Every-day moral excellence

John Cuddeback writes on a virtue for the Holy Days, reflecting on Aristotle:

“Now we have said generally that the man with this virtue will associate with people in the right way [in gatherings and in social life]; but it is by reference to what is honorable and expedient that he will aim at not giving pain or at contributing pleasure. For he seems to be concerned with the pleasures and pains of social life; and wherever it is not honorable, or is harmful, for him to contribute pleasure, he will refuse, and will choose rather to give pain…” —Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

The virtue he calls ‘friendliness’ has always stood out for me in Aristotle’s treatment of various virtues. Here is a virtue that concerns how we speak in social situations. This in itself says something fascinating about human life and the importance of our social gatherings.

The man with this good habit knows what to say, as well as when and to whom to say it, always with an eye to the comfort, pleasure, and edification of the people present. Feelings really matter; yet feelings don’t reign unchallenged by the discerning eye of reason. The ‘friendly’ man is willing even to cause discomfort in view of the greater good.

If Aristotle is right, in every gathering in which we find ourselves, from intimate family events to broader social ones and even chance encounters, we should see ourselves as capable and called to make a palpable contribution. This won’t always involve words—it could be a warm smile or attentive listening—but it often will be verbal. We can serve others by comforting, amusing, challenging, informing, even gently rebuking—all as appropriate to the circumstances. In the end this is a central way we treat others as persons, exercising our common humanity. …

In light of Cuddeback’s complete reflection, I’m wondering for the first time if it’s not the case that so many of us are uncomfortable around the holidays precisely because we intuitively sense that they’re the sort of moments that challenge us to practice the sort of “every-day moral excellence” Aristotle and Cuddeback outline. And in classical thought, it’s in developing our moral excellence that we become, as Cuddeback points out, “our truest self.” And becoming more (or simply other) than what our less excellent instincts would lead us to become can be damned uncomfortable.