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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.

Do Money and Material Gain Taint Thought, or Validity of Opinion? On Aristotle’s Ethics, Bk. 2 Chp. 7

As always, any Aristotle quoted or cited comes from Joe Sachs’ version of the Ethics. If you are interested in other things I’ve written on Aristotle, or the discussions preceding this one, see the index above.

Josh asked very directly, and very nicely, if money taints opinion. It would seem “selling out” is bad because it changes the motive and therefore the true actor in a situation – words can’t be trusted, actions could be the responsibility of anyone or anything.

I want to take time to address the issue of making money and living virtuously in the context of something else I was planning to write on. The issue for me is the list of Aristotle’s virtues in Bk. 2, Chp. 7. There, he gives 9 or 11 sorts of “means” a virtuous man must hit regarding his temperament; he must not be excessive or deficient in how he considers any of these characteristics. For example, to be courageous is a “mean” whereby one can be as courageous as possible. But to lack all fear is one “excess” – “rashness” – and to have too much fear is “cowardice.”

The list itself is preceded by a discussion in Bk. 2 Chp. 6 where it looks like Aristotle is giving us an account of virtue that is as simple as possible to follow. He wants people to be more thoughtful about virtuous action, hence there is the distinction made between things good for one end (an eye), things good for several ends (a horse), and things that may choose what ends they are good for (a human being, by implication – he does not say this outright at 1106a 15-25). At the same time, just because a mean is for humans is not as simple as one in arithmetic (1106a 26- 1106b5), we should not believe that reasoning about the “mean” is all there is. Plato was Aristotle’s teacher and absolutely counseled thinking about what is highest if one could.

We can see what Aristotle is up to when “craftsmanship” is invoked as something that considers a “mean condition” (1106b 14). Yes, there is a law-making art, yes, philosophy does begin from consideration of what sorts of excellences (virtues, properly speaking) are pursued in the arts. But still, Aristotle is emphatic if we let him be: “I am speaking of virtue of character, for this is concerned with feelings and actions, and among these there is excess and deficiency, and the mean” (1106b 17-19). It is this context which allows him to praise the Pythagoreans, a strange ally, as thinking correctly that “The good are good simply, but the bad are bad in every sort of way” (1106b 35).

The trouble with saying directly there may be a diversity of goods, stemming from human reason, that can be reconciled through human reason to a greater degree than most think, is that people won’t praise a plethora of things. If the philosopher organizes things hierarchically, well, people who do not philosophize are more adherent to one hierarchy and as we all know, are quite dogmatic about what they are stuck to. The question of getting people to act virtuously involves praise. Everyone needs praise to some degree if the basis of reason is our social interaction (logos – if speech, then reason). We cannot exist in a vacuum. Even Aristotle needs praise, or something with which he can feel respected through (the key allusion to praise setting this analysis forth is in 1106b 17-35. He uses the term several times there).

To give Josh a preliminary answer – can you see how being good without being purely rational, i.e. an angel – must involve some degree of what we would consider material compensation?

This reasoning about “praise” is extended in the list of virtues in Chapter 7 to great effect. The list of virtues in chapter 7, if we dispose of the final two, which are means in actually feeling, is as follows:

  1. courage
  2. temperance
  3. generosity (private giving)
  4. magnificence (public spending)
  5. greatness of soul (proper concern for honor)
  6. gentleness (still having the capability to be angry, but not unnecessarily so)
  7. truthfulness
  8. charm (for situations that are playful)
  9. genuineness (for all other situations)

A lot of people make fun of Straussians for romanticizing the “center” of any given list. The reason why one does so is Aristotle, though – there are times, as anyone can see from my poetry commentaries, that a list has a certain movement, and the beginning and end will count for more. Here, the center is absolutely key. All these virtues seem to be related to being an aristocrat or man of prominence: wealth is necessary for at least two of them (#3 and 4).

“Greatness of soul,” then, is the key – an aristocrat, a lover of what is best, is really an honor lover. And that’s not a bad thing – look at all the virtues he can possess. But it does mean he needs money, and needs to be honored, and that a higher sort of rationality is not quite a concern.

If we include the two “mean” feelings – one being a sense of shame, i.e. modesty (superseded by the fact one has to grow out of this to be a fully functioning adult), and “righteous indignation” (superseded eventually by a full sense of justice) – these two feelings being that which allow education in these virtues to take place, what we get as the center of the list is “gentleness.” I think a not unsubtle message is being sent by Aristotle here about the priority of courage in his schema – it is something that education helps mold. It cannot be wholly transcended as anarchists or the Left might wish it to be, for following Rousseau, they do believe in a softer humanity and better future through a more peaceable world. And there is a lot to that. What is surprising, of course, is how much thumos (spiritedness) is extended in making those sorts of arguments.

The Aristotlean understanding does not try to transcend, but to mold. And note that “gentleness” does not quite extend to all men. While all men need some honor, some wealth, if we can conceive of Socrates, we can conceive of someone wholly gentle in one way – he fights when called upon for the city only – and not quite as gentle as another. Witness his utter decimation of many interlocutors.

The point is, this list is not the whole story. But for our purposes, since wealth and honor are integral to life, they cannot automatically be seen as taints. Another question, which is whether people can handle the wealth or honor they are given, is more central.

How do Knowledge and Virtue Relate? On Aristotle’s Ethics, Bk. 2 Chp. 4

The translation of the Ethics used below is Joe Sachs’. The quotes are from Bk. 2, Chapter 4 (1105 a17 – 1105 b18)

The issue is locating the key problem in the opening paragraph of Aristotle’s chapter. We will begin with a part of it and skip ahead in the chapter to shed light on it:

One might raise as an impasse, though, how we mean that it is necessary to become just by performing just actions and temperate by performing temperate actions, for if people do things that are just and temperate they already are just or temperate people, just as, if they do the things that have to do with writing or with music, they are literate or musical people. Or is it not even this way in the case of the arts?

Now in Christian thought, and the thought of our secular world with its emphasis on freedom, one is usually only responsible for a moral wrong when one knows what one does is wrong.

Aristotle brings up the issue of the arts because he cannot even conceive of virtue devoid of knowledge. It is true that at 1105 b1-5, he will say the following:

For having the other kinds of artfulness, these things do not count, except the mere knowing, but for having the virtues, the knowing is of little or no strength, while the other conditions ave not a little but all the power, and they are the very ones which arise from repeatedly performing just or temperate actions.

Such a quote might lead us to think “knowing” doesn’t matter as much as “doing.” I actually think the key to this quote is at 1105 b12-18:

Most people… believe that by taking refuge in talk they are philosophizing and in that way will be people of serious stature, doing something similar to those sick people who listen to the doctors carefully but do none of the things they order. So just as they will be in no good condition in body if they treat themselves in this way, neither will those who philosophize in this way be in any good condition in soul.

The issue is that the knowing is so important, I think, it must be made manifest in action. For the emphasis, in virtue, is on such knowledge being made strength through action. For arts, to go back to the previous quote, “mere knowing” will do – the “knowledge” there is immediately effectual, and hard to distinguish truly from action. Thus it seems to me to be of a lesser quality.

To go back up to the quote that started this essay, we can see that the problem with knowledge of the arts stems from deduction. Deduction means we start with a product (1105 a23-4 for art, & a25-32 for virtue), and try to figure out the “causes” of the “effect” that product is. So what one might argue, then, is that the product of virtue does not require one take any pleasure in virtue (note how Bk. 2, Chp. 3′s opening paragraph contrasts with the thought of Immanuel Kant), or that one concentrate on actually producing virtue – “enlightened self-interest” might all be society needs.

The way Aristotle gets around this “impasse” is by hinting, i.e. the passage we started with, that knowledge of the arts is a deviation from knowledge of virtue. For arts should ideally be concerned with only the product effected, but we instead make judgments about the artists’ ability through his creation. The product of virtue, then, is not merely a virtuous action, but a state of the soul, an ability to relate to knowledge and hold it highest properly:

But with the things that come about as a result of the virtues, just because they themselves are a certain way it is not the case that one does them justly or temperately, but only if the one doing them also does them being a certain way: if one does them first of all knowingly, and next, having chosen them and chosen them for their own sake, and third, being in a stable condition and not able to be moved all the way out of it (1105 a29-35).

And now you can see why I’ve purposely picked a convoluted order to discuss this chapter. The key is seeing that knowledge and choice relate to being a certain way, and that cannot be emphasized enough. Such a thought being tucked away in the middle of Aristotle’s chapter, in these modern times, requires a drawing out with which to begin our contemplation.

On the Good: Comment on Aristotle’s Ethics, Bk. 1 Chp. 6

Translations of quoted material below and citations are from/of Joe Sachs’ translation, published by Focus, 2002. The essay is as difficult as it gets and is highly, highly speculative.

1. Background: The Audience of the Ethics

Aristotle begins by saying he wants to “examine the universal good and go through the difficulties in the way it is spoken of,” but that such a task is very difficult: “the men who introduced the forms were my friends” (1096a 12-15).

Notice that he does not say “the forms are an incorrect way of conceiving the universal good.” He says this is an inquiry he must make for the sake of the truth, that he must go beyond love of one’s own, and that this whole ordeal is sacred.

Now at the end of Chapter 3, Aristotle said a curious thing: “About the one who is to hear this discourse, and how it ought to be received, and what task we have set before ourselves, let these things serve as a prelude.” It is a curious thing because Aristotle did not explicitly say who his audience was in anything before – he didn’t say, for example, “this book is for Glaucon,” and he only talked in the most general terms of the mindset people have when approaching the question of the good. Of that mindset, we can pick out 3 sorts:

  1. Those who are more philosophic and can handle abstract inquiry (chapter 1). They are curious about the relation between knowledge and action, and how exactly it is knowledge governs action when ends are divergent: does a formal principle tell us when an end is better than another?
  2. Those who use knowledge for the sake of action. They need to be reminded that desires do have an end (1094a 20-21), and their mode of approaching the good conflates the highest and the human good (1094a 23, compare with 1093b 6-7). Nonetheless, they introduce us to politics, which is critical to any discussion of knowledge and action.
  3. Those who are impulsive: to be too impulsive is to be “young” and “inexperienced” and needing knowledge badly.

Aristotle’s audience is threefold, and each party is defined by the role they give knowledge – too high a role, too low a role, and way too low a role. Notice that this corresponds to something that Socrates or Plato might discuss: the tripartite soul, in its rational, spirited and appetitive components.

With the tripartite soul lurking in the background, I find it really difficult to believe that Aristotle is rejecting Platonic forms outright. In fact, my suspicion is that if anything, Chapter 6 read correctly will be insight into Platonic forms on a much higher level than anyone who sees it merely as criticism could have. After all, Aristotle has thrown aside love of “one’s own” in order to bring up the topic – when one’s friends are philosophers, there is no greater display of friendship.

2. Primary and derivative instances

Now those who brought in this opinion did not make forms within which a primary and derivative instance were spoken of (which is why they did not construct a form of number), but the good is attributed to what something is and also to the sort of thing it is and to a relation it has, while the thinghood of something, which is something on its own, by nature has priority over a relation it has (for this is like an offshoot and incidental attribute of what it is), so that there could be any form common to these (1096a 17-24).

This sentence makes my head spin. Let’s go through it step-by-step.

We have primary and derivative instances, and “number” is an example of these, Aristotle claims. On its own, we might say that primary and derivative instances are like God giving form to man in His image and likeness. And indeed, there is probably an implication of perfect/imperfect hiding in this distinction.

However, if there is, Aristotle wants us to be really specific as to what might make something perfect or imperfect – that example of “number” is not there for no reason. Jacob Klein once mentioned that a major problem the Greeks had with number is how they could be unities and diversities at once. Every number is in a sense “one,” since the use of say, 6, involves grouping 6 things under one concept.

If we take the problem of number to be how unity and diversity reconcile, then it might seem that Platonic forms are a great candidate for explaining how this might work.

Aristotle goes on to say the forms are very specific: “good” lies in “what something is,” “the sort of thing it is,” and “the relation it has,” the “thinghood” having priority over the “relation.” In the Republic, 510d5 – e4, Socrates says the following (Bloom’s translation follows):

Don’t you also know that they [geometers] use visible form besides and make their arguments about them, not thinking about them but about those others that they are like? They make the arguments for the sake of the square itself and the diagonal itself, not for the sake of the diagonal they draw, and likewise with the rest. These things themselves that they mold and draw, of which there are shadows and images in water, they now use as images, seeking to see those things themselves, that one can see in no other way than with thought.

Now that passage talks about the forms in terms of geometry, where ideal objects are realized through thought. The relations enable one to get a grasp on what is higher. Notice that this seems very much like derivative instances feeding into a notion of primary instances, despite all the specifics given.

However, in the Republic, the geometers are just the start of the story. The geometers almost pull from forms to make everyday objects intelligible; some others jump from hypothesis to form through dialectic, and then from form to form (Republic 511b-c). The geometers use hypotheses as a beginning that stays a beginning; Socrates posits one who uses them as a “springboard” in order to literally speculate about the origins of things.

The big question is whether the logic of primary and derivative instances is separable from the logic underlying “thinghood” (what it is/of what sort) and “relation.” I don’t think such a logic is separable from those more specific things, and notice that “good” is allied with “thinghood” in such a way that Aristotle seems to be saying the primary/derivative logic is the logic of the forms.

So why is he so convoluted about this issue? Why doesn’t he just say “I agree with Socrates” instead of running headfirst into the one of the most complicated lines of thought there are?

3. Being and the good

In the next two phases of his argument, Aristotle gets slippery again. In speaking of the fact that “good” and “being” are meant in many ways, he uses the categories – ways of being – to demonstrate an inviolable link with the good (i.e. “of what sort” points to the “excellences,” “virtues;” the good as “what something is” would be “god” or the “intellect;” questions of amount would point to what “limit;” “relation” makes us wonder about “usefulness,” “time” speaks of “opportunity,” and “place” brings up “dwelling,” which I will refer you to Heidegger to consider). Now he seemingly keeps the scope of being wider than the good, and the good seems to be only one facet of being. Still, since all our opinions about the good seem to derive from being – notice that we don’t agree on the gods, or what intellectual truth is, or what is useful, etc. – there is a sense in which “good = being” here. He cleverly loads this argument like so, and then says “well, there are lots of ways of attributing being to the good, so there is no universal common good.”

Finally, he says that there is one sort of knowledge per form. Therefore, knowledge is linked to a diversity of goods that can’t be reconciled under one form. Also, to try and describe the definition of something as having eternality by saying “whatever-itself” versus “whatever” contributes nothing to the discussion of the good.

It’s obvious Aristotle is lying here, too. The discussion in the Republic shows that “forms” are heading to a realm where oneness is possible and diversity is explanatory. Why is Aristotle so insistent on confusing us, then?

4. The common understanding

The issue is not Aristotle’s understanding but everyone else’s. People get satisfied with stuff, and they want to 1. preserve the stuff itself or 2. preserve the stuff making the stuff or 3. stop the opposite from happening.

The issue, then, is that we react instinctively, that thought and action are fused to the detriment of thought, and that appeal to reflecting on a highest of goods isn’t going to work for this inquiry. Furthermore, we label whatever we perceive this instinctive reaction as directed towards a “form” of the “good.” “Pleasures” and “honors” both end up being considered by people as good in-and-of themselves because we don’t have as high a conception of “primary and derivative” as the conception regarding number. Rather, our conception of “primary” is “I have it, right?” and “derivative” is exactly “well, this is how I’m going to get/keep it” (1096b 10 and onward). The joke is that our lack of understanding shows itself in our tendency for the purely “formal:” pleasures and honors are not means to ends, and therefore are good in-and-of themselves? The talk about forms is too high for a discussion oriented towards everyone.

So in the end, Aristotle is going to use the more primitive primary/derivative “understanding” to discuss the good. There is no real argument with the forms: he is being confusing, I think, in order to highlight some of the strengths of the Socratic teaching. Those strengths involve an attempt to be absolutely clear why one thing is “derivative” of another and whether that is a bad thing. They also show that being relates to the good through opinion, and that all being can be seen as derivative of the quest for the good. Finally, the forms do take into account a rich diversity, starting with particular arts and goods and transcending them in order to aim at a master art whereby man can be governed/govern himself for higher ends.

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