In Aristotle’s Ethics, he sketches a pathway for our happiness. On the surface it seems quite arduous – a list of moral do’s and don’ts that could send anyone into a state crippling anxiety. A closer look, however, reveals an image of human life that is grounded in our delight of one another.
Aritotle’s account of virtue begins in courage and moderation, or as he describes them, the rational response to the fear of death and basic desire for survival. These are the virtues, Aristotle says, specific to the non-rational parts of the soul (1117b25). In other words, our fear of dying and desire to live are instincts we share with animals.
Generosity is the first of the virtues that speaks to our natures as human. The generous person makes rational use of their wealth, both giving and taking in the right ways. Money comes into existence because we recognize that our long term survival and comfort is dependent on our agreeing that something, regardless of its instrinsic value, will be understood as a measure of value for the other things we need. In other words, money is a means of facilitating exchange amongst resources that are necessary for ongoing lives. It is a means of surivival not just for today, but for tomorrow, and into the future. The existence of money marks us as creatures who recognize themselves as existing in time in a way that animals may not.
At this point, though, it seems that Aristotle’s accounting goes a little whacky. The next two virtues, magnificence and magnanimity, are of such magnitude that they seem to exclude most individuals from ever achieving them. And, indeed, it seems that this is exactly the point. Magnificence has to do with the capacity to spend large amounts of money on magnificent ends, while the magnanimous person is described as having all of the virtuess such that she deserves the greatest of honours.
In the midst of describing these virtues, Aristotle gives us a few clues as to what he intends. The magnificent person, he says, is like a scientist, suggesting that this person knows with some precision how much must be spent to achieve the most beautiful of ends (1122a35). The word for scientist, however, points us to his discussion of science later in the book, and science, we discover, has to do with the contemplation of eternal things. Aristotle then indicates that among the things it is fitting to spend a lot of money on is building a beautiful home, a discussion he ends by commenting on the differing degrees of opulence that are appropriate for a gods’ temple vs. a tomb (1123a10). Aristotle thereby suggests that the implication of our recognition of ourselves as existing in time and thus in need of a storehouse of wealth that will last, leads logically to the contemplation of our deaths and our tombs.
At the same, however, we are moved by the hope that we might have lived in such a way that, in pleasing the gods, their temples might open to us in the afterlife. His discussion of the magnanimous person who seems worthy of the honour of the gods is an image of piety that works in two directions. In the first, the pious person who seeks a blessed afterlife tries as much as she can to be akin to the magnanimous person, to perfect her soul, so that she might be worthy of the greatest honours and so be loved by the gods. At the same time we know that the statue of magnanimity drawn is not truly human and the reverence owed to such a being is what a pious person properly owes to the divine.
The virtues that follow magnanimity seem small by comparison – the life of the gods is a hard act to follow. And yet these are the virtues that proceed from our confrontation with death and the recognition that whatever we might do, it will depend on the gods’ care to transform our tombs into temples.
While particularly human virtues, the last that Aristotle describes before he moves to a discussion of justice are those that deal with our interactions, not with gods, but with others. While generosity is about properly giving and taking money, and justice is the fair giving and taking of social goods, the virtues of friendliness, truthfulness and wit are for the sake of sometimes giving pain but most usually pleasure to others. In other words, having contemplated the joyous life of the gods, we turn to the capacity that we have for creating a similar state of joy within our own communities. Recognizing the gods’ beneficence, we are are made beneficent, and knowing that there is little reason for the gods to care for any of us, we turn to pleasing those among us who we have no particular attachment to, other than that they too are humans, striving, like us, to be happy.