Aristotle Research Report #12: A Eudemian Thread
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, good fortune, and personal relationships. Surprisingly, he 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 good reputation. 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 good reputation 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. 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. Thus human beings are best to the extent that partake in these same qualities (indeed, we form our ideas of the divine from our experience of what is best in human life).
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:
- Because god is self-contained, one might set such limits through continual self-improvement, which is a matter of focusing on internal goods of character and thus seeking the opposite of unbounded desire for things outside yourself. By cultivating such self-improvement, you emulate the highest and best being.
- Setting limits on the pursuit of the natural goods involves the cultivation of a life that is wisely ordered by an over-arching goal of excellence (EE I.2); god, too, is well-ordered, whereas the foolishness of unbounded desire leads to internal disorder.
- Closely related, harmony and serenity are qualities of what is unchanging, and the excellent human being experiences a harmony between the wise, rational part of the soul that shapes a goal for life and the part that listens to reason; such a person experiences serenity because their actions and feelings are consistent and because the "second nature" of their character is aligned with the "first nature" of the human capacity for living well.
- As Aristotle explores at length in books II and III of the Eudemian Ethics, action for the sake of what's beautifully right (καλός) is more godlike than action for the sake of gain (e.g., the pursuit of wealth) or pleasure (e.g., eros without love of character).
- Temperate action is what the law enjoins (EE IV), but listening to external law is only the first step toward listening to your own reason; the gods themselves are supremely independent in this way because they don't need laws in the first place.
- Although an individual human being is not unchanging and eternal, the human species is; thus limiting your desires for external goods could involve maintaining awareness (θεωρία) of your species nature.
- God is pure ἐνέργεια, but living well (εὐδαιμονία) is also a kind of divine activity (EE I.3); by setting human limits on unbounded desire for natural goods, one lives well.
- The lover of wisdom both seeks to understand why things are the way they are (through σοφία, which is a conceptual grasp of the first causes and ultimate sources of existence - opposed to ignorance on the one hand and sophistry on the other) and aims at actionable truth (through φρόνησις, which reliably knows how to act and feel in a way that's beautifully right and admirably appropriate - opposed to foolishness on the one hand and cunning on the other). Aristotle calls the desire to understand why things are the way they are either primary philosophy (the love of wisdom) or theology. This involves a reverent attitude toward reality, even in the study of natural science (quoting Heraclitus, at the start of the Parts of Animals Aristotle notes that "there are gods here too"); without that reverent attitude, one lapses into ignorance or sophistry. And unbounded desire for external goods involves either ignorance (in the form of an animal existence) or sophistry (in the form of self-deception), whereas the person who develops their human potential engages in a kind of divine activity because, as Heraclitus said, one's character is one's guiding spirit or daimon.
- There is a close relationship between right action and full awareness. Aristotle hints at this in EE VI during his explanation of weakness of the will or self-indulgence (ἀκρασία). Even if you know how to act and feel in a way that's beautifully right and admirably appropriate (καλός), you won't act aright unless you intentionally apply that knowledge; this involves having the perceptual insight (νοῦς) that your current situation calls for applying that knowledge, and then staying actively aware of (θεωροῦντα) that knowledge in the situation (recall that a divine being is pure awareness). The person of self-indulgence thus does the wrong thing; whereas the person of self-control (ἐγκράτεια) does the right thing but still feels the wrong impulses. The akratic person and the enkratic person both know what is καλός, but though lack of awareness (θεωρία) they don’t see it all the way through in action and feeling.
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 seem as first.
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