We are all disciples of Aristotle. Whether we realize it or not, whenever we are talking about the Good we are working with ideas that are Aristotelian in origin. We speak of good food and good company, good behavior and good outcomes. These modes of the Good share a basic assumption: The good is not the Good, but instead a quality or attribute of something else. This is well and good. The Aristotelian way of thinking has a proper role. But we’re losing our sense of wonder and enjoyment. We do not see the Good in which all these good things participate and from which they draw their luster. It is time, therefore, to put aside Aristotle and rehabilitate Plato. For without him we are in danger of losing our reason to want to continue as a species.
Aristotle criticized his master Plato and observed that, for practical purposes, the Idea of the Good is useless for ethics. More useful is the prakton agathon, the good that can be done. Here Aristotle finds fault with Plato, who did not let his ideas work. The Ideas are ideals, perhaps idols, but in any case idle, as he states in book 7 of his Metaphysics. Concrete things act upon each other. To quote the ever-recurring example, “a human being begets a human being.” Meanwhile, the Platonic Ideas stay in their heavens and twiddle their thumbs. By Aristotle’s thinking, only the sun, in its most concrete sky, helps in this process of begetting. In contradistinction to Plato’s flights of fancy, Kant said that the philosophy of Aristotle is work. The great Macedonian sage was a business manager of sorts. He put the ideas in the things, expecting them to roll up their sleeves, spit in their hands, and produce something.
From this active point of view, one can consider the Good as superfluous, as something merely decorative, as something that makes life more beautiful, to be sure, but that one can perhaps take or leave. In entertaining the good as a possibility that we might do without, we are following Aristotle’s distinction between Life (z?n) and the good Life (eu z?n). For example, Aristotle says the political community comes into being for the sake of securing “the bare needs of life.” But it goes on existing for the sake of the good life. To put it in Marxist terms: Life, in the sense of being alive (z??) and leading a life (bios), is the infrastructure; the Good is hardly more than a superstructure, something that sets a crown on life. The Good is there as an adjective or an adverb rather than a noun.
In the same spirit, Aristotle distinguishes the use of the tongue for taste and for speaking, as well as distinguishing the use of respiration for cooling the inner heat of the body and for providing air to the voice. The former serve the Necessary, the latter exist for the Good. The same goes for seeing and hearing. We need these senses for our survival. But they also make us capable of an aesthetic appreciation. We see beautiful statues and hear moving poems.
And so, given the clear priority of life, the Good is for sure a good thing, nobody gainsays that, but it is not necessary. Two cheers for the Good, but it is not the most urgent task. What is most important is being alive rather than not.
The secondary character of the Good is expressed in the old popular wisdom of the Greek people, upon which Aristotle and before him Plato drew. The Milesian poet Phocylides, of the early sixth century before Christ, gives us a saying: “We should look for a living, then for virtue, but only after one has got a living.” Plato explicitly alludes to this aphorism in the Republic when discussing the proper education of the Guardians. The same view is expressed in other proverbs, for example, primum vivere, deinde . . . philosophari, first live, then philosophize. We hear much the same in James Carville’s campaign mantra: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Machiavelli puts the same sentiment into the mouth of a leader of the Ciompi, who revolted in Florence: “We have no business to think about conscience; for when, like us, men have to fear hunger, and imprisonment, or death, the fear of hell neither can nor ought to have any influence upon them.” One can find everywhere stronger and more cynical versions of the same. In Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, the line, “First comes the grub, then morals,” is in all mouths.
In all this we find the same basic assumption: The good is something that we do. As a consequence, we can do the good or fail to do it. From time to time, we have to let it go provisionally, postponing it to the future. As the object of activity, it belongs to the realm of practical philosophy, especially to the branch that deals with the actions of people—which is to say, morals. Little wonder that we took our moral bearings from Aristotle’s ethics.
But what if the Good is a condition of life rather than one of its modes? And what if it’s an absolutely necessary condition? There is a classic way to ground the necessity of the Good. It involves tying Goodness to existence. This is the approach we find in Boethius, who bequeathed it to the whole Latin Middle Ages. He presupposes that the Good and Being wax and wane together, that they run parallel to each other. There’s no difficulty in recognizing in this foundational assumption the scholastic doctrine of the convertibility of the transcendental properties, especially of Being (Ens) and the Good (Bonum): ens et bonum convertuntur.
If every being, as such, is good, then the presence of the Good is necessary wherever there is something, which is to say, everywhere. The Good may even stretch farther than Being, as Dionysius Areopagita suggests. But turning to his mystical theology would lead us too far. I agree with his doctrine, up to a point. But it is recondite and far from our present-day ways of thinking. Better, therefore, to proceed indirectly and in more-familiar terms.
Let us begin with something very much of concern in the modern era: human freedom. It is something that ethics presupposes and fosters. Kant’s account of the foundation of morals shows this with great clarity. Ethical life is genuinely ethical if and only if it holds in check the influence of external agents. To be governed by something external to oneself leads to what Kant calls “heteronomy.” When we are governed by others, we are not responsible for our actions. We may do moral acts at the command of others, but to be a moral agent in the full sense requires us to obey our own laws. We need to attain the condition of “autonomy,” the condition of life in which our doing is a direct consequence of our will. The truly good person is thus the person who does good deeds at his own command.
Yet in this we presuppose something. The good deeds come from a subject that is already there. There must be a self who is the seat of self-command. This is not something we should take for granted. What kind of subject is the source of free action? Whence comes this moral subject?
We can begin by stipulating that this subject is a rational being. It must be rational to be able to act. As Aristotle points out, simple motion is not action. A stone that rolls down a steep slope doesn’t act. Neither does the plant that grows, pushes its roots deep in the earth, and unfolds its boughs. Nor does an animal act, properly speaking, for acting means implementing a course of action that one has planned and chosen, in both cases with freedom.
This should not lead us to assume that human beings are the only moral subjects that exist. Kant explicitly states, and even with insistence, that the subjects that abide by the moral law are not necessarily human beings, but rational beings in general. In the Critique of Practical Reason, he insists that the moral vocation “is declared by the reason to be a law for all rational beings in so far as they have a will, that is, a power to determine their causality by the conception of rules.” This moral calling stipulates that the law we establish for ourselves must be a universal law. “It is, therefore, not limited to men only, but applies to all finite beings that possess reason and will; nay, it even includes the Infinite Being as the supreme intelligence.”
Schopenhauer poked fun at the idea and wrote with contempt that Kant probably thought of the nice little angels. He was right, even more than he knew, at least about angels if not their niceness. For Kant appeals to the angelic mode of rational existence as a way to dramatize what he sees as the all-conquering power of reason. In “Perpetual Peace,” his meditation on the triumph of righteousness and the end of history, he seeks to show that the problem of building an enduring political constitution is in principle soluble, even if the citizens are devils, provided the devils are rational. If they listen to the reckonings of their calculating reason, these utterly bad creatures can understand that it is their interest to live in peace with each other.
In his belief that reason can govern even devils, Kant exaggerates the paradox that David Hume expressed one generation earlier: that politicians should take their bearings from the assumption that “every man must be supposed a knave.” Much earlier, Augustine alluded to the fact that gangsters too abide by some laws. They must agree on principles of cooperation in order effectively to ply their criminal trade. Modern thinkers have generalized the insight. The trick is to design a political system in which everyone has a self-interested reason to play by the rules. Human society is a pack of wolves domesticated by rational self-interest.
Now, one may ask whether this makes things too easy. Did Kant not make his task too light? Did he in fact choose the simpler case, while giving the impression of choosing to scrutinize the more difficult one? Because devils are so utterly bad, you can’t expect the shadow of a good intention when they set up their pandemonium. This would seem a terrible impediment to any enduring political arrangements. But this is only one side of the coin. The flip side is that, by choosing devilish beings, one avoids the question of the temporal and bodily existence of rational beings.
As do angelic beings, the devils float in what Greeks called ai?n, and the Romans aevum, a time of indefinitely long duration. As such, they soar above physical and biological existence. Among other things, this means they have no need to reproduce in order to exist as a species. As is the case with each good angel, each devil is his own species.
These considerations on pure spirits may sound arbitrary, and even otiose. Yet pondering on angels and devils sheds light on our present predicament, which is best summed up as a fatal separation of what makes life good from what makes life life. In his book on the leading minds of the modern era, Three Reformers, Jacques Maritain observed that Descartes lifted the human intellect up to a place that classical metaphysics saved for the angelic intellect. In the case of Descartes, I doubt this holds true. Nevertheless, Maritain is right about the general trend of modern thought. Its categories seem tailored for angels rather than for human beings.
The proud self-image of modern thought puts freedom at the center of all that is worth striving for. As Hegel put it, “The right of the subject’s particularity, his right to be satisfied, or in other words the right of subjective freedom, is the pivot and center of the difference between antiquity and modern times.” Hegel thought no further stage necessary; modern times are the End Times. Whether or not Hegel was right about that, he was surely correct to identify freedom as the defining commitment of our times. Thus our problem today. And if we press freedom’s demands to their logical conclusion, we reach the point where totally free beings should call themselves into being. Radical autonomy entails the power and right of self-creation. Existence itself needs to become a human project, something we can do.
And here we meet again our friends the angelic beings. According to traditional theology, devils are fallen angels. As pure, bodiless spirits, the angelic hosts were brought into being by God. But they had to decide, right after their creation, whether they would thankfully turn toward God or dream of an independence over and against their Creator. In short, a devil becomes what he is—a bad and fallen angel—through an act of freedom. He exercises the “right of the subject’s particularity.” In the same way, good angels distinguish themselves from the apostates when they freely accept God’s creative love. Thomas Aquinas reasons that this happened in a decision of freedom that took place in an instant, but made them forever what they are. The Devil is not self-begotten, contrary to Satan’s boast in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Every angel is God’s creature, but each makes itself what it is—devil or good angel—through an act of free will.
Up to a certain point, human beings can choose the properties that we want to give ourselves and in that sense exercise the right to our own particularity. We can choose our job, our partner in marriage, and our “lifestyle,” as people now put it. But there are limits. As Kierkegaard said: We don’t create ourselves, we only choose ourselves. Today, however, we play footsy with the wish for a total self-determination that would make us quasi-angels. We must acknowledge a residual passivity. We can’t possibly deny our biological basis. But we toy with the idea of weighing the anchors, especially and perhaps not surprisingly in matters concerning sex and reproduction, where the biological basis of life can be turned into a lifestyle in the former case and a project in the latter.
This ambition is quite real and already well advanced. But the question is still there. Where does the human being with the capacity for acting in freedom come from? Whence comes the life that can be good?
The concrete subjects with whom we interact, indeed, who we ourselves are, were born in some place and at some point in time. Now, birth is an event not determined by its subject. He or she does not exist before conception. This foundational fact represents an extreme case of heteronomy, since it doesn’t affect only what a being is but the very fact that it is. Why do I exist? That’s what other people decided for me. Being born is not an action that could arise from a subject. On the contrary, it furnishes action with its subject.
Furthermore, our birth as individuals of the species Homo sapiens is simply a recent event in the series that goes back to the very beginning of life in the “warm little pond,” as Darwin put it. The series even reaches as far as the so-called Big Bang, since physicists tell us that the atoms of which our body consists were made only moments after the beginning. Why do I exist? That’s something that depends on the great contingency of things being the way they are.
Hannah Arendt very consciously put forward the concept of “natality” as a counterpart to our grim obsession with mortality. Yet, her approach views the phenomenon in a somewhat unilateral way. She thinks that birth underscores the possibility of making a new beginning in action. This obscures a deeper truth about birth, which is the aspect of pure passivity. Being-born is not something we do. It happens to us. In this respect natality is akin to mortality. But not entirely so.
If you will permit me the hackneyed lines of Rilke:
O Lord, give each of us our own death:
a dying that is born of each life,
our own desire, our purpose, love, dearth
It is a strange petition: Whose death should we die, if we don’t die our own death? But perhaps it’s not so strange. We often speak of a “good death.” The old-fashioned notion draws attention to how we endure death’s dark arrival. We can in a certain sense make our death a project, our project. We can use what little freedom we have left to accept death in a fitting way. We can make dying into a moral act, or at least surround it with moral acts.
This is not true of birth. We do speak of a “good birth,” but this has no moral component at all. It refers only to the absence of undue suffering or threats to new life. We can’t make our own birth into a moral act. Yet it remains intimate, so much so that it is more a part of me than anything I might do, because it is the basis for the me that does things. My birth is necessarily my own, not the birth of another person, say, my brother. My “Mine-ness” (Jemeinigkeit), to use Heidegger’s term, shows birth’s paradoxical features. The “I” to whom this event happens can’t claim any preexistence, but is made real or possible by this very event. And although my coming to be has no source in me—and in that sense has nothing to do with me—what could be more dear to me than the fact that there is a me?
This intertwining in birth of radical “Mine-ness” and radical heteronomy produces a clash of two irreconcilable contraries. Or at least it does for any view of human life that makes freedom the sine qua non of personhood, which is what happens when “good” is always an adjective or adverb and never a noun. This clash produces in us as moderns a feeling of unpleasantness. According to a rather cryptic sentence of Emmanuel Levinas, “Birth, that we don’t choose and can’t possibly choose, is the great drama of contemporary thought.”
Kant has already shown us the extent to which modern man is somewhat ashamed of being simply human and so dreams of becoming something more. Dostoyevsky wrote of this shame as early as 1864, at the end of his enigmatic Notes from the Underground: “We are oppressed at being men—men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man.”
Dostoyevsky was not a philosopher, but his observation can be transposed in a philosophical key: The shocking thing is individuation, the fact that we received our own particular body. We would be glad to possess the same universality as the angels, since each and every one of them is his own species.
Günther Anders’s notion of a “promethean shame” identifies a similar sense of inadequacy. In this case we are ashamed not to be a match for the perfection of our own products. The artifacts are perfect because they were designed and made according to the blueprint, not begotten and born.
The solution, of course, is to ascend to perfection. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is to overcome man and to sail in the direction of the Overman. Today, the dreams—or nightmares—of a posthuman endpoint of history are deeply rooted in the desire modern man feels to escape the passivity of his birth, the moment of natality that can’t be turned into a project or enterprise, that can’t be made good. Hence the fascination with the so-called “transhumanist” project of transforming men into beings that would be more than men.
If we’re not inclined toward the Overman and want to remain loyal to the human condition, then we face a fundamental question: What do we do with this radical impossibility of doing anything about our birth? What kind of ethics could obtain in a domain in which action, the lever from life to the good life, is simply impossible? In so thin an air, the name of ethics wouldn’t be apposite any longer.
There is, however, the possibility of an “extra-moral” access to the Good. There is a point at which freedom as the condition of action and the radical non-freedom of birth meet each other, and even clash against each other. This point is generation. For the existence of mankind depends on the free decision of its members. Children are born only because men and women come together and conceive them. This is not automatic. As the story of Tamar, Onan, and Judah makes quite clear, from the very beginning human freedom has played a role in the forward march of the generations. All the more so as technology progresses. Instinct may vouch for the survival of animal species. In the case of man, however, species survival is more and more pushed back and relayed by freedom. Freedom’s dominion over natural impulses is a fact that we should wholeheartedly affirm. But, mind you, we should affirm this dominion if and only if it brings the subject of freedom to self-assertion, not to self-destruction.
For this we need an external fulcrum.
Plato conceived of the Good not so much as a norm that active subjects have to abide by but rather as a creative principle. He compares the Idea of the Good with the sun. Now, Plato insists that the sun doesn’t only shine its light on what already is, a role it plays to show us right action, the path to the good life. It also and more importantly gives being and life to what doesn’t yet exist. It furnishes coming to be (genesis), growth (aux?),andfood (troph?). This corresponds to our everyday experience and was what Aristotle had in mind when he made what seems an odd qualification: Human being begets human being, with the help of the sun. He meant this in a literal sense, which is to say, material sense. The sun makes plants grow, brings again the spring and love season of animals, and so forth. Yet we should not limit ourselves to the literal. The sun’s indispensible light can be interpreted as a metaphor for the necessity of the Good for the survival of man.
How can I tolerate not having created myself? My answer: If and only if I come from some utterly good principle. Suppose that I owe my being to chance, to the concourse of blind forces. This is a now common view, one widely thought to be mandated by modern science. If this is so, however, I have no reason whatsoever to contribute to the coming to be of new life. But if I understand myself as the creature of a good and generous God, who calls me to share his life and love, then I have reasons to ensure the continuance of life.
Put bluntly: If a blind watchmaker threw me into life without asking me for advice, why should I play the same trick to other people by bringing them into the world? If, on the contrary, I feel myself to be the creature of a good and generous God who calls me to partake of his own loving life, then I have the very best of reasons to use my freedom to promote life.
Rémi Brague is professor emeritus of medieval and Arabic philosophy at the Sorbonne and Romano Guardini Chair at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.