I want to briefly call attention to the transition between virtue ethics as conceived by Aristotle and the jump to Nietzsche in the context of our New Work discussion. I’m not looking up quotes for this post; I’m less interested in their particular views then in a divergence of ways of thinking about virtue.
For Aristotle, man has a Telos, a built-in goal, a type of excellence specific to man, which we’ll attain if given proper nurturing. We’re very much like a plant or animal, except given our rational nature, we need education in addition to good food and exercise. We are political animals; we need other people and even institutions to help us grow, but with some careful observation of how people in different conditions grow, we could more or less develop a science of education and apply it to produce individuals that, at least in most cases (we can’t rule out the role of fortune) will produce maximally flourishing individuals.
Nietzsche also believes in human excellence, and would agree with Aristotle that there is a biological component to it and surely (though he would deny this on grumpy days) a social component: we are profoundly self-ignorant and do need other people to help us realize our virtue. However, his view of virtue is much more complex and (he would like to think, at least) rigorously empirical: what might seem a virtue in some respects ends up leading one into a rut. New ways of excellence are discovered over time (one can be out of synch with the times in an excellent way) or lost and rediscovered. Man is conflicted and often self-sabotaging in the ways Freud would later elaborate on, so flourishing is not something that can be scientifically engineered, though surely we can discover and institute rules of thumb in our educational practices: certainly there are practices (e.g. corporal punishment) that we can discover to be simply counterproductive and damaging in a way that will not yield to further dispute.
My impetus here was Khari’s comment to the Bergmann discussion post:
My only issue is with Frithjof’s characterization of people as fragile. I think that this perceived fragility is a social response to a dominating environment, especially one you cannot control or affect in any way.
Now, this dispute is really a minor one if it doesn’t cash out into any difference in action: the current job system (and our job-training, individual-quashing educational system) is damaging to people (Bergmann often uses the analogy of the bound feet of ancient Chinese upper class women… see the picture inset to this post), but the solution for Bergmann can’t be to just remove this distorting influence, and then we will all grow into impressive and free creatures. Presumably Khari isn’t advocating a state of anarchy either, but his position sounds like Aristotle’s: given PROPER “food” for growth and not oppression, human development will be great. Certainly it will be much better, but I think of all the people I know who had a decent upbringing, with functional family support, affluence, and good education, who still find themselves in ennui. We are by no means “programmed” for virtue; a good upbringing is very helpful but not sufficient (and probably not necessary, though that shouldn’t lead us to shrug our shoulders at child poverty and a poor school system, of course) for us to achieve our full potential.
Likewise, in line with Nietzsche’s view, “potential” is a somewhat misleading, Aristotelian term, implying that there is some single full actualization open to us. This is not borne out by the phenomenology involved, I think: all expressions of potential “perfection” and the like (when it comes to things in the real world… yes, we can imagine a “perfect circle” or the like) are projections based on present conceptions of excellence as hinted at by actual people and situations, not a circumscription or limitation on the potential of these entities. Certainly when it comes to human nature, any conception of telos, and thus ultimately of a single model of “virtue,” is inevitably just going to be just that: a model, designed to highlight some conception of excellence in particular, but which is just not going to capture “excellence” itself, which is open-ended. Is there really any supposed exemplar of excellence (Jesus, Mozart, Socrates, Buddha, etc.) that one can’t approach from a legitimate perspective and point out some virtue tragically lacking?
I should reiterate, however, that as far as New Work is concerned, practice is what’s going to matter here, and getting caught up in theological or idealistic disputes about virtue is entirely beside the point. The endeavor is pragmatic and not academic, and disputes about the interpretation of facts or the application of ideas are only relevant insofar as they feed into decisions on strategy. Bergmann finds the Enlightenment conception of man as by nature free and self-sufficient as tremendously warping to our politics, leading to advocacy of “freedom from” and minimal government rather than sensible institutions that are tested re. their effectiveness in creating individuals (and I avoid the word “scientifically” in talking about this testing, because it adds rather more pomp and certainty to the proceedings than is called for, though of course such testing must be careful). So yes, you have to discuss philosophy insofar as is necessary to establish such things. Likewise, any insistence that a meaningful life requires positive and specific religious belief I think is demonstrably false, but a Nietzschean atheism certainly isn’t necessary for the project. I recently tried to get Bergmann to relate his project to Zizek’s analysis of capitalism, and he rather thought this was beside the point: a precise understanding (much less in Lacanian terms as Zizek tries to give it to us) of a particular mode of critique of Western culture is simply not necessary, when poverty and meaninglessness and hopelessness are so evidently on display both among those left out of the job system and I daresay most of those in it, and certainly the idea that by gaining some techne in explaining capitalism you have any advantage in reforming it has not so far been borne out by history. All this stuff is interesting to discuss, but you don’t want to let it bring the pursuit of action to an impasse: it’s exactly what’s caused the fragmentation and hence political impotence of leftism. Bergmann emphasized to me that New Work is not designed to be primarily a critique, and certainly not a critique of a critique, not a contribution to an ever-spiraling intellectual debate, but a positive, “common sense” way of orienting practical discussion to achieve demonstrable and dramatic improvements in our way of life that cuts across traditional political divisions and has broad appeal when it is understood. Of course, given that its philosophical foundations do diverge from those in the zeitgeist (re. human nature and freedom), the understanding (and hence explaining) involved takes a bit of work.