Virtues Ancient and Modern

by Peter Saint-Andre


In his book Confronting Aristotle's Ethics, Eugene Garver explores how, for Aristotle, personal excellence is also interpersonal excellence: because of the intensely social nature of ancient communities, virtues like courage and moderation had value because they protected and preserved the balance of the community as a whole. Thus courage was really valor in battle against another community that would have enslaved your own people, not the courage of principled resistance (e.g., Rosa Parks) or intellectual integrity (e.g., Galileo). Thus moderation was about controlling your urges (adultery upsets social harmony) and keeping in good physical condition (it's hard to be valorous if you're grossly overweight). And so on.

Furthermore, philosophers like Aristotle taught and wrote primarily for the well-off sons of wealthy aristocrats. Thus the Aristotelian virtue of liberality counseled you how to properly give away your money. It never would have occured to Aristotle that something like frugality (which, pursued assiduously, enables you to achieve financial independence and take responsibility for your own life) could be a virtue.

That doesn't necessarily mean Aristotle's perspective on excellence of character is hopelessly out of date. However, some modernization is in order to apply Aristotle's more fundamental insights (e.g., about excellence as balance) to how we live today. I plan to do some of this work in my forthcoming book.


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