Thought, Deed, Habit, Character: Dogen, Mechanisms, and Insensibility in Book II of Nichomachean Ethics

“The thought manifests as the word; the word manifests as the deed; the deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings.”

 The intermediary states are best; the slack state is a spongy wall. The intense state makes us like a grenade in a glass fortress.

{Below are some brief notes that I’ve transposed to the blog entry, all further writing in italics is my addition and thought to the content of the proceeding chapters}

Chapter 1: How Virtue of Character is Acquired

Virtue of thought is the product of teaching; virtue of character is habit (ethos); none arise naturally.

We are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit; we acquire them as we do crafts, by activating them.

We are temperate by doing temperate actions, we are brave by doing brave actions, we are just by doing just actions.

Buildings can be made poorly, just as our temperance and other crafts can be poorly done, otherwise we’d need no teachers only having been born good or bad. Instead, we have a choice and a responsibility over ourselves and the world that we live in. Indeed, it seems that we shape the world, but we do not receive in the manner or as the matter that we wish. However, this does not exclude us from cultivating virtue in character. It does pose significant challenges against just thoughts, temperate actions, steadfast habit, and our manifest character in the world.

It is all-important that we become habituated in these crafts from youth.

Chapter 2: Habituation

Actions should accord with reason

There are no fixed answers; since we are dealing with a world that we have not made but inherit and only after shape, we must shape ourselves and others to be fit for such a task. I will suggest, treading lightly in Charles Tilly’s tracks, that ethics are also subject to a situational and historical set of mechanisms. In “Mechanisms in Political Processes” Tilly sites Aristotle’s use of mechanisms in Politics. Mechanisms are understood a dynamic set of relations or causal-topologies through which we understand the world and meaning of change. For example, in his discussion of democratization and the role of public politics, Tilly is in lock-step with Aristotle’s notion of “activation” when he says: “Democratization is not a product but a special condition of public politics” (Tilly 33). Indeed, the fixity is not in the substance but in the essence of reflective and ethical action, as well as in the political.

These states are ruined by excess: too much or too little food, just as too much bravery turns to brashness, and the antithesis of intemperance is insensibility.

Aristotle states that there are very few people who are insensible, since it is not in human nature to lack gusto, desire, and emotion.But I would argue that we are living at a time when insensibility is akin to shutting out the world. A type of willed ignorance, how many people shut off the world around them and their role in it? There are quite a few of us; even further (in a different venue and format) insensibility (the lack of feeling of response) is a prerequisite for function in late modernity. If our actions and virtues are activated in us through education, none of them coming naturally, there seems a struggle between the logic of virtue and its null, the logic of insensibility, of numbness, of non-character.

Chapter 3: The Importance of Pleasure and Pain

Virtue of character is about pleasure and pains. There are three dichotomies within the topology of pleasure and pain: the fine and the shameful, the expedient and the harmful, the pleasant and the painful.

Pleasure grows with us from birth; and if crafts of thought and ethics are not endogenous but in-built in the process of becoming human, pleasures, then are what make us animalistic.

A good result is even better when it is difficult. Aristotles recurring emphasis on the process of “activation” or becoming human resonates in Book II, and I am also reminded of Dogen, even more so than of Budhha. The 12th century thinker and founder of the Soto Zen school emphasized on the process, or activation of “think not thinking” during meditation and in daily life. Of course, we are born with automatic thoughts (not cultivated thought in the Aristotelian sense) that torment us with pushing or pulling, leaning or falling, towards what? Towards pleasure or pain. Dogen’s maxim “think not thinking” was not a command but a process of activation against the immediacy of our animalistic (or lower) senses that ensnare us in emotive and responsive states. When we think not thinking, of course we are actually thinking something, (not thinking) and this serves as a mechanism to detach from content of phenomenon or thought rife with suffering. I wonder to what extent Dogen is speaking in a similar topological mode to Aristotle?

Chapter 4: Virtuous Actions versus Virtuous Craft

The agent must also be in the right state in virtue of character; a firm and unchanging state (think not thinking).

Three further criteria:
1. the actor must know his own virtuous action

2. the actor must decide (have decided) on them

3. the actor must do them from a firm and unchanging state

The many take refuge in arguments and think they are doing philosophy.

In an election year, how sadly obvious this statement is. Less than argument, upon close examination, the argument for the many is little more than the opinion shrouded in a cheese cloth of facts. Someone (in my family) listed the errors against Obama, among them “giving cell phones to folks on welfare.” I responded that the cell phone initiative began during the Bush administration. No response. There was a picture of a hammer and a sickle with a quote from Lenin on the destruction of the West through (and I am paraphrasing) the promotion of sex culture, consumption, and the deteriorating knowledge and capacity for historical education. Again, the message was interpreted as a war against the West, and I (for REALLY enjoying it) was condemned for supporting the destruction of “America.” Ignorance and conceptual fogginess, never mind my interlocutor’s historical bias, seemed to prove Lenin’s intended criticism about the contradictory logic of Western hegemony in the negative.

Sadly, I am at a loss. But not to worry Aristotle, it will not be for long.

Chapter 5: Virtue of Character: Its Genus

There are feelings, capacities, and states. Feelings are our appetites, our fear, our anger, our “little mind.” To return to my earlier example of Dogen’s maxim, our feelings are the responses that arise out of suffering, pulling or pushing due toward pleasure or away from pain.

Our capacities are the potentials for our being emotive, but also of our capacity to “think not thinking,” or the quest for activation of craft beyond feelings.

States, are what we have when we are well off or badly off in theses states. The intermediary states are best; the slack state is a spongy wall. The intense state makes us like a grenade in a glass fortress.

Virtue is a state, not an emotion or a capacity. Thought, deed, habit, character. A fortress with walls and doors, carefully made with a far view out to sea and a deep well in the middle.

Chapter 6: Virtue of Character

The appropriateness of feelings is a character of virtue. How many times have I myself been angry with the injustice of a situation? My interlocutor and I do not share common ground, and I have entangled myself in a mess of opinions and emotions masquerading uninvited to my argument ball. And I am made to play Cinderella: pitiable, laughable, and disrespected. And yet, this is not cause for just anger, says Aristotle. Well, that’s up for debate.

Virtue is a mean. It aims at what is intermediate, but also correct. (The intermediate is relative and dependent.)

The tricky question in this quality of virtue is the power and the need for discernment. Discernment is not a method, not a state. Hm, it seems a bit like a virtue…

Chapter 7: The Particular Virtues of Character

People who are deficient in pleasure are not often found (see above); magnificent people are concerned with large matters. “People” ought to be replaced with “person.” The magnificent and the magnanimous person is rare. He is the aristocrat of virtue. Not to mention he ought to be very rich. I saw him (in later books) to be a sort of sketch of Plato’s philosopher king.

Chapter 8: Relations Between Mean and Extreme States

The extremes of a virtue are not equally distant from the mean (self-deprecation is closer to truth than boastfulness, for example).

The brave person seems rash in comparison to the coward (but we don’t give a fig about the coward). Each extreme tries to push the intermediate to the other extreme: pleasure is suffering as pain is suffering, because they are pre-rational, pre-ethical feelings.

Chapter 9: How Can We Reach the Mean?

It is hard work to be excellent. You’re telling me. For in each case it is hard to find the mean… and do we run the risk of a Kantian dilemma? Are ethical means known, or rather, are they merely discerned—activated—through the quest for a steadfast moral state. 

Is there a lesser of two evils? We must beware of pleasure and its sources. It is particularly difficult to determine with whom we should be angry, at the right time, and in what state such anger might be best expressed.

The thought, the deed, the habit that hardens in to character.

Signing off,