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Philosophy of Ultimates: The Existence and Nature of God

Phil 105, Ben Birkenstock


– a sources we trust to guide our beliefs about the world

For example:


Personal experience (same as above)

Experts (like a family you come to trust because of skill not (just) proximity)


Reason is not opposed to authority; reason IS an authority.

John Wesley (1703-91) ennumerated a group of 4 authorities for faith:




Experience (observation)

1. Scripture

Moves from the experience of God in history to producing texts in various genres

Area of authority – grand narrative of how God is reconciling all things through Christ. A narrative that needs to be told, revealed, in order to be aware of it

2. Tradition

A community, a type of expertise and of reasoning, practices and interpretations handed down through time, and way of experiencing

Area of authority: depends. Very influential, often without being noticed

3. Reason

Best practices for learning across disciplines, and the content gained from these practices

area of authority – very wide; engineering to history to philosophy

4. Experience

What is it: “sum total of one’s perspective of how things feel on the inside,”

something we cannot get outside of, it ‘is’ us in a sense

Area of Authority: Not Reliable/broad, but very often experience is a catalyst for change in our approach to other authorities

Authorities/sources of belief can be fallible; the place our authorities are wrong is located most accutely ‘in’ us.

Aquinas’ Five Ways

of Arguing for God’s Existence

Important concepts: Potentiality (Potency) and Actuality (Act)

Actuality: the way something is.

Potentiality: the way something could be. no potential can become actual without an actuality that actualizes it

e.g. you cannot be holding your pen (potential) without the action of your fingers (actualizer), your body cannot survive (potential) without your lungs (actualizer), etc.

The 1st & 2nd Ways:

The Unmoved Mover

Observation: An order of change, and of motion (cause & effect)

Best explanation: A first cause that is uncaused, an ultimate (unchanging) source of change, an unmoved mover

Let’s see some examples…

Every thing or event is actualized by something else

That ‘something else’ must itself be actual.

In this way, we could go on to infinity for every event in the world, but that would not explain why anything was an actuality, a reality, in the first place.

So, we conclude that there is a source of actuality that does not need to be actualized by anything else; it is “pure actuality.”

The 3rd Way: Possible & Necessary Existence

Observation: Things exist, but they don’t have to exist. They could have not existed.

Explanation: A source of things exists, that DOES have to exist, whose very nature is existence, i.e. a self-existing existence.

Most of what we observe is contingent, that is, everything has the possibility not to exist

(all things come and go, even planets, stars, universes, your car keys, your boyfriend, etc.).

Everything we observe therefore at some point did not exist

Therefore, it is possible that nothing ever existed

If so, nothing would ever have caused anything else to exist.

So their must be an absolute existence, something that exists un-contingently, that has to exist, a necessary being, that is the source of its own necessity.

Could the universe have existed/moved forever?

There is no such thing as pure energy or matter that exists by itself independent of things or forms

It is true that matter/energy do not simply appear/disappear or stop moving randomly.

However, since they only exist in concrete things and transactions whose existence are contingent and temporary, they are not “eternal” or “necessary” beings per se

Rather, their motion and existence in finite forms stills depends upon an uncaused, unmoved source

The 4th Way: Participation in Perfection

Observation: Grades of perfection or excellence in beings

Explanation: A perfect being, a source of all highest excellence.

Existing things display transcendental perfections – goodness of will, truth of mind – to varying degrees.

Since things are not absolutely good, true, or beautiful, they cannot be the source of these excellences.

If I had the full reality of goodness inside me, i would not be able to move from less good to great, I would already be completely great.

So, goodness must come from outside of individual being, in a source that possesses full goodness in its nature.

The 5th Way: Final Causality

Observation: Non-intelligent things act for the sake of ends

Explanation: Supreme Intelligence of purpose in non-intelligent things/agents.

The predictable outcomes and reactions which non-conscious things generate have no mind or intelligent order within themselves to direct them.

Therefore, the regularity of the effects generated by non-conscious things points toward ends or goals towards which all things move.

Thus, we can infer the existence of a supreme intelligence that is the source of the orderly ends or goals towards which all things move.

If this source was not intelligent–that is, rational–we would not expect things to behave consistently towards observable outcomes,

E.g. particles and planets travel in a predictable direction, plants grow, balls roll, etc.

Dao & Sophia: The humility of God in the ziran of Laozi


the personalism of Maximos & Bulgakov

The idea of Dao (道 – way, path, teaching) emerged in warring states China (400’s – 200’s BCE)

Heaven (天) was supposed to throw down rulers who did not care for their people

People were asking, why has Heaven (天) allowed so many chaotic and evil rulers?

Many teachers, such as Confucius, tried to find the way (dao) to bring peace to the world through ethical rituals, politics, and logical arguments.

However, Laozi and Zhuangzi realized that peacefulness was often found not in action and self-cultivation, but in stillness and, in carefree, low positions:

Bowed down then preserved; / Bent then straight; / Hollow then full; / Worn then new; / A little then benefited; / A lot then perplexed. / Therefore Sages embrace the One and are a model for the empire. / Do not show themselves, and so are conspicuous; /

Do not consider themselves right, and so are illustrious; / Do not brag, and so have

merit; / Do not boast, and so endure. / It is because they do not contend that no one in

the empire is in a position to contend with them. / The way the ancients had it, ‘Bowed down then preserved,’ is no empty saying. / Truly it enables one to be

preserved to the end.

(Daodejing Chapter 22)


What does this have to do with dao as Ultimate?

The reason Laozi believes that being low is better than being high is because reality does not know human distinction

so “high” positions are artificial, fake

humility is closer to reality!

When the people of the Earth all know beauty as beauty, / There arises (the recognition of) ugliness…. Difficult and easy complement each other…High and low set measure to each other…Back and front follow each other /…Therefore, the Sage…denies nothing to the teeming things. / He rears them, but lays no claim to them. / He accomplishes his task,

but does not dwell upon it. / And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it / That nobody can ever take it away from him.

天下皆知美之為美,斯惡已。皆知善之為善,斯不善已。故有無相生,難易相成,長短相較,高下相傾,音聲相和,前後相隨。是以聖人處無為之事,行不言之教;萬物作焉而不辭,生而不有。為而不恃,功成而弗居。夫唯弗居,是以不去。(道德經 地二章)

If humility effectively avoids destruction,* the source of reality must be unselfish and spontaneous (自然)

Cycles of life confirm this:

all things return to weakness, stillness, and non-existence.

So there is a pattern and a source that guides all reality through weakness, not strength



When man is born, he is tender and weak; / At death, he is hard and stiff. / When the things and plants are alive, they are soft and supple; / When they are dead, they are brittle and dry. / Therefore hardness and stiffness are the companions of death, / And softness and gentleness are the companions of life. / Therefore when an army is headstrong, it will lose in a battle./ When a tree is hard, it will be cut down. / The big and strong belong underneath. / The gentle and weak belong at the top. (DDJ Ch. 76)

Keep on beating and sharpening a sword, / And the edge cannot be preserved for long. / Fill your house with gold and jade, / And it can no longer be guarded. / Set store by riches and honour, / And you will only reap a crop of calamities. / Here is the Way of Heaven: / When you have done your work, retire! (DDJ Ch. 9) *(See also characteristic #5 below)


This means the nature of reality is spontaneous (自然);it has no desire for honour or recognition

The Great [D]ao is universal like a flood. / How can it be turned to the right or to the left? / All creatures depend on it, / And it denies nothing to anyone. / It does its work, But it makes no claims for itself. / Constantly without desire, It clothes and feeds all, / But it does not lord it over them: / Thus, it may be called “the Little.” / All things return to it as to their home, / But it does not lord it over them: / Thus, it may be called “the Great.” / It is just because it does not wish to be great / That its greatness is

fully realised. (DDJ Ch. 34)

“There was Something undefined and yet complete in itself, / Born before Heaven-and-Earth. / Silent and boundless, / Standing alone without change, / Yet pervading all without fail, /It may be regarded as the Mother of the world. / I do not know its name; / I style it ‘Tao’” / And, in the absence of a better word, call it “The Great.” / To be great is to go on, / To go on is to be far, / To be far is to return. / Hence, “Tao is great, / Heaven is great, / Earth is great, / King is great.” / Thus, the king is one of the great four in the Universe. / Man follows the ways of the Earth. /

The Earth follows the ways of Heaven, / Heaven follows the ways of Tao, / Tao follows [spontenaity].

有物混成,先天地生。寂兮寥兮,獨立不改,周行而不殆,可以為天下母。吾不知其名,字之曰道,強為之名曰大。大曰逝,逝曰遠,遠曰反。故道大,天大,地大,王亦大。域中有四大,而王居其一焉。人法地,地法天,天法道,道法自然。 (道德经 第25章)

This means that Dao is benevolent, but not like people;

it is benevolent because violence and selfishness are forced, not natural

provision and equity are spontaneous



The Tao (way) of Heaven, / Is it not like the bending of a bow? / The top comes down and the bottom-end goes up…It is the way of Heaven to take away from those that have too much / And give to those that have not enough. / Not so with man’s way: / He takes from those that have not / And gives it as tribute to those that have too much. / Who can have enough and to spare to give to the entire world? / Only the man of Tao. / Therefore the Sage acts, but does not possess, / Accomplishes but lays claim to no credit, / Because he has no wish to seem superior. (DDJ Ch. 77)

True words are not fine-sounding; / Fine-sounding words are not true. /A good man does not argue; / he who argues is not a good man….The Sage does not accumulate (for himself). / He lives for other people, / And grows richer himself; / He gives to other people, / And has greater abundance. / The Tao of Heaven / Blesses, but does not harm. / The Way of the Sage / Accomplishes, but does not contend. (DDJ Ch. 81)

So we can learn to 知足; to know contentment and accept the end of our success:


When the Dao prevails in the world, they send back their swift horses to (draw) the dung- carts. When the Dao is disregarded in the world, the war-horses breed in the border lands. There is no guilt greater than to sanction ambition; no calamity greater than to be discontented with one’s lot; no fault greater than the wish to be getting. Therefore the sufficiency of contentment is an enduring and unchanging sufficiency. (Ch. 46)

Six characteristics of Dao


Immanence: it’s influence is present in everything


Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, “This thing called the Way – where does it exist?” Chuang Tzu said, “There’s no place it doesn’t exist.” “Come,” said Master Tung-kuo, “you must be more specific!” “It is in the ant.” “As low a thing as that?” “It is in the panic grass.”

“But that’s lower still!” “It is in the tiles and shards.” “How can it be so low?” “It is in the piss and shit!” Master Tung-kuo made no reply.

Six characteristics of Dao

Spontenaity (自然): Dao is “pure actuality / uncaused cause;”

it’s existence is completely natural, fundamental, and good in itself

人法地,地法天,天法道,道法自然。 (道德经 第25章)

The Earth follows the ways of Heaven, / Heaven follows the ways of Tao, / Tao follows [spontenaity].

Six characteristics of Dao

Emptiness (空、无): Because it is spontaneous, Dao is not a form or a thing, it is an “absence:”

It is beyond specific forms

It does not use force

It gives being by providing the openness and power for things to emerge and grow spontaneously


Reversal is the movement of Dao. Weakness is the use(fulness) of Dao. All things are born of presence, presence is born of absence (DDJ Ch. 40)

Six characteristics of Dao

Nonaction / Wuwei (无为): Dao makes all things (happen) with “non-making;” it acts by enabling, not forcing

Primary causality attracts, it does not push.


Dao makes nothing and nothing is not made (DDJ Ch. 37)


All creatures depend on it, / And it denies nothing to anyone. / It does its work, But it makes no claims for itself. / Constantly without desire, It clothes and feeds all (DDJ Ch. 34)

Six characteristics of Dao

Dao causes the world through stages;

absence causes presence

unity gives birth to polarity, polarity causes multiplicity

(this is why lowliness is prior to honour)


The Dao produces One; One produces Two; Two produces Three; Three produces All things. All things leave behind them the Obscurity (out of which they have come), and go forward to embrace the Brightness (into which they have emerged), while they are harmonised by the Breath of Vacancy.

What men dislike is to be orphans, to have little virtue, to be as carriages without naves; and yet these are the designations which kings and princes use for themselves. So it is that some things are increased by being diminished, and others are diminished by being increased. What other men (thus) teach, I also teach. The violent and strong do not die their natural death. I will make this the basis of my teaching. (DDJ Ch. 42)

Six characteristics of Dao

Dao’s essence spontenaity (自然) of emptiness (無), weakness (柔弱) and non-doing (无为)…

…is essentially life-giving (生生不息)!

Maximos the Confessor

(600’s CE)

Maximos lived after a big controversy about the identity of Jesus divinity.

Maximos defended the idea that Jesus was one person (hypostasis) in two natures (ousia – ‘essence’) – divine and human.

Divine nature is infinite, perfect, uncreated, and beyond comprehension.

Human nature if finite, limited, created, and visible/temporal.

Maximos the Confessor

(600’s CE)

However, we can never know a “nature” or essence without a concrete subject

Furthermore, Christ is a human person – and a person cannot be reduced to a category

So the living, historical person of Christ is the foundation both for divine/uncreated nature and human/created nature

Maximos the Confessor

(600’s CE)

Only in Jesus do we see God; and only in Jesus do we see what it is to be a creature!

Without the God-become-human Jesus, there would be no world

Jesus is the source of both the unity and difference between being God/uncreated and world/created

That means the most fundamental category of existence is the ‘hypostasis,’ the PERSON

Everything is fundamentally personal!

Maximos the Confessor

(600’s CE)

Most importantly, this historical person died and rose again for his friends & the whole world:

What it means to be both God/uncreated and human/creature is to humble ourselves for others,

to find eternal life through death to evil,

through holistic, healthy sacrificial love

Sergei Bulgakov (Russian theologian/sophiologist, Marxist economist, and philosopher, 1871 – 1944)

What does it mean for the fundamental nature of reality to be a person?

Whenever we talk, our sentence has a basic subject – copula (verb) – object structure:

‘I am Ben; the table is white; it is raining’

This structure is fundamentally personal: we are ascribing a type of subjectivity – personality – to things

My course is hard; your job is killing you

So our basic understanding or reality is personal

Sergei Bulgakov (Russian theologian, Marxist economist, and philosopher, 1871 – 1944)

The subject – verb – object structure also shows that personhood is essentially interpersonal / relational:

“I am a man” – I can only know myself as a person in relation to concepts and things outside of myself

Moreover, this relational structure or process is essentially tripartite, 3 – fold:

“I am human” / subject – verb – object

I only know myself through you (another person, e.g. mother)

I and you only know one another through her/him, or “we”

Sergei Bulgakov (Russian theologian, Marxist economist, and philosopher, 1871 – 1944)

For Bulgakov, the teaching of the Christian Trinity (三一体) reveals the basic structure of reality:

Reality is personal, and personhood is a relationship between you, me, and us, (subject – verb – object)

The Trinity is the revelation of Christ, and Christ is revealed in humility of God so that of humans can take part in God.

Jesus said “he who sees me sees the Father”

“I will send the Spirit – He will lead you in all truth”

Jesus’ followers only fully recognized his divinity through his death and rising again

So, God is Father revealed by the Son and given to us in Spirit because God is revealed in personhood in history and present everywhere

Therefore, the way to become one with God is by loving others through the spirit of Jesus;

and all things are personal & reflect God’s care!




Brahman in the Vedanta tradition(s)


A Hindu Theology of Liberation : Not-Two Is Not One

The Advaita Worldview : God, World, and Humanity

“Although not moving, the one is swifter than the mind; the gods cannot catch it, as it speeds on in front. Standing, it outpaces others who run; within it [are] the waters. It moves—yet it does not move It is far away—yet it is near at hand! It is within this whole world—yet It is also outside this whole world.” (Īśa Upanisad 4–5)

Brahman as Being (Sat)

…and as the source of all beings

“its [activities and] relation with the world does not imply limits” – Rambachan, The Advaita Worldview

The dependence and union of the world with Brahman

For Sankara and Advaita Vedanta (Non-dualism),

the most fundamental aspect of reality is Brahman (God/consciousness):

Only Brahman is fully real in and of itself

It is the cause of all finite things

But when finite things come and go, it is really just Brahman that exists in them.

The most famous example is the clay and the pot:

before and after the (name/form of a) pot exists, there is only clay

However, even while the pot exists, it is only the clay that truly exists in pot form

Thus, the pot has a real existence, but its existence is wholly caused by and inseparable from the clay

The clay, however, is clay no matter if the pot exists or not

name (nāma) and form (rūpa):

All finite things are a composite of name and form

However, unlike in Aristotle, names make forms perceivable by humans

Names/forms are the way we mistakenly understand existence

Since Brahman is pure consciousness, the true material cause of objects is not matter, but undivided consciousness

It is therefore a mistake of our finite understanding to think that material objects have existence apart from Brahman/God.

Once we realize nonduality, we see that names and forms of objects are only naming aspects or appearances of Brahman, not individual existences

For Advaitins, unlike Thomists, forms are completely derivative of smaller forms

All objects and names are composed of ever smaller parts

Greater parts/forms have no more independent existence than smaller parts/ forms

This does not mean that nothing exists, only that objects do not divide existence

Existence (Brahman) is nondual and undivided

Forms (including space & time) are divided and dependent

Therefore, forms and objects are identical to nondual existence

How would one isolate the object’s existence within its particular form? For Śaṅkara, this question is misguided and unanswerable because form does not delimit existence. When one encounters a form and seeks its existence in the locus of its substantial cause, one encounters another form that decomposes into further forms. For example, the existence of a shirt depends on its causal cloth substance; however, cloth existence depends on threads, thread existence depends on fibers, and fibers are composed of further subtle causes, ad infinitum.

…Similarly, we may view the pot beyond the boundaries of an illustration—clay is the material cause of the pot, but has further causes, like minerals and water, which themselves depend on a descending chain of subtler causes. Reductions of wholes to aggregates of parts, forms to further forms, properties to other properties, effects to causes, or names to further names are infinite. They never bottom out in a metaphysical foundation. (SEP, “Sankara”)

Does this mean the universe does not exist?

…is our world of maya (appearance) completely an illusion?

Yes…and no. Sankara accepts that the infinite, relative forms of the universe are not merely projections of our minds;

Rather, they are wholly dependent on Brahman and wholly relative to Brahman:

“[Sankara’s] understanding of what is unreal as a less-than-real appearance does not contradict what is real. The universe of names and forms holds a unique ontological position as brahman or something else other than brahman. It is not identical to brahman (even though reducible to brahman), but is not different either—it does not constitute a second reality.” (SEP, ‘Sankara’)

The Analogy of the Dream:

The world of our experience is like a dream; when we dream of a pot, it is based on the pot we experienced when awake

When we experience relative multiplicity, it is ultimately grounded in absolute nonduality

The Dream is a real state or experience

In the dream, we really experience;

Sankara is an empirical realist: our experience of reality is not purely irrational

However, there is not causal connection between the things in the dream and the real experience when awake

When we examine the pot in our dream, we can never find the real pot of our waking life

Thus, the world of multiplicity is not even an effect of nonduality in the absolute sense;

Rather, it is just a reflection; nonduality has no cause and effect, no change, and no multiplicity, but is pure blissful awareness

Isvara: the Highest Lord

Sankara believes that the universe has a form of experiential reality,

So, there must be a material and formal cause to the universe.

So, there must be an intelligent God, or Lord (“Ishvara”)

However, since the forms of the world have no ultimate reality …

…the universe is not separate from God’s knowledge, and God is just the experiential form of nondual consciousness (Brahman)

Even though a dream is not the same as waking reality,

…the fact that there is a real dream means there must be a real dreamer

However, the dream is not separate from the mind of the dreamer

And the mind of the dreamer is not separate from the waking reality the dreamer belongs to

however, you are also separate from your dream experiences;

you are the experiencer of your dream

You are the source of dream, and only a character in your dream, the subject and the object of your dream

All the other characters in your dream are just you!

So, Isvara (God) is the universe, but he is also the mind of the universe, the source of the universe’s order and intelligence(s)

The universe is like Isvara’s body, consciousness is like Isvara’s form or mind.

People are like “mini Isvara’s” – microcosms of the universe (like in Daoist religion); however, unlike Isvara, our limited minds/experience cannot produce the world

Ultimately, only blissful nondual awareness is real – everything else is a projection or an experience of nonduality.

The dependent reality of our world of appearance

However, unlike a dream, our reality does not disappear when we realize our unity with Brahman

We may mistake a rope for a snake in the darkness; when the light comes, we realize it is a rope, but our vision of it does not disappear

So, we may mistake this world as having independent realities, but

when we realize its


our experience of the world does not disappear or become void

Empirical or pragmatic reality…is the category to which the world belongs, while absolute reality is the ontological status of brahman. When the truth of brahman’s non-duality is understood, the world, unlike an illusion, does not cease to be. A false view of the universe, and not the universe itself, is destroyed. One who understands brahman no longer commits the error of assuming the world to have a reality and existence independent of brahman. One understands the world to be of the nature of brahman while not superimposing the nature of the world on brahman. The world is understood to be non-different in essential nature from brahman. Unlike a dream in relation to waking, however, the world does not cease to be as a consequence of the knowledge of brahman. “Just as brahman, the cause is never without existence in all three periods of time, so also the universe, which is the effect, never parts with existence in all three periods. But Existence is only one.” (Rambachan, The Advaita Worldview)

“While the world is non-different from brahman, brahman is different from the world…

…Advaita admits that the world in its relationship to brahman is an indefinable mystery…

…Although analogies of various kinds are used…no analogy is entirely adequate to the task.

…clay and gold are finite objects within space and time and their transformation into pots and jewelery cannot fully explain how the

world comes from


Brahman is limitless and non-dual and has no analogical parallel” (Ibid).

“What is meant by this sublation of the universe of manifestations? Is the world to be annihilated like the destruction of the solidity of ghee by contact with fire; or is it that the world of name and form, created in brahman by nescience like many moons created in the moon by the eye-disease called timira, has to be destroyed through knowledge? Now if it be said that this existing universe of manifestations, consisting of the body etc., on the corporeal plane and externally of the earth etc., is to be annihilated, that is a task impossible for any man, and hence the instruction about its extirpation is meaningless. Moreover, (even supposing that such a thing is possible, then) the universe, including the earth etc., having been annihilated by the first man who got liberation, the present universe should have been devoid of the earth etc.” (Sankara in ibid.)

“the world is brahman inexplicably appearing as the world.

…since brahman has ultimate value, the relationship of non-difference between the world and brahman enriches the value of the world.

…The world, in itself, is neither illusory nor deceptive. The world simply is.

…Ignorance is overcome when we understand the world to be the indefinable expression of brahman. The world is a celebrative expression of brahman’s fullness, an overflow of brahman’s undiminishing limitlessness.

… Its value is derived from the fact that it partakes of the nature of brahman even though, as a finite process, it can never fully express brahman.” (Ibid.)

“Just as the brahman, the cause, is never without existence in all three periods of time, so also the universe, which is an effect, never parts company with Existence in all the three periods.” (Sankara in ibid.)

(Here we may see a subtle difference between Brahman and Dao and Aquinas’ God):

In Brahman, there is an infinite fullness of bliss and being, which is expressed by the world but not dependent on the world

On the other hand, the world is the fullness of the life and beauty of Dao; Dao does not depend on the world, but it does not necessarily have fullness of being apart from the world

In God, there is an independent infinite fullness of activity, but while it is gives being to the world, it is not exactly identical with the world

“ignorance… is also to think that the seeing of the One requires the devaluing and negation of the many.

…authoritative texts…consistently present [liberated understanding] as a way of seeing both brahman and the world.

…seeing reality…does not require negation of the world of plurality, but a celebration of its relationship with brahman.

Meaning and value are added,

not taken,from the

world, when its

ontological unity and inseparable existence from brahman is affirmed.” (ibid.)

“One who sees me everywhere and sees everything in me is not lost to me, nor will I be lost to him.

One who sees the great Lord existing equally in all beings, the imperishable in the perishable, truly sees.

That knowledge by which one sees one imperishable being in all beings, indivisible in the divisible, is the highest.”

Bhagavadgita in ibid.

The worth of gold is not destroyed by making it into an beautiful ornament; The nondual bliss of Brahman is not threatened by the existence of the world

The Purpose of Creation

“Let me become many; let me be born.” from our class reading, Chandogya Upanisad

“He knew fullness as brahman. From fullness all these beings are born; by fullness they live after birth and into fullness they return.” Taittirīya Upaniṣad

The Brahmasūtra (2.1.33) uses the term līlā , [which] Śankara… explains… through the analogy of sport or play.

“just as rainfall is a common cause for the growth of paddy, barley, etc., …the differences being the individual potentiality of the respective seeds, similarly God is the common cause… … ………..while the individual fruits of works…are the uncommon causes for…the differences among the gods, men and others. Thus God is not open to the defects of partiality and cruelty” (Sankara in ibid.)

“The all in all cannot lack anything because nothing exists that it is not and that may be an object of its desire…

This important text suggests powerfully that we must think of creation as expressing the limitlessness of the infinite, an overflow of divine fullness and a celebration of what the infinite is.

Because it does not spring from any want, it does not have a self-directed character, and the infinite does not seek a private end from creation. “Love” is the word that is used often to describe actions that are performed without selfish intent and without expectation of personal reward. …The pouring of divine fullness is continuous. May we speak also of this sustaining activity as loving?

Creation as celebration and as proceeding from the fullness of the infinite confers value to the world and becomes, very importantly, a model for human action.” (Ibid.)

The Purpose of Creation

“In the beginning, my dear, that was Being only, one, without a second…It thought, ‘May I become many; may I grow forth.’”

from our class reading, The Chāndogya Upaniṣad

“the infinite, without being subject to time, loss of nature, or limitation of any kind, generates effects. Its relationship with such effects can only be described as not-two (advaita), because the existence of the effects cannot be denied, even though the substance of their existence is the infinite.”

Rambachan, The Advaita Worldview

“The moon is in awareness because I am aware of the moon. Between awareness, you and the moon in awareness, what is the distance? There is no distance.

Between the awareness and the moon in awareness, if there is any distance, what should it be? Space. And the space is where? In awareness.

Between awareness and space there cannot be any distance. Therefore, in awareness is the space, in space is the moon, in space is the sun…and space is in awareness

…There is no distance between awareness and this physical world”

Swami Dayananda in ibid.

Brahman as Cit – Consciousness/Awareness

“There is a single awareness knowing and objectifying all minds and all bodies.

The analogy used most often by Advaita teachers to instruct about its transcendence of spatial limits is space

The ātmā as awareness objectifies everything without itself ever becoming an object. Awareness cannot become an object to itself. Awareness is timeless and invariably present in all states of experience.

As the unitary, indivisible self of all, ātmā is not limited by space. It is the all-pervasive reality in which the objectified universe exists.”

Rambachan, A Hindu Theology of Liberation

Awareness has no change, but it is able to contain all things

Tt is the source of intellegence (Isvara), and intelligence is the source of the world

It is present in all things, and contains all things, but things do not contain it; that is why the world is not a projection of our minds, but rather a creation of pure consciousness

“Which one cannot grasp with one’s mind, by which, they say, the mind itself is grasped—Know that that alone is brahman…Which one cannot see with one’s sight, by which one sees the sight itself—Know that that alone is brahman…Which one cannot hear with one’s hearing, by which hearing itself is heard—Know that that alone is brahman, and not what they here meditate.”

Kena Upanisad in ibid.

Brahman as Ananda (Bliss, fullness)

Why is nonduality good news? Why would we want to become aware (attain moksha, liberation)?

Awareness does not suffer; it is unchanging and pure. It exists, and it enjoys

Because it observes AND is the source of everything, it does not have any needs

However, because it is pure, it is not bored or sad – boredom and sadness come from having needs that are unfulfilled

Since Brahman is awareness and existence without sadness, Brahman is pure experience, pure bliss, or peacefull enjoyment

Therefore, the self that gives our bodies life is pure bliss

Once we realize this, we can have joy no matter the circumstances, and accept that everyone else shares this bliss even when circumstances between us are difficult.

“…according as ignorance and desire become attenuated, that very Bliss appears in the vision of one, who is learned, versed in the Vedas, and free from passion, as rising higher and higher…when the division of subject and object is eliminated by enlightenment, there is only the all-pervading and intrinsic Bliss that is one without a second.” (Sankara in ibid.)

“Inasmuch as those Brāhmanas ([those] who have realized Brahman) are seen to be as happy as one is from obtaining an external source of joy though, in fact, they do not take help of any external means of happiness, make no effort,

and cherish no desires,

it follows, as a matter of course,

that Brahman is the source of their joy. Hence there does exist that Brahman which is full of joy, and is the spring of their happiness.” (Bhagavadgita in ibid)

“There is no particular object that makes all people happy. An object that is desirable for one person may, at the same time, be a source of sorrow for another.

…in the fulfillment of a desire for a preferred object or goal, the mind of the desirer, hitherto agitated by desire, becomes desireless and free from agitation. At this time there is a condition of fullness [ananta] that is identical with the nature of self.

[If] the person …wrongly attributes it to the object or goal attained…Soon the mind grows tired or bored with its gain

One who understands the nature of the self as limitless (ananta) is able to claim fullness without depending on the gain of anything outside the self.”

Rambachan, The Advaita Worldview 

If we are already completely one with nondual Brahman, how can anything we do remove our ignorance of this fact?

“Mental purity is the removal of epistemic obstructions to knowing brahman, such as greed, anger, selfishness, violence, jealousy, and distraction. It also includes developing positive qualifications such as ethical attitudinal values of equanimity, acceptance, truthfulness, compassion, and benevolence.”

(SEP, ‘Sankara’)

It can’t…however, our finite actions can both remove obstacles and create space for moksha (liberating self-knowledge) to take place:

Sankara compares self-control and kindness to food sacrifices to the gods

We “offer actions [of love] to īṣvara [God] for the benefit of all beings…and the harmonious functioning of the world.” (ibid.)

We accept the results of our good actions without attachment to pleasure or pain, like a priest eating the remains of a sacrifice

Like this priest, our good actions result in peace and freedom from the disapointment and anger that comes from being attached to material goods.

Postscript: the plurality of Indian traditions


Advaita (nondualism) is not the only school of vedanta (Indian philosophy based on the Vedas/Scriptures)

Samkhya and Yoga

– Universal dualisms (cf Descartes) that see the self as the soul and the material world as the body, with yogic exercises helping embodied creatures to become aware of the soul

Nyaya and Vaisheshika
– Based on a system of logic that [sees]…obtaining valid knowledge (the four sources of which are perception, inference, comparison and testimony) [as] the only way to gain release from suffering…objects in the physical universe are reducible to a finite number of atoms, and Brahman is regarded as the fundamental force that causes consciousness in these atoms.

Postscript: the plurality of Indian traditions

Purva Mimamsa:
[Emphasizes] regular performance of the Vedic fire-sacrifices to sustain all the activity of the universe. …accept the logical and philosophical teachings of the other schools,

…later shifted its views and began to teach the doctrines of Brahman and freedom, allowing for the release or escape of the soul from its constraints through enlightened activity.

Concentrates on the philosophical teachings of the Upanishads. The Vedanta focus on meditation, self-discipline and spiritual connectivity, more than traditional ritualism. Subschools:

Advaita (nondualism): The self and Brahman are one and the same

Visishtadvaita (qualified nondualism): Brahman and world are one and separate; the Supreme Being has a definite form, name – Vishnu – and attributes

Dvaita (dualism): Vishnu + eternal soul are separate from material world

Dvaitadvaita: Brahman exists independently, while soul and matter are dependent

Shuddhadvaita: Krishna is the absolute form of Brahman

Acintya Bheda Abheda: combines monism and dualism by stating that the soul is both distinct and non-distinct from Krishna, or God

Confucius: Ritual teaches us to act freely

Why do we follow 禮(礼, li)?

Is it because it is inherently right?

Is it because it makes us happy?

Is it because it gives power to the ruler?

Confucius: Ritual enables us to act freely

论语1.12 / Analects 1.12:


The philosopher You said, “In practicing the rules of propriety, harmony is to be prized. In the ways prescribed by the ancient kings, this is the excellent quality, and in things small and great we follow them. Yet it is not to be observed in all cases. If one, knowing how such harmony should be prized, manifests it, without regulating it by the rules of propriety, this likewise is not to be done.”

Confucius: Ritual enables us to act freely

We do not know how to solve life’s problems.

We are stuck;

we offend people without wanting to

we become people who want to offend others

we cannot be happy even if we want to

we cannot make society harmonious

we have good desires with bad outcomes:

Confucius: Ritual enables us to act freely

Analects 8.2


The Master said, “Respectfulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes timidity; boldness, without the rules of propriety, becomes [disobedience]; straightforwardness, without the rules of propriety, becomes rudeness. When those who are in high stations perform well all their duties to their relations, the people are aroused to virtue. When old friends are not neglected by them, the people are preserved from meanness.”

Confucius: Ritual enables us to act freely

We use ritual all the time to teach us how to interact:

We shake hands or bow when we meet

We eat our food in a certain way when we are with others

We dress in a certain way

None of these things are things that Children do when they are born. So,

By teaching children to follow social rituals, we give them a sense of respect

By teaching children to say thank you, we teach them to feel grateful

By teaching people to follow rituals, we teach them to desire and to live in harmony

this is why we follow them even when we are alone


Confucius: Ritual enables us to act freely

Analects 17.9


The Master said, “My children, why do you not study the Book of Poetry? The Odes serve to stimulate the mind. They may be used for purposes of self-contemplation. They teach the art of sociability. They show how to regulate feelings of resentment. From them you learn the more immediate duty of serving one’s father, and the remoter one of serving one’s prince. From them we become largely acquainted with the names of birds, beasts, and plants.”

Confucius: a free person expresses themselves through ritual

Analects 13.5


The Master said, “Though a man may be able to recite the three hundred odes, yet if, when intrusted with a governmental charge, he knows not how to act, or if, when sent to any quarter on a mission, he cannot give his replies unassisted, notwithstanding the extent of his learning, of what practical use is it?”

Confucius: a free person expresses themselves through ritual

When we are formed through ritual, we must be able to use it to realize harmony and happiness

A virtuous, happy life expresses itself through ritual

A virtuous person does not follow ritual blindly

A virtuous person allows ritual to guide their attitudes

A virtuous person therefore is able to apply ritual sincerely and graciously

Confucius: a free person expresses themselves through ritual

Analects 2.7, 8


Zi You asked what filial piety was. The Master said, “The filial piety nowadays means the support of one’s parents. But dogs and horses likewise are able to do something in the way of support; – without reverence, what is there to distinguish the one support given from the other?”


Zi Xia asked what filial piety was. The Master said, “The difficulty is with the countenance. If, when their elders have any troublesome affairs, the young take the toil of them, and if, when the young have wine and food, they set them before their elders, is THIS to be considered filial piety?”

Confucius: a free person expresses themselves through ritual

Analects 12.2


Zhong Gong asked about perfect virtue. The Master said, “It is, when you go abroad, to behave to every one as if you were receiving a great guest; to employ the people as if you were assisting at a great sacrifice; not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself; to have no murmuring against you in the country, and none in the family.”

Confucius: a free person expresses themselves through ritual

Analects 6:18


The Master said, “Where native substance overwhelms cultural refinement, we have a rustic, uncivilized person; where cultural refinement is excess of native substance, we have the manners of a clerk [procedures without heart or authenticity]. When cultural refinement and native substance are equally blended, we then have the man of virtue.”

Laozi:ritual creates the opportunity for jealousy and insincerity

We do not know how to solve life’s problems.

We are stuck;

we are taught ritual, but it just increases the difference between ruler and servant

we are taught manners, but it just makes us more sensitive to others opinions

we are taught ethics, but it just gives us an excuse to say we are better than others

we have natural desires for good things, but society turns them into competition for wealth and honour

Laozi:ritual creates the opportunity for jealousy and insincerity

Daodejing Chapter Two:


When the people of the Earth all know beauty as beauty,

There arises (the recognition of) ugliness.

When the people of the Earth all know the good as good,

There arises (the recognition of) evil.

Laozi:ritual creates the opportunity for jealousy and insincerity

道德经 18 / Daodejing 18:


WHEN the Great Tao was abandoned,

There appeared humanity and justice.

When intelligence and wit arose, There appeared great hypocrites.

When the six relations lost their harmony,

There appeared filial piety and paternal kindness.

When darkness and disorder began to reign in a kingdom,

There appeared the loyal ministers.

Laozi:free people avoid ritual and honour; they find Harmony spontaneously

The fact that and social rituals and conditioning give us unhelpful, confliciting desires shows that:

Our worst problems are unnatural

They are caused by valuing success and correctness too much

Laozi:free people avoid ritual and honour; they find Harmony spontaneously

So, in order to be free from hurting others and ourselves through greed,

We must realize that social rituals and virtues are artificial and counterproductive

We must seek to value shame and failure

We must not try to become ethical people, but rather reduce our artificial desires

Since a good life cannot be forced, trying to attain it by rituals and rules is like trying to make grass grow by pulling on it!

Laozi:ritual creates the opportunity for jealousy and insincerity

道德经 19 / Daodejing 19:


DROP sageliness, abandon wisdom, And the people will be benefited a hundredfold.

Drop humanity, abandon justice, And the people will return to being filial and kind

Drop cleverness, abandon profit, And robbers and thieves will cease to be. These three are the criss-cross of Tao, And are not sufficient in themselves. Therefore, they should be subordinated To a Higher principle: See the Simple and embrace the Primal, Diminish the self and curb the desires!

Laozi:free people avoid ritual and honour; they find Harmony spontaneously

However, we should not necessarily behave immorally

Different versions of the Laozi are maybe less anti-Confucian…

郭店《老子甲》1 (道德经19) / Guodian Laozi A 1 (Daodejing 19)


DROP wisdom, abandon distinctions,

And the people will be benefited a hundredfold.

Drop cleverness, abandon profit,

And robbers and thieves will cease to be.

Drop artifice, abandon reflection,

And the people will return to [being filial, or regular family patterns?].

Group Discussion

If you were the leaders of:

A country (the government)

A corporation/company

A family (the parents)

A religious group (e.g. Church, Temple, Monastery)

And your population, employees, members, or children told you that they think you should reduce, or have no more, laws or rules,

How would you respond? As a Confucian, or as a Daoist? Which way is more healthy and effective?

Discuss and write the names of your group on a document to turn in at the end of class

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

excerpt of the Mahabharata, epic poem composed c. 500 bce – 500 ce

Contextual Note:

The Gita is compatible with a variety of philosophies, from non-dualist one’s such as Advaita to dualist ones such as Yoga.

The Gita teaches that our true, eternal self observes the actions of our body – like God’s self observes the actions of its ‘body,’ the universe – unaffected.

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

excerpt of the Mahabharata, epic poem composed c. 500 bce – 500 ce

Some groups would read our self and universe as identical to the ‘Supreme Self’ of Brahman’s infinite awareness

Others would read our self and universe as a smaller part of God’s awareness and/or his body, that can have a personal, devoted relationship with God

This can be seen in the unique way in which the speaker of the Gita, Krishna – a personal Avatar of God – speaks of himself as the supreme, unconditional, infinite spirit (Brahman).

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

Gita 15:

“An eternal portion of me [Krishna] it is, which, becoming an individual soul in the mortal world, draws (to itself) the senses with the mind as the sixth…And presiding over the senses of hearing and seeing, and touch, and taste, and smell, and the mind, he enjoys sensuous objects…Devotees making efforts perceive him abiding within their selfs…Entering the earth 1, I by my power support all things; and becoming the juicy moon, I nourish all herbs. I becoming the fire, and dwelling in the bodies of (all) creatures…And I am placed in the heart of all 3; from me (come) memory, knowledge, and their removal; I alone am to be learnt from all the Vedas; I am the author of the Vedântas [Upanisads]…

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

Gita 15:

…There are these two [persons] in the world, the destructible and the indestructible. The destructible (includes) all things. The unconcerned one is (what is) called the indestructible. But the being supreme is yet another, called the highest self, who as the inexhaustible lord, pervading the three worlds, supports (them). And since I transcend the destructible, and since I am higher also than the indestructible, therefore am I celebrated in the world and in the Vedas as the best of beings. He who, undeluded, thus knows me the best of beings, worships me every way…knowing everything..He who knows this, has done all he need do…”

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

excerpt of the Mahabharata, epic poem composed c. 500 bce – 500 ce

At this time, war and tyranny threatened cosmopolitan harmony in North India

Renunciant groups (‘出家人’)threatened that social, familial, and ritual activity resulted in karmabhanda (羯磨
), bad fate and many afterlives.

Krishna, however, points out that our description of cause and effect is just that: a description

our words/thoughts are not the events we describe themselves

The world of cause and effect acts around us

The Atman (true self/consciousness) observes but is not affected

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

Gita Ch. 3: “He whose mind is deluded by egoism thinks himself the doer of the actions, which, in every way, are done by the qualities of nature. But he…who knows the truth about the difference from qualities and the difference from actions, knowing that qualities as senses merely rest on qualities as objects, does not become attached.”

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

Gita Ch. 3:

“17. But the man who is devoted to the Self, and is satisfied with the Self, and content in the Self alone, he has no obligatory duty.

18. He has no object in this world (to gain) by doing (an action), nor (does he incur any loss) by non-performance of action,—nor has he (need of) depending on any being for any object.

19. Therefore, do thou always perform actions which are obligatory, without attachment;—by performing action without attachment, one attains to the highest.”

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

Therefore, the Gita recommends that we do our actions as a devotion to God or the Self, with no concern for the outcome.

When we act for a specific outcome, we imagine that our true self can be affected by the physical world

This causes us to become attached to the results/fruits of our actions

This in turn leads to fear, greed, and conflict

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

Gita Ch. 4:

19. Whose undertakings are all devoid of plan and desire for results, and whose actions are burnt by the fire of knowledge, him, the sages call wise.

20. Forsaking the clinging to fruits of action, ever satisfied, depending on nothing, though engaged in action, he does not do anything.

21. Without hope, the body and mind controlled and all possessions relinquished, he does not suffer any evil consequences, by doing mere bodily action.

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

Gita Ch. 4:

22. Content with what comes to him without effort, unaffected by the pairs of opposites, free from envy, even-minded in success and failure, though acting, he is not bound.

23. …performing work for [the sacrifice] alone, his whole Karma dissolves away.

24. The process is Brahman [God]…offered by Brahman in the fire of Brahman; by seeing Brahman in action, he reaches Brahman alone.

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

The “sacrifice” refers to rituals performed by the priestly class seen as essential to maintain cosmic harmony.

…So, as we see, the danger of attachment to results does not mean we do not act.

If we do not act, the social order will crumble

If we do not act, we will make a false distinction in our mind between physical states (action-bad; non-action-good)

Thus we will become attached to one physical state as opposed to another, rather than being detached from the results of all physical changes

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

From Gita Chapter 3:

“should I [Krishna] at any time not engage without sloth in action, men would follow in my path from all sides, O son of Prithâ! If I did not perform actions, these worlds would be destroyed, I should be the cause of caste interminglings; and I should be ruining these people. As the ignorant act, O descendant of Bharata! with attachment to action, so should a wise man act without attachment, wishing to keep the people (to their duties).”

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

From Gita Chapter 3:

“A man does not attain freedom from action merely by not engaging in action; nor does he attain perfection by mere renunciation. For nobody ever remains even for an instant without performing some action; since the qualities of nature constrain everybody, not having free-will (in the matter), to some action. The deluded man who, restraining the organs of action, continues to think in his mind about objects of sense, is called a hypocrite. ”

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

Only by practicing socially-responsible actions while learning to be detached from results can we create the conditions to have accurate knowledge of our eternal self and its union with the infinite.

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

From Gita Chapter 3: “…but he, O Arguna! who restraining his senses by his mind. and being free from attachments, engages in devotion (in the shape) of action, with the organs of action, is far superior. Do you perform prescribed action, for action is better than inaction, and the support of your body, too, cannot be accomplished with inaction. This world is fettered by all action other than action for the purpose of the sacrifice. Therefore, O son of Kuntî! do you, casting off attachment, perform action for [the] purpose [of sacrifice].”

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

Thus, for the Gita, an action is good if it is performed:

free from desire for a specific outcome

This allows us to stop identifying ourselves with finite processes

out of social duty

This allows us to remove obstacles for others

This allows us to realize that finite processes cannot change our identity in the infinite

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

Gita 3.9: “The world is in the bonds of action, unless…thy actions be pure, free from desire”

The Bhagavad Gita: Duty with Detachment

Group Discussion:

You are working on a difficult project at work and you really want to impress your boss. Two colleagues on your level are working on the project with you and you are all fighting over:

– Who’s idea for the project is better

– Which of you should be the project leader

– Which of you should make the presentation and get the credit for success.

How would the Bhagavad Gita help you address this situation?

The Bhagavad Gita: the way of devotion (bhakti)

As mentioned, the Gita recommends that our social duties be performed as a sacrifice or devotion to God in a personal form (in this case, Krishna). (this could be understood as an understanding that our actions are governed by nature, the ‘body’ of the infinite Spirit)

While the Gita recommends knowledge (of our true Self and our union with the infinite) as the way to detachment, it realizes that:

“Greater is their trouble whose minds are set on the Unmanifested; for the goal of the Unmanifested is very hard for the embodied to reach.” (Gita, 12.5)

The Bhagavad Gita: the way of devotion (bhakti)

Gita 9.27-28: “Whatever you do, or eat, or give…let it be an offering to me [God].

…Thus you shall be free of the bonds of karma that yield fruits that are evil and good; and with your soul one in renunciation [detachment] you shall be free and come to me.”

The Bhagavad Gita: the way of devotion (bhakti)

How can the Gita’s insights help us?

…maybe we don’t believe in God

…certainly we already have many attachments to results

The idea of devotion shows that anyone can practice detachment + duty.

We can all choose spiritual goods to pursue, such as faith, virtue, joy in creativity, and loving relationships.

We can all engage in practices (meditation, community service, prayer, rest in nature, relationships with the poor) that help us to focus on happy or social action, not material results

The Bhagavad Gita: the way of devotion (bhakti)

Basically, we can do actions that are beautiful-in-themselves, rather than leading to results

We can be comforted by the fact that our attachments, troublesome desires, and the outcomes of our actions do not define us, and will eventually pass away

We can be comforted by the fact that we have very little control over the physical world of cause and effect, and that our identity necessarily goes beyond it.

The Bhagavad Gita: the way of devotion (bhakti)

Gita Ch. 12:

Place your mind on me only; fix your understanding on me. In me you will dwell …But if you are unable to fix your mind steadily on me, then…endeavour to obtain me by the abstraction of mind (resulting) from continuous meditation. If you are unequal even to continuous meditation, then let acts for [honouring] me be your highest (aim). Even performing actions for [worshipping] me, you will attain perfection. If you are unable to do even this, then resort to devotion to me, and, with self-restraint, abandon all fruit of action.

The Bhagavad Gita: the way of devotion (bhakti)

Gita Ch. 12:

For knowledge is better than continuous meditation; concentration is esteemed higher than knowledge; and the abandonment of fruit of action than concentration; from (that) abandonment, tranquillity soon (results). …

The Bhagavad Gita: the way of devotion (bhakti)

…That devotee of mine, who hates no being, who is friendly and compassionate, who is free from egoism, and from (the idea that this or that is) mine, to whom happiness and misery are alike, who is forgiving, contented, constantly devoted, self-restrained, and firm in his determinations, and whose mind and understanding are devoted to me, he is dear to me.

…But those devotees who, imbued with faith, and (regarding) me as their highest (goal), resort to this holy (means for attaining) immortality, as stated, they are extremely dear to me.

The Bhagavad Gita: the way of devotion (bhakti)

Group Discussion:

You are working on a group project and fighting with your colleagues about who should lead and get the credit.

What actions can you take to reduce your attachment to desires and results in this situation?

How can you act in a way that is devoted – to God, to others, or to spiritual ideals – rather than thinking you can control what is happening?

Virtue Ethics in Aristotle

With insights from Plato & Aquinas

Three Basic Ethical Systems in the modern West:

Deontolgy – Good = Something done based on principle, not on utility

Utilitarianism – Good = Greatest good (usually pleasure) for greatest number

Virtue Ethics – Good = Happiness (excellence in human capabilities: good character)

Virtue Ethics in Aristotle

With insights from Plato & Aquinas

Ethics is about choices, results, and character.

Why do we make choices?

We make choices because we have desires.

Why do we desire anything?

it feels good (pleasure – beauty – belly)

it appears good (emotion – goodness – chest)

it is believed to be good (reason – truth – head)

Desire shows that there are goals in nature (survival, cooperation, happiness/satisfaction); existence is Good.

Virtue Ethics in Aristotle

With insights from Plato & Aquinas

This is not a ‘religious’ position:

“For Aristotle…an object functions well or poorly depending whether or not i is achieving its appropriate…end [which is to be] functioning well.” (Deveterre, Virtue Ethics, p. 21)

Functioning well is a natural end, but it takes work

We are born with capacities/potentials to develop

As humans, this includes reasoning about how to function well

Appearance & desires for goods can decieve us.

Virtue Ethics in Aristotle

With insights from Plato & Aquinas

In other words,

We desire to find things that are good for us, but we need to train our reason, emotions, and feelings so we can attain them.

Our life as a whole can be characterized as functioning well or poorly; thus, what we are ultimately seeking is a “Good life,” living well, or “happiness” (eudaimonia).

Virtue Ethics in Aristotle

With insights from Plato & Aquinas

What Is Happiness?

Security: it depends on your character and reasonable decision-making, not chance

Completeness: it is the satisfaction of all we need to be complete

Self-sufficiency: it depends on nothing outside itself

Virtue Ethics in Aristotle

With insights from Plato & Aquinas

How do we acquire happiness?

By learning to make wise choices that make us live well:

Intellectual virtues

By cultivating emotional habits that support our wise choices:

Character virtues

Virtue Ethics in Aristotle

With insights from Plato & Aquinas

Group Discussion:

Based on the video, answer the following questions. You will ONLY receive your participation mark if your answer is actually based on the video:

What is virtue, and how is it related to happiness?

Why is happiness not just a feeling? Why can it only be gained through virtue?

Virtue Ethics in Aristotle

With insights from Plato & Aquinas

What is Virtue (德)?

Character traits/psychological states that enable us to make wise decisions

United to each other; you can’t have one without the other

Based on wisdom; understanding of reality in a way that enables you to live well

Based on choice and repetition

Based on self-interest including acting sincerely for the interest of others

Virtue Ethics in Aristotle

With insights from Plato & Aquinas

What is Virtue (德)? Two types:

Character Virtues: moderation, courage, justice

“Psychological states formed over time by repeat[ing virtuous] actions” (Deveterre, 67)

Intellectual Virtues: Intellect, Wisdom, Science, Philosophy…

Excellence in reasoning that enables us to live well

“Affirm what is factual [and] pursue what is good” [ibid.], also formed by practice and trial & error

Virtue Ethics in Aristotle

With insights from Plato & Aquinas

How do we become virtuous?

Education of our natural virtues

We need a good teacher


Without some basic good habits, we cannot learn to choose for ourselves

Virtue Ethics in Aristotle

With insights from Plato & Aquinas

Practicing these until they become “authentic” virtues

This means that you start to choose them for yourself

Your character is truly shaped

You truly know how to distinguish what is good

This requires both practice & guidance and trial & error

Virtue Ethics in Aristotle

With insights from Plato & Aquinas

Group Discussion:

Based on the video, answer the following questions. You will ONLY receive your participation mark if your answer is actually based on the video:

How is virtue acquired? How is this different from following moral rules?

Why is repetition important for creating virtue? (It might help you to think of a simple word that is synonymous with virtue here…)