Contribution of Western Philosophers- Epicurus, Aristotle, Aquinas


Why do we Need to Study Western Thinkers?

Let’s make a basic idea clear first: there is no such thing as Ethics for a particular country/region/religion. Ethics and morality refer to a way of viewing things, and deliberating about the best possible ways to achieve human happiness. Thus, it might not be a good strategy to outcaste the western philosophers while trying to understand such issues.

Socrates

Another thing to be kept in mind is that, it is important to understand the ideas and perspectives of the western thinkers, for they enrich our understanding of the human psyche. By bringing different perspectives, and standpoints, the study of western thinkers add to the knowledge that we try to unlock.

Thus, any aspirant should try to understand these thinkers, with a purpose other than securing good marks in exam.

Basic Approach

Deliberations on Ethics and Morality have been made, in the Western world, from two perspective-

  1. Theleological– ‘Teleological’ has a Greek origin ‘telos’, which implies ‘end’. Thus, teleological approach focuses on actions that are intended to achieve a moral activity. The action, under this approach, are seen as a means to a particular moral end. The Teleological approach has been evolved by Aristotle, who viewed every action as pursuing the moral end of achieving happiness. However, Aristotle viewed happiness in broad terms, as not limited to materialistic pleasure alone, but extended to self-realization.
  2. Deontological approach, on the other hand, views the performance of actions as a fulfillment of one’s duty. Deontology is seen as a science of moral duties. This approach views an action from the perspective of being morally right, rather than being morally good. The prominent scholars of this school are- Ockham, Durkhiem, Kant and Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Epicurus

Epicurus

Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher, who tried to eliminate feelings like fear and anxiety from individual’s psyche, while promoting the emotions of well being, humanity and pleasure. He used to call his followers to meet in the garden, thus his philosophy came to be known as Philosophy of the Garden. It seeks pleasure, which was higher and noble in nature, and did not fall for ‘wine-women-and-song’.

Thus, he based his idea of goodness as the absence of pain and serenity of mind. Mere materialistic pleasure does not count for moral goodness. He viewed ‘phronesis’ as the highest virtue. It means the ability to discerning the good and bad in different things. It implies a rational faculty of mind. Morality, for Epicurus, is what is conducive to the telos of the humankind.

Aristotle

Aristotle

Aristotle believed that all beings seek happiness. This happiness lies in the perfection of human virtues and self-realization. Aristotle gives a detailed account of the various virtues and morality in his book- Nicomachean Ethics. He viewed virtue as a habitual state and disposition of the soul. Virtues were classified as- Moral virtues and Intellectual Virtues.

Virtue and the Golden Mean

For Aristotle, a virtue is not rigidly defined. It can vary with different individuals. A virtue lies in the Golden Mean between the two extremities. This Golden Mean does not imply mediocrity. Rather, it is explained as the best suitable course of action for a given circumstance. Aristotle believes in the maxim that- ‘excess of anything is undesirable’. Aristotle discusses five intellectual virtues as: Practical Knowledge, Prudence, Reasoning ability, Intuition and Wisdom. Wisdom has been seen as the greatest of all virtues. While the moral virtues are- temperance, liberality, justice, courage etc.

Voluntary and Involuntary Acts

Aristotle’s ethics is an example of the Teleological ethics par excellence. Moral value of an act is seen with reference to the intention of the individual. Thus, the aspect of voluntary and involuntary action plays an important role in Aristotle’s ethics. He believed that a person cannot be held responsible for purely involuntary acts. In contrast, a voluntary wrong act is culpable to strict sanctions from the society.

Aristotle tries to explain Ethics as a science, which explains the highest good of the man’s life. Every act has an End. However, there exists something, to achieve what, every act of a person is committed. This constitutes the highest good of the person. Thus, different acts and values are hierarchically arranged in Aristotle’s system.

Virtuous Person

Aristotle

Goodness for man lies in the realization of his true nature. A man can be morally good, when he is rational and contemplative. It is the only means to achieve ‘eudaimonia’, or the true happiness. Mere material pleasure or praise does not account for real happiness. A true happiness lasts for the lifetime.

A virtuous man is the measure of all good things. Such a person judges everything correctly, and acts virtuously. He does not act selfishly. Rather, he is a good friend, citizen, father, master and human.

Aristotle further says that Justice is the crown of all virtues, because it is relational in nature, and judges every other virtue. It consists in giving the others what is due to them. However, justice can be imparted only by a virtuous person.

Pleasure is a necessary and natural outcome of a virtuous activity. The purpose of life is Happiness (Eudaimonia), which is moral and virtuous. Since rational faculty of mind is the highest part of a person, the life of contemplation is the best for an individual. Every living being pursue towards the achievement of hidden potentials. Aristotle compares contemplation to the God’s act of creation.

A man can live happily if he performs in accordance with the virtue dominant in him. Thus, Aristotle suggests that it is better to be a good sweeper, than being a poor statesman. Goodness consists in doing an act with perfection. It is our rational faculty and moral purpose that sets us different from the beasts. Otherwise, even the animals have sensory feelings.

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saint Aquinas is seen as one of the greatest luminary of the middle ages. He was a monk, and based his ideas on the teleological approach of Aristotle, and viewed God as the ultimate end of humans. He believed that God has a plan for everyone, and we can attain our destiny/salvation, only with the divine support. He believed that God has a vision of creative development, enshrined in the dynamism of every being, which directs everyone towards his destiny. The eternal laws of the God are manifest in the natural laws of the world. This natural law is accessible to the humans only through partial revelations and partially through human reason. Thus, our destiny is not absolutely dependent on God’s mercy.

The norms of morality, thus, are nothing but God’s eternal laws. The human reason grasp it through its reflections, based on the understanding of the natural laws. Compliance to this superior law is, what constitutes morality and goodness.

Types of Reason

Aquinas distinguished between Speculative and Practical Reason. Speculative Reason relates to the theoretical knowledge; while the latter deals with the practical aspects of the material world. He further distinguishes between the Argumentative Part and Intuitive Part of the our intellect. It is the Intuitive Part of the Speculative Reason that deliberate and comes up with the ‘first principles’. The first principles are the self-evident truths, that does not require any proof. These principles form the basic foundation of all arguments and beliefs.

Aquinas also identifies the first principles of the Practical reason, which he calls- Synderesis. These are the first principles of the natural law. Example- Principle of Self-Preservation; principle of pleasure and happiness. Such principles flows through every specie and community. However, some of the principles of practical reason are human specific also. Like- the principle of conscience.

While the first principles are eternal and universal; the principles that are derived from them are time and space specific. The secondary principles can be moulded and adapted according to the needs and demands of the time. But the first principles can never be compromised.

 

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