One Small Voice

The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre

Aristotle Research Report #4: ἀρετή


I'm starting to see that Aristotle's conception of ἀρετή (which I translate as thriving but which is more commonly translated as excellence or virtue) describes a deliberate practice of good judgment, reasoned choice, and planned activity resulting in a balance between extremes of action and emotional reaction in a particular domain of human life.

Example: frugality or financial responsibility (not an ἀρετή that Aristotle discusses, by the way). Money troubles are one of the greatest sources of stress in modern times, so doing well in this domain is important to your happiness and success in life. Furthermore, let's say that in your later years you would like to pursue a more beautiful existence through philanthropic activities, devotion to a craft, or a life of inquiry - all of which require you to build up a financial cushion. To achieve your goals, you can't hope to win the lottery or get lucky with a hot investing scheme. Instead, you need to cultivate a deliberate practice of financial responsibility consisting of numerous activities that are based in clear perception, honesty with yourself, good judgment, and other mental thrivings. Such activities might include dedicating a large percentage of your salary to savings, paying your bills on time and in full, saving up for large expenditures, not incurring debt, thinking about the long-term impact of even small costs (like going out to lunch every day), budgeting for and understanding your expenses, investing reasonably without succumbing to fear and greed, etc. You won't learn such practices in philosophy class, but they are directly connected with living well because they help you face financial crises with equanimity, take care of yourself and your family, and engage in finer pursuits later in life.

Failings, too, are practices (say, prodigality or financial irresponsibility as an excess in this area - much more common than the deficiency of cheapness). There is judgment involved, but it's poor judgment. There is choice involved, but it's unreasoned choice. There is planning involved, but for misguided activities (e.g., trips to Las Vegas to shop and gamble). There is willful ignorance instead of constructive knowledge, self-deception instead of truthfulness, etc. All of this bespeaks a stunted humanity in one area of your life - which can bleed over into many other areas, or the whole of it.

Because philosophy is the love and practice of wisdom, a good and deliberate practice in any important domain of life (work, love, family, health, finance, friendship, thought, emotion, etc.) is a philosophical endeavor and an application of philosophical insight to a life well lived. This is the role of ἀρετή in human existence.


Aristotelian Questions


My intent in writing a book on Aristotelian ethics is not to present exactly what Aristotle said (I'll leave that to scholars such as J.O. Urmson in his excellent epitome Aristotle's Ethics), but hopefully what he meant and even more pointedly what he means for us 2300+ years later. The goal is to present my own direct encounter with Aristotle, unmediated by millennia of often misguided scholarship and mistranslation. (Ironically, we need some scholarship to do that, so separating the wheat from the chaff is necessary.) Here are some of the questions I'll be trying answer:


Aristotle: A First Encounter


Aristotle's views on living well and doing well - what the ancient Greeks called εὐδαιμονία or eudaimonia - are some of the most enduring insights into ethics ever put into words. Yet the deepest meaning of those words is usually obscured by efforts to translate and interpret Aristotle's thoughts. In part the problem is linguistic, in part it is cultural, but ultimately it is philosophical: ancient Greek world views, Aristotle's among them, are very far from our modern ways of thinking and feeling.

Consider some key concepts in Aristotle's ethical philosophy.

First, εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia). Although it's usually rendered as "happiness", we moderns associate happiness with a pleasurable feeling, whereas it was something much deeper to the ancients. A daimon was an inner god or the divine aspect of a human being. To be eudaimon was to have a good inner god or to be well-favored in personal divinity, and thus to flourish and to fulfill your highest potential - as Aristotle defined it, to "live well and do well".

Second, ἀρετή (arete). Those who translate it as "virtue" make Aristotle sound like a good Victorian. Others translate ἀρετή as "excellence", which is closer to the mark but implies that the quality is fundamentally comparative. Pursuing a hint from the Greek verb ἀρετάω (meaning to prosper, to fare well, to thrive), I use the Anglo-Saxon word "thriving" to capture this important idea.

Third, ψυχή (psyche). Two millennia of Christianity make the word "soul" sound otherworldly to us, but for the ancients ψυχή was the breath of life. Because Aristotle held that all animals and even plants have ψυχή, I render it as "aliveness".

Similarly with ἕξις or hexis (a settled state of being, not a mindless habit), ὄρεξις or orexis (striving, not appetition), διάνοια or dianoia (thinking, not intellection), θεωρία or theoria (active inquiry, not passive contemplation), σωφροσύνη or sophrosune (self-control, not temperance), φρόνησις or phronesis (good judgment, not prudence), μεσότης or mesotes (balance, not "the mean"), ἔργον or ergon (work, not function), καλός or kalos (beauty, not nobility), ἠθικός or ethikos (having to do with character, not morals), and many other terms: I render them in novel ways to set Aristotle's thoughts into sharp relief. I also do not shy away from using the Greek words themselves, untransliterated into the Latin alphabet, so that you don't forget we're dealing with a deeply foreign conception of the good life.

As I see it, the essence of that conception is this:

Aristotle held that εὐδαιμονία consists of living a life worthy of a human being. We humans are thinking and striving animals, whose aliveness is more complex than that of other animals; whereas they strive for things based on relatively immediate feelings of pleasure or pain and on short-term desires to obtain or avoid things, we are also thinking beings who have abstract understandings of the world and who pursue long-term plans and purposes. Thus, for humans, a worthy life is the beautifully harmonious work of thinking aliveness (whose goal is achieving a true understanding of what is) and striving aliveness (whose goal is achieving our long-term plans and purposes, guided by that true understanding). The forms in which we thrive are settled states of mind like knowledge, good judgment, and wisdom along with settled states of character like courage, justice, and self-control. Each of these thrivings is a balance between behavioral and emotional extremes, in a way that is appropriate to your individual disposition, abilities, and situation.

In my book A Worthy Life, I will unpack and explain that conception as best I can.


Songs of Zarathustra Now Published


My short book on Friedrich Nietzsche, Songs of Zarathustra, is now published in paperback and ebook formats, and of course also on my website. Once again both the form and the content are unorthodox: I construe Nietzsche in a more humanistic way than most interpreters, and I do so in a cycle of 73 brief poems (including translations of some of Nietzsche's own verse). Neither aspect is likely to endear me to academics, but then I don't write for a scholarly audience - even though my books are based on a deep reading of the original texts.

By the way, if you've already bought the book, please note that I found a typo on page 34 the other night (in my translation of Nietzsche's poem "Interpretation", I corrected "life" to read "lift"); I'd be happy to send you a corrected copy.

Songs of Zarathustra is conceptually the second (and chronologically the fourth) volume in my series of books on the art of living. I'm already working on the third volume, comprising an epitome of Aristotle's ethics (tentatively entitled A Worthy Life).


Privacy FTW


Tomorrow (January 28th) is Data Privacy Day. Why not join in the celebration? Here are some suggestions to prevent absolutely everything you do online from being tracked:

Scales and Modes and Tetrachords, Oh My!


In preparation for recording my arrangements of music by Yes for solo electric bass, I've started taking music lessons with Mark Stefaniw, a fine bassist in the Denver area. Under Mark's tutelage I've been digging into music theory, which is both fascinating and enlightening (especially given my many years of musical learning at the surface).

Mark likes to explain scales and modes in terms of tetrachords: a sequence of four notes, each of which is separated from its neighbor by a whole step or a half step. In turn, any given mode consists of two tetrachords (i.e., a set of four notes followed by a second set of four notes). For instance, a C major scale consists of C-D-E-F (with steps of whole, whole, and half) and G-A-B-C (again with steps of whole, whole, and half). Furthermore, there's also a step (either whole or half) between the first tetrachord and the second tetrachord (in the case of C major, it's a whole step between F and G).

In constructing the traditional modes of Western music, there are four possible tetrachords (I'm making up the notation here, using numbers for the notes in the sequence and "w" or "h" for a whole step or half step from one note to the next):

Now, here's where things get interesting. The traditional modes are constructed as shown below (confusingly, some of the modes have the same names as the tetrachords, so I use lowercase for tetrachords and uppercase for modes), where the root or tonic notes of mode examples are formed from the steps of the C major scale:

After the Phrygian mode, the modes cycle through the tetrachords in the same order as the modes, but starting at the lydian tetrachord (not the ionian). Therefore at some level all you really need to remember is i-d-p-l (ionian-dorian-phrygian-lydian) as the tetrachord building blocks for the modes.

My favorite exercise right now is working my way through the modes (and up the neck of the bass) by playing all the notes of the C-major scale but progressively increasing the tonic as hinted above:

These aren't just theoretical games. One practical application is my arrangement of the Yes song "A Venture" (from The Yes Album). Although the song is in the key of G minor (the relative minor of B♭ major), I discern three distinct sections: D Phrygian for the bass-heavy introduction, A Dorian for the first part of each verse, and G Aeolian for the second part of each verse. Almost all of the notes are in the key of G minor, but changing the tonal center from D to A to G gives each section quite a different sound. I didn't understand the theory behind all this when I arranged the song for solo electric bass a few years ago, but understanding it now gives me a greater appreciation for what Yes did in the compositional process and enables me to highlight certain notes as a way of emphasizing the modes for each section.


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