Aristotle’s account of megalopsychia, the virtue concerned with great honours, is controversial for many reasons. One of the more intractable points of debate is how to interpret the megalopsychos’ attitude towards honour. Some scholars argue that Aristotle subscribed to a philosophical and Socratic ideal, according to which only virtuous conduct is of any real value, and where honour and dishonour does not matter at all to the virtuous person. Others, however, have argued that Aristotle remains committed to the remnants of an archaic and heroic honour culture, in which virtue and social superiority are inextricably linked, where virtue is expressed in the pursuit of honour, and where the exercise of virtue is thus a zero-sum game and agents compete for prominence and must either win or lose. Finally, according to a third group of scholars, Aristotle’ account of megalopsychia is an unsuccessful, and indeed impossible, attempt at unifying these two inherently contradictory conceptions of virtue.
In this paper I argue that neither of these three views does justice to Aristotle’s account of megalopsychia and the role of honour in his conception of the life of practical virtue. First, I argue that although honour is certainly an important good for Aristotle, the pursuit of honour is not the primary concern for his megalopsychos. For Aristotle, I argue, the value of honour is derived from the value of the virtuous actions on account of which it is bestowed as well as from the goodness of the character of the bestowers. Thus, when the megalopsychos pursues honours, she does so with an explicit view to the supreme value of virtuous activity and good character – whether her own or that of others. On the one hand, this entails that Aristotle’s megalopsychos is a person who is much more concerned with behaving virtuously, and thus with deserving honours, than she is with actually receiving them. On the other hand, it also entails that no virtuous agent can be entirely indifferent to honour, since valuing honour is a function of valuing truly valuable things – good character and virtuous action. Second, I argue, although there is certainly a competitive edge to Aristotle’s conception of virtuous action, and his megalopsychos will strive to “exceed” or “outdo” her peers, this competition takes place within an essentially cooperative framework, in which virtuous agents strive to benefit each other. Thus, in order to excel and be the very best she can be, Aristotle’s virtuous person must always do her very best to further the success of others. This entails that she will surrender both opportunities for fine actions and the resulting honour to her peers, when they are more suitable candidates for the task at hand. On such occasions, the most honourable thing to do is to abstain, and in doing so, the megalopsychos ensures herself the greatest possible share of honour as the cause of another’s fine action. In this way, both agents “exceeds”, the first in terms of doing a fine and beneficent action, the second in terms of allowing the first to succeed.
In this way, I argue, Aristotle finds room for the pursuit of honour within a life of practical virtue without surrendering to a zero-sum competitive conception of practical virtuous activity. Hence, I conclude, Aristotle’s account of the virtue concerned with honour is not an uneasy compromise, but a principled and consistent position that successfully accommodates both the heroic and the Socratic intuitions of his contemporaries.
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Workshop in Ancient Philosophy Convenors: Ursula Coope, Simon Shogry and Luca Castagnoli