Thursday, May 2, 2013

"Live According to Principle, Regulate Impulses"

According to the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, one should "live according to principle and regulate impulses" in order to live a virtuous life.

To regulate one's impulses is no easy task. First we must recognize whatever impulses we may have that impede our path towards the good. I, for example, have an impulse towards anger.

Aristotle elaborates on sets of complementary virtues and vices, each with three gradational states. Between vices of deficiency and excess lies a middle way, the way of virtue, the mean. In the sphere of anger, one who suffers deficiency lacks spirit, a person with an excess of anger is called irascible, while those few who occupy the mean are said to have patience. If a person lacks spirit, they will be weak and easily taken advantage of, easily defeated. An irascible person gets into all sorts of trouble as a result of their uncontrolled temper.

As I lean towards irascibility, my task will be to strive for patience. I'm happy to say I don't lack spirit, for it seems to me it would be a greater difficulty to develop spirit than to control its excess. I must seek slowness and deliberation in all my doings, especially when it comes to my treatment of others. To act rashly too often results in grave mistakes, hurtful words and backwards decisions, broken relationships, sometimes violence.

The other half of the phrase deals with principles. As opposed to values, which can be either ends or means to an end in themselves, principles are fundamental rules or laws that govern a person's conduct. They are the foundation for character.

Without principles, there is no character. Again take me, for instance. I would hardly describe myself as a person of character. But life experience (marriage, familial troubles, ruined friendships, working manual  labor to make ends meet, raising children and so on) and learning - especially reading - has led me to want to develop character. The unprincipled youth has grown into an adult that seeks virtue.

After several years of self-analysis and reflection, I have discerned three principles that seem most conducive to the way of life I want to lead.

1. Harmony: From the Greek harmonía. Through careful study of musical relationships, a composer learns how to combine tones to produce sounds that are either consonant or dissonant. The parallel to human relationships is obvious. But in order to live in harmony with others and one's surroundings, a person must first be able to tune oneself, to resolve whatever internal disorders or discords.

2. Nonviolence: The concept comes to us from Hinduism, from the sanskrit word ahimsa, which means noninjury to living beings. In my opinion, the word doesn't simply mean noninjury in the physical sense, but also includes restraint from injuring the minds, the hearts, the souls of others.

3. Mink'a: The principle of cooperative effort, from the language of the Quechua people of the Andes. This means we all pitch in and do our part for the betterment of our communities, whether they be our families, neighborhoods, friendships or society as a whole. It is the basic democratic principle of selflessness. It is commitment to others.

These three principles form virtuous cycles with one another, reinforcing and strengthening one another. A person, a group of people, indeed a nation with such a foundation could work wonders in this world.

But in order to arrive at a life guided by principle, whether at an internal or an external level, requires careful observation, reflection and thought. We must look at ourselves and the world around us, its goods and ills, its institutions and its peoples with a critical but compassionate eye.

Only then will we learn how to live.