Is Christianity the Source of Western Values?

Recently on Facebook somebody linked to George Reisman’s essay Education and the Racist Road to Barbarism[1] and gave a couple of lengthy quotes:

In order to understand the implications, it is first necessary to remind oneself what Western civilization is. From a historical perspective, Western civilization embraces two main periods: the era of Greco-Roman civilization and the era of modern Western civilization, which latter encompasses the rediscovery of Greco-Roman civilization in the late Middle Ages, and the periods of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Modern Western civilization continues down to the present moment, of course, as the dominant force in the culture of the countries of Western Europe and the United States and the other countries settled by the descendants of West Europeans. It is an increasingly powerful force in the rapidly progressing countries of the Far East, such as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, whose economies rest on “Western” foundations in every essential respect.

From the perspective of intellectual and cultural content, Western civilization represents an understanding and acceptance of the following: the laws of logic; the concept of causality and, consequently, of a universe ruled by natural laws intelligible to man; on these foundations, the whole known corpus of the laws of mathematics and science; the individual’s self-responsibility based on his free will to choose between good and evil; the value of man above all other species on the basis of his unique possession of the power of reason; the value and competence of the individual human being and his corollary possession of individual rights, among them the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness; the need for limited government and for the individual’s freedom from the state; on this entire preceding foundation, the validity of capitalism, with its unprecedented and continuing economic development in terms of division of labor, technological progress, capital accumulation, and rising living standards; in addition, the importance of visual arts and literature depicting man as capable of facing the world with confidence in his power to succeed, and music featuring harmony and melody.

And:

For the case of a Westernized individual, I must think of myself. I am not of West European descent. All four of my grandparents came to the United States from Russia, about a century ago. Modern Western civilization did not originate in Russia and hardly touched it. The only connection my more remote ancestors had with the civilization of Greece and Rome was probably to help in looting and plundering it. Nevertheless, I am thoroughly a Westerner. I am a Westerner because of the ideas and values I hold. I have thoroughly internalized all of the leading features of Western civilization. They are now my ideas and my values. Holding these ideas and values as I do, I would be a Westerner wherever I lived and whenever I was born. I identify with Greece and Rome, and not with my ancestors of that time, because I share the ideas and values of Greece and Rome, not those of my ancestors. To put it bluntly, my ancestors were savages–certainly up to about a thousand years ago, and, for all practical purposes, probably as recently as four or five generations ago. . . .

There is no need for me to dwell any further on my own savage ancestors. The plain truth is that everyone’s ancestors were savages–indeed, at least 99.5 percent of everyone’s ancestors were savages, even in the case of descendants of the founders of the world’s oldest civilizations. For mankind has existed on earth for a million years, yet the very oldest of civilizations–as judged by the criterion of having possessed a written language–did not appear until less than 5,000 years ago. The ancestors of those who today live in Britain or France or most of Spain were savages as recently as the time of Julius Caesar, slightly more than 2,000 years ago. Thus, on the scale of mankind’s total presence on earth, today’s Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Spaniards earn an ancestral savagery rating of 99.8 percent. The ancestors of today’s Germans and Scandinavians were savages even more recently and thus today’s Germans and Scandinavians probably deserve an ancestral savagery rating of at least 99.9 percent.

It is important to stress these facts to be aware how little significance is to be attached to the members of any race or linguistic group achieving civilization sooner rather than later. Between the descendants of the world’s oldest civilizations and those who might first aspire to civilization at the present moment, there is a difference of at most one-half of one percent on the time scale of man’s existence on earth.

These observations should confirm the fact that there is no reason for believing that civilization is in any way a property of any particular race or ethnic group. It is strictly an intellectual matter–ultimately, a matter of the presence or absence of certain fundamental ideas underlying the acquisition of further knowledge.

One commenter wrote:

Reisman oddly omits the influence of biblical religion on the development of Western civilization, until recently known as Christendom, which in fact is the source of most of the values he claims to cherish.

What values?

  • Suffering and sacrifice? Jesus is supposed to have suffered and died for our sins (not his own), and Christians are admonished to emulate Jesus, as best they can.

jesus-pa-korsetAnd this is not the first instance of extolling sacrifice in the Judeo-Christian religions. Remember the story in Genesis of how God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son, which Abraham was quite prepared to do. God did this to test Abraham’s faith in him, and when it was tested, Isaac was replaced by a goat.[2]

Or take the Book of Job, where the Lord kills all of Job’s family in order to test Job’s faith in him. After a long and tedious discussion between the Lord and Job, Job finally concedes this act was totally just, and the Lord then gives him a brand new family. A consolation for Job, but not much of a consolation for the family killed. In this book in the Bible, God acts exactly like a mafia boss.

Back from pre-historic times to the present. The latest canonized saint, Mother Teresa, saw suffering as a great value – so great that she did not bother to offer dying patients any kind of palliative care, but let them suffer great pain, arguing that the pain meant that “Jesus was kissing them”[3]. To any decent person, this is an example of pure and unadulterated sadism; but by the Catholic Church – and by many others as well – Mother Teresa is hailed as a paragon of goodness.

  • Original sin? – i.e. the notion that man is depraved by nature, that he is born in sin[4], and that the only thing he can do to remove his own sinfulness is to embrace the idea that Jesus has taken all his sins on himself and suffered and died for them.

What does it mean to say that man is born in sin and cannot escape his own sinfulness? Well, to be born is a sin; one of the first things a newborn child does is learn how to crawl, and then walk, and then run and jump. This must be sinful. And then a child learns to talk – at first in single words, then in two-word sentences, and eventually he masters his first language and moves on to learn one or more foreign languages. But all of this has to be sinful. A few children very early learn to play musical instruments, and some, like Mozart, start composing symphonies at a very early age. No matter how well such a child plays, and no matter how beautiful the symphonies, this is sinful, thus evil. But this is an idea that nobody could seriously maintain. Walking, talking, composing symphonies are all good things![5]

All this changes, when you accept Jesus as your savior. But it remains unclear in what way it changes. It should be noticed, in this connection, that Jesus died for our sins some 2 000 years ago. It is hard to give an exact measurement – but has there been less sinfulness and less evil in the world since that time?

And who stands to gain and who stands to lose, if we accept original sin? The sinner – the actual evil-doer – stands to gain, for whatever sin he commits, he can always claim that he is no worse than anyone else – and also, he just couldn’t help it, since he was born in sin.

The prophet Isaiah tells us:

If your sins prove to be like crimson, they will become white as snow; if they prove to be as red as crimson dye, they shall become as wool. (Isaiah, 1:18.)

But what happens, if our actions are already white as snow?

And of course John Galt – an upholder of Western values – refused to be born with original sin.

  • The sin of pride? Or the corollary virtue of humility?

If we are born in sin and can only do sinful things, then of course it is an even greater sin to take pride in what we do, and Christianity thus teaches us to “eat humble pie”. But it may be illuminating to compare this to one of the Founding Fathers – perhaps the Founding father – of Western values: Aristotle. In The Nicomachean Ethics, he says that pride is “the crown of the virtues”. It is worth quoting him:

Now the proud man, since he deserves most, must be good in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most. Therefore the truly proud man must be good. And greatness in every virtue would seem to be characteristic of a proud man. […] If we consider him point by point we shall see the utter absurdity of a proud man who is not good. Nor, again, would he be worthy of honour if he were bad; for honour is the prize of virtue, and it to the good that it is rendered. Pride, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them. Therefore it is hard to be truly proud; for it is impossible without nobility and goodness of character. (The Nicomachean Ethics, book 4, chapter 3; translated by David Ross.)

And Ayn Rand, in Galt’s speech, calls pride (which she identifies as “moral ambitiousness”) “the sum of all values”.

When Christianity denigrates pride and elevates humility as a virtue, it merely tells us to blindly accept its doctrine of man’s depravity and of original sin.

  • Justice? God’s behavior toward Job is hardly just. And in the Gospels we read:

 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44–45.)

It is a metaphysical fact that the sun and the rain does not make a distinction between good people and evil people. But the Gospel attributes this to God and tells us to be like God and make no such distinction. And this shows that the Christian God is neither moral nor immoral: he is amoral.

  • Loving one’s family? Loving one’s life? Well, this what Jesus says:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26.)

  • And what about science – one of the basic Western values Reisman mentions? I just have to refer you to the fate of Galileo. Or, for that matter, to the story of the Garden of Eden: Adam and Eve were driven out, because they had the temerity to eat from the tree of knowledge. God was opposed to knowledge!
  • What about causality? What about “a universe ruled by natural laws intelligible to man”? The Bible is full of miracles, and a miracle by definition is an exception to the law of causality.
  • And what about economics? What is the relation between Christianity and capitalism?

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. […] You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:19–20, 24.)

And what is the Christian view on time preference? Another quote from the same chapter:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:25–30.)

Saving and capital accumulation is definitely not recommended by the Gospel!

Some people will now object that the “Protestant work ethic” is the basis of capitalism.[6] But what is the reasoning here? Jean Calvin taught that every man is predestined both for success or failure in this life and for eternal salvation or condemnation. So the followers of Calvin worked hard just to show to themselves and to others that they are predestined for success and salvation rather than failure and condemnation. All I can say about this reasoning is that it is odd.

  • And what is the Christian view of free will? On the idea that we can actually choose between good and evil?

Most Christians, I believe, at least implicitly uphold free will, since it would be senseless to reward the good and punish the evil by eternal salvation and eternal condemnation, if man just can’t help what he does. But Jean Calvin could hardly have believed in free will, if he says that our eternal fate is predestined. And Martin Luther quite adamantly opposed the idea in a tract called On the Bondage of the Will.[7] He argues that free will is against what the Bible teaches, and he says that if man had free will, it could only mean the will to do evil:

In Romans 1:18, Paul teaches that all men without exception deserve to be punished by God: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” If all men have “free will” and yet all without exception are under God’s wrath, then it follows that “free will” leads them in only one direction—“ungodliness and unrighteousness” (i.e., wickedness). So where is the power of “free will” helping them to do good? If “free will” exists, it does not seem to be able to help men to salvation because it still leaves them under the wrath of God.

And:

This universal slavery to sin includes those who appear to be the best and most upright. No matter how much goodness men may naturally achieve, this is not the same thing as the knowledge of God. The most excellent thing about men is their reason and their will, but it has to be acknowledged that this noblest part is corrupt.

And:

Now, “free will” certainly has no heavenly origin. It is of the earth, and there is no other possibility. This can only mean, therefore, that “free will” has nothing to do with heavenly things. It can only be concerned with earthly things.

Well, since Objectivism rejects the supernatural, free will in Objectivism “can only be concerned with earthly things”. But that was an aside.

Martin Luther claimed that we cannot reach salvation bay “doing good” but only by faith. But can we even choose to believe in God and in Jesus having absolved us from our sins? Oh, no. that, too, is determined by God:

Every time people are converted, it is because God has come to them and overcome their ignorance by showing the Gospel to them. Without this, they could never save themselves.

And:

Grace is freely given to the undeserving and unworthy, and is not gained by any of the efforts that even the best and most upright of men try to make.

Luther claims to have Scripture on his side: He notes that when people have done bad things, it is not because they have chosen to, but because God “has hardened their hearts”. So, if we do good, it is God who has made us do good, and if we do evil, it is God who has made us do evil.

  • Faith versus reason? I will just quote Luther again:

Reason is the devil’s highest whore.[8]

$ $ $

Religion has been a dominating force in man’s life since time immemorial; and the Western world has undoubtedly been dominated by Christianity. So to say that Christianity is part and parcel of our Western civilization and heritage is just a platitude. But are the things I have listed above Western values? Are they even civilized?

Ayn Rand said that the saving grace of Christianity is that it preaches the sanctity of the individual soul:

There is a great, basic contradiction in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus was one of the first great teachers to proclaim the basic principle of individualism — the inviolate sanctity of man’s soul, and the salvation of one’s soul as one’s first concern and highest goal; this means — one’s ego and the integrity of one’s ego. But when it came to the next question, a code of ethics to observe for the salvation of one’s soul — (this means: what must one do in actual practice in order to save one’s soul?) — Jesus (or perhaps His interpreters) gave men a code of altruism, that is, a code which told them that in order to save one’s soul, one must love or help or live for others. This means, the subordination of one’s soul (or ego) to the wishes, desires or needs of others, which means the subordination of one’s soul to the souls of others.

This is a contradiction that cannot be resolved. This is why men have never succeeded in applying Christianity in practice, while they have preached it in theory for two thousand years. The reason of their failure was not men’s natural depravity or hypocrisy, which is the superficial (and vicious) explanation usually given. The reason is that a contradiction cannot be made to work. That is why the history of Christianity has been a continuous civil war — both literally (between sects and nations), and spiritually (within each man’s soul). (Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 287.)

You may object that Christianity has also accomplished some great things. A couple of great philosophers – philosophers acknowledged by Objectivists to be great – were Christians (Thomas Aquinas and, to some extent, John Locke).[9] And Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest scientist of all time, was a Christian.[10]

Speaking personally, I enjoy churches and cathedrals. And certainly some Christians have composed some great music. What famous classical composer has not composed a religious oratory or a mass? And the greatest of them all, Johann Sebastian Bach, has been called “the fifth evangelist”.

But this does not really change my point. For example, are cathedrals humble? Or are they intended to make us feel humble, when we enter them? And where is the humility in Bach’s music?

It all boils down to this question: Is our Western civilization what it is because of Christianity or despite Christianity? If you answer “because of”, beware of the implications!


[1] For Scandinavian speaking readers, this essay is also available in a Swedish translation.

[2] For a discussion of this, see Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (or Frygt og Bæven in the Danish original).

[3] She told this to a patient, and the patient answered: “Then I want him to stop”.

[4] There is a story about Frank O’Connor (Ayn Rand’s husband) that his parents sent him to a Catholic school; but when they tried to teach him that babies are born in sin, he left and went to a common, non-religious school instead.

[5] I exclude some composers, like Henryk Gôrecki, Arvo Pärt and all the minimalists. But you may listen to them, if you want to torture your eardrums.

[6] This idea was launched by Max Weber. But I guess you already knew that.

[7] De servo arbitrio in the original Latin. It was an answer to Erasmus of Rotterdam’s De libero arbitrio or On the Freedom of the Will. My quotes are from a section that has been published separately on the web.

[8] ”Vernunft ist des Teufels höchste Hure” in German. I call this rejection of reason “the fallacy of the stolen faculty“. Everyone has to use his reason even to put a simple sentence together, and Martin Luther did much more: apart from all the tracts he wrote, he translated to whole Bible into German and is credited with being the creator of modern German. How could he do this without “whoring with the devil”?

[9] Bad philosophers, according to Objectivism, include St. Augustine, Descartes and Immanuel Kant. Augustine and Kant certainly championed (if that is the right word) original sin and man’s innate depravity.

[10] He was an anti-Trinitarian, i.e. he opposed the doctrine of the Trinity. He is also reported to have said that space and time are the thoughts of God.

Was Ayn Rand an Aristotelian?

Most, if not all, of the criticisms of Ayn Rand’s philosophy I have seen over the years have been nonsensical. They have consisted in smears; or they show gross misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations of her views; and quite often a combination of both. But recently I encountered a criticism that I think deserves to be taken seriously. It is called Our Man in Greece: On the Use and Misuse of Aristotle on the Works of Ayn Rand by Peter Saint-Andre[1]. I will give my own thoughts on some of the points he brings up.

He takes her to task for the following statement:

The most important principle of the esthetics of literature was formulated by Aristotle, who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because “history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.” (“Basic Principles of Literature” in The Romantic Manifesto,)

But in fact, Aristotle says nothing about “things as they ought to be”, only “things as they might be”. (Aristotle’s statement is in chapter 9 of The Poetics.) Ayn Rand simply puts her idea in Aristotle’s mouth.

Besides, I don’t think there is much fiction that actually depicts “things as they ought to be”. This may be true of Ayn Rand’s own novels (with the exception of We the Living), in the sense that the heroes triumph, the good wins out and the evil loses. But what about other famous (or not so famous) works? What about the ancient Greek tragedies, for example? Or the novels of Victor Hugo (Ayn Rand’s own favorite) for that matter? They all have tragic endings. I leave it to you to find more examples.

Then about Aristotle’s historical influence. Ayn Rand writes as follows:

Everything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value we possess — including the birth of science, the industrial revolution, the creation of the United States, even the structure of our language — is the result of Aristotle’s influence, of the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men accepted his epistemological principles… (For the New Intellectual.)

This is an extremely sweeping statement.

How could Aristotle possibly be responsible for the structure of our language? For the way we form sentences? Is there any indication that even the Greek language was differently structured before Aristotle’s time, and that is was he who taught the Greek to form correct sentences? And what about us Swedes or Americans or whatever of today? Our ancestors at Aristotle’s time certainly did not read Greek and cannot possibly have read Aristotle.

Now, Aristotle does have some very elementary things to say about grammar and sentence structure. I believe he was the first one in the West[2] to identify the simple fact that a sentence must have a subject and a predicate (I think we get the word “predicate” from him, when he says that a verb predicates something about a noun or a subject). But this, of course, does not change the structure of the language; it merely identifies something that has always been true. Certainly, sentences have had subjects and predicates for as long as there have been people on earth.

What about Aristotle’s responsibility for the birth of science and the industrial revolution? Saint-Andre says that the evidence for this is “scant to non-existent”. But in one sense he was the father of science: He was the first to write extensively on scientific matters. For example, he was certainly the first to write extensively on zoology. (That much of what he wrote has since been proven wrong is another matter. But would we even have zoology today, if Aristotle had not inaugurated the subject?)

But it is equally true that few, if any, of the great scientists have acknowledged an intellectual debt to Aristotle. (Does Newton, for example, even mention Aristotle?)

But then, Ayn Rand also has the words “explicitly or implicitly”. Few, if any, great scientists have been explicit Aristotelians. But what about “implicit Aristotelianism”?

In very broad terms Plato was an “other-worldly” thinker, while Aristotle as a “this-worldly” thinker. And any scientist has to be “this-worldly” to achieve anything of value at all. So in this sense scientists would have to be “implicit Aristotelians”. But this is in very broad terms. If one goes into details of Aristotle’s epistemology (which is too large a subject for me to delve into at present), one might find other things.

According to Leonard Peikoff in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand viewed history as a “duel between Plato and Aristotle”. An obvious objection to this is that history did not start with those two thinkers – so what was the driving force behind history before their time? But if one takes them as representatives and/or symbols of an “other-worldly” versus a “this-worldly” orientation, then this duel might have been going on since time immemorial. But this, too, is very broad and very sweeping. And in general, I distrust attempts to explain history by formulas such as this; history is simply too complex for this.[3]

As to Aristotle’s influence of the creation of the United States, the only thing I can think of off-hand is that he actually discusses “division of powers” between the legislative, the executive and the judicial branch in The Politics:

There are three elements in all constitutions, and every serious lawgiver must look for the best set-up for each of the three; if these are well done, the constitution will be well done, and the differences in constitutions correspond to the different set-up in each case. The three elements are, first, the deliberative, discussion about everything of national importance, second, the executive, the whole complex of officials and authorities, their number and nature, the limits of their power, and the methods by which they are selected, and third, the judicial system. (The Politics, Book 4, Chapter 13; translation T.A. Sinclair; italics mine.)

Saint-Andre then has lengthy discussions of The Nicomachean Ethics and of Aristotle’s epistemology, but for now, they are “too big a mouthful” for me to comment on, so I will end here.

(Hat tip to Joshua Zader, who linked to this essay on his Facebook wall, and to Kirsti Minsaas, who tipped Joshua about it.)

Minor update: Saint-Andre claims that Ayn Rand is unfair to Aristotle when she says that “he did not regard ethics as an exact science”; and he takes issue with the idea that Aristotle was a “moderate realist” in epistemology. But both those subjects are complex; and I am a slow thinker. But an interesting fact is that on the latter subject, he refers to some essays in the book Philosophical Issue in Aristotle’s Biology, which was edited by two Objectivist Aristotle scholars, Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox. This, I think, shows that there is some awareness of this issue also in Objectivist circles.


[1]) I had never heard of this person before; but obviously he is well versed in Aristotle’s philosophy and also is able to read them in the original Greek.

[2]) In the West, grammar did not emerge as a discipline until Hellenic times, a few centuries after Aristotle. In India, it emerged as early as the 6th century BC. See the Wikipedia article on grammar.

[3]) I have a similar criticism against Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s interpretation of history; see my blog post A Short Word on Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Scandinavian speaking people may also read what I write about him on my Swedish blog.

Aristotle on Youth and Old Age

(This is an adaptation of a recent Swedish blog post.)

I recently re-read Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric.[1] There is a section in this book where Aristotle compares youth to old age, from which I would like to give some quotes and comments. (You may wonder what this has to do with rhetoric, but one of Aristotle’s main points is that a speaker has to take the context of his audience into consideration, and then it might be good to know in what ways the young differ from us old folks.)

First, I’d like to quote something that is virtually self-evident:

And for the most part they [the young] live in hope; for hope is of the future and remembrance of the past, and for the young the future is long and the past short […]

And he repeats the same point later:

And they [the old] live in memory rather than in hope; for the rest of their life is short, and hope is of the future, memory of past things […]

This is incontrovertible. That the remainder of one’s life gets shorter day by day, year by year, decade by decade, is just one of those hard facts of life. One has to live with it.

To the first quote above Aristotle adds:

[…] for on one’s first day one can remember nothing but hope for everything.

If this is taken literally (the very first day of one’s life), this has to be wrong. A newborn baby of course has no memories, but neither does it have hopes for the future. For this to happen a child would have to have at least some rudimentary concept of “future”, and it will take at least a couple of years for a child to acquire such a concept.

To the second quote, Aristotle adds:

… which is also the reason for [our] garrulity; for [we] are always talking about the past, since [we] take pleasure in recollection.

Maybe I should keep silent on this one, so as not to be accused of being garrulous or overly talkative; but I have certainly met young people who talk a lot and old people who don’t. – And one would expect him to say that the young, by contrast, are taciturn; but he doesn’t say that.

Some more contrasts between the young and the old:

[The young] are not sour-natured but sweet-natured through their not having yet observed much wickedness, and credulous through their not yet having been many times deceived […] And they are easily deceived for the reason given (that they easily hope) […]

… whereas we old folks

… from having lived for many years and been frequently deceived or in error, and from most of [our] affairs having been bad, [we] do not have confidence in anything […] And [we] are sour-tempered; for sour temper consists in taking everything for the worse. [We] also nourish suspicions through [our] lack of credulity, and are incredulous through [our] experience.

Isn’t this a rather bleak view of life? It is true that life is full of disappointments – but aren’t there also old people who have led successful lives and whose affairs have not been all that bad? And do we all get more and more sour-tempered as we grow older? And are all young people sweet-tempered? – This is the kind of questions I ask myself, since I obviously cannot ask Aristotle. Well, Aristotle might have answered that this is the kind of truths that do not hold true always, but only “for the most part”. But I think there are too many exceptions for that, too.

Furthermore, the young

… are magnanimous (for they have not yet been humiliated by life […])

… whereas we old folks

… are small-minded from [our] humiliations in life […]

Also, the young

… think they know everything and are obstinate […]

… whereas we old folks

… have many opinions but no knowledge, and in [our] deliberations [we] always add “perhaps” and “maybe”, and say everything like that and nothing without reservations.

Also, the young

… are relatively courageous […]

… whereas we old folks

… are cowards and fear everything in advance […]

Should I take this as a personal affront? I certainly have not grown more cowardly over the years. (I will return to this point later.)

And the young

… prefer doing what is noble to what is in their own interest, for they live rather by character than by calculation, and calculation is connected with interest but virtue with nobility.

… while we old folks

… live for [our] interest and not for nobility, more than is right […] For one´s own interest is a relative good, nobility a good absolutely.

And in connection with this:

[We] are more self-loving than is right; for this too is a kind of small-mindedness.

This I find puzzling, in view of what Aristotle writes about “self-love” in The Nicomachean Ethics. There, he says that

… the good man should be a lover of self (for he will both himself profit by doing noble acts, and will benefit his fellows), but the wicked man should not; for he will hurt both himself and his neighbors, following as he does evil passions.

I have already written about this in a blog post called Aristotle on Egoism, so I refer you to it. – In The Nicomachean Ethics there is some discussion of “proper” versus “improper” self-love, or rather, what should properly be called self-love and what shouldn’t; but there is no word about “too much” self-love or an “excess” of self-love. But here, in the Rhetoric, he makes use of his idea that there is a “mean” that is proper, and that “excess” and “deficiency” are improper. I think this is inconsistent. (And which of these two works represents Aristotle’s more mature view, I simply don’t know.[2])

I’m also slightly puzzled by Aristotle’s distinction between what is “noble” and what is “to one’s own interest”. I think it is more to my interest to perform noble acts than ignoble acts; and the Aristotle who wrote The Nicomachean Ethics seems to agree with me; he says that the self-loving man

… assigns to himself the things that are noblest and best, and gratifies the most authoritative element in himself […]

… which hardly contradicts the fact that the self-loving man also pursues his own interests. – But it would make sense in a case where one forsakes some immediate gratification or short-term interest in view of the long term consequences[3]. Enough hair-splitting on this issue!

But back to the idea that “we old folks” are cowardly; I think this, too, clashes with what he writes in The Nicomachean Ethics. In this book, he makes the point that we become virtuous by practicing the virtues:

The virtues we get by first exercising them […] For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. (Book 2, chapter 1.)

I might add that the same is true of the vices, so that we become cowards by habitually behaving cowardly.

But if this is so, why should a man who has made himself brave by doing many brave acts suddenly become a coward just because he has grown old? This simply doesn’t make sense to me.

Had Aristotle instead said that the old are more cautious than the young, that would make better sense, and it would be in line with the point that the old have much more experience than the young and have experienced many disappointments. But cautiousness is certainly not the same as cowardice.

I think this is a good place to end this blog post, before it becomes excessive.


[1]) The Art of Rhetoric. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by H.C. Lawson-Tancred; London: Penguin Books, 1991. In this translation, the section is in Section 7, chapter 2:12–14, p. 172–177. The Becker numbers are 1388b–1390b.

[2]) The chronology of Aristotle’s works is a matter of dispute; I don’t think anyone knows for sure.

[3]) A good example from literature is the scene in The Fountainhead where Roark refuses to compromise about a building of his and then has to take a job in a quarry. Someone calls this “fanatical and selfless”, and Roark answers: “That was the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.”

Self-Lovers and Self-Loathers

About a year ago I wrote a blog post, Aristotle on Egoism, with extensive quotes from The Nicomachean Ethics. In a nutshell: the egoism or self-love of a good man is good; the egoism of a bad man is bad – and he cannot even experience self-love, since there is nothing to love in him. A bad man has to experience self-loathing.

I came to think of this again yesterday, when I saw the following comment in a discussion thread on Facebook:

All Ayn Rand did was to give the OK for pricks all over the world to tell selfish assholes that it’s OK to be selfish.

You must have heard this kind of “objection” to Objectivism many times before; but perhaps not in this colorful language. 😉

Only in a world populated exclusively by “pricks” and “assholes” would this statement make sense. But OK: there are some “assholes” in the world; and only a “prick” would advise them to also be selfish “assholes”; for the rest of us it would better to advise them to be totally selfless; then they would go sacrifice themselves, and we would get rid of them.

Good men and women, on the other hand, should certainly tell other good men and women that it is OK to be selfish. We are neither “pricks”, nor “assholes”.

I won’t delve further into this issue; it is a case of “examining a folly”, and it is enough to realize it is a folly.

Aristotle on Egoism

It is also in The Nicomachean Ethics, book 9, that one finds Aristotle’s reasoning on egoism. Objectivists are probably already familiar with this reasoning; but I find it interesting from one particular aspect: it explains why egoism has gotten a bad name – why most people cannot even fathom the idea of rational egoism and think that egoism by its very nature has to be predatory. One can explain to them that “predatory egoism” is just the other side of altruism’s false coin – but if you have had any experience with discussing Objectivism with non-Objectivists, you will probably have found that they don’t get it anyway.

Speaking for myself: When I hear that egoism is “predatory” – that it is all about “ill-gotten gains”, swindling others out of their money, wanting to become a dictator, and all that kind of jazz – I usually ask: “From where did you get that idea? From introspection? Well, it has to be – for the only ego you have direct contact with is your own ego. So speak for yourself! Just because your ego is predatory, this does not mean that all egos are predatory.”

But I say this only because I get very mean when I have to polemicize against bad ideas. There is another reason people think this way about egoism: there are actually very few truly rational egoists around. So the only kind of “egoism” people are actually subjected to is the “predatory” kind.

Enough of my own musing on this subject; let’s see what Aristotle says. But first a semantic remark: The Greek word for “egoist” is “αυτοφιλος”, which literally means “lover of self”, and this term is used in the English translation. Now to the text:

The question is also debated, whether a man should love himself most, or someone else. People criticize those who love themselves most, and call them self-lovers, using this as an epithet of disgrace, and a bad man seems to do everything for his own sake, and the more so the more wicked he is […] while the good man acts for honour’s sake, and the more so the better he is, and acts for his friend’s sake, and sacrifices his own interests.

But the facts clash with these arguments, and this is not surprising. For men say that one ought to love best one’s best friend, and a man’s best friend is one who wishes well to the object of his wish for his sake, even if no one is to know of it; and these attributes are found most of all in a man’s attitude towards himself, and so are all the other attributes by which a friend is defined; for […] it is from this relation that all the characteristics of friendship have extended to our neighbours. […] [A man] is his own best friend and therefore ought to love himself best. It is therefore a reasonable question, which of the two views we should follow; for both are plausible.

Parenthetically, this way of reasoning is very characteristic of Aristotle: presenting two opposite views and then carefully weighing the arguments pro and con. End of parenthesis.

Perhaps we ought to mark off such arguments from each other and determine how far and in what respects each view is right. Now if we grasp the sense in which each school uses the phrase “lover of self”, the truth may become evident. Those who use the term as one of reproach ascribe self-love to people who assign to themselves the greater share of wealth, honours, and bodily pleasures; for those are what most people desire, and busy themselves about as if they were the best of all things, which is the reason, too, that they become objects of competition. So those who are grasping with regard to these things gratify their appetites and in general their feelings and the irrational element of the soul; and most men are of this nature (which is the reason why the epithet has come to be used as it is – it takes its meaning from the prevailing type of self-love, which is a bad one); justly, therefore, are men who are lovers of self in this way reproached for being so. That it is those who give themselves the preference in regard to objects of this sort that most people usually call lovers of self is plain; for if a man were always anxious that he himself, above all things, should act justly, temperately, or in accordance with any other of the virtues, and in general were always to try to secure for himself the honourable course, no one would call such a man a lover of self or blame him.

Many words to make a simple (but important) point: that the egoism or self-love of a bad man is something bad. Now, over to an equally wordy explanation of why the egoism or self-love of a good man is something good:

But such a man would seem more than the other a lover of self; at all events he assigns to himself the things that are noblest and best, and gratifies the most authoritative element in himself and in all things obeys this; and just as a city or any other systematic whole is most properly identified with the most authoritative element in it, so is a man; and therefore the man who loves this and gratifies it is most of all a lover of self. Besides, a man is said to have or not to have self-control according as his reason has or has not the control, on the assumption that this is the man himself; and the things men have done on a rational principle are thought most properly their own acts and voluntary acts. That this is the man himself, then, or is so more than anything else, is plain, and also that the good man loves most this part of him. Whence it follows that he is most truly a lover of self, of another type than that which is a matter of reproach, and as different from that as living according to a rational principle is from living as passion dictates, and desiring what is noble from desiring what seems advantageous.

Notice how close Aristotle is to Objectivism here: good men follow reason; lesser men are driven by their emotions or passions. (I’m tempted to say that Aristotle must have read Ayn Rand carefully.) You may also notice how far he is from David Hume – who infamously wrote that “reason is, and should be, a slave to the passions”.

Those, then, who busy themselves in an exceptional degree with noble actions all men approve and praise; and if all were to strive towards what is noble and strain every nerve to do the noblest deeds, everything would be as it should be for the common weal, and everyone would secure for himself the goods that are greatest, since virtue is the greatest of goods.

In other words, there is no conflict between a good man’s egoism or self-love and the “common weal”.

And now we come to Aristotle’s conclusion:

Therefore the good man should be a lover of self (for he will both himself profit by doing noble acts, and will benefit his fellows), but the wicked man should not; for he will hurt both himself and his neighbours, following as he does evil passions. For the wicked man, what he does clashes with what he ought to, but what the good man ought to do he does; for reason in each of its possessors chooses what is best for itself, and the good man obeys his reason. (The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Section 8; translation David Ross.)

Or in my own shorter formulation: The egoism of a good man is good; the egoism of a wicked man is wicked.

I mentioned in my earlier blog post, Aristotle on friendship, that only good people can be true friends, because a good man could never want to be “bosom friends” with somebody bad – which raises the question: Could bad men, then, be friends with one another? This question has to be answered in the negative; I will quote some more from Aristotle:

Such a man [a good or virtuous man] wishes to live with himself; for he does so with pleasure, since the memories of his past acts are delightful and his hopes for the future are good, and therefore pleasant. His mind is well stored too with subjects of contemplation. And he grieves and rejoices, more than any other, with himself; for the same thing is always painful, and the same thing always pleasant; and not one thing at one time and another at another; he has, so to speak, nothing to regret.

Therefore, since each of these characteristics belongs to the good man in relation to himself, and he is related to his friend as to himself (for his friend is another self), friendship too is thought to be one of these attributes, and those who have these attributes to be friends.

So this is why there can be friendship among good men. But what about wicked or evil men? Those men seek company, but they basically do it because they are afraid of being alone:

Wicked men seek for people with whom to spend their days, and shun themselves; for they remember many a grievous deed, and anticipate others like them, when they are by themselves, but when they are with others they forget. And having nothing loveable in them they have no feeling of love to themselves. […]

Therefore the bad man does not seem to be amicably disposed even to himself, because there is nothing in him to love […]. (The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Section 4.)

And here is a nice rounding-out quote:

Thus the friendship of bad men turns out an evil thing (for because of their instability they unite in bad pursuits, and besides they become evil by becoming like each other), while the friendship of good men is good, being augmented by their companionship; and they are thought to become better too by their activities and by improving each other […] (The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Section 12.)

(My Scandinavian readers can also read an essay I wrote several years ago: The Historical Roots of Anti-Egoism.)

Aristotle on Friendship

(This is an adaptation of a blog post I wrote in Swedish a couple of days ago.)

On Facebook one is “friends” with all one’s contacts – even those one has never met in real life, and even those one has not heard about before one gets a “friends request”. The new competitor to Facebook, Google+, on the other hand, makes a distinction between a circle of “friends” and a circle of “acquaintances”. This made me wonder about where one draws the line between an “acquaintance” and a “friend”; and I recalled that Aristotle discusses various types of friendship in The Nicomachean Ethics.

In fact, Aristotle devotes two whole books (book 8–9) in The Nicomachean Ethics to this subject. To make a long story short, he distinguishes between three types of friendships: friendship for the sake of utility, friendship for the sake of pleasure, and true friendship, where people like or love one another for what they are. An example of the first type would be a business acquaintance; and this kind of friendship ends when the utility ends. Or one might be friendly with one´s dentist, because he performs a useful service; but this is a friendship that ends when one leaves the dentist’s office and does not come back until one’s next visit to the dentist.

Friends for the sake of pleasure are those who like to talk to each other, to sometimes share a beer or a dinner on the town, to go to sports events or the theatre or the opera together, etcetera, etcetera. This is a more lasting kind of friendship; but it also comes to an end, when the pleasure comes to an end. If such friends are separated (if, for example, one of them moves to another town), the friendship will tend to evaporate.

The third, and best, kind of friendship can only occur between good people (nobody would like to be “bosom friends” with somebody bad). Such a friend is, in Aristotle’s words, “another self”, an “alter ego”; such friends rejoice and grieve together; they always wish one another well; the affection or love one feels for such a friend  is akin to the affection and love one feels for oneself.

This is a short summary, and I have left out a lot. For example, Aristotle also discusses friendship within a family; and he has the interesting observation that young people easily find “friends of pleasure”, but those friendships are also easily dissolved; while old and sour people (such as myself) have a hard time finding such friends.

So what does this have to do with Facebook and Google+? The question is, how many really true and good friends could one have? This is what Aristotle writes about this:

Should we, then, make as many friends as possible, or […] should a man neither be friendless nor have an excessive number of friends?

To friends made with a view to utility this saying would seem thoroughly applicable; for to do services to many people in return is a laborious task and life is not long enough for its performance. Therefore friends in excess of those who are sufficient for our own life are superfluous, and hindrances to the noble life; so that we have no need of them. Of friends made with a view to pleasure, also, few are enough, as a little seasoning in food is enough.

But as regards good friends, should we have as many as possible, or is there a limit to the number of one’s friends? […] [F]or friends […] there is a fixed number – perhaps the largest number with whom one can live together (for that, we found, is thought to be the very characteristic of friendship); and that one cannot live with many people and divide oneself up among them is plain. Further, they too must be friends of one another; and it is a hard business for this condition to be fulfilled with a large number. It is found difficult, too, to rejoice and to grieve in an intimate way with many people, for it may likely happen that one has at once to be happy with one friend and to mourn with another. Presumably, then, it is well not to seek to have as many friends as possible, but as many as are enough for the purpose of living together; for it would seem actually impossible to be a great friend to many people. This is why one cannot love several people; love is ideally a sort of excess of friendship, and that can only be felt towards one person; therefore great friendship too can only be felt towards a few people.

What, then, has Aristotle to say about those who have hundreds or even thousands of Facebook friends?

Those who have many friends and mix intimately with them all are thought to be no one’s friend, except in the way proper to fellow citizens, and such people are also called obsequious. In the way proper to fellow citizens, indeed, it is possible to be the friend of many and yet not be obsequious but a genuinely good man; but one cannot have with many people the friendship based on virtue and on the character of our friends themselves, and we must be content if we find even a few such. (The Nicomachean Ethics. Book 9, Section 10; translated by David Ross.)

Well, I should not accuse those who have many Facebook friends of obsequiousness – it is Facebook that has defined “friend” in such a way that virtually anyone could be subsumed under the concept. But what about Google+? Well, I have quite a few “friends for pleasure” – people whose status updates and comments I like to read, and even some that I like to share a beer with. But friends that I would always rejoice and grieve with? With the possible exception of my lady-friend (and my mother, when she was still alive) I cannot even remember having had such a close friend. So I am content with having only acquaintances on Google+.

Update February 9, 2016: Aristotle’s point illustrated:

I found this on a Facebook group called Ik heb liever weinig echte vrienden dan veel schijnheilige vrienden (i.e. “I would rather have few genuine friends than many sanctimonious friends”).