The Great Souled Man
12 December 2010
The Great Souled Man and the Not-So-Great Souled Man
Aristotelian ethics as we know it today is a strange beast. We have all heard of the “Golden Mean” and that virtue is the middle point between two extremes, and this seems as applicable today as it was in the time of Aristotle. However, there is a lot in Aristotle’s ethics that is not particularly applicable today. Some contemporary interpreters of and commentators upon Aristotle make a nearly heroic effort to demonstrate the relevance of Aristotelian ethics to contemporary life, and some of these readings are plausible. However, I think we do Aristotle a disservice if we make him too contemporary. Part of appreciating the past is appreciating its profound differences from the present, and in this spirit I think it is as important to point out the ways in which Aristotelian ethics is incommensurable with life in contemporary industrialized civilization.
One of the reasons that Aristotle’s ethics is such a strange beast is that it has been around so long and has therefore acquired considerable historical accretions over its long history. We all know that medieval scholastic philosophy was a Christian construction upon Aristotelian foundations (like a Greek temple with a church built over the earlier building), so that during the thousand years of the Middle Ages the Schoolmen were continuously reading and commenting on Aristotle, during a period of time when the only text by Plato that was available was the Timaeus. Plato survived at one remove through the mediation of Saint Augustine, but it was not until the later Middle Ages that the complete Platonic corpus as we know it today became available. And so we have many, many medieval commentaries upon the works of Aristotle, but no great medieval commentaries upon the Republic. This is an odd state of affairs, and it has influenced the intellectual history of the West.
I have long had it in mind that I would like to write a screenplay (definitely an arthouse flick) about a medieval monk in a scriptorium who is copying Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The film would be very constrained, confined, and almost claustrophobic. The main action would consist exclusively of the scriptorium monk coming to visit his spiritual adviser to discuss troubling issues that he has found in the moral works of Aristotle. It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast in ways of life than between a philosopher in Athens during classical antiquity and a monk in an isolated monastery during the Middle Ages. Nevertheless these medieval scholars would have read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics very closely, and through it they would have been exposed to a very different world than their own. How a medieval monk would construe the requirement of giving gifts of the correct degree of magnificence to one’s polis is about as hard to say as how this requirement would apply to the ordinary working class person today (which is most of us).
Aristotle’s ethics is through-and-through aristocratic in conception. It was never intended to address the moral lives of slaves, children, women, or foreigners (barbarians, i.e., anyone who didn’t speak Greek). The sort of things that Aristotle suggested were appropriate for a Great Souled Man (μεγαλοψυχία — megalopsuchos or megalopsychia or megalopsukhia, depending upon your transliteration of the Greek) are applicable only to men of wealth, position, and privilege. Probably a great many such men (of which Aristotle was one) did not think that slaves, women, children, and the poor had moral lives. This point of view was a near constant throughout classical antiquity, and carried over to the upper classes of the Roman Empire. One can see, in this context, what a revolutionary thing that Christianity was when it burst upon the scene, because it not only posited that everyone was a moral being with a moral life, but it even went so far as claim that the meek would inherit the earth and the poor in spirit were blessed. This is about as un-Aristotelian as it gets.
In a translation of Aristotle that uses “great-minded” rather than the traditional “great-souled” (Book 4, Chapter 3 of the Nicomachean Ethics) Aristotle wrote:
“This virtue, then, of Great-mindedness seems to be a kind of ornament of all the other virtues, in that it makes them better and cannot be without them; and for this reason it is a hard matter to be really and truly Great-minded; for it cannot be without thorough goodness and nobleness of character. Honour then and dishonour are specially the object-matter of the Great-minded man: and at such as is great, and given by good men, he will be pleased moderately as getting his own, or perhaps somewhat less for no honour can be quite adequate to perfect virtue: but still he will accept this because they have nothing higher to give him. But such as is given by ordinary people and on trifling grounds he will entirely despise, because these do not come up to his deserts: and dishonour likewise, because in his case there cannot be just ground for it.”
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics gives us the refined and philosophical version of the Great Souled Man, his virtues, his way of life, and his function in his community. But I realized today that Aristotle was not the only Athenian mouthpiece for a rigorously aristocratic ethic that excluded most of the world from its purview of concerns. The Athenians as portrayed by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War might well be called Not-So-Great Souled Men for the hubris that they bring to the role.
The Melian Debate in Book 5 of Thucydides reveals the Athenians at their arrogant worst, telling the residents of the smallish polis of Melos that they should surrender to the Athenians, because if they don’t surrender, they will be annihilated. When the Melians protest, they are told by the Athenians that justice is only possible among equals. The Melians are obviously not the equals of Athens, therefore the Athenians need not bother about the Melians except to accept their tribute and support if they surrender, or destroy them if they resist. This is the occasion of one of the most famous lines in Thucydides:
“For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
This principle as stated bluntly by the Athenians in Thucydides — the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must — is implicit in an aristocratic ethic that recognizes only the moral lives (and the moral worth) of the aristocratic class in which there can only be a question of justice among equals. If you are not the “equal” of those who arrogate morality exclusively to themselves, you don’t count and you can be destroyed without scruple, as the Melians were. What form did their eventual annihilation take? Thucydides writes:
“…some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.”
There were probably some wealthy, powerful, and privileged men who approximated the Aristotelian ideal of the Great Souled Man, but I suspect that by far the greater number of the wealthy, powerful, and privileged of classical antiquity were more like Athens: contemptuous, imperious, and thoroughly unpleasant.
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