Hasidic Schools

In most Hasidic schools, including the ones I attended, Aristotle is taught to be synonymous with sin, and is depicted as the symbol of non-Jewish promiscuity and wickedness. Therefore, when I noticed that we would be exploring Aristotle this semester, I was both enthusiastic and anxious. Enthusiastic, because I would be learning the teachings of an individual who was vilified for most of my life, and anxious, because I was afraid my sub-conscious biases would corrupt my appreciation of his work. However, after analyzing Aristotle, I have realized that many Hasidic leaders malign him because of his values in the Nicomachean Ethics. These values promote contemplative thinking, which is a direct and dire threat to the core of Hasidic life.

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I. What is virtue according to Aristotle?

The Nicomachean Ethics is fundamentally concerned with what human beings aim at, and Aristotle concludes that human beings aim for happiness. Happiness is teleological, making it the end that all action leads to. Happiness is the endpoint, and since it is sought for itself, we seek nothing beyond it. Everything else in our lives, including wealth, health, and love, are executed for the sake of happiness. Aristotle is the Mondrian of philosophy, and happiness is his abstract art. This has Aristotle exploring the three ways of lifepleasure, honor, and contemplation – to see which leads to happiness.

Now we must askhow do virtue and happiness correlate? Aristotle claims that human beings are unique in their search of activity of the soul in accordance with virtue (Aristotle 13). This activity of soul is happiness. He believes that virtue directs happiness. But Aristotle has made it clear that the practice of virtue in no way guarantees the happiness of the virtuous (244). Then what does guarantee happiness?
We must begin our answer by defining virtue. Virtues are characteristics defined by one’s ability to choose in a reasonable and prudent manner. The goal of virtue is the mean of excess and deficiency in relation to passion, and this is relative, seeing as passions and their effects, are subjective (33-35). These virtues and vices are voluntary, for as Aristotle says, A human being is an origin of his actions (49).
Now that we’ve defined virtue, we can speak about the categories of virtue, namely Moral Virtue relating to the non-rational part of the soul and Intellectual Virtue relating to the rational part of the soul. Aristotle begins by focusing on the eleven moral virtues, and spends a hefty portion of the text dedicated to them.

The moral virtues speak to character, and they are the result of habit. Human beings are born with a clean slate. It is only through the choices we make and the actions we commit, that we are virtuous or evil, since Aristotle says, [] by doing just things we become just; moderate things, moderate; and courageous things, courageous (27). In outlining the moral virtues, Aristotle praises the mean (or middle ground) and believes that the downfall of virtue lies in human extremes, may they be excessive or deficient. Aristotle begins by outlining the virtues which create Greatness of Soul (the mean between the vain and small-souled.) The virtues which build up to Greatness of Soul are Courage, Moderation, Liberality, and Magnificence. If one is great-souled, they possess the supreme characteristics of each prior virtue. Aristotle sums up the moral virtues with Justice, which concerns equality, proportion, and reciprocity since [] justice, then, is complete virtue in justice, ever virtue is summed up (92). To connect Moral Virtue to happiness, Aristotle describes Friendship, since without human interaction no one would choose to live (163). Friendship is noble and we cannot have any other virtue without friendship, since we cannot be virtuous if there is no one to act virtuous towards.

Aristotle is also concerned with Intellectual Virtue. Intellectual virtues are a result of teaching, and involve wisdom, comprehension, and prudence. If we do not have reason, we cannot be virtuous, since action must accompany our understanding of the moral virtues (281). Aristotle claims that we can only have choice in our virtues if we have intellect, and since virtue is about choice, intellect is necessary. We find the truths of virtue through five meansart, science, prudence, wisdom, and intellect. It seems that Prudence, which is the ability to deliberate well, is of utmost significance, since virtues do not exist in the absence of Prudence. Prudence is the completion or necessary accompaniment of the moral virtues (282).

Through the exploration of the virtues, Aristotle ultimately decides that intellect and contemplation allow for happiness and the realization of telos. He says that if human beings wish to reach the immortality of the gods, they need to have contemplative and intellectual virtues, with moral virtues being secondary. This view is like the one held by Maimonides in his commentary on man’s fall from Eden. In the Bible it states, Behold man has become like one of us, having the ability of knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:22). Maimonides claims that when Adam and Eve sinned, they fell from a superior state of knowledgeemet and sheker (truth and lies) to an inferior state of tov and ra (good and evil.) When humans had knowledge of emet and sheker, they possessed rational knowledge and Intellectual Virtue, which is quantifiable. Their sin caused them to fall to a state of Moral Virtue, which, just as Aristotle claims, is secondary to Intellectual Virtue.
II. Is his account of virtue complete and correct?

While Aristotle is a man ahead of his time, there are some flaws in Ethics that I find necessary to illuminate. His claim of contemplation leading to happiness, is convincing. However, his imperfections seem to arise on the fronts of self-contradiction, an emphasis on divinity, and progressivism (or a lack thereof.)

While exploring virtue in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle includes needless repetition and digression to outright self-contradiction (239). His writing style is anything but arbitrary, and his cyclic rhetoric allows for variety across political communities. Still, his lack of definitive claims makes his work stand on unsound ground. It causes his claims to lack completion. Even though the main audience for his teachings is not the masses, they must be catered to, to prevent Aristotle’s philosophy from being lost in a puddle of confusion. He goes to and fro about various viewpoints, which all seem to be his own, yet he never truly settles on one. For instance, in Book One, he claims to despise pleasure, saying it is a life suitable only for fatted cattle. In Books Seven and Ten, he reorients those claims, saying that pleasure is a necessary accompaniment of the life of one who loves moral virtue (244). Additionally, Aristotle claims that friendship is vital for virtue, but then reasons that the contemplative life is ideal, because it is marked by the greatest self-sufficiency (297). By stating multiple views, virtue gets lost. If Aristotle stated his beliefs definitively, without contradicting himself, his arguments would be stronger, and would influence citizens on a greater scale.

Another fundamental issue I find with Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s focus on the divine. Everything in the Ethics is based off the assumption that the soul exists, and if it exists, that it is somewhat divine. However, I find it odd, that a philosopher as focused on reason as Aristotle, especially one who promotes Intellectual Virtue above all else, would use divinity and religion as a foundation of his philosophical premises. He says, Happiness is an activity in accord with virtue, and this would be the virtue belonging to what is best (223). What is best to Aristotle is intellect and contemplative thought. If the contemplative life is highly regarded by Aristotle, why does he not focus more on rationality? As much as I wish I could believe in the soul, I am always awoken to the fact that the soul has been conjured by a species too evolved for its own good. It is less than complete to have virtues built off divinity, because rationality challenges religiosity.

Ultimately, the biggest issue I take with Aristotle’s account of virtue, is his flippancy regarding sexism and slavery. Yes, Aristotle was born in 384 BCE, a time when sexism and slavery were the status quo. However, I do not believe we can have a complete account of virtue if these progressive views are lacking. In relation to sexism, Aristotle states, The community of husband and wife appears to be aristocratic the man rules in accord with merit regarding the things over which a man ought all things suited to a woman, he hands over to her (179). This is just one example of Aristotle’s discussion of male superiority, but his literature is littered with sentiments such as these. I do not expect Aristotle to be a raging Feminist who demands paid maternity leave, but I do expect a shred of common decency towards an entire sex.

What is even worse than his views on women, are his views on slavery. He says, [] neither is there friendship for a horse or an ox, nor for a slave insofar as he is a slave since a slave is an inanimate tool, and tool an inanimate slave (181). Aristotle’s views on slavery are archaic. I find myself becoming immersed in Aristotle’s thoughts and philosophies, until I chance upon a passage about slavery. I do not know if I can trust his account of virtue completely, when he speaks of people as cattle. I believe this lack of progressivism tarnishes his accounts of virtue. This is the age-old question of separating the art from the artist. Some can do so, but I cannot.

III. How did it change the way you think about living (if at all)?
When I was in Professor Holbreich’s American Political Thought class my first year on campus, I was fresh out of the Hasidic community. I was afraid of philosophy and what it had to teach me, believing that an exploration of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson would cause too much internal strife regarding religion. However, the class opened my mind to countless philosophical possibilities. It allowed me to broaden my awareness and become less afraid of partaking in philosophical reasoning and debate. The way I live my life today, in part, has been changed by Thoreau’s Walden. His values are part of my daily life.

Today, in Great Political Thinkers, I am comfortable with studying philosophies which challenge my worldview. Aristotle’s Ethics has done that. While I am quite harsh to Aristotle in my reservations of his accounts on virtue, many aspects of his work have already changed the way I think about living. This is especially true in relation to his emphasis on the middle ground and the life of contemplation.
Aristotle’s inclination towards a mean in defining the goal of virtue, strikes a chord with me. When outlining the moral virtues, Aristotle describes them as the mean between two extremes. Courage is the mean between fear and confidence and Liberality is the mean between prodigality and stinginess.

Only when you reach the middle ground, in accordance with the relative middle ground to you, can the moral virtues to be achieved. Aristotle believes that Such things [as the virtues] are naturally destroyed through deficiency and excess (28). I have always been attracted to extremes. When you grow up in many Hasidic circles, you are taught to view life in black and whiteyou are Hasidic, or you are a sinner; you are Hasidic, or you are a drug addict; you are Hasidic, or you are unhappy. Shades of gray do not exist. If you believe in living life in a shade of slate, iron, or pewter, you are lesser of a person. Much of Hasidic life thrives off extremes. It is these extremes which prevent congregants from leaving the Hasidic folds.

When someone decides to leave the Hasidic community, they must learn to view life in shades of gray, because they have been taught from birth to verge towards extreme thinking. They must learn to find the middle ground, because straying to extremes is hazardous for them. For so long I have lived life in either the black shadows of Hasidism or the blinding whiteness of the secular world. I have always yearned to find the mean, and never realized that others yearned for the same thing. Having Aristotle outline the blueprint for means, claiming it to be the goal of virtue, has truly assisted me in finding my middle ground. Running after excesses or deficiencies is hopeless. Only through finding a way to unite your beliefs into a healthy mean, can you find peace.

Suffice it to say, as evident above, I have always been contemplative. Thinking and reason have always seemed to me like values of the utmost importance. While I see the moral virtues as vital, as we cannot live in a community without them, I have always innately felt that I am only truly happy when I am learning. Intellect has always compelled me. If given the choice, I’d be in university forever. Yet I have always felt guilty. I have always believed that thinking of moral virtues as inferior to intellectual virtues somehow makes me insufficient as a functioning member of society.

I have always surrounded myself with thinkers and those who reason, for it is the only way I can make sense of the world. Knowing that Aristotle, a man considered one of the greatest philosophical minds to ever exist, holds intellect and contemplation in the highest regard, has allowed me to feel at peace with my contemplation. I’ve been contemplating more in recent weeks, and have not been holding back. Before, I was sure that my philosophizing would get me nowhere, but reading Aristotle has made me realize that my instinctive desire to learn, reason, and contemplate, is what the good life is about.


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

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