April 29, 2010

The Unconscious and Myth of Reason

The gods above and the gods below!

Sigmund Freud

A Brief Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Critique of Reason

§1. Reason and the Enlightenment

In a certain sense, the introduction of Sigmund Freud’s concept of the “unconscious” can be construed as a mockery of the intellectual traditions of the Western civilization. The appearance of Freud’s concept of the unconscious on the scene of the 20th century is deemed as a direct warning to the philosophical and scientific traditions, which can be traced back to the Age of Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason). Our Enlightenment legacy is the investiture of man with the unflinching trust in human reason. (For further exploration of the “Enlightenment” see the following link: The Age of Enlightenment (roughly from 1650 to 1770) celebrated human reason and resurrected a sense of self-confidence and self-possession. The Enlightenment view firmly held that the new individuals of the age of science are equipped with reason and theories that can be put into practice in order to reform or remove the corrupt social and political institutions. The grandiose vision of the Enlightenment was to reconstruct the human world – through the use of reason, science, and technology – in order to serve the natural law of “progress”: that human reason can discover scientific truths about the natural world and human nature, and turn these bodies of knowledge into practice in forms of technology and social reform for the benefit of humanity. They believed they were, or would be soon, in command of all the knowledge necessary to improve the world.

After over two centuries since the Enlightenment, according to philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1798-1979), we have constructed a human intellect powerful enough to unravel the mysteries of the natural world, but any intellect that powerful has a peculiar tendency to be tyrannical! (For further exploration of Marcuse’s thoughts on “reason” see the following link: While it is true that science and technology have helped humanity to procure the knowhow to deal with certain areas of human life, it may not be a fair assessment that the progress of the Enlightenment project has made us less fearful and unsecure in the face of the modern uncertainties. We are still wrestling with the problems of poverty, hunger, unemployment, healthcare, drugs, population, racial conflicts, political uncertainty, economic inflation, recession, energy, water, and global warming. What is paradoxical about the Enlightenment’s tenacious confidence in human reason is that it has turned into a force of mystification of the human world. For instance, the Germans – who highly excelled themselves above many other people in science, technology, arts, literature, philosophy, civics, and industrialization since the dawn of modernity and became an epitome of civilization – the people who gave Goethe, Beethoven, and Einstein to the world, also gave birth to Nazism, brutality, and Auschwitz. They built a human intellect firm enough to withstand excruciating challenges and to ennoble man’s spirit, yet this intellect became totalitarian. How so? What could have gone wrong with reason?

§2. Cause vs. Reason (The Unconscious vs. Consciousness)

In his Some Elementary Lessons in Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) writes about a case wherein a doctor hypnotized his patient and, while under hypnosis, instructed him as follows: I am going to leave the ward, but upon my return you are to bring my umbrella and hold it open over my head. Thereafter, the doctor brought the patient out of hypnosis and left the ward. When the doctor returned to the ward, the patient grabbed the umbrella, opened it, and held it over the doctor’s head. The doctor asked why he did that. The patient became embarrassed and gave him an unsound reason, such as that he thought it was raining outside and the doctor would need his umbrella!

The point is that, the patient’s reason for why he acted the way he did belies the actual cause of what he did. Here, Freud makes a distinction between the “cause” of the patient’s action (the “cause” of which the patient was unconscious) and the “reason” for his action (the “reason” of which the patient was conscious). Likewise, often, “causes” precede our actions while our “reasons” proceed from the actions. We commonly fabricate reasons for our choices or deeds – reasons that conceal, not reveal, the underlying causes of our decisions or activities. Often our reasons for why we do something (e.g., getting married or pursuing a college degree) betray the actual causes of why we do it. In other words, we unknowingly lie to ourselves! What we consciously want may not be what we really desire. Or, expressed in psychoanalytical terms, the “ego” thinks that it is acting autonomously, not realizing that the “id” is pulling its strings. It is in this particular sense that Freud’s concept of the unconscious has been a humiliating blow to the confidence in the philosophical and scientific pursuit of knowledge. Freud wonders what the ulterior motives underlying our pursuit of knowledge or truth could be. In a certain sense, the Western intellectual traditions were to demythologize the world; however, it seems that they have supplanted the old myths with the new ones: self-control and progress. Human reason, according to Freud, can never be truly sovereign.

The scientific advancements may have given us greater control of our environment, but for Freud a great many of our problems lie deep within ourselves. Unconscious forces of which we are unaware often dictate our thoughts and behaviors. Hence, Freud insists that we can acquire a greater degree of autonomy by understanding the unconscious psyche. In his The Interpretation of Dreams, he wrote, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.” For him, a significant measure of what takes place in human psyche is unconscious. He considers this as a fundamental premise of psychoanalysis. And, one of the most characteristic facets of psychoanalysis is its refusal to identify our mental life with what we are conscious of.

In his Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis, Freud considers that science has delivered three principal blows to “the naive self-love of men”. First, under Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), it was discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe. Second, under Alfred Wallace (1823-1913) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882), their theories of evolution dethroned man from being the crown of creation and placed man amongst the animals. Third, Freud writes, perhaps not without a degree of conceit, “Human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time [in my hand], which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind.”

§3. Myth of Reason

Although Freud’s psychoanalysis poses an affront to the philosophical and scientific traditions, yet he has shown us – in the name of science itself – that the apparent power of human mind is all too often derived from non-rational factors. He does not deprecate science to an illusion; nevertheless, once rationality is unveiled in one area as being something other than it appears, it is difficult to stop the domino effect. Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) portrayed a peculiar reaction to Freud’s psychoanalysis when he stated that Freud had introduced a “new myth”. According to his conversation with Rush Rhees, Wittgenstein asserted that psychoanalysis would be likely to do harm “Because although one may discover in the course of it various things about oneself, one must have a very strong and keen and persistent criticism in order to recognize and see through the mythology that is offered or imposed on one. There is an inducement to say, ‘yes, of course, it must be like that.’ A powerful mythology.” A critical issue is that how far Freud’s psychoanalysis can lay claim to truth – when it is itself a product of human rationality, which he has led us to be suspicious of.

§4. Psychoanalysis and Philosophy

Characteristically, psychoanalysis, as a science of the human mind, shares with philosophy a common territory, which has made psychoanalysis vulnerable to numerous attacks from the scientific front. Akin to Quantum Field Theory, psychoanalysis has kept one foot in science and the other in philosophy because its various theories cannot be tested in a strictly scientific manner. Of course, philosophy has had its own pre-Freudian developments in regard to the phenomena of the unconscious and consciousness. The following is a brief historical description of the evolution of the philosophical conception of the unconscious and consciousness, which paved the way for Freud’s psychoanalysis.

§5. Plato (c. 427-c. 347 B.C.)

Ancient Greek philosopher Plato propounds a theory known as the “tripartite soul”, which is expressive of three functions or capacities of the human soul: “reason”, “the spirited element”, and “appetites” (or “passions”). For Plato, these three faculties fall into a natural hierarchy, in which reason (the rational element of the soul) has primacy over and ought to direct the spirited element (which occupies the intermediate level) and the bodily appetites (the non-rational element of the soul that occupies the lowest level). Plato construes this hierarchical structure as an organism whose constituent parts, functioning harmoniously together under the guidance of reason, serve the whole soul. A malfunction of one part would jeopardize the well-being of the whole. Plato is keenly aware of the conflicts between reason and the appetites. According to his Republic, while the appetites non-reflectively drive a person toward immediate gratification of her or his irrational desires, reason acts as an “inhibiting principle”. And, it is the spirited element (consisting of emotional drives such as anger, ambition, courage, pride, and aggression) that is to mediate between reason and the appetites in an attempt to resolve the conflict.

In contrast to Plato’s tripartite theory of soul, Freud’s tripartite structural model of the psyche is comprised of the “id” (tantamount to Plato’s concept of “appetites”), the “ego” (partly comparative to Plato’s concept of “reason” and partly to “the spirited element”), and the “super-ego” or “ego ideal” (in part comparative to Plato’s concept of “reason”). Freud describes the id as a purely unconscious impetus, expressive of the sexual, aggressive, and self-preserving instincts. The super-ego, partly conscious and partly unconscious, is a psychic function indicative of reason in terms of conscience, which regulates and/or restrains the instinctual urges. And, the ego (as an extension of the id), partly conscious and partly unconscious, is an organic dynamism significative of reason in terms of intelligence, which mediates between the id’s demands for immediate gratification of its instinctual urges and the disciplinary super-ego’s restrictions upon them. Furthermore, the ego, under the watchful eyes of the super-ego, functions to bring about an equilibrium between the impulsive urges and the external physical and social reality. In a sense, the ego is the executive while the super-ego is the legislative and the judiciary. Also, generally speaking, the id (Latin for “it”) is associated with the pleasure-pain principle, the ego (Latin for “I”) is correlated with the reality principle, and the super-ego (over-I) is identified with the ideal principle.

§6. René Descartes (1596-1650)

While Plato’s philosophy in its orientation and function is a form of “idealism”, René Descartes’ philosophy is a type of “materialism” – which became the dominant paradigm of modernity, shaping its socio-economico-political institutions all the way to the present time. In general, materialism, associated with the mechanical world view, is a metaphysical theory which holds that ultimate reality is matter, and that all seemingly nonmaterial things such as minds and thoughts are reducible to the motions of particles of matter. In contrast, idealism holds that ultimate reality is mental and that seemingly non-mental things, such as material objects, are reducible to the ideas of mind or consciousness. In general, the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, Sir Isaac Newton (in his mechanistic causal view of the universe), John Locke, David Hume, and Karl Marx are materialistically oriented, while the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Søren Kierkegaard are conversant with idealism. The materialism of philosophy of René Descartes is a foundation upon which Freud’s psychoanalysis is based in principle. As a result, Freud would ascribe various aspects of mental disorder to a mechanical sequence of causes and effects, which can be traced back all the way to childhood.

Descartes argues that whatever is not rational (i.e., “thinking substance”) is nothing but matter in motion devoid of consciousness. Descartes’ theory of the physical universe is known as “mechanism”, which is the theory that the mechanical motion of material substances can explain all of nature, including the human body. In his mechanistic model of reality, the world is infinite in extension, with bodies of all shapes and sizes that are perpetually in a state of motion and change. Descartes attributed all motion of bodies to mechanical impact, like the mechanical motion of billiard balls. For him, the universe is entirely mechanical, from the celestial motion of the planets to all organic and inorganic matter. To Descartes, and many of us, this is the physical universe: a mechanical system of bodies in motion according to the causal laws of physics. The physical world consists of bodies (of various geometrical sizes and shapes, colorless, soundless, smell-less, tasteless, and without texture) that move on impact with one another in purposeless, mechanical motion in a clockwork universe. This model of reality inspired both Newton’s classical physics and Freud’s analytical psychology.

The following are some of the reflections of Descartes in respect to the dynamics of non-conscious bodily impulses and conscious thoughts:

“There is nothing [no physical thing] in us which we ought to attribute to our soul, other than our thoughts, which are principally of two types: some are the actions of the soul, others are passions.” (From Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul)

“To be conscious is assuredly to think and to reflect upon one’s thought, . . . the soul can think many things at the same time, persevering in its thought, and reflecting upon its thoughts whenever it wishes, to be therefore conscious of its thought.” (From Descartes’ conversation with Burman)

“There is nothing completely in our power other than our thoughts.” (From Descartes’ Discourse on the Method)

“The utility of all the passions [bodily impulses] consists only in the fact that they dispose the soul to wish the things which nature tells us to be useful, and to persist in that wish.” (From Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul)

“All the movements of our [bodily] members which accompany our passions . . . are produced . . . not by our soul, but solely by the mechanisms of our body.” (From Descartes’ letter of Apr. 15, 1649 to Henry More)

“As for the movement of passions, even though they are accompanied by our thought, . . . it is nevertheless very evident that they do not depend upon it [our thought], because they often occur in spite of us.” (From Descartes’ letter of Nov. 23, 1646 to Marquess of Newcastle)

“Love, hate, fear, anger, etc. . . . are  . . . passions of the soul; that is, insofar as these are confused thoughts which the soul does not have of itself, but from the fact that it [the soul] is tightly united to the body, and thus receives the impression of the movements which take place in it; for there is a great difference between these passions and the knowledge or distinct thoughts which we have of what is loved, or hated, or feared, etc. . . .” (From Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy)

“The true use of our reason for the conduct of our life consists only in examining and considering without passion the value of all the perfections, those of body as well as those of the mind. . . .” (From Descartes’ letter of Sep. 1, 1645 to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia)

§7. David Hume (1711-1776)

In sharp opposition to Plato’s and Descartes’ rationalism, the empiricist philosopher David Hume, with great boldness, states in his A Treatise of Human Nature: “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Italics added.) For him, reason – in serving the passions – merely directs us to recognize “relations” between things while our passions prompt us to take action based on the knowledge of the relations. Reason is the “slave of the passions” inasmuch as it is not able to determine our ends for us, but can only show us how to accomplish what we already desire.

Hume’s empiricism holds that human knowledge is procured through “sense experience”, and that reason by itself cannot tell us what must be the case. For Hume, as for Freud, the dynamism of human life comes from our instinctual life. Reason can control, but can never dominate human passions. Hume insists that reason cannot pass from what is the case to what ought to be the case. Unlike Immanuel Kant, he even claimed that morality is not established by reason. Whether we are virtuous or vicious springs form our human nature, not reason. Morality, for him, is not something imposed on or demanded of humans, but is the outcome of a basic trait of human character. According to Hume, morality does not merely need to take account of human nature – morality is an expression of human nature.

Hume treats the behavior of physical objects and human actions in the same manner, meaning that he attributes the same kind of causal necessity to human action as to the effect of one billiard ball striking another. Moreover, he puts the emphasis on the operation of the human mind, not on the way things are outside of the mind. In other words, he is more concerned with how the mind perceives than whether what is perceived is real or not. In fact, in his A Treatise of Human Nature, he persists, “[T]he science of man is the only foundation for the other sciences. . . .”

§8. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

In his famous essay entitled “What is Enlightenment?”, German philosopher Immanuel Kant sums up the essence of the Enlightenment as follows: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and the courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of Enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! [Dare to know!] Have courage to use your own reason!” Kant is adamant in persevering, without any reservations, that roles of reason and, hence, consciousness should be paramount in our daily lives. He continues, “If it is asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment. As things are at present, we still have a long way to go before men as a whole can be in a position (or can even be put into a position) of using their own understanding confidently and well. . . .” This account is expressive of the age that was only at the commencement of becoming enlightened. Indeed, the Enlightenment was an age of transition, marked by the advance of freedom, which Kant deems as the necessary condition for daring to reason for oneself. Hence, besides reason, the idea of human freedom, which Kant affirmed, is fundamental and central in his philosophy. But what does freedom mean?

Kant repudiates that human freedom can be proven by way of theories or logic. We do not assert our freedom by thinking and conceptualizing it, but by acting. Conceptual analysis, for Kant, is of no avail in the sphere of human freedom, for it is not a theoretical problem – but a practical or moral issue. Kant recognizes two types of reason: “theoretical reason” (as applied in theoretical disciplines such as metaphysics and science) and “practical reason” (as applied in practical fields such as ethics and human conduct). Although his thoughts on theoretical reason are quite profound and consequential in the history of the Western civilization, he ardently emphasizes the role of practical reason in our daily lives. Kant insists that to choose to exist as a free human being is the utmost act of “self-respect” (not “self-love”), as it is the most fundamental ethical choice attainable to us, and all moral choices spring therefrom. Kant, in opposition to Hume, disallows moral principles to be based on personal human interests, not even on the interest in happiness. For him, all interests are indicative of human desires (or “inclinations” as he calls them), not reason. Human desires, does not matter how noble, express what Kant calls “self-love”, of which human happiness is the highest expression. Nevertheless, from his perspective, morality is about self-respect, not self-love. Hence, he concluds that there are always imminent conflicts between human desires and reason. Occasionally, reason (in form of morality) and happiness (as the most respectable form of self-love) can be concentric; nonetheless, they are not identical. Conversely, mandates of morality and happiness can run into conflicts.

Kant maintains that reason is, or should be, at the center of human life; the ultimate purpose of humanity is to realize its rational nature. That humans are rational means that they have purposes or ends. Hence, in his, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he writes, “Rational nature is distinguished from others in that it poses an end to itself.” In other words, human beings are the embodiment of reason as the force which fulfills their ends. Kant continues, “[A]s an end in himself, man is destined to be legislative in the realm of ends, free from all laws of nature and obedient only to those which he gives to himself. His universal maxims [i.e., moral principles] belong to a legislation to which he is at the same time subject.” Human reason informs our humanity and amplifies us beyond the animals. In absence of freedom to reason, we are denied the power of choice.

§9. G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)

In his enigmatic book Phenomenology of Spirit (which almost reads like an epic poem such as that of Homer’s Odyssey), German Philosopher G.W.F. Hegel discloses that what is immanently present but latent or unconscious in the world history is the “Spirit” or the “Absolute”. The Absolute, in a very general sense, is an all-encompassing, unitary, organic, and developmental process or principle that organizes all diversity of the phenomenal world into a rational unity. In his book, Hegel relates that this unity-within-diversity principle strives toward freedom. The world history is the process of the Absolute unfolding itself unto itself, whereby the Spirit manifests to finite human beings their own freedom. For Hegel, history seems to be the progressive evolution of human civilization in the consciousness of its own freedom.

The Absolute, operating through human history, externalizes human freedom by deployment of two factors: “reason” and “passion”. Being cognizant that humans’ personal goals and satisfaction of their self-serving appetencies are the nascence of human actions, Hegel maintains that passion – not rationality – is what motivates human actions. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History of 1832, he claims, “[W]e may affirm absolutely that nothing great in the World has been accomplished without passion.” Therefore, the Absolute – through reason – cons individuals into realizing its own end of freedom. By exploiting the human wills, the Absolute effectuates its own will through reason. Hegel refers to this phenomenon as the “cunning of reason”, which employs the prodigious momentum of human desires as means to its end of freedom – not necessarily for individuals, but for the nation-states. For instance, Napoleon Bonaparte’s lust for political power and conquest actually served the cunning of reason by passing on the new freedoms of the French Enlightenment to the nations he conquered. Consequently, such nations adopted liberalized laws, improved educational systems, and brought an end to the serfdom.

§10. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Arthur Schopenhauer, in his major work The World as Will and Representation, offers an account of the human psyche that is on a par with the general posture of Freud’s psychoanalysis. According to Schopenhauer, our true motives for our thoughts, decisions, and actions are often veiled from our conscious awareness. He relates that many philosophers traditionally were of the conviction that we know precisely what we want and desire. However, Schopenhauer conceives of human desires as merely the tip of an iceberg, whose full presence is submerged beneath the surface of consciousness. He holds that we commonly rationalize many of our choices and actions by ascribing them to motives that often mask, rather than unmask, the true impulses that set us in motion. He writes:

“We often do not know what we desire or fear. For years we can have a desire without admitting it to ourselves or even letting it come to clear consciousness, because the intellect is not to know anything about it, since the good opinion we have of ourselves would inevitably suffer thereby. But if the wish is fulfilled, we get to know from our joy, not without a feeling of shame, that this is what we desired; for example, the death of a near relation whose heir we are. Sometimes we do not know what we really fear, because we lack the courage to bring it to clear consciousness. In fact, we are often entirely mistaken as to the real motive from which we do or omit to do something, till finally some accident discloses the secret to us and we know that our real motive was not what we thought it as being, but some other that we were unwilling to admit to ourselves, because it was by no means in keeping with our good opinion of ourselves. For example, as we imagine we omit to do something for purely moral reasons; yet we learn subsequently that we were deterred merely by fear, since we do it as soon as all danger is removed.”

Freud describes such behavioral phenomena by applying his psychoanalytical concepts of the id, ego, and super-ego, confirming the subconscious forces conjuring below the surface of consciousness. Schopenhauer, prior to Freud, had already enacted similar conceptual distinction with his concepts of the “will” (blind primal unity, which admits of comparison to the Kantian “noumenon” and “thing-in-itself”) and “representation” (the objectification of the unity, which is on an equal footing with the Kantian “phenomenon”). Representations are the appearances of common and ordinary experiences while the will is the hidden reality underlying the appearances. Schopenhauer interprets the will as the controlling impetus within us, whereas philosophers conventionally had made reason the dominant factor. He gives primacy to the will above reason, for he construes the mind as an instrument serving the will. According to both Schopenhauer and Freud, we must penetrate beneath the surface of the mind to truly understand ourselves. “Consciousness is the mere surface of our mind”, Schopenhauer argues, “and of this, as of the globe, we do not know the interior, but only the crust.”

§11. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche, known as the “psychologizing philosopher”, of whom Freud was fond, offers a novel analysis of consciousness and reason. He harshly criticizes those philosophers and theologians who fancy human consciousness to be divinely supreme and inherently valuable:

“In relation to the vastness and multiplicity of . . . the life of every organism, the conscious world of feelings, intentions, and valuations is a small section. We have no right whatever to posit this piece of consciousness as the aim and wherefore of this total phenomenon of life: becoming conscious is obviously only one more means toward the unfolding and extension of the power of life. Therefore it is a piece of naiveté to posit pleasure or spirituality or morality or any other particular of the sphere of consciousness as the highest value – and perhaps even to justify ‘the world’ by means of this. . . . The fundamental mistake is simply that, instead of understanding consciousness as a tool and particular aspect of the total life, we posit it as the standard and the condition of life that is of supreme value. . . .”

According to Nietzsche, it is a grave error, as it has been committed by many philosophers, to think that human reason or consciousness is of a different origin and separate from our biology and the natural world. In his Will to Power, Nietzsche admonishes, “Through the long succession of millennia, man has not known himself physiologically: he does not know himself even today. To know, e.g., that one has a nervous system (– but no ‘soul’ –) is still the privilege of the best informed.” Nietzsche insists that we can properly comprehend ourselves by initially translating ourselves “back into nature” amongst the animals and then back into society – to both of which we owe the structure of our instinctual and conscious life. To convey the presumptuousness of elevating human consciousness over and beyond the natural world, Nietzsche shares with us a parable:

“In some remote corner of the universe, . . . there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of ‘world history’ – yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.

One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have [changed]. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life. It is human, rather, and only its owner and producer give it such importance, as if the world pivoted it. . . .

The intellect, as a means for the preservation of the individual, unfolds its chief powers in [deception]; for this is the means by which the weaker, less robust individuals preserve themselves, since they are denied the chance of waging the struggle for existence with horns or the fangs of beasts of prey.”

As Nietzsche points out, human consciousness or reason is a recent invention in the history of evolutionary biology: “There have been eternities when it did not exist.” From the scientific viewpoint, the Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”) have thus far occupied this minuscule corner of the galaxy only since about 200,000 years ago in the entire more or less 14,000,000-year history of the universe. Nietzsche peculiarly expresses that human consciousness is relatively a weak organ of knowledge – still, as it were, in an experimental stage! Consciousness does not possess the infallibility of human instincts; it is still plagued with many doubts and hesitations that are unknown to human impulses. In this, as it were, experiment of nature, whose results are still in doubt, our social way of living has become an alternative to a purely impulsive mode of life. Both Nietzsche and Freud argue that our social conditions have compelled us to rely more on our conscious thinking rather than our instincts. In a sense, to supplant the instincts, our social circumstances have caused a collapse of our instinct-structure. It is under these conditions, according to Nietzsche, that human consciousness and reason transpired. Further, it is in this regard that Nietzsche, in his On the Genealogy of Morals, refers to man as a “sick animal”:

“Where does it come from, this sickliness? For man is more sick, uncertain, changeable, indeterminate than any other animal, there is no doubt of that – he is the sick animal: how has that come about? Certainly he has also dared more, done more new things, braved more and challenged far more than all the other animals put together: he, the great experimenter with himself, discontented and insatiable, wrestling with animals, nature, and gods for ultimate dominion. . . . [H]ow should such a courageous and richly endowed animal not also be the most imperiled, the most chronically and profoundly sick of all sick animals?”

“Man was bound to contract [this illness] under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced – that change which occurred when he found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace. The situation that faced sea animals when they were compelled to become land animals or perish was the same as that which faced these semi-animals, well adapted to the wilderness, to war, to prowling, to adventure: suddenly all their instincts were disvalued and ‘suspended.’ . . . [I]n this new world they no longer possessed their former guides, their regulating, unconscious and infallible drives: they were reduced to thinking, inferring, reckoning, co-ordinating cause and effect, these unfortunate creatures; they were reduced to their ‘consciousness,’ their weakest and most fallible organ! . . . [A]t the same time the old instincts had not suddenly ceased to make their usual demands! Only it was hardly or rarely possible to humor them: as a rule they had to seek new and, as it were, subterranean gratifications.

All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward – this is what I call the internalization of man: thus it was that man first developed what was later called his ‘soul.’ The entire inner world, originally as thin as if it were stretched between two membranes, expanded and extended itself, acquired depth, breadth, and height, in the same measure as outward discharge was inhibited. Those fearful bulwarks with which the political organization protected itself against the old instincts of freedom – punishments belong among these bulwarks – brought about that all those instincts of wild, free, prowling man turned backward against man himself. . . . [T]hus began the gravest and uncanniest illness, from which humanity has not yet recovered, man’s suffering of man, of himself – the result of a forcible sundering from his animal past, as it were a leap and plunge into new surroundings and conditions of existence, a declaration of war against the old instincts upon which his strength, joy, and terribleness had rested hitherto.”

However, Nietzsche is absolutely not suggesting that man should go back to the cave of primal existence – for man has transformed her or himself beyond mere biological necessities. Human life has procured social and psychological dimensions that can set the stage for a higher development of the “organic”. Although Nietzsche, in his Will to Power, asserts that “the body is a more astonishing idea than the old ‘soul’”, he also claims that, “It is a history of the development of a higher body that emerges into our sensibility. The organic is rising to yet higher levels” – i.e., “the entire evolution of the spirit.”

Freud compared his discovery of the unconscious to the greatest archaeological discoveries of his time. Heinrich Schliemann had found and excavated Troy, and Arthur Evans had unearthed the Labyrinth at Knossos. Their discoveries attracted the world’s attention. While Freud excavated no archaeological sights, he seems to have wanted to be recognized for his excavation of the human mind.  As a Jew, Freud was an outsider in the scientific establishment. Schliemann was the very image of what Freud wanted to be. When his monumental book, The Interpretation of Dreams, was published at the turn of the 20th century (which was actually published in November of 1899, but post-dated to 1900 by the publisher!), its epigraph was from Virgil’s Aeneid in the Latin of the classically educated elite: “Flectere si nequeo Superos, Acheronta movebo.” (“Since I cannot move the gods above, I shall move the gods below.”). Indeed, he did! After Freud, human nature and reason are not looked upon the same manner anymore.

For further exploration of this article, I invited you to read my previous posts as follows:




(Dear reader, please feel free to make a critique of this article. I look forward to learning from you!)


April 5, 2010


“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix

A Brief Exploration of History of Western Individualism

With the dusk of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the modern era, individualism gradually began as a way of adapting to the new social, economic, and political conditions in Europe. And, henceforth, it evolved into social, economic, political, and philosophical doctrines expressive of one’s independence, self-reliance, self-determination, and, hence, individuality. In general, individualism gives primacy to the individual over what opposes her/his individuality, be it a social institution or the state. This new way of adapting to life under the new circumstances found diverse expressions, not always in agreement with each other, in the philosophies of the French philosophes, Immanuel Kant, W.G.F. Hegel, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, and et cetera.

The word “individuality” (derived from Latin word indīviduus, meaning “indivisible” or “inseparable”) is commonly stipulated as the state or quality of being an individual who exists as a distinct entity and possesses sum total of qualities and characteristics that form the individual’s identity and distinguish the individual from others. However, the concept of individuality and the doctrines in which it has been embodied are not easy to unravel. They have been viewed differently in various historical periods, and they can be examined from different perspectives, such as that of psychology, sociology, political science, and ethics.

Here, we are faced with an important distinction between the two concepts “individualism” and “individuality”. From a technical viewpoint, the former is often depicted as social and ethical phenomena of human relations and conduct, while the latter is often depicted as a psychological phenomenon of mental growth. In this sense, not without exceptions, individualism is a proper subject matter within the disciplines of sociology and ethics while individuality is an appropriate subject matter within the discipline of psychology. Nonetheless, each discipline has its own distinct concepts of individualism and individuality. Moreover, each discipline can examine these concepts in interdisciplinary fashions. For example, a sociologist can examine the sociological concept of individualism under the light of psychology; conversely, a psychologist can examine the psychological concept of individuality under the light of sociology. In addition, a sociologist can examine individuality within a sociological context, and a psychologist can examine individualism within a psychological context.

The nature of relation between the individual and society or state has been a recurring theme in history of individualism. Should the individual have primacy over the state? Or, should the interests of the state have priority over the interests of the individual? Or, should there be a symbiotic relation between the two? This article is an attempt to briefly explore the complex phenomenon of individualism mainly within a historical context, starting with the Greece of antiquity.

§1. Age of Antiquity of Greece

In his The Origins of European Individualism, historian Aron Gurevich (1924-2006) asserted, “[T]here seems to have been no awareness of individuality in ancient times [which includes the classical Greece].” Although some scholars dismiss this assertion, they acknowledge that the Greeks, unlike the contemporary Western societies, probably did not have high-ranking value for individuality. Within the socio-political context of their society, it is said that the Greeks of antiquity did not seem to have a word for “individuality”; they reportedly did not appear to understand it. Our contemporary Western lifestyles, in many ways alienated from the life of our societies and their institutions, would have been appalling to the classical Greeks. To them, our contemporary individualism would have been an unconscionable act of social division—estranging ourselves from each other and the society. The Greek polis (i.e., the Greek city-state), especially during the Golden Age of Pericles (448-404 BC), was not just a guarantee of citizenship; the Greek polis made it possible for a man to become a human. Fifth century BC Athenians were interested not in the rights of man as an individual, but in the rights of Athenians as a whole. In his famous funeral oration, Pericles, the statesman-ruler of the democratic Athens, declared to the citizens:

“We do not say that a man who takes no interest in the politics [i.e., the affairs of the polis] is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all.”

The Greek city-state functioned as a civilizing force by collectively creating social conditions necessary to development of good life for its citizens. The Athenians would have found our cult of egocentric individualism incomprehensible. To the Greek thought, even our cherished ideal of privacy would have been a scandalous failure of human maturity.

To the Greeks, the Delphic Oracle’s maxim “know thyself” did not mean to individuate or dissociate themselves from the society. For them, one’s livelihood, well-being, and personal developments were essentially dependent on the communal life. This is manifest in life of Socrates when he, out of respect for the laws of Athens which had condemned him to death, chose not to escape from his own execution when he had the chance. He argued that individuals who disobey the laws of their own society tear away at the foundation of communal life.

The Greek sense of community is also exhibited in their intellectual activities. For the Athenians, the pursuit of philosophical truths was no private, individual affair; truth was not something that could be attained individually and monologically, but something that could be achieved collectively and dialogically. As demonstrated in Plato’s dialogues, the directive “know thyself” was not carried out in private, away from the public forum. For Socrates, in accordance with Plato’s dialogues, truth is achieved by way of dialogue and dialectical interaction with others. This Greek disposition, in the realm of politics, is deemed to be a contributing factor to the unprecedented birth of Athenian “democracy”, which is a Greek word (δημοκρατία, dēmokratiā) meaning “rule of people”—not individual.

While the Greeks did not seem to comprehend or highly value individuality, they did emphasize the cultivation of human character (ēthos*) and virtues (aretai*). In general, the Greeks ideally valued the life of “excellence”, which entailed the development of human potentials such as “beauty” (as evident in their works of art), “courage” (as indicated in their myths and tragedies), “justice” (as obvious in their invention of democracy and how the polis existed for the good of all), “intellect” (as shown in their pursuits of theoretical disciplines such as geometry and philosophy), “wisdom” (as evident in the characters of their thinkers), and et cetera. The Greek city-state placed great value on and made possible the cultivation of human character and virtues, which were not deemed as individualistic pursuits. In general, their view of ethics (derived from the Greek word ἦθος, ēthos) was mainly character-based, emphasizing the pursuit of “excellence”, whereby one actualizes one’s potentials within the social context.

§2. Medieval Age

During the Medieval Age in Europe (roughly from 476 to 1517), Christian beliefs and values dominated the scene. While some of the legacies of the Greek and Roman civilizations were retained by the Roman Catholic Church, many of their intellectual and cultural achievements were pronounced unworthy. The Church charged them with being pagan and immoral. For centuries, Christianity shaped the entire cultural, social, and political life of Europe. Social institutions, economic relations, arts, literature, philosophy, and science were put under the strict control of the Church. The free, rational, Greek-style speculation was brought to an end by the Church and was not to be restored until the advent of the modem era, beginning around 1650. The Medieval Christianity put an end to free thinking, and replaced it with dogmas and authoritarianism, enforcing strict obedience to the authority of the Church. As a general rule, anyone who dared to challenge the dogmas or authority of the Church was tortured and/or put to death. Consequently, individualism found no significant expressions in the Dark Ages of Europe. However, there gradually developed a growing sense of doubt and mistrust toward the Church, its authority, its worldview, and its political control. Hence, the conditions were ripe to gradually give birth to the age of individualism. History seems to demonstrate that when religious, social, and political institutions are untrustworthy and lose their legitimacy—and no longer function for the sake of the common good—people individuate and break away from them to shape their own fragmented lives. (Of course, another contributing factor seems to be an unprecedented development of complexity of social life, which can have alienating effects.) In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle deemed this mode of social existence as sub-human.

§3. Renaissance

The 15th century Renaissance (which is a French word for “rebirth”) in Europe brought about a revival of Greco-Roman art, literature, philosophy, and humanism. The Greek man-centered view of the world (cf. Protagoras’ statement, “Man is the measure of all thing.”) inspired them and brought about an intellectual and social revolution, which reaffirmed the dignity, worth, and powers of human beings. Renaissance is deemed as the rediscovery of the human—that man is a capable being, with the power to direct one’s own destiny. This emergent view, of course, undermined the influence of the Church and weakened the structure of the Medieval feudalism. The new ethical posture of the Europeans, coupled with the invention of the printing press, Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and the discovery of new trade routes via water and land, gradually promoted advent of a new social order.

§4. Protestant Reformation and Cartesian Thinking

With the authority of the Church having been undermined and the faltering of the Medieval institutions, the phenomenon of individualism gradually began to unfold in Europe. A substantial blow to the authority of the Church was the rise of Lutheranism and Calvinism (collectively known as the Protestant Reformation, from 1517 to 1648). These movements ideally put the emphasis on the individual to read and interpret the Bible for oneself without the interference of the Church. One may narrowly construe the two movements as a sort of individualism within the sphere of Christianity itself. In due course, Christianity gradually became less of a communal affair than a personal matter. This progressive shift from the communal life to the individuated lives is still present in our time more pervasively and cynically than ever.

The sense of incertitude and mistrust was also projected in philosophy, which was not impervious to the unfolding phenomenon of individualism. In fact, the sense of incertitude and mistrust seems to have instigated an unprecedented shift in the way of thinking as exemplified by French mathematician, philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), the father of modern philosophy. Modern philosophy is recognizably different in many ways from the Greek philosophy. While the Greeks of antiquity philosophized dialogically and outdoors in the public, Descartes (and many subsequent thinkers) philosophized monologically and in seclusion away from the public view. Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, with the self thinking in solitude, becoming conscious of the false and doubtful ideas one has accepted so far in life, and deciding that the time has come to overthrow all of one’s beliefs. In the first paragraph of his “First Meditation”, Descartes wrote:

“Everything must be thoroughly overthrown for once in my life, if I ever want to establish anything solid and permanent in the sciences. . . . Today I have freed my mind from all cares. I am quite alone. At last I shall have time to devote myself seriously and freely to the destruction of all my former opinions.” (Meditations)

His problem was: Can I, by my own reason, establish solid and permanent truths? Unfortunately, for Descartes, the historical conditions of his time, when the Church was authoritative and intolerant, had no mercy on free thinking; therefore, he had to take refuge in the safety of seclusion.

§5. The Age of Enlightenment

Following the footsteps of Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment (roughly from 1650 to 1770), celebrated human reason and reawakened a sense of self-confidence and self-discipline. Having observed how human reason had managed to discover the natural laws of nature under the hands of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the Enlightenment figures applied reason to human nature and society to infer natural rights of liberty, equality, and property for all mankind. French philosophes, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), charged the Church and the political establishment with having conspired together to fetter human reason and to keep the masses ignorant and impoverished. Jean Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778), another Enlightenment philosopher, stated, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” (The Social Contract) Eventually, such Enlightenment ideas contributed to the French Revolution (1789-1799), which put an end to the dominance of the Church and monarchy in France. Thereafter, the Enlightenment gospel of independence and freedom spread throughout Europe, paving the way for the modern individualism, which was concurrent with the rise of secularization and bureaucratization of the social and political structures of European societies, adding to the complexity of the modern life.

The Enlightenment—invigorated with the truths of science and of human nature, and with its daring spirit to challenge the authorities and the longstanding traditions—brought about a paradigm shift in human thinking and relations. This paradigm shift, which is part of our psyche today, can be characterized with what they referred to as the “natural law of progress”: human reason can discover scientific truths about the world and human nature, and in turn this body of knowledge can be put into practice to improve human societies and living conditions through history. About a century later, Karl Marx reflected the same idea of progress in his dialectic of history.

§6. The Modern Age

With the diminution of the power and influence of the Church hand in hand with the cessation of the Medieval age and its feudal socio-economic structures, the modern age gradually took form as a result of many factors, among which are: the new Cartesian mode of thought, the scientific understanding of the world, the Enlightenment values and their applications, propagation of money, and the formation of the nation-states accompanied by secularization and bureaucratization of their social and political institutions, and the advent of capitalism and industrialism. With the rise of “modernity”, a new ethical view of human conduct—which put the accent on the individual—emerged in the Western societies.

The Greek ethical view of human conduct, often referred to as “virtue ethics”, valued cultivation of character and virtues, such as strength, courage, prudence, justice, and moderation, in a society that principally functioned for the common benefit of the citizenry. In contrast, the Medieval ethical view was principally “authority ethics”, that is, the right conduct was prescribed by whoever had the authority within the hierarchy of power, such as the Church, prince, feudal lord, or community. In contrast to the Greek and Medieval ethical postures, the modern ethics is generally based not on “character” or “authority”—but fundamentally based on “autonomy” of the individual in choosing her/his own conduct. German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) put forth noteworthy, ethical theories based on autonomy of the individual.

Today, our Kantian and Millian legacy is that the individual’s autonomy is central in making ethical decisions. In principle, the modern ethical view is a narrow inquiry, on the part of the autonomous individual, into whether action a, b, or c will be the good one to choose. And, in choosing, the individual applies a formula to judge the action. Kant’s celebrated ethical formula is, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law of nature.” (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals) In other words, do not lie or cheat if you do not like to be lied to or cheated. And, Mill’s ethical formula is, “One should always act so as to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.” (Utilitarianism) Since the French Revolution until present, the authority that has been most recognizable has been fundamentally that of the autonomous individual.

In the modern era where individuals are estranged from one another in a society where social bonds are fragmented and not as fundamental anymore, ethics has become formulaicinstrumental, and considerably quantitative. For the most part, the new ethical view of man does not seem to put high value on the cultivation of character or virtues. As mentioned earlier, the existing modern ethical view is principally a narrow inquiry into whether action a, b, or c will be the good one to choose, a choice that is often predicated on safety, pleasure, expediency, profitability, efficiency of time, and/or minimization of hardship.

In passing, it is worth mentioning that German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) had a negative view of political individualism and found it detrimental to the state. Inspired by the classical Greek city-state, in his Philosophy of Right, he gave primacy and power to the state over the individual. In the book, he insisted that individuals exist for the sake of the state, not the other way around. In fact, according to Hegel, nation-states are the true individuals of world history. As he put it in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, “[T]he Individuals of World-History are nations.” Furthermore, for Hegel, individualism does not make possible one’s selfhood. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, he wrote, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.” In other words, one would not know that he is a self until he is looked at by another self, acknowledged by another self. Other selves act as mirrors through which one can become conscious of one’s own self.

By the time German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), an heir to the promise of the Enlightenment, appeared on the scene, he lambasted the Hegelian idea of state. For Marx, the state only serves the interests of the ruling class through ideologies that are designed to impoverish the masses. By seizing upon Hegel’s own statement, “what is rational is real”, Marx claimed that Hegel never meant to defend the state’s status quo—that only what is “rational” has a claim to be called “real”, and the most important task is to mercilessly criticize the government and the social institutions so that they are compelled to become more “rational” and, therefore, more “real”. “Criticism” became the slogan of Marx. “The philosophers”, Marx wrote, “have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” In his Manifesto of 1848, he wrote: “The communists . . . openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world unite!” It is dubious how critically we have inherited the Enlightenment ideals when we, as a nation, actually desire our “chains” and are senselessly absorbed into materialism (in spite of our revered Christian values) while the government directly or indirectly condones this irrationality.

At last, it is worth briefly mentioning that, according to Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), if we think we are always consciously in control of our decisions and conducts, we might be mistaken. The faculty of consciousness is invisibly enslaved to the subconscious impulses. So long as our conscious mental activities and unconscious impulses are not integrated, the illusion of self-control, hence “autonomy”, may subsist.

§7. The Post-Modern Era

What is the post-modern ethical outlook in the Western societies? Perhaps, it is too premature to make a well-founded evaluation. The perpetual scientific, technological, economic, and political developments keep transforming our lives and social environment at such a fast pace that one can hardly make a full appreciation of what is happening. Things are changing too rapidly to be able to pause and think. It seems to me that even ethics itself is undergoing changes, developing new modes of thinking, categories, definitions, and concepts (such as “hyper-ethics” and “hyper-individualism”) in order to be able to deal with the pace of change and new complexities of human relations. The post-modern ethical view of man seems to be inverting (markedly in the spheres of business and politics) truth and lie, right and wrong, good and bad, and so on—with the implication that such normative judgments, in addition to the time-honored ethical values that have proped them, are losing their traditional meanings and standings. On this ground, the post-modern individualism seems to be buttressing itself. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) had predicted the collapse of the traditional values which, he warned, will lead to a crisis of unparalleled magnitude, which he coined “nihilism”: “What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking; [the question] ‘why?’ finds no answer.” (Will to Power)

A Heideggerian may make an observation as follows: Within the context of our post-modern lifestyles in the contemporary Western societies—where our conceptions of being and time are distorted by our crisis of imagination; where being is tantamount to having and time is indistinguishable from what is immediate; where, hence, we are inauthentic (alienated) and do not trust one another; and where, as a result, our socio-politico-economic institutions are fraudulent and untrustworthy—, individualism (i.e., detachment from others and the society) has become a way to survive, as opposed to live. In this sense, individualism—which is oftentimes associated with cynicism, narcissism, pretentiousness, fanaticism, facile nationalism/patriotism—is a dead-end. If, as the classical Athenians reckoned, human relations in a socio-political setting which functions for the good of all is a necessary condition for the cultivation of one’s humanity, then individualism as it stands is a reductio ad absurdum. The Greek polis provided the conditions that made it possible for the citizens to develop as humans. And, in turn, this made possible the citizens’ contributions to the polis.

But the Greece of antiquity, which never ceases to mesmerize our imaginations, comparatively had a small population, and life was simple and devoid of the modern complexities. According to literary critic and essayist George Steiner:

“A mass democracy never inspired the ancient Greek thinkers with much confidence. They did not think it could work. Then, under Thomas Jefferson and under the great figures of the Enlightenment, they tried to bring together the ideal of a true mass democracy with that of a high culture of debate, of freedom, and of openness in the discourse of law, of public affairs, and of government. And, the two have not lived very comfortably together. The dream of Jefferson, and of Lincoln as well, that somehow the ideal of ancient Athens could be extended to a continental scale has proved illusory.” (Oliver Taplin, Greek Fire)



*Ēthos: According to the definition of “ēthos” found in the Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Peter A. Angeles:

ēthos (Greek, character, one’s habitual way of living, one’s moral motivation or purpose) 1. the character, tone, disposition, values, and sentiments of a person, community, or people. 2. in Plato, one’s ēthos is the character produced by habitual responses. 3. in Aristotle, one’s ēthos is the character produced by moral as opposed to intellectual habits. Aristotle describes different ēthoi (plural) found at different stages in human development. . . . 4. in Stoicism, ēthos refers to that which motivates behavior or conduct. (This is reminiscent of Heraclitus’ saying that the ēthos of an individual is his daimōn. )

*Aretai (plural for aretē): According to the definition of “aretē” found in the Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Peter A. Angeles:

aretē (Greek, the goodness of a thing, that at which a thing excels) in Greek literature, when applied to persons it signified qualities such as valor, prowess, courage, and strength. In a moral sense it meant virtuousness, meritoriousness, and goodness of service. It is often translated as virtue. (See entries under VIRTUE)

The philosophic meaning of aretē has to do with the functioning excellence of a thing. When something performs the function it is designed to perform and it does it excellently, then it has aretē; it is virtuous in that respect. Example: The aretē of a pruning tool is to cut branches. It was intended for this purpose. It does this better than anything else. Insofar as it performs its function well, it has aretē.

To determine human aretē, the Greeks asked: “What is unique to the human? What functions does a human perform that no other thing performs as well?” It is not locomotion, not growth, not sensation, not procreating; these and many other functions are shared in common with other beings such as animals. The aretē of humans will be found in that which they can do uniquely: reason. The use of the rational faculty is that which distinguishes a human from all other beings. A human’s aretē consists of the development and use of reason to the utmost level of functioning excellence. (And, for Aristotle, in this consists also an individual’s ultimate happiness.)

*Virtue: According to the definition of “virtue” found in the Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Peter A. Angeles:

virtues, cardinal the highest ideals or forms of conduct in a given culture. All others are of secondary importance to them and are derived from them and/or depend upon them for their existence. Greek culture stressed four basic (cardinal) virtues: wisdom or prudence, courage or fortitude, justice or righteousness, and moderation or temperance. . . .

virtues, moral (Aristotle) those functioning excellences (aretai) of human conduct that are controlled by the rational part of humans. . . . Some of the main points in Aristotle’s ethical philosophy: 1. moral virtues are achieved by means of a consistent practice that creates a habit of action. 2. the principal ingredient in this process is the following of the means between extremes. . . . Extremes are to be regarded as vices. For example, the moral virtue of courage is the mean between two extremes: that of foolhardiness (rashness, stupidity) and that of cowardice (being overwhelmed by fear). 3. an action is not in itself a virtuous action merely because it follows the mean. An action is a morally virtuous action because it conforms with, or is controlled by, reason. Insofar as the action conforms with or is controlled by reason, it will automatically involve a mean between extremes.

virtues, dianoetic (Aristotle) also called intellectual virtues (dianoetic, form Greek, dianoētikós; from diánoia, the intellect) 1. the intellectual (rationally thought-out) virtues or values. 2. in Aristotle the phrase aretai dianoētikai refers to the values inherent in the awareness (and acceptance) of the rational principles which guide moral conduct. This is contrasted with the moral virtues . . . , which have to do with the everyday reasoned control of our sensitive and appetitive life. According to Aristotle, the rational part of the soul has two parts: (a) that which contemplates the unchangeable, universal, eternal principle of things; and (b) that which contemplates objects that are subject to change. The aretē (functioning excellence) of the first is the intellectual virtue of sophia, abstract wisdom (theoretical intelligence); The aretē of the second is phronēsis, practical wisdom (prudence, thoughtfulness, ability, and intention to do the right thing).

virtues (Stoics) the principal or cardinal virtues in Stoicism are: reason, courage, justice, and self-discipline. . . . For the Stoics, the virtuous life is the only good but is unattainable without knowledge. The end of the virtuous life is the ideal of complete self-sufficiency and self-mastery of the individual living according to the harmonies of his or her inner rational nature and the corresponding universal rational necessity in the cosmos.

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