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2 The appeal to human nature

2 The appeal to human nature

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who lives and acts in this characteristically human way may be said to be

eudaim n. One reason for not translating eudaim n as ‘happy’ is that it might

well not seem convincing to say that a person who does well what humans

characteristically do will be happy in the sense of ‘will feel good about his or her

life.’ The kind of inquiry that Aristotle is conducting is not ‘what will make one

feel good about his or her life?’ but rather ‘what sort of a life would a person have

the best reason to feel good about and have no reason not to feel good about?’

Aristotle’s assumption in answering this latter question is that whatever else we

identify ourselves with or as, we should be prepared to identify ourselves as

human beings and with whatever can convincingly be argued to belong to us as

members of our species.

It is interesting that for all his deep suspicions of our natural condition, Kant’s

argument on behalf of the authority of reason has a formal similarity to

Aristotle’s. Kant in effect argues that, how ever our natural inclinations may lead

us to think of ourselves, we should be prepared to identify ourselves as rational

creatures and endeavor to live in a manner true to that condition. Rationality, as

we will see shortly, is the characteristically human part of our physical nature for

Aristotle. Rationality is for Kant also a characteristic of our essential nature, but

one that may well stand opposed to our physical nature. The beginning of the

Foundation contends that we are prone to misunderstand ‘the purpose of nature

in attaching reason to our will as its governor’ (1785:394–5). If it were only a

matter of preserving mankind, seeing to human welfare and happiness, Kant

suggests (probably with some irony), we would be served far better by instinct.

Reason offers only such ‘feeble and defective guidance’ to satisfying our

appetites that it must clearly exist for something else, for, indeed, the purpose of

producing a will that is good, not as a means to something else but as an end in

itself (396).

At the end of the Nicomachean version, Aristotle will also tend to make into

an end in itself an exercise of our rationality that is possibly independent of our

physical nature. But the line of argument at the beginning of that version goes on

to connect living well with the excellences, aretai. Since what humans do arises

from their dispositions (hexeis), humans who do well and live well must do so

because their souls (psuchai, ‘souls’ in the sense of whatever it is that

distinguishes them from inanimate objects) possess and exercise dispositions that

count as ‘excellences’ or ‘virtues.’ Thus Aristotle sometimes offers as a

definition of eudaimonia, ‘activity of the soul in accordance with complete

excellence’ (1098a17–18, 1102a5). This formula is very uninformative; it does

little more than distinguish Aristotle’s view from those who are confused enough

to want to treat eudaimonia as strictly identical with possessing excellence. (One

can after all possess an excellence, be able to act well but never have occasion to

use it; Aristotle insists that only actually doing well, actualizing an excellence,

counts as eudaimonia.) To provide some genuine specificity for his conception

of eudaimonia, Aristotle has to spell out what the ergon (or characteristic

activity) of a human soul is.7


Although it might be reasonable to hope for more specificity than Aristotle

actually delivers, he does take some interesting and suggestive steps toward

clarifying the ergon of a human soul. The ergon of a human soul cannot be

merely to live—that is something even plants do—nor can it be merely to

experience the world around us with the senses, for animals are able to do that.

What is peculiar to humans is that they have something that equips them to act with

discursive thought (logos), both in the sense of obeying or conforming to

something discursively articulated and in the sense of thinking something over or

framing for themselves a course of action. So the ergon of human beings is the

actualization of their capacities to live in a way informed by discursive thought,

or at least live in a way that is not without discursive thought. And if this is the way

we determine a good individual example of a given biological species—by

picking out those which live well a certain kind of life—and if the life

characteristic of human beings is to act with the help of discursive thought, then

this will be ‘the good belonging to human beings.’

Some translations render ‘good belonging to human beings’ as ‘the good for

humans,’ which suggests that acting with the help of discursive thought is good

for us in the way that dietary fiber is good for us (our health). Now this ‘good

belonging to human beings’ (to anthr pinon agathon) does play a role in

determining what is good for us in the ‘contributes to our well-being’ sense of

‘good for.’ Anything which promotes acting with the help of discursive thought,

e.g. education, adequate sleep, sufficient physical exercise, is good for us, since

this formula (‘acting with the help of discursive thought’) specifies how our wellbeing as humans is to be assessed. But Aristotle does not recommend either

discursive thought or moral virtue as good for us in this ‘contributes to our wellbeing’ sense. His interest is focused on specifying what well-being is (for a

human), so that he will be able to say whether anything contributes to it.

Living well, that is in a way informed by discursive thought, is next identified

as the actualization of our capacities to live (over a whole lifetime) in accordance

with excellence. The Nicomachean version (as we have already mentioned) goes

on from here to add the formula that is poised ambivalently between the

inclusive and the dominant view of eudaimonia, ‘and if there is more than one

excellence, then in accordance with the best and most final’ (1098a17). At the

end of this version Aristotle will recommend, as the dominant constituent of

eudaimonia, what appears to him to be the highest activity of the capacity for

discursive thought. This is not, as in Kant, the activity of a refined capacity to

desire, in other words a good will, but the activity of a refined capacity (viz. of

theoretical wisdom, sophia) to contemplate, to appreciate with understanding, the

world around us.

The development of the ergon argument in the Nicomachean version began

(1097b21) with Aristotle resolving to say something more than the apparent

platitude that eudaimonia is the chief good, but his conclusion moves back

toward what we have already identified as an uninformative truism: the best a

human can do is to realize the best possible human disposition(s). The


development of the argument is logically more satisfactory in the corresponding

chapter of the Eudemian Ethics, where Aristotle starts with the idea that

eudaimonia is the actualization of complete excellence (1219a38), and moves

toward the more specific claim that this will have to involve a specific type of

discursive thought, viz. reasoning (logismos 1219b39). This, at least, is not

uninformative, although it is hardly all that needs to be said.

Left like this, Aristotle’s thesis invites an objection based on the fact that

criminal activity frequently involves carefully considered (discursively

articulated) plans of action. Does Aristotle not have to allow that a gang leader who

worked out an efficient method of extorting money, and his accomplices who

understood and helped him to carry out his plans, are all actualizing a (the)

peculiarly human excellence? Would this not then make them not only good

examples of the human species but also involve them in the very activity that (if

there were enough of it in their lives) would make them eudaimones? It is likely

that if pressed by this objection Aristotle would appeal to the difference between

being phronimos and merely being clever (Section 8.4, under (4)). These criminals

are clever; they have worked out an efficient means to obtain what they have set

themselves to obtain, wealth. However, there is a question that which needs to be

raised as part of the task to which their discursive thought should address itself,

the question that opens the opportunity for deliberation that has been perverted

by wickedness to correct itself, namely what should they be trying to

accomplish? If they have not done this, then they have not deliberated well in the

unqualified sense.

Is obtaining wealth by any means, so long as the process involves an

investment of discursive thought (deliberative reasoning), what humans do that is

peculiar to their species—so that doing it well is what is to count as eudaim n? It

is true that no other species of animal accumulates wealth in the way that

humans do—behavior like that of squirrels stands to the human institutions of

wealth as ‘giving voice’ stands to human speech (see the quotation from

Aristotle’s Politics in Section 8.4, under (3))—but Aristotle has already argued

that someone who treats wealth as an end in life is confused about the difference

between means and ends. If our criminals have adopted efficient means of

achieving an end that they have set for themselves, and they are not (as Aristotle

would see it) confused about the role of wealth as a means, they will have some

goal beyond acquiring wealth—something they will do with the wealth once they

have acquired it. If there is a basis in Aristotle’s framework for criticizing them,

i.e. arguing that they do not, however successful they may be as clever criminals,

count as eudaimones, it will have to lie in this further goal, since Aristotle has no

basis for criticizing the means that someone adopts other than in terms of what it

may lead to or fail to lead to.

The Nicomachean Ethics, as we have seen, contains a shortlist of possible

candidates for the types of life that could claim to realize eudaimonia— the lives

of pleasure, honor (politics) and contemplation (1095b14–19). The Eudemian

version has a similar shortlist, the lives of pleasure, excellence and phron sis


(1215a35). The lists of both versions are too short; there is, for example, no

mention of the lives of artistic creation, religious devotion or humanitarian

service. Some of this is the result of Aristotle’s social snobbishness—the

performing and plastic arts were generally regarded as fit only for menials,

although literary artists had standing in the better circles and the failure to

mention their lives seems to have been an oversight on Aristotle’s part.

Nevertheless, the items on these overshort shortlists are inclusive enough to cover

quite a number of things that people might aim at in life. The life of honor could

conceivably be stretched to cover careers in professional sports, management or

entertainment (it included military activities for Aristotle). In spite of the

shortness of the list, it will be useful to consider how Nicomachean candidates

fare in the light of the possibility that the criminals imagined above might have

intended to use their ill-gotten gains in pursuit of any of the three—pleasure,

honor or contemplation.

When Aristotle first mentions a life of pleasure as a candidate for eudaimonia,

his attitude again sounds somewhat snobbish: ‘Now the vast majority are

evidently quite slavish, preferring a life suitable for cattle,’ and while allowing

that self-indulgent rulers frequently set bad examples, he contrasts this with

‘active and discerning’ people who regard honor as eudaimonia and seek it in

public affairs. What Aristotle has in mind when he speaks of the slavish are

pleasures associated with the body. After considering the topic of pleasure

carefully and in some detail, he recognizes that pleasure belongs potentially to

any activity, and the important question is not whether one experiences pleasure

but what one takes pleasure in. So when at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle takes up the question of what eudaimonia is, a life devoted to pleasant

amusement (paidia, literally ‘child’s play’, also sports and games) replaces the

life devoted to pleasure as the first candidate (1176b8).

Aristotle’s criticism of the pleasure-seeking life begins with the observation

that what seems valuable and pleasant to children is not what seems valuable and

pleasant to adults and that what bad people enjoy is not what good people enjoy

So it is not surprising to find him claiming that ‘to exert oneself and work for the

sake of child’s play seems silly and utterly childish.’ He does accept that

amusement has an important function in providing relaxation (‘we need

relaxation because we cannot work continuously,’ 1176b35), but this makes it,

like wealth, a means (‘to amuse oneself in order that one may exert oneself,’

1176b33–4) not an end, hence not a candidate for eudaimonia.

So our criminals cannot claim eudaimonia by virtue of their investment of

thought in their activities, if their deliberations aim only at pleasant amusement.

However, they may be interested in amassing wealth in order to possess the

means of securing political power and influence and ultimately the honor sought

by those ‘active and discerning’ people whose lives are lived in the public sphere.

Aristotle’s initial treatment of the life of honor stresses its dependence ‘on those

who bestow honor rather than on him who receives it’ (1095b24). This dependency

seems to disqualify it on the grounds that it is not ‘self-sufficient’ enough to


count toward eudaimonia, but only if the sense of ‘self-sufficient’ is allowed to

slide back toward the very meaning that Aristotle denied to ‘self-sufficiency’

(1097b8–11; see Section 9.1).

Aristotle suggests that people who seek honor are seeking to be assured of

their own merit, and this means that they are really interested in excellence.

Someone might well have gained honor by means that could not be openly

recognized, because if people knew how he acquired the wealth to buy the

influence to gain the office, etc., they would hold him in contempt. However,

such a person would have to be deceiving himself if he treated the honor he

received as a sign of his own merit. Of course, some people are not particularly

concerned with their own merit and are simply gratified by being held in public

esteem. This perhaps reduces their political ambitions to the level of pleasure

seeking, and although this kind of gratification may not seem to be an obvious

example of pleasant amusement, it is easy enough to imagine how Aristotle

would dismiss this version of a life of ‘public service’ as a candidate for


There are two main reasons offered in the final book of the Nicomachean

Ethics for giving low marks to a life devoted to political (which for Aristotle

included military) affairs. One is that the things it seeks are not desirable for

their own sake (1177b17); the other, perhaps merely a corollary of this, is that

they are not undertaken by people when they are masters of their own time—as

activities ‘they seem to be unleisurely’ (b7). Aristotle is clearly thinking of

politics merely as promoting some policy, say having to do with seeing there is

enough grain to feed the populace or seeing that public revenues are managed

properly. Instituting a policy of this sort, Aristotle indicates, seems to be done for

some further objective related to creating the opportunity for leisure. (At any rate,

fighting a military engagement is not, Aristotle wisely observes, done for its own

sake, but for the sake of peace.) Now if public life consists of doing nothing that

would be done for its own sake, but for the sake of something else, then this

something else must be what eudaimonia consists of. So what is it we do when

the necessities of life (food, shelter, state security and public services) have all

been attended to? What do we do when we are at leisure?

Aristotle’s third candidate seems to provide the only answer. Those who are

not slavish in their tastes exercise their minds in contemplation of the highest or

best of all the things that can be known. What is contemplation? The verb

theorein, recall, applies to what spectators at a ‘theater’ do, but the objects of

contemplation are not meant to be (merely) entertaining. They have to be more

than amusements, child’s play, sport or games. Aristotle places this activity at

the culmination of intellectual endeavors to understand such things as earthly

natures, the heavens and the divine principle that is ultimately responsible for the

cyclical changes observed in the heavens and on Earth. It is not research into

these matters (1177a27) but the appreciation of the results of research. Theorein

in this sense cannot take place unless a great deal of discursive thought has been

invested in assembling and articulating bodies of understanding (epist mai),


what we now call ‘theories.’ This is why it recommends itself as the best use we

can make of our capacity for discursive thought; it is a most demanding exercise

of our best capacities and is directed toward the highest objects (1177a20–l).8 It

is the sort of thing that we imagine is a suitable activity for a god (1178b20–3).

Theoreticians—our custom of calling people this ultimately goes back to this

Aristotelian doctrine—commonly speak of the beauty of their theories and the

pleasure they derive from them. Aristotle is familiar with this phenomenon: ‘We

think eudaimonia has pleasure mingled with it, but the activity of wisdom is

admittedly the pleasantest of excellent activities; at all events philosophy is

thought to offer pleasures marvelous for their purity and their enduringness’

(1177a23–7). We can engage in this activity, Aristotle claims (a22), more

continuously than anything else. Moreover, it is a self-sufficient activity; when

everyone is provided with the necessities of life, the just man still needs people

toward whom and with whom he can act justly. Likewise for the temperate, the

courageous, etc., but ‘the wise man, even when by himself, can contemplate and

the more so the wiser he is’ (a32). Here the final book of the Nicomachean

Ethics adopts the sense of ‘self-sufficient’ explicitly laid aside when using the

word to characterize eudaimonia in the first book.

Moreover, there is a tension between the claim made for the self-sufficiency in

Aristotle’s defense of contemplation and the attempt he makes in his discussion

of friendship to argue that friends are constituents of eudaimonia, not merely

indispensable conditions. This argument for friends as a constituent of

eudaimonia is somewhat lame, but the direction in which it limps seems to lie

directly opposite to the argument mounted here. Even an excellent individual

intent on contemplation needs other people, Aristotle argues, particularly to

appreciate his or her own excellence, for ‘we can contemplate our neighbors

better than ourselves and their actions better than our own’ (1169b33–4); ‘and

this will be realized in living together and sharing in discussion and thought; for

this is what living together would seem to mean in the case of man, and not, as in

the case of cattle, [merely] feeding in the same place’ (1170b11–12).


Eudaimonia and the ethical excellences

Contemplation and public service

There are even more troublesome questions about how the exercise of the

intellectual excellence of theoretical wisdom relates to the exercise of the ethical

excellences. These can be most directly brought to light by returning to the

criminals who used discursive thought successfully to extort money but could

not claim that this exercise of discursive thought contributed to eudaimonia so

long as it was directed toward pleasure or honor. Now what if they sought,

however unlikely this might be, the material means of having the opportunity

(the leisure) to engage in the contemplation of the highest and most noble things?9

It is clear that insofar as their thinking was directed toward a(n external,


instrumental) means to this goal, it contributes no more to their eudaimonia than

does engaging in public affairs. But with money to purchase the leisure to

contemplate, will they not be eudaimones?

What is troubling is that this group of people, singularly deficient in the

ethical excellence of justice, if in no other, should have any claim at all to be the

successful, admirable human beings that being eudaimones implies. Whatever

happened to the claim that eudaimonia consisted of the actualization of the

ethical excellences? What happened to the idea that to be just or temperate or

courageous, one has to choose to do just or temperate or courageous deeds for

their own sake, and to the implication that for a person with the excellence in

question, these deeds are worth doing for their own sake and are part of what it is

to live well (see Section 8.4)? What happened is that it was allowed that there

might be one excellence that would have to be cultivated and exercised above all

the rest (the ‘dominant view’). Once an excellence—in this case the intellectual

excellence of theoretical wisdom—is accorded that role, the only role remaining

to the ethical excellences seems to be that of instrumental means, of domestic

servants, to the one thing that really fulfills the life of a human being.

The image of the ethical excellences functioning as maidservants (with

phron sis functioning as chief housekeeper) to something else valued for its own

sake was applied by an opponent to the views of a philosopher, Epicurus, who

established himself during the generation following Aristotle’s death. We will

look at the views of Epicurus and how they differ from Aristotle’s in the

following chapter. Aristotle, however, does not appear to have been as

comfortable with leaving the exercise of the ethical excellences in this

subservient role as Epicurus was. Having reached the conclusion at the end of the

Nicomachean Ethics that the life of intellectual contemplation (the activity that

realizes theoretical wisdom) is the best, the most pleasant and the most eudaim n,

a new chapter continues to add support for this conclusion but begins:

Life in accordance with the other excellences [is eudaim n] in a secondary

way. For activities in accordance with these is human. Doing what is just

(right) and courageous (manly) and in accordance with the other

excellences toward one another in all our contracts and services and

actions and in the passions (emotions) —all this seems to be human.


The stress here on ‘human’ follows Aristotle’s argument that contemplation,

although characteristic of divine, god-like beings, is also characteristic of the

best in human beings.

On what basis can Aristotle claim that the ethical excellences contribute, even

in a ‘secondary’ way, to eudaimonia? Actualizing them is a function of our

mortality (gods do not engage in activity, praxis); it is unleisured, dependent on

other people, uses (apparently) the capacity for discursive thought in a

subservient way and is not directed toward the higher forms of reality. To have

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2 The appeal to human nature

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