Aristotle Research Report #12: A Eudemian Thread

by Peter Saint-Andre


At the very end of Aristotle's Eudemian Ethics there is a puzzling passage about the standard (ὅρος) according to which the "good and beautifully right" person (καλοκαγαθός) makes choices with regard to natural goods such as wealth, health, strength, honor, power, and even the right number of friends. Surprisingly, Aristotle says that whatever conduces to the cultivation (θεραπεία) and awareness (θεωρία) of god is best and is the most beautifully right standard, whereas anything that hinders such cultivation and awareness is unworthy, trifling, and bad (φαῦλος - the opposite of what is σπουδαῖος, i.e. worthy, serious, and good). Until these last few paragraphs, nothing in the Eudemian Ethics had obviously pointed in this startlingly "theological" direction or had advocated a godlike, superhuman existence; yet if we pay careful attention to the text, we can patiently unravel a thread of inquiry that elucidates Aristotle's last word on the topic of the best human life.

Working our way backward from end to beginning, let's first look at these things that are good by nature, such as wealth and power and status. The ancient Greeks were distrustful of such things because although they are good by nature, they also have no natural limit. How much wealth or power or status is too much? Although one needs some wealth in order to live, a person can all too easily be corrupted through the avaricious pursuit of extreme wealth (or great power or high status). Is there some way to set a human limit on things that have no natural limit?

Here Aristotle's conception of the divine can help us. Aristotle was very far from believing in Zeus and Apollo and all the other traditional gods of Greek society (recall that near the end of his life he fled Athens after being charged with impiety - essentially, atheism). Aristotle's god, such as it is, is essentially the pure activity (ἐνέργεια) of awareness (θεωρία). As Aryeh Kosman explains in The Activity of Being, because the primary mode of being is ἐνέργεια, the activity of θεωρία (no matter what living thing exhibits it) is more fundamental than the contemplation of some pre-existing divinity or god. Instead, beings are divine to the extent that they engage in the activity of awareness. Thus the highest and best being would, as a kind of limit case, be the one that is self-contained, independent, unchanging, well-ordered, fully aware, and fully engaged in the activity of awareness. As a result, human beings are best to the extent that partake in these same qualities (indeed, we might form our ideas of the divine from our experience of what is best in human life, since we don't have direct experience of otherworldly divinities).

There are, therefore, at least several reasons why this human limit-setting on the unbounded pursuit of natural goods might involve the cultivation and emulation of what is divine:

These rough notes point in several directions for further research (e.g., a full elucidation of θεωρία, σοφία, and φρόνησις), but they at least indicate that the conclusion of the Eudemian Ethics is not as completely unexpected or overtly theological as it might at first seem.


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