I seem to have fallen into a natural rhythm of alternating my posts between lighter and heavier topics; last week I talked about substitutions, so this week I figured I’d delve into something I touched on last year: what Aristotle means by acting for the sake of what is beautifully right.
It’s fascinating that Aristotle uses the same word (καλός) to talk about both art and action. I render it as “beautifully right”. Indeed, I believe that the so-called “doctrine of the mean” is merely a first approximation of good action and excellent character, since all it says is to avoid the extremes and instead pursue what’s intermediate. A more precise formulation is to act for the sake of τὸ πρέπον or τὸ καλόν – for the sake of what is admirably appropriate or beautifully right.
How do we unpack this? As I explained in my post last year about the sources of beauty in Aristotle’s philosophy (details there), five factors are involved, which I translate as coherence, proportion, order, stature, unity, and significance.
Let’s see how these might apply to a specific situation, say generosity in helping a friend in need. Perhaps your friend is going through a difficult time in a relationship and could use several forms of assistance (e.g., moral support, legal advice, temporary financial support) over a period of a few months. How might we apply Aristotle’s insights?
- Coherence (τάξις) refers to making all the parts of your assistance fit together well so that they are consistent, mutually reinforcing, and the like.
- Proportion (συμμετρία) means ensuring that your actions correspond to your friend’s need. Perhaps she could use a temporary loan of $1,000 to pay some emergency expenses – it isn’t proportionate to lend her $100 or $10,000 (even if you could afford to do so).
- Order (τὸ ὡρισμένον) is, to put it negatively, a lack of chaos; in this situation it might imply that you are steadfast in your support, that your emotional tone is consistent throughout your interactions, etc.
- Stature (μέγεθος) refers to the magnitude of your generosity – perhaps ensuring that it is commensurate with how important this friendship is to you both and consistent with what you’re realistically able to offer (perhaps you don’t know anything about the legal issues but you can introduce her to a lawyer friend of yours).
- Unity (τὸ ὅλος) captures an almost artistic sense that nothing is missing and that superfluous aspects are appropriately excluded (e.g., your friend needs moral, legal, and financial assistance but that doesn’t mean you should buy her random gift cards, too).
- Significance (σπουδαῖα) indicates that you take the matter seriously and act in a way that is deeply meaningful to the people involved.
There are inklings that these criteria apply at the “macro” level of life in general as well as the “micro” level of particular situations, but I’ll explore those in a future post.
I hasten to add that Aristotle doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining these ideas in his writings, so this brief unpacking is speculative and intended to spur your own thinking. However, by doing this work we can see that there might be much more to Aristotle’s ethical insights than “moderation in everything” (which he never said!). Instead, doing good involves discovering the practical truth in a given situation and then applying that knowledge by acting in a way that’s admirably appropriate and beautifully right (by the way, this shows that Aristotle perceived a deep unity between the true, the good, and the beautiful). Not that any of this is easy, mind you, but at least Aristotle might have given us some guideposts along the way.
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