So several months back Nightsphere the Gnostic did a video describing how Equestrian society seems to serve as a model for virtue ethics. He used the virtue ethics system of Aristotle as his framework, but as I argued in my own article, The Equestrian Polis: My Little Pony and Aristotle’s Politics, Equestrian society does not seem to be following Aristotle’s model at all. Within these last several months I’ve been reading up more on the topic of ethics, and have decided to finally do a full response to Nightsphere the Gnostic’s video in order to answer the question: Just what is the good life in Equestria?
I would suggest, then, that before moving on you watch Nighsphere’s video and reading my article to get the full discussion.
I’ll be answering the question posed in two parts. In Part I I will return to the model presented by Aristotle in order to see if it can be salvaged from my initial disliking. While I honestly still believe it fails, attempting a defense of it may enlighten us as to what exactly the answer to our question is. In Part II I will offer another philosopher’s view on the subject that, I argue, is much more accurate as to what the good life in Equestria is.
Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics: A Refresher
There are two important terms that must be recalled as we discuss Aristotle’s virtue ethics. The first is telos, which is purpose. In Aristotle’s system, everything has a purpose inherent in the nature of the thing. For an example, the purpose of an acorn is to become an oak tree (a fact well established by Edd from Ed,Edd, and Eddy). The second term is eudaimonia, which is often translated as “flourishing”. Eudaimonia is directly tied with telos, in the sense that in order for something to flourish, it must cultivate those virtues that are conducive to the purpose of that object. When taken together into an ethical system, then, these concepts state that the proper focus of ethics is the discover of the telos inherent in the nature of man and the cultivation of the type of character that displays the virtues conducive to that purpose in order to achieve eudaimonia.
When it comes to humans, Aristotle argues in his Politics that eudaimonia is achieved through the exercising of reason. Full exercise of reason, however, could only be achieved through the participation in the ruling of the polis, or city-state. By nature, man is a “political animal,” drawn together into societies due to our social tendencies and the impossibility of achieving self-sufficiency. By coming together into a political community, we are able to foster the conditions necessary to achieve eudaimonia, not only by allowing for an improvement in our material goods but also through cultivating our reasoning through the process of engaging in deliberation with our fellow citizens, serving on juries, etc.
Now all of this may sound good, but as they say, the devils are in the details. Aristotle’s view of who could truly participate as a citizen was rather limited, and thereby also limits who is capable of achieving eudaimonia. As I pointed out in my article, Aristotle ruled out women, slaves, and “mechanical laborers” as being unable to be citizens. Ignoring the women part as a problem of his time period, the exemption of slaves and “mechanical laborers” is based on two things. First is the concept of “natural slavery”, which was Aristotle’s view that some people are simply incapable by their very nature to be citizens. Second, being a citizen was to be a full-time job; those who worked with crafts simply did not have the time to be able to engage in politics like a good person should. The good citizen, however, should refrain from habitually practicing the crafts as to do so would mean “there will cease to be a distinction between master and slave” (Politics, Book 3, Part IV).
Aristotle’s Eudaimonia and Equestria
As I argued in the article, based on his restrictions (and ignoring the women restriction), out of our Mane 6, there was only one who was able to fit his requirements: Twilight Sparkle
Now, our gut reaction may be to dismiss Aristotle’s view then if it means writing off 5/6 of our characters as capable of achieving eudaimonia, but let us consider something for a moment: what if Aristotle has a point?
To begin with, let us assume that Friendship is the telos of ponies. Friendship itself, of course, is magic, and plays such a central role in the show’s message that it is not a hard argument to make that the pursuit of Friendship is the telos for ponies. Full understanding of friendship, then, is a necessary condition for eudaimonia.
Out of all the characters, Twilight is the one most directly involved in the life of the philosopher; she has no crafts job, instead spending her time studying and contemplating and learning about the virtues from her friends. Her friends, meanwhile, have other parts of their lives that distract them from being able to engage in this contemplation; farmwork, baking, fashion, etc. Furthermore, while they are representative of one particular element, the rest of the Mane 6 still struggle at times with rounding themselves out with the other virtues. Pinkie Pie, for example, may represent Sincerity, as Nightsphere argues, but as I’ve pointed out before she has a tendency to misapply it, which would mean she is lacking practical wisdom. Or for another example, Fluttershy is gentle, but still struggles with being courageous, and in fact her natural disposition may prevent her from truly being able to master it.
So we have enough evidence that suggest the possibility then that Twilight is the only one out of the Mane 6 truly capable of reaching eudaimonia as she has the time, knowledge, and natural skill to be able to fully learn the virtues. We still need a telos, however, but that’s easy enough to get: Friendship. To begin with, let us assume that Friendship is the telos of ponies. Friendship itself, of course, is magic, and plays such a central role in the show’s message that it is not a hard argument to make that the pursuit of Friendship is the telos for ponies. Full understanding of friendship, then, is a necessary condition for eudaimonia.
Of course, what evidence is there that Twilight understands friendship better than anyone? Well, there was something that happened to Twilight Sparkle that did not happen to the rest of the Mane 6: she ascended to alicornhood. Why? As implied by Celestia in “Magical Mystery Cure”, it is because Twilight has truly learned to value and understand friendship. So if understanding friendship, the telos for ponies, is required for achieving alicornhood, then this means that achievement of eudaimonia is directly related to the achievement of alicornhood.
Note that this does bring up an interesting proposal for why exactly Star Swirl the Bearded made the spell. Eudaimonia, of course, is highly sought after. Star Swirl, however, did not recognize the true telos of ponies. He believed that eudaimonia could only be achieved alone. Even Aristotle’s reason-based telos recognized that to not be the case, let alone a friendship-based one as present in Equestria. Since he wanted to achieve eudaimonia through the achievement of alicornhood, but didn’t recognize the true method of doing so, he attempted to “cheat the system.” If he didn’t believe in friendship, he figured he could reach it by using the one thing he knew; magic. The spell, then, was his attempt at achieving alicornhood, but with such a vital flaw in understanding, it failed to achieve that aim. The switching of the cutie-marks have been an accidental repercussion of the spell, though ironically if Star Swirl had learned the correct method of fixing the problem (helping ponies realize who they truly are) he would have learned the true telos and thereby achieved eudaimonia like Twilight did.
So if eudaimonia is attached to the reaching of alicornhood through truly understanding the magic of friendship, Aristotle’s highly restrictive view of eudaimonia can be saved. The alicorn club is quite small, after all, and like Aristotle’s good citizens they are the ones ruling. The ones who fail to achieve this state either lack the natural aptitude for truly understanding friendship, or have simply failed to cultivate the correct virtues.
Aristotle’s Friendship Problem
And now this is the part where I go and point out the problem of everything I just said. Ironically, I can do so by using some of Aristotle’s own writings against him.
As we assumed, Friendship is the telos for ponies, and achieving eudaimonia requires the understanding of it. Aristotle also viewed friendship as important, wrote on it in his Nicomachean Ethics. In Book VIII of it, he writes of the three kinds of friendships; based on utility, based on pleasure, and based on goodness. We’ll be looking at the third one; ones based on goodness.
When a friendship is based on goodness, it is because the persons involved are alike in virtue and wish their friends well for their own sake. They have fun and all that, but in the end the main thing is that help one another to strive to be good. These friendships are long-lasting and endure because they are based on something much stronger than either utility or simple pleasantness. Such friendships are also rare.
Now at first glance the friendship of the Mane 6 seems to fit this view; after all, Twilight and the others are learning from each other. But there’s a catch; perfect friendship, Aristotle argues, requires equality in virtue. We just argued, however, that an inequality exists; Twilight, as the only one to achieve eudaimonia, is more ‘virtuous’, so to speak, than the others. Even prior to alicornhood, however, one could argue an inequality existed; each of the Mane 6 except Twilight represented one virtue, but Twilight, as magic, represented the combination. And while Twilight learned from them all, it was an inequal exchange; she learned about all the virtues and achieved eudaimonia, but the others only learned a little bit about the other virtues.
When an inequality occurs, Aristotle deems the friendship “imperfect”, and when the difference in virtue becomes a wide enough gap the friendship fades or become something else. He gives the examples of the gods, or on a lesser case kings, who have surpassed their inferiors so greatly that few can expect to be friends with them. In a sense, this seems to have been the case with Celestia and Luna, to arguably problematic results: the lack of friends drove Luna to become Nightmare Moon, and to this day Celestia is held on such a pedestal that even her personal student Twilight had trouble relaxing and treating her as a friend, something that seems to annoy her to some degree.
Of course in some sense this is correct. Aristotle argues that in friendships between those in inequal condition, the superior is to be given more love than the inferior (ex: subjects should show more love for the ruler than the reverse). This is because love divided upon in proportion to merit is the only method of obtaining a sense of equality in this situation, and thereby friendship.
This presents quite an issue if Friendship is to be our telos. Many fans have shown concern that by becoming an alicorn the friendship between Twilight Sparkle and the rest of the Mane 6 is going to change. Yet according to Aristotle such change is natural; after all, Twilight is the more virtuous, and it should be expected that there will be a difference in the friendship due to the increased gap in virtue. And as time goes on and Twilight becomes better at her role as an alicorns, the gap in virtue should be expected to grow until Twilight is in the same condition as Celestia and Luna; held as a role model honored and loved by her subjects yet having no true friends (except maybe the other alicorns).
If Friendship is our telos, then, then it seems we’ve hit a contradiction; achieving eudaimonia prevents one from having the elements that allows one to achieve eudaimonia. Now, Aristotle does present a solution; simply equalize the friendship. After all, Twilight and the rest of the Mane 6 are still friends, and they are already learning and cultivating the virtues. Of course based on what we said about eudaimonia being attached to alicornhood, the rest of the Mane 6 must become alicorns. But then that means their friendships with their friends outside of the other Mane 6 are now in the same situation. So, for example, in order to maintain the friendships she has, Applejack would have to encourage all of the Apple family to become alicorns.
The ridiculousness of the situation should become rather clear.
The other option is for Twilight to simply accept that because of her new station her old friendships simply aren’t going to remain the same, and instead her only perfect friendships lie with the other alicorns. Yet it was the original friendship with the Mane 6 that allowed Twilight to achieve eudaimonia in the first place. It seems contradictory to say that upon achieving eudaimonia one should discard the ones that allowed you to reach it in the first place. More importantly, this sentiment is not expressed in the show or by the writers, who are quite adamant that the relationship between Twilight Sparkle and the others is not going to change. And in the Equestria Girl movie, Twilight Sparkle used her new lessons to unite the school and become close friends with the Human Main 5, showing that even with her superior virtues she would still choose to become friends with them.
Where to go from here?
Now at this point one could still just bite the bullet and accept these issues, but fan reactions to the idea of any change in the relationship between the Mane 6 due to Twilight’s new status suggest that such a option is undesirable. Yet full acceptance of Aristotle would require such a change to be accepted as a natural part of the process of eudaimonia.
Fortunately for the sake of articles, I am not one of those people who would be accepting that. So the question then becomes this: do we really have the right idea of the telos and eudaimonia for ponies? I would argue that no, we don’t. While Aristotle provides a good starting point, his highly restrictive view of who is capable of achieving eudaimonia does not seem to mesh well with Equestrian values. But as long as eudaimonia is attached to alicornhood, however, it seems we are stuck with accepting his view as the correct one.
But what if eudaimonia is not attached to alicornhood? In Part II of this analysis, I will make the case the proper mark of achieving eudaimonia in Equestrian society is not sporting both wings and a horn, but instead the achievement of a Cutie Mark. In doing so, we can transform the eudaimonia of Equestria from Aristotle’s more elite view into a more egalitarian one, one based on the cultivation of one’s unique talents while still encouraging and helping others in friendship.
In short, I will argue the eudaimonia of Equestria is that of John Stuart Mill’s vision.
For more information on Aristotle, please feel free to read/watch:
Nightsphere’s Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJjus1CCGSo
http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.8.viii.html <— The Chapter on Friendship