Aristotle Research Report #2: Key Concepts

by Peter Saint-Andre


One of the great challenges in understanding Aristotle's ethics, especially for those who don't read Greek, is that his key concepts are quite foreign to us moderns. Among those moderns we can include his usual translators, who all too often make him sound like a Victorian focused on virtue and prudence and moderation above all. Even Joe Sachs, my favorite translator of Aristotle, misses some golden opportunities to set the record straight, although in the main he succeeds in getting behind the long tradition of "Latinizing" Aristotle through the lens of Neoplatonic philosophy and Christian theology. Me, I prefer to find, if possible, good old Anglo-Saxon words as a way to route around the Latinization problem.

Let's look at a few of these key concepts.

First off is eudaimonia, usually translated as "happiness". Well, sort of. But we moderns associate happiness with a pleasurable feeling, whereas it was much more than that to the ancient Greeks. A daimon was a kind of lesser deity, for our purposes most particularly an inner god or the divine aspect of a human being. Thus to be eudaimon was to have a good inner god or to be well-favored in personal divinity; in less rarified terms, it was to flourish (a somewhat popular translation in more recent times) or, as Aristotle explicitly says, to "live well and do well".

Another critically important term is arete, usually translated (even by Sachs) as "virtue". Here people have been led astray in part by a dubious etymology that derives arete from the name of Ares, the god of war (thus connecting the term with the original Latin meaning of virtue as strength or manliness), and in part by the assumption that Aristotle is talking about virtue in the same way we are. Translators who try to overcome the problems inherent in rendering arete as virtue often opt for rendering it as excellence, which has its own problems (e.g., excellence is necessarily comparative). In pondering the meaning of arete while reading the Nicomachean Ethics recently, I realized that arete is related to the Greek verb aretao, which means doing well (see above), faring well, thriving.

Or consider psuche (reflected in our term psychology), usually translated as "soul". Yet Aristotle thinks that not only animals have psuche (which perhaps has become a more common view in recent decades), but even that plants have psuche. In my last post I mentioned that I was leaning toward translating psuche as "vitality", but I've decided that I like "aliveness" even better.

A fourth term is ergon, which for awhile was translated as "function" (thus leading to all sorts of scholarly confusion about Aristotle's "functionalism" - a notoriously vague notion in philosophy). Sachs translates it as "work", which I think is much closer to the mark.

A fifth is hexis, usually translated as "habit". Yet for us a habit is a kind of mindless routine, whereas for Aristotle a hexis (from ekho meaning "to have, to hold, to be in firm possession of") was a firmly settled state of being, what Sachs translates as an active condition of the soul.

Let's look at how these different translations might play out. (I'll use a few other terms here: dianoia translated as thinking instead of intellect, orexis translated as yearning instead of appetition (!), phronesis translated as good judgment instead of prudence, sophrosune translated as self-control intead of temperance, spoudaios translated as worthy instead of noble.)

For instance:

Aristotle thinks that the ergon of the dianoietic part of psuche is truth, and that its aretai are hexeis such as phronesis; similarly, he thinks that the ergon of the orectic part of psuche is something like balance, and that its aretai are hexeis such as sophrosune; and thus he thinks that the ergon of the human psuche is to live a spoudaios life, which consists in eudaimonia.

[Note: I'm still puzzling out what Aristotle considers to be the ergon of the orectic part of psuche, so I'm not really sure that it's balance.]

Plugging in different values for the various terms, we can derive quite different meanings from the following two versions.

Aristotle thinks that the function of the intellectual part of the soul is truth, and that its virtues are habits such as prudence; similarly, he thinks that the function of the appetitive part of the soul is something like balance, and that its virtues are habits such as temperance; and thus he thinks that the function of the human soul is to create a noble life, which consists in happiness.


Aristotle thinks that the work of thinking aliveness is truth, and that it thrives through settled states of being such as good judgment; similarly, he thinks that the work of yearning aliveness is something like balance, and that it thrives through settled states of being such as self-control; and thus he thinks that the work of human aliveness is to create a worthy life, which consists in living well and doing well.

Although I don't think that I'll ever make a full translation of the Nicomachean Ethics (Sachs gets close enough), I do find it helpful to think hard about how I might render his key concepts into English. Naturally I'll ponder this quite a bit more as I research his ethical philosophy over the next few years...

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