Intellectual Virtue, Love

In his discussions of ethics, alongside friendship or love and the things that go with those, Aristotle places the highest value on what he calls intellectual virtues. This is often misconstrued as a bias in favor of theory over practice. Such a misconstrual does not take a long enough view of things. Aristotle did value intellectual over manual labor, but took great interest in the kinds of things Kant called “practical”, as the ethical treatises demonstrate.

Aristotle had the idea that the keener our discernment of things in general, the keener our practical judgment will be. I may study the stars or the habits of animals or political constitutions or the nature of intellect or of virtue — and these are all worthy in their own right — but I also improve my discernment of things in general in order to be a better being, which means applying it in a broad way in my whole life, as well as in my particular deliberations and choices.

This all assumes that I already want to be good, and am relatively able to actually be so. That will not be true, according to Aristotle, unless I am fortunate enough to have had the kind of upbringing and life experiences that are conducive to the development of the kind of character in which emotion is already inclined to give reason a fair hearing. For those whose emotions will not listen to reason, the best path forward is to follow others who are more reasonable, but that may not occur without some institution of authority. Insofar as we are or aim to be magnanimous ethical beings who have nothing to prove, rather than needing to celebrate this conditional legitimation of authority over others (and implicitly of the use of force in society to gain compliance with elementary justice and civility), we should be guided by a spirit of friendship and love.

We should use our intellectual virtues in a spirit of friendship to best apply something like Leibnizian wise charity in our lives, especially with those we love, and more especially in generously understanding the particular predicament of the loved one in front of us whose emotions will not listen to reason in such and such a case, so we can more effectively help them. (See also Honesty, Kindness; Interpretive Charity; Affirmation; Genealogy.)

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