Aristotle Research Report #1: Eudemian Ethics

by Peter Saint-Andre


In parallel with my work on the writing of The Upland Farm about Thoreau, I've started to do some of the research about Aristotle that I'll use as the basis for A Worthy Life. As I re-read various works by Aristotle for the first time in many years, I shall post research reports on what I learn. These reports will be fairly technical in nature and will presume some familiarity with ancient philosophy.

Our first stop is the Eudemian Ethics (EE) - that lesser-known sibling of the Nicomachean Ethics (EN).

Here Aristotle explores much of the same territory that he does in the EN, although he emphasizes different aspects and explains things in different ways.

One such difference is in his treatment of the ergon idea: i.e., what is the characteristic work of a human being, and of each core capacity of a human being?

He calls these capacities "parts of the soul" (psuche) but at 1219b33 he also says it makes no difference whether one refers to them as parts or as capacities, so I'll call them capacities because that's less metaphysically committed. By the way, I think "soul" is a misleading translation of psuche because of its modern / Christian connotations ("your immortal soul" etc.), and also because for Aristotle animals and even plants have psuche. Right now I am leaning toward translating psuche as "vitality".

In any case, at 1221b30 Aristotle asserts that psuche has two parts, and he comes right out to say that there are excellences of thought (aretai of dianoia) corresponding to the rational part of the soul, whose work (ergon) is truth. Yet although he then launches into a long analysis of the excellences of character corresponding to the part of the soul that has desire or yearning (orexis), he doesn't immediately say what is the work of that part of the soul. Perhaps it has something to do with achieving the mean between indulging desire and suppressing desire (which he discusses in II.3) or a kind of balance or equanimity, or even serenity? This was a common goal of the love and practice of wisdom in ancient days - see Pierre Hadot's book What is Ancient Philosophy?, for which I have a great admiration. Indeed, beacuse at 1219a24 he says that the work of psuche is to "make life" or "make alive" (zen poiein), we could say somewhat poetically that the rational part of the soul makes you alive to truth.

Aristotle's use of the term ergon is quite intentional, because achieving truth is work: it involves training / paideia, habituation, discipline, mental exercises, and the like. We could perhaps even say that truth is a matter of being consistent with reality.

In addition to thought (dianoia), the other key vital capacity is yearning or impulse or desire (orexis). This capacity humans share with animals, at least in part - animals have passion/spirit (thumos) and desire (epithumia) but not wish/purpose (boulesis) and these are the three aspects of orexis on his analysis. What is the ergon of orexis? It cannot be eudaimonia because animals have orexis but cannot be "eudaimon". In particular, animals do not have purpose (boulesis) or thought (dianoia) or planning (proairesis) and these are key elements in eudaimonia. However, animals too can act consistent with reality and their nature, i.e., can act "kata phusin". (I need to understand what Aristotle means by kata phusin - does it apply to animals and plants, too, or just to humans? Etc.)

In comparison to animals, humans participate in the divine and thus can live a higher life involving beauty or nobility ("to kalon") and combining or balancing orexis and dianoia (there is a great deal of work involved here, too, of course!).

For Aristotle there is an important connection between excellence and beauty, between arete and kalos: arete results in doing beautiful things that are worthy of honor, praise, and admiration (which he would consider consistent with the social nature of human beings). At the end of the EE, during his discussion of kalokagathia (perhaps well translated as "ethical beauty"), he even distinguishes the merely good person from the ethically beautiful person by asserting that the latter (who demonstrates complete excellence) does things not merely for the sake of the good ("to agathon") but for the sake of beauty ("to kalon").

There is also a deep connection between excellence and truth, because excellence involves accurately judging what is natural, where the mean lies, what is really to be feared (courage) and desired (temperance), and so on. Thus arete involves dianoia. Aristotle uses the phrases epitataktikos logos, orthos logos, and orthos krinein in these contexts, and even says at 1231b33 that the phrase "orthos logos" is what he actually means when he uses the term "ought".

Thus there is a cognitive element in excellence of character - at 1246b35 he says that wisdom (phronesis) is not a kind of formal knowledge (episteme), but it is a kind of insight (gnosis). For example, at 1220b16-18 he says that emotions can be present rationally or not, i.e., in accordance with accurate judgment or not, and that various powers act to make this so. But what exactly are these powers?

One of them, perhaps the key one, might be self-control (enkrateia), which he says "preserves reason" (1227b16).

Aristotle's exact analysis of self-control is not yet clear to me. At 1223b13 he says that excellence is self-control. Does this mean that in all of its forms (courage, temperance, etc.) arete is a kind of self-control because enkrateia preserves reason and thus brings in epitaktikos logos, orthos logos, orthos krinein, and in general dianoia? On this line of thinking, could enkrateia be the ergon of orexis for humans?

(Alternatively, it's possible that self-control is "merely" one of the aretai, whose deficiency is lack of self-control (akrasia) and whose excess is the unnamed vice of over-control - which would mean that enktrateia is not of overarching importance for all the excellences of character. This view might be buttressed by his statement at 1227b17 that enkrateia and arete are different, although he doesn't explain how.)

However, enkrateia is probably not the ergon of orexis, because he strongly implies that self-control is the arete of the non-rational part of psuche, i.e., of orexis (at 1246b13 he says that akrasia is the vice of the non-rational part of psuche, which would imply that enkrateia is the arete of orexis).

Going further, I need to understand the relationship between vital capacity (e.g., dianoia or orexis), arete (e.g., enkrateia in the case of orexis), and ergon (e.g., truth in the case of dianoia). What is the primary arete of dianoia that enables this capacity to do its work of achieving truth? What is the work of orexis such that enkrateia is its primary arete? And how is eudaimonia (the overall ergon of human vitality) produced by dianoia and orexis together and by their respective aretai?

Next I'll read the Nicomachean Ethics, which I hope will answer some of these questions...

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