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All striving has a goal, and this goal is for the rational striving a good, and hence the highest goal is the highest good; and this highest good is a perfect felt well-being, which is not a merely passive state, but a perfect active life of the rational spirit; and hence it consists essentially in virtue, which in its turn includes per se in itself the feeling of happiness.—Virtue itself is either thought-virtue or ethical virtue, according as it relates to reason or to sensuousness. Thought-virtue is acquired by learning, ethical virtue by practice. As the good consists in harmony, and hence in a proper measure, hence the non-good consists in a too-much or a too-little. Hence virtue is always the observance of the proper mean between two unvirtues. The presupposition of all moral action is the perfect freedom of the will, a doctrine to which Aristotle,—in opposition to the view of Socrates that the knowledge of the right necessarily leads to its practice,—holds distinctly fast.
The rational spirit is not a reposing or merely passively moved entity, but an activity. The thinking spirit is at the same time a volitionating, an acting, and a working spirit. All volitionating aims at something as an end, namely, in all cases, that which appears to him, who volitionates, as a good. Hence the good (το ἀγαθον) is primarily that whereon the striving is directed in view to its attainment. Now there are many and different ends and goods, whereof some are related to others merely as co-adjutant, as means to higher ends and goods. But if the striving is a rational one, that is, a sure and consistent one, then there must be a last end, a highest good, which is not a mere 97means to another end, but which is aimed at for its own sake, and for the sake of which alone we aim at all other goods, and which is hence an absolutely perfect end, a τόλειον, which has its end, το τέλος, within itself. Honor, riches, knowledge, etc., are goods, though they are not sought for their own sake, but always for a higher purpose to which they are but the means,—are but the partial goods of one perfect good; and this good is the perfection of one’s own existence and life, the well-being, eb(atpovia, that is, the vitality of the life as perfect in itself, and as being its own end,—ζωῆς τέλειας ενέργεια. This well-being is not sought in the interest of another good, but for its own sake, and is hence the highest good (Nic., i, c. 1 sqq.; comp. Eud., i, 1). This “eudaemonia” is by no means one and the same with our notion of happiness, but includes the same in itself. Happiness is only the one, the subjective phase, namely, the happiness-feeling that is connected with this “eudaemonia,’” whereas the “eudaemnonia” itself has essentially and primarily an objective significancy, namely, the being well-conditioned or blessed, the possession of the all-sidedly perfect life. Hence it is not without meaning when a special examination is entered upon as to whether the pleasure-feeling is included in the “eudaemonia” (Nic., i, c. 9).—The good is accordingly by no means a mere idea never entirely realizable in the this-side, as with Plato, but it is a full reality already in the present life,—finds this reality in the actual being and life of the sage; it is not a merely abstract general something; but a definite quality inherent in individual existence; not a yon-side something transcending all special goods, but one that is realized in the totality itself of these goods (Nic., i, 4). This totality, however, is not a mere sum, for were this the case the highest good might be increased by some newly added good, but it is a unitary whole, whereof the different goods are but the special forms (Nic., i, 5).
Well-being as a purely human good is not mere life, for life exists also with plants and animals, nor yet the mere sentient life, for this exists also with animals; but it is the rationally-active life, and hence the perfectly active life of the rational spirit,—is not mere being and determinatedness, but a self-determining, an ἐνέργεια,—is not merely a good, but works the good on and on (Nic., i, 6, 7). This implies of itself that the highest good, well-being, is not outside of or merely subsequent 98to virtute; on the contrary, virtue itself constitutes a part of the essence of the highest good, which in fact consists in activity, though it is not per se the whole highest good; for to perfect well-being belongs also the happiness-feeling, the feeling of pleasure, which results upon the successful issuing of the virtuous activity. Hence this happiness-feeling is not a something independent of virtue, and existing outside of and along-side of it; on the contrary the virtuous life already contains happiness as its necessary constituent; for only he is virtuous who does the good gladly, who has joy in virtue. In so far, therefore, one may indeed say that the highest good consists in the practicing of virtue, and of all the virtues (Nic., i, 7-9). However, Aristotle admits that to perfect well-being belong also such goods as are not already directly given in virtue itself, such as are even independent thereof, as, e. g., earthly affluence, good descent, beauty, health, a happy close of life, etc. (Nic., i, 9-11). With this very true concession to the natural consciousness as unprejudiced by any one-sided system, the consequentiality of Aristotle’s ethical system is manifestly broken. For if there are real goods, and conditions of the highest good, which are independent of moral perfection, and if consequently the truly virtuous man may possibly be without the highest good, then there prevails no moral world-order, and morality is deprived of its assurance; and as it is a legitimate goal to strive for the highest good, hence it follows that man must strive after still other possessions outside of morality, and which do not depend thereon, and which he can consequently acquire only in extra-moral and hence immoral ways. But as Aristotle does not recognize any guilty corruption of human nature, hence the above concession involves him in an absolutely insolvable dilemma, in a violent contradiction with his own system. He prefers, however, to be in contradiction with himself, rather than, in the interests of his system, to deny manifest experience, to the true understanding of which he does not possess the key.
But wherein now consists virtue, and hence the most essential element of well-being? In man there is a two-phased life, sensuousness and reason, which are often in conflict with each other. Sensuousness, in so far as it is not purely vegetative, namely, the nutritive activity of the physical life, but sensuous desire, may be and should be governed by the reason. Virtue assumes 99accordingly a twofold form; in the first place it relates to the proper condition of reason itself, and in the second place to the proper condition of the sensuous nature, as consisting in the subordination of the same to reason; in the first sense it is thought-virtue, in the second ethical virtue (αρετή διανοητική and ηθική). The former is mainly wisdom; the latter includes temperateness, liberality, etc. That the former belongs among the virtues, appears from this, that we praise it in a person as his merit (Nic., i, 13). The word ethical as applied here to virtue is taken in its narrower sense, as relating to practical habits. It is clear at a glance, that this division of the virtues is entirely inadequate, unless the one or the other class of virtues is taken in a wider sense than is strictly admissible. For there are purely spiritual virtues, e. g., humility, truthfulness, fidelity, thankfulness, which are in no way connected with sensuousness, and are yet not intellectual or thought-virtues. But if we take wisdom, as in Plato, in the wide sense of an inner harmony of the rational soul in general, then very manifestly the ethical virtues which consist in the controlling of the sensuous nature, would not be co-ordinate but subordinate thereto.—The thought-virtue can be taught or learned, especially by abundance of life-experience; on the contrary, the ethical virtues are acquired by frequent repetitions of the same actions, that is, by habituation,—are essentially facilities in acting, acquired by practice. By nature we have no virtue, but only the possibility and capability thereof; and the capability becomes a real virtue only by practice and habit. Hence virtuous actions are primarily not the consequence, but the ground and presupposition of virtue. It is only by repeatedly acting virtuously that man becomes virtuous (Nic., ii, 1, 2). How it is possible to act virtuously before one has virtue, and what motive man can have to act virtuously before he is virtuous, Aristotle asks indeed, and he recognizes the difficulty of the question, but he does not solve it. The indication that we possess virtue is this, that in our virtuous acting we feel also delight. Virtue is neither a passion, such as anger, fear, love, hatred, etc., because the passions are natural movements not springing from our will, nor bearing as yet per se any moral character, nor is it a faculty, for this is given by nature, but it is a facility (ἐξις), that is, the moral manner of our bearing toward the passions; and indeed it is that particular facility 100whereby man becomes a good man, and his work a good work (Nic., ii, 5).8383 Comp. Trendelenburg: Histor. Beitr., i, pp. 95, 174. This is of course as yet a very insignificant and purely formal definition. In order to give it some contents, Aristotle resorts to this course: In every matter there is only a single form of the right, but manifold forms of the wrong,—even as in regard to a mark there are many directions-for shooting by it, but only one for hitting it, for which reason also the right is much more difficult to find and to do than is the unright. The unright in a manner of acting is either a defect or an excess; the right is the correct measure, and hence the mean between the two. Hence virtue is (and this is its complete definition) a freely-willed facility in observing the middle-way (μεσότης) as correctly determined for us by reason and by the judgment of the judicious (Nic., ii, 6; iii, 8; comp. Eud., ii, 3). [That in this connection only the ethical virtues are meant, appears from the entire context. But by this circumstance the general definition of virtue becomes again more unclear.] The middle-way is in all things the best. Virtue aims consequently not at a mean between good and evil, but at the best, and the best is the mean between too much and too little. Thus, bravery is the mean between cowardice and fool-hardiness; temperateness, the mean between dissoluteness and insensibility to pleasure-sensations; liberality the mean between prodigality and niggardliness; love of honor stands mid-way between unbounded ambitiousness of fame and an absolute indifference to the opinion of others; evenness of temper, between irascibility and stupidity, etc. (Nic., ii, 7). From this it follows that any two mutually-opposed faults stand to each other in a much more violent contrast, than does either of the two to the corresponding virtue (Nic., ii, 8).
It is very manifest that this merely quantitative distinguishing of good and evil does not touch the essence of morality at all, and in its practical application undermines all certainty of the moral judgment, which is thereby transferred from the sphere of the conscience into that of the calculating understanding. In this view evil’ is not qualitatively, that is, essentially, different from the good, but it differs only in number and degree; hence there is between the two no radical antithesis, but only a gradual transition; in fact the transition from one vice 101to the opposite one passes necessarily through the corresponding virtue. Aristotle himself becomes conscious of the defectiveness of his definition of virtue; he concedes that there are also actions and tempers in regard to which the notion of the too-much or too-little is not at all applicable, as, e. g., delight in misfortune, envy, murder, theft, adultery, which are all per se and in their essence wrong, and do not simply become so by rising to a certain height; there can be, for example, no permissible degree of adultery, and so of the other cases (Nic., ii, 7). And if notwithstanding this he is still unwilling to discard his definition of virtue, this only evinces the utter perplexity of the theorist; for by making this concession, his definition is completely undermined, inasmuch as it is thereby implied that the difference between good and evil is not a quantitative but a qualitative one. And the matter is made much worse still by the express admission, that virtue is often not in the actual middle between the two opposite-standing faults, but stands nearer to the one extreme than to the other,—that bravery, e. g., stands nearer to fool-hardiness than to cowardice, liberality nearer to prodigality than to niggardliness, etc., and that of two errors the one is usually less hurtful than the other (Nic., ii, 8),—for by this admission not only is the ground-principle entirely overthrown, but also all possibility of a certain judgment as to morality is cut off. By wlhat rule is one to find in the diagonal the correct virtue-point, if this point is an eccentric one? Aristotle himself feels the great difficulty which results from charging the moral consciousness of the individual with the duty of such a calculation;;and he knows no better counsel to give than that given by Circe to Ulysses in regard to his sailing between Scylla and Charybdis, namely, to steer nearer the less dangerous Scylla,—to go nearer the extreme that is less remote from the mean virtue, than to the other, and to incur the risk of the less fault of the two; and in order most easily to find the middle-way, one must sometimes deviate (ἀποκλίνειν) on the side of excess; and sometimes on the side of defectiveness (Nic., ii, 9). More patently than this, Aristotle could hardly possibly have confessed the insufficiency of his definition of virtue.
Morality presupposes the freedom of the will; only that which takes place from free self-determination is morally imputed to a man, is praised or blamed. Virtue belongs exclusively to the 102sphere of freedom; that is unfree which is either forced or which is done from ignorance; passionate movements of feeling, such as anger or sensuous desire, do not destroy the freedom of the will, for man can and should control them by reason; even in case of moral violence, by the excitement of fear, etc., the freedom of volition remains; involuntary is only the forced action which takes place with inner resistance (Nic., iii, 1-3; comp. Eud., ii, 6). From willingness as the more comprehensive notion, the resolution is, as the narrower, to be distinguished, namely, the will as deliberately directed to a definite and possible-regarded goal (Nic., iii, 4, 5). A resolution is free also in regard to the recognized good or evil. Every resolution is, it is true, directed to a good,—with the sage always to the truly good, but with others to that which to them seems to be good; from this it does not follow, however, that men always sin simply from error, and that where there is a real knowledge of the good, the resolution must necessarily be directed to this, as is taught by Socrates and Plato. Such a view is contradicted even by the general moral judgment both of individuals and of the State, which makes man, as soon as he has come to understanding, responsible for all the evil which he does, and imputes it to him as guilt. It is- true, many do evil simply from the error of their moral judgment or from the worthlessness of their character, but both that error and this worthlessness are their own fault, and do not excuse them; in fact man can even purposely do what he has recognized as evil, namely, by inquiring not after the good, but only after the agreeable; and the opinion that no one does evil voluntarily and consciously, conflicts with undeniable experience and with the essence of will-freedom (Nic., iii, 6, 7; v, 12; vii, 2, 3). In this connection Aristotle makes the significant and almost surprising observation, that the character which has become evil by guilt can just as little he thrown off again at mere volition, as the person who has made himself sick by his own fault, can become well again at mere volition; once become evil or sick, it stands no longer within his discretion to cease to be so; a stone when once cast cannot be caught back from its flight; and so is it also with the character which has become evil. This thought might have led further; Aristotle, however, does not follow it out, and he leaves unanswered the closely related question, as to how, 103then, a reformation in character is possible. Moreover, he does not concede to evil any other than an individual effect,—knows nothing of any natural solidarity of evil in self-propagating, morally-degenerated races. Every man, at least the. free-born Greek, is, on the contrary, perfectly good by nature, and the sensuous nature with which every one is born has, in reason, its perfectly sufficient counterpoise.
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