“Eudemian Ethics” by Aristotle

Socrates the Snake Charmer

In Book I of Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle makes a constructive criticism of Socrates for once, rightly pointing out that knowing (objectively) what is good and just is not the same as being good and just.

[Socrates] thought that all the virtues are forms of knowledge, so that knowing justice and being just must go together, for as soon as we have learnt geometry and architecture, we are architects and geometricians; owing to which he used to inquire what virtue is, but not how and from what sources it is produced. But although this does happen in the case of the theoretical sciences, inasmuch as astronomy and natural science and geometry have no other End except to get to know and to contemplate the nature of the things that are the subjects of the sciences…, yet the End of the productive sciences is something different from science and knowledge, for example the End of medicine is health and that of political science ordered government. … For our aim is not to know what courage is but to be courageous, not to know what justice is but to be just, in the same way as we want to be healthy rather than to ascertain what health is

A similar criticism of Socrates is made in the apocryphal Platonic dialogue Cleitophon: it’s well and good that Socrates exposes people’s ignorance and lack of virtue, but now that they realize their defect, what can they do about it? How can they attain virtue? Socrates leaves them in the lurch. To use Plato’s analogy of music, Socrates is rather like a snake charmer, as long as he is playing the music, the snakes are docile and compliant, but as soon as he stops and leaves, they return to their old reptilian selves again, so much so that they even condemned him to death for “impiety and corrupting the youths”.

Can dialectic, or philosophy in general, help people attain to true knowledge and virtue? It seems to me that the answer is No.

In “Theaetetus”, Socrates likens himself to a midwife, “The triumph of my art [dialectic] is in thoroughly examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man brings forth is a false idol or a noble and true birth. And like the midwives, I am barren, and the reproach which is often made against me, that I ask questions of others and have not the wit to answer them myself, is very just–the reason is, that the god compels me to be a midwife but does not allow me to bring forth”.

Socrates’ interlocutors cannot realize their ignorance without his help, but they cannot gain true knowledge from him either, nor can Socrates remedy his own ignorance when engaging in those dialogues. He may be able to articulate and refine what he already knows in response to questions and challenges (as is the case in Meno), but the intellectual exercise doesn’t change the relation or distance between himself and true knowledge.

Aristotle’s Notion of the End

AristotleIn a vain attempt to upstage Plato/Socrates and ascertain the process by which Good is produced, Aristotle puts forth the notion of “the End”. I say “vain”, because he has not gone beyond Socrates, as he would have others believe, for he doesn’t even know what is good to begin with, let alone how to produce it.

The work of each thing is its End; therefore, it is plain that the work is a greater good than the state, for the End is the best as being an End

That is true only if the End is a category other than the state. If the End is a state, then it cannot be said that the work is a greater good than the state. For instance, the work of medicine is health, and health is a state, so the work is not a greater good than the state.

The greatest good is assumed as an End and as the ultimate object for the sake of which all the other things exist.

It is not clear what this actually means. Does the ultimate End depend on all or any of the other things? If it doesn’t, then their existence is superfluous. If it does, it cannot be the greatest good, for it is dependent on something else for its existence and that something is greater than it.

But the term ‘work’ has two meanings; for some things have a work that is something different from the employment of them, for instance the work of architecture is a house, not the act of building, that of medicine health, not the process of healing or curing, whereas with other things their work is the process of using them, for instance the work of sight is the act of seeing, that of mathematical science the contemplation of mathematical truths.

The two meanings are essentially one. Aristotle failed to see the common pattern in his own examples. They are all examples of participation in the Platonic sense. The so-called “End”, in all these cases, is nothing but the result of participation in Platonic Form.

The work of architecture is building a house according to the pattern that exists in the mind of the architect. The house is not only the end but the beginning as well, and the work of architecture is to materialize the house that is in the mind of the architect, to translate it into the corporeal world; The work of medicine is another process of participation. Health is both the beginning and the end of the process. For the process of healing is to restore the patient to a state of health, the knowledge of which the physician must possess beforehand; The work of sight is not only the act of seeing, but also an image of the object that is seen. The image generated in the mind, which is the “end”, corresponds with the object that is seen; The work of mathematical science is to contemplate mathematical truths, i.e. to generate in the mind an exact image of the truths by contemplation and logical deduction.

To Live is to Know Oneself

It is manifest that life is perception and knowledge. The appetition for life [for knowledge] is implanted by nature in all, for living must be deemed a mode of knowing. If one were to abstract and posit absolute knowledge and its negation, there would be no difference between absolute knowledge and another person’s knowing instead of oneself; but that is like another person’s living instead of oneself. Life is desirable and good is desirable, and as a consequence that it is desirable for ourselves to possess a nature of that quality. The known and the perceived are generally speaking constituted by their participation in the determined nature, so that to wish to perceive oneself is to wish oneself to be of a certain character,—since, then, we are not each of these things in ourselves but only by participating in these faculties in the process of perceiving or knowing (for when perceiving one becomes perceived by means of what one previously perceives, in the manner and in the respect in which one perceives it, and when knowing one becomes known)—hence owing to this one wishes always to live because one wishes always to know; and this is because one wishes to be oneself the object known.


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6 thoughts on ““Eudemian Ethics” by Aristotle

  1. “he has not gone beyond Socrates, as he would have others believe, for he doesn’t even know what is good to begin with, let alone how to produce it.” Didn’t Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics state that the good of a thing is that which preserves it?

    1. I don’t recall reading that statement in the Ethics. Could you locate the reference?

      Come to think of it, if something preserves a baby so that he doesn’t grow up, is that a good thing?

      1. Regrettably, I don’t have my annotated copy of Ethics here at home, but when I return to school, I’ll take a look to find the specific reference.

        If something preserves a baby so that he doesn’t grow up (which, by the way, is not possible; and, as Aristotle told us in the Politics, we shouldn’t create ideas that are impossibilities), then it is not a good thing.

        But if the baby is deprived of food, clothing, shelter, and the like, then it will not grow, by nature, to maturity.

        The food, clothing, and shelter, then, are “goods” to the baby.

      2. If the baby grows up, he is no longer a baby, so the baby is not preserved. If it is impossible to preserve the baby, as you say, then there is nothing good to it.

      3. The baby is an individual, a human being, a potential adult, a collection of his parts: arms, feet, legs, etc.

        We just happen to label it “baby.” It is not “good” for the baby to remain a baby forever. It is “good” for the baby to have access to the proper conditions which will sustain it: food, water, clothing, and the like.

        If he grows up, the individual is preserved, whether we call that individual “baby” or not has no relevance.

        The baby, by nature, given the proper conditions will grow into an adult, as is best for it. To say that “the baby is not preserved” is just bad reasoning.

      4. To preserve a thing is to keep it in the same state, is it not? If the baby changes into an adult, all his body parts having changed, then evidently he is not preserved. How is it bad reasoning?

        Why is it not “good” for a baby to remain a baby, if the good is that which preserves the thing?

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