Tuesday, April 07, 2009

During a recent return to my philosophical roots via a visit to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, I was reminded how far we have come from their principles. Both men stressed the ‘good life,’ or eudymonia (εὐδαιμονία), as the goal of a human (we’ll leave aside their inherent sexism for now) and laid out logical paths for its attainment. They assumed all reasonable men understood the term good life, and beyond a bit of fine-tuning and clarification, no argument was necessary to prove that wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice were the character virtues needed for fulfillment as a person. Material wealth was incidental, and again assumed in large part, but the good life was not dependent on such.

Fast forward 2,400 years and we find a society where the good life is measured in dollar and cents, in the accumulation of stuff, and in the amount of public acclaim one garners as a result. Excellence as a human being in whatever function one’s nature may call for is secondary, if that, and unless celebrities famous for being celebrities are truly fulfilling their role in the greater scheme of the universe, it appears that being known is far more important than knowing anything.

A class discussion on this topic brought forth the question of whether the means used to reach the goal of a good life could in themselves be ‘not good,’ but justifiable – ends-justify-the-means and all. I maintain that question is moot when the good life being justified is poorly defined. When the good life is measured in financial ways and ends are assumed to justify means, Bernie Madoff’s actions in defrauding millions of individuals are entirely acceptable as the wealth he accumulated surrounded him a physical luxury few of us could ever imagine – a crassly distorted vision of the good life. And unfortunately, I have recently participated in discussions where such gains were considered legitimate. Not on Maoff’s scale perhaps, but support was expressed for making money in whatever ways are legally possible, no matter the finer shadings of ‘legal’ or those individuals who may be harmed along the way.

Which brings me to a second divergence noted with the esteemed Greeks: a dependence on ‘legal’ versus reliance on the ethical. It appears that many in society today ignore ethics as an out-moded impediment to success, preferring to rely on legal contortions that support actions which are blatantly unethical in the sense of not serving the polis, or the good of the community, but rather benefitting a select few at the expense of the many. The idea of acting for the greater good is dismissed as a pipe dream, incompatible with the reality of a cut-throat society. Lawrence Selden, in Edith Warton’s The House of Mirth, asked “Why do we call all our grand ideas illusions and the mean ones truth?” In my lifetime, this tendency has never been more prevalent than it is today. Perhaps this is why I return time and again to the wisdom of old.

Pass the hemlock, please.

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