Saturday, October 4, 2008

Civilization Review: Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Books IV-VI

All references and quotations are from:

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. J.E.C. Welldon. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1987.

The text citations follow the book and chapter numbering used in translations in Aristotle's works. For example, a reference to a passage in Book II, Chapter V would be indicated by (II:V).

Philosophers tend to have one central idea that nearly everything they write harkens back to. With Plato, it's his theory of forms: the truth and the best exist independently of physical reality and can only be understood by way of abstract reasoning. Much of Aristotle's work revolves around his theory of, for lack of a better term, the golden mean: the good, the best, and the virtuous are halfway between the extremes (or vices) of excess and deficiency.

Book IV of The Nicomachean Ethics elaborates on a number of the examples in Book II, Chapter VI. For instance, liberality is the mean state with regard to possession of property, halfway between prodigality and miserliness (IV:I). Since, as Aristotle writes, "the person who makes the best use of anything is the person who possesses the virtue appropriate to that thing" (IV:I), the liberal individual makes the best use of property: he gives justly to the right people in the right circumstances, and in the right amounts (IV:II). Another example would be magnificence (defined as "excellence of work on a great scale"), which is the mean between stinginess and vulgar ostentation (IV:IV). Other mean states described include highmindedness, ambition, good temper, friendliness, truthfulness, and wittiness and tact.

Aristotle acknowledges that his theory is not universally applicable. He views wickedness as a thing separate from excess or vice, and the opposite of the good, rather than the good being out of balance (II:VI). Another way of viewing it is that wickedness is a characteristic of actions, while vice is a tendency of the individual. Wickedness can and does result from vice, but vice does not make one inherently wicked. Dante, historically one of Aristotle's foremost students, illustrates this repeatedly in the Inferno. For example, wrath and sullenness, the vices on either side of good temper, are treated as sins of incontinence. However, murder and suicide, which can result from those vices, are treated as sins of wickedness, and are considered much worse. It's the difference between predisposition and disposition.

In Book IV of The Republic, Plato characterizes the just individual as one who achieves internal harmony between wisdom, courage, and appetite--what he defines as the three aspects of the soul. Aristotle, who is far more pragmatic in his thinking, identifies the just individual as one who keeps the law, and who is fair (V:II); the just individual balances his or her own concerns with the concerns of others (V:III). On the other hand, the unjust individual is utterly selfish, and is concerned with making personal gains at the expense of all else (V:IV).

In discussing justice in action, Aristotle describes two different kinds. The first is distributive justice, which is the goal of the just character; it is concerned with fairness in distributing benefits to all relative to their contribution in a transaction (V:VI). The second is corrective justice, which is the nemesis of unjust action; it restores the balance between profit and loss that suffers when a transaction is unjust (V:VII). It should be noted, however, that Aristotle views it as a means of maintaining equitability in a transaction; he does not identify it with retaliation (V:VIII).

In Book V, Chapter X, Aristotle outlines his view that the characterization of an individual as just or unjust is relative to actions. Mistakes and mishaps may have unjust results, but they are not the result of an unjust character, nor can they be considered acts of injustice. One who knows that an action is wrong but undertakes that action without deliberation has committed an unjust act, but it does not follow he or she is an unjust person. (This line of thinking informs religious notions of repentance and forgiveness, as repentance of sin ultimately saves one from damnation.) It is only when the unjust action is knowingly and deliberately undertaken that the person performing the action is considered unjust. As Aristotle writes,

The definition of an act of justice or injustice depends upon its voluntary or involutary character; for when it is voluntary, it is open to censure, and it is then also an act of injustice (V:X)
The underlying argument is that just and unjust acts must be guided by reason, and this clarifies why vice and wickedness are not the same. One may have the vice of a wrathful temperament, but one cannot commit murder unless one's reason is working in concert with one's vice. Since reason is humanity's unique talent, it is a corruption of that gift to use it towards satisfying vice's ends. Incontinence is immaturity; wickedness is perversion.

Just conduct must be guided by reason. Aristotle writes that "moral virtue is a state of deliberative and moral purpose," and it requires what Aristotle defines as the two aspects of rationality: the scientific and the deliberative (VI:II). Scientific rationality concerns itself with the invariable, and the truths it realizes are demonstrable. Deliberative rationality deals with what is variable, such as intuitive reason and opinion. (VI:III) Justice requires wisdom, which Aristotle defines as "the union of intuitive reason and science" (VI:VII). One must know what is good, and one must know how to go about achieving it. As Aristotle writes, "[H]e who is absolutely wise in deliberation is he who aims, by a reasonable process, at that which is best for a man in practical life" (VI:VIII). The means to wisdom is prudence, which employs the scientific and deliberative capacities to determine the best course of action in practice. Its goal is wisdom, and it rules in wisdom's interest (VI:XIII).

Aristotle carefully develops his conception of the just and virtuous individual. The first goal is achieving the mean of virtue that lies between vices, which requires reason and its proper utilization. One must see the application of that mean state in one's actions, both relative to oneself and one's community. This requires the aspect of deliberate rationality of intuitive reason, which is the root of demonstration and leads to scientific rationality. The faculty of deliberate rationality, allied with scientific rationality then leads to prudence, which in turns leads to wisdom, which is the ultimate just and virtuous state.

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