COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 9
(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)
Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics
“This is also why the perplexity arises as to whether happiness is something that can be gained through learning or habituation or through some other practice, or whether it comes to be present in accord with a sort of divine allotment or even through chance.
Now, if there is in fact anything that is a gift of the gods to human beings, it is reasonable that happiness is god given, and it specially among the human concerns insofar as it is the best of them. But perhaps this would be more appropriate to another examination —yet it appears that even if happiness is not god sent but comes to be present through virtue and a certain learning or practice, it is among the most divine things. For the prize of virtue or its end appears to be best and to be something divine and blessed. It would also be something common to many people, for it is possible for it to be available, through a certain learning and care, to all who have not rendered defective in point of virtue. And if it is better to be happy in this way rather than through chance, it is reasonable that this is how [happiness is acquired] — if in fact what accords with nature is naturally in the noblest possible state, and similar too is what accords with art and with cause as a whole, especially the best [art or cause]. To entrust the greatest and noblest thing to chance would be excessively discordant.
What is being sough is manifest also on the basis of the argument [or definition], for happiness was said to be a certain sort of activity of soul in accord with virtue. Now, of the resulting goods, some must necessarily be present, others are coworkers and by nature useful in an instrumental way. And this points would be in agreement also with those made at the beginning: we posited the end of the political art as best, and it exercises a very great care to make the citizens of a specific sort —namely, good and apt to do noble things. It is to be expected, then, that we do not say that either a cow or a horse or any other animal is at all happy, for none of them are able to share in such an activity. It is because of this too that a child is not happy either: he is not yet apt to do such things, on account of his age, though some children are spoken of as blessed on account of the expectation involved in their case. For, as we said, both complete virtue and a complete life are required: many reversals and all manner of fortune arise in the course of life, and it is possible for someone who is particularly thriving to encounter great disasters in old age, just as the myth is told about Priam in the Trojan tales. Nobody deems happy someone who deals with fortunes of that sort and comes to a wretched end. ” (NE, 1099b9-1100a9; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)
I. PRIVATE PUZZLES
1) To begin, why does Aristotle CLEARLY connect this subsection to the previous one, specially with the reappearance of the question of luck and ethical upbringing? For didn’t he end the previous subsection pointing in this direction? Put directly; why does Ar. —-towards the end of this subsection— tell us that leaving happiness to chance is EXCESSIVELY discordant, but NOT simply COMPLETELY discordant? Why is he SO open to this possibility, or at the very least, its influences? To contrast, haven’t we seen many OTHER subsections ending abruptly? And surely The Bible does not so argue, does it? How could it, given God’s omnipotence and foreknowledge? And surely Kant doesn’t either, does he? What is it about the Kantian categorical imperative that allows it to be blind to fortune? What are the political consequences of this Kantian blindness? Is Habermas aware? And, coming back to the passage, don’t WE take it for granted —and specially the spoudaios— that it is EDUCATION (habituation and learning), moral education in particular, that allegedly makes us in the end good and happy? Isn’t this why parents SEND their children to pre-school, school and university: to aid them in making them fulfilled and complete human beings? Doesn‘t the complex matrix of social education make, allegedly, ALL the difference? Put very succinctly, what is Ar.’s mentioned PERPLEXITY all about: “This is also why the perplexity arises”? What does he MEAN that HAPPINESS may NOT be up to us? Isn’t our modern mindset truly oblivious to THIS possibility? In other words, WHO is thus perplexed: evidently not parents, are they? Law-makers? Or, is it rather that Ar. has ANOTHER aim in mind? Could he be preparing the terrain to make us more OPEN to the complexities of life, more attuned to the myriad situations that may occur and that in FACT we do not, cannot and should not wish to control (see also Plato´s Phaedrus and the initial speeches related to erotic domination, and some of Nussbaum insights)? Won’t we see something like this in BOOK VI, and the crucial discussion of prudence (phronesis) as part of the correction of a certain blindness behind justice AND, more importantly, THE just? Or, in moral terms: isn´t Aristotle slowly opening a serious critique of the radical moralistic claims that underlie the life of the spoudaios? How so? Precisely because perhaps the spoudaios HAS TO believe in the utter responsibility for HIS and OUR own actions? Isn’t this the core element of his “seriousness”, of his noble justice? And don’t we hear it in our daily lives: “take responsibility for …” (specially, and STRIKINGLY, as regards illness)? But, if this were so, if learning the moral virtues by way of a certain serious habituation is the path, the HOW exactly are we to critically, philosophically, Socratically, question the very presuppositions of such seriousness which knows itself not only to have found THE answers, but furthermore, and more problematically, has found in THOSE answers the MEANING of its self-worth? Isn’t this PRECISELY why Plato’s Laws can be seen as setting the stage in which righteous indignation ——which KNOWS of its seriousness and its self-created responsibility— can be softened to EVEN include the philosophical critique of the gods? For, isn’t impiety perhaps the single most IRRESPONSIBLE crime committable by any human? And so that we may be understood, wasn’t Ar.´s departure from Athens the result of such accusations of impiety? Don’t we have to keep constantly in mind both Socratic Apologies in this respect? And, what if Ar. were heading in a similar direction? For isn´t it striking, for instance, that righteous indignation (which is one of the virtues Ar. lists initially), will in fact, NOT be analyzed by Ar. as he proceeds? What is it about nemesis in particular and its relation to justice as punitive retribution that Ar. finds, from the point of view of the philosopher concerned with the truth of the whole, SO deeply troubling? Furthermore isn’t this why Ar. is so adamant about pointing out that there is a BIG difference between voluntary and involuntary actions in BOOK II? And even going further, could this be the very beginning of Ar.’s concern with Socrates’s famous idea that “no one does evil voluntarily”? But, what is THE POINT OF this idea as regards the greatest most complete and happiest life available to us humans? Won’t Ar. take up that challenge in BOOK VII dedicated to the phenomenon of akrasia (Book which strikingly begins criticizing a Socratic position, ONLY to agree with it in the end!)?
And so that we may be better understood as regards the importance of Ar.’s explicit reference to chance/fortune (tuche); what are we to make of MACHIAVELLI’S distinctively un-Aristotelian and un-biblical concern with chance (fortuna) both in the Prince and in his Discourses (see section IV below)? Shouldn’t we attentively hear Machiavelli’s words when he memorably says in this regard:
“When I have thought about this sometimes, I have been in some part inclined to their opinion. Nonetheless, so that our free will not be eliminated, I judge that it might be true that fortune is arbiter of half of our actions, but also that she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern. And I liken her to one of these violent rivers which, when they become enraged, flood the plains, ruin the trees and the buildings, lift earth from this part, drop in another; each person flees before them, everyone yields to their impetus without being able to hinder them in any regard. And although they are like this, it is not as if men, when times are quiet, could not provide for them with dikes and dams so that when they rise later, either they go by a canal or their impetus is neither so wanton nor so damaging.”
What, then, is the aim of the New Rational Political Science inaugurated by Machiavelli and developed by all early modern theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu; albeit in different forms)? Put more directly, how does SCIENCE and the reconsideration of NATURE as purely materialistic and interconnected solely in terms of efficient causality, define the WAY we moderns relate to political things (see Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws)? Won’t we tend to believe, contrary to what Ar. is telling us is perplexing, that we can in fact control events —both natural and social—- to such a degree that Ar.´s call for a serious concern with such PERPLEXITIES might be seen as rather naïve (see quote Hobbes section IV below)? But, hasn’t this idea of progressive control, within a materialistic universe founded upon discoverable casual laws, come into question via different angles? Politically speaking, didn’t THE political sphere of the 20th century show this collapse most dramatically of all? But then, if Ar. truly believes that it is the political which ORDERS the human ends towards happiness, how exactly are we to retrace our steps, or regain our footing, beyond the calamities of mere chance OR the calamities of radically directed and deadly political programs? Put another way, isn’t Ar.´s perplexity OUR deepest perplexity once again? In Straussian terminology, doesn’t chance invite a debate between a return and progress?
2) But leaving aside the question of chance, what exactly does Ar. mean by saying that happiness can be gained by learning OR habituation OR —–dramatically—– “some other practice”? First off, isn’t learning a kind of habituation; can they be so easily separated? And how will habituation in BOOKS 2 and 3 be related to the moral virtues in particular so that IT becomes the KEY element in the education of our virtuous character? And, if we are habituated INTO something, that is to say, some way of being, how exactly can we say that WE have made ourselves into such a being? And if so, once again one need ask, did not Ar. say just a few subsections before tell us that justice appears to be by nomos (custom/convention) rather than by physis (nature)? So, aren’t we really speaking of different sorts of habituation depending on the regimes we live under? But then, WHO decides which one is better than another? HOW does one so decide, specially if, as we moderns tend to believe, all cultures are relative and worthy of EQUAL respect? Aren´t all cultures, all habituations, simply historically “determined”? And, thinking of the very way we INTERPRET Ar. himself: isn’t this precisely the issue with those who see in Ar. a duped defense of the Greek virtues per se? Don’t THEY think that Ar. was simply habituated into thinking that philosophy cannot go beyond the limits of what is morally given at any given time by the society of which we are a part? But it is clear Ar. thinks otherwise, doesn’t he? In other words, if there is nothing BEYOND the claims of habituation to form us, how exactly can we even truly speak of LEARNING? Aren’t those who argue that Ar. simply defended the Greek virtues simply submitting to this VERY MODERN belief, rather than tackling Ar.’s realistic challenges to the limits of the moral/political sphere? For, wouldn’t it be extremely ODD that he who is called THE philosopher, were so easily duped in the ESSENTIALS? But if Ar. is not so duped, then what does that say about OUR modern relativistic and historicist self-deceptions? What would Ar. have to offer us THEN? Simply that we become Greek again? The answer is “certainly not”, isn’t it? Or is it we are to learn anew, precisely because a certain kind of HABITUATION has NOT allowed us to see beyond its spheres, respectable as they may be? Isn’t THIS why Ar. adds the striking words “or some other practice”? Couldn’t this OTHER practice be moving US in that direction? For we need ask, why does Ar. not simply say WHAT that other practice might be? Is it because he wishes to be seen as open-minded so that we can add WHAT we wish depending “on the historical times”? Or rather, he PRUDENTLY points to a path for the serious reader who —given the digressions of previous subsections— understands the dangers of philosophical inquiry to the practical political sphere, and consequently is willing to take up this highly critical task within the contours of a much more private educational setting, a setting which perhaps leads towards the most complete and self-sufficient happiness?
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