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Ad fontes

15 August 2012

Continuing my grand tour of major texts in virtue ethics in, I think, the most appropriate fashion possible, I have recently finished reading Aristotle’s classic Nicomachean Ethics, which Alasdair MacIntyre identifies as the text, the very fundament, of the tradition of virtue thinking which he undertakes to resuscitate in After Virtue. Specifically I read Roger Crisp’s translation, published under the always excellent Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy imprint (a review of sorts providing some comments on the specific edition can be found here). In addition to my personal philosophical interest in virtue ethics I read this work as a necessary background to my own near-future research interests in the Early Modern Thomistic scholastic schools of thought which turn so heavily upon Aristotle’s ethical thinking. Thus I read the Ethics with two eyes, one for the validity of his ethical arguments and one for the genealogy of a later ethical tradition.

Perhaps the element that most separates Aristotle’s ethical thinking those post-Enlightenment schools which dominate ethical discourse today, utilitarianism and Kantianism, is that Aristotle’s focus is not on right action but on living out the good. As Charles Taylor so aptly points out in the opening chapter of Sources of the Self (which I am currently reading), ethics in the post-Enlightenment age focuses on what it is right to do at the expense of what it is good to be. For those of trained in a academic environment that treats everything prior to 1650 as intellectual prehistory it can be difficult to take Aristotle’s sharply contrasting emphases on their own terms, rather than simply seeing his ‘good’ as a vehicle of or optional addition to the ‘right.’ However Aristotle’s more holistic, pre-Enlightenment conception of the good was one of the dominant modes of ethical reflection throughout much of Western intellectual history (along with others such as the very similar Platonic-Augustinian mode, or the Stoic mode) and understanding it is key to understanding the extremely important and influential Thomistic ethical tradition. The emphasis on the good results in a more holistic ethical theory than is typical today and one which covers considerably more ground. Aristotelian ethics are not limited to individual actions but considers one’s entire way of living, since the seeking out of eudaimonia, the end of Aristotle’s ethical thinking, cannot but be gone about in every aspect of one’s life.

Certainly my greatest difficulty with Aristotle’s work is his particular formulation of phronesis (practical wisdom/reason). Aristotle’s pre-modern conception of reason posits that human reason is legitimised not by being methodological sound, as is held in the post-Enlightenment world, but by coming to correct conclusions. It seemed to me that even to Aristotle there is no way to judge from the outside what would constitute correct conclusions except through the cultivation of practical iwsdom, since ‘correctness’ in this sense is measured in relation to the complex human telos of eudaimonia, which is knowable only through the virtue/excellence of  phronesis. The circular character of phronesis is, I think, a weakness of Aristotle’s theory and I look forward to reading later work in his tradition to see how/if this circularity is addressed. While I would not see Aristotelian phronesis reduced to a post-Enlightenment methodological model of reason, since that would contradict the teleological nature of the reasoning itself, a means of verifying, or at least supporting, the conclusions of Aristotelian phronesis that does not turn upon the possession and cultivation of Aristotelian phronesis would, I think, strengthen the Aristotelian ethical theory.

Having previously read the aretaic ethical thought of Thomas Aquinas fairly extensively the Nicomachean Ethics provided illuminating historical and intellectual context for my understanding of Thomistics ethics and the tradition which it spawned (which tradition is a major research interest of mine). The places where Aquinas was influenced by the Platonic-Augustinian tradition (such as his use of the four cardinal virtues in his numbering of the famous ‘Seven Virtues’) now shine through much more clearly and the multiple influences on his thought are more plainly distinguished. I imagine that the next item on my Aristotelian reading list, his Politics, will prove equally illuminating of later works in the Aristotelian and related traditions. Intellectual debates of my period, such as the De auxilis controversy and the debate over the enslavement of the South American indigenous populations, all turned in part upon the works of Aristotle and understanding his work on its own terms in key to understanding the latter intellectual culture of which he was so formative.

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