Despite these differences, there are similarities in the beliefs of the two great thinkers. Al-Ghazali’s virtues are derived from the existence of the human soul-- a belief that both thinkers seem to share. Both al-Ghazali and Aristotle believe that there is a part of the soul that deals with virtue, and that the virtuous life is good for the soul. Al-Ghazali writes, “The first step to self-knowledge is to know that thou art composed of an outward shape, called the body, and an inward entity called the heart, or soul. By ‘heart’ I do not mean the piece of flesh situated in the left of our bodies, but that which uses all the other faculties as its instruments and servants It is the knowledge of this entity and its attributes which is the key to the knowledge of God” (Ghazali and Field). Al-Ghazali focuses heavily on the concept of knowing and understanding God, and the virtuousness of knowing God. He posits that immorality and a lack of virtue is similar to a sickness of the soul, and to cleanse oneself, one must become virtuous by knowing oneself and knowing God.
While Aristotle does not focus on knowing God as a major key to a virtuous life, he does write: “The good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind” (Aristotle and Taylor). For Aristotle, every individual has the ability and capacity to be virtuous in his life, but he must go through the proper channels to attain a virtuous character. First, virtue is defined by habits. A virtuous individual has virtuous and ethically-sound habits; these are developed in the individual’s early years. Next, the individual must develop practical wisdom as he grows; according to Aristotle’s philosophy, virtuous ethics and a virtuous character is only developed when an individual has both virtuous habits and practical wisdom (Aristotle and Taylor).
For both Aristotle and al-Ghazali, virtue is a “middle way,” of sorts. Although both interpret this concept differently, their philosophical underpinnings are the same. For Aristotle, ethical virtue exists in the middle between two extremes, the extreme of excess and the extreme of asceticism (Aristotle and Taylor). On the other hand, al-Ghazali also heavily values mediation, but he calls this middle way “temperance”-- the middle way between giving in to all earthly pleasures and giving up all earthly pleasures (Ghazali and Field). In addition, both thinkers highly value reason as a basis for ethical virtue; Aristotle calls reason practical knowledge, while al-Ghazali refers to it as justice.
In the final analysis, it is difficult to determine which philosophy is more convincing. Although they share many similarities, there are also foundational philosophical differences that set the thinkers apart, and set them at odds with each other. However, al-Ghazali’s philosophy does appear to be more tempered to the human spirit, as Aristotle’s reliance on the mean is, in and of itself, somewhat of an extreme view. Aristotle places so much emphasis on the virtue of the mean that it rules out all emotional behaviors in human beings; the extreme things that human beings will do out of love, for instance, are ruled out of being virtuous actions as a result of Aristotle’s theory of the mean of behavior. While the mean rules out extremes like murder in the heat of passion, it also rules out the positives that can occur when the human being is passionate. Aristotelian ethics involve the presence of a family and a community, but by necessity it rules out the individual placing any real value on the family, friends, and community of an individual. On the other hand, al-Ghazali approaches ethics from a much less esoteric standpoint. Because he wrote during a time of great turmoil in the Muslim world, the purpose of his ethics was to bring people together, not to further drive them apart. Rather than introducing ethics that most people are naturally excluded from, he presented a form of ethical structure that allowed the masses as a whole to participate. His “cardinal virtues” are similarly much less restrictive and much more instructive than Aristotle’s theory of ethics and virtue, which restricts the average young person from being considered a virtuous human being. The restrictive and esoteric nature of Aristotelian ethics makes the philosophy seem unattainable for the average person.
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Ghazali, Muḥammad Al- and Claud Field. The alchemy of happiness. London: The Octagon Press, 2001. Online.
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