Monday, January 11, 2010

The Thrown Stone (Aristotle on the Broken Man)

In today's article, I will focus on another philosopher's reasons for believing that happiness is so difficult to produce: Aristotle.  Unlike Plato, whom I discussed yesterday, Aristotle did not believe that the fundamental problem was the embodiment of the human soul.  Unlike Plato, he believed that we are human beings, not souls trapped in an unfortunate composite.  However,just like Plato, he believed that human beings can be fundamentally broken, and denied explicitly that there could be any art of living.

In order to explain Aristotle's position, I will need to make two distinctions.  The first is the distinction between power and disposition, and the second is between virtue and self-control.  A power is something that we can do when we choose to do it.  So, for instance, I have the power to run.  Whenever I choose to run, I run.  On the other hand, I also have dispositions.  I have the disposition to laugh when I hear a joke, or to stammer when I am asked a question I did not anticipate.  These aren't simply what I can do, but what I am inclined or disposed to do.  They are tendencies, rather than powers.  Crafts, like medicine, car repair and weaving are powers.  They give us the power to do things, but they don't incline or dispose us to do them.  Virtue, however, is a disposition.  It is a tendency to do good things, not simply a power to do good things.  Since crafts are powers and virtues are dispositions, virtues cannot be crafts.  Since virtue is what enables us to live a happy life, there can be no craft of living.

Virtue, however is distinct from self-control.  We are virtuous when we correctly believe that what we are doing is good and we enjoy doing it.  We both have the belief, and the disposition to act on it.  However, as we've all experienced, there are times when we do what we believe to be correct but don't enjoy doing it.  In these cases, we sometimes do what we should do, despite not enjoying it.  This isn't virtue, but self-control.  At other times, we know what we should do, don't enjoy doing it, so do something else.  These are cases of "incontinence" or lack of self-control.  However, there are also times where we are wrong about what is best, and enjoy doing what is wrong.  This combination, Aristotle calls "vice".  I have schematized the four below:
  • Virtue - Correct moral opinion with enjoyment.
  • Self-Control - Correct moral opinion without enjoyment, but with the correct choice.
  • Incontinence - Correct moral opinion without enjoyment, and with the incorrect choice.
  • Vice - Incorrect moral opinion with enjoyment.
The schema is a little more complicated than this (strange combinations such as incorrect opinion without enjoyment and correct choice are possible, as in the Philoctetes), but these are the four main situations in which people find themselves relative to correct action.

If one isn't virtuous, however, it is very difficult to become so, according to Aristotle.  The self-controlled person has the best possibility of becoming virtuous, as he or she has the correct moral opinions.  However, the difference between the self-controlled person and the virtuous person is a difference of the type of things at which he or she takes pleasure.  What we enjoy cannot simply be bootstrapped; it must be trained.  However, we have already spent our lives developing our enjoyments.  If we are not too broken, we can possibly become virtuous, if we are self-controlled.  However, it is possible that we have been so accustomed to enjoying certain pleasures, we simply can never excise the enjoyment.  Without proper education, a disposition to act correctly may be impossible.

For the incontinent person, it is even more difficult.  The incontinent person not only has enjoyments that are distorted, but has the additional poor habit of not acting according to his or her reason.  Just like the self-controlled person, the incontinent person has reason and desire at odds with each other.  Unlike the self-controlled person, desire is trumping reason when these conflicts arise.  This creates a further bad habit that is difficult to overcome: the tendency to act according to one's desires over one's reason.  Such a habit may be even more intractable than the bad desires in the first place.

Vice, however, is impossible to overcome, according to Aristotle.  Vicious action not only ingrains bad habits of enjoyment of bad things, but the belief that these actions are good distorts even our practical reason.  Unlike theoretical reason, we cannot simply learn to be good from books or by reasoning.  Instead, love of nobility, coupled with practice at putting that love into action, helps us to develop the capacity to reason practically in any given situation.  Vice distorts even the first principles of this process, eroding our love of nobility, and preventing us even from ever wanting to improve.  Once someone begins to act viciously, they become like a thrown stone.  Up to a certain point, we can choose to stop throwing it, but once we let it go, the choice is gone, and our habits travel along a certain trajectory beyond our control.

Aristotle, therefore, believe that moral improvement is especially difficult.  Even if it is simply our pleasures that are out of kilter, they can be very difficult, if not impossible to correct.  If it is our power of choice over desire, it adds a further layer to the difficulty, as we must learn to follow our opinion about what is best over our erroneous pleasures.  If we are vicious, becoming better is simply as possible, as the first principle of practical wisdom, love of the noble, becomes distorted, and there is no way to unthrow the stone.  Human beings, therefore, are very difficult creatures to repair, as it involves addressing our habits, our power of choice, and our practical reason.

Sculpture: Shotput Statue outside Olympic Stadium, Rome