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Category Archives: Aristotle

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The Pursuit Of Virtue: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

by June 17, 2014

Nicomachean Ethics - Book IIIPlato’s dialogue, as is common, leaves us with more questions than answers. What is virtue? Well, it is something akin to wisdom, but it is not quite wisdom itself. Rather, it is guided by wisdom and made profitable through the practical application of wisdom.
Okay then. How do we attain virtue? Well, at least according to Plato, it can’t be taught. The reason for this is simply because Plato can’t seem to adequately identify a group of teachers who could instruct us in the ways of virtue.
Instead, true virtue comes to us as a gift from the gods. True virtue is, in many ways, only attainable by appealing to higher realms of existence, such as Plato’s cerebral world of Forms.
Rather than elucidating the idea of virtue, we are left with murky definitions and possibly unnecessary appeals to otherworldly plains of existence. And while we certainly can’t say that we “know” virtue to any discernible degree, at least now we know that we do not know and are freed from the curse of living in unabashed ignorance.
But my goodness, perhaps there is some merit to the old adage that ignorance is bliss. Plato doesn’t necessarily argue in circles, but his dialogues don’t seem to go anywhere fast. And in truth, they aren’t meant to.
The platonic dialogues were to be used as examples of how we ought to interact with other philosophically minded individuals. We are meant to discuss, consider, and then refute our own ideas of virtue, and in doing so, reveal our own ignorances. Plato’s dialogue, therefore, is not so much a guide to moral virtue, but is a blueprint for the act of Socratic dialogue, which was, according to Plato, the proper way to practice philosophy.
While such things are indeed beneficial for those of us who practice philosophy, The Meno does lack a particular immediacy, a conciseness that we might long for when considering the way in which we ought to live. It is a good thing, therefore, that Aristotle’s brand of philosophy is readily available.
Precise, unwavering, sometimes considered to be a bit terse, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics explores the topic of human virtue in a way that is distinctively Aristotelian. With short, concise sentences and always with the idea of practical application, The Nicomachean Ethics is a far cry from Plato’s The Meno. If you are looking for answers, you have come to the right place.
Part 2: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
It is within Book II of The Nicomachean Ethics that Aristotle lays out his plan of action for us…

“Our present inquiry does not aim, as our others do, at study; for the purpose of our examination is not to know what virtue is, but to become good, since otherwise the inquiry would be of no benefit to us.” -Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics Book II)

AristotleProving, once again, his preference for the pragmatic rather than the theoretical, Aristotle intends to not only inquire about the nature of virtue, he plans on making us good people. No mere philosophical pondering, The Nicomachean Ethics, very literally, is a step by step guide to becoming a better person. So where to start?
We first must understand that there are two types of virtue, virtues of the intellect and virtues of character. Intellectual virtues mainly consist of wisdom and independent thought, while virtues of character refer to ideas such as bravery, temperance, and generosity.
Virtue of the intellect grows from teaching, as we might expect. Virtue of character, on the other hand, is formed form habit over time. Aristotle takes a moment to consider the idea that virtue is, by nature, within all people.
He tells us that while habitation will develop virtue of character, the potentiality for all virtue exists within our souls. A stone by habit moves downward. No matter how many times you may throw a stone into the air, you will never habituate a stone to travel upwards. Similarly, our potentiality for virtue is requisite if we wish to cultivate these virtues within our lives.
Within the first few paragraphs of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle has concluded that all people have the potentiality for virtue and that we develop these virtues by performing virtuous acts. We become brave by behaving bravely, we become just by acting justly.

Aristotle statue
We might be happy to call it quits right here. However, Aristotle aims at making us good people, so the topic of virtue must be explored a bit more.

First, we must understand what virtue is. Aristotle tells us that virtue is a balancing of sorts, a perfect median between deficiency and excess. When considering bravery, cowardice, and rashness, we might say that an individual who is deficient of confidence within situations will be considered a coward. However, an individual who possesses too much confidence will be rash, impulsive and hard headed. From these two extremes we can come to understand that the perfect middle ground is bravery, a true virtue.
Finding this perfect middle ground, however, can sometimes be quite a challenge. We can not assume that there will always be a mathematical, objective standard for every virtue. The act of donating $100 to charity might seem virtuous. However, if the man giving the money is very wealthy, we might assume that he is not being virtuous at all, but is actually rather greedy. And if the man donating the money were a beggar, we might consider him rather foolish for giving away money that he so desperately needs.
And so in this way we see that there is no consistent standard for virtue. Every situation varies and so we must make an effort to judge which actions are virtuous and which are not.

“In this way every scientific expert avoids excess and deficiency and seeks and chooses what is intermediate-but intermediate relative to us, not in the object.” -Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book II)

XXXAdditionally, Aristotle tells us that we must recognize that virtue is a state of being rather than a feeling or a capacity. It is because of our virtues and our vices that we are praised or blamed, and it can not be rightfully stated that we are blamed or praised for our feelings or our capacities for feelings, so it stands to reason that virtue is a state.
Finally, we must understand that simply performing virtuous actions is not enough. Acting bravely does not make us brave people any more than pounding on piano keyboard makes us brilliant musicians. In order to truly become virtuous, we must do the following:
  • We must know that what we are doing is virtuous
  • We must decide to do virtuous actions and decide to do them for the sake of their own value
  • We must do these virtuous actions from a firm and unchanging state.
And so we see that there are quite a few rules we must follow in order to be virtuous. Sticking with the musician comparison, any individual might strike a few keys on a piano and occasionally will produce some beautiful sounding notes. This, however, does not make us a skilled musician. Similarly, we can not simply perform virtuous actions. We must possess the intention to be virtuous, we must have an understanding of virtue, and we must perform these actions for the sake of virtue alone.
Aristotle’s account of virtue differs slightly from other moral philosophers because it at no point makes an argument for why we should want to be virtuous. It does not take into consideration the possibility that it might be advantageous to be vicious or deceitful.
Additionally, Aristotle gives no real account of which dispositions should be considered virtuous or vicious. He never tells us, precisely, which actions will make us brave, or temperate, or just. This need for a justification is even more pressing for a modern reader whose understanding of virtue might differ greatly from a well-educated, well-bred, Athenian aristocrat.
Still, even with these detractors in mind, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics stands as one of the most inspired sources for philosophical enlightenment. A guide to self betterment, we can thank Aristotle for his ideas on virtue and how best to attain it.

Aristotle’s De Interpretatione: Fate Or Free Will?

by May 5, 2014

OedipusThe miserable King Oedipus of Thebes and his woeful story is a rather significant thought experiment for those of us struggling with this “fate or free will” problem.

Known primarily through the ancient plays of the Athenian, Sophocles, Oedipus is a mythical Greek King
who, despite his attempts to avoid it, is destined to kill his father, marry his mother, and bring disaster and shame upon himself and his city. A classic Greek tale, the story of Oedipus deals with the themes of fate, moral ambiguity, and the miseralbe outcomes that sometimes faces those who oppose their destiny.

We will return to Oedipus momentarily. For now, let us transition to Aristotle and his concise examination of fatalism in the text De Interpretatione.

At first glance, we might think that Aristotle’s De Interpretation, also known as On Interpretation, deals primarily with the philosophy of language.
How does language relate to the truth of an idea? Can an idea exist if there is no word that represents it? Are words arbitrarily created or do they have any significant relationship to the idea or object which it is meant to represent?

These types of questions are considered by Aristotle early within the text. And while this all is rather interesting, we will only briefly discuss Aristotle’s ideas on words, sentences and their relation to truth.

Suffice it to say that Aristotle tells us that spoken sounds are symbols of affections in the soul. They represent some idea, place, or thing. Written words represent spoken sounds and similarly are symbols of ideas, places or things. While spoken and written language may differ dramatically, the ideas which they represent do not change. A chair is a chair no matter the language we may use to describe it. Socrates is still Socrates whether his name is written in english or ancient Greek.
More importantly for us, Aristotle continues by telling us that every statement is, out of necessity, either true or false. This seems agreeable and fairly obvious. Believe it or not, the acceptance of this simple rule is the root of much of the concern regarding our “free will vs. fate” debate.
You see, a certain problem arises when we apply this rule to statements of events that will occur in the future. Consider the following statements:
Statement 1: X will occur
Statement 2: X will not occur
According to our previous rule, one of these statements must be true and the other one must be false. For the sake of argument, let us say that 1 is true and 2 is false. That means that the statement “X will occur” is true. More precisely, statement 1 was ALWAYS true, even before X actually occurred.
A curious thing happens then. If statement 1 was always true, then X was always going to occur. But if X was always going to occur then it is impossible for X not to have occurred. This means that X could not have not occurred. That which cannot not occur must necessarily occur. And so we see that X occurred out of necessity and not because of chance, luck, or human decision.
“…If it was always true to say that it was or would be, it could not not be, or not be going to be. But if something cannot not happen, it is impossible for it not to happen; and what cannot not happen necessarily happens. Everything, then, that will be will be necessarily.” -Aristotle (De Interpretatione)
Oedipus mask If Oedipus does indeed kill his father and marry his mother then that means that the statement “Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother” was true even before the events took place. And if that statement was true before the events took place, then Oedipus cannot not kill his father and marry his mother. And that which cannot not happen happens out of necessity. And so it would seem that it was predetermined that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother.
In situations like these, phrases like “determinism”, “theological determinism”, and “causal determinism” are often used interchangeably, although often incorrectly. Perhaps the best term we can use to label this line of thinking is “fatalism”, or the belief that all events are predetermined but that we ought not to simply submit to our fate.
A popular counter argument to the idea of fatalism is to suggest that statements about events in the future are neither true nor false. However, this leads to a logical inconsistency. Aristotle uses the example of a sea battle.
If two generals are in disagreement, one says that there will be a sea battle tomorrow and the other says that there shall not be, then how can we say with any conviction that neither of them are correct?
Let’s say that the sun rises and there is indeed a sea battle. Can we really say that the first general was wrong when the very fact of the matter is that he was very right? Aristotle rejects this as absurd.

Aristotle Portait
The implications of this argument are rather staggering. This would seem to suggest that everything we do is predetermined, that we have no control over what we do or what happens to us. It would seem to suggest that our idea of free will is merely an illusion.

It would also seem to suggest that the miserable Oedipus is not to blame for his actions, that he is merely a pawn that is being moved by the necessity of the universe. This type of fatalism would also seem to absolve all of us from any type of responsibility. For if all of our actions are predetermined, how can it be said that we are truly responsible for any of our actions or shortcomings?

“Hence there would be no need to deliberate or to take trouble, thinking that if we do this, that will be, and if we do not, it will not be; for it might be that ten thousand years ago one person said that this would be and another denied it, so that which it was true to affirm at that time will be so from necessity.” -Aristotle (De Interpretatione)

This type of thinking is downright incompatible with Aristotle’s later philosophies. It is in The Nichomachean Ethics that Aristotle lays out what type of actions deserve praise and what type of actions do not. However, this would suggest that we are in some way responsible for our actions, that we are not merely destined to do what we do.
And so, if Aristotle wants to avoid a logical inconsistency, he will have to make a rather compelling argument for the existence of free will. At the very least, he will have to persuade us that we possess even a fraction of control over our actions and the course of our lives. This is something that Aristotle is more than willing to do.
Aristotle bust The philosopher claims that we make a fatal mistake when constructing our argument for the existence of a predetermined universe. It seems clear to Aristotle that not all things happen from necessity. We do not always see things that are in actuality, but we are capable of understanding the potentiality. This includes the potentiality for being as well as not being. This would also include the potentiality for happening and not happening.
By this, Aristotle means to tell us that we take the existence or the occurrence of something to mean that the thing exists or the event occurred out of necessity. However, we are overreaching our bounds in this regard. We must understand that everything being from necessity when it is is not the same as everything being from necessity without qualification.
To apply just a bit of formalized logic; we can infer that when X is, X is. However, we can not infer from this that when X is, X necessarily is. X is conditionally necessary, it is not necessary on its own. This is what Aristotle means when he tells us to recognize that X is not necessary without qualification.

When we consider the two generals, one who claimed that there would be a sea battle while the other claimed there would not be, we see that both of their statements have the potentiality to be either true or false. That isn’t to say that both of their statements are wrong or both are right, instead we must understand that both statements have the potentiality to be either.

To be put plainly, it is necessary for a sea battle to occur or not occur. However, it is not necessary for a sea battle to occur. And it is not necessary for a sea battle to not occur.
When considering our damned King Oedipus, we realize that the statement “Oedipus will murder his father and marry his mother” has the potentiality to be true and it has the potentiality to be false. It is only once Oedipus actually goes through with the deeds that the statement enters into the actuality of being true or false.
While Aristotle would seem to make a convincing case for the existence of free will, there are other schools of philosophy who adhered to this fatalistic theory and incorporated it into their ethical philosophy.
However, the Stoics also believed that a fatalistic universe was not such a bad thing. Rather, they believed that our universe was operated perfectly rationally, and that whatever pains we may endure, despite what we may think, are actually perfectly agreeable within the grand scheme of things.
This is summed up in the old Stoic adage, “That which practices reason is more perfect than that which does not practice reason. There is nothing more perfect than the universe, so the universe practices reason.”
This topic has fascinated philosophers for millennia. Is our free will an illusion? Are all events predetermined? Am I really free to choose the course of my life? The answers are far from certain.

Are You Feeling Lucky?

by March 31, 2014

While Aristotle was most certainly a busy man, revolutionizing human thought can be rather time consuming, he still managed to carve some time out to tell us about the difference between luck and chance and the role these two things play within our universe.

Aristotle Truth be told, the role of luck and chance had great importance to Aristotle. His examination of the topic comes about within Physics Book II.
Aristotle is interested in what can be said to cause events. Luck and chance certainly seem to play a role in creating events, so they certainly are worth exploring.

Aristotle begins by noting the criticisms of other philosophers. Some believe that luck and chance do not exist. How can it be said that something is caused by chance? It seems obvious enough that for every action there is a definite cause. Why must we concede that luck and chance play a role in causation when it would appear easy enough to point to any specific action as a cause?
Aristotle counters this by pointing out that the ideas of luck and chance are, at least in some way, universally accepted by human thought. How can something that does not exist be ever present in our minds? There must be some support for the ideas of luck and chance. There must be some evidence that would could appeal to.

“Though people know perfectly well that everything that comes to be can be referred to some cause, as the old argument doing away with luck says, everyone nonetheless says that some of these things result from luck and that other do not.” -Aristotle (Physics)

The philosopher continues by saying that yes, events are caused by specific preceding events, as is central to the argument against luck and chance.  However, Aristotle points out that there are different types of preliminary actions that cause events.

Aristotle's Physics
The first type occur out of necessity, they simply must happen. The second type occur because they occur often, or regularly. However, there is a third type of event. This type of event occurs not out of necessity or by virtue of it regularly happening. It simply occurs. What to call such events? Aristotle calls them lucky.

To demonstrate this idea, let us imagine that you are standing in a field with a ball. For reasons known only to you, you throw the ball into the air with all of your strength. What will happen, obviously, is that the ball will eventually fall back to earth.
We would not say to ourselves, “Boy, we sure were lucky that gravity kicked in.” That seems absurd. The ball falling from the sky is an event that happens with necessity, that is to say it could happen no other way.
We can also note that the ball will most likely land somewhere in the field. Perhaps it will occasionally get caught in a tree or become stuck on somebodys roof, but with regularity it will land somewhere nearby. This can not be said to be a lucky event.
However, let’s say you throw your ball into the air. All of the sudden a hawk swoops down and snatches it out of mid air and carries it away. Can we say that such an event is caused by necessity? Can we say that this event occurred with any regularity? Of course not. So we must conclude that such an action was caused by chance.

“First, then, we see that some things always, others usually, come about in the same way. Evidently luck and the result of luck are not said to be the cause of either of these things-either of what is of necessity and always or of what is usually.” -Aristotle (Physics)

Aristotle StatueWell, okay then. It seems that we were wrong to doubt you, Aristotle. So now that we have seen that luck and chance are real and that they can be considered to be responsible for events, what exactly is the difference between the two? “I’m glad you asked,” said Aristotle’s ghost as it hovers above my keyboard.
It can be said that luck is a type of chance. However, not all chance is a type of luck. We must see that “chance” is the general term for coincidental causes. Luck, therefore, is a very specific type of chance.
The difference is that luck requires conscious decisions, an intent that is only possible with the intellect of a grown human being. In order for an event to be lucky, a person must attempt to accomplish some task. If in their pursuit of this task, they succeed by means of a coincidental cause, then the event is lucky.
Chance, on the other hand, is merely an occurrence that came to be out of the chaos of events. It has no purpose or end. Simply put, it just happened.
To demonstrate this, Aristotle gives the example of a man attempting to collect on a debt. Imagine that the man who is owed a debt seeks a debtor and coincidentally wanders into the market in search of this man. As chance, or luck, would have it, he does indeed come upon the debtor in the market and is then repaid what is owed to him.
However, if this man were to go into the market for any other reason, perhaps to purchase food or listen to Socrates lecture, and he then coincidentally comes upon the debtor, we would say that this was chance.
AgoraWe can see that in the former example there is the element of human intent, of a willing decision. The second example possesses no such element, so it can not be said to be lucky.
Aristotle further strengthens this argument by saying that having good luck is similar to being happy. Since being happy is an action of sorts, we see that being lucky must in some way relate to human action and decision.

“For luck and its results are found in things that are cpable of being fortunate and in general capable of action, and that is why luck must concern what is achievable by action.” -Aristotle (Physics)

How does all of this fit in with philosophy? Why did Aristotle bother bringing this all up? In short, who the heck cares?
Previously in Physics Book II, Aristotle had mentioned his rather famous “Four Causes.” At the very least, they are famous within the philosophical community. They are four causes that we use to examine a thing so that we might come closer to understanding its true form.
What is its matter? What form is it in? What prompted its initial motion? What is its purpose? These are the questions we must ask ourselves when examining a thing, whether it be a simple rock or the soul of a human being. If we can answer these questions, then we have the four causes, and we then have a better understanding of truth.
The third cause is of importance here. Aristotle has shown that luck and chance are ever present within our universe. This leads us to wonder about what things may have been caused by luck or chance. Could it be that the universe was created by chance? Is our existence nothing but a random outcome from innumerable variables? Does my life have any purpose or was it all by chance? Now you see how the little questions very quickly become big questions.
We do not have the answers for you this day. I’m sorry about that. We will have to be content with our new understanding of luck and chance and how we all fit in. Keep searching, dear reader. Keep philosophizing. Who knows, you might get lucky.