Notes on a talk of Ronna Burger concerning Aristotle’s Ethics

Privileged to witness Ronna Burger lecture on her book Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates: On the Nicomachean Ethics. Below are my notes, rewritten into a straight lecture and with some ideas that are definitely not Dr. Burger’s. I take full responsibility for anything said that is stupid or problematic. I guess this is a paraphrase of sorts?

What happens to “moral virtue” – as opposed to “intellectual virtue” – in the Ethics? It seems to be demoted in status as the work progresses. This may be related to what I consider a Platonic element in Aristotle, the existence of which I am never exactly sure of.

Aristotle presents Socrates as a proponent of the thesis “virtue is knowledge.” Moral virtue is a rejection of this thesis. Initially, it does seem Aristotle does reject Socrates outright, but my own work finds a Socratic Aristotle in Book 6 and 7 – late in the Ethics. Still, there’s an easier way to intuit the existence of a Socratic Aristotle: just ask why the Ethics exists in the first place, why Aristotle decided to write anything down at all for an audience. Aristotle’s identification of his audience is very slippery. He says if you’re brought up with moral values, you don’t need to know the “why” regarding them. (Traditional Aristotle is not the “why” of virtue, but the “that.”) At the same time, he emphasizes starting with what is “first for us” in terms of opinions – one must grasp what is just and beautiful in order to see what Aristotle is trying to accomplish. The question of the audience is not merely whether the audience should be virtuous or not. If the audience is virtuous, it doesn’t need the Ethics. But an audience would need some understanding of virtue (“first for us”) to get anything out of it. Aristotle is not Nietzsche: he does not declare “We Immoralists.” Rather, it looks like he wrote for nobody.

Of course, it is more likely the case Aristotle is bringing forth a tension with moral virtue which very much demolishes the status of the “that,” or moral virtue itself. Moral virtue is precisely virtue that denies self-understanding is critical to virtue. To insist otherwise is to make virtue prudence or wisdom and put people who may not be prudent or wise in a peculiar position. A courageous person isn’t virtuous, regardless of his intelligence or knowledge?

We move then, to Book 3, where Aristotle discusses courage. Courage is acting for the sake of the kalon (noble/beautiful). This is not devoid of complications. If philosophy involves identifying a human nature, is anything natural about the noble/beautiful? Perhaps courage is distinctly unnatural. One wonders if this is related to the discussion coming from nowhere. A serious discussion of kalon does not appear in Book 2, nor telos (end/completion/final cause).

Something lower may also be at work in terms of forming virtue. The famous Aristotlean habituation is manipulation of pleasure and pain in order to produce moral virtue. Strangely enough, this gives the idea of the “mean” a new importance beyond the traditional understanding. Habituation and nobility need to be reconciled regarding our moral formation. “Virtue is a mean state because it is aiming at the mean:” this is redundancy pointing at plurality. There are many ways to go wrong, but one “bullseye” we see as right. There are many virtues and characters and emotions accompanying such virtues.

The lower expands the problem to the point of making philosophy necessary. If we went the route of the Aristotlean stereotype of Socrates, virtue is wisdom and prudence to such a degree that one wonders if virtue even exists. Here, virtue may be strangely enough connected with something feeling right for all of us. Prudence is involved in an assertion of identity that the world accepts. This is not strictly conventional: the idea that there is one right action, that someone acts prudently, points beyond common sense to the transformative moments in human history. No one calls cops hosing down protestors for civil rights virtuous.

Prudence as essential to virtue gives one nobility, then, as well as the good. It points beyond conventionality even as it is fundamentally practical. In a way, prudence’s reduction of virtue unifies virtue: Socrates is right in a larger sense. But this still leaves us with a gigantic problem. We extrapolated from the consequences of habituation to get the link between prudence and nobility; virtue that feels right for all of us, not just some. Prudence and habit are local matters, though, which almost always privilege “us” over “them.” We need to see more clearly the link between prudence, which is instrumental reasoning – figuring out the means to the end – and theoretical wisdom. We know what is noble and beautiful fragments among the virtues. That explains our everyday push to be moral, to make ourselves a certain person. A wisdom where everything is known, a moral order where perfection and happiness could be determined for everyone: would that demand one human nature? Would it destroy the diversity of and approach to virtue habituation implies?

Perhaps prudence itself is a struggle to be a unity. In Book 6, Aristotle talks about medicine causing health and theoretical wisdom being health. This is very strange: don’t people die for the highest things? It can’t be strange, though, if Aristotle is pushing us to see the consequence of making everything practical – of course wisdom must be health! Prudence has to point beyond itself, even though it unifies moral virtue, the latter which sees itself as its only end.

The problem is “the self-understanding of moral virtue” – how do we see ourselves as wrong? And yet, we do. The problem points back to the philosopher himself. It would be easy and snobby to say one deals in a higher realm with higher things where one is open to being wrong. “I do science, I reconstruct history, I don’t need to concern myself with the myths people create because I’m busy working for truth.” The trouble with this is the same problem with myth. Myths aren’t problematic because they’re false. They’re problematic because of the psychological need they cover up. Philosophy depends on perceptions about beauty and nobility: it is no accident that we regard certain people as philosophers because of their reputation. It is no accident the true philosophers can look beyond reputation to find value in a diversity of natures, to find other philosophers where no one would look.

Perhaps philosophers do not make friends. Perhaps they are hedonistic and erotic in extreme degrees. It just is worth considering, for a brief moment, that moral virtue may be paradigmatic of more than itself. We have to pretend like there is some higher, divine wisdom where perfection and happiness meet not because all conventionality is worthless, but rather because when its value surprises and informs, it demands to be taken seriously in higher ways. There is no necessary connection between moral virtue and wisdom where moral virtue is directly productive of wisdom. But it is hard to be called wise – and maybe even hard to see oneself as wise – when one doesn’t have something serious to say about morality.

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