, except that he was probably closer to seven feet tall.

He dressed in a way that suggested a possible military background, somehow, and he seemed quiet, watchful.

To see a person who is built on a grand scale like that is awe-inspiring, somehow. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who was so large and yet of such normal proportions in head and arm and chest.

To see someone like that is inevitably, irresistibly, to feel as if you have encountered a demigod come to earth.

I could not see him without wishing I could have what he had, and be what he was, and I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one.

Of course, I can’t change my height. I can’t change the proportion of my long torso to my limbs. That’s just how I was born.

But a similar effect may exist on the level of the soul, and in that arena we have much more freedom to shape ourselves.

We’ve all met people whose characters are “larger than life” in some aspect or another, people who are overflowing with intellect, or compassion, or fervour, or self-control, or wit, or a sense of fairness and justice.

Someone who is unexpectedly exaggerated in some aspect or another might come across as entertaining, or impressive, or off-putting.

Someone, however, who has a whole host of virtues, each possessed in greater quantity than is normally seen, has the most perfect treasure. According to Aristotle, such souls are the product of a person being rightly oriented toward honour. He speaks of magnanimity as seeming to be characteristic of “greatness in every virtue,” and even as a “sort of crown of the virtues.”

I have met only a couple of these people in my life, whose souls are built on an uncommonly grand scale, each part proportionate to all the others. I admired them a hundred times more than the nameless man that I occasionally saw in the streets of Moose Jaw.

Greatness of soul is a prize that can be attained by any who are truly able to commit themselves to the pursuit of it. What could be a better goal?

In Praise of Cynics

In the generations after the death of Socrates, there was a profusion of philosophical and quasi-philosophical schools that sought to follow in his footsteps. Plato began his Academy, and Isocrates around the same time began a much more influential program training people in writing and rhetoric and public life. Aristotle started the school known as the Lyceum, and then came the Cynics, the Epicureans, the Stoics, some groups of Skeptics, and eventually the Middle Platonists and the Neoplatonists.

I’m reflecting today on one of these groups that is often neglected: the Cynics.

When I think of the Cynics, there are two things I’ve heard about them which especially shape how I think of them. (No, the two things are not that the word “cynicism” comes from the Greek word for dog, and that one of the early Cynics was caught shamelessly doing something in public that should probably not be done in public, even if those are probably the two things you hear most often about them!)

  • The Cynics, who lived in poverty and went around exhorting listeners to live a life of radical virtue, were inspired by a wish to be like Socrates. There were many ancient thinkers who wanted to think like Socrates, but the Cynics were unique and interesting in thinking that the life of Socrates was an important consequence of Socrates’ thinking and was worth imitating and even seeking to outdo.
  • The Cynics, who lived in poverty and went around exhorting listeners to live a life of radical virtue, may have been an inspiration for the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. I don’t want to make too much of this, since it has attracted no end of controversy among Christian and anti-Christian disputants, but it is true that there was a city with a great deal of Cynic activity over the course of several centuries which was located very, very near to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. More importantly, though, the very fact that some scholars are able to argue that there was a Cynic influence on the ministry of Jesus does help us picture what Cynicism was like, for those of us who are more familiar with early Christianity than with obscure Greek philosophical schools (which is probably most of us!).

The Cynics were compared to dogs, because they embraced a somewhat animal existence rather than the more civilized human life that their contemporaries (and we ourselves) would be more familiar with. They chose a hard life, and they did so in order to pursue the best sort of life they could attain.

They didn’t want to be distracted by money or honour or pleasures or fears. They gave up everything that could pull their attention away from the life of virtue, and then they used the freedom that came from that choice to share an exhortation toward virtue with anyone who would listen.

It is a praiseworthy path. This sort of life would resurface among the early centuries of Christian saints: the anchorites, the stylites, the later mendicant orders, all share this same willingness to embrace poverty in order to pursue virtue and to preach the glories of virtue.

There aren’t many who will choose that path today. But there are some. As far as I’m concerned, the more there are, the better off the whole world will be.

And even for those of us who cannot take on that form of life completely, it is important that we should all seek to embrace that approach to the world, as far as is possible from within the duties required by our state in life. In every way that we can, we need to put virtue above all the lesser concerns that present themselves to us without end.

Motivation for Virtue

Virtue can bring many superficial benefits to the virtuous person.

What if people who know you start to think of you as virtuous, trustworthy, praiseworthy? What if they begin to speak of you in that way too? That will affect how you’re treated. It will make you feel good to know that people think of you and speak of you approvingly, because that’s how we’re wired. That excellent reputation might cause you to have more friends, to receive more gifts and favours, to advance further in the world.

That’s a possible outcome of a virtuous life, and it’s even a likely outcome. But it’s not the only outcome, either.

The virtuous person might become the object of envy. It’s good for the virtuous to be admired and imitated, but envious people actively want their enemies to be deprived of the good things they possess, and it’s not impossible for virtuous people to become the enemies of the envious.

The virtuous person, who is unwilling to descend into vice and falsehood and injustices, could also be taken advantage of. If two people are in competition and only one is willing to break the rules, the better person might end up worse off.

My point is this:

The beneficial outcomes of a virtuous life are not a good enough motivation for becoming virtuous.

Never mind that those are what actually tend to be the motivation. “Honesty is the best policy” means that you should do the right thing because it will benefit you.

But very often it is not the one who acts rightly that seems to have the best outcome. The people who become wealthiest and most powerful and most famous don’t necessarily get there because they were the most morally upright people in the race.

A desire to seem virtuous, to be seen and celebrated and remembered, might be a good starting point on the path to virtue, but it won’t carry a person far.

To become truly virtuous, it is necessary to investigate our motivations, and go deeper into the question of why we want to become a certain kind of person.

The only way to become virtuous is to make virtue “its own reward,” as they say.

And here’s the thing. If you do make virtue your goal, your motivation, your reward, then no one can ever take your happiness away from you, because for your happiness you won’t be depending on things outside your control, things like wealth or honour or pleasures. You will be depending only on your own virtue, which no one can ever take away from you without your consent.

To make virtue your reward is to be a truly happy person indeed, then.

Straightening Out Priorities

Let’s ask ourselves a challenging hypothetical question:

What would I be willing to give up in exchange for growth in virtue?

I want to quote a couple sentences from a passage that shows up early in Aristotle’s Rhetoric:

“If it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made in common against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.”

Aristotle, Rhetoric (emphasis added)

Good health, financial security, physical strength, persuasive speech — these are all good things, and worth pursuing. But unlike virtue, they can be a source of harm and sorrow, just as much as they can be a source of good. Virtue is the only thing we can seek to gain that will be always unambiguously good for us.

But it’s even more than that, too: virtue is what makes all other good and useful things beneficial and not harmful. If you had every advantage in the world and didn’t have virtue, then all those things would be of no profit to you. On the other side, if you had an abundance of virtue, then even if you lost everything else, you could still be a happy and fortunate human being.

We used to know this, or at least we used to pay lip service to it. In the modern world, we hardly even bother pretending to believe it anymore.

So then let’s entertain the idea. This brings us back to the hypothetical question I posed at the beginning of this reflection.

What might need to be given up for the sake of progress in virtue? Perhaps money or possessions.

Perhaps the good opinion that some friend or some acquaintances might have of you.

Perhaps some hobby or habit or pursuit that gives enjoyment.

I’m not saying that all of those will always need to be given up! There are such things as honourable pleasures. But our priorities need to be clear to us from the beginning. We need to be honest with ourselves about whether we’re willing to do whatever it takes. 

If growth in virtue would inflict many pains on us, over many years, could we still choose it?

If it might cost us friends and reputation, will we pursue it?

If we are faced with a choice between making a pile of money or coming closer to attaining the sort of good character we’re straining toward, which way will we go?

Virtue can’t be pursued halfheartedly. It’s either our focus, or it’s only a polite fiction.

What will it be for you?

How to Think of Virtue

In reaching for a description of what I am calling virtue, I might attempt some phrases like

  • perfection of soul,
  • excellence of the soul,
  • moral beauty,
  • fitness of soul,
  • nobility of soul,
  • moral fineness.

All of those are somewhat close to what I mean by virtue.

But this account of virtue represents only one way to hear the word, and it’s important to keep in mind that it is not necessarily the main way to understand it. To grasp what virtue has popularly connoted through the history of the West, we have to enter two main paradigms, which we could call the masculine sense and the feminine.

Let’s start with the one that will be more familiar to us. Not so long ago, the word virtue would bring to mind a gentle, virginal, pretty young lady. It’s not that this image was held to be the entirety of what “virtue” could mean, but it was the centre of gravity for the word’s other possible meanings, in popular thinking.

Many centuries earlier, the word carried a very different sense. It was originally a warrior’s term. Our word “virtue” is etymologically related to “virility.” To be virtuous was first of all to be manly, courageous in battle, admired among the brave.

For philosophers, however, the word held another sense, from very early on. Virtue meant, more or less, doing with your life what you ought to be doing with it. It meant a commitment to becoming the best human being you could be. In this way it brought with it the question of what it means for a human to be good, which turns out of course to be not such an easy thing to answer.

Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Epictetus (and many more) urged that this account of virtue was the most important and most valuable thing for us as humans to focus on. I believe they make a compelling case.

We don’t really hear people talking in this way anymore, but I believe now is as good a time as any to start to return to it.

Human Rights and Deontology

The average person today is a deontologist, even though it wouldn’t immediately seem that way.

In your typical moral philosophy class, you’ll be told that there are generally three philosophical approaches to ethics, one being deontology (which is focused on rules and duties), another being utilitarianism (seeking the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people), and the third being virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is the odd one out, in a way, because it focuses on the moral status of people more than on the moral status of actions.

At first glance, it might appear that the average person today must be a utilitarian. Whatever makes you happy. Minimal rules, maximal freedom. I stay out of your way while you make yourself happy, and you stay out of my way while I define and pursue my own happiness. Of course there’s a legal system, with all its rules, to stave off total chaos, but other than the laws laid down by the state, our morality really does have the appearance of pursuing freedom, to ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Appearances can be misleading, though, and I don’t believe this is the most accurate way of seeing things.

Our most fundamental moral conviction today is that human beings have human rights. That’s precisely why we leave one another alone to make our own happiness — because we think that’s what is required to respect human rights.

And human rights are the mirror image of human duty. You can’t have rights without duties. When people say, “I have a right to …” they are always also simultaneously communicating, “you owe it to me that …”

So if human rights are our moral bedrock today, then we are fundamentally deontologists.

Well then, why do we always speak of rights, rather than of duties and rules?

I think this reveals the baseness of the modern approach to moral matters. In the modern world, a workable social system has been built on vice. For instance, Hobbes constructs the theory of the state upon cowardice (fear of violent death), and capitalism appeals to greed as the engine of increasing abundance.

That’s not to deny that these vicious motives were at play in the ancient world, and even in a central way, but the moral rhetoric of the ancient world urged that these and all other vices must be fought and transcended.

In the modern world, it’s not so much a question of vices and virtues, but of socially destructive vices in opposition to socially beneficial vices. We celebrate the greedy people who benefit economies, and the cowards who keep society rolling smoothly along.

It seems to me that “rights” talk follows in that same vein. We are able to speak of duties, yes, but we must think of them firstly as things owed to oneself, to myself. Duties must fundamentally take the form of rights. And then in a secondary way, I am able to recognize that if I want others to respect my rights then I will have to respect theirs. Framing duties, even the very limited duties required in modern regimes, as rights, makes them more palatable to our stunted moral capacities.

We’ve got to start with, “what’s in it for me?” because no one buys the unbelievable ideals of altruism or saintliness or moral heroism anymore.

And it is very effective, as a social and political system. Machiavelli promised that when we plan societies on the basis of what we know people will do, rather than what we think they should do, our plans are much more likely to succeed, and there is something to that.

It’s astonishing to me, though, how human rights, as the mirror image of duties and deontology, is so much less noble than deontology, even though in one way it is almost the same thing.

I am all about virtue ethics, but I truly do think that deontology is a beautiful approach to the world. The true deontologist will say, I cannot do that something which is wrong, no matter the consequences. Even if I and everyone I love would die, even if the entire world would have to burn, I shall not do what I know to be wrong. That is heroism.

It’s an approach to ethics that is deeply admirable. Our own is not. I wonder if there’s a way to get from here to there.

In Praise of Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy definitely isn’t the best option available for a person, but I believe it might be the second-best. And sometimes we have to settle for second-best while we’re striving for what is actually best.

You’ve probably heard the saying: hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. This means that a perfectly good person will not only praise virtue but also act virtuously, whereas a hypocrite will only praise it, and will not always do it.

Good personHypocriteBad person
Acts virtuously?YNN
Praises virtue?YYN

My greatest goal is to be a perfectly good person, but in the meantime, I settle for being a hypocrite.

There was a time when I hesitated to praise virtue, because I was not yet virtuous myself, and I didn’t want to be hypocritical. What I didn’t realize was that the problem with hypocrites isn’t that they encourage people to do and love what is good.

I thought at that time that it was better not to speak well of virtue, rather than to be a hypocrite. In my mind, it was best to be a good person, second best to be a plainly bad person, and worst of all to be a hypocrite.

My thinking has shifted.

I’m more virtuous now than I was then, but of course I am still not perfectly good. At this time, though, I see my shortcomings and vices as something for me to conquer, rather than as something that has the power, or the right, to silence my love of virtue.

I do love virtue, and I praise it, and I love the praise of it.

That’s the best thing about us hypocrites. Even though we haven’t attained to virtue, we do know that it deserves to be praised, and praised far more highly than the other things that are normally objects of desire, things like reputation or wealth or pleasant feelings.

There’s a reason this is my first post. I wish to reflect on, and to honour, virtue, in future posts. I accept it as true when Socrates proclaims that “The greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue.”

But that doesn’t mean I’m perfectly virtuous myself. I am not, although I am working on it. Until then, this is the blog of a self-aware and self-professed hypocrite. I hope you’ll join me.

PS: I imagine some readers will think that I have been imprecise in my classifications above, and this may be true. See below for a somewhat more exact scheme; on this grid, I think that what is possible for all of us, wherever we might be on our journey, is to be a good hypocrite, and that what is blameworthy is to fit in the bad hypocrite column, although even then I think it might be preferable to be a bad hypocrite than a straightforwardly bad person.

Good personGood hypocriteBad hypocriteBad person
Acts virtuously?YNNN
Tries to act virtuously?YYNN
Praises virtue?YYYN