People tend to think of Plato’s Republic1 as a book of political theory, but it is actually about virtue. The first few chapters orient around attempting to define just what it means to act justly, and then debate whether it’s actually better to live a good life instead of a selfish one. Even when Socrates does finally get into a discussion on the proper form of government, he ends up comparing each governmental structure to an individual’s psychological makeup, tying in virtuous government with virtuous living. In fact, the discussion on government is really only a means to an end; Socrates uses it to dovetail back into his earlier discussion, and demonstrate that it is more rewarding to live a just life than an unjust one.
(A side note: all the great philosophers oriented themselves around the question of moral living. The move away from that is a recent phenomenon, and is the main reason our image of “philosopher” has gone from that of a respectable wise man to a stoned undergrad wondering “how can we really even know anything, maaaaan?”)
Aristotle went into more depth on the life of virtue, because Aristotle went into more depth on everything. He ended up with what he called “Nicomachean Ethics” (named after his son). The main idea was that virtue lay in charting a middle path between certain characteristics, where either an excess or deficiency is to fall into error. For example, too much confidence, and you become rash. Too little and you become cowardly. But if you hit just the right balance between fear and confidence, you are brave.
It’s not a perfect system2, but it provides a useful method for looking closer at the neo-neo-Confucian pillars of society. Any institute in society can go wrong when it oversteps its bounds in any direction. Consider the family: it is the bedrock of every society. It produces societal members to keep the society going, and it trains those new members up and gives them the knowledge they need to contribute to that society. At the same time, it provides the parents with incentive to work hard, produce, and build a better future. As a bonus, it provides a support structure for any member when they fall on hard times.
A society oriented away from the family ends up like our inner cities: full of poverty, violence, and no real hope for the future. A society oriented too heavily around the family ends up with clans, where honesty and justice can only be expected between cousins. This latter point is easily forgotten in the West, where we haven’t experienced clans in ages. The fact that we got rid of them and hit on a much better balance is a big part of why we surpassed the rest of the world.
As I continue this Pillars of Society series, that will be my goal: identify the institution, figure out what it’s good for, and then figure out where it can go horribly wrong. Hopefully that will also shed light on good ways to structure that institution.
Unless, of course, I get bored and move on to something other topic entirely. Dragons are kind of nifty…
2 This is also where folks get the notion that “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” This is never true, or at the very least it is never truly applied. People only ever look for the middle of whatever bubble of opinion they choose to marinate in. This bubble is never itself in the middle of the range of opinion existing in the world, let alone the rest of human history, let alone the set of all possible opinions.