Archive for September, 2015

What is a “Good” Person? An Incomplete Definition.

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy with tags , on September 21, 2015 by Joe Callahan

A few days ago an old and dear friend raised a deceptively simple question in an online discussion.  How do you define a “good” person?  This caught my eye.  Since this blog is supposed to be about Agathos, the “good” in human life, I thought maybe I’d have something to add to the conversation.  I would at least be enthusiastic about the topic if not convincing.

Since I gave a quick response via social media I don’t think it was the most comprehensive or even coherent statement I’ve ever given on the subject.  But the fast response was revealing.  It had the virtue of exposing some of my biases as well as some insights I think I’ve gained over time.  Sometimes one can learn a lot from an unvarnished response.

I think you have to distinguish between two different ideas of “the good” that have informed our western mindset. There is “good” moral behavior in the sense of what we choose NOT to do. We refrain from causing harm, from being unfair to others, we choose not to be unfeeling or greedy. Refraining from that which causes suffering can perhaps be accounted enough. Maybe.

For myself, after a long time, I came to the conclusion that the Greeks (and later Romans) had it right. The only true good is that which is done. “Agathos” in the pre-Christian sense tells us that the moral good is that which is demonstrated. Nobody is good because they wish to be. People are good because they do something good. Compassion is meaningless without a compassionate act. Courage is hot air without doing something courageous. Nobody is just until they perform a just act.

That isn’t to say that there will be universal agreement on the justice or wisdom or even compassion of a given act. Not everyone will be happy about it. The good is sometimes terrible, both beautiful and cruel at the same time. Nature gives us plenty of examples.

In short, “the good” is what we do to both actively diminish unnecessary suffering and promote what is fair. The ancient Greeks (words take on slightly different meaning in old testament Greek) used the word Dikaios. From my admittedly limited reading and spotty Greek, the Homeric Greeks saw that Dikaios (fairness) was the basis of honor. Fair dealing is demonstrable. Either you show it through your actions or the rest is sound and fury signifying nothing. As an addendum I would say that goodness is an ongoing practice. Aristotle had that right when he said that an excellence is a matter of habit (paraphrase). It is not innate. It is cultivated.

Not exactly a dissertation but I think I got the idea across.  What I noticed when I reread that passage was the two references to the reduction of suffering.  I wasn’t really aware that I considered that such a key component.  It likely comes from years of exposure to Buddhist and Taoist ideas.  It may also be some sort of residual Catholicism.  One never really does leave behind a Catholic education completely.  For the Greeks and Romans my impression has been that being fair or just was the more important action.  Reducing suffering through fairness and justice might well be a happy byproduct rather than a goal by itself.

Even though this blog focuses heavily on using Greek and Roman ideas for a good life I am content if the other influences in my life seep in.  I’m not trying to resurrect fossilized traditions.  I’m okay with a little syncretism especially if it helps to decide what is indeed a “good” person.

Blogging Again and Excellence in Nature.

Posted in Agathos, arete, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on September 4, 2015 by Joe Callahan

After a year-long hiatus I’m back in the blogging saddle. This past year was an especially challenging one. My father passed away in May after some difficult months. He was a remarkable guy. I may write about that at some point. As the only child of elderly parents I have been the primary person to handle their affairs. I had no idea how much would be involved. Old age and the healthcare maze is not for the faint of heart. I may also write about that at some point. Combined with the demands of work and maintaining a reasonably balanced relationship, I haven’t written or even reposted a thing.

Writing about the continued effort to bring Agathos (the good and the worthy) into one’s life is a worthwhile undertaking and a good personal practice. So, here we are. To dust off the cobwebs I’ll share a passage.

Lucan was a Roman poet best known for the Pharsalia. This epic poem recounts the civil war between the Roman Senate and Julius Caesar on his rise to dictatorial power. Lucan wrote while still quite young. He was trained in the Stoicism school of philosophy. When he was only 25 he became involved in a plot to overthrow the famously unpleasant emperor Nero. The plot failed and young Lucan was ordered to commit suicide. It isn’t clear if Lucan was a very good Stoic in practice. The historian Suetonius recounts that Lucan sought mercy from Nero by selling out other conspirators including his own mother. There is disagreement over the truth of this passage. It does seem at odds with the details of his death. When Lucan ended his life he threw a banquet and recited poetry (his own) before opening up his veins. That doesn’t seem the act of someone who had previously been sobbing “Take mother! She did it!” Unfortunately we’ll never know for sure.

In the ninth book of the Pharsalia Lucan recounts the words of Cato the Roman senator. Cato was also a follower of Stoicism and one of the most steadfast opponents of Caesar. He would ultimately take his own life rather than surrender to someone he perceived as a tyrant. When Cato speaks in this passage he rejects the suggestion that he consult an oracle. Fighting a losing battle in North Africa he feels no need to ask what their fate will be.

He, filled with the god he carried in his silent mind,
poured forth from his breast words worthy of the shrine:
’What question, Labienus, do you bid me ask? Whether I prefer
to meet my death in battle, free, to witnessing a tyranny?
Whether it makes no difference if our lives be long or short?
Whether violence can harm no good man and Fortune wastes her threats
when virtue lines up against her, and whether it is enough to wish for
things commendable and whether what is upright never grows by its success?
We know the answer: Ammon will not plant it deeper in me.
We are all connected with the gods above, and even if the shrine is silent
we do nothing without God’s will; no need has deity of any
utterances: the Creator told us at our birth once and always
whatever we can know. Did he select the barren sands
to prophesy to a few and in this dust submerge the truth
and is there any house of God except the earth and sea and air
and sky and excellence? Why do we seek gods any further?
Whatever you see, whatever you experience, is Jupiter.
Let those unsure and always dubious of future events
require fortune-tellers: no oracles make me certain,
certain death does. Coward and brave must fall:
it is enough that Jupiter has said this.’ So declaring
he departed.

The section that I’ve placed in bold is a lovely sentiment and has an almost Transcendentalist sensibility. Spirituality and nature become intertwined. Since the Stoics often used God, Zeus, the Logos, and Nature interchangeably it is maybe to be expected. The idea that one experiences nature and spirit personally, immediately and independently is compelling. When I was a teen I was introduced to backpacking by an uncle who was an avid outdoorsman and sailor. He expressed much the same sentiment and said his only church was out under the sky. It made perfect sense has stayed with me ever since.

I am not religious but if there is anything that can be called spiritual it will be observed in sunsets and tides and the trickling of creeks over stones.

What really caught my attention was the inclusion of the word excellence (I have also seen it translated as virtue). Was Lucan saying that human excellence is also a feature of nature like mountains or seas? I have to assume he meant excellence/virtue in the same way the Greek Stoics spoke of Arete. The Greek ideal of moral excellence was concrete. Virtue that can’t be demonstrated isn’t really virtue. As Eric Greitens points out in his fine book Resilience, today we often think of virtue as avoiding what you shouldn’t do whereas the Greco-Roman world saw virtue as what you do. In order to be just perform a just act. In order to be courageous perform a courageous act.

So is God (or Zeus or Logos or whatever you prefer) to be found both in nature and in our actions? Maybe we are closest to the transcendent when we are acting with Arete. That is what brings us most in harmony with the world, the world where gods are found in the mountains and the quiet forests. I like that thought.