Aristotle's Proud Man

Robert Curtis, S.J.
Shrub Oak, New York
November, 1964

In the fourth book of his Nicomachean Ethics1, Aristotle draws a sketch of the excellent and great-souled man. Not concerning ourselves with the question of whether or not he was describing a particular historic person2, we shall here briefly explore who this proud man is. Is he a construct of an ideal moral man? Is he the aesthetically perfect man? Is he a characature not to be imitated?

In his history, Frederick Copleston implies that Aristotle permits lower and particularly Greek values to color and distort his perceptions of moral value and his expression of the moral ideal in this picture of the excellent man. He writes:

One must . . . admit that Aristotle's treatment of the virtues betrays the fact that he was under the influence of the predominantly aesthetic attitude of the Greek towards human conduct, a fact that appears in a clear light in his treatment of the great-souled man. . . . It can hardly be denied . . . that this treatment of the virtues is, to a certain extent, determined by contemporary Greek taste. Thus his view that the "great-souled" and self-respecting man will be ashamed of receiving benefits and so putting himself in the position of an inferior, while on the contrary he will always pay back benefits received with great ones in order to make his friend his debtor, may be in accordance with Greek taste (or with those of Nietzsche), but will scarcely be acceptable in all quarters. Again, Aristotle's pictures of the "great-souled" man as slow in step, deep in voice and sedate in speech is largely a matter of aesthetic taste.3



To the mind of John Dewey, the Greek philosophers err on this score:

The Greeks were more naive than we are. Their thinkers were as much dominated by the asthetic character of experienced objects as modern thinkers are by their scientific and economic (or relational) traits. . . .

Unfortunately, however, these thinkers were not content to speak as artists, of whom they had a low opinion. . . . In consequence they formulated a doctrine in which the esthetic and the rational are confused on principle and they bequeathed the confusion as an intellectual tradition to their successors.4

In a similar but more sympathetic view, J. A. Stewart suggests that:

The picture of the megalopsyxos given in this chapter is a creation of art, intended to present a great philosophical truth with concrete evidence to the imagination. We must therefore be careful not to look at it as if it were a portrait-sketch after the manner of Theophrastus, or stood on the same plane with the other character-pictures given in the Fourth Book.

The megalopsyxos accepts the highest honour, though falling short of his deserts, because men have nothing better to give him. Je remembers those whom he has benefited, but not those from whom he has received benefits. To the many he is ironical. He does not give way to admiration, for in his eyes nothing is great. This spirit in a real man would be intolerable. But Aristotle's megalopsyxos is not a real man. He is an ideal creation in philosophy, as Philotetes or Antigony is in tragedy. He is Aristotle's concrete presentation of that theoria which is essential to human excellence. . . . He . . . realises aytarkeia or automomy, and "possesses all the virtues" in a fuller sense than other virtuous men, who are conscious of the moral law merely through their phronesis, or practical insight and self-knowledge. The megalopsyxos is a man of the highest speculative power.5

We must admit that Aristotle does include aesthetic values as well as purely moral values in his description of the great-souled man. But since this man possesses all virtue, it seems suitable that he have beauty in every sense, aesthetic as well as moral. Aesthetic virtue can be both objective and subjective, and uniquely Greek as well as objective aesthteic values have a place in philosophy.

Some of the characteristics in the enumeration of the qualities of the great-souled man are not found in any living man, e.g., complete self-reliance, which would eliminate the possibility of sincere gratitude and thus give reason not to remember benefits received—there could be no benefits to which he did not have a right—and the pretense of benefiting him could only be an insult, and thus it could be high virtue to remember only those to whom benefits are given.

The great-souled man is an ideal never, it seems, completely realized, but a characterization of what the man of perfect virtue might be like—in fact, to Aristotle, would logically be like. But we must not therefore dismiss the great-souled man as a bit of unprofitable speculation, rather we must listen to H. H. Joachim when he admonishes us that "the obvious exaggerations in the megalopsyxos . . . must not blind us to the soundness of the principles involved."6



Footnotes:

  1. Chapters three and four. Cf. Aristotle, 811 a 15, 20, 32, 37; b 27, 35; 813 a 14; 1107 b 22; 1183 a 1; 1192 a 21-36; 1221 a 10; 1231 a 22; 1232 a 18 - 1233 a 30; b 24-38; 1249 b 29; 1250 a 14; b 34-42; 1362 b 13; 1366 b 1, 17.
  2. Hegel indicated that he thought that Alexander the Great was Aristotle's model; examples of megalopsyxia are given as Alcibiades, Achilles, Ajax, Lysander and Socrates in An. Post. ii. 13. (97 b 18).
  3. A History of Philosophy, vol. I, part. II, Image Books, Garden City, New York: 1962. pp 80-83.
  4. Experience and Nature, Dover Publications Inc., New York: 1958. p. 87.
  5. Notes on the Nicomachean Ethics, Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1892. pp. 335 & 336.
  6. Aristotle: The Nichomachean Ethics, Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1951. p. 125.