Virtue, Happiness, and the Greeks: Burdened Interpretations

tessman-burdenedI’m currently involved (along with some other members of the POT blog) in an online reading group on Lisa Tessman’s book Burdened Virtues, and while there’s a lot in the book that I admire, I want to grump here a bit about some of the things that Tessman says in ch. 3, which is where we currently are in the book. (The main focus of the book is on how to understand what Aristotelean-style virtue ethicists see, and what Tessman rather forlornly longs to see, as a harmonious and mutually reinforcing relationship between virtue and well-being, in the context of oppressive social structures that impose often devastating costs on those who attempt the sorts of resistance to oppression that virtue seems to require. That’s an interesting and important topic, but – be warned – I say virtually nothing about it in the present post.)

Despite the occasional perfunctory acknowledgment (e.g. at p. 62, n. 15) that views on which morality and flourishing can come apart were “quite thinkable within the ancient Greek context,” Tessman nevertheless persists in treating ancient and modern views as divided by some deep conceptual gap; hence she contrasts the “contemporary meaning of the word happiness” with the “ancient Greek understanding of … eudaimonia or flourishing” (p. 57), as though conceptions of eudaimonia centered on wealth or subjective pleasure or the amoral pursuit of power were alien to the ancient Greek context. But in fact the virtue-centered conception of eudaimonia common among philosophers in the broadly Socratic lineage (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics) seems by no means to have been automatically congenial to Greeks generally; indeed in Plato’s dialogues Socrates’ interlocutors often react with puzzlement or disbelief or even mockery to his insistence that morality and self-interest cannot come apart.

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