George Friedman’s Thoughts: Passion and Aristotle’s Four Virtues

Aristotle’s virtues, like passion, have a complex and important relationship to geopolitics.

By George Friedman

Of late I have been writing on issues like passion, and some have asked what this has to do with geopolitics. Geopolitics is the dynamic between nations, but it also defines internal dynamics, where ethnicity, wealth and religion all matter. And this, in turn, relates to the family and the individual. It is not that individuals are decisive, but rather that they both shape and are shaped by the foundation of the nation. The question of passion and its basis in civilization is therefore connected to, for example, Sino-American relations in complex yet important ways.

In response to my view on passion, some argued that passion is necessary for success. But passion is a poorly defined concept. Passion can be used to describe Christ on the cross, a wealthy man’s desire for more money, or Churchill’s definition of a fanatic as someone who can’t change his mind and can’t change the subject. Passion is a form of anger that hides itself under the cloak of civility. The fanatic shows his hand; the passion that frightens me is the rage of certainty masquerading as calm.

Aquinas, Maimonides and al-Farabi all regarded Aristotle as the greatest thinker of all time, as do I. He had a simple but powerful matrix of the virtues a man must have. Aristotle never embraced passion. He spoke of passion but regarded it as far below the virtues; as he said in his work on ethics, any beast can possess passion, and men who are passionate and nothing else are beasts.

Aristotle identified four virtues and the one that was both lowest and the foundation of all others was courage. When we think of courage, we think of war. But courage went beyond that.

For Aristotle, courage was also the ability to stand alone regardless of the opinions of the many.

The need to be well-regarded would lead men to betray themselves. That is what Socrates refused to do.

But courage was also for him a necessity of everyday life. We have all lived through nights when we dreaded the coming of morning. The courage to confront the dawn and face the day is perhaps the most fundamental and necessary part of courage. Life is difficult, and death is terrifying. We live between the two and without courage could not go on. I think this is why Aristotle treated it as the most fundamental of the virtues.

But courage is also a form of madness. I remember a night in Islip on Long Island in New York. I was driving a well-seasoned Plymouth Belvedere, against a knight astride a Chevy Impala. Dying was better than flinching as we engaged in the ancient game of chicken. In the end, I swerved. We were both drunk on courage, but the prize was not a substitute for the abyss.

Aristotle despised this sort of impassioned bravery.

Aristotle’s second virtue was prudence. Prudence was intended to moderate courage; it is the scale on which courage is measured and tempered. The willingness to die is not an eagerness to die. Risking your life might be too high a price to pay for the prize. Other means might be found to satisfy the need.

Prudence alone devolves into a careful calculation that neglects the soul. Courage is indispensable to life, and prudence without courage knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Courage without prudence is recklessness, which risks all for nothing. For the crazy brave, the risk of everything is an end in itself, and it leaves his flank uncovered. Prudence without courage is Shakespeare’s Shylock wailing over his daughter and then his money, knowing the price of each but knowing nothing of their value.

At the same time, the perfect balance of prudence and courage leaves open the end toward which prudence will guide courage. Perfectly balanced, it is the sphere of the banal man who has courage but is constantly restrained by prudence to be far less than he can be. For Aristotle there is, therefore, a third virtue: justice.

Where prudence shapes and restrains, justice demands that men act in its name. It takes the mediocrity of prudence and courage and turns it into a moral imperative. With justice, we know what we owe and to whom. Prudence now becomes a servant of justice, making certain that courage is shaped properly in pursuit of justice.

Of course, the nature of justice is itself mysterious. Is it the interests of my nation? Is it the teachings of my God? Is it a vision of perfection that other men have conceived? Is it the right of the strong to rule the weak? Geopolitics teaches that between nations there is courage and prudence, and that justice is merely the expression of the interests of each nation. If that is all that justice is, then it is far from a binding power.

To give your life to that would please the crazy brave but repel all others. Humans have a need for something truer and nobler to which to commit their lives, fortunes and sacred honor. But where is it be found? Is it in the habits of my people or in the coming of a new age wrought by revolution?

The American founders sought to solve that problem by melding habits with revolution. It has worked, but the habits and the moral principles of the revolution have always been uneasy partners. And America was invented. Justice could be invented as well, but it has always required a seductive poem to be recited, diverting our eyes from its complexity.

In all of this, then, there is a fourth virtue: wisdom. Wisdom recognizes what matters and what does not. It’s what the philosopher is said to possess. Wisdom knows that justice is absolutely necessary, and it understands that just because it is necessary does not mean that it exists. The fact that it exists does not mean that it applies in this time and place. And the fact that it applies does not mean that men will believe in it.

Wisdom understands the needs and limits of humankind and the gorgeousness of the true and the beautiful. And it understands the tragedy of being human, which is that the true and the beautiful blind the eyes of the many, so that they can only have second best – a poem that is built on the truth but expressed as a lie intended to seduce, to give the needed justice rather than the true.

Wisdom is, therefore, the highest sort of prudence, just as justice is the highest moment of courage.

Plato spoke of the noble lie. The noble lie was built on the truth that men could not bear to know and was presented to them in the form they required. The rare wise man recognizes the true and beautiful and the fact that gazing upon it would drive ordinary people mad or blind.

So, a lie is invented that rests on truth, and that lie becomes the foundation for men to be courageous. Wisdom understands the limits of truth.

It is like the story of Moses, who, on seeing the promised land, was not permitted by God to enter it because he had struck against God in anger. God knew that Moses could lead a rebellion against Egypt and God himself. But he could not govern. So, he replaced Moses with a lesser man, Joshua, who had never spoken to God but believed that God had spoken.

Joshua was a warrior, a man of courage, who prudently sent spies into Jericho. He believed in the justice of his cause, dubious though it might have been. But he was never wise as Moses had been. And that made him suitable to serve the geopolitical needs of his people, without being troubled by things that were beyond him.

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