Posted by: Joel Britton | February 3, 2009


I’m working on new content, and considering moving the site.

We are now experiencing technical difficulties…

Posted by: Joel Britton | January 27, 2009

Eudaimonia and the Cardinal Virtues

Previously, I discussed the concept of Eudaimonia. A concise explanation of Eudaimonia states,

Why do I study ethics? Maybe to get a qualification. I get the qualification to get a good job, and I want a good job because… These are subordinate aims. At some point you stop and say ‘because that would make me happy’ – and this becomes the superior aim. ‘Eudaimonia’ is the end goal or purpose behind everything we do as people, and is desired for its own sake.

Now this concept is crucial for two reasons: everyone searches for it, and no one talks about it. If one thing is true about our culture, it’s that we’re always after something. For some it’s the perfect job. For others it is money, a relationship, sex, leisure, fame, or security. Most people continue the search rabidly, without paying attention to what it is they really want. Aristotle writes,

Let us again return to the good we are seeking, and ask what it can be. It seems different in different actions and arts; it is different in medicine, in strategy, and in the other arts likewise. What then is the good of each? Surely that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else, and in every action and pursuit the end; for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do. Therefore, if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are more than one, these will be the goods achievable by action.

So the argument has by a different course reached the same point; but we must try to state this even more clearly. Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g. wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else.

As is noted by Fractal Ontology, “happiness” is not a particularly apt translation of the term Eudaimonia. Happiness in our terminology is both passive and an emotion — a state of mind that occurs every so often. Eudaimonia is an active and purposeful lifestyle which incorporates the habitual use of virtue. It means not the state of having happiness, but rather being the sort of person from whom just and good actions flow.

Critical to reaching this goal is the practice of the virtues. The Greek word virtu means excellence; for Aristotle it was a method by which one reached one’s end. A good knife cuts well; the virtues by which it reaches this end might include durability, solid construction, a good edge, and so on. A good prosecutor wins cases; virtues he might cultivate to this end are research ability, rhetoric, and knowledge of the law. A good human reaches Eudaimonia. Aiding in this quest are the human virtues of prudence, courage, moderation, and justice. The AquinasBlog offers a solid description of these virtues.

Courage helps us be bold in the attainment of good and helps us overcome fear and despair. It is the spiritual bravery we need to help us act properly in difficult situations, doing what is right, responding rationally to fear (neither under or overdoing it) and forging ahead in an enterprising and persevering manner in the attainment of what we see as our good.

Moderation helps keep our passions from ruling over reason and moderates our passion for goods, eating, drinking and sex. There is nothing wrong with partaking in them as we need them for health and welfare and as appropriate to the situation. The idea is to avoid excessive behavior so that such acts do not dominate or distract from what will make us ultimately most happy.

Prudence is the habit of thinking well about what is to be done. It has nothing to do with being a prude but for Aquinas means actually reflecting on what we are about to do, relating it to the context set by faith, hope and charity, and making the right decision. It is what today we might call the consistent practice of common sense…And how might a medieval view of common sense look? Pretty much like our own, requiring:

  • a good memory of past events
  • insight into the individual case
  • readiness to learn from the experiences of others
  • inventiveness in shrewdly figuring out the best course to follow
  • and soundness of inference from the general to the particular.

More specifically, the virtues correspond to the faculties we exercise as humans; each virtue informs how we use our abilities to best achieve the good life. Our emotions should be governed by courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the acknowledgment and overcoming of it. Emotions are part of what makes us human, but can also destroy us if we are enslaved to them. Courage allows us to recognize passion without either pretending it does not exist or allowing it to dominate us.

Moderation corresponds to our appetites. As Hugh McDonald explains, we desire pleasurable things by nature. Those that are in accord with reason are suitable to us, but an excess is dangerous. Imagine two different men watching TV — the moderate man might watch the latest episode of 24, while the immoderate one spends all his spare time glued to the screen.

Our intellect should use prudence — it is not good enough to simply speculate about generalities, we must make shrewd and clear choices about life, applying what we know to individual scenarios and judging correctly. This means that failings of intellect can prevent us from living well just as much as sins of immoderation or injustice.

Justice is the fourth virtue, and ties the rest of them together. Detailing justice in society, Peter Kreeft writes that it is,

Harmony, cooperation, togetherness, working as one, each doing the thing he can do best for others, for the community, doing your own thing and communalism at once…True justice is social music, harmony.

In the individual, ” Justice is the virtue that puts order into our interactions with others, making sure we render to our fellow humans what is their due, the goal of which is the equitable flourishing of all…This includes justice to society as a whole (e.g., the common good) and justice to individuals in society, including justice between people and the justice of the community to the individual, providing proportionally what is owned in common and sharing equally the burden of the common good.”

In other words, justice is what pushes an individual towards recognizing and taking his proper place in the world. If the just man is skilled at a craft or an art, he will strive to use it well. Without this virtue he might not use his ability out of laziness or false humility, or possibly attempt to ape a skill he did not possess. Being just means taking an unbiased look at who you are, and supporting your weight in society.

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Posted by: Joel Britton | January 25, 2009

RSS Feed Up

It took some maneuvering, but I have a working RSS feed up and running. There should be a link at the bottom of the right hand column of this page that allows you to subscribe.

Posted by: Joel Britton | January 25, 2009

Social Bookmarking Experiments

I’ve been playing around with social bookmarking in my posts. The hosted blog options aren’t particularly optimal for this, yet Hillel Stoler has an excellent little workaround that I’m trying out.

Is this easier to use? Harder? Let me know what you think.

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Posted by: Joel Britton | January 24, 2009

Gourmet Eggs

8 eggs
1/2 Italian squash
1/2 brown onion
4 oz sausage or kielbasa
1/2 bell pepper, red
3 roma tomatoes
olive oil
cayenne pepper

Heat the olive oil in a pan. Chop up tomatoes, squash, onion, sausage, and bell pepper. Dump ’em all in, cook on low heat for 6-8 minutes. Break the eggs into a bowl, whip lightly with a fork. Add to pot, and bring heat up. Add cayenne pepper to taste. Cook until eggs are nice and tasty looking.

The eggs came out a bit dry, so we served them with salsa and white grape juice. In retrospect I should have taken the eggs off the stove about a minute earlier. Still, it was an incredibly tasty meal, and probably enough protein to last for weeks.

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Posted by: Joel Britton | January 24, 2009

The Artistic Side of Scriptorium Daily

Fred Sanders provides an illuminating and arresting review of the latest work of Phoebe Age Six.

As some have recently noted, living in the city can get a bum rap. This is nothing new in the history of thought. Rousseau argued that the city was a false and stultifying construct that served to separate man from who he really was. A common view in popular culture, this idea relies on the assumption that man is at root a solitary creature. In modern circles a ubiquitous phrase is, “Do it if it makes you happy.” Consider the assumptions of that statement: the actions of an individual have no real affect on others, or if they do they are not something to be considered; fellowship and community among humans is neither essential nor particularly desired; and the pleasure of the individual is king.

Some disagree. Aristotle writes,

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think is good…he who thus considers things in their first growth and origin, whether a state or anything else, will obtain the clearest view of them. In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue…when several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family.

In Aristotle’s state of nature, man is properly considered as a social being. Why? Because he cannot and does not exist alone. To consider what man is as an individual is similar to considering a hand detatched from a body. While some value may come of such a train of thought, it is ultimately more sensible to think of man as properly existing within a societal context — otherwise, he cannot function or even exist.

If his argument is successful, this means that the city and living in community is as natural to man as walking on two feet and digesting food. Rather than the city being a force for evil that we should strive to escape or mitigate, it is the hallmark of man and a great source of strength. In practical terms, the city allows for such innovations as the division of labor. Within the state of nature, each man would be responsible for constructing shelter, gathering food, crafting clothing, and so on. As we live in a city, we are able to focus our efforts on a task or tasks at which we excel. I couldn’t sew a pair of pants to save my life, but I’m quite good at statistical analysis — this lets me spend my effort in one arena, and reap good results from others around me.

However, this puts previously mentioned modern tendencies in a sobering light. If an individual is concerned primarily for his own well being at the expense of others, he acts directly against what is natural to and good for man. To see a friend or coworker or child, “Just be happy,” is to see him alone, miserable, crippled, and dehumanized.

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Posted by: Joel Britton | January 24, 2009

Vegetable Pizza


1 large (10” x 16”) piece of Lavosh, small can of tomato sauce, 2 generous handfuls of shredded mozzarella cheese, 2 small tomatoes, several large pinches of basil.

Spread tomato sauce on Lavosh.

Sprinkle half the cheese evenly across the top.

Slice the tomatoes thinly, and spread on top.

Add basil.

Top with remainder of the cheese.

Put the whole concoction on a pizza dish (best) or cookie sheet (good enough), and cook at 375 for 10-15 minutes. My preference is 15 minutes, since the crust gets nice and crunchy.

Makes 1 thin, delicious pizza.

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Posted by: Joel Britton | January 24, 2009

Aquinas and Law Part 1: Eternal Law

Since I share much the same love for Aquinas as those over at Mere Orthodoxy, this post will start a series on the good doctor’s view of law. I’ll start with the theology under girding this concept, elucidate the fourfold division of law, and finally draw some conclusions on topics such as the relation between Church and State.

In his Summa, Aquinas explores a fascinating implication of the doctrine of creation. Since God made everything that exists, He has an idea for how each being should operate. By putting these ideas into actuality, God has made a wisde variety of beings that have specific purposes. Carbon atoms should form bonds with other atoms, particles should have certain attraction to other particles, bees should pollinate flowers, angels should experience truth in a certain matter, and so on. This set of ideas in the mind of God concerning the ideal operations of created beings is known as Eternal Law. It is an eternal and unchanging model for how all created things should best function. Everything follows these laws in a manner appropriate to their created nature. Inanimate objects such as planets and molecules follow deterministically. They are subject to laws such as gravity, and do not deviate from their courses. Humans and angels are also governed by laws directing behavior and motives. As they are intelligent beings, God’s government allows them to follow His Eternal Law by their own choice.

If Aquinas is right, this Eternal Law is the key to discovering who we are and how we were meant to live. When we make judgments concerning the goodness — or lack thereof — of anything, we presumably intend to communicate something true. Insofar as our thought corresponds to the Eternal Law, it is correct. Obviously, this is a rather controversial point of view.

Also, this Eternal Law allows for the founding and pursuit of the scientific method as a means to truth. If material things can be expected to operate in a certain way, experimentation becomes a valid and useful means to discover truth. Within an orderly universe such as Aquinas posits, this investigation is possible.

Next in the series: Natural Law, or Eternal Law applied to mankind.

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Posted by: Joel Britton | January 24, 2009


According to Aristotle, we all act for a reason. In his words, “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good.”  Now if Aristotle is to be listened to, each decision is made for its own sake, or for the sake or something else. You can see this in your own life. Did you really want that cup of OJ you just got? No, you wanted the tang of the juice, the satisfaction of quenching your thirst, and (perhaps) the knowledge that you made a healthy choice and kept to your diet. The orange juice is simply a vehicle through which you reached what you really wanted.

Aristotle’s brilliance lies in pushing this train of thought a bit further, and clarifying what it is we’re after. His answer? Happiness. Flourishing. Living life as it ought to be lived. Eudaimonia.

One facet of human experience noted by the philosopher was that we tend to call many things good. A knife, a book, a friend, a race, a act of charity, a house — the list goes on. As we apply these labels, we import a curious concept into our language: that most things are meant for some kind of purpose, and that they can be judged insofar as they fulfill or fail to fulfill that purpose. That book was interesting, held my attention, and gave me some excellent leisure time. It was a good book. The knife was dull, poorly maintained, and rusty. It was a bad knife. Donating to that organization was generous, well thought out, and kind. That was a good action.

With this in mind, Aristotle sets out to find what it is that is (1) good for humans, and (2) the final goal we seek. He calls it Eudaimonia. In future posts I hope to lay out more of what Eudaimonia is and means, and chronicle some of my own attempts to seek it.  In the meantime, check out an interesting article on one of the critical aspects to the good life: friendship.

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