σοφία

  

As modern Greece struggles with its economic problems, it’s worth remembering: there isn’t a decent concept for living we don’t have the Greeks to thank for.

With help from Wikipedia, try: 

Prohairesis – προαίρεσις

The ‘moral character’ or prohairesis, was brought to the world by Aristotle in the eminently readable Nicomachean Ethics (which first inspired this blog five years ago). Prohairesis is the capacity to reflect, and not be carried away by what our senses serve up.

For the stoic Epictetus, life is all about prohairesis; separating what we experience from how we choose to feel about it:

“Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses or hits you, but the judgment that these things are insulting.”

“So when someone irritates you, realise that it is your own opinion that has irritated you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be carried away by the impression; for if you once gain time and respite, you will find it easier to control yourself.”

Prosoche – προσοχή

In the Platonic Academy, prosoche referred to the discipline of “attention” – noticing the judgements that we make about ourselves and the world. 

Once observed, the next step is observing whether or not these judgements are in ‘conformity’ with the reality of our situation; and correcting them as needed so as to maintain appropriate behaviour and equilibrium (ataraxia). 

Prosoche is broadly equivalent to the Buddhist disciplines of ‘mindfulness’ as developed through meditation.

A Greek ‘prosoche’ poem sums it up: 

Give me the Serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.

Areté – αρετή

For Aristotle, bravery is the first virtue. It came up at work this week. 

It is, quite simply, consciously choosing to walk the difficult tightrope between fear and courage:

“A brave man is one who faces and fears what he should for the right reason, in the right manner and at the right time. A brave man performs his actions for the sake of what is noble. Those who err by excess with regard to this virtue are called rash, but one who is exceedingly fearful is called a coward.”

“Men who show courage because they are optimistic and they think they will win are not brave, because they do not act for the right reasons, and when the situation does not turn out well, they end up being cowards.”

“Men who are ignorant of danger are also not brave, but only appear to be so because they have no knowledge of the danger.”

Prohairesis, Prosoche and Areté: character, consciousness and choice, all come together in sophia σοφία; the title above, and Greek for ‘wisdom’ – the root of philosophy φιλοσοφία philo-sophia.

Whatever the state of their οἰκονομία (economy), Greeks deserve our enduring thanks; for all they invented in the life of the mind.

Of Angels

20111105-201745.jpgSmarting from the accusation I seldom read the source, I’m wading through Aquinas at present. Corblimey he’s obsessed with some things well beyond my interest. But that’s because I’m reading him for his ethics, and he’s writing a science book as far as he’s concerned.

Summae Theologica is, I come to realise, describing Aquinas’ views on how the world, universe, animals, minds, substance and energy all work – the lot.

Not surprising then he spends considerable time on causation – what causes what, what is primary, what is secondary and what is ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, what is an ‘operation’ what is a ‘state’.

His method is famously rigorous: three or four well sourced views on a theme, his own judgement and an answer to the opening views.

I think he quite carefully integrates a humanist perspective with a religious one. At times he acknowledges tantalisingly what ‘would’ be the case if there was no God – Aristotle ‘would’ be right on human happiness for instance he says.

After Aristotle, he concurs that our ‘end’ is indeed happiness. But we achieve happiness imperfectly in our mortal lives. We achieve it most in contemplation. In contemplation of what though?

For Aquinas, of course, that would be God. But contemplation of God is, he acknowledges, tricky. Not least as He is infinite and Our reason is finite. We’re snookered from the off.

What to do? It could be worse. Animals are even further from God than we are. They lack our intellect and capacity for reason and thought and so can’t contemplate God at all.

Aquinas explicitly acknowledges that nature has fitted us and animals with desires and emotions to further our own survival and that of our species – positively Darwinian. But they are ‘beneath’ us and we are a rung down from – you guessed it – Angels.

God tops Angels of course, but each in the chain comes closer to ‘perfection’ and achieves ‘happiness’ most by ‘touching’ the one above.

I’m not sure how many farm animals would agree they are ‘perfected’ and happier ‘touching’ humans. Perhaps a well trained sheepdog. But we humans can attain greater happiness in the use of our more ‘perfect’ power, namely contemplation. And among the things we can happily contemplate are Angels.

Now this is a thought I can honestly say I have never had. Beyond the one on top of the Christmas Tree and my daughter in the school nativity, I have never spent any time contemplating Angels. Perhaps I should?

But the point I take from Aquinas and Angels is this: contemplation, seeing beauty around us and perfecting and developing our human capacities, skills and aptitudes is where Earthly happiness lies.

Csikszentmihalyi comes to mind. As I said to someone last weekend it’s all about adding ‘relevant complexity’ to our lives and personalities.

And I think this is what Aquinas is getting at too. A life of virtue, self-improvement and integration of the body, soul and mind might mean at the end of it all, the ‘bottled essence’ of us – probably in frail and wizened form – is a shimmering soul ‘touching’ that of an Angel.

Bayesian Ethics

As I’ve written before, one of my past wrestles is with Utilitarianism: that the moral act is the one with the best consequences regardless of what rules it breaks. I’m now firmly Aristotelian – aka a ‘virtue ethicist’ – we are what we repeatedly do.

But Anthony Appiah the Princeton Philosopher has some challenging things to say about virtue ethics in a Philosophy Bites podcast – including some experiments. And I’m inclined to listen. I like a bit of scientific method.

I like Appiah’s ‘Cosmopolitanism’ too which has helped me articulate my ‘live and let live’ theory of internationalism at work. Humans value culture. Different cultures value different things. And Cosmopolitanism says, short of harm, we should let them. Which I think is about right.

Appiah challenges virtue with ‘experimental ethics’ – seeing what people actually do, rather than what we theorise, and looking inside people’s heads in brain scanners. He finds, for example, nearly everyone gets more generous to strangers if they find a suitably planted $10 note on the floor.

His conclusion is that the idea of a ‘moral’ person in the Aristotelian sense is not borne out by the experimental reality. For him, we make moral choices based on context, stimulus and ‘in the moment’ not based on ‘character’. I don’t entirely agree, but it’s interesting stuff.

Learning to use the head to override the instinctive ‘yuk’ response or being over-influenced by the situation is one of the things he advocates. But only sparingly. Here’s where rules, norms and culture – plus a moral education – might help. But he’s not for becoming too calculating.

He disagrees with Utilitarianism for example. First, because it doesn’t capture the experimental reality of how we respond to moral situations. Second, because were to implement calculating ‘consequentialism’ wide-scale it would dramatically impoverish human existence. Largely because promoting purely rational calculation would tend to demote difference and different views.

Cultural Cosmopolitanism makes life interesting and liveable. And if you’re going to accept difference in culture you have to accept it in worldview and ethics too. That people care about different things is what makes people interesting – and maddening.

I personally think virtue and ‘outlying’ single instances of behaviour are not incompatible. I don’t doubt that you can get very good and very bad moral choices and behaviours out of me if you significantly change my conditions and stimuli.

I also think that the prospects of me making better or worse choices are determined, yes, by the context and circumstances – but crucially, combined with who I am. And who I am is the product of a life lived, previous choices made, data, concepts and theories within and Bayesian probability mashing all that together in a nano-second every time I act.

I think there is ‘virtue’ and I have a ‘character’. It’s just that the complexity of the probabilistic calculations – all done subconsciously by that marvel of existence, a human brain – mean Utilitarianism is too crude and individual ethical experiments are too simple to anything like capture them. I return to my own dictum – if the human brain were simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it.

So I like Appiah’s ethical experiments – they deserve a well signposted place in my Bayesian brain’s data set – and I’ve shared then with others too to influence them. But virtue, character and Aristotle’s ‘I am what I repeatedly do’ still work best for me. Thanks to Appiah though, I’m also a Cosmopolitan. So I’m delighted to weigh a well-wrought difference of opinion in the Bayesian ethical balance. It all goes in the mix.