Thursday, January 08, 2004

.:Virtueal Reality:.

Much like Meister Eckhart’s radical view of Martha in the Gospel as far more blessed than Mary, Julia Annas attempts to duplicate this in her explicitations regarding Aristotle on virtue and happiness. In fact, her whole idea revolved around a potential repudiation of Aristotle’s explicit comment in Nichomachean Ethics, of virtue not being sufficient for happiness. For Annas, she wanted to look into, counter-intuitive though it may seem, the possibility that virtue may actually suffice for happiness, even when bereft of external goods.

Her argumentation is very methodic and does seem to prove her point, but even in the end, she is left with leaving the dilemma Aristotle’s seemingly self-contradictory comments hanging by simply saying that Aristotle’s writing does indeed have some internal conflict, but he was not obliged to compromise any such conflicts. Annas, similarly, does not really clear up the conflict after giving her account for the possibility of the sufficience of virtue and then the contraindicatory commentary against it. All that she needed to indicate was that there was a conflict within what Aristotle said about virtue and happiness, but this conflict is not an act of indecisiveness, but a sharpening of arguments for and against the conflicting paths without necessarily taking the position of one or the other.

Annas laid it out rather simply: virtue and happiness, better termed in this case as eudaimonia, are indeed not the same thing. In spite of their differences, their similarities are likewise worth taking note of. For instance, in the case of eudaimonia, we know that it has to be complete, self-sufficient, and choiceworthy. Virtue, particularly the exercise of virtue, also happens to be self-sufficient and choiceworthy, and thus, to this extent, complete. True virtuous action, after all, is not one carried out with an ulterior motive, but one carried out from a settled state of character that considers virtuous action as an end in itself. If such be the case, then the truly virtuous man will not view any loss of external goods as a loss that matters if it were to come in conflict with his life of virtue. Why then should this not be enough? Moreover, why should a volatile thing as external goods, which is something we cannot arbitrarily choose to possess, be such a crucial ingredient for eudaimonia? We end up running our heads into the wall at this juncture, because these two facts seem to be hard to compromise with one another.

And so Annas’ thesis was this: Aristotle reflected the common sensibility that virtue alone was not enough to ensure happiness, yet at the same time, recognized that even when bereft of external goods, the virtuous will still shine through. While this may seem to be a conflict of theories, and it truly is, Aristotle does not and should not oblige himself to explain away the tension between the two opposing viewpoints, as each have their own merits and flaws worthy of consideration.

Given almost three thousand years of progress from Aristotle’s groundwork, Annas did not find the need to resolve the tension by herself, and instead takes on a similar stance as Aristotle, much like the neutrality most people have with the ideas on plurality and universality. While Marcelle would be inclined to do the same, it would appear to be a better idea to simply weigh both sides of the coin before himself coming to a conclusion on the matter at hand.

It can be argued that a man who looks in the mirror of Erised of Harry Potter fame is genuinely happy if he sees only himself there. If such be the case, and if such a man be bereft of external goods, then it may seem to be possible for a man to be virtuous in spite of a dearth of external goods. While, say, five thousand golden Galleons would certainly allow this man to be, in this case, more generous, and while losing the little money he has may cramp his happiness, he would still be happy nonetheless. This is because he will still find ways and means of exercising his virtue, and if so, then external goods are hardly a necessity for him, if at all. The poorest man can be genuinely happy, so it seems, so long as he can perform virtuous action. But that is where the problem lies.

When Marcelle looks at religious heavyweights such as Brother Mike Velarde, or Felix Manalo, or even the leader of JIL, Eddie Villanueva, not one of them can be called “poor”. While Marcelle obviously cannot arbitrarily say that these men are achieving eudaimonia, it would be logical to believe that whatever the range of virtuous actions they may commit, they will most likely be incapable of performing had they been not financially well off. Brother Mike’s ministry was rather small when he started off, and only through amassing external goods did he manage to achieve this range of followers for El Shaddai. Ergo, in this case, Marcelle would say that instrumentally speaking, external goods are a necessity in exercising virtue. Nobody could say Mother Teresa was the epitome of altruism had she not done the things she did over her life. Nobody would hype Lebron James as the next Michael Jordan if he wasn’t averaging 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists per game in his rookie year with the NBA.

We know that the truly virtuous man will derive pleasure from doing virtuous action. With this in mind, his pleasure will indeed be truncated if he were to be incapable of performing virtuous action, and as such, the man bereft of all senses and limbs, no matter how virtuous, will not be able to gain pleasure from virtuous action, and will thus be unhappy. Had Lebron James been three feet shorter, it wouldn’t really matter if he had all the markings of a great basketball player, be it excellent shooting skills, amazing leadership on the court, or even charisma. Had Michael Jordan been a quadriplegic, the same analogy would follow: neither of them would so much as make it into the NBA draft. Thus, in this respect, and from a purely instrumental perspective, we realize that external goods, no matter how small, are a necessity for performing virtuous action.

Every single thing outside of virtue or vice that one has in his life, his organs, the air he breathes, the water he drinks, are all external goods in this respect. Given that, then it is absurd to say that one can be completely bereft of such external goods from the start and still be virtuous, as one simply cannot live in that manner. If so be the case, even the bare minimum of water, food, and livable conditions are still external goods, and as such, will be an absolute necessity in performing virtuous action. Of course, enhancing these conditions will allow one to increase the opportunities of performing virtuous action, but there will always still be a mesotes in the amounts of these external goods, so it is not logical to say that more of such a good will always be better. Moreover, such a mesotes is not a set number, nor is it even a number because it is merely a moving target, as the mesotes we strive for in all things can and will constantly shift, much like we cannot always drive at 50 kilometers per hour in any given road. Therefore, the amount of external goods necessary to ensure happiness has its respective mesotes, and as such, there is no conflict between the Brother Mike before he started his ministry and the Brother Mike now, assuming he is happy. All we see here is that external goods is an absolute necessity, and this, Annas partially recognizes. Even Jesus Christ himself needed external goods, or else he wouldn’t live to be thirty years of age. He was indeed happy, following the bible, and He was indeed bereft of quite a lot of external goods, but he still had some extent of external goods, and in spite of the adversity, his virtuous life still shone through.

It would appear that Marcelle has ended up favoring the need for external goods in conjunction with a virtuous life in order to produce happiness, but it is apparent that he views it right now from merely an instrumental point of view. It has to be asked of himself, after reading what Annas had to say, whether or not such external goods do in themselves have any intrinsic good. Indeed, these external goods do have an intrinsic amount of good in them, but what Marcelle would want to emphasize is that because the ultimate good is happiness, and because virtue exhibits similar “symptoms” to happiness, then such intrinsic good found in any of these external goods must have some congruence with these symptoms, in that they may have their own boni, but such ultimately point towards happiness, and more tangibly, to virtuous life. As such, they certainly cannot be value-free in this respect, and neither is it explicitly instrumental in this respect, though elements of it do still remain. Thus, there has to be some intrinsic value in such external goods, or else virtue acting within the necessary realm of external goods would be left with merely abstract goods that can be attained in a vacuum, and this explicitly goes against Aristotle’s notion that virtue can only be acquired through activation.

It can be argued, however, that when one has managed to live a virtuous life adequately, then the need for external goods can certainly dwindle. For the truly virtuous, if one’s life is already fulfilled, no amount of deprivation of such external goods can possibly eradicate it. But this is where Aristotle’s “snobbish” air comes in: you cannot enter this elite circle of the virtuous if you are not already virtuous yourself. You do not learn the ropes of virtue by becoming virtuous at will. You become virtuous, not at will, but by learning the ropes of virtue through practice. At the same time, it will be just as difficult to extricate yourself from this elite circle when you are already in it, so at least there is good cause for such stringent “membership requirements” of virtuous actions and some external goods. At this point, one might say that the external goods do become expendable, inasmuch as Jesus Christ was willing to die on the cross at the end of his ministry- the ultimate separation from any external goods whatsoever.

Thus, Annas was right in saying that Aristotle did not have to be obliged to compromise the so-called conflict between the nature of happiness and its requirement of virtue and external goods. This is because the conflict only exists within inconsistent standards of what external goods are, and this conflict is easily eradicated by realizing that the mesotes of the amount of external goods one would need to continue acting in virtue is, like all other forms of mesotes, likewise a moving target, and thus cannot be pinned down as a once-and-for-all value. As such, these external goods do indeed have their own intrinsic value, and at the same time work towards enhancing one’s life of virtue instrumentally. Taken in the most stringent sense, the barest minimum of external goods is an absolute necessity for the exercise of virtue, else one will not even be alive to actually live out a life of virtue if one is bereft of these goods from the start, before one manages to live it out.

The nature of Aristotelian virtue is that it cannot exist in a vacuum. It has to be acted out, and it has to be made manifest in one way or another. Ultimately, for the virtuous man to flourish as eudaimon, he will still require different amounts of external goods at different points in his life in order to carry out such virtuous actions. Otherwise, Aristotelian virtue is no longer worthy of being called “practical intelligence”, nor is it any different from Platonic conceptions of virtue, as there is no longer need of performing such virtuous actions any longer, as a virtuous man in some cases would be rendered completely incapable of performing any virtuous acts if we concede to this proposition. At the same time, such external goods must have value in themselves, lest they simply be regarded as expendable means to an ultimate end with no contributory value in themselves. If so, no longer can we call most anything “good”, and capitulating to this idea is clearly an absurdity, as we now put all good into the metaphysical realm, which is again a return to Platonic notion.

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