Is Trump a virtuous person? Let’s ask Aristotle

Jan 31, 2021

As Donald Trump has departed the world stage, one wonders about the man he is. Let’s look behind his Presidency, and use Aristotle’s 12 virtues to assess Trump, the person.

In his latest book How to be Good (Bloomsbury, London, 2020), Gary Cox, research fellow at The University of Birmingham (UK), states that there is much to be said for old-fashioned values like self-discipline, proper pride, dignity, and honour. Philosophers like him have long puzzled over Socrates’ original question, ‘Why be good?’ One answer is that while virtues make you happy, they are their own reward.

Aristotle, himself a student of Plato, established the Lyceum school and library in 335 BCE where he taught young nobles – wealthy men and women – including famously, Alexander the Great. For Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, 350 BCE), virtues are ‘purposeful dispositions’ that make you strong (Latin virtus) and help to foster an excellent ‘character’ (Greek ethos) leading to a happy, flourishing life.

While we possess certain these ‘purposeful dispositions’, Aristotle also reinforced that ‘practice makes perfect’. He highlighted that ‘we are what we repeatedly do; excellence then, is not an act, but a habit’. Aristotle further espoused that a virtue represented a golden mean between an excess and a deficiency, and suggested there were twelve such virtues (see Table 1):

Too Little The Virtue Too Much
Cowardice/

Gutlessness

Courage Recklessness/

Rashness

Abstinence/

Dullness

Temperance Gluttony/

Licentiousness

Stinginess/

Meanness

Liberality Prodigality
Pettiness Magnificence Vulgarity
Selfishness/

Pusillanimity

Magnanimity Vanity/

Greed

Timidity Proper ambition Pride/

Egotism

Restlessness/

Lack of spirit

Patience Irascibility/

Irritability

Deceptiveness/

False modesty

Truthfulness Brutal honesty/

Boastfulness

Boorishness/

Coarseness

Wittiness Buffoonery/

Ridiculousness

Cantankerousness/

Tactlessness

Friendliness Flattery/

Obsequiousness

Shyness/

Prissiness

Modesty Shamelessness/

Crudeness

Malicious enjoyment Righteous indignation Rage/

Envy

Table 1: Aristotle’s Table 1: Aristotle’s Twelve Virtues

After Aristotle, the twelve virtues can be described as follows:

Courage – To overcome fear and difficulties, act confidently, and not be either a coward or reckless.

Temperance – To demonstrate self-control and moderation in one’s habits, and not be either licentious or insensible. He was never dull.

Liberality – To be generous and benevolent towards others, and not be either mean or prodigal.

Magnificence – To display grand and praiseworthy actions, and not be either petty or vulgar.

Magnanimity – To show nobility of spirit and kindness towards others, and not be either vain or cruel.

Proper ambition – To strive for achievements with deserved honours, and not be either timid or overly self-seeking.

Patience – To be of good temper, and not be either irascible or indifferent.

Truthfulness – To state the facts about oneself and others, and not either understate the truth or be boastful.

Wittiness – To show a tactful sense of humour without offending or harming others and not be either a boor or a buffoon.

Friendliness – To be a good, a pleasant or a useful friend, without flattering others or being cantankerous towards them.

Modesty – To portray a degree of self-respect and humility, and not be either too shy or too shameless.

Righteous indignation – To give people what they deserve for slighting you, and not show either malicious enjoyment of others’ ill fortune, or envy of others’ successes.

Using this ethical taxonomy, one suggests that Donald Trump is a person who:

1. Was rash and reckless in inciting an insurrection (leading to an historic second impeachment), and is now even regarded as being cowardly and betraying the cause of the white supremacists such as ‘The Proud Boys’;

2. Lacked self-control in his relations with women and was arguably licentious in his affairs;

3. Was mean towards immigrants and foreigners and cruel towards people on death row;

4. Was both petty and vulgar in his habits;

5. Was vain in espousing that he was a ‘very stable genius’ and was cruel towards those who did not show unconditional loyalty towards him;

6. Was overly self-seeking and showed inappropriate ambition in wanting to obtain an illegal second term, and frequently displayed egotistical tendencies in his language and behaviour;

7. Was impatient if his needs were not met, and indifferent towards the 400 000 Americans who have already died of the pandemic;

8. Was boastful of his achievements, dishonest in ignoring the truth of the pandemic, promulgated lies (‘stop the steal’), and endorsed ‘alternate facts’;

9. Offended and harmed others (‘build that wall’), especially immigrants by putting their children in cages;

10. Was selectively generous towards his own family and his cronies, flattering towards dictators, and a useful friend until people no longer served his purposes;

11. Was shameless in what he said (‘lock her up’) and whom he supported;

12. Was malicious towards others and unreasonably indignant when he didn’t get his own way.

Aristotle proposed that a person can lack virtues in some areas of their life while still being virtuous in others in his theory of ‘disjoint spheres’ (Howard Curzer, Aristotle and the Virtues, Oxford University Press, 2012). However, it is a real challenge to find any of these twelve virtues as being evident in Trump from his behaviour over the last four tumultuous years. Of course, Trump wasn’t elected by loyal Republicans for his virtues.

Aristotle emphasised the importance of being a great and magnanimous soul. Employing Aristotle’s assessment, it is doubtful if Trump is one. We haven’t even considered other virtues such as: wisdom, knowledge, compassion, generosity, integrity, and decency.

The 16th American President, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) said – ‘whatever you are, be a good one’. Whether the 45th American President was a good President, let alone a good man, depends upon your perspective, and will be debated for some time.

While playing golf at Mar-a-Lago Estate, maybe Trump might reflect upon his legacy and the benefits of being good, and he might consider the wisdom of pursuing a virtuous life. Miracles are still possible, even in this cynical age.

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