Lecture 17

Lecture 17

How can the stance which someone adopts as who and shows off to others be genuine? If honour and esteem are not to depend entirely on the regard paid by others, but are to have a stand in themselves, there has to be something intrinsic or kaq" au(to/ in the who-stand instead of it being defined purely relationally or pro/j ti as that which is accorded by others, i.e. by those esteeming (e)n t%= timwme/n% Eth. Nic. I v. 1095b25). Aristotle therefore says that an individual seeks to be regarded and esteemed by "those with insight" (tw=n froni/mwn 1095b28) on the basis of their own ability and competence (e)p" a)ret$= 1095b29), which is the individual's "own and hard to take away" (oi)kei=o/n ti kai\ dusafai/reton 1095b26). The individual can only have a stand within itself insofar as it has ability, competence, excellence, such ability, competence and excellence only having their meaning against the background of the fundamental meaning of being as standing presence or, more precisely, as bringing-to-presence-in-a-stand. Only against this implicit background can Aristotle say that "the in-itself, i.e. standing presence, is prior to relation in the natural order of self-presencing" (to\ de\ kaq" au(to\ kai\ h( ou)si/a pro/teron t$= fu/sei tou= pro/j ti 1096a22).

Aristotle calls such ability, competence and excellence a)reth¯, a term usually translated by the tradition as 'virtue'. But a)reth¯ applies to everything which someone is good at in the practical, shared life of the polis. It is not a moral quality. Nor is it an ideal, especially not for Aristotle. (The standard translations of Aristotle, with their invariably Christian-Platonic flavour, have still to be overcome.) A shoemaker has a)reth¯ by 'virtue' of making and being able to make good shoes. He is good at shoemaking. He possesses this ability, competence or excellence which is at work in the making of good or excellent shoes. This down-to-earth signification of a)reth¯ must be kept in view also when thinking about higher excellences such as sophrosyne or justice.

Aristotle points out that it is not enough just to have an ability as a potential (du/namij); it must be practised, it must be put to work (e)ne/rgeia) throughout a life (dia\ bi/ou 1096a1). And it must be practised in the second sense of habituation, "e)qi/zein, bringing oneself into a certain possibility by going through something over and over again" (GA18:188). The good that is sought as human good cannot be an ideal standing as something separate in itself ( i)de/a ... xwristo\n au)to/ ti kaq" au(to/ 1096b33); otherwise it would be neither practicable nor attainable for humans (ou)k prakto\n ou)de\ kthto\n a)nqrw/p% 1096b35). It must be rooted in and practised in everyday social life.

As Aristotle says in the very first sentence of the Nicomachean Ethics, "every practice seems to aim at some good" (pa=sa ... pra=cij ... a)gaqou= tino\j e)fi/esqai dokei= 1094a1), and these goods are structured in a hierarchy in the sense that some things are done for themselves and others are done for the sake of something else, the former being ends, the latter means to ends. Again, some goods may be sometimes ends in themselves and at other times means to a higher end, whereas other, higher ends are "always pursued for themselves and never because of something else" (kaq" au)to\ ai(reto\n a)ei\ kai\ mhde/pote di' a)/llo 1097a34). An end (te/loj) is a state in which something comes to completion and is consummated, finished, where nothing is lacking and full, final presence has been attained. The practices of everyday life are structured in a heirarchy of ends in which there is a highest end which Aristotle calls "happiness", eu)daimoni/a (1097b1). Happiness is striven for for its own sake and is attained, if at all, in a lived, shared life in its own life-world context which is self-sufficient (au)/tarkej 1097b8). Such a shared, self-sufficient life is the work (e)/rgon 1098a13) of practical human living which is brought about by the active energy of the human soul under the guidance of understanding (meta\ lo/gou 1098a14). "Human good is the active being-at-work of the soul according to its ability" (to\ a)nqrw/pinon a)/gaqon yuxh=j e)ne/rgeia gi/netai kat" a)reth/n 1098a17). Such being-at-work of the soul under the guidance of understanding brings to presence the good, valuable things of life and at the same time the life of the accomplished man practising such practices in accordance with his attained abilities. Such a happy man is said to be "living well" and "doing well" (eu)= zh=n ... eu)= pra/ttein 1095a20, 1098b21).

Ethical stances as practised, habituated competence

The practised and thus habituated abilities of the human soul pertinent to a successful, happy life are not just technical abilities such as flute-playing, shoemaking or housebuilding, but comprise also those abilities that Aristotle calls ethical (a)reth\ h)qikh/ Eth. Nic. B i. 1103a15), which include Aristotle's rethought versions of primary capabilities of the soul elaborated by Plato in his Politeia (cf. Lecture 1), namely, temperance, manliness and justice. "We become just by practising just actions, temperate by practising temperate actions, manly by practising manly actions" (ta\ me\n di/kaia pra/ttontej di/kaioi gino/meqa, ta\ de\ sw/frona sw/fronej, ta\ d" a)ndrei=a a)ndrei=oi 1103b1). The accomplished excellences of practical living are only attained and 'had' (e)/xein) through practice and habituation. Hence the connection between the Greek words for "habit" and "ethics", which of course Aristotle points out (h( d" h)qikh\ e)c e)/qouj perigi/netai "ethical competence comes about through habit" 1103a17). Such practising habituates an attained stance or e(/cij which a man adopts and then has (e)/xein) in life. The abilities and competence are therefore kinds of acquired, habituated and thus attained stances or dispositions (1106a12) which a man has and which, in turn, hold the man in practical social life. The ethical realm is marked by habituating, having and holding in a stand.

A manly being's ethical stance is a "composed readiness of human being oriented toward each given situation" (GA18:180). As such attained stances, the abilities "aim at the mean" in the sense of resolutely grasping any given situation in the proper way at the right moment. Human being, which is characterized by its situatedness, cannot be subjected to an absolute, unchanging norm (cf. GA18:186) or subsumed and benchmarked by an ideal (cf. 1097a1ff). The task of being a human is to come through concrete practice and habituation to a stand and hold the mean in which the various moments in a situation are held in their proper relation to each other. Such an insightful grasping of the situation can never become a routine, for this would not be adequate to the specificity of each particular situation ("Every ability as an entrenched routine fails in the face of the momentary situation." GA18:190).

To be continued...

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