Daily Archives: Sunday 13 January 2008

Sir Edmund Hillary and Aristotle

I have long been fascinated by virtue ethics.* It takes as its starting point not the consequences of actions (consequentialism) nor the rules that ought to be followed (deontology) but the critical question: what sort of person should I be?

Aristotle grappled with this question, along with various other Greek philosophers, including the Stoics, the Cynics, the Epicureans, the Pythagoreans, individuals like Socrates and Plato. His answer, at the macro level, was to think about the purpose, or the end game of a human being. What end, or telos (hence teleology) does a human being aim for. His answer was “happiness”.

A bit sappy. But that word “happiness” is not a very good translation of the Greek word that Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers, used. Their word was “eudaimonia” (say it u – die – moan – ee – ah) which can be be translated at “happiness” but also as “flourishing”. Think in terms of a life well lived. But add to it the idea of a life which expresses the virtues. Aristotle’s virtues are courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, magnanimity, mildness, friendship, wit, justice, thinking well, self-sufficieny. The virtues of an Athenian gentleman, and some of them are puzzling to us today.

If you want to find an Aristotelian account of the good life, the life of eudaimonia, then perhaps is could be described as the life of the independent man, living with his family and friends, practicing the virtues of generosity, and braveness, and temperance, and friendship, and magnificence and magnanimity, exercising him faculties to the full. So you will notice, I hope, that women don’t get to live the good life.

Aristotle also has another account of the life of eudaimonia as the life of philosophical contemplation. Nice, but who does the dishes while you sit around contemplating great things? And personally, although I quite enjoy philosophical contemplation, I quite enjoy sex-n-drugs-n-rock’n’roll too, though for “drugs” read “caffeine and wine”, and when it comes to rock’n’roll, give me jazz, blues, and Beethoven any day.

If we are to update this account of the good life for today, then I think that we end up pretty near someone like Sir Edmund Hillary. He exercised himself to the full, he rejoiced in companionship, he gave generously of himself, in particular to the people of Nepal who had given him so much support, he was moderate in his behaviour, and modest, perhaps to a fault. I think he truly lived a good life.

It’s all very well to talk about the virtues, but how do you learn to be virtuous? For Aristotle, a virtue is the right point between two vices, the golden mean. It is not the exact middle point, but the right place in between, and perhaps it is closer to one extreme than the other. For example, courage is closer to foolhardiness than it is to cowardice. And you need to learn to judge the right place between the extremes. Aristotle tells us that you do this by practicing the virtues: you learn how to strike exactly the right note of generosity by trying to be generous, sometimes getting it wrong and being profligate, other times being stingy, but with enough practice, over time learning how to give the right amount at the right time. I think that’s what Edmund Hillary learned to do.

Aristotle tells us however, that extreme modesty can be a fault, in comparison to the virtue of magnificence. (Vanity is the vice at the other extreme.) Sir Edmund may have been virtuous to a fault. However, I think that his modesty lifted him from being a virtuous man, to being a moral exemplar. Aristotle doesn’t talk about moral exemplars, but later exponents of virtue theory do. By a moral exemplar, virtue theorists mean someone we can learn virtue from.

Ed Hillary’s modesty meant that he didn’t make other people feel small, or as though they could not achieve what he had achieved. He repeatedly described himself as an ordinary man, just your everyday bloke, who could be your next door neighbour. In doing so, he made virtue achievable by anyone who cared to try. Not narrow moral priggishness, but the virtue of a life lived to the full, in full communion with the world.

I’m sure that Edmund Hillary was not a moral saint; it seems that he had strained relationships with at least some people, including some people with whom he ought to have had very good relationships. In that perhaps, he was very much a man of his times. Nevertheless, that is still a moral flaw. However, he remains someone to be emulated, not by racing up mountains, but by trying to live a virtuous life.

My favourite curmudgeon** is unimpressed with the national mourning following Ed Hillary’s death. I do hope that even if he doesn’t want to join in the grieving, he might at least see why we should bow our heads and remark the passing of a great man.


* The article on virtue ethics that I have linked to was written by Rosalind Hursthouse, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Auckland, an eminent New Zealand philosopher. Not just world famous in New Zealand, but genuinely eminent, world-wide.
** Witty, entertaining, and frequently right.

Even Taranaki can’t be that keen on kayakers

The two Australian men who kayaked across the Tasman have made it safely to shore in New Plymouth, a small city on the Taranaki peninsula. Evidently, or so the New Zealand Herald was reporting, 45,000 people turned out to meet them.

The pair embraced family and spoke to media and customs officials before walking onto a stage, where they were greeted by New Plymouth’s mayor Peter Tennant, who said the welcoming crowd had been estimated at 45,000.


I grew up in Taranaki, and it is a sports mad place. But there’s only about 50,000 people in New Plymouth, and about 100,000 in the whole province. I just can’t believe that 45,000 people were there to meet them, impressive though the feat was.

I’m guessing that the mayor estimated the crowd at four to five thousand.