Where Men Can Become Better Gentlemen

Origins: Ancient Greece

Nichomachean Ethics
by Aristotle

Background

If you have not read this book then we can unreservedly recommend it. You do not need to be a scholar in ancient Greek as there are plenty of modern English translations available. Written around 340 BC, it was named after either Aristotle’s son or Father (as both were called Nichomachean) and was originally a series of lectures, pieced together later.

While the translation is easy to read it doesn’t flow in a natural manner probably because of this lecture segmentation but also because it is a translation. Ancient Greek contains words which are difficult to interpret today and thus can be translated with varying results e.g. in Greek there are nine words for Love; each expressing a different aspect of its meaning. However, this is only a small drawback compared to the “wealth of gold to be mined” from this work.

Importance

Why has this particular work been highlighted? This text can be taken as one of the earliest recordings to show the origins of the principles which define a gentleman.

Aristotle writes how man needs to work upon his intellect, reasoning and rational thought processes in order to direct his activities (his day-to-day life), while controlling selfish desires - the Greek word phronesis ("practical wisdom") is used frequently. Only in this way can a human reach his true aim (full potential) and achieve eudaimonia ("human flourishing") i.e. happiness through goodness.

These activities are not random, involuntary or undertaken in isolation; but are habits taken by deliberate choice and thus are virtuous. Anybody is capable of a good act but doing this repeatedly, with fullness of deliberation while combating personal desires is noble. This is called ethical virtue - virtue comes from the Greek word arete: proper excellence or skill. From Aristotle’s text, a character list of virtues can be devised which outline how the Good Life and ultimate happiness is to be achieved.

The Character List for Euadaimona

Prudence & Continence

This must be developed over time through experience. It is to know what is good for yourself by using the intellect to reason and deliberate over ones own actions. Aristotle argued that without this other virtues could not be gained, as the person would not have the ability to choose what the virtuous action to be taken is, in any given situation. The continent man knows which of his desires are bad and chooses not to follow these because of reason (but this does not make him virtuous).

Friendship

We are social creatures, using speech to communicate with others, and friendship is therefore necessary for a happy life. It is based on love where you: wish good for one another; help one another to grow in self-knowledge and virtue; and share in life's activities together.

The Good & Happiness

This is achieved by determining the proper function for man (or purposeful conduct). Happiness consists in the rational action of good, to exercise the soul by excellence in virtues, with continuity throughout a lifetime. This is because the ultimate good is happiness - for people define the good life as being happy.

Law & Justice

Law is vital for moral education, as it habitulizes virtuous action. Because there will be many who are not virtuous, laws are therefore necessary. Laws are the cement to ensuring justice is dispensed fairly, within the balance of often conflicting extremes.

Wealth & Pleasure

Aristotle confirms wealth and pleasure as being good. Pleasure is important in order to achieve happiness, whereas selfish pleasure is the route to unfulfilled desire. Moderate wealth, sufficient to provide for a person's physical needs, is necessary for happiness. Whilst not spending beyond one’s means, excess wealth is used in the service of others and good causes (see generosity and munificence below). It is unfortunate that many people view the attainment of wealth as the aim of life, but this does not lead to happiness.

Virtue

We have the ability to choose our actions freely, which is the requirement for morality.The requirements for freely chosen actions to become virtuous actions are:

(i) To Know what you are doing;

(ii) To intend the action for its own sake;

(iii) To take pleasure in it; and

(iv) To do it with certainty and firmness.

Aristotle highlights 11 virtues for man to seek excellence in:

Courage

One who faces and fears what he should for the right reason. The ultimate courage is one who is fearless in facing a noble death. The opposite of this virtue is cowardice.

Temperance

One who enjoys pleasures whilst keeping desire within reason. By comparison, the intemperate person desires pleasurable things because they are pleasurable and ultimately is unfulfilled because he fails to get what he desires.

Generosity

One who is neither wasteful nor miserly; who gives to the right person, the right amount, at the right time. Generosity does not depend on the amount but on the habitulization of giving - taking into account the amount the giver has and is able to give away. This virtue also includes one who takes proper care of his possessions.

Munificence

One who spends gladly and lavishly, not calculating costs, but always for a noble purpose. The opposites of this virtue are called meanness when lacking and ostentation when in excess.

Magnanimity

One who claims and deserves great honors. Someone who deserves honors but doesn't claim them is low-minded, and someone who claims honors but doesn't deserve them is vain. The magnanimous man is a show case of each virtue, and is thus held up high as an example to others of how good a virtuous life is.

Honor

Right ambition – not too much nor too little ambition.

Good temper

One who is angry on the right occasions, at the right people, for the right length of time. The excess of this is either irascibility (one who gets angry quickly, retaliates and then forgets about it) or bitterness (one who holds on to their anger for a long time).

Friendliness

One who balances flattery or obsequiousness and quarrelsomeness.

Truthfulness

One who balances between boastfulness and self-depreciation.

Wit

One who balances humor and amusement. Who is able to say the right things in the right manner whilst listening properly.

Justice

Concerned with honor, property, and safety. It can be a balance between two extremes of unfairness – because not all people will agree what is right. To resolve this: justice is that which is made up of laws and customs because any law is better than no law. Whilst far from perfect it is for judges to decide when the law does not fit the circumstances and provide a ruling.

Text Availability

The book"Nichomachean Ethics" is available free online – try any of the following:

The University of Adelaide

The Constitution Society

The Internet Classics Archive

However, if you find it to be thought provoking and wish to study the text on a frequent basis, it is worthwhile purchasing a hard copy (and is relatively inexpensive to buy). It’s a perfect text to carry with you on journeys, to dip into as time and place permit.


Final Thoughts

All the big and important aspects are here: Justice, Honor and The Good. However, we like the fact Aristotle includes such items as: Pleasure, Wealth and Happiness. These are important aspects for the achievement of the Good Life and are readily recognized by people today - but with the caveat of Prudence, the need for balance and not excess.

We also like the inclusion of Wit. Let’s face it, lists of tenets for leading a good life can come across as austere, stern, fixed, rigid, uncompromising, po-faced, boring etc. It’s important for people of character to have a character!

Aristotle’s list of character and virtues for man, is as relevant today as it was nearly 2,500 years ago. A Gentleman will undoubtedly display all of these and for those of us traveling on the journey to becoming The Complete Gentleman, we will be working on them. To assist us in this, let’s leave the last word to Aristotle:

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”.


Find out more about Aristotle and the other two ancient Greek founding fathers, Socrates and Plato.



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