by Peter Saint-Andre


Aristotle is well-known for having pioneered our vocabulary of potentiality and actualization. An especially meaningful form of human potentiality or capacity is what he calls a hexis: a stable, voluntarily acquired trait that, when applied, results in reliable activity of a certain kind. Aristotle identifies three such primary traits in human life: virtue or excellence of character (aretē), knowledge or understanding (epistēmē), and craft or skill (technē).

For Aristotle and the ancient Greeks more generally, both knowledge and virtue were ends in themselves, whereas the end of a craft was not the exercise of the craft but whatever the craft might produce outside of itself. Thus, for example, the end of shipbuilding is the ship, the end of medicine is the health of the patient, and the end of music-making is the performance. Significantly, a craft - unlike a virtue - can be used for good or for ill; that purpose is determined by the virtue, or lack thereof, of the person who uses the product of the craft (e.g., a ship can be used for peaceful commerce or for murderous piracy).

In the modern world we have reduced all of these traits to one: technē. For us, as loyal heirs of Francis Bacon, knowledge is no longer an end in itself but primarily a means to gaining power over nature or, increasingly, other people. Similarly, virtuous activity is no longer an end in itself but primarily a means to getting ahead or feeling happy.

The result of reducing knowledge and virtue to crafts is a crafty instrumentalism that cannot question the boundless pursuit of power, wealth, status, fame, and pleasure. Those simply must be valuable because so many people seem to value them, and the only value of knowledge or virtue is to help us attain even more of them.

Yet there exists an older, wiser alternative. Unfortunately, because technē is the ocean we swim in, it's hard to see how to square the ideal of a more contemplative life with the requirements of modern society. To my mind, finding the beautifully right balance here is one of the main tasks of the examined life in this day and age.

(Cross-posted at


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