In Aristotle’s time, class distinctions required specific standards to be met: education and politics for the well-born, military service or unskilled labor for the lower classes. There were few if any opportunities for someone to aspire to a higher position in the overall make-up of society and/or the state. The philosophers of the time looked at virtue and a consistency of thought and deed as something nearly impossible for ordinary men to achieve. Of course, other than in drama, the women of ancient Greece were confined to procreation and servitude. The visions and proclamations of philosophers such as Aristotle were set up to be goals, seldom if ever achievable by humans; but at least a direction to be aimed at.
Life in the 21st Century is not only more complicated than in Aristotelian times, but also more highly competitive: our generation has strivers whose choice is to out-do their peers. While politicians use ideas about “humanity” as their watchword, what one might consider a modern virtue is that of compassion. Despite current theological and even terrorist warfare among the Judeo/Christian West and Islamic East (divisions which did not exist in Aristotle’s time) overall, there is more societal concern about the welfare of those who struggle to survive than ever before. “Societal values have changed. Whereas past societies prized ‘honor’ and the willingness to fight to defend it, above all else, contemporary society has come to recognize life itself as the highest good” (Docksai, 2012, p. 55). Some may define compassion as the desire to relieve the suffering of others. That tends to be a rather static approach. Instead, “It seems that ‘real’ compassion is an action – not a wish to relieve suffering but actual efforts to do so” (Cline, 2003, para. 1). Unlike Aristotle and his fellow philosophers, compassion in the 21st century goes beyond stating facts and setting unachievable goals: Compassion calls for some sort of positive action. And this means, one can easily state, going beyond giving money to charities.
Compassion, as a 21st Century virtue, is not a static intellectual feeling but a motivation for positive action. This is separate from Aristotle’s claims: “We divided the virtues of the soul and said that some are virtues of character and others of the intellect” (Aristotle. 1957, p. 287). Compassion, thus, is not so much intellectual as actionable. Given that society’s elite thinkers are motivators and doers as much as they may be rationalizers, compassion as a virtues demands positive and fruitful action not merely ideological fulfillment.
Aristotle uses the notion of friendship to distinguish between what is lovable and valuable to a person versus that which is inherently evil and remains evil. In today’s society, compassion may also include the efforts to turn the evil doer into a useful member of society- someone worth “saving.” This may vary greatly from educating minority prisoners to become “useful” members of society once released, th providing foreign aid to nations suffering from economic or natural disasters.
Compassion, therefore, is global in the 21st century, whereas Aristotle’s world was severely limited geographically as well as socially.
Sad to admit, many of the virtues proposed by Aristotle and his mentor, Plato, would be nearly insufferable today because they expect perfection from humans who admit that imperfection is the human trait. In fact, Christianity was founded on the belief that imperfection is what separates God from the Man He created and that Man is a sinner, who can only be forgiven his sins upon acceptance of the tenets of Christian belief.
Still, one cannot combine the virtue of Compassion with that of charity, although the latter may be part of the former. Charity is the fuel that propels the actions of compassion. But there still is a gap within global societies between the idea of compassion and its action to help eliminate the miseries of the world’s Have-nots. Aristotle and his peers never saw virtues as something universal, but limited to the educated and well-born. Modern compassion, therefore, is not such a limited virtue.
Aristotle (1957O): “Nichomachean Ethics” in Volume 9,
Great Books of the Western World Chicago: University of
Chicago Press (1957).
Cline, A. (2003): “How do you define Compassion?”
Accessed July 1, 2012 on
Docksai, R. (2012): “Humanity Grows More Civil”
The Futurist 46. 3 (May/Jun 2012): 55.