03 July 2011

Akrasia vs. Arete

Aristotle is by general acceptance one of the greatest minds of all antiquity. From Aristotle we have the foundations of scientific reasoning and experimentation - the foundations of modern science. Sadly, virtually nothing he wrote himself has survived; all we have are translations of what we would now call class notes - translated from Greek into Arabic and then into Latin and Romance languages during the Enlightenment in Western Europe.

I'll address just two of Aristotle's defining words in this blog/chapter, words that clearly indicated an anticipation, if not inspired glimpses, of LDS Doctrine: Akrasia vs. Arete.  

The conventional single-word 19th Century English translation of Akrasia conveys something totally different in 21st Century English, so I won't repeat it here. Fundamentally, Akrasia means lack of self-control. Someone may know what is right, but has a weak will and gives little weight to long-term goals (Telos). Aristotle generally accepted Socrates' belief that few people voluntarily do evil, but instead most who do evil fall into it out of lack of self-control - typically to give in to immediate pleasure. This was not vice - which is deliberate evil - but instead something a bit less "bad." It can nevertheless lead to immense and long-term damage to themselves - and to many other people as well. We see Akrasia afflict far too many otherwise demonstrably intelligent people in our world. The word sounds like 'crazy' - which would be a good description for some catastrophic falls from public esteem by certain American and French politicians lately. A few minutes of illicit sexual activity commonly leads to destroyed families - and disfunctional children - for a far longer time than the initial mistake entailed. The sins of the fathers are (all too frequently) visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation.

I've personally witnessed this Akrasia in three generations of my otherwise intelligent male ancestors. It led to terrible sadness among four generations of wives and children.

In my mind there has always been different kinds of intelligence. Political intelligence, mathematical intelligence, and verbal intelligence are not the same, nor do they equate with Arete; they do not correlate with moral intelligence or even just plain sense.

A former Director, speaking about the introduction of Matrix Management into the USGS by otherwise intelligent people, said to me "WHAT could they possibly have been thinking?!??" 

The other key word is Arete, usually translated as "virtue." For Greeks, Arete included more than just moral and intellectual virtues, but covered a much wider range of things - including, for instance, the sharpness of a knife. Perhaps a partial translation would be "excellence." If someone or something is functioning properly, then it was exhibiting Arete. To function correctly as a human, of course, meant that you were behaving in a moral and rational way - the way your Maker designed you. A good person has the wisdom (Phronesis) to know how to act and comport her/himself in life as if they could see the consequences for more than a single day - and more than a single generation.  

This was an important point for Aristotle: a good person will feel pleasure in doing good things. A Latter-Day Saint might reword this to say that living in conformance with God's will - one's Maker - is the only form of long-term personal satisfaction possible. In a meeting this morning, my Bishop concluded a prayer with these words: "...that we might align our will with Thine."

To this I added a heartfelt Amen.


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