Since the beginning of time, all successful civilizations have been governed by behavioral standards that everyone understood, embraced, and passed on to future generations. These behavioral standards were so well-known that they were taken for granted. Anyone who questioned the standards was considered a misdirected fool who lacked maturity, experience, and wisdom.
In his best-known work, Nichomachean Ethics, the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), wrote extensively about these virtuous standards of behavior.
When he wrote about virtues, Aristotle referred to them within the context of nature. He did not discuss or define virtues as being related to God or religion. It was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who more than 1,500 years after the death of Aristotle expanded upon Aristotle’s virtue theory by arguing that God infused virtues within humans to raise them above the natural order. Aquinas’s name for Aristotle was, The Philosopher, which is an indication of how much respect he had for Aristotle.
Aristotle’s belief was that being virtuous was associated with the natural order. He believed that virtuous behavior had to be taught and could only be learned and perfected through a person’s own experiences.
He defined “virtues” as habits that lead people to effortlessly decide upon and take correct action (1) in dealing with issues that come up in their own lives, and (2) when dealing with other people.
To Aristotle, people who are virtuous automatically develop integrity and good character. As a consequence, they handle themselves honorably, get along well with others, exercise good judgment, and can easily determine right from wrong.
Aristotle died in 322 B.C. That’s more than 2,300 years ago. Today, when the topic of virtues comes up, it is usually discussed within the context of religious beliefs and teachings. It was Aristotle’s belief that virtuous behavior is not associated with God or religion, but is instead based on the fixed nature of human beings.
Aristotle argued that everything in nature has a function and that something is good as long as it fulfills its function, and bad when it does not fulfill its function. He also argued that in order for humans to properly function and flourish, they have to adhere to virtuous standards of behavior.
To understand the point that Aristotle was making, think about what a flower needs in order to properly function and flourish. It needs fertile soil, a warm climate, an adequate supply of water, and the care of an individual who can eliminate bugs and weeds that may choke off or kill the flower. It is only through the introduction of these factors that a flower can properly function and flourish.
Aristotle argued that humans are rational creatures who have the ability to make informed decisions that are based on reason, knowledge, experience, and wisdom. He believed that in order for humans to properly function and flourish, they must first learn and put into practice virtues that will automatically lead them to make wise decisions and engage in acceptable behavior.
When people fail to learn and practice certain virtues, they eventually become dysfunctional misfits.
The definition of “dysfunctional” is “not operating normally or properly” or “deviating from the norms of social behavior in a way that is regarded as bad.” The definition of a “misfit” is “a person who is poorly adapted to a situation or environment.”
A person who is a dysfunctional misfit ordinarily ends up being an outcast who is shunned by others, and is, in many ways, incapable of developing close friendships and maintaining long term, loving relationships.
There is a direct correlation between dysfunctional people and dysfunctional societies.
The same virtuous standards of behavior that Aristotle wrote about played an important part in the decisions that our founding fathers made when they drafted and voted on the Constitution of the United States.
In 1726, Benjamin Franklin, a 20-year-old man who would later become one of the founding fathers of our country, decided that he was going to attempt to achieve moral perfection. To do so, Franklin listed 13 virtues that he was going to adopt as his own and practice every day: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.
We’ve come a long way since the days of Benjamin Franklin and the founding of our nation. Over the past 60 years, many Americans have ceased to be properly functioning members of our society. Why? Because they either abandoned or never learned the virtuous standards of behavior that were written about by Aristotle — standards that have been the foundation of civilized societies for more than 2,300 years.
If you were to ask most high school and college graduates to define the word “virtue” and to name at least six virtues, in most instances, the only response you would get would be a blank stare. This would not have been the case 60 years ago.
I’ll have more to say on this topic next week.