Category Archives: Philosophy

Durant 1926: From Aristotle to the Renaissance (Francis Bacon)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter III, Section 1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


I. From Aristotle to the Renaissance

When Sparta blockaded and defeated Athens towards the close of the fifth century B. C., political supremacy passed from the mother of Greek philosophy and art, and the vigor and independence of the Athenian mind decayed. When, in 399 B. C., Socrates was put to death, the soul of Athens died with him, lingering only in his proud pupil, Plato. And when Philip of Macedon defeated the Athenians at Chreronea in 338 B. C., and Alexander burned the great city of Thebes to the ground three years later, even the ostentatious sparing of Pindar’s home could not cover up the fact that Athenian independence, in government and in thought, was irrevocably destroyed. The domination of Greek philosophy by the Macedonian Aristotle mirrored the political subjection of Greece by the virile and younger peoples of the north. 

The Greek philosophy and art, and the vigor and independence of the Athenian mind decayed after Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

The death of Alexander (323 B. C.) quickened this process of decay. The boy-emperor, barbarian though he remained after all of Aristotle’s tutoring, had yet learned to revere the rich culture of Greece, and had dreamed of spreading that culture through the Orient in the wake of his victorious armies. The development of Greek commerce, and the multiplication of Greek trading posts throughout Asia Minor, had provided an economic basis for the unification of this region as part of an Hellenic empire; and Alexander hoped that from these busy stations Greek thought, as well as Greek goods, would radiate and conquer. But he had underrated the inertia and resistance of the Oriental mind, and the mass and depth of Oriental culture. It was only a youthful fancy, after all, to suppose that so immature “and unstable a civilization as that of Greece could be imposed upon a civilization immeasurably more widespread, and rooted in the most venerable traditions. The quantity of Asia proved too much for the quality of Greece. Alexander himself, in the hour of his triumph, was conquered by the soul of the East; he married (among several ladies) the daughter of Darius; he adopted the Persian diadem and robe of state; he introduced into Europe the Oriental notion of the divine right of kings; and at last he astonished a sceptic Greece by announcing, in magnificent Eastern style, that he was a god. Greece laughed; and Alexander drank himself to death.

Alexander, through the force of his armies, may have secured victories in the Orient, but he could not overcome the inertia and resistance of the Oriental mind, and the mass and depth of Oriental culture. 

This subtle infusion of an Asiatic soul into the wearied body of the master Greek was followed rapidly by the pouring of Oriental cults and faiths into Greece along those very lines of communication which the young conqueror had opened up; the broken dykes let in the ocean of Eastern thought upon the lowlands of the still adolescent European mind. The mystic and superstitious faiths which had taken root among the poorer people of Hellas were reinforced and spread about; and the Oriental spirit of apathy and resignation found a ready soil in decadent and despondent Greece. The introduction of the Stoic philosophy into Athens by the Phoenician merchant Zeno (about 310 B. C.) was but one of a multitude of Oriental infiltrations. Both Stoicism and Epicureanism—the apathetic acceptance of defeat, and the effort to forget defeat in the arms of pleasure—were theories as to how one might yet be happy though subjugated or enslaved; precisely as the pessimistic Oriental stoicism of Schopenhauer and the despondent epicureanism of Renan were in the nineteenth century the symbols of a shattered Revolution and a broken France. 

Instead of Alexander influencing the Orient with Greek culture, the Oriental cults and faiths poured into Greece along those very lines of communication which the young conqueror had opened up. 

Not that these natural antitheses of ethical theory were quite new to Greece. One finds them in the gloomy Heraclitus and the ”laughing philosopher” Democritus; and one sees the pupiIs of Socrates dividing into Cynics and Cyrenaics under the lead of Antisthenes and Aristippus, and extolling, the one school apathy, the other happiness. Yet these were even then almost exotic modes of thought: imperial Athens did not take to them. But when Greece had seen Chreronea in blood and Thebes in ashes, it listened to Diogenes; and when the glory had departed from Athens she was ripe for Zeno and Epicurus.

Greek philosophy went from being practical and extroverted to extolling apathy (the apathetic acceptance of defeat) and happiness (the effort to forget defeat in the arms of pleasure).

Zeno built his philosophy of apatheia on a determinism which a later Stoic, Chrysippus, found it hard to distinguish from Oriental fatalism. When Zeno, who did not believe in slavery, was beating his slave for some offense, the slave pleaded, in mitigation, that by his master’s philosophy he had been destined from all eternity to commit this fault; to which Zeno replied, with the calm of a sage, that on the same philosophy he, Zeno, had been destined to beat him for it. As Schopenhauer deemed it useless for the individual will to fight the universal will, so the Stoic argued that philosophic indifference was the only reasonable attitude to a life in which the struggle for existence is so unfairly doomed to inevitable defeat. If victory is quite impossible it should be scorned. The secret of peace is not to make our achievements equal to our desires, but to lower our desires to the level of our achievements. “If what you have seems insufficient to you,” said the Roman Stoic Seneca (d. 65 A. D.), “then, though you possess the world, you will yet be miserable.” 

Zeno (of Citium) founded Stoicism which laid great emphasis on goodness and peace of mind gained from living a life of virtue in accordance with nature.

Such a principle cried out to heaven for its opposite, and Epicurus, though himself as Stoic in life as Zeno, supplied it. Epicurus, says Fenelon, “bought a fair garden, which he tilled himself. There it was he set up his school, and there he lived a gentle and agreeable life with his disciples, whom he taught as he walked and worked. … He was gentle and affable to all men … He held there was nothing nobler than to apply one’s self to philosophy.” His starting point is a conviction that apathy is impossible, and that pleasure—though not necessarily sensual pleasure—is the only conceivable, and quite legitimate, end of life and action. “Nature leads every organism to prefer its own good to every other good” ;–even the Stoic finds a subtle pleasure in renunciation. ”We must not avoid pleasures, but we must select them.” Epicurus, then, is no epicurean; he exalts the joys of intellect rather than those of sense; he warns against pleasures that excite and disturb the soul which they should rather quiet and appease. In the end he proposes to seek not pleasure in its usual sense, but ataraxia—tranquillity, equanimity, repose of mind; all of which trembles on the verge of Zeno’s “apathy.” 

Epicurus, on the other hand, started with the conviction that apathy is impossible, and that pleasure—though not necessarily sensual pleasure—is the only conceivable, and quite legitimate, end of life and action. Both Stoicism and Epicureanism became mainstream after exposure to the Oriental culture.

The Romans, coming to despoil Hellas in 146 B. C., found these rival schools dividing the philosophic field; and having neither leisure nor subtlety for speculation themselves, brought back these philosophies with their other spoils to Rome. Great organizers, as much as inevitable slaves, tend to stoic moods: it is difficult to be either master or servant if one is sensitive. So such philosophy as Rome had was mostly of Zeno’s school, whether in Marcus Aurelius the emperor or in Epictetus the slave; and even Lucretius talked epicureanism stoically (like Heine’s Englishman taking his pleasures sadly), and concluded his stern gospel of pleasure by committing suicide. His noble epic “On the Nature of Things,” follows Epicurus in damning pleasure with faint praise. Almost contemporary with Caesar and Pompey, he lived in the midst of turmoil and alarms; his nervous pen is forever inditing prayers to tranquillity and peace. One pictures him as a timid soul whose youth had been darkened with religious fears; for he never tires of telling his readers that there is no hell, except here, and that there are no gods except gentlemanly ones who live in a garden of Epicurus in the clouds, and never intrude in the affairs of men. To the rising cult of heaven and hell among the people of Rome he opposes a ruthless materialism. Soul and mind are evolved with the body, grow with its growth, ail with its ailments, and die with its death. Nothing exists but atoms, space, and law; and the law of laws is that of evolution and dissolution everywhere. 

No single thing abides, but all things flow.
Fragment to fragment clings; the things thus grow
Until we know and name them. By degrees
They melt, and are no more the things we know.

Globed from the atoms, falling slow or swift
I see the suns, I see the systems lift
Their forms; and even the systems and their suns
Shall go back slowly to the eternal drift.

Thou too, O Earth—thine empires, lands and seas—
Least, with thy stars, of all the galaxies,
Globed from the drift like these, like these thou too
Shalt go. Thou art going, hour by hour, like these.

Nothing abides. Thy seas in delicate haze
Go off; those mooned sands forsake their place;
And where they are shall other seas in turn
Mow with their scythes of whiteness other bays.

To astronomical evolution and dissolution add the origin and elimination of species. 

Many monsters too the earth of old tried to produce, things of strange face and limbs; … some without feet, some without hands, some without mouth, some without eyes. … Every other monster … of this kind earth would produce, but in vain; for nature set a ban on their increase, they could not reach the coveted flower of age, nor find food, nor be united in marriage; … and many races of living things must then have died out and been unable to beget and continue their breed. For in the case of all things which you see breathing the breath of life, either craft or courage or speed has from the beginning of its existence protected and preserved each particular race. … Those to whom nature has granted none of these qualities would lie exposed as a prey and booty to others, until nature brought their kind to extinction. 

Nations, too, like individuals, slowly grow and surely die: “some nations wax, others wane, and in a brief space the races of living things are changed, and like runners hand over the lamp of life.” In the face of warfare and inevitable death, there is no wisdom but in ataraxia,-“to look on all things with a mind at peace.” Here, clearly, the old pagan joy of life is gone, and an almost exotic spirit touches a broken lyre. History, which is nothing if not humorous, was never so facetious as when she gave to this abstemious and epic pessimist the name of Epicurean. 

From Greece, these philosophies were transmitted to Rome where even the Epicurean philosophy was presented stoically. There was evolution and dissolution everywhere.

And if this is the spirit of the follower of Epicurus, imagine the exhilarating optimism of explicit Stoics like Aurelius or Epictetus. Nothing in all literature is so depressing as the “Dissertations” of the slave, unless it be the “Meditations” of the emperor. “Seek not to have things happen as you choose them, but rather choose that they should happen as they do; and you shall live prosperously.” No doubt one can in this manner dictate the future, and play royal highness to the universe. Story has it that Epictetus’ master, who treated him with consistent cruelty, one day took to twisting Epictetus’ leg to pass the time away. “If you go on,” said Epictetus calmly, “you will break my leg.” The master went on, and the leg was broken. “Did I not tell you,” Epictetus observed mildly, “that you would break my leg?” Yet there is a certain mystic nobility in this philosophy, as in the quiet courage of some Dostoievskian pacifist. “Never in any case say, I have lost such a thing; but; I have returned it. Is thy child dead?—it is returned. Is thy wife dead?—she is returned. Art thou deprived of thy estate?—is not this also returned?” In such passages we feel the proximity of Christianity and its dauntless martyrs; indeed were not the Christian ethic of self-denial, the Christian political ideal of an almost communistic brotherhood of man, and the Christian eschatology of the final conflagration of all the world, fragments of Stoic doctrine floating on the stream of thought? In Epictetus the Greco- Roman soul has lost its paganism, and is ready for a new faith. His book had the distinction of being adopted as a religious manual by the early Christian Church. From these “Dissertations” and Aurelius’ “Meditations” there is but a step to “The Imitation of Christ.” 

The exhilarating optimism of Epicureanism also degenerated into the pessimistic acceptance of Stoicism. The next step was Christianity.

Meanwhile the historical background was melting into newer scenes. There is a remarkable passage in Lucretius which describes the decay of agriculture in the Roman state, and attributes it to the exhaustion of the soil. Whatever the cause, the wealth of Rome passed into poverty, the organization into disintegration, the power and pride into decadence and apathy. Cities faded back into the undistinguished hinterland; the roads fell into disrepair and no longer hummed with trade; the small families of the educated Romans were outbred by the vigorous and untutored German stocks that crept, year after year, across the frontier; pagan culture yielded to Oriental cults; and almost imperceptibly the Empire passed into the Papacy. 

With this decay of spirit the Roman Empire passed into the Papacy.

The Church, supported in its earlier centuries by the emperors whose powers it gradually absorbed, grew rapidly in numbers, wealth, and range of influence. By the thirteenth century it owned one-third of the soil of Europe, and its coffers bulged with donations of rich and poor. For a thousand years it united, with the magic of an unvarying creed, most of the peoples of a continent; never before or since was organization so widespread or so pacific. But this unity demanded; as the Church thought, a common faith exalted by supernatural sanctions beyond the changes and corrosions of time; therefore dogma, definite and defined, was cast like a shell over the adolescent mind of medieval Europe. It was within this shell that Scholastic philosophy moved narrowly from faith to reason and back again, in a baffling circuit of uncriticized assumptions and pre-ordained conclusions. In the thirteenth century all Christendom was startled and stimulated by Arabic and Jewish translations of Aristotle; but the power of the Church was still adequate to secure, through Thomas Aquinas and others, the transmogrification of Aristotle into a medieval theologian. The result was subtlety, but not wisdom. “The wit and mind of man,” as Bacon put it, “if it work upon the matter, worketh according to the stuff, and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and bringeth forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit.” Sooner or later the intellect of Europe would burst out of this shell. 

For a thousand years, under Papacy, there was peace under a common faith exalted by supernatural sanctions. An unvarying creed and dogma controlled the adolescent mind of medieval Europe. It was within this shell that Scholastic philosophy moved narrowly from faith to reason and back again. Even Aristotle’s wisdom was subjugated to uncriticized assumptions and pre-ordained conclusions.

After a thousand years of tillage, the soil bloomed again; goods were multiplied into a surplus that compelled trade; and trade at its cross-roads built again great cities wherein men might cooperate to nourish culture and rebuild civilization. The Crusades opened the routes to the East, and let in a stream of luxuries and heresies that doomed asceticism and dogma. Paper now came cheaply from Egypt, replacing the costly parchment that had made learning the monopoly of priests; printing, which had long awaited an inexpensive medium, broke out like a liberated explosive, and spread its destructive and clarifying influence everywhere. Brave mariners armed now with compasses, ventured out into the wilderness of the sea, and conquered man’s ignorance of the earth; patient observers, armed with telescopes, ventured out beyond the confines of dogma, and conquered man’s ignorance of the sky. Here and there, in universities and monasteries and hidden retreats, men ceased to dispute and began to search; deviously, out of the effort to change baser metal into gold, alchemy was transmuted into chemistry; out of astrology men groped their way with timid boldness to astronomy; and out of the fables of speaking animals came the science of zoology. The awakening began with Roger Bacon (d. 1294); it grew with the limitless Leonardo (145~1519); it reached its fulness in the astronomy of Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642), in the researches of Gilbert (1544-1603) in magnetism and electricity, of Vesalius (1514-1564) in anatomy, and of Harvey (1578-1657) on the circulation of the blood. As knowledge grew, fear decreased; men thought less of worshiping the unknown, and more of overcoming it. Every vital spirit was lifted up with a new confidence; barriers were broken down; there was no bound now to what man might do. “But that little vessels, like the celestial bodies, should sail round the whole globe, is the happiness of our age. These times may justly use plus ultra”—more beyond—“where the ancients used non plus ultra.” It was an age of achievement, hope and vigor; of new beginnings and enterprises in every field; an age that waited for a voice, some synthetic soul to sum up its spirit and resolve. It was Francis Bacon, “the most powerful mind of modern times,” who “rang the bell that called the wits together,” and announced that Europe had come of age. 

Ultimately, the improved production, economy and trade opened Europe to the outside world, and the influx of goods and knowledge doomed asceticism and dogma. A new age of achievement, hope and vigor, spirit and resolve began. It was Francis Bacon’s voice that announced  Europe’s coming of age.


Durant 1926: Later Life and Death (Aristotle)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy 

This paper presents Chapter II, Section 10 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


X. Later Life and Death

Meanwhile life had become unmanageably complicated for our philosopher. He found himself on the one hand embroiled with Alexander for protesting against the execution of Callisthenes (a nephew of Aristotle), who had refused to worship Alexander as a god; and Alexander had answered the protest by hinting that it was quite within his omnipotence to put even philosophers to death. At the same time Aristotle was busy defending Alexander among the Athenians. He preferred Greek solidarity to city patriotism, and thought culture and science would flourish better when petty sovereignties and disputes were ended; and he saw in Alexander what Goethe was to see in Napoleon—the philosophic unity of a chaotic and intolerably manifold world. The Athenians, hungering for liberty, growled at Aristotle, and became bitter when Alexander had a statue of the philosopher put up in the heart of the hostile city. In this turmoil we get an impression of Aristotle quite contrary to that left upon us by his Ethics: here is a man not cold and inhumanly calm, but a fighter, pursuing his Titanic work in a circle of enemies on every side. The successors of Plato at the Academy, the oratorical school of Isocrates, and the angry crowds that hung on Demosthenes’ acid eloquence, intrigued and clamored for his exile or his death. 

Aristotle was besieged with conflicts and a lot of controversy.

And then, suddenly (323 B. C.), Alexander died. Athens went wild with patriotic joy; the Macedonian party was over-thrown, and Athenian independence was proclaimed. Antipater, successor of Alexander and intimate friend of Aristotle, marched upon the rebellious city. Most of the Macedonian party fled. Eurymedon, a chief priest, brought in an indictment against Aristotle, charging him with having taught that prayer and sacrifice were of no avail. Aristotle saw himself fated to be tried by juries and crowds incomparably more hostile than those that had murdered Socrates. Very wisely, he left the city, saying that he would not give Athens a chance to sin a second time against philosophy. There was no cowardIce in this; an accused person at Athens had always the option of preferring exile. Arrived at Chalcis, Aristotle fell ill; Diogenes Laertius tells us that the old philosopher, in utter disappointment with the turn of all things against him, committed suicide by drinking hemlock. However induced, his illness proved fatal; and a few months after leaving Athens (322 B. C.) the lonely Aristotle died.

Aristotle committed suicide by drinking hemlock in utter disappointment with the turn of all things against him.

In the same year, and at the same age, sixty-two, Demosthenes, greatest of Alexander’s enemies, drank poison. Within twelve months Greece had lost her greatest ruler, her greatest orator, and her greatest philosopher. The glory that had been Greece faded now in the dawn of the Roman sun; and the grandeur that was Rome was the pomp of power rather than the light of thought. Then that grandeur too decayed, that little light went almost out. For a thousand years darkness brooded over the face of Europe. All the world awaited the resurrection of philosophy. 

After Aristotle, the light of philosophy almost went out for a thousand years.


Durant 1926: Criticism (Aristotle)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter II, Section 9 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


IX. Criticism

What shall we say of this philosophy? Perhaps nothing rapturous. It is difficult to be enthusiastic about Aristotle, because it was difficult for him to be enthusiastic about anything; and si vis me flere, primum tibi flendum.* His motto is nil admirari—to admire or marvel at nothing; and we hesitate to violate his motto in his case. We miss in him the reforming zeal of Plato, the angry love of humanity which made the great idealist denounce his fellow-men. We miss the daring originality of his teacher, the lofty imagination, the capacity for generous delusion. And yet, after reading Plato, nothing could be so salutary for us as Aristotle’s sceptic calm. 

*[“If you wish me to weep you must weep first”-Horace (Ars Poetica) to actors and writers.]

Aristotle approached his investigations very calmly.

Let us summarize our disagreement. We are bothered, at the outset, with his insistence on logic. He thinks the syllogism a description of man’s way of reasoning, whereas it merely describes man’s way of dressing up his reasoning for the persuasion of another mind; he supposes that thought begins with premisses and seeks their conclusions, when actually thought begins with hypothetical conclusions and seeks their justifying premisses,—and seeks them best by the observation of particular events under the controlled and isolated conditions of experiment. Yet how foolish we should be to forget that two thousand years have changed merely the incidentals of Aristotle’s logic, that Occam and Bacon and Whewell and Mill and a hundred others have but found spots in his sun, and that Aristotle’s creation of this new discipline of thought, and his firm establishment of its essential lines, remain among the lasting achievements of the human mind. 

Aristotle was a pioneer in organizing the subject of logic.

It is again the absence of experiment and fruitful hypothesis that leaves Aristotle’s natural science a mass of undigested observations. His specialty is the collection and classification of data; in every field he wields his categories and produces catalogues. But side by side with this bent and talent for observation goes a Platonic addiction to metaphysics; this trips him up in every science, and inveigles him into the wildest presuppositions. Here indeed was the great defect of the Greek mind: it was not disciplined; it lacked limiting and steadying traditions; it moved freely in an uncharted field, and ran too readily to theories and conclusions. So Greek philosophy leaped on to heights unreached again, while Greek science limped behind. Our modern danger is precisely opposite; inductive data fall upon us from all sides like the lava of Vesuvius; we suffocate with uncoordinated facts; our minds are overwhelmed with sciences breeding and multiplying into specialistic chaos for want of synthetic thought and a unifying philosophy. We are all mere fragments of what a man might be. 

Aristotle lacked experimentation in the field of science, instead he depended on making wild suppositions.

Aristotle’s ethics is a branch of his logic: the ideal life is like a proper syllogism. He gives us a handbook of propriety rather than a stimulus to improvement. An ancient critic spoke of him as “moderate to excess.” An extremist might call the Ethics the champion collection of platitudes in all literature; and an Anglophobe would be consoled with the thought that Englishmen in their youth had done advance penance for the imperialistic sins of their adult years, since both at Cambridge and at Oxford they had been compelled to read every word of the Nicomachean Ethics. We long to mingle fresh green Leaves of Grass with these drier pages, to add Whitman’s exhilarating justification of sense joy to Aristotle’s exaltation of a purely intellectual happiness. We wonder if this Aristotelian ideal of immoderate moderation has had anything to do With the colorless virtue, the starched perfection, the expressionless good form, of the British aristocracy. Matthew Arnold tells us that in his time Oxford tutors looked upon the Ethics as infallible. For three hundred years this book and the Politics have formed the ruling British mind, perhaps to great and noble achievements, but certainly to a hard and cold efficiency. What would the result have been if the masters of the greatest of empires had been nurtured, instead, on the holy fervor and the constructive passion of the Republic?

Aristotle’s Ethics is passionless and full of platitudes.

After all, Aristotle was not quite Greek; he had been settled and formed before coming to Athens; there was nothing Athenian about him, nothing of the hasty and inspiriting experimentalism which made Athens throb with political elan and at last helped to subject her to a unifying despot. He realized too completely the Delphic command to avoid excess: he is so anxious to pare away extremes that at last nothing is left. He is so fearful of disorder that he forgets to be fearful of slavery; he is so timid of uncertain change that he prefers a certain changelessness that near resembles death. He lacks that Heraclitean sense of flux which justifies the conservative in believing that all permanent change is gradual, and justifies the radical in believing that no changelessness is permanent. He forgets that Plato’s communism was meant only for the elite, the unselfish and ungreedy few; and he comes deviously to a Platonic result when he says that though property should be private, its use should be as far as possible common. He does not see (and perhaps he could not be expected in his early day to see) that individual control of the means of production was stimulating and salutary only when these means were so simple as to be purchasable by any man; and that their increasing complexity and cost lead to a dangerous centralization of ownership and power, and to an artificial and finally disruptive inequality. 

Aristotle is looking for order in everything so much so that he loses any sense of adventure.

But after all, these are quite inessential criticisms of what remains the most marvelous and influential system of thought ever put together by any single mind. It may be doubted if any other thinker has contributed so much to the enlightenment of the world. Every later age has drawn upon Aristotle, and stood upon his shoulders to see the truth. The varied and magnificent culture of Alexandria found its scientific inspiration in him. His Organon played a central role in shaping the minds of the medieval barbarians into disciplined and consistent thought. The other works, translated by Nestorian Christians into Syriac in the fifth century A. D., and thence into Arabic and Hebrew in the tenth century, and thence into Latin towards 1225, turned scholasticism from its eloquent beginnings in Abelard to encyclopedic completion in Thomas Aquinas. The Crusaders brought back more accurate Greek copies of the philosopher’s texts; and the Greek scholars of Constantinople brought further Aristotelian treasures with them when, after 1453, they fled from the besieging Turks. The works of Aristotle came to be for European philosophy what the Bible was for theology—an almost infallible text, with solutions for every problem. In 1215 the Papal legate at Paris forbade teachers to lecture on his works; in 1231 Gregory IX appointed a commission to expurgate him; by 1260 he was de rigueur in every Christian school, and ecclesiastical assemblies penalized deviations from his views. Chaucer describes his student as happy by having 

At his beddes hed
Twenty bookes clothed in blake or red,
Of Aristotle and hill philosophie;

and in the first circles of Hell, says Dante, 

I saw the Master there of those who know,
Amid the philosophic family,
By all admired, and by all reverenced; 
There Plato too I saw, and Socrates, 
Who stood beside him closer than the rest.

Such lines give us some inkling of the honor which a thousand years offered to the Stagirite. Not till new instruments, accumulated observations, and patient experiments remade science and gave irresistible weapons to Occam and Ramus, to Roger and Francis Bacon, was the reign of Aristotle ended. No other mind had for so long a time ruled the intellect of mankind. 

But Aristotle’s mind remains unmatched in its contribution to the enlightenment of the world.


Durant 1926: Politics (Aristotle)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter II, Section 8 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


VIII. Politics

1. Communism and Conservatism 

From so aristocratic an ethic there naturally follows (or was the sequence the other way?) a severely aristocratic political philosophy. It was not to be expected that the tutor of an emperor and the husband of a princess would have any exaggerated attachment to the common people, or even to the mercantile bourgeoisie; our philosophy is where our treasure lies. But further, Aristotle was honestly conservative because of the turmoil and disaster that had come out of Athenian democracy; like a typical scholar he longed for order, security, and peace; this, he felt, was no time for political extravaganzas. Radicalism is a luxury of stability; we may dare to change things only when things lie steady under our hands. And in general, says Aristotle, “the habit of lightly changing the laws is an evil; and when the advantage of change is small, some defects whether in the law or in the ruler had better be met with philosophic toleration. The citizen will gain less by the change than he will lose by acquiring the habit of disobedience.” The power of the law to secure observance, and therefore to maintain political stability, rests very largely on custom; and “to pass lightly from old laws to new ones is a certain means of weakening the inmost essence of all law whatever.” “Let us not disregard the experience of ages: surely, in the multitude of years, these things, if they were good, would not have remained unknown.”

The primary requirement of any government is that it can maintain stability. Defects will be there but any improvements must be be made slowly with great care so as not to disturb the stability. The power of the law to secure observance, and therefore to maintain political stability, rests very largely on custom.

“These things,” of course, means chiefly Plato’s communistic republic. Aristotle fights the realism of Plato about universals, and the idealism of Plato about government. He finds many dark spots in the picture painted by the Master. He does not relish the barrack-like continuity of contact to which Plato apparently condemned his guardian philosophers; conservative though he is, Aristotle values individual quality, privacy, and liberty above social efficiency and power. He would not care to call every contemporary brother or sister, nor every elder person father or mother; if all are your brothers, none is; and “how much better it is to be the real cousin of somebody than to be a son after Plato’s fashion!” In a state having women and children in common, “love will be watery… Of the two qualities which chiefly inspire regard and affection—that a thing is your own, and that it awakens real love in you—neither can exist in such a state” as Plato’s.

According to Aristotle, Plato’s ideals of communistic republic are in conflict with the Greek custom that has long provided stability.

Perhaps there was, in the dim past, a communistic society, when the family was the only state, and pasturage or simple tillage the only form of life. But “in a more divided state of society,” where the division of labor into unequally important functions elicits and enlarges the natural inequality of men, communism breaks down because it provides no adequate incentive for the exertion of superior abilities. The stimulus of gain is necessary to arduous work; and the stimulus of ownership is necessary to proper industry, husbandry and care. When everybody owns everything nobody will take care of anything. “That which is common to the greatest number has the least attention bestowed upon it. Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly ever of the public, interest.” And “there is always a difficulty in living together, or having things in common, but especially in having common property. The partnerships of fellow-travelers” (to say nothing of the arduous communism of marriage), “are an example to the point; for they generally fall out by the way, and quarrel about any trifle that turns up.”

Communistic ideas may work in a simple society where we do not have division of labor into unequally important functions. But those ideas break down in a more advanced society because they provide no adequate incentive for the exertion of superior abilities. When everybody owns everything nobody will take care of anything. Such is human nature.

“Men readily listen” to Utopias, “and are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody’s friend, especially when some one is heard denouncing the evils now existing, … which are said to arise out of the possession of private property. These evils, however, arise from quite another source—the wickedness of human-nature.”* Political science does not make men, but must take them as they come from nature.” 

*[Note that conservatives are pessimists, and radicals are optimists, about human nature, which is probably neither so good nor so bad as they would like to believe, and may be not so much nature as early training and environment.]

Evils do not arise out of the possession of private property. They arise from the wickedness of human-nature.

And human nature, the human average, is nearer to the beast than to the god. The great majority of men are natural dunces and sluggards; in any system whatever these men will sink to the bottom; and to help them with state subsidies is “like pouring water into a leakIng cask.” Such people must be ruled in politics and directed in industry; with their consent if possible, without it if necessary. “From the hour of their birth some are marked out for subjection, and others for command.” “For he who can foresee with his mind is by nature intended to be lord and master; and he who can work only with his body is by nature a slave.”* The slave is to the master what the body is to the mind; and as the body should be subject to the mind, so “it is better for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master.” “The slave is a tool with life in it, the tool is a lifeless slave.” And then our hard-hearted philosopher, with a glimmer of possibilities which the Industrial Revolution has opened to our hands, writes for a moment with wistful hope: “If every instrument would accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, … if the shuttle would weave, or the plectrum touch the lyre, without a hand to guide them, then chief work-men would not need assistants, nor masters slaves.”

*[Perhaps slave is too harsh a rendering of doulos; the word was merely a frank recognition of a brutal fact which in our day is perfumed with talk about the dignity of labor and the brotherhood of man. We easily excel the ancients in making phrases.]

Human nature divides people among those who are fit for command and others who need to be ruled. Ideally every person should simply do their job efficiently.

This philosophy typifies the Greek disdain for manual labor. Such work in Athens had not become so complicated as it is today, when the intelligence demanded in many manual trades is at times much greater than that required for the operations of the lower middle class, and even a college professor may look upon an automobile mechanic (in certain exigencies) as a very god; manual work was then merely manual, and Aristotle looked down upon it, from the heights of philosophy, as belonging to men without minds, as only fit for slaves, and only fitting men for slavery. Manual labor, he believes, dulls and deteriorates the mind, and leaves neither time nor energy for political intelligence; it seems to Aristotle a reasonable corollary that only persons of some leisure should have a voice in government. “The best form of state will not admit mechanics to citizenship. … At Thebes there was a law that no man could hold office who had not retired from business ten years before.” Even merchants and financiers are classed by Aristotle among slaves. “Retail trade is unnatural, … and a mode by which men gain from one another. The most hated sort of such exchange is …usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from its natural use. For money was intended as an instrument of exchange, and not as the mother of interest. This usury (tokos), which means the birth of money from money, … is of all modes of gain the most unnatural.”* Money should not breed. Hence “the discussion of the theory of finance is not unworthy of philosophy; but to be engaged in finance, or in money-making, is unworthy of a free man.” ** 

*[This view influenced the medieval prohibition of interest.]

**[Aristotle adds that philosophers could succeed in such fields if they cared to descend into them; and he proudly points to Thales, who, foreseeing a good harvest, bought up all the reapers in his city, and then, at harvest time, sold them at his own sweet price; whereupon Aristotle observes that the universal secret of great riches is the creation of a monopoly.]

Only those who are self-sufficient, and are persons of some leisure, should have a voice in government.


2. Marriage and Education 

Woman is to man as the slave to the master, the manual to the mental worker, the barbarian to the Greek. Woman is an unfinished man, left standing on a lower step in the scale of development.* The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; the one rules and the other is ruled; and this principle extends, of necessity, to all mankind.” Woman is weak of will, and therefore incapable of independence of character or position; her best condition is a quiet home life in which, while ruled by the man in her external relations, she may be in domestic affairs supreme. Women should not be made more like men, as in Plato’s republic; rather the dissimilarity should be increased; nothing is so attractive as the different. “The courage of a man and that of a woman are not, as Socrates supposed, the same: the courage of a man is shown in commanding; that of a woman in obeying. … As the poet says, ‘Silence is a woman’s glory.'”

*[De Gen. Animalium, ii, 8; Hist. Animalium, viii, 1; Pol., i, 5. Cf. Weininger; and Meredith’s “Woman will be the last thing civilized by man” (Ordeal of Richard Feverel, p. 1). It appears, however, that man was (or will be) the last thing civilized by woman; for the great civilizing agencies are the family and a settled economic life; and both of these are the creations of woman.]

Women are very different from man in their spheres of operation. That difference should be increased, not decreased.

Aristotle seems to suspect that this ideal enslavement of woman is a rare achievement for man, and that as often as not the sceptre is with the tongue rather than with the arm. As if to give the male an indispensable advantage, he advises him to defer marriage till the vicinity of thirty-seven, and then to marry a lass of some twenty years. A girl who is rounding the twenties is usually the equal of a man of thirty, but may perhaps be managed by a seasoned warrior of thirty-seven. What attracts Aristotle to this matrimonial mathematics is the consideration that two such disparate persons will lose their reproductive power and passions at approximately the same time. “If the man is still able to beget children while the woman is unable to bear them, or vice versa, quarrels and differences will arise. … Since the time of generation is commonly limited within the age of seventy years in the man, and fifty in the woman, the commencement of their union should conform to these periods. The union of male and female when too young is bad for the creation of children; in all animals the off-spring of the young are small and ill-developed, and generally female.” Health is more important than love. Further, “it conduces to temperance not to marry too soon; for women who marry early are apt to be wanton; and in men too the bodily frame is stunted if they marry while they are growing.”* These matters should not be left to youthful caprice, they should be under state supervision and control: the state should determine the minimum and maximum ages of marriage for each sex, the best seasons for conception, and the rate of increase in population. If the natural rate of increase is too high, the cruel practice of infanticide may be replaced by abortion; and “let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun.” There is an ideal number of population for every state, varying with its position and resources. “A state when composed of too few is not, as a state should be, self-sufficing; while if it has too many … it becomes a nation and not a state, and is almost incapable of constitutional government,” or of ethnic or political unity. Anything in excess of a population of 10,000 is undesirable. 

*[It is apparent that Aristotle has in mind only the temperance of women; the moral effect of deferred marriage upon men does not seem to agitate him.]

Health is more important than love. Health is affected when one marries too young. Aristotle supports abortion when the natural rate of increase in population is too high.

Education, too, should be in the hands of the state. “That which most contributes to the permanence of constitutions is the adaptation of education to the form of government. … The citizen should be moulded to the form of government under which he lives.” By state control of schools we might divert men, from industry and trade to agriculture; and we might train men, while keeping property private, to open their possessions to discriminately common use. “Among good men, with respect to the use of property, the proverb will hold, that ‘friends should have all things in common.'” But above all, the growing citizen must be taught obedience to law, else a state is impossible. “It has been well said that ‘he who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.’ … The good citizen should be capable of both.” And only a state system of schools can achieve social unity amid ethnic heterogeneity; the state is a plurality which must be made into a unity and a community by education. Let youth be taught, too. the great boon it has in the state, the unappreciated security which comes of social organization, the freedom that comes of law. “Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but when isolated he is the worst of all; for injustice is more dangerous when armed, and man is equipped at birth with the weapon of intelligence, and with qualities of character which he may use for the vilest ends. Wherefore if he have not virtue he is the most unholy and savage of animals, full of gluttony and lust.” And only social control can give him virtue. Through speech man evolved society; through society, intelligence; through intelligence, order; and through order, civilization. In such an ordered state the individual has a thousand opportunities and avenues of development open to him which a solitary life would never give. “To live alone,”: then, “one must be either an animal or a god.”*

*[“Or,” adds Nietzsche, who takes nearly all of his political philosophy from Aristotle, “one must be both—that is, a philosopher.”]

According to Aristotle, the citizen should be moulded to the form of government under which he lives. The growing citizen must be taught obedience to law, else a state is impossible. 

Hence revolution is almost always unwise; it may achieve, some good, but at the cost of many evils, the chief of which is the disturbance, and perhaps the dissolution, of that social order and structure on which every political good depends. The direct consequences of revolutionary innovations may be calculable and salutary; but the indirect are generally incalculable, and not seldom disastrous. “They who take only a few points into account find it easy to pronounce judgment”; and a man can make up his mind quickly if he has only a little to make up. “Young men are easily deceived, for they are quick to hope.” The suppression of long-established habits brings the overthrow of innovating governments because the old habits persist among the people; characters are not so easily changed as laws. If a constitution is to be permanent, all the parts of a society must desire it to be maintained. Therefore a ruler who would avoid revolution should prevent extremes of poverty and wealth,—“a condition which isoften the result of war”; he should (like the English) encourage colonization as an outlet for a dangerously congested population; and he should foster and practice’ religion. An autocratic ruler particularly “should appear to he earnest in the worship of the gods; for if men think that a ruler is religious and reveres the gods, they are less afraid of suffering injustice at his hands, and are less disposed to conspire against him, since they believe that the gods themselves are fighting on his side.” 

According to Aristotle, a ruler who would avoid revolution should prevent extremes of poverty and wealth. A ruler who reveres the gods is trusted more by the population.


3. Democracy and Ariatocracy 

With such safeguards in religion, in education, and in the ordering of family life, almost any of the traditional forms of government will serve. All forms have good and bad commingled in them, and are severally adapted to various conditions. Theoretically, the ideal form of government would be the centralization of all political power in the one best man. Homer is right: “Bad is the lordship of many; let one be your ruler and master.” For such a man law would be rather an instrument than a limit: “for men of eminent ability there is no law—they are themselves a law. Anyone would be ridiculous who should attempt to make laws for them; they would probably retort what, in the fable of Antisthenes, the lions said to the hares when, in the council of beasts, the latter began haranguing and claiming equality for all— “Where are your claws?”*

*[Aristotle probably had Alexander or Philip in mind while writing this passage, just as Nietzsche seems to have been influenced towards similar conclusions by the alluring careers of Bismarck and Napoleon.]

Theoretically, the ideal form of government would be the centralization of all political power in the one best man. For such a man law would be rather an instrument than a limit.

But in practice, monarchy is usually the worst form of government, for great strength and great virtue are not near allied. Hence the best practicable polity is aristocracy, the rule of the informed and capable few. Government is too complex a thing to have its issues decided by number, when lesser issues are reserved for knowledge and ability. “As the physician ought to be judged by the physician, so ought men in general to be judged by their peers. … Now does not this same principle apply to elections? For a right election can only be made by those who have knowledge: a geometrician, e.g., will choose rightly in matters of geometry; or a pilot in matters of navigation. …* So that neither the election of magistrates nor the calling of them to account should be entrusted to the many.” 

*[Politics, iii, 11. Cf. the modem argument for “occupational representatlon.”]

But in practice, the rule of the informed and capable few is the best form of government. A right election can only be made by those who have knowledge.

The difficulty with hereditary aristocracy is that it has no permanent economic base; the eternal recurrence of the nouveaux riches puts political office sooner or later at the disposal of the highest bidder. “It is surely a bad thing that the greatest offices … should be bought. The law which permits this abuse makes wealth of more account than ability, and the whole state becomes avaricious. For whenever the chiefs of the state deem anything honorable, the other citizens are sure to follow their example” (the “prestige imitation” of modern social psychology); “and where ability has not the first place there is no real aristocracy.”

Aristocracy is the rule of the informed and capable few, but where ability has not the first place there is no real aristocracy.

Democracy is usually the result of a revolution against plutocracy. “Love of gain in the ruling classes tends constantly to diminish their number” (Marx’s “elimination of the middle class”), “and so to strengthen the masses, who in the end set upon their masters and establish democracies.” This “rule by the poor” has some advantages. “The people, though individually they may be worse judges than those who have special knowledge, are collectively as good. Moreover, there are some artists whose works are best judged not by themselves alone, but by those who do not possess the art; e.g., the user or master of a house will be a better judge of it than the builder; … and the guest will be a better judge of a feast than the cook.” And “the many are more incorruptible than the few; they are like the greater quantity of water which is less easily spoiled than a little. The individual is liable to be overcome by anger, or by some other passion, and then his judgment is necessarily perverted; but it is hardly to be supposed that a great number of persons would all get into a passion and go wrong at the same moment.”*

*[Politics, iii, 15. Tarde, Le Bon and other social psychologists assert precisely the contrary; and though they exaggerate the vices of the crowd, they might find better support than Aristotle in the behavior of the Athenian Assembly 430-380 B.C.]

If the governing class is constantly seeking wealth, there is a conflict of interests. Those governed will ultimately revolt and establish a rule by majority.

Yet democracy is on the whole inferior to aristocracy. For it is based on a false assumption of equality; it “arises out of the notion that those who are equal in one respect (e.g., in respect of the law) are equal in all respects; because men are equally free they claim to be absolutely equal.” The upshot is that ability is sacrificed to number, while numbers are manipulated by trickery. Because the people are so easily misled, and so fickle in their views, the ballot should be limited to the intelligent. What we need is a combination of aristocracy and democracy. 

But the rule by majority is inferior to the rule by informed and capable few, because majority may not be capable. A capable majority is the best possible governing body.

Constitutional government offers this happy union. It is not the best conceivable government—that would be an aristocracy of education—but it is the best possible state. “We must ask what is the best constitution for most states, and the best life for most men; neither assuming a standard of excellence which will be above ordinary persons, nor an education exceptionally favored by nature or circumstance, nor yet an ideal state which will be only an aspiration; but having in mind such a life as the majority will be able to share, and a form of government to which states in general can attain.” “It is necessary to begin by assuming a principle of general application, namely, that that part of the state which desires the continuance of the government must be stronger than that which does not”; and strength consists neither in number alone, nor in property alone, nor in military or political ability alone, but in a combination of these, so that regard has to be taken of “freedom, wealth, culture and noble birth, as well as of mere numerical superiority.” Now where shall we find such an economic majority to support our constitutional government? Perhaps best in the middle class: here again we have the golden mean, just as constitutional government itself would be a mean between democracy and aristocracy. Our state will be sufficiently democratic if the road to every office is open to all; and sufficiently aristocratic if the offices themselves are closed except to those who have traveled the road and arrived fully prepared. From whatever angle we approach our eternal political problem we monotonously reach the same conclusion: that the community should determine the ends to be pursued, but that only experts should select and apply the means; that choice should be democratically spread, but that office should be rigidly reserved for the equipped and winnowed best. 

Constitutional government is the best possible state. Strength consists in a combination of number, property, military and political ability. We may find this in the middle class.

The community should determine the ends to be pursued, but only experts should select and apply the means. Choice should be democratically spread, but the office should be rigidly reserved for the equipped and winnowed best.


Durant 1926: Ethics and the Nature of Happiness (Aristotle)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter II, Section 7 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


VII. Ethics and the Nature of Happiness

And yet, as Aristotle developed, and young men crowded about him to be taught and formed, more and more his mind turned from the details of science to the larger and vaguer problems of conduct and character. It came to him more clearly that above all questions of the physical world there loomed the question of questions-what is the best life?- what is life’s supreme good?-what is virtue?-how shall we find happiness and fulfillment?

In eastern philosophy, the goal of human life has been the attainment of Static viewpoint, which is detached from all worldly phenomena, and can look at everything with equanimity.

He is realistically simple in his ethics. His scientific training keeps him from the preachment of superhuman ideals and empty counsels of perfection. “In Aristotle,” says Santayana, “the conception of human nature is perfectly sound; every ideal has a natural basis, and everything natural has an ideal development.” Aristotle begins by frankly recognizing that the aim of life is not goodness for its own sake, but happiness. “For we choose happiness for itself, and never with a view to anything further; whereas we choose honor, pleasure, intellect … because we believe that through them we shall be made happy.” But he realizes that to call happiness the supreme good is a mere truism; what is wanted is some clearer account of the nature of happiness, and the way to it. He hopes to find this way by asking wherein man differs from other beings; and by presuming that man’s happiness will lie in the full functioning of this specifically human quality. Now the peculiar excellence of man is his power of thought; it is by this that he surpasses and rules all other forms of life; and as the growth of this faculty has given him his supremacy, so, we may presume, its development will give him fulfillment and happiness. 

In my opinion, Aristotle correctly assumes that the development of the power of thought will give man fulfillment and happiness. 

The chief condition of happiness, then, barring certain physical pre-requisites, is the life of reason—the specific glory and power of man. Virtue, or rather excellence,* will depend on clear judgment, self-control, symmetry of desire, artistry of means; it is not the possession of the simple man, nor the gift of innocent intent, but the achievement of experience in the fully developed man. Yet there is a road to it, a guide to excellence, which may save many detours and delays: it is the middle way, the golden mean. The qualities of character can be arranged in triads, in each of which the first and last qualities will be extremes and vices, and the middle quality a virtue or an excellence. So between cowardice and rashness is courage; between stinginess and extravagance is liberality; between sloth and greed is ambition; between humility and pride is modesty; between secrecy and loquacity, honesty; between moroseness and buffoonery, good humor; between quarrelsomeness and flattery, friendship; between Hamlet’s indecisiveness and Quixote’s impulsiveness is self-control. “Right,” then, in ethics or conduct, is not different from “right” in mathematics or engineering; it means correct, fit, what works best to the best result.

*[The word excellence is probably the fittest translation of the Greek arete, usually mistranslated virtue. The reader will avoid misunderstanding Plato and Aristotle if, where translators write virtue, he will substitute excellence, ability, or capacity. The Greek arete is the Roman virtus; both imply a masculine sort of excellence (Ares, god of war; vir, a male). Classical antiquity conceived virtue in terms of man, just as medieval Christianity conceived it in terms of woman.]

It is true that virtue, or excellence, is the achievement of experience in the fully developed man. Such experience consists of assimilation of all perceptions such that no anomalies are left unresolved.

The golden mean, however, is not, like the mathematical mean, an exact average of two precisely calculable extremes; it fluctuates with the collateral circumstances of each situation, and discovers itself only to mature and flexible reason. Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; “these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: “the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life; … for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

Excellence is learned from the experience that comes from resolving anomalies.

Youth is the age of extremes: “if the young commit a fault it is always on the side of excess and exaggeration.” The great difficulty of youth (and of many of youth’s elders) is to get out of one extreme without falling into its opposite. For one extreme easily passes into the other, whether through “over-correction” or elsewise: insincerity doth protest too much, and humility hovers on the precipice of conceit.* Those who are consciously at one extreme will give the name of virtue not to the mean but to the opposite extreme. Sometimes this is well; for if we are conscious of erring in one extreme “we should aim at the other, and so we may reach the middle position, … as men do in straightening bent timber.” . But unconscious extremists look upon the golden mean as the greatest vice; they “expel towards each other the man in the middle position; the brave man is called rash by the coward, and cowardly by the rash man, and in other cases accordingly”; so in modern politics the “liberal” is called “conservative” and ”radical” by the radical and the conservative.

*[“The vanity of Antisthenes” the Cynic, said Plato, “peeps out through the holes in his cloak.”] 

The golden mean is the best position. Unfortunately, the extreme viewpoint misconstrues the middle position as the other extreme.

It is obvious that this doctrine of the mean is the formulation of a characteristic attitude which appears in almost every system of Greek philosophy. Plato had had it in mind when he called virtue harmonious action; Socrates when he identified virtue with knowledge. The Seven Wise Men had established the tradition by engraving, on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, the motto meden agan,—nothing in excess. Perhaps, as Nietzsche claims all these were attempts of the Greeks to check their own violence and impulsiveness of character; more truly, they reflected the Greek feeling that passions are not of themselves vices, but the raw material of both vice and virtue, according as they function in excess and disproportion, or in measure and harmony.*

*[Cf. a sociological formulation of the same idea: “Values are never absolute, but only relative… A certain quality in human nature is deemed to be less abundant than it ought to be; therefore we place a value upon it, and … encourage and cultivate it. As a result of this valuation we call it a virtue; but if the same quality should become superabundant we should call it a vice and try to repress it.”—Carver, Essays in Social Justice.]

The golden mean lies in assuming that position which brings harmony, consistency and continuity to a situation.

But the golden mean, says our matter-of-fact philosopher, is not all of the secret of happiness. We must have, too, a fair degree of worldly goods: poverty makes one stingy and grasping; while possessions give one that freedom from care and greed which is the source of aristocratic ease and charm. The noblest of these external aids to happiness is friendship. Indeed, friendship is more necessary to the happy than to the unhappy; for happiness is multiplied by being shared. It is more important than justice: for “when men are friends, justice is unnecessary; but when men are just, friendship is still a boon.” “A friend is one soul in two bodies.” Yet friendship implies few friends rather than many; “he who has many friends has no friend”; and “to be a friend to many people in the way of perfect friendship is impossible.” Fine friendship requires duration rather than fitful intensity; and this implies stability of character; it is to altered character that we must attribute the dissolving kaleidoscope of friendship. And friendship requires equality; for gratitude gives it at best a slippery basis. “Benefactors are commonly held to have more friendship for the objects of their kindness than these for them. The account of the matter which satisfies most persons is that the one are debtors and the others creditors, … and that the debtors wish their creditors out of the way, while the creditors are anxious that their debtors should be preserved.” Aristotle rejects this interpretation; he prefers to believe that the greater tenderness of the benefactor is to be explained on the analogy of the artist’s affection for his work, or the mother’s for her child. We love that which we have made.

The golden mean lies in the balance, not just in thoughts and character, but also in acquiring the means of living satisfactorily.

And yet, though external goods and relationships are necessary to happiness, its essence remains within us, in rounded knowledge and clarity of soul. Surely sense pleasure is not the way: that road is a circle: as Socrates phrased the coarser Epicurean idea, we scratch that we may itch, and itch that we may scratch. Nor can a political career be the way; for therein we walk subject to the whims of the people; and nothing is so fickle as the crowd. No, happiness must be a pleasure of the mind; and we may trust it only when it comes from the pursuit or the capture of truth. “The operation of the intellect … aims at no end beyond itself, and finds in itself the pleasure which stimulates it to further operation; and since the attributes of self-sufficiency, unweariedness, and capacity for rest, … plainly belong to this occupation, in it must lie perfect happiness.” 

The essence of happiness remains within us, in rounded knowledge and clarity of soul; and, not in the pleasure of senses.

Aristotle’s ideal man, however, is no mere metaphysician. 

He does not expose himself needlessly to danger, since there are few things for which he cares sufficiently; but he is willing, in great crises, to give even his life,—knowing that under certain conditions it is not worth while to live. He is of a disposition to do men service, though he is ashamed to have a service done to him. To confer a kindness is a mark of superiority; to receive one is a mark of subordination… He does not take part in public displays… He is open in his dislikes and preferences; he talks and acts frankly, because of his contempt for men and things… He is never fired with admiration, since there is nothing great in his eyes. He cannot live in complaisance with others, except it be a friend; complaisance is the characteristic of a slave…. He never feels malice, and always forgets and passes over injuries… He is not fond of talking… It is no concern of his that he should be praised, or that others should be blamed. He does not speak evil of others, even of his enemies, unless it be to themselves. His carriage is sedate, his voice deep, his speech measured; he is not given to hurry, for he is concerned about only a few things; he is not prone to vehemence, for he thinks nothing very important. A shrill voice and hasty steps come to a man through care… He bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of his circumstances, like a skillful general who marshals his limited forces with all the strategy of war… He is his own best friend, and takes delight in privacy whereas the man of no virtue or ability is his own worst enemy, and is afraid of solitude.

Such is the Superman of Aristotle. 

Aristotle’s ideal man is quite balanced and measured.