Thomas Hobbes and Aristotle Thoughts on Moral Values and Government Essay

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¶ … philosophies of Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes concerning moral virtue and the role of government in the fostering of virtue in society. Aristotle and Hobbes differ considerably in their views on the nature of virtue and its applications. They also differ in how men should relate to one another in governed society. Fundamentally, their differences are based on perception. While Aristotle perceives an objective standard (prudence), which can be understood by reason, and which can then serve as a guide for any model of government; Hobbes' perception is much more subjective in that he sees civil law as something that is merely agreed upon by men for a time being (until war, which is natural, poisons it). To better describe the philosophies of these two men, this paper will first attempt to answer the question of what is virtue.Get full Download Microsoft Word File access
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Essay on Thomas Hobbes and Aristotle Thoughts on Moral Values and Government Assignment

According to Aristotle, "virtue is a habit" that makes the operator and the operation good: "The virtue of man…[is] a habit, from which man becomes good, and from which he will perform his work well" (Aristotle, p. 43). The parameters of this habit of virtue must necessarily fall between two extremes -- of which virtue is the mean, or average, or balance. There should neither be too much of what is good or too little of what is good, for extremes spoil the whole, relatively speaking. As Aristotle says, in moral virtue there are "defects" and "excesses," and as moral virtue relates to passions and actions, too little passion or too great passion are both improper. The mean is desirable -- and the cultivation of equanimity of the passions (evenness of temper, etc.) is the object of man (Aristotle, p. 44). "Virtue is a mean state…[and] is a habit, accompanied with deliberate preference, in the relative mean, defined by reason, and as the prudent man would define it" (Aristotle, p. 45). Aristotle's definition is neither wholly objective nor wholly subjective (to be either would be vicious according to his own definition) -- but the virtuous mean should be defined by man's reason, and that man should be prudent. Thus, Aristotle sets out no hard and fast (objective) code or rule for all men, but he does insist that for men to (subjectively) define virtue, they must first conform themselves to an objective standard -- which is prudence. So prudence should (objectively) govern man's habits -- but those same habits (whether they should be cultivated more or less) will differ for every man according to his nature.

Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, gives a much different definition of virtue -- which is not to say that his definition is free of subjectivity; for it is very much rooted in his own time, just as Aristotle's is rooted in Ancient Greece. But while Aristotle recommends a standard of objectivity by which virtue may be subjectively judged, Hobbes recommends a subjective standard and objectively judges it as the standard for virtue: "Virtue generally, in all sorts of subjects, is somewhat that is valued for eminence; and consists in comparison" (Hobbes, p. 41). Virtue, in other words, according to Hobbes, is that which makes some men better than others. In this sense, virtue can never be truly or mathematically attained, for it is determined always by those who surround one. Instead, Hobbes likens virtue to discretion, but speaks of it as being of three parts: naturally cultivated wit, good judgment, and discretion. Since discretion governs all three, virtue is best described by it (and may just as easily be called "manners"). Since Hobbes cannot confine himself to a discrete definition, he embarks on its application with regard to: prudence, craft, giddiness, rage, melancholy, insignificant speech, etc.

Thus, good and evil, for Hobbes must be decided by cultural society at large -- as manners and discretion are nothing more than the extension of subjective comparisons and standards: "Good and Evil are names that signify our Appetites and Aversions; which in different tempers, customs, and doctrines of men, are different…" (Hobbes, p. 109). However, because all men agree, in Hobbes' eyes, that peace is good, he asserts the same and more, namely that good is got through "Justice, Gratitude, Modesty, Equity, Mercy and the rest of the laws of nature"; and because all men concur that vice is the contrary -- it, therefore, is evil (Hobbes, p. 109). Hobbes bases his analysis on the dictates of reason, but it is a purely subjective application, relying not on any objective standard, but upon what all men agree. Aristotle, however, considers prudence to be an objective standard that can be understood by reason -- not something that is determined by a populace.

Therefore, there are three kinds of government according to Aristotle, and three corruptions of those kinds. In descending order, the highest forms of government are Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Timocracy. The corruption of monarchy is tyranny; of Aristocracy is oligarchy; of timocracy is democracy. Since monarchy is the highest, its fall is all the more pronounced; such is the reason tyranny is the worst corruption. Since timocracy is the lowest, its corruption is also the least worst. However, the purpose of government is to provide the common good of all, and that common good is rooted in social friendship -- whether that friendship is between a king and his subjects or between citizens in a democracy (Aristotle, p. 223).

But according to Hobbes, Aristotle's philosophy is "vain" (Hobbes, p. 499). Hobbes asserts that the purpose of government is to see that "men may no longer suffer themselves to be abused, by [the]…Vain Philosophy of Aristotle, [which] would fright them from obeying the Laws of their Country" (Hobbes, p. 499). While Hobbes is referencing the Separation of Essences that follows from Aristotle's teaching, he places the purpose of government alongside the subjective constitution of good and evil, which is adverse to Aristotle's doctrine.

Aristotle's perception is substantially objective. According to Aristotle, government (no matter the model) must be formed by friendship -- and that friendship must be guided by the objective standard, which is prudence. Prudence is always Aristotle's guide, for if one is prudent, he will fall to neither extreme, and governance will not tend toward corruption: "Homer calls Agamemnon 'the shepherd of the people.' Such also is paternal friendship" (Aristotle, p. 223). Now, Agamemnon was a king, but to his subjects he was like a father, and his subjects were like his children. Since family was central to society, and governance was modeled on family, Agamemnon would have had a role in fostering virtue among his subjects -- being their father and role model, in a sense.

Hobbes, on the other hand, sees government as a punishment, a "Leviathan," a king of the proud (Hobbes, p. 231). Since Hobbes considers all men to be touched with sin (pride being its worst manifestation), he considers government to be like that which is taken from the Book of Job, in which God sets up a "king of all the children of pride." But since nature is ever at war with itself, a commonwealth will not stand forever. So Hobbes treats on the issue of what laws of nature government must obey. According to Hobbes, government is just as easily corrupted as men are and therefore cannot be counted on to serve as any model of virtue for all men. Hobbes deviates from his normal subjectivity, here, and consents to an objective law that government should observe: namely, the civil law, which is the measure of good and evil (Hobbes, p. 234). but, again, it is a deceptive objectivity -- for civil law does not necessarily conform to an objective standard (like Aristotle's prudence); it is another subjective measure.

While government can and should provide guidance, according to Aristotle; Hobbes maintains that civil society must serve as a… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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