Monday, March 8, 2010

Defining 'good'

© 2010 Joshua Stark

From Aristotle, on the definition of the good (it may surprise you):

"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others- in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

"If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term."

-Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

The nature of our government (the fact that it is a huge democratic republic) can sometimes lead us to fatalism and despondency... as in, cries to the heavens, "How can I possibly live with these people?!?" But, it is sometimes necessary to remember just how and why our country is great: We are great because of our ideals and ideas, because of the freedoms and responsibilities we place on our own shoulders.

Then, when we go back and read the great ideas upon which our country was founded, we have to remember that our fatalism and pessimism has crushed and diminished words that once encapsulated these great ideas, words with real power and greater depth and nuance.


In our time, it spews from our lips like bad milk. To Aristotle, though, this identified the greatest good - the notion that here, as a society, as a community, we come together and understand and direct what we believe to be the most important ideas for ourselves and our fellows.

We cheer wildly for American athletes at the Olympics, we honor and appreciate the American flag where it flies. But, to truly honor our country, we need to be involved in the only real place where our country affects us, in its politics. After all, without a government, we have no country, and without the government we have - its freedoms and responsibilities for democratic participation, its systems requiring we come together to think about and improve how we care for each other - we have no country worth loving.


Bud Stark said...

Hey, great Post! there is a valid patriotism that is not nationalism, and you have hit upon it.

Tovar Cerulli said...

Nicely put, Josh. And we're engaged in an immensely more complicated political project than was Aristotle. My ancient Greek history is a bit shaky, but as I recall many of the folks he "lived with" were less-equal-than-others (e.g. women, slaves, etc).

Josh said...

Great points, both of you!

Tovar, that comment on complexity is something I have reminded myself and others of, on many occasions. As a school-teacher, I ran up against many problems, both from the sheer complexity, and also from folks screaming that our educational system was horrid, horrid!

But, it's better to know we have a troubled system (educational and otherwise) than to either pretend it isn't, or worse yet, 'weed' out the complexities that make it 'troublesome' (e.g., telling certain 3rd graders that they are good with their hands, and should pursue careers in manual labor or become good housewives, which is what we did for many decades).